Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

"Apocalypse Taipei." (Photo: Michael Chen/flickr/cc)

This is How the World Ends: Twelve Risks That Threaten Human Existence

'Mass deaths and famines, social collapse and mass migration are certainly possible in this scenario,' report authors write of extreme climate change

Deirdre Fulton

Extreme climate change. Global pandemic. Major asteroid impact. The rise of artificial intelligence.

These are just a few of the potentially world-ending events that threaten civilization as we know it, according to a new report from researchers at Oxford University.

The study, "Global Challenges" (pdf), urges readers to consider a new category of global risks—low-probability, high-impact scenarios that hover at the extreme end of the spectrum.

"This report has, to the best of the authors’ knowledge, created the first list of global risks with impacts that for all practical purposes can be called infinite." However, the authors note, "the real focus is not on the almost unimaginable impacts of the risks the report outlines. Its fundamental purpose is to encourage global collaboration and to use this new category of risk as a driver for innovation."

The report looks only at events that could trigger a civilization's collapse—"defined as a drastic decrease in human population size and political/economic/social complexity, globally for an extended time."

In the case of extreme climate change, for example:

Mass deaths and famines, social collapse and mass migration are certainly possible in this scenario. Combined with shocks to the agriculture and biosphere-dependent industries of the more developed countries, this could lead to global conflict and possibly civilization collapse. Further evidence of the risk comes from signs that past civilization collapses have been driven by climate change.

According to the researchers, the 12 global risks that threaten human civilization are:

Current risks

1. Extreme Climate Change
2. Nuclear War
3. Ecological Catastrophe
4. Global Pandemic
5. Global System Collapse

Exogenic risks

6. Major Asteroid Impact
7. Supervolcano

Emerging risks

8. Synthetic Biology
9. Nanotechnology
10. Artificial Intelligence
11. Uncertain Risks

Global policy risk

12. Future Bad Global Governance

Total oblivion is not a foregone conclusion, however. 

For each scenario, the authors lay out both the worst-case outcomes and factors influencing those outcomes.

"There are remedies, including technological and institutional, for all risks," reads the report. "But they will require collaboration of a sort humanity has not achieved before, and the creation of systems which can deal with problems preemptively."

To that end, Global Challenges identifies 10 strategies to "help mitigate immediate threats while also contributing to a future global governance system capable of addressing global risks with a potential infinite impact."

That list includes:

  • Better quality risk assessment for global challenges
  • Development of early warning systems
  • Encouraging visualization of complex systems
  • Increasing the focus on the probability of extreme events
  • Establishing a Global Risk and Opportunity Indicator to guide governance
  • Explore the possibility of establishing a Global Risk Organization

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Scientists to BlackRock Vice Chairman: New Fossil Fuel Development 'Incompatible' With 1.5°C

"The only responsible course of action is to do everything in our power to stop fossil fuel expansion and further emissions."

Jessica Corbett ·


Goldman Prize Awarded to Activists Who Showed Nature's 'Amazing Capability to Regenerate'

"While the many challenges before us can feel daunting, and at times make us lose faith, these seven leaders give us a reason for hope and remind us what can be accomplished in the face of adversity."

Julia Conley ·


Faith Leaders Call for Federal Election Monitors in Georgia to Protect Black Voters

"It is imperative that our election this November is monitored to preserve ballot integrity and ensure ballot security."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Inaction Is Bought': Here Are the Receipts on NRA's Purchase of GOP

"The issue is money in politics," said Nina Turner after the nation's latest mass killing of students and teachers. Right-wing lawmakers are "allowing children to die because of the gun lobby."

Kenny Stancil ·


'This Is on You!' Beto Interrupts Abbott Press Conference on Texas Massacre

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke accused Texas' GOP leaders of "doing nothing and offering us nothing" in the wake of the massacre at Robb Elementary School.

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo