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Global catastrophic risks include all risks with the potential to cause serious harm on a global scale (Bostrom & Ćirković 2008). Such risks include existential risks, but are not restricted to them. Examples of non-existential global catastrophic risks include risks from climate change and risks from geo-engineering.

Such catastrophic risks have obviously bad direct effects: they may involve many people dying, or our technological capabilities being greatly reduced. There may also be bad indirect effects, for instance by destabilizing political systems in a way that increases the likelihood of war or totalitarian government.

Some think that these indirect effects of catastrophic risks might result in existential risks. For instance, climate change might increase political tensions, hastening nuclear or biological warfare. Others think it’s more likely that civilization will eventually rebound to something like it’s previous state. Both the Black Death and the Plague of Justinian killed something like 15% of the world’s population without obviously derailing humanity’s long-term potential.

Even if global catastrophic risks do not pose an existential risk, they might still be high priority causes justified purely by their nearer-term consequences.

Further reading

Beckstead, Nick. 2015. The long-term significance of reducing global catastrophic risks.
A blog post investigating the extent to which global catastrophic risks might have long-term or potentially existential consequences.

Bostrom, Nick & Milan Ćirković. 2008. Global catastrophic risks. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cotton-Barratt, Owen et al. 2016. Global catastrophic risks 2016.
A report examining various types of global catastrophic risk.

Open Philanthropy Project. 2016. Global catastrophic risks.
An investigation into the importance of global catastrophic risks.