Nine disasters we still aren’t ready for.
You might feel blindsided by the coronavirus, butwarnings about a looming pandemic have been there for decades. Government briefings, science journals and even popular fiction projected the spread of a novel virus and the economic impacts it would bring, complete often with details about the specific challenges the U.S. is now facing.
It makes you wonder: What else are we missing? What other catastrophes are coming that we aren’t planning for, but that could disrupt our lives, homes, jobs or our broader society in the next few years or decades?
It’s the government’s job to think about this: Every year, the intelligence community releases the Worldwide Threat Assessment—a distillation of worrisome global trends, risks, problem spots and emerging perils. But this year, the public hearing on the assessment, usually held in January or February, was canceled, evidently because intelligence leaders, who usually testify in a rare open hearing together, were worried their comments would aggravate President Donald Trump. And the government has not yet publicly released a 2020 threat report.
What would it say? Since there’s been no public version, we’ve compiledour own here, reviewing numerous government and academic reports and speaking with more than a dozen thought leaders, including scientists, researchers and current and former national security and intelligence officials.
What follows is POLITICO Magazine’s “Domestic Threat Assessment”—a list of the most significant events that might impact the United States over the next 30 to 50 years. These are threats that seem rare, but that over a given period are almost guaranteed to occur—events that humans, and therefore political leaders, have a hard time understanding and planning for. Author Michele Wucker, a policy analyst who specializes in crises, calls them “gray rhinos,” in contrast to the unimaginable “black swan” events. Most of the megathreats the world encounters—from pandemics to financial crashes—are more like a charging rhino: They’re dangerous, but can also be seen coming far in advance.
First, some good news—there are a handful of catastrophic events bandied about online that you don’t have to worry about. The world made it through the “Mayan Apocalypse” in 2012 just fine, for instance. If you’ve never heard of the pole shift hypothesis or Planet X, don’t fret—you probably needn’t worry about either of those theories either.
And what about “supervolcanoes”—historic, world-altering volcanoes bubbling ominously under places like Yellowstone and Indonesia’s Lake Toba? Don’t worry; explosions of that scale are rare enough that they appear to occur tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years apart. “Yellowstone has such a low probability of erupting, you’re better off playing Powerball,” says volcanologist Jess Phoenix. Such events will almost certainly occur at some point, but it would be indescribable bad luck to experience one in your lifetime. Ditto for the idea of a killer comet or extinction-level asteroid hitting Earth—yes, it’ll happen at some point in the future, but you probably should still contribute to your 401(k) and plan for a happy retirement.
Now for the bad: Beyond other pandemics, which appear regularly every decade or two, there are eight other major threats (and one wild card) that scientists and national security officials worry about currently that are real, identifiable and stand a chance that is more likely than not of occurring—at some scale, ranging from mild to catastrophic—in the next five to 50 years.
Here’s what’s coming for us now:
(LIKELY TO IMPACT THE U.S. WITHIN THE NEXT 5 YEARS)
“Terrorism” today conjures images of ISIS fighters and suicide bombers. But if youask national security officials about the top near-term terrorism threat on their radar, they almost universally point to the rising problem of white nationalist violence and the insidious way that groups that formerly existed locally have been knitting themselves together into a global web of white supremacism. In recent weeks, the State Department—for the first time—formally designated a white supremacist organization, the Russian Imperial Movement, as a terrorist organization, in part because it’s trying to train and seed adherents around the globe, inspiring them to carry out terror attacks, as it did with two Swedish men who carried out a series of bombings in Gothenburg in 2016 and 2017.
There are serious—and explicit—warnings about this coming from U.S. government and foreign officials that eerily echo the warnings that came about for al Qaeda before 9/11. Just before the world was overwhelmed by the coronavirus crisis, DHS’ assistant secretary for threat prevention and security policy, Elizabeth Neumann, told a congressional committee, “It feels like we are at the doorstep of another 9/11—maybe not something that catastrophic in terms of the visual or the numbers—but that we can see it building, and we don’t quite know how to stop it.” Racially motivated mass shootings in the United States targeting minorities and places of worship have risen markedly. The FBI has already made a series of arrests among members of U.S. white supremacist organizations who had been harassing journalists and houses of worship and discussing violent attacks,and it has now elevated such traditionally domestic terror groups to the same priority level as foreign groups like the Islamic State.
While white supremacist violence has a centuries-old history in the U.S. and overseas, the current moment particularly worries intelligence and law enforcement officials because they see violence erupting globally, empowered by social media, and lone actors referencing each other.
Whether any more organized white supremacist group has the means and opportunity to carry out a large, complex terror attack like 9/11 remains unknown, but the movement is clearly adapting the playbook used by the Islamic State in 2014 and 2015 that enabled that group to radicalize and inspire dozens of adherents and would-be jihadists to carry out attacks in its name. TheU.S. already has a clear example of what even a small group of domestic terrorists can wreak: Before 9/11, the deadliest terror incident on U.S. soil was Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City. And U.S. officials fear what an organized network could do. As FBI Director Chris Wray told me last month, “It’s not just the ease and the speed with which these attacks can happen, but the connectivity that the attacks generate. One unstable, disaffected actor hunkered down, alone, in his mom’s basement in one corner of the country, getting further fired up by similar people half a world away. That increases the complexity of domestic terrorism cases we have in a way that is really challenging.”
Asked at a Hewlett Foundation conference last year about what the nation’s next failure of imagination would be, former top Pentagon official Eric Rosenbach had a simple answer: An attack on the public confidence in key institutions.
If the 2016 election was the story of our democracy being blindsided by misinformation, disinformation and hack-and-dump cyberattacks, cyber experts are warning that the next new threat online will almost certainly involve attempts by adversaries to manipulate or delete data or otherwise raise public doubts about whether reported reality is real reality. “Trust and truth are the foundations of free and open societies,” says Sue Gordon, a career intelligence officer who served until last summer as the principal deputy director of national intelligence, the top career official in the intelligence community. “Our growing concern about those two things are causing chaos in open societies and leaving room for authoritarian tendencies.”
Imagine an adversary entering a system and making unnoticed, stealthy changes. For example, changing Wall Street trading records to make brokers unsure of the real price of a stock or whether they’d actually purchased it at all. Or manipulating bank records so consumers wonder whether their deposits are safe. (The newest novel by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, The Paladin, published just this week, revolves around a plot to manipulate financial markets.) The economic implications of such attacks could be paralyzing.
We’ve also seen mild versions of this in the real world: In 2013, hackers aligned with the Syrian Electronic Army compromised the Twitter account of The Associated Press and tweeted out that a bomb had exploded at the White House and injured President Barack Obama; the stock market lost more than $100 billion before the tweet was corrected.
Even more insidious for democracy are the threats that come as the country enters the election season this fall. Security experts have been warning of all manner of data manipulation attacks that could lead to ongoing or permanent questions about the accuracy of election results. While actually altering votes at scale would prove challenging, it could be comparatively easy to alter the reported vote totals on a secretary of state website or a news site, or to post images—real or fake—of hacking a single machine.
Experts like Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron have also raised alarms about “deepfakes,” doctored audio or video driven by artificial intelligence that could literally put words in people’s mouths or place them in physical locations where they never were. Simpler “dumbfakes” or “cheap fakes” have proven effective: Trump supporters have circulated both a slowed-down video of Nancy Pelosi, meant to make her appear cognitively impaired, and a sped-up video that made CNN’s Jim Acosta appear to aggressively hit a White House intern. Much more sophisticated techniques already are on public display: One entirely doctored State Farm ad during ESPN’s Chicago Bulls documentary, “The Last Dance,” featured 1998 SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne predicting the existence of the documentary in the future. Pete Buttigieg’s chief information security officer explained that part of the campaign’s flood-the-zone media coverage was to ensure that there was documentation of almost all of his time in public or private as a way to combat any deepfakes that might surface later.
The business, political and geopolitical mischief possible with manipulated data, audio or video is almost limitless; think manufactured video of Jeff Bezos—whose personal life has already apparently been the target of sophisticated adversaries and extortion plots—using a racial slur; grainy fake video or audio of Joe Biden admitting to assaulting Tara Reade; grainy video of Trump saying he plans to nuke Iran in one hour; or even Anthony Fauci saying that he’s doctoring the Covid death tolls. Given the persistence of conspiracy theories, and the fact that they now have a megaphone in the White House, it’s easy to imagine that certain lies, once let out of the genie’s bottle, will never fully be stopped.
(COULD IMPACT THE U.S. WITHIN THE NEXT 15 YEARS)
Biosecurity—the emergency planner’s term of art—is really just a broad term for our response to biological events, which could include at least four types of troubling incidents: Natural events (like the Covid-19 pandemic), lab accidents, bioterrorism and biological warfare. Advancing technology and the expanding human population has made the risk from all four threats grow.
Increased human encroachment on wild habitats, growing urban densities and agricultural practices continue to make naturally occurring infections—like the novel coronavirus—more apt to leap from animals to humans and spread more rapidly. Despite repeated temporary crackdowns, so-called wet markets, offering fresh meat and fish, persist in China and elsewhere.
And while, contrary to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s hints, the Covid-19 virus is likely to have emerged from a Wuhan wet market rather than a lab accident, lab accidents actually have a longer and more worrisome history than many people realize. “There’s a surprisingly long list of accidental releases from labs,” says Jason Matheny, who heads the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University and formerly led IARPA, the intelligence community’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, tasked with anticipating and countering emerging threats. He says, “An increasing amount of my anxiety budget is spent worrying about lab accidents.”
In 1979, anthrax leaked from a Soviet research facility in Sverdlovsk, killing perhaps a hundred people, after an air filter was incorrectly installed. More recently, a series of mistakes and accidents at biolabs for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2009 to 2014, involved Ebola, anthrax and avian flu. “The incident summary reads like a screenplay for a disaster movie,” one biosafety expert said at the time. The National Institutes of Health has historically carried out experiments aimed at making the H5N1 influenza strain more transmissible—in an effort to understand how to combat it better—but the research was considered so high-risk that the government put a moratorium on it in 2014. That moratorium, though, has since been lifted. “A single accident there could lead to a pandemic,” Matheny says.
Advancing technology has also made it easier for rogue actors to manufacture bioweapons. A Japanese cult in 1995 released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway, killing 12 and injuring a thousand; minor errors kept them from being far deadlier. In 2001, there was the spate of anthrax letters in the weeks after 9/11, eventually traced to a disgruntled government scientist. But such events, with today’s technology, might be child’s play. New superviruses or extinct diseases could emerge from a lab whether on purpose or by accident. In 2016, two virologists synthesized an extinct strain of horsepox—99 percent similar to smallpox—with $100,000. “That’s the destructive power of a hydrogen bomb for $100,000,” Matheny says.
The Covid pandemic has made clear the potential economic or societal cost of even small-scale biological incidents; even if they don’t kill that many people, the possibility of getting sick—or worse—undermines the public’s confidence in participating in everyday life. Speaking from her home, where she’s sheltering in place from Covid, Gordon explains, “Where bioterrorism comes in, like pandemics, is the fear—can I go out anymore? Much as any threat you can’t see, it can create the kind of paralyzing, nondescript fear that makes you unwilling to do things.”
Wilder—and more dangerous—frontiers of science lie ahead. None of this begins to explore the coming challenges stemming from advances in human genomic modification or the unintended consequences or active misuse of CRISPR gene-editing technologies. “There are dramatic changes to society possible as you think about the ability to radically enhance intelligence genetically,” Matheny says. “About half of the variants of intellect appear to be heritable. That kind of eugenics would mean some pretty dramatic societal tensions.” Matheny warns that there are plausible scenarios where there’s a strong first-mover advantage for nations willing to slice and dice the DNA of the next generation. Moreover, whereas most people’s imaginations do leap to the idea of genetic magic of creating super-humans, that wouldn’t necessarily be the goal of every regime: Authoritarian states like North Korea might actually use advanced genomic tools to self-select for particularly docile traits that would preserve internal political stability.
Lastly—but hardly most mundane—there are the threats posed by traditional biological weapons programs by nation-states. While a United Nations treaty theoretically prohibits development of such weapons, the State Department issues an annual report on other nations’ compliance and even the news in the public, unclassified version is not good. The most recent 2019 report listed concerns about biological programs by all four of the U.S.’ major adversaries—Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Matheny says he was once horrified to read that the U.N.’s annual budget for enforcing and policing the biological weapons convention was just $1 million, with four staff. He couldn’t believe it, so he checked with the U.N.—and indeed the stat was wrong: It’s actually just three staff.
The U.N. is hardly alone. Biopreparedness, unfortunately, is an area that has been uniquely neglected by the U.S. government, too. As a 2011 New York Times Magazine investigation concluded: “Today, there are more than two dozen Senate-confirmed individuals with some responsibility for biodefense. Not one person has it for a full-time job, and no one is in charge.”
Since the 2016 election attack by Russia, public attention has focused on cyberattacks. In 2018, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said, “It was in the months prior to September 2001 when, according to then-CIA Director George Tenet, the system was blinking red. And here we are nearly two decades later, and I’m here to say the warning lights are blinking red again. Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.” Ironically, this year’s biennial FEMA National Level Exercise, the government’s biggest preparedness event, was designed to drill for a widespread cyberattack by Russia but was canceled in March due to the pandemic. It included a scenario that saw the Kremlin’s hackerstarget U.S. electrical production and knock portions of the country’s power grid offline.
Russia in particular has been building and testing a playbook to upend modern life: It has knocked out the Ukrainian power grid, frozen the operations of multinational companies and cost them hundreds of millions in damages, and disrupted and pillaged multilateral institutions. North Korea also unleashed the WannaCry ransomware that caused global system outages—including knocking large parts of the UK’s National Health System offline—and cost billions.
The risk is getting only worse: The more wired everyday society becomes, the more reliant it is on interlocking technology systems that were never designed with security in mind.
Take satellites. The Trump administration’s much-mocked embrace of the Space Force has obscured the real calls of alarm from national security officials about the rising vulnerability of the satellite systems overhead, everything from the GPS network—which underpins gas pumps and Uber, ATMs and stock trades—to weather satellites, surveillance satellites, early warning satellites that monitor for ballistic missile launches and communication satellites. In recent years, China and Russia have been developing new anti-satellite weapons as well as competing navigation satellite networks. (The American GPS system has traditionally been used universally around the world.) “The fact that Russia and China are a minute away from their own GPS systems, now all of a sudden that protection by shared need is obliterated,” Gordon says. “The degradation of that service to the point where it’s no longer reliable—put aside the societal and economic impacts, your military deterrence is gone.”
You don’t need a bad actor to bring devastating, paralyzing results.
The increasing complexity and interconnectedness of the various networks that power everyday life increases the chances of what JasonMatheny calls a “digital flubber” incident—the possibility of an autonomous system working as intended, yet spiraling and cascading with unintended and unforeseen consequences. Think the 2010 “flash crash” on Wall Street led by algorithmic trading systems that over-responded to a falling stock market and triggered a massive, momentary sell-off—or the way that quirks in automatic listings on Amazon and bot-driven price wars can result in a used science book being offered for sale for $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping). Similarly, the 2003 power blackout that blanketed the Northeast and Canada, affecting more than 50 million people, was triggered by a system at Ohio’s FirstEnergy misresponding to a single power line brushing against overgrown trees.
These problems are often correctable in hindsight—the Wall Street Journal noted this week that the more resilient systems and safeguards put into place after the 2010 flash crash have largely worked during the stock market’s roller-coaster ups and downs amid the Covid-19 crisis. But the unforeseen effects of similar events will almost certainly increase as the universe of so-called Internet of Things (IoT) expands and more autonomous systems are adopted in our daily lives.
There’s also the threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) frying the guts of the globe’s circuitry. While most serious thinkers downplay the idea that a rogue nation or terrorist group could launch a devastating EMP—a threat that’s a favorite boogeyman of Newt Gingrich and others—scientists do fear unexpected solar storms could knock out electrical systems on Earth. As a 2017 commission concluded, “NASA estimates the likelihood of such an event to be 10 [percent] to 12 percent per decade, making it very likely that Earth will be affected by a solar superstorm within a matter of decades. Such an event could black out electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures, putting at risk the lives of many millions.”
The worst-case scenario—whether brought on by a manmade cyberattack or a so-called Geomagentic Disturbance (GMD) from space—is the physical destruction of critical infrastructure, particularly power generation equipment; one government test at the Idaho National Lab in 2007, nicknamed Aurora, horrified policymakers as it demonstrated how an attacker could lead a commercial generator to self-destruct. Just as the nation (and the world) has struggled to boost manufacturing capacity for health care protective equipment, those large-scale generators that undergird the power grid require months to manufacture, and any incident that knocked out dozens or scores of generators might leave portions of the country in the black for months or longer. As a former senior government official explains, “A lot of our power grid problems have the ventilator problem—our transformers and big physical power infrastructure, we simply can’t replace them. The lead time to build these things is not in months. If you don’t have them, you don’t have them.”
Luckily, this is one area in which the government and private industry has been dedicating meaningful resources. The federal government has been working with companies that own critical infrastructure, like utilities, to harden and insulate their systems from solar storms. “We’ve been buying down a decent amount of risk,” says Bob Kolasky, head of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Risk Management Center. “There’s a lot you can do to mitigate the impact on infrastructure, and our predictive capability has increased. We could have 48 to 72 hours of warning, which if you have a mitigation plan, there are things you can do to minimize the impact.”
ONGOING CATASTROPHIC THREATS
(LIKELY TO IMPACT THE U.S. ANYTIME WITHIN THE NEXT 50 YEARS)
Nuclear weapons always end up at the top of government risk lists, but it’s easy for the public to forget. “The persistent risk of nuclear war is something that we have anxiety fatigue from,” Matheny says. “We grow tired of talking about nuclear war.”
The specific nuclear threat has morphed considerably over the past few decades. In the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and after 9/11, officials worried about a “loose nuke,” a weapon stolen or purchased on the black market in the hands of a terror group or other rogue actors. But the U.S. government, through bipartisan initiatives like the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, helped secure and often remove entirely warehouses full of nuclear material and weapons across the former Soviet Union. Similarly, after 9/11, years of hard work by the government to dismantle, isolate and downgrade the capabilities of groups like al Qaeda and later, ISIS, have largely allowed the weapons of mass destruction threat from terrorists to wane.
“The good news in a nutshell is that efforts to secure and reduce the weapons and the materials for weapons has worked. There are many hundreds of fewer tons of material out there,” says Joseph Cirincione, head of the Ploughshares Fund, which has long monitored the nuclear threat. “The supply is down, the demand is down, that’s why you don’t see nuclear terrorism high on many lists right now.”
Ironically, he says, the biggest challenge 30 years after the end of the Cold War has once again become nation-states. “These threats have not gone away, not just loose nukes, but the threats from existing nuclear arsenals—that is highly controlled nuclear weapons,” Cirincione says. “We’re at risk of unintended wars.”
Nuclear arms control scholar Jeffrey Lewis published two years ago a speculative novel, modeled on the 9/11 Commission Report, entitled, “The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States,” imagining an entirely plausible scenario in which the U.S. and North Korea stumble their way into a nuclear exchange. Such a miscalculated Armageddon could also arise with Russia or China. “We tend to underestimate the risk of accidental nuclear war,” Matheny says. “Most of what I learned about nuclear weapons systems makes me more worried [about an accidental war], not less worried.”
A survey of the current nuclear landscape leaves plenty to be worried about. With little public attention, a new superpower nuclear arms race is building; the Trump administration is pouring billions of dollars into nuclear weapons and is allowing key arms-controls treaties, like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and Open Skies, to crumble amid disputes with Russia. “They’re discontinuing the policy of previous administrations of decreasing the number of nuclear weapons out there,” Cirincione says.
Elsewhere, Iran is rapidly restarting its nuclear program, after the Trump administration walked away from the multilateral nuclear deal. Plus, there’s always the threat of instability in South Asia, where tensions between the nuclear-armed nations of India and Pakistan remain ever volatile. “Many of us have been surprised [nuclear war there] hasn’t happened yet. Every war game has that conflict going nuclear,” Cirincione says. “That’s not so low probability.”
An attack by North Korea on the United States might successfully land a handful of nuclear missiles on major U.S. cities—although its missile accuracy is suspect—with a death toll likely in the hundreds of thousands, or low millions. Tens of millions or hundreds of millions might die in a full-scale nuclear exchange with China or Russia. Complicated scenarios begin to unfold if an adversary initially targets a U.S. ally; would the U.S. launch a nuclear strike, and risk one in response, if North Korea nuked South Korea or Japan? What if Iran targeted Riyadh or Jerusalem? The challenge with nuclear weapons for decades has been escalation; repeated war games show there’s not much incentive to turn “off” a nuclear war once it starts. The result of any of this would be catastrophic: “By whatever means, a nuclear explosion in a populated area is very difficult to imagine and would have so many ripple effects societally,” Gordon says.
The conclusion, backed up in the final scene of the 1983 classic, WarGames, is that the only way to not lose a nuclear war is never to have one in the first place. One move on the horizon that would lower the global nuclear threat: Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Adam Smith have introduced bills to legislate that the U.S. will never be the first in a conflict to use nuclear weapons—a law that would curb the currently entirely unchecked power that Trump and his predecessors since Harry Truman have had to launch weapons unilaterally without provocation or even double-checking with the Defense secretary, Congress or anyone else. For now, though, roughly 1,000 U.S. nuclear weapons remain on alert, ready to fire within about five minutes of a phone call from Trump.
Just a few short months ago, even as news trickled out of China about the early spread of the novel coronavirus, climate change was dominating news headlines as historic, apocalyptic wildfires blanketed Australia. The effects of a warming climate are going to increasingly dominate global policy and affect human lives—both in the short term, as natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires worsen, and in the longer term as climates, sea levels, and food and water supplies shift.
Experts warn that Australia’s wildfires might become the new norm, same with “superstorm” hurricanes like Sandy and Katrina. Beyond individual disasters, though, are systemic changes in ocean currents, climates and sea levels that will have profound effects on where humans can live and grow food. Sea level rise alone has the potential to drive massive global instability, resource competition and a forced tide of human migration unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Some 600 million people live at sea level—many in already stressed, economically and resource-poor countries like Bangladesh. Projections that oceans over the coming decades will rise by as much as 6 feet or more threaten to put tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of humans into motion. As a comparison point, the Syrian refugee crisis, which has already emerged as one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of the past century and destabilized European alliances and governments as they struggled to respond, involved a comparatively small 5 million refugees.
Climate change, in short, is a recipe for a seemingly never-ending series of humanitarian disasters and geopolitical instability. That’s why warnings about the dire effects of shifting climate trends are increasingly coming from places far beyond the scientific community. Last year’s Worldwide Threat Assessment from the U.S. intelligence community said: “Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards … are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security.”
Averting the worst-case scenarios of climate change appears increasingly unlikely, especially given the U.S.’s ongoing unwillingness to engage seriously on the subject globally and China’s continued, environment-be-damned growth. Scientists calculate that the world needs to decrease carbon emissions by 7 percent a year—compounding year over year—for roughly the next decade to avert the worst-case warming scenarios. What will that take? Consider this: Covid-19 has brought much of the globe’s economy to a standstill and emptied the skies of aircraft and roads of cars, and this hiatus will decrease carbon emissions in 2020 by only around 8 percent. Even the highly ambitious, much-vaunted and much-controversial “Green New Deal” is dwarfed by the reality of change necessary ahead; even a proposed $119 billion sea wall for New York City may not be enough to protect Manhattan.
What’s more, geopolitical instability and societal unrest caused by climate change will increase the risk of manmade threats—a nuclear exchange, a widespread cyberattack or a vicious new biosecurity incident. Countries and leaders desperate for dwindling resources can get rambunctious; the Syrian refugee crisis, a mild taste of what may come, has already helped fuel the rise of nationalism, racism and authoritarian regimes across Europe. It’s all too easy to begin to play out scenarios where, say, changing climates and political unrest in the Middle East fuels a crisis that leads to nuclear escalation.
After all, none of these threats exist—or would unfold—in a geopolitical vacuum, as the Covid pandemic is showing us today.
The mounting human death toll and unfolding financial calamity of the current pandemic is one thing. But the ripple effects will last for years—and given the country’s bumbled handling of the virus itself, it seems an open question whether we’re in a strong position to respond and confront what comes after it.
The global reordering of power that has been underway for the past decade—as America retrenches, China grows and Europe’s democratic unity weakens—will only accelerate as the world’s leading economies rethink their economic strategies, political alliances and confront what, at best, might be a yearslong recession.
Gordon says she’s increasingly worried that the U.S. might not meet that moment, paralyzed by partisan politics, a hide-bound bureaucracy, growing income inequality and population trends—like shrinking birthrates and a cutback on immigration—that will yield a rapidly aging population. “Our institutions are not keeping up with the turn of the Earth, and they’re being devalued in the moment,” she says. “Society requires government, yet we’re running out of the structures that make it work.“
Moreover, the country’s ongoing, disastrous response to the pandemic—by almost any measure one of the worst in the developed world—is sending a clear message to other countries that the U.S. can no longer be counted on to lead global conversations. The U.S. didn’t even show up to a massive international vaccine virtual summit this week.
The U.S., if current trends continue, might find that it finally beats the virus in a year or two—but emerges from the pandemic no longer the world leader economically, politically or morally that it’s been for the past 75 years. The world, in turn, may discover in this moment that it doesn’t need the U.S. in the way that it thought it did. That could be even more true if a Covid vaccine emerges first in China or Europe.
There are massive economic, societal and security benefits that come from being the world’s leading superpower. What happens if we’re not anymore? Imagine a U.S. that doesn’t attract top talent. What if the next great innovations happen in Europe or Asia instead of Silicon Valley? What if Chinese venture capitalists get first crack at the hottest deals in the world?
Losing political or financial power also means being forced to make tough trade-offs as the U.S. finds itself unable to invest in critical projects. “We may be forced to make economic choices post-catastrophe that expose our flank on communications, for instance,” Gordon says. “It used to be that we had so much power, it didn’t matter if we left our flanks exposed. Now what happens when we’re in a world where that … gap is much smaller?”
The U.S. already finds itself in the challenging position with regard to 5G, the next phase of cellphone technologies. The U.S. is trying to discourage Western allies from adopting the advanced technology developed by China’s Huawei, but is unable to provide an alternative. What if the U.S. can’t stop its allies from using China’s digital infrastructure? What if the U.S. is forced to use it itself? “This has always been my concern with Huawei. … You’re turning over control of your most critical infrastructure to an adversary who you implicitly do not trust and has demonstrated it does not deserve your trust,” says Christopher Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is in charge of protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure.
Gordon says, “Covid has proved we need institutions. And yet, our bureaucracies are proving increasingly ineffective, in part because the speed of decision-making that is required. We need to reimagine and rebuild. Who are the leaders who are going to come in and do that? My catastrophic event is the failure of bureaucracy to provide the governance our society needs, keeping true to our values.”
For emergency planners, there’s a simple maxim: “If you’re ready for an earthquake, you’re ready for a lot of different things,” Barb Graff (no relation), head of emergency management in Seattle, once told me. But for her in Seattle, it’s also a necessity: The most real threat the Pacific Northwest faces is a megathrust earthquake along what’s known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
California’s “Big One,” along the San Andreas Fault, gets most of the attention, but there are three other U.S. faults that cause emergency planners perhaps even more heartburn.
First, the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a fault about 700 miles off the Pacific Coast of Oregon and Washington, or what the New Yorker called in 2015, “The Really Big One.” The fault, when it goes, might unleash “only” an earthquake between 8 and 8.6 magnitude, which itself would rank as one of the most powerful and destructive quakes to ever hit the United States. But a so-called full margin rupture of the fault would prove truly catastrophic, potentially topping 9.0. Beyond the quake’s damage from the shaking, it could cause a multihundred-mile tsunami to inundate the West Coast with just 15 minutes warning. FEMA’s projections show 13,000 initial deaths from the quake and the tsunami, and upward of a million people displaced. These are hardly abstract threats; geologists say there’s a 1-in-3 chance of an 8.0 earthquake in the region in the next 50 years. “The amount of devastation is going to be unbelievable,” Oregon geologist Rob Witter said in 2009, after calculating that a full 9.0 quake has a 10 percent to 14 percent chance of occurring in the next half century. “People aren’t going to be ready for this.”
Second, the New Madrid Seismic Zone—named for a Missouri town and running from Arkansas up to Illinois—has historically produced the strongest earthquakes in the lower-48 states. In the winter of 1811-1812, a series of three quakes shifted land more than 15 feet, liquified the ground and caused whole islands to disappear. In a 2019 regional exercise, known as “Shaken Fury,” local, state and federal officials drilled on how to respond to a 7.7 magnitude New Madrid earthquake. Daniel Kaniewski, a managing director at Marsh & McLennan who until February served as the No. 2 at FEMA, recalls visiting one major state emergency operations centers and discovering that officials there refused to even simulate a quake of that strength; they’d determined that the local devastation would be so great that emergency planners would have no adequate response, even in a tabletop exercise.“Just the exercise alone could so tax the system that there wouldn’t be valuable lessons learned,” he recalls. “That earthquake is one that we as a nation are very vulnerable to.”
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the New Madrid Seismic Zone has roughly a 7 percent to 10 percent chance of a catastrophic-level 8.0 quake in the next 50 years, but given the region’s lack of preparedness, weaker building codes than California, and a civilian population largely unaware, even a 6.0 earthquake—which has a 25 percent to 40 percent chance of occurring in the next half-century—might prove devastating.
“What has been so unique about Covid is the national impact—it’s the first time we’ve seen simultaneous emergency declarations in all 50 states—and the closest thing to that level is a New Madrid event. It would be a large-scale significant disruption across the heartland—a lot of your protein production, your food and agriculture, goods that get shipped via the Mississippi, or across the country on tractor-trailers,” Krebs says.
Third, and probably least known of all, is the Wasatch fault zone, stretching across Utah and Idaho, tracing the rough outline of the Salt Lake Valley, and which has been active even just in recent days; in March, it recorded a 5.7 magnitude quake. “The earthquake in Idaho and Utah was a big wake-up call,” Phoenix, the volcanologist, says. Larger earthquakes in the region might quickly prove devastating. “Wasatch is every bit as concerning as a Southern California quake, not simply because of the magnitude potential but because of the vulnerabilities present there,” Kaniewski says. “Much of the building construction in Salt Lake City is unreinforced masonry—URM—and it crumbles when a quake happens.”
Of course, California’s “Big One,” whenever it arrives, will be no walk in the park either. In 2008, the U.S. government released the results of an extensive, multiyear effort by 300 experts to model a devastating earthquake in Southern California. Known as the “Great California Shakeout,” the report modeled a 7.8 earthquake on a southern portion of the San Andreas Fault that last shook in 1690. “The Shakeout” would result in 1,800 deaths, 50,000 injuries, and more than $200 billion in damage; many of the deaths would come in the fires afterward. The U.S. Geological Survey currently estimates that there is a 60 percent chance of a 6.7 magnitude or larger quake in the next 30 years in Los Angeles and a 72 percent chance of a 6.7 or larger quake in San Francisco.
As Krebs, Kaniewski and Graff all point out, any major quake isn’t just about the shaking—it’s a regional economic calamity and humanitarian crisis delivered without warning in just a minute or two. The systemic impacts are huge; the headquarters and major operations of the nation’s four trillion-dollar companies—Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Google—exist in these high-risk quake zones, and much of the nation’s imports and exports come into ports on the West Coast that could be rendered unusable by a large quake.
Then of course there’s the most frightening scenario emergency planners could face this year: several of the above. As FEMA preps for a hurricane season made all the more complex by the Covid outbreak, it faces the entirely foreseeable (even likely) possibility of confronting three or more large-scale disasters unfolding simultaneously this summer and fall: Wildfires out West, hurricanes in the Atlantic, and Covid-19 anywhere and everywhere. Add in the always-real possibility of, say, an earthquake (Kaniewski’s maxim, informed by his years working in FEMA, is simply, “It’s always earthquake season.”) a string of powerful tornadoes, or a geopolitical event like a cyberattack, as Phoenix says, “You get the exponential growth of awful.”
Matheny says one of the primary worries many forecasters have is just how little we actually know about the world around us. As science and technology advance, we’re constantly learning about new threats and pushing the boundaries of human interactions with the physical world.
It may seem easy now to dismiss scientists on the Manhattan Project who considered the theoretical possibility that the first nuclear test—the so-called TRINITY blast in New Mexico—might ignite Earth’s atmosphere (it didn’t) or those who worry that the Large Hadron Collider experiment might open a black hole on Earth (it hasn’t—so far), but there are all manner of unimaginable things that could pose an existential threat to modern society. “It’s worrisome how many catastrophic risks have been discovered only relatively recently, like supervolcanoes and space weather,” Matheny says. “There’s a lot we don’t understand.”
No one knew that the Cascadia Subduction Zone even existed half a century ago, and when scientists in the 1980s first posited it was responsible for mega-earthquakes, they were met with skepticism. Now it stands as the nation’s possible biggest natural disaster-in-waiting of all time.
The unknown is particularly challenging for policymakers and business leaders, who are often driven by short-term incentives like elections and shareholders, often causing them to be more reactive than active. “The fact that we don’t have any large-scale effort to understand existential threats to the U.S. or the world seems like a failure,” Matheny observes.“We’re already not that great at prioritizing risks that we know about; we’re even more negligent thinking about risks that we haven’t categorized that are over the horizon.”
Moreover, Gordon says, advances in science leave us exposed to structural challenges we have never even considered. “I always worried about what would happen if we discovered that DNA could be manipulated—what does that do to our legal system?” she says. “If our adversaries did something that forced us to consider whether anything DNA-wise could be trusted in our legal system, what does that do to our ability to seek justice?”
Richard Clarke, a former White House national security official during the Clinton and Bush administrations, proposed in his 2017 book, Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes, establishing a “National Warning Office” to work on imagining such risks. The closest modern-day analogue might be the Department of Homeland Security’s National Risk Management Center, part of the new Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is trying to master and define the nation’s critical functions, understand how the U.S. economy actually works and overlay those systems with how they’d be impacted by various events, from cyberattacks to earthquakes. Last year, CISA published a list of 55 critical functions, things like generating electricityto conducting elections to transporting cargo. “We are working to get a better understanding of the infrastructure itself,” explains Krebs, CISA’s founding director. “And then you start layering the scenarios on top.”
Identifying those critical functions to keep the economy humming is especially important as every disaster seems to unveil new, unexpected and unknown interconnections between supply chains and industries. The long-term power outage in Puerto Rico that followed Hurricane Maria led to unexpected national shortages of IV bags and saline for hospitals because the nation’s main manufacturing plants were located there. The Covid crisis, similarly, is making clear how seemingly mundane business moves—like the market consolidation of the meatpacking industry—can lead to large-scale consequences in a disaster: Today, pork and beef are running short in large sections of the country.
“It’s highly likely that we’re not going to see the next thing coming, so we need to build more resilience into our society and ensure we’re adaptive to whatever comes,” Matheny says. “The fact that everything is unraveling amid what’s actually a relatively mild pandemic does not bode well.”