How to prevent the next global crisis

March 19, 2010: 3:00 AM ET

The 5 traits that connect the world's biggest threats—and what we must do to stop future ones.

by Larry Brilliant, Skoll Global Threats Fund

San Francisco recently marked the Chinese New Year, a big event here with a downtown parade, fireworks and plenty of celebration. We moved from the year of the Ox to the year of the Tiger. Perfect. 2009 saw a certain ox-like obstinacy -- stunned by the economic downturn, people, governments and economies plodded along, keeping their heads down. 2010, however, is eminently Tigerish. We face many tremendously complicated issues this year. If tigers were global threats, this year we have many by the tail.

I sit on a committee on catastrophic risks for the World Economic Forum and co-chair a national committee on biological risks established by presidential directive. I also head up a new organization, the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which focuses on threats that -- if left unchecked -- might bring the world to its knees.

Skoll Global Threats Fund is brand new -- only half a year since Jeff Skoll started this new entity -- and we are setting about trying to find ways to help mitigate the risks from climate change, water scarcity, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and conflict in the Middle East.

There are some common denominators these threats share, which are for the most part also common to other grave global problems, like the financial system meltdown, global governance failures, and disruptions of global trade that our WEF committee deals with. And for many of these factors, the year of the Tiger is a turning point, a crossroads. Here are five common denominators:

1. Communication

Society in general does a lousy job of communicating that the kinds of global threats I mentioned are true risks that could affect us all, and when we do get that point across, it's usually too late. We have plenty of examples. Take Hank Paulson and the U.S. economic crisis. Things were fine until they weren't, and then they were really bad, really fast. The Bush administration failed to manage expectations or communicate the causes and cures of the impending meltdown. The way in which the risks of inaction were presented and the palpable fear in the eyes of Paulson and other officials made the crisis worse, resulting in greater fear, paralysis, and loss of jobs.

Or take pandemics. The World Health Organization uses a classification system that sounds to non-epidemiologists like hurricane warnings. Most would think a category 5 pandemic akin to Katrina destroying New Orleans. But as a global agency, WHO has adapted a system to assess the number of countries and regions affected, so its top-numbered categories describe spread, not death rate. So while swine flu indeed became one of the most widespread diseases in human history, it did not have the death rate with which we assume a pandemic is usually associated. In this case, a nuance, but what a misleading nuance. Will people treat the next pandemic, which could be far more lethal, less seriously now that they've seen -- and survived -- a mild one?

2. Uncertainty

All of these risks share qualitative and, especially, quantitative uncertainty. Scientific uncertainty, outcome uncertainty, and the unintended consequences of any interventions are common to most of these global threats. This keeps scientists and officials up all night, but it keeps actuaries, hedge funds, and insurance companies in business. I'm an epidemiologist and we report our science with "confidence intervals." I once wrote a paper that showed how an agricultural mix-up in Michigan led to an industrial chemical, Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBB), getting into the food chain and into the milk of nursing mothers. I was not able to tell how many of Michigan's mothers had PBB in their milk, but I estimated that more than 8 million nursing mothers had a fire retardant chemical in there, and I did so "with 85% confidence." Of course, the makers of that chemical were furious, but it was the immediate need for public health action that mattered most. Far more exhaustive studies showed it is more likely that 9 million mothers in Michigan had the contaminant in their milk. But from my study of a small sample, I was not able to give more than an 85% confidence. Whether it was 8 or 9 million, my point was served -- the milk that a huge number of women were feeding their children was contaminated, and we needed to act.

Science is like that. We talk in terms of probability and inferences that can be drawn from a sample of a certain size. We make projections over time that might be x or 2x. But policy makers -- and voters -- want exact answers, not estimates. In climate change, for example, the science is astoundingly good, very complex, and breathtaking in how much data and detail has been amassed. This may be the most competently studied large-scale phenomenon in history. And while the vast majority of serious scientists agree the evidence is clear that human activity causes and can prevent global warming, they do not communicate as well as your local TV weatherman. This failure to communicate to the general public, which scientists rarely think of as their primary job, has made it hard for average people to accept estimates with confidence intervals, ranges, probability statements and the "stuff" of academic science. After all -- if you are mired in a deep recession, you want to think about today's income, not about the confidence intervals around the ranges of projections that colorless, odorless, tasteless gases will cause the global temperature and the seas to rise years in the future.

It seems true, if inconvenient, that X millions of acres of seashore, Y hundreds of millions of climate refugees, and Z billions of malaria mosquitoes will result if we don't act. But scientists won't tell you the actual numbers for X, Y or Z. They will tell you they are "90% confident that there will be between 100 million and 1 billion climate refugees." Those wide ranges, coupled with the long delay time, the intangible nature of the risks, and the complexity, make this global threat a hard sell. It is much easier, as the coal industry has done, to tell people to wait for an oxymoron that does not exist like "clean coal" instead of making hard choices today. And as the-soon-to-be- published book Merchants of Doubt catalogs, vested interests have an easier product -- "doubt" -- to sell, i.e., the "doubt" about cigarettes causing cancer, hairspray causing holes in the ozone layer, and coal and oil causing climate change.

3. Low probability

I once co-authored an article in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty about a survey of epidemiologists four years prior to the H1N1 influenza pandemic. We polled some of the smartest, top influenza experts -- and as a group they estimated the probability of a serious pandemic in the next ten years as 10%. What do we do with information like that?

We can't say "make a 10% effort to prevent the pandemic." Indeed, is a 10% risk of a global threat something to worry about? It is if the threat is highly consequential. We should all be worried if there is a 10% chance that hundreds of millions might die, but perhaps not so much if there is a 10% chance that dozens might. And there is a cumulative effect that should force us to become more prepared -- while the individual risk of large scale drought, rapid acceleration of global warming with catastrophic weather events, rapidly spreading highly fatal pandemics, and nuclear terrorism might each be small, in the aggregate, the risk that the world will face one or more of these threats in the coming decades are too high to be ignored. The low probability of any individual threat happening makes it harder to command the attention of the public or the policy makers, but knowing the aggregate or overall risk makes it imperative to plan sane prevention and mitigation strategies.

4. Leadership

Solving these risks requires real leadership of two kinds: effective, charismatic individual leaders and trusted institutions. We lack both, sadly. Where are today's Churchills, Roosevelts, Mandelas, Gandhis? We need leaders who are willing to make the difficult decisions, even if unpopular. We need leaders who can communicate the challenges and convince people of the need to understand the issues, not only the slogans, and to spend their most precious assets -- their time and political capital -- focused on problems that seem intangible, far in the future, uncertain, and even unlikely. And it is not just the individual leaders who are falling short. The institutions to deal with these threats are suffering under the weight of their years. The United Nations is over 60 years old, but many of its key components haven't changed to adapt to today's world. Global institutions tackling pandemics, proliferation, and other threats are also showing their age.

5. Public will and governance

I separate governance from leadership because they are different, albeit connected. A leader inspires people to make difficult choices. But getting those choices enacted into legislation, regulation and changes on the ground requires governance. And in a democracy, governance around these kinds of threats is really hard. In a democracy, leaders can't lead at all if voters won't elect them, and they can't lead for long if voters do not support their decisions. Yet on these threats, we have to ask voters to focus on events of uncertain probability that in many cases won't occur for a generation. We have to ask them to sacrifice their focus on short-term issues -- jobs, family, health -- and become political activists for something that doesn't directly benefit them in the near term. People intuitively understand why protecting the planet by heading off pandemics is a good thing. But it's hard to come home at the end of the day and say, "Boy, cutting emissions felt great today." Or "I know my kids are not at risk of getting that disease, but I got them vaccinated anyway to prevent children in other parts of the world from getting it." We need public will to be fully behind these difficult policies because without political engagement from citizens and pressure from below, governments will be reluctant -- and perhaps incapable -- of making the tough decisions needed to tackle these threats.

I believe it's not an exaggeration to point out that democracy itself will be put to the test by the governance challenge these threats entail. In democracies, majorities have proven highly resistant to voting against short-term personal interests in favor of incrementally reducing the risk of potential long-term societal catastrophes. We've been able to get away with this by and large up until now. But if we are not willing to make long-term investments in education, building sustainable infrastructure, reducing energy costs and getting off dependence on oil and coal, creating solutions to global water shortages, preventing pandemics, stopping nuclear proliferation and building sustainable peace, it's not just future growth that's at risk. It is our very form of government that we risk. If democracies cannot solve these critical problems, it may not be democracy that is the winning form of governance in this next round of global competition.

To develop effective ways to counter these global threats, we need to understand what they have in common: They are hard to communicate, driving personal sacrifice and political engagement on them difficult, making both leadership and governance hard. Each of these great global threats individually may be rare, but highly consequential and, in the aggregate, they are too important to ignore. And globalization has accelerated them all. Strategies to meet these threats have to embrace all these components. And there's one more thing we need: speed. We're running out of time.

As a planet, we face huge challenges. 2010 will be a decisive year. Let's get to work figuring out the answers. Get involved. Learn about these issues, petition your leaders, demand that we prepare now, and vote for those who are working constructively to tackle these challenges. Support the work of scientists and other organizations working on solutions. Teach your kids about them. These aren't someone else's problems. They're all of ours.

Larry Brilliant joined the Skoll Global Threats Fund after serving as the first executive director of Google.org. An MD and MPH, Larry was one of a four-person U.N. team that led the successful smallpox eradication program in India and South Asia. He later founded the Seva Foundation, whose projects have given back sight to nearly 3 million people worldwide.  Larry also co-founded The Well, a pioneering digital community and was a professor of international policy and epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

Larry Brilliant joined the Skoll Global Threats Fund after serving as the first executive director of Google.org. An MD and MPH, Larry was one of a four-person UN team that led the successful smallpox eradication program in India and South Asia. He later founded the Seva Foundation, whose projects have given back sight to nearly 3 million people worldwide.  Larry also co-founded The Well, a pioneering digital TK and was a professor of international policy and epidemiology at the University of Michigan.
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