Our survival as a species requires urgent action

From climate change to fire, food security and nuclear war, Dr Arnagretta Hunter and Professor John Hewson outline the severe and growing threats to human life on this planet, and why 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.

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.