The Need for Global Protections Against Existential Risks

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International collaborative mechanisms are needed to prepare for threats to human existence.

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As bad as the social and economic impact of the new coronavirus is, it could be worse. It could kill everyone it infects. A scenario with such a fully fatal virus would be known as an existential risk because it would threaten all human life on the planet.

Global nuclear war and climate change might also be other possible existential risks—although some contention still exists over the degree to which these would annihilate the entire planet. But almost no one disputes that a meteorite crashing into Earth could do so by suddenly and drastically altering the climate. Furthermore, experts also agree that still more deadly pathogens—viruses and bacteria—could pose such an existential risk.

But what is currently missing in international law is an adequate mechanism to compel nations to cooperate to minimize or mitigate the harms from existential risks. In addition to efforts to strengthen national regulation of research and technology risks, countries also need to pursue the adoption of a multilateral agreement to address existential risks while separately working to insert existential risk clauses in existing international agreements.

The fact that some human-made existential risks, and even natural existential risks, might be minimized by human action, makes prudent the development of new international law aimed at addressing those risks. Admittedly, some of these risks are more amenable to national policy than others. The consequences of existential risks are, however, by necessity global and therefore demand a global policy response. Hubs of such international coordination exist for some risks, such as the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the United Nations’s Office for Disarmament Affairs. Unfortunately, these international agencies often lack sufficient power and scope to respond effectively to existential risks.

Governments around the world should give particular focus to developing stronger international policies on urgent existential risks. I define a risk as “urgent” if the cost of reducing the risk or strengthening resilience increases rapidly over time, or if the risk is about to become unmanageable altogether. One risk that fits that description is climate change, even though its character as existential risk has been contested.

Given that current global institutions lack powers to address existential risks because real power continues to lie with the nation state, a different device is required to mobilize national power globally. Such a device should bridge the global policy approach and national enforcement on the ground. This device becomes necessary because—although states generally are well intentioned and are self-interested in protecting their own population—in practice, some of them might be slow or ineffective in their response, or they might coordinate insufficiently with their neighbors. Others will refuse international assistance for reasons of sovereignty or pride, while being unable to tackle the risk themselves. A new device becomes particularly important for biological existential risks, where insufficient action by a single state can massively increase the cost to others or even render tackling the existential risk impossible.

I have identified two devices that could address this challenge. The first device is a multilateral agreement with enforcement clauses of unprecedented strength, aimed at minimizing and mitigating existential risk. This agreement should contain the following:

  • A mechanism for identifying urgent existential risks by a qualified majority of a panel of experts or representatives of the contracting parties;
  • An obligation for contracting nations to counter urgent existential risks within their territories;
  • An obligation to seek assistance from other contracting nations when a nation is unable to take independent necessary actions; and
  • The right of contracting nations to take all necessary lawful forms of action to compel other signatories to act against urgent existential risk if they refuse to do so.

The last two items conflict with the currently established order of international agreements. That is, under existing international law, nations could not lawfully take any action needed to compel reluctant signatory nations. Furthermore, a new agreement cannot overrule an earlier one unless all the contracting parties of the earlier agreement agree to do so.

This difficulty will make a second device necessary to implement, even before a dedicated multilateral agreement on urgent existential risk can develop its full efficacy. This second device is what I call an “existential risk sanction clause.”

Whenever a bilateral or multilateral agreement on any area of cooperation is amended, a special clause should be inserted that permits the suspension of the obligations to another signatory if that signatory fails to act against urgent existential risk. Important multilateral agreements should be revised with the express purpose of adding such a clause. In addition, should some signatories to the multilateral agreement refuse such a clause, the agreement should be rescinded and replaced by a new agreement, concluded by the remaining signatories.

These modifications to existing agreements might deter states from failing to cooperate even before a multilateral agreement aimed at existential risk becomes effective. In other words, the existential risk sanction clause is also a device on its own.

One major international player alone could push for the inclusion of the existential risk sanction clause in international agreements. With the spread of the existential risk sanction clause through multilateral and bilateral agreements on various areas of international cooperation by one major international player, the scope of potential sanctions could increase sharply. The cost of non-cooperation could also increase with the scope of potential sanctions and could compel uncooperative states to act.

Existential risk would not, however, be eliminated by the multilateral agreement on urgent existential risk and existential risk sanction clauses. But these devices would provide a basis for global cooperation that would move substantially toward that goal. The two devices might be thought of as existential themselves—they will at some point become crucial for humanity’s collective survival.

Manfred Kohler

Manfred Kohler is the founder of the Regulatory Institute.