What Do Emergent Risks Do Next?

Can you study emergent risks? And what can you say about them?

What do the Titanic disaster, 9-11, SARS, the San Francisco earthquake, and global warming have in common?

The answer, apparently, is that they all were at one time emergent risks.

I've just been reading a research paper from the Institute of Risk Management's special interest group on emerging risks and it's got me thinking: is there in fact anything useful you can say about emergent risks in general?

I suspect the problem I have is one of definition. The paper defines Emergent Risks as “[risks] that have not yet occurred but are at an early stage of becoming known and/or coming into being and expected to grow greatly in significance”. Furthermore, it is noted that “they do not have the track record of better known, non-emergent, risks and usually arise in the longer term”.

There is a problem with this definition. It's not that it doesn't make sense. It does. It's just that it puts emergent risks in a difficult position. Once a risk becomes known, or has some sort of track record, it's no longer an emergent risk.

This is reminiscent of a “God of the Gaps” type proof for the existence of God. This “proof” is essentially this: there are some things which science cannot explain. If they cannot be explained by science, then they can only be explainable by God. Therefore God exists.

The problem with the “God of the Gaps” is that as science expands and can explain more things, many gaps (such as the motion of the planets, or the origin of complex molecules) have been eliminated, and with them, the argument for the existence of God that depended upon them.

Emergent risks have a similar flavor. Once they become better understood and categorized, they cease to be emergent risks.

If we look at some of the examples of emergent risks given in the paper, we can get an idea of the problem we face.

The first is the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic.

I think this is included by mistake.

The fact that a ship could sink due to a collision with an iceberg was hardly an emergent risk, even when the Titanic was built. This risk was taken into account (albeit with what proved to be limited success) during the design of the Titanic. The ship was never claimed to be unsinkable, only “practically unsinkable”. Certainly ships were getting bigger, and didn't carry sufficient lifeboats for all their passengers and crew. The Titanic carried more lifeboats than it was required to do by law. The feeling at the time was that other ships in the vicinity would be able to offer assistance before a ship could sink. (See Edward S. Kamuda, in an article for the The Titanic Historical Society. (“Sparks” Stephenson's FAQ rebuts many other misconceptions about the Titanic.) None of these risks were emergent at the time of the Titanic. They were well known and discussed.

Another example given is the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

Terrorist attacks were nothing new in 2001. Attacks against the World Trade Center were not new. Before the event, it had been considered (but believed unlikely) that an aircraft could be hijacked and used as a weapon; afterwards the risk assessment changed. (See 9/11 commission report.) Ignoring the terrorist aspect, from a building design and emergency planning perspective the risk of an aircraft collision with a tall building is known. The Empire State building was damaged by a colliding B-25 bomber on July 28, 1945. An Amsterdam apartment building was destroyed by a Boeing 747-200F in 1992. Google around, and you can even find a very presentient internet discussion taking place in 2000 about the possible damage the collision of a large aircraft with the World Trade Center might cause.

SARS is given as another example. Yet epidemics have plagued mankind throughout history. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the First World War. The bubonic plague killed about 30% of the population of Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century. New viruses and new cures may emerge, but the threat of epidemic has been with us throughout history. SARS is only an emergent risk if you forget about history.

Global Warming could be an emergent risk. Let's try the definition. It's a known risk in the sense that we recognize it is a risk, but it's an unknown risk in the sense that we aren't sure of the probabilities or consequences. We certainly think that the consequences could be severe. It might be an emergent risk. But if we understand it better, it won't be any more.

I could continue, but hopefully I've made my point. Emergent Risks are only emergent in that fleeting interval between their being recognized, and their being understood. Even then, they may be emergent to us, but actually well understood by someone else.

Having a name for them doesn't help much, if at all. They are not a homogeneous group, as the examples given show. Each risk needs to be analyzed for consequences, probabilities, and possible counter measures. Emergent Risks are just risks on which we need to do more homework, nothing more.

10 June 2005

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