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Illustrated portrait of Christine Parthemore Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Christine Parthemore is training a generation to tackle a world of interlocking threats

The CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks wants us to be better prepared for overlapping existential risks.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The policy world in Washington, DC, is big on specialization. Either you’re a nukes person or a bioweapons person; a climate person or an AI person. All these people will, of course, concede that their area of specialization intersects deeply with others, that the future of pandemics, say, is inextricably linked to changes in the climate that could worsen disease transmission. But it’s an unwritten rule that people stay in their lanes and avoid crossing these dividing lines in their work.

Christine Parthemore is the exception to this rule. She and the think tank she leads, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR), focus on the myriad risks to our existence. These extreme risks range from nuclear proliferation to biodefense to climate-based security dangers — all with a baseline assumption that these issues are deeply interconnected. Prior to joining CSR, Parthemore worked as a senior adviser in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs from 2011 to 2015, which required her to focus on the intersections between those types of threats. “It’s rare to meet someone who has an extensive breadth of knowledge on such seemingly disparate topics,” Anjali Gopal, a bioengineering researcher and mentee of Parthemore’s, says.

Parthemore is particularly interested in what a world that is battling multiple severe risks simultaneously looks like — and how it can fall apart. “When a lot of bad stressors occur at the same time and to the same communities, it can start to break down the resilience of our political, economic, social, and other systems,” she said in a recent podcast interview. “You get to the point of systemic failure.”

Under Parthemore’s tenure, CSR has proposed plans on everything from creating a global early warning system for pandemics to abolishing “tactical” nuclear weapons built for use on battlefields (like, if things go badly awry, Ukraine) and preparing the Defense and State Departments for security threats arising due to climate change. These are not just idle ideas on a page; the latter plan, for instance, has sign-on from 79 high-profile security leaders, including eight retired four-star generals and admirals as well as former directors of National Intelligence and the CIA.

“She brings a rare understanding of the way these risks intersect and intensify each other,” says Carl Robichaud, a veteran of the nuclear policy world now at Longview Philanthropy. “She’s an exceptional leader and strategic thinker with a knack for cutting through the clutter and focusing on what can realistically be done to make us safer.”

She’s also known as an unusually active guide for people starting out working on these risks. “Christine is an incredibly accessible and supportive mentor,” says Jassi Pannu, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and former fellow at CSR. “She and the organization she leads are now laser-focused on building the next generation of policy leaders working on these issues. She does this with all the warmth and generosity of a mama bear.”

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