Skip main navigation


In this activity, Professor Derek Raine looks at how we can distinguish the components of risk and impacts of potential 'mega-problems'.
Photo of air pollution from smoke stacks
© University of Leicester

To begin to understand the consequences of mega-problems, we need to distinguish the components of risk and impacts.

  1. Hazards: First we identify hazards – things that can go wrong. Let’s identify for the sake of argument, air pollution.

  2. Vulnerability: different sectors of the population might differ in the effect of air pollution, for example, the very young and very old might be more vulnerable.

  3. Exposure: With little exposure to a hazard the associated risk is clearly low. People who live in cities might be more exposed to air pollution than those in rural areas.

  4. Impact: The risk associated with air pollution is the combined effect of vulnerability and exposure. The combined effect may be low (for example being middle-aged and living in the country) so the risk is low. That is NOT the same as saying that the impact will be low: I might have a low risk of dying, but my death would have a fairly large impact (at least on me). I have a very high risk of catching a cold, but its impact would be small.

In the previous step we ordered the hazards in order of significance. This time, rate them in order of both risk and then impact.

You can view the combined results here.

1. Global Warming 9. Growth of Shantycities
2. Excessive Population Growth 10. Unstoppable Global Migrations
3. Water Shortages 11. Non-State Actors with Extreme Weapons
4. Destruction of Life in the Oceans 12. Violent Religious Extremism
5. Mass Famine in Ill-Organised Countries 13. Runaway Computer Intelligence
6. The Spread of Deserts 14. War That Could End Civilisation
7. Pandemics 15. Risks to Homo Sapiens’ Existence
8. Extreme Poverty 16. A New Dark Age


Add hazards to your SWOT analysis. You might want to use Martin’s mega-problems as a basis but be selective, use your own words and add any others you think are important.

© University of Leicester
This article is from the free online

Concepts in Sustainable Development: An Introduction to the Key Issues

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education