How to Save the World: Identifying Key Characteristics in Risk-Related Policy Progress

Joris Pijpers

Joris majored in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) as part of his Liberal Arts & Sciences studies at Erasmus University College in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He currently works at the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), where he provides support for EA groups at universities across the world.

Author’s Note

What was your thesis topic?

There are various risks that have a low probability of happening, but would affect millions of people across the world if they were to materialize. These risks, from supervolcanic eruptions to nuclear war, and from natural or engineered pandemics to unaligned Artificial Intelligence, are unfortunately poorly understood and severely understudied relative to their potential impact. And, most relevant to my research, few policy interventions exist that aim to address these risks. 

The thesis I wrote identifies potential patterns across historical policy interventions on various extreme risks, by conducting a cross-case analysis of six case studies. One interesting case I studied was NASA’s NEO program, which is a program that studies sizeable asteroids and comets approaching Earth. It is often referred to as an example of a successful policy addressing an extreme risk, and the factors which created circumstances under which the policy could change also returned in some of the other cases: consensus among scientists and the occurrence of focusing events, which put can suddenly put an item on the political agenda. Other relevant characteristics of policy progress on extreme risks I identified are the role of indicators (studies, reports, etc.) in agenda setting, and the role of policy entrepreneurs who are skilled at exploiting opportunities to push certain policies. 

In what ways do you think your topic improves the world?

I think significantly improving the world is extremely difficult, and it’s definitely not always clear that work on a topic directly causes societal impact. However, I think the topic of global catastrophic and existential risks is clearly understudied, and not enough policy exists to prevent, understand, prepare for, and respond to these risks. I hope that in the future more researchers will study these risks, to aid policymakers who work on them.

What is one lesson you learned while writing your thesis?

I think I grew even more appreciation for how extremely complicated both the world and doing research are. I often felt uncomfortable drawing conclusions, as I’d grown more aware of how easy it is to miss a crucial piece of information or misunderstand historical processes. I’m impressed by the researchers that were able to put together the theories I used in my research, and also applaud the few scientists looking into global catastrophic and existential risks, they really are exploring new, but very important topics! 

What recommendations would you make to others interested in taking a similar direction with their research?

I was supervised by Rumtin Sepasspour at Global Catastrophic Risk Policy, who helped me understand relevant theories on policymaking and supported me in gathering and analyzing cases. I’m very grateful for Rumtin’s help – I strongly recommend trying to find an external supervisor with relevant experience! It was a great boost to my excitement and productivity to have someone who shared my motivation to contribute to a better world, who truly understood my topic, and was excited about supervising me.

Published 5/12/22