Sudden Catastrophic Change:
Costing Out The Challenges of Preparing for the Worst
March 2, 2005
Richard A. Posner
Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and
Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School
Rff First Wednesday Seminar
Relatively little attention is being paid to certain environmental catastrophes of low or unknown probability, including mega-asteroid collisions with the earth and abrupt, as distinct from gradual, global warming. Posner will examine the design of analytical approaches to such catastrophic possibilities, with specific reference to how conventional cost-benefit analysis of environmental harms must be modified in order to be a usable tool for assessing and responding to such possibilities. He will also suggest specific approaches to the two examples above (asteroid collisions and abrupt global warming) and the policy measures implied by the approaches.
Richard A. Posner is the author of numerous books, including Overcoming Law (a New York Times Book Review editors' choice for best book of 1995) and Catastrophe: Risk and Response, upon which his presentation will be based.
Video of this lecture and commentary on Posner's remarks follow below.
Richard A. Posner
Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School
Question & Answer Session
Judge Richard Posner Talks About How We Should Respond to Catastrophes
Stopping asteroids from destroying the earth shouldn’t only be the province of action heroes like Bruce Willis, according to Richard Posner, the author of numerous books and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He came to RFF recently to talk about his new book, Catastrophe: Risk and Response (Oxford 2004). In it, he explores how and why we should move public discussion about global disasters, such as a major bioterrorist attack or the abrupt onset of severe global warming, out of movie theater lobbies and into the halls of Congress and beyond. His focus is on “catastrophic” events defined as threatening the entire global population or very large parts of it.
The general public has a limited grasp of how new technologies, like gene splicing, can super-charge a terrorist’s efforts, Posner said. Scientists are close to synthesizing smallpox and have already figured out the molecular structure of cholera, he said. Add ready access to information through the Internet and the relative ease of international travel and you have a recipe for disaster, he said.
Politicians as well as public citizens also have a hard time judging probabilities, Posner said. A one-in-many-million chance that the world could be destroyed if a particle accelerator experiment went very wrong is not enough of an argument to stop federal funding, to the tune of $750 million per year, for basic research into particle physics, specifically “strange” quarks, he said.
In an era where the means exist to possibly avert at least some disasters, such as mapping the 200,000+ asteroids that orbit our planet, Posner questioned why there is so little federal support. NASA’s efforts will likely take at least another decade, he said.
Part of the blame is due to what Posner called the “imagination cost.” These kinds of hazards are “too weird for most people to take seriously,” he said. Only when they see the results for their own eyes, like the ravages of the recent, devastating tsunami, can they begin to grasp numbers on such a large scale and to take action.