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CatastropheRisk and Response$
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Richard A. Posner

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780195178135

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195178135.001.0001

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Why so little is being done about the catastrophic risks

Why so little is being done about the catastrophic risks

2 (p.92) Why so little is being done about the catastrophic risks

Richard A. Posner

Oxford University Press

I have said that the dangers of catastrophe are growing. One reason is the rise of apocalyptic terrorism. Another, however—because many of the catastrophic risks are either created or amplified by science and technology—is the breakneck pace of scientific and technological advance. A clue to that pace is that between 1980 and 2000 the average annual growth rate of scientific and engineering employment in the United States was 4.9 percent, more than four times the overall employment growth rate. Growth in the number of scientific personnel of the other countries appears to have been slower, but still significant, though statistics are incomplete. Of particular significance is the fact that the cost of dangerous technologies, such as those of nuclear and biological warfare, and the level of skill required to employ them are falling, which is placing more of the technologies within reach of small nations, terrorist gangs, and even individual psychopaths. Yet, great as it is, the challenge of managing the catastrophic risks is receiving less attention than is lavished on social issues of far less intrinsic significance, such as race relations, whether homosexual marriage should be permitted, the size of the federal deficit, drug addiction, and child pornography. Not that these are trivial issues. But they do not involve potential extinction events or the modestly less cataclysmic variants of those events. So limited is systematic analysis of the catastrophic risks that there are no estimates of what percentage either of the federal government’s total annual research and development (R & D) expenditures (currently running at about $120 billion), or of its science and technology expenditures (that is, R & D minus the D), which are about half the total R & D budget, are devoted to protection against them. Not that R & D is the only expenditure category relevant to the catastrophic risks. But it is a very important one. We do know that federal spending on defense against the danger of terrorism involving chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons rose from $368 million in 2002 (plus $203 million in a supplemental appropriation) to more than $2 billion in 2003.

Keywords:   Armageddon, Biological attacks, Chemical weapons, Deep Impact, Ebola, Foreign-aid programs, Global warming, Kyoto Protocol, Montreal Protocol, Nanotechnology

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