JJUB55152U  Law and Policy for Global Catastrophic and Existential Risks

Volume 2018/2019

Today’s culture is full of tales of apocalypse—of the world’s annihilation, and humanity’s destruction. because of) their prominence in popular culture, risks that could lead to global catastrophe, or which might continued existence of mankind (‘existential risks’, remain an understudied topic. Indeed, global policymakers 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 remaining at three minutes to midnight for the past two years—the closest it has been since the nadir by some estimates, a typical person is more than five times as likely to eventually die in an extinction in a car crash.

In recent years, researchers have taken these concerns out of the realm of sci-fi, and articulated realistic for catastrophe. A rapidly growing academic and policy field has coalesced in response to these threats, Oxford Martin School and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge. But despite the broadly reaction to existential risks, the roles played by the law both in empowering and mitigating these risks critically—unexplored.

This course aims to fill this gap by challenging students of law to engage with what may be some of this challenges. It asks students to consider and develop legal solutions to the most pressing existential risks as well as catastrophic risks which fall short of this threshold but nonetheless would significantly impair term.

We aim to explore the literature on existential risks, and bring those concerns within a context of legal the course is to provide the students with a deeper understanding of existential risks and of law’s (in)ability political and ecological problems: that is, of legal innovation.

The overarching questions explored in this course are:

  • What role can the law and legal structures 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? What are the macro-scale implications of


Course format:

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

The course is structured in the following way:

A. Existential Risk, and the Limits of Law?
Seminar 1: Introduction & Course Overview
Seminar 2: What you don’t know can hurt you: ‘unknown unknowns’, and regulating under uncertainty.
Seminar 3: Epistemic and Political Biases Affecting Judgment of Global Risks
Seminar 4: Legal Innovation: Thinking creatively to Save the World with Law

B. Cases: The Greatest Threats to Mankind
Seminar 5: Threats from Space and Major Geological Events
Seminar 6: ‘Natural’ Disasters, Climate Change and Geoengineering
Seminar 7: Ecosystem collapse/Ecocide
Seminar 8: Nuclear Terrorism, and Thermonuclear War
Seminar 9: Pandemics and Biosecurity
Seminar 10: Emerging Technologies—Synthetic biology and Nanotechnology
Seminar 11: Emerging Technologies—Artificial (Super)Intelligence
Seminar 12: Societal Catastrophic Risks; Totalitarianism; Disaster Capitalism
Seminar 13: Legal, Political and Economic Inertia and Iatrogenic Risks

C. Law & Governance Solutions to Existential Risks
Seminar 14: Global Governance Solutions for Existential Risk
Seminar 15: Civilizational Resilience and Recovery
Seminar 16: How to create a good policy brief


Learning Outcome

This course aims at ensuring 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 cutting-edge legal policy development and innovation, including legal foresighting, and emerging technology governance frameworks.
  • knowledge of law’s ethical dilemmas.
  • skills to construct and de-construct legal arguments.
  • skills to analyze social phenomena, e.g. existential risk.
  • 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.

Readings will be approximately 750 pages. The course materials will comprise of videos, reports, radio-podcasts.

An Example of Readings

The following syllabus will be subject to further change and revision, but can give an early indication of topics covered.

The standard course book will be: Bostrom, Nick, and Milan M. Cirkovic. Global Catastrophic Risks. 1 edition. University Press, 2011.

We will also read many papers from:

Proceedings of the First International Colloquium on Catastrophic and Existential Risk, B. John Garrick (Ed), Garrick Institute for the Risk Sciences, University of California Los Angeles, Dec 2017 https:/​/​www.risksciences.events/​2018/​1/​2/​proceedings-of-the-first-international-colloquium-on-catastrophic-and-existential-risk OR https:/​/​static1.squarespace.com/​static/​54628adae4b0f587f5d3e03f/​t/​5a4c6aea9140b791bb2cbc6a/​1514957553379/​+International+Colloquium+on+Catastrophic+and+Existential+Risk.pdf

Schneier, Bruce (2015) “Resources on Existential Risk” Syllabus for: Catastrophic Risk: Technologies and Policies. Internet and Society. Harvard University. http:/​/​futureoflife.org/​data/​documents/​Existential%20Risk%20Resources%

- knowledge of law’s ethical dilemmas.
- skills to construct and de-construct legal arguments.
- skills to identify and limit legal, historical, sociological and philosophical problems.
- competence to communicate and disseminate in a precise language, hereunder communicate legal problems and solutions to non-lawyers.
- competence to acquire knowledge in a non-native language.
A good command of English
A certain degree of academic versatility and creativity.
Very basic statistical literacy (‘expected value’) may help in grasping certain aspects of the concept of existential risk, but is not required.
The structure of the course is divided into three broad sections.

The first, ‘Existential Risks and the Limits of Law?’ introduces the concepts of global catastrophic and existential risks, explores the peculiar challenges they pose to legal solutions, 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, ‘The Biggest Threats to Mankind’, provides substance to the class, by progressing through specific 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, ‘Law & Governance Solutions to Existential Risks’, is designed to explore key cross-domain features of governance solutions for global catastrophic risks, and to prepare students towards the production of their final outputs—including policy-relevant 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.
Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)

We will incorporate repeated feedback sessions, both in-class and through the Absalon platform.

Type of assessment
Written examination
Individual written assignment
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Exam period

Hand-in date: January 18, 2019


Hand-in date: February 20, 2019

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Seminar
  • 69
  • Preparation
  • 343,5
  • Total
  • 412,5