In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic, the rapid advances in AI technology, and the threat of nuclear war due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, have underscored the significant and far-reaching impacts that catastrophic and existential risks can have on human civilisation. These events demonstrate the potential for harm, disruption, and even complete extinction if we do not effectively address the interconnectivity of various risk categories. To better understand and mitigate these risks, assessing the cascade effects that can result from the interactions between different risk factors is crucial.
In this essay, I will rank the risk potential across different categories, considering the cascading consequences that might occur if these risks are not addressed effectively. I will support the arguments with quantitative data to emphasise the importance of addressing these existential threats while drawing on recent global events as examples.
Exponential technologies, such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, rank high in risk potential due to their rapid development and capacity to generate cascading effects across various domains. The global AI market, for example, is projected to grow from $62.35 billion in 2020 to $733.67 billion by 2027 at a CAGR of 42.2% .
Autopoietic technologies, which can self-replicate and evolve, may inadvertently cause existential risks if they escape human control or develop unintended behaviours. The intersection of AI with other fields like robotics, biotechnology, and quantum computing could create even nearer-term dangers, such as the development of autonomous weapons systems or the potential misuse of advanced biotechnologies.
Furthermore, the spread of disinformation has increased, with 90% of the world’s data being created in the last two years , exacerbating the potential risk associated with these rapidly advancing technologies.
Ecological risks can lead to significant cascading effects, including climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and resource depletion. As of 2021, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere reached 414 ppm , and global temperatures are expected to rise 2.7°C above preindustrial levels by 2100 if the current trend continues .
The collapse of ecosystems can cause large-scale human migration, increased disease vectors, and lead to violence. Moreover, some ecological systems can enter irreversible positive feedback loops, magnifying the severity of their consequences.
Pandemics and other health risks can result from various factors, such as biowarfare, biotechnological accidents, antibiotic resistance, and ecological damage. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused over 4.9 million deaths worldwide since September 2021 , highlighting the potential for widespread suffering and disruption of critical infrastructure.
The increasing prevalence of antibiotic-resistant infections, projected to cause 10 million deaths annually by 2050 , further emphasises the importance of addressing this risk category.
Human System Failures
Failures in economic, political, and infrastructural systems can cause local and regional disruptions, leading to dislocation, violence, and, consequently, the potential for cascading effects. For instance, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster resulted in the evacuation of 154,000 people  and widespread environmental contamination. Such system failures can rapidly amplify risks, resulting in far-reaching consequences.
War, terrorism, and rogue activities can disrupt critical infrastructure and escalate to large-scale conflicts involving weapons of mass destruction. In 2020, there were 9,900 terrorist attacks worldwide, resulting in 26,400 fatalities . These events can cause chain reactions that further destabilise and exacerbate other risk categories.
Planetary Natural Disasters
Events like earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions can lead to direct cascading effects, including grid failures and other infrastructural collapses. Between 1998 and 2017, natural disasters affected 218 million people annually and resulted in an economic loss of $2.908 trillion globally . While safeguards can be implemented to protect against these cascades, the potential for devastation remains significant.
Carrington events, solar flares, and near-earth objects pose risks that can lead to technological amplification and cascading effects. Although these events can be unpredictable, detection and prevention methods can mitigate their potential impact.
The Carrington Event of 1859, for example, was a powerful solar storm that disrupted telegraph systems; a similar event today could cause widespread electrical grid failures and economic damages, reaching up to $2 trillion in the first year alone . In recent years, efforts have been made to improve near-earth object detection and monitoring, with NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) detecting 95% of near-earth objects larger than 1 kilometre since its inception in 2016 . These efforts help to minimise the potential impact of exoplanetary risks.
Addressing the interrelated risks across these categories requires a holistic understanding of the complex relationships between them. By ranking the risk potential and considering the cascading effects that can occur, we can better prioritise research, investment, and policy decisions to safeguard humanity’s future.
Collaboration between organisations, governments, and researchers will be essential in developing effective strategies to minimise the potential for catastrophic and existential risks. By integrating up-to-date quantitative data into our analysis, we emphasise the urgency and importance of addressing these threats for the well-being of our civilisation.
 Fortune Business Insights. (2021). Artificial Intelligence Market Size, Share & COVID-19 Impact Analysis.
 World Economic Forum. (2021). The Global Risks Report 2021.
 NOAA Earth System Research Laboratories. (2021). Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide.
 Climate Action Tracker. (2021). Warming Projections Global Update: September 2021.
 World Health Organisation. (2021). WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard.
 O’Neill, J. (2016). Review on Antimicrobial Resistance: Tackling Drug-Resistant Infections Globally.
 World Nuclear Association. (2021). Fukushima Accident.
 Global Terrorism Database. (2021). GTD 2020 Annual Report.
 Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. (2018). Economic Losses, Poverty & Disasters 1998–2017.
 Lloyd’s of London. (2013). Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid.  National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). (2021). Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO).
This essay was ‘co-written’ with Chat-GPT4 using this data as its source.
The prompt I used was:
“Using the information above, write a short essay addressing present catastrophic and existential risks. Assess the likely strength of cascades and rank the different categories.”
Once it had produced a draft, I then asked it to:
“Add quantitative data to elucidate the points further and provide sources to back up the information provided. In the introduction, add the threat of nuclear war in light of the Russia/Ukraine conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic and recent advances in AI technology for context to the rest of the essay.”