Volcano scientist at the University of Oxford and interested in EA, global catastrophic risks and longtermism
Hi Gordon, I think by reading the ‘challenging assumptions and why we think the current risk may be underappreciated’ and ‘Conclusions and the future’ sections, you’ll get a summary of most of the main points.
Thanks for your input!
My main question is: How tractable are the current solutions to all of this? Are there specific next steps one could take? Organizations that could accept funding or incoming talent? Particular laws or regulations we ought to be advocating for? Those are all tough questions, but it would be helpful to have even a very vague sense of how far a unit of money/time could go towards this cause.
Yes we think there are tractable solutions to reduce the impact from these large eruptions, and we’re currently planning these behind the scenes. The reason for this in part is that there has been little done to model & understand consequences of such eruptions, most of the work in the disaster risk focuses on the more frequent volcanic risks. There’s no organisation that’s currently looking at these extreme hazards in a global sense, so work to coordinate and focus the volcano community (in a similar way to the asteroid community some decades back), could be really effective (again something we’re starting to think about). We’ll do some fuller cost-benefit analysis, but very little (if any) funds and time are being put into extreme volcanic risk reduction, yet the financial losses may be substantial (~trillions). Sorry if that’s a bit vague-we’re just starting to think about this.
The only thing that jumps to mind is Luisa Rodriguez’s work on famines during a civilizational collapse or nuclear winter: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/GsjmufaebreiaivF7/what-is-the-likelihood-that-civilizational-collapse-wouldNot quite the same, but as you mention, “the closest analogy is nuclear war scenarios”. They feel similar in that the worst case scenarios seem to be various hard to predict follow-on effects, e.g. there’s a resource shortage, people panic and chaos ensues.
The only thing that jumps to mind is Luisa Rodriguez’s work on famines during a civilizational collapse or nuclear winter: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/GsjmufaebreiaivF7/what-is-the-likelihood-that-civilizational-collapse-would
Not quite the same, but as you mention, “the closest analogy is nuclear war scenarios”. They feel similar in that the worst case scenarios seem to be various hard to predict follow-on effects, e.g. there’s a resource shortage, people panic and chaos ensues.
Thanks for this- we’ll read this post with interest.
Minor nit: As I understand the term’s usage, the events you describe would probably not entirely qualify. One org describes “s-risk” as “risks of cosmically significant amounts of suffering”. A few other things I’ve read focuses on really astronomically large (in terms of population or timescale) almost science-fiction-esque scenarios, for example, colonizing the galaxy, producing 10^50 humans, and then torturing them all for a trillion years. But I’m not 100% confident that’s the canonical definition, so your usage might be totally fine.
I think you’re right here (I was struggling with some of the definitions), so I’ve removed the bit about ‘s-risks’.
Quite timely—I’ve just noticed the first peer-reviewed ‘real-life’ study showing that air filters (HEPA) used in Covid wards in one hospital significantly reduced the presence of airborne SARS-CoV-2: Press-release: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/air-filter-significantly-reduces-presence-of-airborne-sars-cov-2-in-covid-19-wards
(For context: In the UK more than 11,000 people were thought to have died from catching COVID at hospitals).
Hi David, yes totally agree and meant to add this to my answer above. In fact, I think our post only strengthens the case for looking into resilient foods.
As the authors put it in that paper:
“Interventions that delay the eruption have the risk of making the future eruption more intense”
I think this is right, and until we can competently model how a magma will respond to any interventions that we might do, it’s perhaps too risky to do at the moment. Nevertheless volcanologists have gone the other way and completely dismissed this whole concept of intervention. Personally, I think it be very worthwhile to investigate this concept in the lab and with numerical models, as after all, humans have drilled directly into magma reservoirs by mistake (while looking for geothermal energy) (~4 times in fact!) with limited negative consequences. So the knowledge we can find out by drilling magmas (one of the links I shared in the conclusions) would be highly informative for the coming decades of volcano science.
At the moment, there are far less risky options that could do to mitigate the risk in the short term, for instance we haven’t even identified all the volcanoes capable of climate-altering eruptions, and how we can best to monitor them (many of these will not even be monitored, especially in resource-poor, volcano-rich countries like Indonesia and the Philippines).
Clive Oppenheimer’s, ‘Eruptions that shook the world’ is a great introduction to volcanoes and their role on society. Cheers!
Thanks for this Toby. I like your suggestion about factoring the risk in this way, and we’ll keep you informed about where this all leads. Regarding civilisation collapse & recovery, there’s certainty a lot of parallels to abrupt cooling from nuclear and asteroid winters, though the nearer-field hazards (and resulting cascading impacts), may be significantly different. One major uncertainty in this seems to be the location of a super-eruption, which will strongly dictate its effects on society, e.g. similar magnitude super-eruption occurring in the Mediterranean versus New Zealand. So one of the things we hope to look into is identifying the regions & volcanoes where the next super eruptions are most likely to occur. Your book & the longtermism concepts have certainly made me reassess what the most important questions in our field are!
Thanks Ramiro, I hadn’t listened to that 80kh interview-so I’ll do that! But yes it could fall into both ‘Global health and well being’, but also longtermism categories (bio-risk mitigation-wise).
Also, sorry if this is stupid, but it seems that, unlike CO2, risks from many pollutants (like particulate matters and pathogens) could be significantly mitigated by effective dispersion; so even a normal ventilator could have observable effect on indoor air quality, right? Thus, I wonder if there are / could be any relevant policy recommendations along this line—like for urban design, e.g., “locate potential air pollution emissions by the sea, or spread through areas where they can be dispersed by winds”. Does it make any sense?
Yes you’re right. I guess there’s a difference between ventilation (dispersing the air around, either ‘natural’ - e.g. windows, or ‘mechanical’ e.g fans would also do the job) and purification (sucking the air through a filter to scrub out the pollutants/pathogens). I think both go some way to help this problem and just alone ventilation alone is more cost effective (table 1), however ventilation alone may not work in some instances. For instance, if the outside air is poor-quality (dense urban areas/near intense farming), or where there access to outside air is limited (high rise flats/offices where the windows don’t open), or for poorly-insulated buildings which are difficult to heat, so fresh air may be limited, it’s also hard to judge how much air needs to be replaced, which is where the CO2 and other monitors come in use.
Regarding the urban design idea, I’m not quite sure how effective this could be, a lot of the sources of air pollution are lots of individual sources, things like vehicle emissions, home heating, agriculture, which would make it hard to disperse by design, but it maybe more feasible with industry. But perhaps policy suggestions that control how much PM2.5/NO2 is emitted by industry might be warranted, which they could control by adding scrubbers/ filters to the outgoing air, if successful that might be applied to the smaller individual scale too. Thanks for these thoughts!
Thanks Jackson for forwarding on these interesting posts and info on this topic, I’m glad others have interest in this issue. I wonder if the topic is slightly underrated because its effects are often manifested as ‘long-lived’ insidious chronic issues, meaning that judging the cost-effectiveness of different interventions with relatively short randomly controlled trials is much more difficult compared to for instance infectious disease interventions. Perhaps that’s where your short-term cognitive effects might be a really useful diagnostic/measure of effectiveness of different interventions- so thanks for drawing my attention to that.
An effectiveness comparison between vaccination and air filtration/UV light methods as GCBR mitigation is a really good suggestion for future research. I agree that air filtration may prove to be pretty effective, especially given the time lag to develop & test vaccines too.
During the writing of this post I spoke to some engineers developing air purifiers for private sector, so if anyone has further interest in this topic in the future—I can put you in touch.