Existential risks are thorny problems. They generally can’t be solved by one person working alone. Success will almost certainly require deep cooperation among all countries. In fact, existential risks can be categorized according to how much cooperation is needed to avoid them.
Mass cooperation without an explicit structure might work for some types of risk mitigation, but not for all. If the problem we are facing is a best-shot existential risk, then a multifaceted, non-hierarchical approach might work. If anyone succeeds in addressing a best-shot existential risk, then everyone can enjoy the benefits.
However, if our problem is closer to being a weakest-link existential risk, we need to do something very different. In the most extreme weakest-link existential risk scenarios, the cooperation of every human would be needed in order for humanity to survive. If we end up in that situation, we’re probably done for. It’s probably more productive to focus our efforts on those existential risks that are close to being weakest-link risks, but are not extreme examples.
A milder weakest-link scenario would be the following: Every country on the Earth has the ability to cause human extinction. In order for us to survive this, each country needs to simply choose to not end the world. This might sound easy, but even in today’s increasingly peaceful world there are plenty of reasons to be concerned. Countries may end up in a weird sort of prisoner’s dilemma, where escalating posturing or direct aggression against each other will give them an advantage. Scenarios like these need to be discovered and averted. Incentives always need to point in the right direction for all parties involved.
A more difficult weakest-link scenario is where every country on the Earth would need to actively cooperate towards the goal of averting the existential risk. For example, later in this century it may be necessary for every country to make certain types of artificial intelligence and bio-weapons research illegal within their borders and take active steps to enforce those edicts. Deep cooperation between every country in the world is an unprecedented scenario. The best humans have managed so far is limited global cooperation on a few key issues.
These are very plausible scenarios given the sorts of human-made existential risks that are possible in the coming decades. At the very least, countries will need to choose to not end the world. This is already true for several countries because they hold stockpiles of more than 50 nuclear warheads.1 Arsenals that large can cause widespread devastation and are capable of destabilizing global politics and trade. More likely, all countries will need to actively cooperate with each other. Building international cooperation and goodwill is thus an urgent priority for the world today.
- Baum, S. D. (2015). Confronting the threat of nuclear winter. Futures, 72, 69-79. [↩]