Law and Policy for Global Catastrophic and Existential Risks

Course content

“It happened that a fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning. They shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid the general applause from all the wits who believe that it is a joke.” - Søren Kierkegaard

Human history is full of tales of the world’s annihilation, and of humanity’s destruction. Yet, the world still approaches so-called existential risks with a certain hesitance. This is in spite ‘The Doomsday Clock’ (of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) being set at three minutes to midnight for the past two years: this is the same level of existential risk as the nadirs of the Cold War (but see also Robinson Meyer, The Difficulty of Talking About Doomsday, The Atlantic, 28 January 2016 http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/01/the-difficulty-of-talking-about-doomsday/431676/).
In recent years, however, a significant body of research has taken these tales out of the realm of sci-fi and religion, and transformed them into realistic near-future scenarios. A rapidly growing academic and policy field has coalesced in response to these threats, prominently at the Oxford Martin School and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge. But despite the broadly interdisciplinary reaction to existential risks, the roles played by the law both in empowering and mitigating these risks remain largely unexplored.
This course aims to fill this gap by engaging law students in developing legal solutions to the most pressing existential risks that confront humanity, and with catastrophic risks which fall short of this threshold but nonetheless would significantly impair humanity in the long term. We aim to explore the literature on existential risks, and bring those concerns within a context of legal policy. Thus, the aim of the course is to provide the students with a deeper understanding of existential risks and of law’s (in)ability to solve social, political and ecological problems: that is, of legal innovation.

The overarching questions explored in this course are:

  • What role can the law play in saving humanity?
  • Does existing law channel humanity towards its own demise?
  • How might legal concepts be developed towards minimising existential risks?
  • Are existing legal precepts appropriate in the context of existential and catastrophic risks?
  • What are the limits of law in mitigating existential threats?

 

As this course investigates how the law may create or expose humanity to vulnerabilities as well as how the law might mitigate existential and catastrophic risks, it will be structured around the ten greatest threats to humanity as case studies. Thus, the course will address, both at a theoretical and a practical level, the law’s ability and efficacy in facing the challenges for human society at different levels: those beyond human control, those within certain parameters of human control, and those that are self-induced. The students will be invited to work
creatively with their legal knowledge, and test it in an interdisciplinary context. The teaching will be student- and problem-driven, and each class will have compulsory materials (readings, videos, and case-materials) most relevant to the topic to be discussed, and be supplemented by a number of recommended/voluntary activities, including movie screenings.

The students shall as conclusion to the course define, develop and defend a legal solution toward mitigating a catastrophic risk or existential risk of his or her choice. The exam consists of developing two written products: (1) a two-page policy brief providing concrete recommendations to initiatives that could be adopted to mitigate a given catastrophic/existential risk and (2) a ten-page academic paper elaborating upon the development of the policy recommendation, with special attention paid to both the recommendation’s efficacy and avowed limitations. The policy briefs will be forwarded to the Danish Emergency Management Agency, who we hope will also feature in session 14.

The course is structured in the following way:
A. Introduction: Developing legal policies towards existential risks
1. Overview of the course, themes, methodology and exam
2. Risk(s): Predicting the Future
3. Be Careful? Precaution or Risk Regulation
4. Uncertainty, Resilience and Unknown Unknowns
5. Global Public Goods, Institutional Inertia and Iatrogenic Risks
6. Legal Innovation: Thinking Creatively with Law and Policy
B. Cases: Global Catastrophic and Existential Risks
7. Space and Major Geological Events
8. ‘Natural’ Disaster and Climate Change
9. Ecosystem collapse/Ecocide
10. Synthetic Biology/Nanotechnology
11. Pandemics
12. Artificial Intelligence
13. Nuclear War/Winter
C. Solutions and Policy Briefs
14. How to create a good policy brief
15. Problem workshop: Creative solutions to complex problems
16. Policy brief presentations for the rest of the class

Learning outcome

The course aims at making sure that the students acquire:

- knowledge of existential and catastrophic risks;
- knowledge of the interplay between law and risk in general, and existential and catastrophic risk in particular;
- knowledge of legal policy development and innovation; knowledge of law’s ethical dilemmas;
- skills to construct and de-construct legal arguments;
- skills to analyze social phenomena, e.g. global catastrophic and existential risks;
- skills to understand and apply interdisciplinary input;
- skills to analyze law’s ability to meet real-world challenges;
- skills to identify and limit legal, historical, sociological and philosophical problems;
- competence to develop legal policies;
- competence to communicate and disseminate in a precise language, hereunder communicate legal problems and solutions to non-lawyers;
- competence to write a policy brief;
- competence to assess and critically discuss law’s potential to and limitations in addressing pressing social problems;
- competence to acquire knowledge in a non-native language
 

The structure of the course is divided into three broad sections. The first introduces the concepts of global catastrophic and existential risks, and presents different perspectives and frameworks of a general nature with which to understand these phenomena and through which appropriate responses can be framed. The second section infuses granularity into the class by progressing through catastrophic and existential risks that have been identified, and around which expert consensus has emerged. The study of each risk in turn allows for the application of the various tools in the toolbox that was developed in the first section to be used according their predicted relevance and utility, as tailored to the characteristics of the particular risk. The third section is
designed to prepare students towards the production of their final outputs: with a visit to DEMA to assist with the policy dimension of their work, and our own feedback regarding the complementary academic paper on the topic of the students’ choosing.
This course is designed around student engagement and open discussion with regards to complicated, complex and even chaotic problems with global reach and long-term implications. The seminars are structured around creative thinking processes and are exploratory in nature, building off of the readings which aim to provide a strong foundation on the relvant topic. Despite a wealth of expanding literature, schools of thought have yet to coalesce which allows for relatively free and open thinking that is necessary to prepare students to consider the grand challenges of our time.

A good command of English

Written
Oral
Individual
Collective
Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)
ECTS
15 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written examination
Project exam (including group project)
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Seminar
  • 56
  • Preparation
  • 356,5
  • English
  • 412,5