Slow-developing Catastrophic Risks

Governance principles for slow-developing risks that may have potentially catastrophic consequences

Following discussions and findings from a workshop organised on 24-26 August 2011 on “slow-developing catastrophic risks” (SDCRs), IRGC published a concept note written by Dr Len Fisher on ‘Preparing for Future Catastrophes’, discussing governance principles for slow-developing risks that may have potentially catastrophic consequences.

Following a short introduction to slow-developing catastrophic risks, providing examples and outlining key characteristics, this paper looks at the science behind them and how we handle them. The importance of focusing holistically on the complex adaptive systems/networks forming our societies, economies and ecosystems is emphasised in developing policy advice. The numerous issues and difficulties surrounding risk governance of SDCRs are also catalogued. The paper concludes with an outline of a framework approach that governments could take in developing more robust risk governance processes.

Elaborating upon the inevitability and predictability of SDCRs, the concept note intends to:

  • Convey the message that the potential for SDCRs is built into the very fabric of our complex socio-political-economic world, just as it is in the ecosystems of which we are a part, and that their occurrence is inevitable;
  • Address the question of whether SDCRs can be predicted in time to take practical, effective action to avert them;
  • Show that the development of resilient social and economic structures, able to respond and adapt rapidly to sudden change, is the best (and often the only) way to cope effectively with SDCRs; and
  • Outline that new thinking and processes may be needed in order to develop such resilient structures.

Conveying the message that traditional administrative boundaries need to be transcended to deal successfully with SDCRs, this paper defends the value of resilience and presents some political and social strategies to improve the relationship between science and policy.