Planning for future risks

Professor Lord Martin Rees OM FRS, Astronomer Royal and co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, looks at why we will face a bumpy ride through coming decades without more foresight and more investment in ensuring preparedness.

Covid-19 should not have struck us so unawares. Why were even rich countries so unprepared? The answer is clear. Politicians recognise a duty to prepare for risks that are likely to materialise in the electoral cycle, and are localised within their own domain. Yet, they have minimal incentive to address longer-term threats that are unlikely to occur while they are still in office, and which are global rather than local. There is a tendency to under-prepare for the worst hazards – or even be in denial.

This pandemic has been a wake-up call. Among the responses it has stimulated is ‘Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society’, the wide-ranging report of a House of Lords ‘Special Inquiry’ published on 3 December 2021. I had the privilege of being on this committee: we took oral evidence from 85 witnesses from many sectors of society. The fact that our proceedings were virtual meant that we could readily interview experts from Germany, Sweden, Singapore and elsewhere: we also received much evidence in writing.

Dangers ahead

The mega-threats that should worry us are many and varied – and looming ever larger. They are of two kinds.

First, some, such as climate change and environmental degradation, are incrementally destructive. We are aware of them – and indeed of their near inevitability – but fail to develop counter-measures because their worst impact stretches beyond the time-horizon of political cycles. It is like the proverbial boiling frog – contented in a warming tank until it is too late to save itself.

A second kind of threat – global pandemics and massive cyber-attacks, for instance – are immediately destructive and could happen at any time. They are rare enough to be easily ignored, even though the worst of them could be so devastating that one occurrence is too many. It is a wise mantra that ‘the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable’.

Now that we can look back over the last two years, it is clear that we could have coped better with Covid-19 had there been more investment and better organisation of the response. It reminds us that our entire interconnected world is getting more fragile – vulnerable to catastrophes that are not just national but span the globe. It also reminds us that the effects can cascade. As our excellent Chairman, Lord James Arbuthnot, reminded us: ‘Who would have thought the pandemic would have such serious effects on school exams?’

Furthermore, there is good reason for growing concern about national or local threats such as breakdowns in the electricity grid over a large area, causing not just blackout but also a complete collapse of ordinary life. Certainly, floods and storms are likely to become more serious because of global warming. (Just think how much worse our experiences of the pandemic would have been if there had been concurrent failures of the internet or electric grid.)

Assessing risk

Policy and investment on preparedness and mitigation must prioritise the worst threats in terms of likelihood and severity. The National Risk Register (NRR) should provide a framework for such planning. Yet, for a document that sets out to calibrate the greatest threats that this country faces, the register is surprisingly little known. Moreover, many of our committee’s witnesses expressed dissatisfaction about how it is now prepared and how it is used. Famously, it rated any pandemic other than influenza as unlikely to cases more than a hundred deaths.

Risks are presented in a matrix – impact on vertical scale and likelihood horizontally. This format actually downplays some concerns. That is because the likelihood of an event, when it is plotted in the matrix, is calibrated by the expected probability that it occurs in the next two years. Yet, many of the most serious threats are getting more likely year by year – for instance, cyber-attacks, electricity-grid breakdowns, and the threats from misuse of fast-advancing biotech. There are also growing risks from failures of ageing infrastructure. The consequences of climate change – extreme weather and flooding – are near certain to get worse from year to year. And although natural phenomena ­– solar flares, for instance – are not getting more frequent, their consequences are getting more serious because of our growing dependence on satellites and the electric grid which electromagnetic storms can disrupt.

So, we surely need to rate the seriousness of each threat by the likelihood of its occurrence in the next 10-20 years. Moreover, the political pressure to focus only on immediate concerns is aggravated by the Treasury’s ‘Green Book’ guidelines which, in evaluating long-term investments, discount future benefits and risks at 3.5% per year – levelling off beyond the next two decades.

Effective planning is impeded by excessive secrecy. The NRR exists in two versions – open and restricted. We accepted that some secrecy is necessary (especially with regard to malicious threats) but the present amount seemed excessive, impeding adequate input from independent experts, the provision of adequate guidance, and resources to first responders in all cities and regions.

Recommendations

The committee proposed an Office for Preparedness and Resilience (OPR), with a government Chief Risk Officer, that continually updates the register. The OPR should be scrutinised by a Parliamentary Select Committee and annual debates in Parliament. Politicians have inadequate incentives to prepare for threats whose most serious consequences are unlikely to occur within their term of office, even though – if they did – these threats could eventually devastate lives and economies at a national or global scale.

Of course, mitigation of global mega-risks is an international challenge but one that this country could influence strongly. For instance, there is a need to render the internet more resilient, and to ensure that the dozens of Level-Four biological labs worldwide are indeed secure. Additionally, we should ensure that the WHO has the resources to identify emergent viruses quickly.

The House of Lords report addresses these issues but the focus of the recommendations is on what we can do in the UK. For instance, we should rebalance the trade-off between resilience and efficiency. Two examples are pertinent here. First, if manufacturers depend on supply chains spanning the world – and ‘just-in-time’ delivery – they are vulnerable to a break of one link in one chain. We should shift focus from ‘just in time’ to ‘just in case’. Second, though it may be efficient to routinely have high occupancy of intensive care beds in hospitals, this leaves too little spare capacity for emergencies.

Witnesses emphasised the need for improved liaison between ministries, local authorities, and central and local bodies (including volunteer groups) that would be first responders in any emergency. Also, the need for regular exercises that simulate these scenarios. We were fortunate to have evidence from senior military figures, and there were two former defence secretaries (Lord Des Browne and Lord George Robertson) on our committee.

Finally, our message is that our interconnected high-tech world is vulnerable. Without more foresight – and more investment in ensuring preparedness – we will face a bumpy ride through coming decades.