Future risks

Emerging Risks in the 21st Century: An Agenda for Action
OECD Observer

The 21st century was kicked off with a global scare, the “millennium bug”, that threatened to destroy computers worldwide, along with all their dependent technology, affecting air traffic control systems, hospital emergency rooms and the stock market.

These consequences were avoided. However, the SARS virus has more recently frightened the world with the rapidity of its contagion, while the fear of chemical attack contributed to sales of gasmasks right across the United States.

It seems that as the world grows smaller and more technological, the risks get larger. Emerging Risks in the 21st Century examines not only the changing nature of these risks, but also society’s capacity to manage them. The five categories addressed – natural disasters, industrial accidents, infectious diseases, terrorism and food safety – have become all too familiar. What are the trends and forces shaping these risks in the next few decades, where are vital systems most vulnerable, and how can governments best prepare to deal with future emergencies?

Information gathering is one step forward. The OFDA-CRED International Disaster Database considers an event a disaster when either 10 people are reported killed, 100 people are reported affected, international assistance is officially requested, or a state of emergency is declared. According to these criteria, the database has recorded a leap from approximately 100 natural disasters worldwide in 1970 to over 350 in 2000, and from 50 technological disasters in 1980 to 300 in 2000.

Emerging Risks points to risk perception itself as one factor that can delay or exaggerate precautionary measures. But scientific risk assessment, while increasingly sophisticated, is based less on human behaviour and more on linear cause-and-effect. Cyber-crime, terrorist attacks and some natural catastrophes call for a critical look at both the safety of networked systems and the social infrastructure that makes them vulnerable.

“Risky future”, OECD Observer No 235, December 2002 (see link below).

©OECD Observer No 237, May 2003

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