Policy and Governance for Global Catastrophic and Existential Risks

Course content

Today’s culture is full of tales of apocalypse—of the world’s annihilation, and humanity’s destruction. And yet, in spite of (or because of) their prominence in popular culture, risks that could lead to global catastrophe, or which might even threaten the continued existence of mankind (‘existential risks’ remain an understudied topic). Indeed, global policymakers and regulators often have approached the topic with hesitance.

This is in spite of the increasingly tangible effects of runaway climate change; and in spite of the fact that ‘The Doomsday Clock’ has been set at its nadir at 90 seconds to midnight in 2023 – highlighted specifically as a time of unprecedented danger. Indeed, by some estimates, a typical person is more than five times as likely to eventually die in an extinction event, than (s)he is to die in a car crash.

In recent years, researchers have taken these concerns out of the realm of sci-fi, and articulated realistic near-future scenarios for catastrophe. A rapidly growing academic and policy field has coalesced in response to these threats, prominently at the Future of Humanity Institute 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 policy, regulation, and governance both in empowering and mitigating these risks remain largely—and critically—unexplored.

Aims of the course

This course aims to fill this gap by challenging students to engage with what may be some of this century’s greatest challenges. It asks students to consider and craft policy regulatory, and governance solutions to the most pressing existential risks that confront humanity, as well as 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 policy and governance. Thus, the aim of the course is to provide the students with a deeper understanding of existential risks and of policy and governance’s (in)ability to solve social, political and ecological problems.


The overarching questions explored in this course are:

•    What roles can policy and governance structures play in saving humanity?

•    Does existing law, regulation and governance channel humanity towards its own demise?

•    How might regulatory and governance concepts be developed towards minimising existential risks?

•    Are existing regulatory and governance precepts appropriate in the context of existential and catastrophic risks?

•    What are the limits of policy, law, regulation and governance in mitigating existential threats? What are the macro-scale implications of this?


Course format:

As this course investigates how policy, law, regulation and governance may create or expose humanity to vulnerabilities as well as how these might mitigate existential and catastrophic risks, it will be largely structured around the greatest threats to humanity as case studies. Such global hazards have 

dominated the study of existential risks, and provide ample material for honing our policy, legal, regulatory and governance responses.


Yet, spurred by research at the University of Copenhagen, there is increasing awareness that such grand hazards are only a part of the equation with regards to global catastrophes and existential risks. In order to bring policy, law, regulation and governance to bear on such problems – to be able to open such discussions – the issues need to become refocused on questions of exposure and vulnerability to such hazards. And to weave in ongoing cutting-edge work, we will also draw out the implications of interactional complexity in relation to global catastrophic and existential risk, which suggests that we do not need a spectacular hazard to precipitate the end of our world. Engaging students in a burgeoning ‘Copenhagen Approach’ to global catastrophic and existential risks, students are invited to forge their own paths for policy and governance research anchored on our work-in-progress at present.


This course will address, both at a theoretical and a practical level, policy, law, regulation and governance’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 knowledge and to harness their interests, and test these in a deeply interdisciplinary context. The course 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 directly-relevant 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. As such, this course straddles the boundary between research-integrated and research, by virtue of it being entirely student-driven and student-conducted. The exam will therefore be an individual written assessment on a subject identified and defined by the student, and written up either as a thesis to be defended or a research question to be explored (or by another relevant and appropriate manner).


Full-degree students enrolled at the Department of Political Science, UCPH:

  • MSc in Political Science
  • MSc in Social Science
  • MSc in Security Risk Management


SRM students are first priority

Full-degree students enrolled at the Faculty of Social Science, UCPH: 

  • Master Programme in Social Data Science
  • Master programme in Global Development
  • Master Programmes in Economics


The course is open to: *Only MA students

  • Exchange and Guest students from abroad*
Learning outcome


- knowledge of existential and catastrophic risks.

- knowledge of the interplay between policy, law, regulation and governance, and risk in general, and existential and catastrophic risk in particular.

- knowledge of cutting-edge policy development and innovation, including foresighting, and emerging technology governance frameworks.


- skills to understand and critically apply interdisciplinary input. 

- skills to analyze policy, regulation and governance’s ability to meet real-world challenges.

- skills to identify and delimit legal, historical, sociological and philosophical problems.


- competence to develop policy recommendations, anchored upon individual research output.

- competence to communicate and disseminate in a precise language, hereunder communicate interdisciplinary problems and responses to laypersons and the public.

- competence to write a policy brief.

- competence to assess and critically discuss policy, law, regulation and governance’s potential to and limitations in addressing pressing social problems.

- competence to acquire knowledge in a non-native language.

The course is convened in a seminar format with the expectation that all participants have read the material for each session, and will throw themselves in immersively into the intense discussions in class.

This course is likely to be unique and unlike any other course that you have, or will take, during your time at university. This is because Policy and Governance for Global Catastrophic and Existential Risks adopts a problem-finding orientation (in contradistinction to the more orthodox problem-solving approach). The difference is subtle, yet fundamental: in problem-finding, it is the question that is the central concern; for problem-solving, the main objective is in producing answers. In other words, the overarching objective of this course is to open up new research trajectories, and to probe the ‘unknown unknowns’ (what we do not know that we do not know). As a result, this course is run like a true research workshop, operating at the very edge of contemporary research and thinking. It invites students into the process of developing thinking approaches to these challenging contemporary issues as we collectively explore the potential problem and opportunity space for law, regulation, and governance that is opened up by the perspectives and approaches related to Global Catastrophic and Existential Risks. This is usually very difficult at the start, but it has always gotten easier as the term progresses. What you need to bear in mind for this course is that there are no answers, no solutions: at best we can hope for re-solutions that we will need to continually and iteratively revisit.

Please note that there is a blanket ban on digital devices in the classroom: to repeat, there are to be no digital devices out during the class. Please make appropriate preparations, for example, by bringing pens and notebooks.

A full syllabus will be made available on Absalon, and additional/replacement readings will be made as announcements. In this syllabus, each session is introduced briefly followed by a detailed reading list. The expectation is that the readings are read before each class, and constitute the point of departure for the discussions in those classes.


There is no need to buy any reading material (aside from the course textbook should you wish to purchase it) – these should all be available through the Royal Library and online.


The standard course book will be Toby Ord, ‘The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity’ (2020) Bloomsbury, London. Copies will be made available at Academic Books for individual purchase. This represents for us the contemporary state of the art for the nascent discipline, from which our course will depart (in a thoroughly critical manner).


This will be supplemented by a range of academic articles, videos and other relevant material set out in detail in the syllabus. This is a highly dynamic field, so the literature is constantly revised.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)

Please note that there is a blanket ban on digital devices in the classroom: to repeat, there are to be no digital devices out during the class. Please make appropriate preparations, for example, by bringing pens and notebooks.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment
Type of assessment details
Free written assignment
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship

- In the semester where the course takes place: Free written assignment

- In subsequent semesters: Free written assignment

Criteria for exam assessment
  • Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings
  • Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings
  • Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • English
  • 28


Course number
7,5 ECTS
Programme level
Full Degree Master

1 semester

Study Board for Security Risk Management
Contracting department
  • Department of Political Science
  • Department of Anthropology
  • Social Data Science
  • Department of Economics
Contracting faculty
  • Faculty of Social Sciences
Course Coordinator
  • Hin-Yan Liu   (11-6a6b702f7b6370306e6b77426c7774306d7730666d)
Saved on the 02-05-2024

Are you BA- or KA-student?

Are you bachelor- or kandidat-student, then find the course in the course catalog for students:

Courseinformation of students