From climate change to fire, food security and nuclear war, there are severe and growing threats to human life on this planet, and we need to take urgent action to address them.

In 2020 the idea of interdependent, interrelated risks to our future shifted from a concept to reality, becoming lived experience for many Australians. Over the last few years, we have survived drought and an extraordinary fire season. We’ve seen towns without water, fierce storms, and then the COVID-19 pandemic.

This growing risk of frequent, intense and severe threats to humanity has been discussed for some time. The launch of the Commission for the Human Future at the end of 2019 occurred at a remarkably prescient moment. The discussion about hope for our future, and understanding the serious risks we face, is badly needed to see societies survive and thrive through this century.

The Commission for the Human Future emerged from a roundtable discussion held at ANU in 2017. Hosted by Professor Bob Douglas, the event included a range of academics and postgraduate students including emeritus professors John Hewson and Ian Chubb. Inspired by the work of writer Julian Cribb, the discussion centred around the future of humanity particularly in face of significant risks.

The report from this roundtable, Pathways past the precipice, flourishing in a mega-threatened world, defined a number of serious catastrophic and existential threats faced by humanity, identified some solutions and called for the establishment of a commission to continue work toward our best human future.

The Sydney Opera House covered in smoke from the bushfires. Photo: Klara Zamourilova/Shutterstock.com

What are these catastrophic and existential risks? The Commission’s primary focus is on risks that are modifiable through changes to human behaviour. All these risks have catastrophic potential – to affect the lives of a large proportion of the world’s population. In the extreme, some risks are also potentially existential in threat, ending humanity in its entirety.

In a sense, the COVID-19 pandemic has been something of a dress rehearsal for what we might expect from challenges such as climate change, if we ignore the science, nature, warnings and advice. There were quite specific warnings about the potential for this pandemic, which were either ignored by governments, or afforded a low probability.

Yet, the experience of COVID-19 offers hope, as it has demonstrated just how quickly and decisively we can adjust our behaviour and practices, as households, businesses, governments and institutions once we accept the significance and urgency of the challenge, and are prepared to respond individually and collaboratively.

The risks on which the Commission is focused include water and food security, resource security, climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution, the nuclear arms race, further pandemics, the poorly regulated use of artificial intelligence, and some population challenges.

There is also a potential for our human response to risks to pose a threat in itself – including our collective failure to recognise the longer term influence of actions of today, our failure to appreciate the serious threats in front of us now, and failings of our governance, economic and social policies, and how we care for each other. The risk that we fail to appreciate risk is a significant one on the pathway to our best future.

A number of the risks we face are primarily environmental in origin. Climate change is the central environmental challenge, regarded by many as a potentially existential risk.

There are, however, other environmental challenges present even if climate change risks are mitigated. These risks include food security, water security and challenges with waste and pollution. Loss of biodiversity and natural environment has direct effects on our health and wellbeing. Pollution of our oceans and waterways is beginning to receive appropriate attention from policymakers. These environmental risks are interrelated, often with synergistic solutions.

“Transformative change is needed for our best human future, and this time might offer the best opportunity to achieve this yet.”

However, there are serious biological risks to our human future too. And after a year defined by the novel coronavirus pandemic it is clear how a challenge like a global pandemic can change our human future. The threat of nuclear war or use of biological weapons lurks just beneath the surface of international politics and should be an ongoing focus for discussion and preventative strategies. A more insidious threat to our future comes through technological threats.

The advantages of technological development have been profound for human health and wellbeing. However, while acknowledging the benefits of technological progress, writers such as Yuval Harari offer us often chilling insight into the ways in which technology adversely affects our future. These challenges from artificial intelligence and technology need to be discussed openly and with awareness of the potential risks and benefits.

In February 2020 the Commission for the Human Future held its first roundtable meeting: Surviving and thriving in the 21st century: a discussion and call to action on global catastrophic risks. Key messages from the discussion and the report include broad acceptance of the risks and recognition of their interdependent nature: no threat should be solved without considering the impact on other potential risks. To address the challenge and create the best future we should use our scientific understanding, and look toward longer term, timeframes.

The Commission has since published two reports. Our roundtable discussion is presented in Food is at the heart of our future and a follow-on guide for policymakers, The need for a strategic food policy in Australia. Our agenda for continuing this national and global discussion on our human future is ambitious and includes the forthcoming publication of our Roundtable Report on Climate Change, hosting further webinars with young people around Australia, and working with thinkers, writers and academics on how we can foster and facilitate effective discussions about both hope and risk.

2020 has been draining. The psychology of fires, smoke and then the pandemic leaving many of us without the emotional space to consider further risks, threats or challenges. Yet among this network of interconnected risks can be seen hope. Solutions for climate change, pandemic risks and response, and AI can be seen through improved representational governance, through changes to our economic, social and environmental systems, and through communities working together through adversity.

Transformative change is needed for our best human future, and this time might offer the best opportunity to achieve this yet.

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