Catastrophes of the 21st Century

29 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2020 Last revised: 21 Dec 2020

See all articles by Roger Pielke

Roger Pielke

University of Colorado Boulder

Date Written: July 25, 2020


There are few ways to better display our ignorance than by speculating on the long-term future. At the same time, making wise decisions depends upon both anticipating an uncertain future and the limits of what we can know. This paper takes a broad look at global trends in place today, where they may be taking us, and the implications for thinking about catastrophes of the 21st century. I suggest three types of catastrophes lie ahead. The familiar – hazards that we have come to expect based on experience and knowledge, such as earthquakes and typhoons. The emergent – hazards that are the product of a complex, interconnected world, such as financial meltdowns, supply chain disruption and epidemics. The extraordinary – hazards that may or may not be foreseen or foreseeable, but for which we are wholly unprepared, such as an asteroid impact, massive solar storm, or even fantastic scenarios found only in fiction, such as the consequences of contact with alien life. I will argue that our collective attention and expertise is, perhaps understandably, disproportionately focused on the familiar. The consequence, however, is a sort of intellectual myopia. We know more than we think about the familiar and less than we should about the emergent and the extraordinary. Yet our ability to deal with the hazards of the future likely depends much more on our ability to prepare for the emergent and the extraordinary. The paper concludes with recommendations for what a robust and resilient global society might look like in the face of known, unknown and unknowable risks of the 21st century.

Keywords: catastrophes, disasters, science policy, pandemic, earthquakes, aliens

Suggested Citation

Pielke, Roger, Catastrophes of the 21st Century (July 25, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Roger Pielke (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Boulder ( email )


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