Not Cool: A Climate Podcast

FLI is excited to announce the latest in our podcast line-up: Not Cool: A Climate Podcast! In this new series, hosted by Ariel Conn, we’ll hear directly from climate experts from around the world, as they answer every question we can think of about the climate crisis. And we’ve launched it just in time for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, which begins on September 23.

You can listen to the short trailer above that highlights what we’ll be covering in the coming months, or read the transcript below. And of course you can jump right in to the first episode — all podcasts for this series can be found at futureoflife.org/notcool. You can also always listen to all FLI podcasts on any of your favorite podcast platforms just by searching for “Future of Life Institute.” The Not Cool podcasts are all there, and we’ll be releasing new episodes every Tuesday and Thursday for at least the next couple of months. We hope these interviews will help you better understand the science and policies behind the climate crisis and what we can all do to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

We want to make sure we get your questions answered too! If you haven’t had a chance to fill out our survey about what you want to learn about climate change, please consider doing so now, and let us know what you’d like to learn.

Transcript

This is really the issue of our times, and our children and grandchildren will not forgive us if we don’t contain this problem.

~Jessica Troni, Senior Programme Officer, UN Environment-Global Environment Facility Climate Change Adaptation portfolio.

Climate change, to state the obvious, is a huge and complicated problem. The crisis is a problem so big it’s being studied by people with PhDs in meteorology, geology, physics, chemistry, psychology, economics, political science, and more. It’s a problem that needs to be tackled at every level, from individual action to international cooperation. It’s a problem that seems daunting, to say the least. Yet it’s a problem that must be solved. And that’s where hope lies. You see, as far as existential threats to humanity go, climate change stands out as being particularly solvable. Challenging? Yes. But not impossible.

The trends are bad. I will quote René Dubos who said, however, “Trends are not destiny.” So the trends are bad, but we can change the trends.

~Suzanne Jones, Mayor, Boulder CO // Executive Director, Eco-Cycle

Unlike the threats posed by artificial intelligence, biotechnology or nuclear weapons, you don’t need to have an advanced science degree or be a high-ranking government official to start having a meaningful impact on your own carbon footprint. Each of us can begin making lifestyle changes today that will help. The people you vote into office at all levels of government, from local to national, can each  influence and create better climate policies. But this is a problem for which every action each of us takes truly does help.

When you have a fractal, complicated, humongous, super wicked problem like this, it means there’s some facet of it that every person on the planet can do something about it. Artist, communicator, teacher, engineer, entrepreneur. There’s something in it for everybody.

~Andrew Revkin, Head of Initiative on Communication and Sustainability, Columbia University // Science & Environmental Journalist

I’m Ariel Conn, and I’m the host of Not Cool, a climate podcast that dives deep into understanding both the climate crisis and the solutions. I started this podcast because the news about climate change seems to get worse with each new article and report, but the solutions, at least as reported, remain vague and elusive. I wanted to hear from the scientists and experts themselves to learn what’s really going on and how we can all come together to solve this crisis. And so I’ll be talking with climate experts from around the world, including scientists, journalists, policy experts and more, to learn the problems climate change poses, what we know and what’s still uncertain about our future climate, and what we can all do to help put the brakes on this threat.

We’ll look at some of the basic science behind climate change and global warming, like the history of climate modeling, what the carbon cycle is, what tipping points are and whether we’ve already passed some, what extreme weather events are and why they’re getting worse. We’ll look at the challenges facing us, from political inertia to technical roadblocks. We’ll talk about the impacts on human health and lifestyles from the spread of deadly diseases to national security threats to problems with zoning laws. We’ll learn about geoengineering, ocean acidification, deforestation, and how local communities can take action, regardless of what’s happening at the federal level.

I think the most important thing that every single person can do is talk more about climate change.  Social momentum is the key to political momentum and getting real action.

~John Cook, Founder, SkepticalScience.com // Research Assistant Professor, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University

Let’s start talking. Let’s build momentum. And let’s take real action. Because climate change is so not cool.

Visit futureoflife.org/notcool for a complete list of episodes, which we will be updating every Tuesday and Thursday for at least the next couple of months. And we hope you’ll also join the discussion. You can find us on twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate.

The Climate Crisis as an Existential Threat with Simon Beard and Haydn Belfield

Does the climate crisis pose an existential threat? And is that even the best way to formulate the question, or should we be looking at the relationship between the climate crisis and existential threats differently? In this month’s FLI podcast, Ariel was joined by Simon Beard and Haydn Belfield of the University of Cambridge’s Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), who explained why, despite the many unknowns, it might indeed make sense to study climate change as an existential threat. Simon and Haydn broke down the different systems underlying human civilization and the ways climate change threatens these systems; They also discussed our species’ unique strengths and vulnerabilities — and the ways in which technology has heightened both — with respect to the changing climate.

This month’s podcast helps serve as the basis for a new podcast we’re launching later this month about the climate crisis. We’ll be talking to climate scientists, meteorologists, AI researchers, policy experts, economists, social scientists, journalists, and more to go in depth about a vast array of climate topics. We’ll talk about the basic science behind climate change, like greenhouse gases, the carbon cycle, feedback loops, and tipping points. We’ll discuss various impacts of greenhouse gases, like increased extreme weather events, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, resource conflict, and the possible threat to our own continued existence. We’ll talk about the human causes of climate change and the many human solutions that need to be implemented. And so much more!. If you don’t already subscribe to our podcasts on your preferred podcast platform, please consider doing so now to ensure you’ll be notified when the climate series launches.

We’d also like to make sure we’re covering the climate topics that are of most interest to you. If you have a couple minutes, please fill out a short survey at surveymonkey.com/r/climatepodcastsurvey, and let us know what you want to learn more about.

Topics discussed in this episode include:

  • What an existential risk is and how to classify different threats
  • Systems critical to human civilization
  • Destabilizing conditions and the global systems death spiral
  • How we’re vulnerable as a species
  • The “rungless ladder”
  • Why we can’t wait for technology to solve climate change
  • Uncertainty and how to deal with it
  • How to incentivize more creative science
  • What individuals can do

References discussed in this episode include:

Want to get involved? CSER is hiring! Find a list of openings here.

Ariel Conn: Hi everyone and welcome to another episode of the FLI podcast. I’m your host, Ariel Conn, and I am especially excited about this month’s episode. Not only because, as always, we have two amazing guests joining us, but also because this podcast helps lay the groundwork for an upcoming series we’re releasing on climate change.

There’s a lot of debate within the existential risk community about whether the climate crisis really does pose an existential threat, or if it will just be really, really bad for humanity. But this debate exists because we don’t know enough yet about how bad the climate crisis will get nor about how humanity will react to these changes. It’s very possible that today’s predicted scenarios for the future underestimate how bad climate change could be, while also underestimating how badly humanity will respond to these changes. Yet if we can get enough people to take this threat seriously and to take real, meaningful action, then we could prevent the worst of climate change, and maybe even improve some aspects of life. 

In late August, we’ll be launching a new podcast series dedicated to climate change. I’ll be talking to climate scientists, meteorologists, AI researchers, policy experts, economists, social scientists, journalists, and more to go in depth about a vast array of climate topics. We’ll talk about the basic science behind climate change, like greenhouse gases, the carbon cycle, feedback loops, and tipping points. We’ll discuss various impacts of greenhouse gases, like increased extreme weather events, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, resource conflict, and the possible threat to our own continued existence. We’ll talk about the human causes of climate change and the many human solutions that need to be implemented. And so much more. If you don’t already subscribe to our podcasts on your preferred podcast platform, please consider doing so now to ensure you’ll be notified as soon as the climate series launches.

But first, today, I’m joined by two guests who suggest we should reconsider studying climate change as an existential threat. Dr. Simon Beard and Haydn Belfield are researchers at University of Cambridge’s Center for the Study of Existential Risk, or CSER. CSER is an interdisciplinary research group dedicated to the study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction or a civilizational collapse. They study existential risks, develop collaborative strategies to reduce them, and foster a global community of academics, technologists, and policy makers working to safeguard humanity. Their research focuses on four areas: biological risks, environmental risks, risks from artificial intelligence, and how to manage extreme technological risk in general.

Simon is a senior research associate and academic program manager; He’s a moral philosopher by training. Haydn is a research associate and academic project manager, as well as an associate fellow at the Leverhulme Center for the Future of Intelligence. His background is in politics and policy, including working for the UK Labor party for several years. Simon and Haydn, thank you so much for joining us today.

Simon Beard: Thank you.

Haydn Belfield: Hello, thank you.

Ariel Conn: So I’ve brought you both on to talk about some work that you’re involved with, looking at studying climate change as an existential risk. But before we really get into that, I want to remind people about some of the terminology. So I was hoping you could quickly go over a reminder of what an existential threat is and how that differs from a catastrophic threat and if there’s any other terminology that you think is useful for people to understand before we start looking at the extreme threats of climate change.

Simon Beard: So, we use these various terms as kind of terms of art within the field of existential risk studies, in a sense. We know what we mean by them, but all of them, in a way, are different ways of pointing to the same kind of outcome — which is something unexpectedly, unprecedentedly bad. And, actually, once you’ve got your head around that, different groups have slightly different understandings of what the differences between these three terms are. 

So, for some groups, it’s all about just the scale of badness. So, an extreme risk is one that does a sort of an extreme level of harm; A catastrophic risk does more harm, a catastrophic level of harm. And an existential risk is something where either everyone dies, human extinction occurs, or you have an outcome which is an equivalent amount of harm: Maybe some people survive, but their lives are terrible. Actually, at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, we are concerned about this classification in terms of the cost involved, but we also have coupled that with a slightly different sort of terminology, which is really about systems and the operation of the global systems that surround us.

Most of the systems — be this physiological systems, the world’s ecological system, the social, economic, technological, cultural systems that surround those institutions that we build on — they have a kind of normal space of operation where they do the things that you expect them to do. And this is what human life, human flourishing, and human survival are built on: that we can get food from the biosphere, that our bodies will continue to operate in a way that’s consistent with and supporting our health and our continued survival, and that the institutions that we’ve developed will still work, will still deliver food to our tables, will still suppress interpersonal and international violence, and that we’ll basically, we’ll be able to get on with our lives.

If you look at it that way, then an extreme risk, or an extreme threat, is one that pushes at least one of these systems outside of its normal boundaries of operation and creates an abnormal behavior that we then have to work really hard to respond to. A catastrophic risk is one where that happens, but then that also cascades. Particularly in global catastrophe, you have a whole system that encompasses everyone all around the world, or maybe a set of systems that encompass everyone all around the world, that are all operating in this abnormal state that’s really hard for us to respond to.

And then an existential catastrophe is one where the systems have been pushed into such an abnormal state that either you can’t get them back or it’s going to be really hard. And life as we know it cannot be resumed; We’re going to have to live in a very different and very inferior world, at least from our current way of thinking.

Haydn Belfield: I think that sort of captures it really well. One thing that you could kind of visualize, it might be something like, imagine a really bad endemic. 100 years ago, we had the Spanish flu pandemic that killed 100 million people — that was really bad. But it could be even worse. So imagine one tomorrow that killed a billion people. That would be one of the worst things that’s ever happened to humanity; It would be sort of a global catastrophic risk. But it might not end our story, it might not be the end of our potential. But imagine if it killed everyone, or it killed almost everyone, and it was impossible to recover: That would be an existential risk.

Ariel Conn: So, there’s — at least I’ve seen some debate about whether we want to consider climate change as falling into either a global catastrophic or existential risk category. And I want to start first with an article that, Simon, you wrote back in 2017, to consider this question. The subheading of your article is a question that I think is actually really important. And it was: how much should we care about something that is probably not going to happen? I want to ask you about that — how much should we care about something that is probably not going to happen?

Simon Beard: I think this is really important when you think about existential risk. People’s minds, they want to think about predictions, they want someone who works in existential risk to be a prophet of doom. That is the idea that we have — that you know what the future is going to be like, and it’s going to be terrible, and what you’re saying is, this is what’s going to happen. That’s not how people who work in existential risk operate. We are dealing with risks, and risks are about knowing all the possible outcomes: whether any of those are this severe long term threat, an irrecoverable loss to our species.

And it doesn’t have to be the case that you think that something is the most likely or the most probable as a potential outcome for you to get really worried about the thing that could bring that about. And even a 1% risk of one of these existential catastrophes is still completely unacceptable because of the scale of the threat, and the harm we’re talking about. And because if this happens, there is no going back; It’s not something that we can do a safe experiment with.

So when you’re dealing with risk, you have to deal with probabilities. You don’t have to be convinced that climate change is going to have these effects to really place it on the same level as some of the other existential risks that people talk about — nuclear weapons, and artificial intelligence, and so on — you just need to see that this is possible. We can’t exclude it based on the knowledge that we have at the moment, but it seems like a credible threat with a real chance of materializing. And something that we can do about it, because ultimately the aim of all existential risk research is safety — trying to make the world a safer place and the future of humanity a more certain thing.

Ariel Conn: Before I get into the work that you’re doing now, I want to stick with one more question that I have about this article. I was amused when you sent me the link to it — you sort of prefaced it by saying that you think it’s rather emblematic of some of the problematic ways that we think about climate change, especially as an existential risk, and that your thinking has evolved in the last couple of years since writing this. I was hoping you could just talk a little bit about some of the problems you see with the way we’re thinking about climate change as an x-risk.

Simon Beard: I wrote this paper largely out of a realization that people wanted us to talk about climate change in the next century. And we wanted to talk about it. It’s always up there on the list of risks and threats that people bring up when you talk about existential risk. And so I thought, well, let’s get the ball rolling; Let’s review what’s out there, and the kind of predictions that people who seem to know what they’re talking about have made about this — you know, economists, climate scientists, and so on — and make this case that this suggests there is a credible threat, and we need to take this seriously. And that seemed, at the time, like a really good place to start.

But the more I thought about it afterwards, the more flawed I saw the approach as being. And it’s hard to regret a paper like that, because I’m still convinced that the risk is very real, and people need to take it seriously. But for instance, one of the things that kept on coming up is that when people make predictions about climate change as an existential risk, they’re always very vague. Why is it a risk? What’s the sort of scenarios that we worry about? Where are the danger levels? And they always want to link it to a particular temperature threshold or a particular greenhouse gas trajectory. And that just didn’t strike me as credible, that we would cross a particular temperature threshold and then that would be the end of humanity.

Because of course, a huge amount of the risk that we face depends upon how humanity responds to the changing climate, not just upon climate change. I think people have this idea in their mind that it’ll get so hot, everyone will fry or everyone will die of heat exhaustion. And that’s just not a credible scenario. So there were these really credible scholars, like Marty Weitzman and Ram Ramanathan, who tried to work this out, and have tried to predict what was going to happen. But they seemed to me to be missing a lot, and try and make very precise claims but based on very vague scenarios. So we kind of said at that point, we’re going to stop doing this until we have worked out a better way of thinking about climate change as an existential threat. And we’ve been thinking a lot about this in the intervening 18 months, and that’s where the research that you’re seeing that we’re hoping to publish soon and the desire to do this podcast really come from. So it seems to us that there are kind of three ways that people have gone about thinking about climate change as an existential risk. It’s a really hard question. We don’t really know what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of speculation involved in this.

One of the ways that people have gone about trying to respond to this has just been to speculate, just been to come up with some plausible scenario or pick a temperature number out of the air and say, “Well, that seems about right, if that were to happen that would lead to human extinction, or at least a major disruption of all of these systems that we rely upon. So what’s the risk of that happening, and then we’ll label that as the existential climate threat.” As far as we can tell, there isn’t the research to back up some of these numbers. Many of them conflict: In Ram Ramanathan’s paper he goes for five degrees; In Marty Weitzman’s paper he goes to six degrees; There’s another paper that was produced by Breakthrough where they go for four degrees. There’s kind of quite a lot of disagreement about where the danger levels lie.

And some of it’s just really bad. So there’s this prominent paper by Jem Bendell — he never got it published, but it’s been read like 150,000 times, I think — on adapting to extreme climate change. And he just picks this random scenario where the sea levels rise, a whole bunch of coastal nuclear reactors get inundated with seawater, and they go critical, and this just causes human extinction. That’s not credible in many different ways, not least just that won’t have that much damage. But it just doesn’t seem credible that this slow sea level rise would have this disastrous meltdown effect — we could respond to that. What passes for scientific study and speculation didn’t seem good enough to us.

Then there were some papers which just kind of passed the whole thing by — say, “Well, we can’t come up with a plausible scenario or a plausible threat level, but there just seem to be a lot of bad things going on around there. Given that we know that the climate is changing, and that we are responding to this in a variety of ways, probably quite inadequately, it doesn’t help us to prioritize efforts or really understand the level of risk we face and when maybe some more extreme measures like geoengineering become more appropriate because of the level of risk that we face.”

And then there’s a final set of studies — there have been an increasing number of these; one recently came out in Vox, Anders Sandberg has done one, and Toby Ord talks about one — where people say, “Well, let’s just go for the things that we know, let’s go for the best data and the best studies.” And these usually focus on a very limited number of climate effects, the more direct impacts of things like heat exhaustion, perhaps sometimes the crop failure — but only really looking at the most direct climate impacts and only where there are existing studies. And then they try and extrapolate from that, sometimes using integrated assessment models, sometimes it’s the other kinds of analysis, but usually in quite a straightforward linear economic analysis or epidemiological analysis.

And that also is useful. I don’t want to dis these papers; I think that they provide very useful information for us. But there is no way that that can constitute an adequate risk assessment, given the complexity of the impacts that climate change is having, and the ways in which we’re responding to that. And it’s very easy for people to read these numbers and these figures and conclude, as I think the Vox article did, climate change isn’t an existential risk, it’s just going to kill a lot of people. Well, no, we know it will kill a lot of people, but that doesn’t answer the question about whether it is an existential threat. There are a lot of things that you’re not considering in this analysis. So given that there wasn’t really a good example that we could follow within the literature, we’ve kind of turned it on its head. And we’re now saying, maybe we need to work backwards.

Rather than trying to work forwards from the climate change we’re expecting and the effects that we think that is going to have and then whether these seem to constitute an existential threat, maybe we need to start from the other end and think about what are the conditions that could most plausibly destabilize the global civilization and the continued future of our species? And then work back from them to ask, are there plausible climate scenarios that could bring these about? And there’s already been some interesting work in this area for natural systems, and this kind of global Earth system thinking and the planetary boundaries framework, but there’s been very little work on this done at the social level.

And even less work done when you consider that we rely on both social and natural systems for our survival. So what we really need is some kind of approach that will integrate these two. That’s a huge research agenda. So this is how we think we’re going to proceed in trying to move beyond the limited research that we’ve got available. And now we need to go ahead and actually construct these analysis and do a lot more work in this field. And maybe we’re going to start to be able to produce a better answer.

Ariel Conn: Can you give some examples of the research that has started with this approach of working backwards?

Simon Beard: So there’s been some really interesting research coming out of the Stockholm Resilience Center dealing with natural Earth systems. So they first produced this paper on planetary boundaries, where they looked at a range of, I think it’s nine systems — the biosphere, biogeochemical systems, yes, climate system and so on — and said, are these systems operating in what we would consider their normal functioning boundaries? That’s how they’ve operated throughout the pliocene, throughout the last several thousand years, during which human civilization has developed. Or do they show signs of transitioning to a new state of abnormal operation? Or are they in a state that’s already posing high risk to the future of human civilization, but without really specifying what that risk is.

Then they produced another paper recently on Hothouse Earth, where they started to look for tipping points within the system, points where, in a sense, change become self perpetuating. And rather than just a kind of gradual transition from what we’re used to, to maybe an abnormal condition, all of a sudden, a whole bunch of changes start to accelerate. So it becomes much harder to adapt to these. Their analysis is quite limited, but they argue that quite a lot of these tipping point seem to start kicking in at about one and a half to two degrees warming above pre-industrial levels.

We’re getting quite close to that now. But yeah, the real question for us at the Center for the Study of Existential risk looking at humanity is, what are the effects of this going to be? And also what are the risks that exist within those socio-technological systems, the institutions that we set up, the way that we survive as a civilization, the way we get our food, the way we get our information, and so on, because there’s also significant fragilities and potential tipping points there as well. 

That’s a very new sort of study, I mean, to the point were a lot of people just refer back to this one book written by Jared Diamond in 2005 as if it was the authoritative tome on collapse. And it’s a popular book, and he’s not an expert in this: He’s kind of a very generalist scholar, but he provides a very narrative-based analysis of the collapse of certain historical civilizations and draws out a couple of key lessons from that. But it’s all very vague and really written for a general audience. And that still kind of stands out as this is the weighty tome, this is where you go to get answers to your questions. It’s very early and we think that there’s a lot of room for better analysis of that question. And that’s something we’re looking at a lot.

Ariel Conn: Can you talk about the difference between treating climate change itself as an existential risk, like saying this is an x-risk, and studying it as if it poses such a threat? If that distinction makes sense?

Simon Beard: Yeah. When you label something as an existential risk, I think that is in many ways a very political move. And I think that that has been the predominant lens through which people have approached this question of how we should talk about climate change. People want to draw attention to it, they realize that there’s a lot of bad things that could come from it. And it seems like we could improve the quality of our future lives relatively easily by tackling climate change.

It’s not like AI safety, you know, the threats that we face from advance artificial intelligence, where you really have to have advanced knowledge of machine learning and a lot of skills and do a lot of research to understand what’s going on here and what the real threats that we face might be. This is quite clear. So talking about it, labeling it as an existential risk has predominantly been a political act. But we are an academic institution. 

I think when you ask this question about studying it as an existential threat, one of the great challenges we face is all things that are perceived as existential threats, they’re all interconnected. Human extinction, or the collapse of our civilization, or these outcomes that we worry about: these are scenarios and they will have complex causes — complex technological causes, complex natural causes. And in a sense, when you want to ask the question, should we study climate change as an existential risk? What you’re really asking is, if we look at everything that flows from climate change, will we learn something about the conditions that could precipitate the end of our civilization? 

Now, ultimately, that might come about because of some heat exhaustion or vast crop failure because of the climate change directly. It may come about because, say, climate change triggers a nuclear war. And then there’s a question of, was that a climate-based extinction or a nuclear-based extinction? Or it might come about because we develop technologies to counter climate change, and then those technologies prove to be more dangerous than we thought and pose an existential threat. So when we carve this off as an academic question, what we really want to know is, do we understand more about the conditions that would lead to existential risk, and do we understand more about how we can prevent this bad thing from happening, if we look specifically at climate change? It’s a slightly different bar. But it’s all really just this question of, is talking about climate change, or thinking about climate change, a way to move to a safer world? We think it is but we think that there’s quite a lot of complex, difficult research that is needed to really make that so. And at the moment, what we have is a lot of speculation.

Haydn Belfield: I’ve got maybe an answer to that as well. Over the last few years, lots, and lots of politicians have said climate change is an existential risk, and lots of activists as well. So you get lots and lots of speeches, or rallies, or articles saying this is an existential risk. But at the same time, over the last few years, we’ve had people who study existential risk for a living, saying, “Well, we think it’s an existential risk in the same way that nuclear war is an existential risk. But it’s not maybe this single event that could kill lots and lots of people, or everyone, in kind of one fell swoop.”

So you get people saying, “Well, it’s not a direct risk on its own, because you can’t really kill absolutely everybody on earth with climate change. Maybe there’s bits of the world you can’t live in, but people move around. So it’s not an existential risk.” And I think the problem with both of these ways of viewing it is that word that I’ve been emphasizing, “an.” So I would kind of want to ban the word “an” existential risk, or “a” existential risk, and just say, does it contribute to existential risk in general?

So it’s pretty clear that climate change is going to make a bunch of the hazards that we face — like pandemics, or conflict, or environmental one-off disasters — more likely, but it will also make us more vulnerable to a whole range of hazards, and it will also increase the chances of all these types of things happening, and increase our exposure. So like with Simon, I would want to ask, is climate change going to increase the existential risk we face, and not get hung up on this question of is it “an” existential risk?

Simon Beard: The problem is, unfortunately, there is an existing terminology and existing way of talking that to some extent we’re bound up with. And this is how the debate is. So we’ve really struggled with to what extent we kind of impose the terminology that we’ve most liked on the field and the way that these things are discussed? And we know ultimately existential risk is just a thing; It’s a homogenous lump at the end of human civilization or the human species, and what we’re really looking at is the drivers of that and the things that push that up, and we want to push it down. That is not a concept that I think lots of people find easy to engage with. People do like to carve this up into particular hazards and vulnerabilities and so on.

Haydn Belfield: That’s how most of risk studies works. Most of when you study natural disasters, or you study accidents, in an industry setting, that’s what you’re looking at. You’re not looking at this risk as completely separate. You’re saying, “What hazards are we facing? What are our vulnerabilities? And what are our exposure,” and kind of combining all of those into having some overall assessment of the risk you face. You don’t try and silo it up into, this is bio, this is nuclear, this is AI, this is environment.

Ariel Conn: So that connects to a question that I have for you both. And that is what do you see as society’s greatest vulnerabilities today?

Haydn Belfield: Do you want to give that a go, Simon?

Simon Beard: Sure. So I really hesitate to answer any question that’s posed quite in that way, just because I don’t know what our greatest vulnerability is.

Haydn Belfield: Because you’re a very good academic, Simon.

Simon Beard: But we know some of the things that contribute to our vulnerability overall. One that really sticks in my head came out of a study we did looking at what we can learn from previous mass extinction events. And one of the things that people have found looking at the species that tend to die out in mass extinctions, and the species that survive, is this idea that the specialists — the efficient specialists — who’ve really carved out a strong biological niche for themselves, and are often the ones that are doing very well as a result of that, tend to be the species that die out, and the species that survive are the species that are generalists. But that means that within any given niche or habitat or environment, they’re always much more marginal, biologically speaking.

And then you say, “Well, what is humanity? Are we a specialist that’s very vulnerable to collapse, or are we a generalist that’s very robust and resilient to this kind of collapse that would fare very well?” And what you have to say is, as a species, when you consider humanity on its own, we seem to be the ultimate generalist, and indeed, we’re the only generalist who’s really moved beyond marginality. We thrive in every environment, every biome, and we survive in places where almost no other life form would survive. We survived on the surface of the moon — not for very long, but we did; We survived Antarctica, on the back ice, for long periods of time. And we can survive at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and just a ridiculously large range of habitats.

But of course, the way we’ve achieved that is that every individual is now an incredible specialist. There are very few people in the world who could really support themselves. And you can’t just sort of pick it up and go along with it. You know like this last weekend, I went to an agricultural museum with my kids, and they were showing, you know, how you plow fields and how you gather crops and looked after it. And there’s a lot of really important, quite artisanal skills about what you had to do to gather the food and protect it and prepare it and so on. And you can’t just pick this up with a book; you really have to spend a long time learning it and getting used to it and getting your body strong enough to do these things.

And so every one of us as an individual, I think, is very vulnerable, and relies upon these massive global systems that we’ve set up, these massive global institutions, to provide this support and to make us this wonderfully adaptable generalist species. So, so long as institutions and the technologies that they’ve created and the broad socio-technological systems that we’ve created — so long as they carry on thriving and operating as we want them to, then we are very, very generalist, very adaptable, very likely to make it through any kind of trouble that we might face in the next couple of centuries — with a few exceptions, a few really extreme events. 

But the flip side of that is anything that threatens those global socio-technological institutions also threatens to move us from this very resilient global population we have at the moment to an incredibly fragile one. If we fall back on individuals and our communities, all of a sudden, we are going to become the vulnerable specialist that each of us individually is. That is a potentially catastrophic outcome that people don’t think about enough.

Haydn Belfield: One of my colleagues, Luke Kemp, likes to describe this as a rungless ladder. So the idea is that there’s been lots and lots of collapses before in human history. But what normally happens is elites at the top of the society collapse, and it’s bad for them. But for everyone else, you kind of drop one rung down on the ladder, but it’s okay, you just go back to the farm, and you still know how to farm, your family’s still farming — things get a little worse, maybe, but it’s not really that bad. And you get people leaving the cities, things like that; But you only drop one rung down the ladder, you don’t fall off it. But as we’ve gone many, many more rungs up the ladder, we’ve knocked out every rung below us. And now we’re really high up the ladder. Very few of us know how to farm, how to hunt or gather, how to survive, and so on. So were we to fall off that rungless ladder, then we might come crashing down with a wallop.

Ariel Conn: I’m sort of curious. We’re talking about how humanity is generalist but we’re looking within the boundaries of the types of places we can live. And yet, we’re all very specifically, as you described, reliant on technology in order to live in these very different, diverse environments. And so I wonder if we actually are generalists? Or if we are still specialists at a societal level because of technology, if that makes sense?

Simon Beard: Absolutely. I mean, the point of this was, we kind of wanted to work out where we fell on the spectrum. And basically, it’s a spectrum that you can’t apply to humanity: We appear to fall as the most extreme species in both ends. And I think one of the reasons for that is that the scale as it would be applied to most species really only looks at the physical characteristics of the species, and how they interact directly with their environment — whereas we’ve developed all these highly emergent systems that go way beyond how we interact with the environment, that determine how we interact with one another, and how we interact with the technologies that we’ve created.

And those basically allow us to interact with the world around us in the same ways that both generalists and specialists would. That’s great in many ways: It’s really served us well as a species, it’s been part of the hallmark of our success and our ability to get this far. But it is a real threat, because it adds a whole bunch of systems that have to be operating in a way as we expect them to in order for us to continue. Maybe so long as these systems function it makes us more resilient to normal environmental shocks. But it makes us vulnerable to a whole bunch of other shocks.

And then you look at the way that we actually treat these emergent socio-technological systems. And we’re constantly driving for efficiency; We’re constantly driving for growth, as quick and easy growth as we can get. And the ways that you do that are often by making the systems themselves much less resilient. Resiliency requires redundancy, requires diversity, requires flexibility, requires all of the things that either an economic planner or a market functioning on short-term economic return really hate, because they get in the way of productivity.

Haydn Belfield: Do you want to explain what resilience is?

Simon Beard: No.

Ariel Conn: Hayden do you want to explain it?

Haydn Belfield: I’ll give it a shot, yeah. So, just since people might not be familiar with it — so what I normally think of is someone balancing. How robust they are is how much you can push that person balancing before they fall over, and then resilience is how quickly they get up and can balance again. The next time they balance, they’re even stronger than before. So that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about resilience, how quickly and how well you’re able to respond to those kinds of external shocks.

Ariel Conn: I want to stick with this topic of the impact of technology, because one of the arguments that I often hear about why climate change isn’t as big of an existential threat or a contributor to existential risk as some people worry is because at some point in the near future, we will develop technologies that will help us address climate change, and so we don’t need to worry about it. You guys bring this up in the paper that you’re working on as potentially a dangerous approach; I was hoping you could talk about that.

Simon Beard: I think there’s various problems with looking for the technological solutions. One of them is technologies tend to be developed for quite specific purposes. But some of the conditions that we are examining as potential civilization collapse due to climate change scenarios involve quite widespread and wide-scale systemic change to society and to the environment around us. And engineers have a great challenge even capturing and responding to one kind of change. Engineering is an art of the small; It’s a reductionist art; You break things down, and you look at the components, and you solve each of the challenges one by one.

And there are definitely visionary engineers who look at systems and look at how the parts all fit together. But even there, you have to have a model, you have to have a basic set of assumptions of how all these parts fit together and how they’re going to interact. And this is why you get things like Murphy’s Law — you know, if it can go wrong, it will go wrong — because that’s not how the real world works. The real world is constantly throwing different challenges at you, problems that you didn’t foresee, or couldn’t have foreseen because they are inconsistent with the assumption you made, all of these things. 

So it is quite a stretch to put your faith in technology being able to solve this problem, when you don’t understand exactly what the problem that you’re facing is. And you don’t necessarily at this point understand where we may cross the tipping point, the point of no return, when you really have to step up this R & D funding. Or now you know the problem that the engineers have to solve, because it’s staring you in the face: By the time that that happens, it may be too late. If you get positive feedback loops — you know, reinforcement where one bad thing leads to another bad thing, leads to another bad thing, which then contributes to the original bad thing — you need so much more energy to push the system back into a state of normality than for this cycle to just keep on pushing it further and further away from what you previously were at.

So that throws up significant barriers to a technological fix. The other issue, just going back to what we were saying earlier, is technology does also breed fragility. We have a set of paradigms about how technologies are developed, how they interface with the economy that we face, which is always pushing for more growth and more efficiency. It has not got a very good track record of investing in resilience, investing in redundancy, investing in fail-safes, and so on. You typically need to have strong, externally enforced incentives for that to happen.

And if you’re busy saying this isn’t really a threat, this isn’t something we need to worry about, there’s a real risk that you’re not going to achieve that. And yes, you may be able to develop new technologies that start to work. But are they actually just storing up more problems for the future? We can’t wait until the story’s ended and then know whether these technologies really did make us safer in the end or more vulnerable.

Haydn Belfield: So I think I would have an overall skepticism about technology from a kind of, “Oh, it’s going to increase our resilience.” My skepticism in this case is just more practical. So it could very well be that we do develop — so there’s these things called negative emissions technologies, which suck CO2 out of the air — we could maybe develop that. Or things that could lower the temperature of the earth: maybe we can find a way to do that, throw the whole climate and weather into a chaotic system. Maybe tomorrow’s the day that we get the breakthrough with nuclear fusion. I mean, it could be that all of these things happen — it’d be great if they could. But I just wouldn’t put all my bets on it. The idea that we don’t need to prioritize climate change above all else, and make it a real central effort for societies, for companies, for governments, because we can just hope for some techno-fix to come along and save us — I just think it’s too risky, and it’s unwise. Especially because if we’re listening to the scientists, we don’t have that much longer. We’ve only got a few decades left, maybe even one decade, to really make dramatic changes. And we just won’t have invented some silver bullet within a decade’s time. Maybe technology could save us from climate change; I’d love it if it could. But we just can’t be sure about that, so we need to make other changes.

Simon Beard: That’s really interesting, Hayden, because when you list negative emissions technologies, or nuclear fusion, that’s not the sort of technology I’m talking about. I was thinking about technology as something that would basically just be used to make us more robust. Obviously, one of the things that you do if you think that climate change is an existential threat is you say, “Well, we really need to prioritize more investment into these potential technology solutions.” The belief that climate change is exponential threat is not committing you to trying to make climate change worse, or something like that.

You want to make it as small as possible, you want to reduce this impact as much as possible. That’s how you respond to climate change as an existential threat. if you don’t believe climate change is an existential threat, you would invest less in those technologies. Also, I do wanna say — and I mean, I think there’s some legitimate debate about this, but I don’t like the 12 years terminology, I don’t think we know nearly enough to support those kind of claims. The IPCC came up with this 12 years, but it’s not really clear what they meant by it. And it’s certainly not clear where they got it from. People have been saying, “Oh, we’ve got a year to fix the climate,” or something, for as long as I can remember discussions going on about climate change.

It’s one of those things where that makes a lot of sense politically, but those claims aren’t scientifically based. We don’t know. We need to make sure that that’s not true; We need to falsify these claims, either by really looking at it, and finding out that it genuinely is safer than we thought it was or by doing the technological development and greenhouse gas reduction efforts and other climate mitigation methods to make it safe. That’s just how it works.

Ariel Conn: Do you think that we’re seeing the kind of investment in technology, you know, trying to develop any of these solutions, that we would be seeing if people were sufficiently concerned about climate change as an existential threat?

Simon Beard: So one of the things that worries me is people always judge this by looking at one thing and saying, “Are we doing enough of that thing? Are we reducing our carbon dioxide emissions fast enough? Are people changing their behaviors fast enough? Are we developing technologies fast enough? Are we ready?” Because we know so little about the nature of the risk, we have to respond to this in a portfolio manner; We have to say, “What are all the different actions and the different things that we can take that will make us safer?” And we need to do all of those. And we need to do as much as we can of all of these.

And I think there is a definite negative answer to your question when you look at it like that, because people aren’t doing enough thinking and aren’t doing enough work about how we do all the things we need to do to make us safe from climate change. People tend to get an idea of what they think a safer world would look like, and then complain that we’re not doing enough of that thing, which is very legitimate and we should be doing more of all of these things. But if you look at it as an existential risk, and you look at it from an existential safety angle, there’s just so few people who are saying, “Let’s do everything we can to protect ourselves from this risk.”

Way too many people are saying, “I’ve had a great idea, let’s do this.” That doesn’t seem to me like safety-based thinking; That seems to me like putting all your eggs in one basket and basically generating the solution to climate change that’s most likely to be fragile, that’s most likely to miss something important and not solve the real problem and store up trouble for a future date and so on. We need to do more — but that’s not just more quantitatively, it’s also more qualitatively.

Haydn Belfield: I think just clearly we’re not doing enough. We’re not cutting emissions enough, we’re not moving to renewables fast enough, we’re not even beginning to explore possible solar geoengineering responses, we don’t have anything that really works to suck carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases out of the air. Definitely, we’re not yet taking it seriously enough as something that could be a major contributor to the end of our civilization or the end of our entire species.

Ariel Conn: I think this connects nicely to another section of some of the work you’ve been doing. And that is looking at — I think there were seven critical systems that are listed as sort of necessary for humanity and civilization.

Simon Beard: Seven levels of critical systems.

Ariel Conn: Okay.

Simon Beard: We rely on all sorts of systems for our continued functioning and survival. And a sufficiently significant failure in any of these systems could be fatal to all of our species. We can kind of classify these systems at various levels. So at the bottom, there are the physical systems — that’s basically the laws of physics. Atoms operate, how subatomic particles operate, how they interact with each other: those are pretty safe. There are some advanced physics experiments that some people have postulated may be a threat to those systems. But they all seem pretty safe. 

We then kind of move up: We’ve got basic chemical systems and biochemical systems, how we generate enzymes and all the molecules that we use — proteins, lipids, and so on. Then we move up to the level of the cell; Then we move up to the level of the anatomical systems — the digestive system, the respiratory system — we need all these things. Then you look at the organism as a whole and how it operates. Then you look at how organisms interact with each other: the biosphere system, the biological system, ecological system.

And then as human beings, we’ve added this kind of seventh, even more emergent, system, which is not just how humans interact with each other, but the kind of systems that we have made to govern our interaction, and to determine how we work together with each other: political institutions, technology, the way we distribute resources around the planet, and so on. So there are a really quite amazing number of potential vulnerabilities that our species has. 

It’s many more than seven, but categorizing needs on the kind of the seven levels is helpful to not miss anything, because I think most people’s idea of an existential threat is something like a really big gun. Guns, we understand how they kill people, if you just had a really huge gun, and just blew a hole in everyone’s head. But that’s both missing things that are actually a lot more basic than the way that people normally die, but also a lot more sophisticated and emergent. All of these are potentially quite threatening.

Ariel Conn: So can you explain a little bit more detail how climate change affects these different levels?

Haydn Belfield: So I guess the way I’ll do is I’ll first talk a bit about natural feedback stuff, and then talk about the social feedback loops. Everyone listening to this will be familiar with feedback loops, like methane getting released from permafrost in the Arctic, or methane coming out of clathrates in the ocean, or there’s other kinds of feedback loops. So there’s one that was discovered only recently, very recent paper was about cloud formation. So if it gets to four degrees, these models show that it becomes much harder for clouds to form. And so you don’t get much sort of radiation bouncing off those clouds and you get very rapid additional heating up to 12 degrees, is what it said.

So the first way that climate change could affect these kinds of systems that we’re talking about is it just makes it anatomically way too hot: You get all these feedback, and it just becomes far too hot for anyone to survive sort of anywhere on the surface. It might get much too hot in certain areas of the globe for really civilization to be able to continue there, much like it’s very hard in the center of the Sahara to have large cities or anything like that. But that seems quite unlikely that climate change would ever get that bad. The kind of stuff that we’re much more concerned about is the more general effects that climate change, climate chaos, climate breakdown might have on a bunch of other systems.

So in this paper, we’ve broken it down into three. We’ve looked at the effects of climate change on the food/water/energy system, the ecological system, and on our political system and conflict. And climate change is likely to have very negative effects on all three of those systems. It’s likely to negatively affect crop yields; It’s likely to increase freak weather events, and there’s some possibility that you might have these sort of very freak weather events — droughts, or hurricanes is also one — in areas where we produce lots of our calories, so bread baskets around the world. So climate change is going to have very negative effects most likely on our food and energy and water systems.

Then separately, there’s ecological systems. People will be very familiar with climate change driving lots of habitat loss, and therefore the loss of species; People will be very familiar with coral reefs dying and bleaching and going away. This could also have very negative effects on us, because we rely on these ecological systems to provide what we call ecological services. Ecological services are things like pollination, so if all the bees died what would we do? Ecological services also include the fish that we catch and eat, or fresh, clean drinking water. So climate change is likely to have very negative effects on that whole set of systems. And then it’s likely to have negative effects on our political system.

If there are large areas of the world that are nigh on uninhabitable, because you can’t grow food or you can’t go out at midday, or there’s no clean water available, then you’re likely to see maybe state breakdown, maybe huge numbers of people leaving — much more than we’ve ever encountered before, sort of 10s or hundred millions of people dislocated and moving around the world. That’s likely to lead to conflict and war. So those are some ways in which climate change could have negative effects on three sets of systems that we crucially rely on as a civilization.

Ariel Conn: So in your work, you also talk about the global systems death spiral. Was that part of this?

Haydn Belfield: Yeah, that’s right. The global systems death spiral is a catchy term to describe the interaction between all these different systems. So not only would climate change have negative effects on our ecosystems, on our food and water and energy systems, the political system and conflict, but these different effects are likely to interact and make each other worse. So imagine our ecosystems are harmed by climate change: Well, that probably has an effect on food/water systems, because we rely on our ecosystems for these ecosystem services. 

So then, the bad effects on our food and water systems: Well, that probably leads to conflict. So some colleagues of ours at the Anglia Ruskin University have something called a global chaos map, which is a great name for a research project, where they try and link incidences of shocks to the food system and conflict — riots or civil wars. And they’ve identified lots and lots of examples of this. Most famously, the Arab Spring, which has now become lots of conflicts, has been linked to a big spike in food prices several years ago. So there’s that link there between food and water, insecurity and conflict. 

And then conflict leads back into ecosystem damage. Because if you have conflict, you’ve got weak governance, you’ve got weak governments trying to protect their ecosystems, and weak government has been identified as the strongest single predictor of ecosystem loss, biodiversity loss. They all interact with one another, and make one another worse. And you could also think about things going back the other way. So for example, if you’re in a war zone, if you’ve got conflict, you’ve got failing states — that has knock-on effects on the food systems, and the water systems that we rely on: We often get famines during wartime.

And then if they don’t have enough food to eat, they don’t have water to drink, maybe that has negative effects on our ecosystems, too, because people are desperate to eat anything. So what we’re trying to point out here is that the systems aren’t independent from one another — they’re not like three different knobs that are all getting turned up independently by climate change — but that they interact with one another in a way that could cause lots of chaos and lots of negative outcomes for world society.

Simon Beard: We did this kind of pilot study looking at the ecological system and the food system and the global political system and looking at the connections of those three, really just in one direction: looking at the impact of food insecurity on conflict, and conflict and political instability on the biosphere, and loss of biosphere on integrity of the food system. But that was largely determined by the fact that these were three connections that we either had looked at directly, or had close colleagues who had looked at, so we had quite good access to the resources.

As Hayden said, everything kind of also works in the other direction, most likely. And also, there are many, many more global systems that interact in different ways. Another trio that we’re very interested in looking at in the future is the connection between the biosphere and the political system, but this time, also, with some of the health systems, the emergence of new diseases, the ability to respond to public health emergencies, and especially when these things are looked at in kind of one health perspective, where plant health and animal health and human health are all actually very closely interacting with one another.

And then you kind of see this pattern where, yes, we could survive six degrees plus, and we could survive famine, and we could survive x, y, and z. But once these things start interacting, it just drives you to a situation where really everything that we take for granted at the moment up to and including the survival of the species — they’re all on the table, they’re all up for grabs once you start to get this destructive cycle between changes in the environment and changes in how human society interacts with the environment. It’s the very dangerous, potentially very self-perpetuating feedback loop, and that’s why we refer to it as a global systems death spiral: because we really can’t predict at this point in time where it will end. But it looks very, very bleak, and very, very hard to see how once you enter into this situation, you could then kind of dial it back and return to a safe operating environment for humanity and the systems that we rely on. 

There’s definitely a new stable state at the end of this spiral. So when you get feedback loops between systems, it’s not that they will just carry on amplifying change forever; They’re moving towards another kind of stable state, but you don’t know how long it’s going to take to get there, you don’t know what that steady state will be. So for the simulation with the death of clouds, this idea that purely physical feedback between rising global temperatures, changes in the water cycle, and cloud cover, then you end up with a world that’s much, much hotter and much more arid than the one we have at the moment, which could be a very dangerous state. For sort of perpetual human survival, we would need a completely different way of feeding ourselves and really interacting with the environment. 

You don’t know what sort of death traps or kill mechanisms lie along that path of change; You don’t know if there is, for instance, somewhere here, it’s going to trigger a nuclear war, or it’s going to trigger attempts to geoengineer the climate in a sort of bid to gain safety, but actually these turn out to have catastrophic consequences, or all the others that are unknown unknowns we want to make turn into known unknowns, and then turn into things that we can actually begin to understand and study. So in terms of not knowing where the bottom is, that’s potentially limitless as far as humanity is concerned. We know that it will have an end. Worst case scenario, that end is a very arid climate with a much less complex, much simpler atmosphere, which would basically need to be terraformed back into a livable environment in the way that we’re currently thinking maybe we could do that for Mars. But to get a global effort to do that, in an already sort of disintegrating Earth, I think would be an extremely tall order. There’s a huge range of different threats and different potential opportunities for an existential catastrophe to unravel within this kind of death spiral. And we think this really is a very credible threat.

Ariel Conn: How do we deal with all this uncertainty?

Haydn Belfield: More research needed, is the classic academic response to any time you ask that question. More research.

Simon Beard: That’s definitely the case, but there are also big questions about the kind of research. So mostly scientists want to study things that they already kind of understand: where you already have well established techniques, you have journals that people can publish their research in, you have an extensive peer review community, you can say, yes, you have done this study by the book, you get to publish it. That’s what all the incentives are aligned towards. 

And that sort of research is very important and very valuable, and I don’t want to say that we need less of that kind of research. But that kind of research is not going to deal with the sort of radical uncertainty that we’re talking about here. So we do need more creative science, we need science that is willing to engage in speculation, but to do so in an open and rigorous way. One of the things is you need scientists who are willing to come on the stand and say, “Look, here’s a hypothesis. I think it’s probably wrong, and I don’t yet know how to test it. But I want people to come out and help me find a way to test this hypothesis and falsify it.” 

There aren’t any scientific incentive structures at the moment that encourage that. That is not a way to get tenure, and it’s not a way to get a professorship or chair, or to take your paper published. That is a really stupid strategy to take if you want to be a successful scientist. So what we need to do is we need to create a safe sandbox for people who are concerned about this — and we know from our engagement that there are a lot of people who would really like to study this and really like to understand it better — for them to do that. So one of the big things that we’re really looking at here in CSER is how do we make the tools to make the tools that will then allow us to study this. How do we provide the methodological insights or the new perspectives that are needed to move towards establishing a science of social collapse or environmental collapse that we can actually use to then answer some of these questions.

So there are several things that we’re working on at the moment. One important thing, which I think is a very crucial step for dealing with the sort of radical uncertainty we face, is this classification. We’ve already talked about classifying different levels of critical system. That’s one part of a larger classification scheme that CSER has been developing to just look at all the different components of risk and say, “Well, there’s this and this and this. Once you start to sort of engage in that exercise and look at what are all the systems that might be vulnerable? What are all the possible vulnerabilities that exist within those systems? What are all the ways in which humanity has exposed these vulnerabilities that they could harness if things go wrong? And you map that out; You haven’t got to the truth, but you’ve moved a lot of things in the unknown category into the, “Okay, I now know all the ways that things could go wrong, and I know that I haven’t a clue how any of these things could happen.” Then you need to say, “Well, what are the techniques that seem appropriate?” 

So we think the planetary boundaries framework, albeit it doesn’t answer the question that we’re interested in, it offers a really nice approach to looking at this question about where tipping points arise, where systems move out of their ordinary operation. We want to apply that in new environments, we want to find new ways of using that. And there are other tools as well that we can take, for instance, from disaster studies and risk management studies, looking at things like fault tree analysis where you say, “What are all the things that might go wrong with this? And what are the levers that we currently have or the interventions that we could make to stop this from happening?” 

We also think that there’s a lot more room for people to share their knowledge and their thoughts and their fears and expectations to what we call structured expert solicitations, where you get people who have very different knowledge together, and you find a way that they can all talk to each other and they can all learn from each other. And often you get answers out of these sort of exercises that are very different to what any individual might put in at the beginning, but they represent a much more sort of complete, much more creative structure. And you can get those published because it’s a recognized scientific method, so structured expert solicitations on climate change got published in Nature last month. Which is great, because it’s a really under researched topic. But I think one of the things that really helped there was that they were using an established method.

What I really hope that CSER’s work going forward is going to achieve is just to make this space that we can actually work with many more of the people who we need to work with to answer these questions and understand the nature of this risk and pull them all together and make the social structures so that the kind of research that we really badly need at this point can actually start to emerge.

Ariel Conn: A lot of what you’re talking about doesn’t sound like something that we can do in the short term, that it will take at least a decade, if not more to get some of this research accomplished. So in the interest of speed — which is one of the uncertainties we have, we don’t seem to have a good grasp of how much time we have before the climate could get really bad — what do we do in the short term? What do we do for the next decade? What do non-academics do?

 

Haydn Belfield: The thing is, it’s kind of two separate questions, right? We certainly know all we need to know to take really drastic, serious action on climate change. What we’re asking is a slightly more specific question, which is how can climate change, climate breakdown, climate chaos contribute to existential risk. So we already know with very high certainty that climate change is going to be terrible for billions of people in the world, that it’s going to make people’s lives harder, it’s going to make them getting out of extreme poverty much harder.

 

And we also know that the people who have contributed the least to the problem are going to be the ones that are screwed the worst by climate change. And it’s just so unfair, and so wrong, that I think we know enough now to take serious action on climate change. And not only is it wrong, it’s not in the interest of rich countries to live in this world of chaos, of worse weather events, and so on. So I think we already know enough, we have enough certainty on those questions to act very seriously, to reduce our emissions very quickly, to invest in as much clean technology as we can, and to collaborate collectively around the world to make those changes. And what we’re saying though, is about the different, more unusual question of how it contributes to existential risk more specifically. So I think I would just make that distinction pretty clear. 

 

Simon Beard: So there’s a direct answer to your question and an indirect answer to your question. Direct answer to your question is all the things you know you should be doing. Fly less, preferably not at all; eat less meat, preferably not at all, and perfectly not dairy, either. Every time there’s an election, vote, but also ask all the candidates — all the candidates, don’t just go for the ones who you think will give you the answer you like — “I’m thinking of voting for you. What are you going to do about climate change?” 

 

There are a lot of people all over the political spectrum who care about climate change. Yeah, there are political slumps in who cares more, and so on. But every political candidate has votes that they could pick up if they did more on climate change, irrespective of their political persuasion. And even if you have a political conviction, so that you’re always going to vote the same way, you can nudge candidates to get those votes and to do more on climate change by just asking that simple question: “I’m thinking of voting for you. What are you going to do about climate change?” That’s a really low buy, it’s good for election; If they get 100 letters, all saying that, and they’re all personal letters, and not just some mass campaign, it really does change the way that people think about the problems that they face. But I also want to challenge you a bit on this, “This is going to take decades,” because it depends — depends how we approach it.

 

Ariel Conn: So one example of research that can happen quickly and action that can occur quickly is this example that you give early on in the work that you’re doing, comparing the need to study climate change as a contributor to existential risk as the work that was done in the 80s, looking at how nuclear weapons can create a nuclear winter, and how that connects to an existential risk. And so I was hoping you could also talk a little bit about that comparison.

 

Simon Beard: Yeah, so I think this is really important and I know a lot of the things that we’re talking about here, about critical global systems and how they interact with each other and so on — it’s long winded, and it’s technical, and it can sound a bit boring. But this was, for me, a really big inspiration as for why we’re trying to look at it in this way. So when people started to explode nuclear weapons in the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s, right from the beginning, they were concerned about the kind of threats, or the kind of risks that these posed, and firstly thought, well, maybe it would set light to the upper atmosphere. And there were big worries about the radiation. And then, for a time, there were worries just about the explosive capacity. 

 

This was enough to raise a kind of general sense of alarm and threat. But none of these were really credible. They didn’t last; They didn’t withstand scientific scrutiny for very long. And then Carl Sagan and some colleagues did this research in the early 1980s on modeling the climate impacts of nuclear weapons, which is not a really intuitive thing to do, right? When you’ve got the most explosive weapon ever envisaged, and it has all this nuclear fallout and so, and you think, what’s this going to do to the global climate, that doesn’t seem like that’s going to be where the problems lie.

 

But they discover when they look at that, that no, it’s a big thing. If you have nuclear strikes on cities, it sends a lot of ash into the upper atmosphere. And it’s very similar to what happens if you have a very large asteroid, or a very large set of volcanoes going off; The kind of changes that you see in the upper atmosphere are very similar, and you get this dramatic global cooling. And this then threatens — as a lot of mass extinctions have — threatens the underlying food source. And that’s how humans starve. And this comes out in 1983, this is kind of 40 years after people started talking about nuclear risk. And it changes the game, because all of a sudden, in looking at this rather unusual topic, they find a really credible way in which nuclear winter leads to everyone dying.

 

The research is still much discussed, and what kind of nuclear warhead, what kind of nuclear explosions, and how many and would they need to hit cities, or would they need to hit areas with particularly large sulphur deposits, or all of these things — these are still being discussed. But all of a sudden, the top leaders, the geopolitical leaders start to take this threat seriously. And we know Reagan was very interested and explored this a lot, the Russians even more so. And it really does seem to have kick started a lot of nuclear disarmament debate and discussion and real action.

 

And what we’re trying to do in reframing the way that people research climate change as an existential threat is to look for something like that: What’s a credible way in which this really does lead to an existential catastrophe for humanity? Because that hasn’t been done yet. We don’t have that. We feel like we have it because everyone knows the threat and the risk. But really, we’re just at this area of kind of vague speculation. There’s a lot of room for people to step up with this kind of research. And the historical evidence suggests that this can make a real difference.

 

Haydn Belfield: We tend to think of existential risks as one-off threats — some big explosion, or some big thing, like an individual asteroid that hits an individual species of dinosaurs and then kills it, right — we tend to think of existential risks as one singular event. But really, that’s not how most mass extinctions happen. That’s not how civilizational collapses have tended to happen over history. The way that all of these things have actually happened, when you go back to look at archeological evidence or you go back to look at the fossil evidence, is that there’s a whole range of different things — different hazards and different internal capabilities of these systems, whether they’re species or societies — and they get overcome by a range of different things. 

 

So, often in archeological history — in the Pueblo Southwest, for example — there’ll be one set of climatic conditions, and one external shock that faces the community, and they react fine to it. But then, in a few different years, the same community is faced by some similar threats, but reacts completely differently and collapses completely. It’s not that there’s these one singular, overwhelming events from outside, it’s that you have to look at all the different systems that this one particular society or whatever relies on. And you have to look at when all of those things overcome the overall resilience of a system. 

 

Or looking at species, like what happens when sometimes a species can recover from an external shock, and sometimes there’s just too many things, and the conditions aren’t right, and they get overcome, and they go extinct. That’s where looking at existential risk, and looking at the study of how we might collapse or how we might go extinct — that’s where the field needs to go: It needs to go into looking at what are all the different hazards we face, how do they interact with the vulnerabilities that we have, and the internal dynamics of our systems that we rely on, and the different resilience of those systems, and how are we exposed to those hazards in different ways, and having a much more sophisticated, complicated, messy look at how they all interact. I think that’s the way that existential risk research needs to go.

 

Simon Beard: I agree. I think that fits in with various things we said earlier.

 

Ariel Conn: So then my final question for both of you is — I mean, you’re not even just looking at climate change as an existential threat; I know you look at lots of things and how they contribute to existential threats — but looking at climate change, what gives you hope?

 

Simon Beard: At a psychological level, hope and fear aren’t actually big day-to-day parts of my life. Because working in existential risk, you have this amazing privilege that you’re doing something, you’re working to make that difference between human extinction and civilization collapse and human survival and flourishing. It’s a waste to have that opportunity and to get too emotional about it. It’s a waste firstly because it is the most fascinating problem. It is intellectually stimulating; It is diverse; It allows you to engage with and talk to the best people, both in terms of intelligence and creativity, but also in terms of drive and passion, and activism and ability to get things done.

 

But also because it’s a necessary task: We have to get on with it, we have to do this. So I don’t know if I have hope. But that doesn’t mean that I’m scared or anxious, I just have a strong sense of what I have to do. I have to do what I can to contribute, to make a difference, to maximize my impact. That’s a series of problems and we have to solve those problems. If there’s one overriding emotion that I have in relation to my work, and what I do, and what gets me out of bed, it’s curiosity — which is, I think, at the end of the day, one of the most motivating emotions that exists. People often say to me, “What’s the thing I should be most worried about: nuclear war, or artificial intelligence or climate change? Like, tell me, what should I be most worried about?” You shouldn’t worry about any of those things. Because worry is a very disabling emotion.

 

People who worry stay in bed. I haven’t got time to do that. I had heart surgery about 18 months ago, a big heart bypass operation. And they warned me before that, after this surgery, you’re going to feel emotional, it happens to everyone. It’s basically a near death experience. You have to be cooled down to a state that you can’t recover on your own; They have to heat you up. Your body kind of remembers these things. And I do remember a couple of nights after getting home from that. And I just burst into floods of tears thinking about this kind of existential collapse, and, you know, what it would mean for my kids and how we’d survive it, and it was completely overwhelming. As overwhelming as you’d expect it to be for someone who has to think about that. 

 

But this isn’t how we engage with it. This isn’t science fiction stories that we’re telling ourselves to feel scared or feel a rush. This is a real problem. And we’re here to solve that problem. I’ve been very moved the last month or so by all the stuff about the Apollo landing missions. And it’s reminded me, sort of a big inspiration of my life, one of these bizarre inspirations of my life, was getting Microsoft Encarta 95, which was kind of my first all-purpose knowledge source. And when you loaded it up — because it was the first one on CD ROM — they had these sound clips and they included that bit of JFK’s speech about we choose to go to the moon, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. And that has been a really inspiring quote for me. And I think I’ve often chosen to do things because they’re hard. 

 

And it’s been kind of upsetting — this is the first time this kind of moon landing anniversary’s come up — and I realized no, he was being completely literal. Like the reason that I chose to go to the moon was it was so hard that the Russians couldn’t do it. So they were confident that they were going to win the race. And that was all that mattered. But for me, I think in this case, we’re choosing to do this research and to do this work, not because it’s hard, but because it’s easy. Because understanding climate change, being curious about it, working out new ways to adapt, and to mitigate, and to manage the risk, is so much easier than living with the negative consequences of it. This is the best deal on the table at the moment. This is the way that we maximize the benefit for minimizing the cost.

 

This is not the great big structural change that completely messes up our entire society, and reduces us to some kind of Greek primitivism. That’s what happens if climate change kicks in. That’s when we start to see people reduced to subsistence level, agricultural, whatever it is. Understanding the risk and responding to it: this is the way that we keep all the good things that our civilization has given us. This is the way that we keep international travel, that we keep our technology, that we keep our food and getting nice things from all around the world. 

 

And yes, it does require some sacrifices. But these are really small change in the scale of things. And once we start to make them we will find ways of working around it. We are very creative, we are very adaptable, we can adapt to the changes that we need to make to mitigate climate change. And we’ll be good at that. And I just wish that anyone listening to this podcast had that mindset, didn’t think about fear or about blame, or shame or anger — that they thought about curiosity, and they thought about what can I do, and how good this is going to be, how bright and open our future is, and how much we can achieve as a species.

 

If we can just get over these hurdles, these mistakes that we made years ago, for various reasons — often a small number of people in the land, you know, that’s what determined that we have petrol cars rather than battery cars — and we can undo them; It’s in our power, it’s in our gift. We are the species that can determine our own fate; We get to choose. And that’s why we’re doing this research. And I think if lots of people — especially if lots of people who are well educated, maybe scientists, maybe people who are thinking about a career in science — view this problem in that light, as what can I do? What’s the difference I can make? We’re powerful. It’s a much less difficult problem to solve and a much better ultimate payoff that we’ll get than if we try and solve this any other way, especially if we don’t do anything.

 

Ariel Conn: That was wonderful.

 

Simon Beard: Yeah, I’m ready to storm the barricade.

 

Ariel Conn: All right, Haydn try to top that.

 

Haydn Belfield: No way. That’s great. I think Simon said all that needs to be said on that.

 

Ariel Conn: All right. Well, thank you both for joining us today.

 

Simon Beard: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

 

Haydn Belfield: Yeah, absolute pleasure.

 

 

 

 

FLI Podcast: The Unexpected Side Effects of Climate Change With Fran Moore and Nick Obradovich

It’s not just about the natural world. The side effects of climate change remain relatively unknown, but we can expect a warming world to impact every facet of our lives. In fact, as recent research shows, global warming is already affecting our mental and physical well-being, and this impact will only increase. Climate change could decrease the efficacy of our public safety institutions. It could damage our economies. It could even impact the way that we vote, potentially altering our democracies themselves. Yet even as these effects begin to appear, we’re already growing numb to the changing climate patterns behind them, and we’re failing to act.

In honor of Earth Day, this month’s podcast focuses on these side effects and what we can do about them. Ariel spoke with Dr. Nick Obradovich, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, and Dr. Fran Moore, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis. They study the social and economic impacts of climate change, and they shared some of their most remarkable findings.

Topics discussed in this episode include:

  • How getting used to climate change may make it harder for us to address the issue
  • The social cost of carbon
  • The effect of temperature on mood, exercise, and sleep
  • The effect of temperature on public safety and democratic processes
  • Why it’s hard to get people to act
  • What we can all do to make a difference
  • Why we should still be hopeful

Publications discussed in this episode include:

You can listen to the podcast above, or read the full transcript below.

Ariel: Hello, and a belated happy Earth Day to everyone. I’m Ariel Conn, your host of The Future of Life podcast. And in honor of Earth Day this month, I’m happy to have two climate-related scientists joining the show. We’ve all heard about the devastating extreme weather that climate change will trigger; We’ve heard about melting ice caps, rising ocean levels, warming oceans, flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, and so many other awful natural events.

And it’s not hard to imagine how people living in these regions will be negatively impacted. But climate change won’t just affect us directly. It will also impact the economy, agriculture, our mental health, our sleep patterns, how we exercise, food safety, the effectiveness of policing, and more.

So today, I have two scientists joining me to talk about some of those issues. Doctor Nick Obradovich is a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab. He studies the way that climate change is likely impacting humanity now and into the future. And Doctor Fran Moore is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis. Her work sits at the intersection of climate science and environmental economics and is focused on understanding how climate change will affect the social and natural systems that people value.

So Nick and Fran, thank you so much for joining us.

Nick: Thanks for having us.

Fran: Thank you.

Ariel: Now, before we get into some of the topics that I just listed, I want to first look at a paper you both published recently called “Rapidly Declining Remarkability of Temperature Anomalies May Obscure Public Perception of Climate Change.” And essentially, as you describe in the paper, we’re like frogs in boiling water. As long as the temperatures continue to increase, we forget that it used to be cooler and we recalibrate what we consider to be normal for weather. So what may have been considered extreme 15 years ago, we now think of as normal.

Among other things, this can make trying to address climate change more difficult. I want both of you now to talk more about what the study was and what it means for how we address climate change. But first, if you could just talk about what prompted this study.

Fran: So I’ve been interested for a long time in the question of: as the climate changes and people are gradually exposed to this new weather in their everyday life that used to be very unusual but because of climate change more and more typical, how do we think about defining things like extreme events under those kind of conditions?

I think researchers have this intuition that there’s something about human perception and judgment that goes into that or that there’s some kind of limit of how humans kind of understand the weather that define what we think of as normal and extreme, but no one had really been able to measure it. What I think is really cool in this study, and working with Nick and our other coworkers, we’re able to use data from Twitter to actually measure what people think of as remarkable, and then we can show that that changed quickly over time.

Ariel: I found this use of social media to be really interesting. Can you talk a little bit about how you used Twitter? And I was also curious if that — aside from being a new source of information — does it also present limitations in any way or is it just exciting new information?

Nick: The crux of this insight was that we talk about the weather all the time. It’s sort of the way to pass time in casual conversation, to say hi to people, to awkwardly change the topic — if someone has said something a little awkward, start talking about the weather. And we realized that Twitter is a great source for what people are talking about, and I had been collecting billions of tweets over the last number of years. And Fran and I met, and then we got talking about this idea and we were like, “Huh, you know, I bet you could use Twitter to measure how people are talking about the weather.” And then Fran had the excellent insight that you could also use it to get a metric of how remarkable people find the weather by how unusually much they’re talking about unusual weather. And so that was kind of the crux of the insight there.

And then really what we did is we said, “Okay, what terms exist in the English language that might likely refer to weather when people are talking about the weather?” And we combed through the billions of tweets that I had in my store and found all of the tweets plausibly about the weather and used that for our analysis and then mapped that to the historical temperatures that people had experienced and also the rates of warming over time that the locations that people lived in had experienced.

Ariel: And what was the timeframe that you were looking at?

Fran: So it’s about three years: from March of 2014 to the end of 2016. But then we’re able to combine that with weather data that goes back to 1980. So what we can then look at — we can match the tweeting behavior going on in this relatively recent time period, but we can look at how is that explained by all the patterns of temperature change across these counties.

So what we found that, firstly, maybe exactly what you would expect, right, which is that the rate at which people tweet about particular temperatures depends on what is typical for that location, for that time of year. And so if you have very cold weather but that very cold weather is basically what you should be expecting, you’re going to tweet about that less than if that very cold weather is atypical.

But then what we were able to show is that what people think of as “usual” that defines this tweeting behavior changes really quickly, so that if you have these unusual temperatures multiple years in a row the tweeting response quickly starts to decline. So what that indicates is that people are adjusting their ideas of normal weather very quickly. And we’re actually able to use the tweets to directly estimate the rate at which this updating happens and, to our best estimate, we think that people are using approximately the last two to eight years as a baseline for establishing normal temperatures for that location for that time of year. When people think of, look at the weather outside, and they’re evaluating is it hot, is it cold, the reference point they’re using is set by the fairly recent past.

Ariel: What does this mean as we’re trying to figure out ways to address climate change?

Nick: When we saw this result, we were a bit troubled because it was faster than we would perhaps hope. I’m a political scientist by training, and I saw this and I said, “This is not ideal,” because if you have people getting used to a climate that is changing on geologically rapid scales but perhaps on human time scales somewhat slow — if people get used to that as it changes, then some of the things that we know helps to drive political action, policy, and political attention is just awareness of a problem. And so if you’re having people’s expectations adapt pretty quickly to climate change, then all of a sudden a hundred-degree day in North Dakota would have been very unusual in 2000 but maybe it’s fairly normal in 2030. And so as a result, people aren’t as aware of the signal that climate change is producing. And that could have some pretty troubling political implications.

Fran: My takeaway from this is that I think it certainly points to the risk that these conditions that are geologically or even historically very, very unusual — that they are not perceived as such. We’re really limited by our human perception, and that’s even within individuals, right — what we’re estimating is something that happens within an individual’s lifetime.

So what it means is that you can’t just assume that as climate change gets worse it’s going to automatically rise to the top of the political agenda in terms of urgency. And that, like a lot of other chronic, serious social problems we have, that it takes a lot of work on the part of activists and norm entrepreneurs to do something about climate change. And that just because it’s happening and it’s becoming, at least statistically or scientifically, increasingly clear that it’s happening, that won’t necessarily translate into people wanting to do something about it.

Ariel: And so you guys were looking more at what we might consider sort of abnormalities in relatively normal weather: if it’s colder in May than we’d expect or it’s hotter in January than we’d expect. But that’s not the same as some of the extreme weather events that we’ve also seen. I don’t know if this is sort of a speculative question, but do you think the extreme weather events could help counter our normalization of just changing temperatures or do you think we would eventually normalize the extreme weather events as well?

Nick: That’s a great question. So one of the things we didn’t look at is, for example, giant hurricanes, big wildfires, and things like that that are all likely to increase in frequency and severity in the future. So it could certainly be the case that the increase in frequency and intensity of those events offsets the adaptation, as you suggest. We actually are trying to think about ways to measure how people might adapt to other climate-driven phenomena aside from just regular, day-to-day temperature.

I hope that’s the case, right? Because if we’re also adapting to sea level rise pretty rapidly as it goes along and we’re also adapting to increased frequency of wildfires and things like that, a few things might happen; one being that if we’re getting used to semi-regular flooding, for example, we don’t move as quickly as we need to — up to the point where basically cities start getting inundated, and that could be very problematic. So I hope that what you suggest actually turns out to be the case.

Fran: I think that this is a question we get a lot, like, “Oh, well temperature is one thing, but really the thing that’s really going to spur people is these hurricanes or floods or these wildfires.” And I think that’s a hypothesis, but I would say it’s as yet untested. And sure, a hurricane is an extreme event, but when they start happening frequently, is that going to be subject to the same kind of normalization phenomenon that we show here? I would say I don’t know, and it’s possible it would look really different.

But I think it’s also possible that it wouldn’t, and that when you start seeing these happen on a very regular basis, that they become normalized in a very similar way to what you see here. And it might be that they spur some kind of adaptation or response policy, but the idea that they would automatically spur a lot of mitigation policy I think is something that people seem to think might be true, but I would say that we need some more empirical evidence.

Nick: I like to think of humans as an incredibly adaptable species. I think we’re a great species for that reason. We’re arguably the most successful ever. But our adaptability in this instance may perhaps prove to be part of our undoing, just in normalizing worsening conditions as they deteriorate around us. I hope that the hypothesis that Fran lays out ends up being the case: that, as the climate gets weirder and weirder, there is enough signal that people become concerned enough to do something about it. But it is just an empirical hypothesis at this point.

Fran: What I thought was a really neat thing that we were able to do in this paper was ask: are people just not talking about these conditions because they’ve normalized them and they’re no longer interesting or have people actually been able to take action to reduce the negative consequences of these conditions? And so to do that we used sentiment analysis. So this is something that Nick and our other author Patrick Baylis have used before: Just based on the words that are being used in the tweets, you can measure the overall mood being conveyed or the kind of emotional state of people sending those tweets and what very hot and very cold temperatures have negative effects on sentiment. And we find that those effects persist even if people stop talking about these unusual temperatures.

What that’s saying is that this is not a good news story of effective adaptation, that people are able to reduce the negative consequences of these temperatures. Actually, they’re still being very negatively affected by them — and they’re just not talking about them anymore. And that’s kind of the worst of both worlds.

Ariel: So I want to actually follow up with that because I had a question about that paper that you just referenced. And if I was reading it correctly, it sort of seemed like you’re saying that we basically get crankier as the weather falls onto either extreme of our preferred comfort zone. Is that right? Are we just going to be crankier as climate gets worse?

Nick: So that was the paper that Patrick Baylis and I had with a number of other co-authors, and the key point about that paper is that we were looking at historical contemporaneous weather and we weren’t looking for adaptation over time with that analysis. So what we found is that at certain level of temperature, for example when it’s really hot outside, people’s sentiment goes down — their mood is worsened. When it’s really cold outside, we also found that people’s sentiment was worsened; and we found that, for example, lots of precipitation made people unhappy as well.

But with that paper what we didn’t do was examine the degree to which — changes in the weather over time, people got used to those. And so that’s what we were able to do in this paper with Fran, and what we saw was, as Fran points out, troubling, which is that people weren’t substantially adapting to these temperature shocks over time, to longer term changes in climate —  they just weren’t talking about them as much.

So if you think though that there is no adaptation, then yeah, if the world becomes much hotter, on the hot end of things — so in the summer, in the northern hemisphere for example — people will probably be a bit grumpier. Importantly though, on the other side of things, in the wintertime, if you have warming, you might expect that people are in somewhat better moods because they’re able to enjoy nicer weather outside. So it is a little bit of a double-edged sword in that way, but again important that we don’t see that people are adapting, which is pretty critical.

Ariel: Okay. So we can potentially expect at least the possibility of decrease in life satisfaction just because of weather, without us even really appreciating that it’s the weather that’s doing it to us?

Nick: Yes, during hotter periods. The converse is that during the wintertime, in the northern hemisphere, we would have to say that warming temperatures, people would probably enjoy for the most part. If it was supposed to be 35 degrees Fahrenheit outside and it’s now 45 Fahrenheit, that’s a bit more pleasant. Now you can go with a lighter jacket.

So there will be those small positive benefits — although, as Fran is probably going to talk about here in a little bit, there are other big countervailing negatives that we need to consider too.

Fran: What I like about this paper that Nick and Patrick wrote previously on sentiment, they have these comparisons to it being a Monday or to home team loss. Sometimes it’s hard to put these measures in perspective, and so Mondays on average make people miserable and it being very, very hot out also makes people miserable in kind of similar ways to it being a Monday.

Nick: Yeah. We found that particularly cold temperatures, for example, were a similar magnitude of effect on positive sentiment. A reduced positive sentiment of a magnitude that was equivalent to a small earthquake in your location and things like that. So the magnitude effects of the weather are much larger than we necessarily thought that they would be, which we thought was I guess interesting. But also there was a whole big literature from psychology and economics and political science that had looked at weather and various outcomes and found that sometimes the effect sizes were very large and sometimes the effect sizes were effectively zero. So we tried to basically just provide the answer to that question in that paper: The weather matters.

Ariel: I want to go back to the idea of whether or not extreme events will be normalized, because I tend to be slightly cynical — and maybe this is hopeful for once — that the economic cost of the extreme events is not something we would normalize too, that we would not get used to having to spend billions of dollars a year, whatever it is, to rebuild cities.

And Fran, I think that touches on some of your work if I’m correct, in that you look at what some of these costs of climate change would be. So first, is that correct? Is that one of the things that you look at?

Fran: Yeah. A large component of my work has been on improving the representation of climate change damages, so kind of what we know from the physical sciences about how climate change affects the things that we care about and including the representation of that in the thing called the social cost of carbon, which is a measure that’s very relevant for the regulatory and policy analysis for climate change.

Ariel: Can you explain what the social cost of carbon is? What is being measured?

Fran: So if you think about when we emit a ton of CO2, right, and that ton of CO2 goes off into the elements of the earth and it’s going to affect the climate, that change in the climate is going to have consequences around the world in many different sectors and is going to stay in the atmosphere for a long time. And so those effects are going to persist far out into the future.

What the social cost of carbon is, it’s really just an accounting exercise that tries to quantify what are all those impacts and then add them all up together and put them in common units and assign that as a cost of that ton of CO2 that you emitted. You can see in that description why this is an ambitious exercise in that we’re talking about, theoretically there should be all these climate change impacts around the world for all time. And then there’s another step too, which is in order to aggregate these to add them up, you need to put everything into common units. So the units that we use are dollars, so that’s a critical economic valuation step in order to think about these things that happen in agriculture or they happen along coastlines or they affect mortality risk and how do you take all them and then put them into some kind of common unit and value them all.

And so depending on what type of impact you’re talking about, that’s more or less challenging. But it’s an important number because at least in the United States, we have a requirement that all regulations have to have passed a cost-benefit analysis. So in order to do a cost-benefit analysis of climate regulation, you need to understand what are the benefits of not emitting CO2? So pretty much any policy that’s affecting emissions needs to account for these damages in some way. That’s why this is very directly relevant to policy.

Ariel: I want to keep looking at what this means. In one of your papers you have a sentence that reads, “impacts on the agriculture increase from net benefits $2.7 ton per carbon to net cost of $8.5 per ton of CO2.” I think that seemed like a really good example for you to explain what these costs actually mean?

Fran: Yeah. This was an exercise I did a couple of years ago with coauthors Tom Hertel and Uris Baldos and Delavane Diaz. The idea was that we know now a lot about how climate change affects crop yields. There’s been an awful lot of work on that in economics and agricultural sciences. But that was essentially not represented in the social cost of carbon, where our estimates of climate change damages really came from studies that were either in the late 80s or the early 90s, and really our understanding of how climate change will affect agriculture has really changed since then.

What those numbers represent, the benefits of $2.7 per ton is what is currently represented in the models that calculate the social cost of carbon. So the fact that it’s negative, that indicates that these models were thinking that agriculture on net is going to benefit from climate change. This is largely because a combination of CO2 fertilization and a fair bit of assumption that in most of the world crops are going to benefit from higher temperatures. Now we know that’s more or less not the case.

When we look at how we think temperature and CO2 is going to affect the major crops around the world, we use these estimates from the IPCC, and then we introduce those into an economic model. This is a valuation set. That economic model will kind of account for the fact that countries can shift what they grow, they can change their consumption patterns, they can change their trading partners. A lot of these economic adjustments that we know can be done, and this modeling accounts for all of that. We find a fairly large negative effect of climate change on agriculture, which amounts to about $9 per ton of CO2, and those are kind of discounted paths. So you emit a ton of CO2 today, that’s the dollar value today of all the future damages that ton of CO2 will have via the agricultural sector.

Ariel: As a reminder, how many tons of CO2 were emitted, say, last year, or the year before? Something that we know?

Fran: We do know that. I’m not sure I can tell you that off the top of my head. I would caution you that you also don’t want to take this number and just multiply it by the total tons emitted, because this is a marginal value. This is merely about do we emit this ton or not? It’s really not a value that can be used for saying, “Okay, well the total damages from climate change are X.” There’s distinction between total damages and marginal damages, and the social cost of carbon number is very much about marginal damages.

So it’s like at the margin, how much should we tax CO2? It’s really not going to tell you, should we be on a two-degree pathway, or should we be on a four-degree pathway, or should we be on a 1.5-degree pathway? That you need a really different analysis for.

Ariel: I want to ask one more follow-up question to this, and then I want to get onto some of the other papers of Nick’s. What are the cost estimates that we’re looking at right now? What are you comfortable saying that we’re, I don’t know, losing this much money, we’re going to pay this much money, we’re going to negatively be impacted by X number of dollars?

Fran: The exercise that the Obama administration went through, a fairly comprehensive exercise to take the existing models and standardize them in certain ways to try and say, “What is the social cost of carbon value that we should use?” They have a number that’s around $40 per ton of CO2. If you take that number as a benchmark, there’s obviously a lot of uncertainty around it, and I think it’s fair to say a lot of that uncertainty is on the high end rather than on the low end. So if you think about probability distribution around that existing number, I would say there’s a lot of reasons why it might be higher than $40 per ton, and there’s a few, but not a ton, of reasons why it might be lower.

Ariel: Nick, was there anything you wanted to add to what Fran has just been talking about?

Nick: Yeah. The only thing I would say is I totally agree that the uncertainty is on the upper bound of the estimate of the social cost of carbon, and possibly on the extreme upper bound. So there are unknowns that we can’t estimate from the historical data in terms of being able to figure out what happens in the natural system and how that translates through to the social system and the social costs. We and Fran are basically just doing the best we can with the historical evidence that we can bring to bear on the question, but there are giant “unknown unknowns,” to quote Donald Rumsfeld.

Ariel: I want to sort of quantify this ever so slightly. I Googled it, and it looks like we are emitting in the tens of billions of tons of carbon each year? Does that sound right?

Fran: Check that it’s carbon and not CO2. I think it’s eight to nine gigatons of carbon.

Ariel: Okay.

Nick: CO2 equivalence.

Ariel: Anyway, it’s a lot.

Nick: It’s a lot, yeah.

Ariel: That’s the point.

Nick: It’s a lot; It’s increasing. I think 2018 was an increased blip in terms of the rate of emissions. We need to be decreasing, and we’re still increasing. Not great.

Ariel: All right. We’ll take a quick break from the economic side of things and what this will financially cost us, and look at some of the human impacts that we many not necessarily be thinking about, but which Nick has been looking into. I’m just going to go through a list of very quick questions that I asked about a few papers that I looked at.

The first one I looked at is apparently — and this makes sense when I think about it — climate change is going to impact our physical activity, because it’s too hot in places, or things like that. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the research you did into that and what you think the health implications are.

Nick: Yeah, totally. So I like to think about the climate impacts that are not necessarily easily and readily and immediately translated into dollar value because I think really we live in a pretty complex system, and when you turn up the temperature on that complex system, it’s probably going to affect basically everything. The question is what’s going to be affected and how much are the important things going to be affected? And so a lot of my work has focused on identifying things that we hadn’t yet thought about as social scientists in doing the social impact estimates in the cost of carbon and just raising questions about those areas.

Physical activity was one. The idea to look at that actually came from back in 2015 — there was a big heat wave in San Diego when I was living there, and I was in a regular running regimen. I would go running at 4:00 or 5:00 PM, but there were a number of weeks, definitely strings of days, where it was 100 degrees or more in October in San Diego, which is very unusual. At 4:00 PM it would be 100 degrees and kind of humid, so I just didn’t run as much for a couple of weeks, and that threw off my whole exercise schedule. I was like, “Huh, that’s an interesting impact of heat that I hadn’t really heard about.”

So I was like, “Well, I know this big data set that collects people’s reported physical activity over time, and has a decade worth of data on randomly sampled US, I think about a million randomly sampled US citizens.” Over a million. So I had those data, and I was like, “Well, I wonder if you see the weather and the climate that these people are living in, does that influence their exercise patterns?” What we found was a little bit surprising to me because I had thought about it on the hot end: “Oh, I stopped running because it was too hot.” But the reality is that temperature, and also rainfall, impact our physical activity patterns across the full distribution.

When it’s really cold outside, people don’t report being very physically active and one of the main reasons for that is one of the primary ways Americans get physical activity is by going outside for a run or a jog or a walk. When it’s very nasty outside, people report not being as physically active. We saw on the cold end of the distribution that as temperatures warmed up, people exercised more. That was actually up to a relatively high peak in that function. It was an inverted U shape, and the peak was relatively high in terms of temperature. It was somewhere around 84 degrees fahrenheit.

What we realized actually is that at least in the US, at least in some of the northern latitudes in the US, people might exercise more as temperatures warm up to a point. They might exercise more in the wintertime, for example. That was this small little silver lining in what is otherwise, from my research and from Fran’s research and most research on this topic, a cascade of negative news that is likely to result from climate change. But the health impacts of being more physically active are positive. It’s one of the most important things we can do for our health. So a small, positive impact of warming temperatures offset by all the other things that we’ve found.

Ariel: I know from personal experience I definitely don’t like to run in the winter. I don’t like ice, so that makes sense.

Nick: Ice, frostbite.

Ariel: Yeah.

Nick: All these things are … yeah. So just observationally, if I look out my window, and there’s a running path near me, I see dramatically more people on a sunny, mild day than I do during the middle of the winter. That’s how most people get their exercise. A lot of people, we know from the public health literature, if they’re not going out for a walk or a stroll, they’re not really getting any physical activity at all.

Ariel: Okay. So potential good news.

Nick: A little bit. Just a little bit.

Fran: Yeah. Nick moved from San Diego to Boston, so I think he’s got a better appreciation of the benefits of warmer wintertime temperatures.

Nick: I do! Although, and this is an important limitation in that study, is we didn’t really, again, look at adaptation over time. And what I found moving to Boston was that I got used to the cold winters much faster than I thought I would coming from San Diego, and now do go running in the wintertime here, though I thought I would barely be able to go outside. So perhaps that’s a positive thing in terms of our ability to adapt on the hotter end as well, and perhaps that undercuts a little bit the degree to which warming during the winter might increase physical activity.

This is a broader and more general point. A lot of these studies — it’s pretty hard to look at long-term adaptation over time because some of the data sets that we have just don’t give us enough span of time to really see people adapt their behaviors within person. So, many of the studies are kind of estimating the direct effect of temperature, for example, on physical activity, and not estimating how much long-term warming has changed people’s physical activity patterns. There are some studies that do that with respect to some outcomes — for example, agricultural yields. But it’s less common to do that with some of the public health-related outcomes and psychological-related outcomes.

Ariel: I want to ask about some of these other studies you’ve done as well, but do you think starting these studies now will help us get more research into this in the future?

Nick: Yeah. I think the more and the better data that we have, the better we’re going to be able to answer some of these questions. For example, the physical activity paper, also we did a sleep paper — the self-report data that we used in those papers are indeed just self-report data. So we’re able to get access to what are called actigraph data, or data that come from monitors like Fitbit and actually track people’s sleep and physical activity. We’re working on those follow-up studies, and the more data that we have and the longer that we have those data, the more we can identify potential adaptation over time.

Ariel: The sleep study was actually where I was going to go next. It seemed nicely connected to the physical activity one. Basically we’ve been told for years to get eight hours of sleep and to try to set the temperatures in our rooms to be cooler so that our quality of sleep is better. But it seems that increasing temperatures from climate change might affect that. So I was hoping you could weigh in on that too.

Nick: Yeah. I think you said it pretty well. The results in that paper basically indicate that higher nighttime temperatures outside, higher ambient temperatures outside, increase the frequency that people report a bad night of sleep. Basically what we say is absent adaptation, climate change might worsen human sleep in the future.

Now, one of the primary ways you adapt, as you just mentioned, is by turning the AC on, keeping it cooler in the room in the summertime, and trying to fight the fact that it’s — as it was in San Diego — it’s 90 degrees and humid at 12:00 AM. The problem with that is that a lot of our electricity grid is currently still on carbon. Until we decarbonize the grid, if we’re using more air conditioning to make it cooler and make it comfortable in our rooms in the summers, we are emitting more carbon.

That poses something else that Fran and I have talked about and others are starting to work on: the idea that it’s not a one-way street. In other words, if the climate system is changing, and it’s changing our behaviors in order to adapt to it, or just frankly changing our behaviors, we are potentially altering the amount of carbon that we put back into the system and the positive feedback loop that’s driven by humans this time, as opposed to permafrost and things like that. So, it’s a big, complex equation. And that makes estimating the social cost of carbon all the harder because it’s no longer just this one-way street. But if it means emitting carbon through behavioral effects of emitting that carbon causes the emission of more carbon, then you have a harder-to-estimate function.

Fran: Yeah, you’re right, and it is hard. I often get questions of like, “Oh, is this in the social cost of carbon? Is this?” And usually the answer is no.

Ariel: Yeah. I guess I’ve got another one sort of like that. I mean, I think studies indicate pretty well right now that if you don’t get enough sleep, you’re not as productive at work, and that’s going to cost the economy as well. Is stuff like that also being considered or taken into account?

Fran: I think in general, I think researchers’ ideas a few decades ago was very much that there were a very limited set of pathways by which a developed economy could be affected by climate. We could enumerate those, and they were things like agriculture or forestry and coastline affected by sea level rise. The newer work that’s being done now, like Nick’s papers that we just talked about, and a lot of other work, is showing that actually we seem to be very sensitive to temperature on a number of fronts, and that has these quite pervasive economic effects.

Fran: And so, yeah, the sleep question is a huge one, right? If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, that affects how much you can learn in school the next day, it affects your productivity at work the next day. So we do see evidence that temperature affects labor productivity in developed countries. Even in sectors that you think should be relatively well insulated against them, let’s say because there’s work that’s being done inside, there’s evidence too that high temperatures affect how well students can learn in school and their test scores. That has potentially a very long term effect on their educational trajectory in life and their ability to accumulate human capital and their earning potential in the future.

Fran: And so, these newer findings I think are suggesting that even developed economies are sensitive in ways that we’re only beginning to learn to climate change, and pretty much none of that is currently represented in our current estimates of the social cost of carbon.

Nick: Yeah, that’s a great point. And to add an example to that, I did a study last year in which I looked at government productivity, so government workers’ productivity. Because we had seen a number of these studies, as Fran mentioned, that private sector productivity was declining, and I was wondering if government workers that are tasked with overseeing our safety, especially in times of heat stress and other forms of stress, if those workers themselves were affected by heat stress and other forms of environmental stress.

We indeed found that they were, so we found that police officers were less likely to stop people in traffic stops even though there was an increased risk of traffic fatalities and also crime increases with higher temperatures as well. We found that food safety inspectors were less likely to do inspections. The probability of an inspection declined as the temperature increased, though the risk of violation conditional on an inspection happening increased. So it’s more likely that there’s a food safety problem when it’s hot out, but food safety inspectors were less likely to go out and do inspections.

That’s another thing that fits into, “Okay, we’re affected in really complex ways.” Maybe it’s the case that the food safety inspectors were less likely to go do their job because they were really tired because they didn’t sleep well the night before, or perhaps because they were grumpy because it was really hot outside. We don’t know exactly, but these systems are indeed really complicated and probably a lot of things are in play all at once.

Ariel: Another one that you have looked that I think is also important to consider in this whole complex system that’s being impacted by climate change is democratic processes.

Nick: Yeah, yeah. I’m a political scientist by training, and what we political scientists do is think a lot about politics, the democratic process, voting, turnout, and one of things that we know best in political science is this thing called retrospective voting or perhaps economic voting — basically the idea that people vote largely based on either how well they individually are doing, or how well they perceive their society is doing under the current incumbent. So in the US for example, if the economy is doing well the incumbent faces better prospects than if the economy is doing poorly. If individuals perceive that they are doing well, the incumbent faces better prospects.

I basically just sat down and thought for a while, and was like, you know, climate change across all these dimensions is likely to worsen both economic well-being, and also just personal, psychological, and physiological well-being. I wonder if it’s the case that it might somewhat disrupt the way that democracies function, and the way that elections function in democracies. For example, if you’re exposed to hotter temperatures there are lots of reasons to suspect that you might perceive being yourself less well-off — and whoever’s in office, you might just be a little bit less likely to vote for them in the next election.

So I put together a bunch of election results from a variety of countries around the world, a variety of democratic institutions around the world, and looked at the effect of hotter temperatures on the incumbent politicians’ prospects in the upcoming elections: So, what were the effects of the temperatures prior to the election on the electoral success of that incumbent? And what I found was that as you had unusual increases in temperature the year prior to an election, and as those got hotter on the distribution — so hotter places — you saw that the incumbent prospects declined in that election. Incumbent politicians were more likely to get thrown out of office when temperatures were unusually warm, especially in hotter places.

And that, as a political scientist, is a little bit troubling because it could be two things. It could be the case that politicians are being thrown out of office because they don’t respond well to the stressors associated with added temperature. So they could, for example, if there was a heatwave, and it caused some crop losses, maybe those politicians didn’t do a good enough job helping the people who lost those crops. But it also might just be the case that people are grumpier, and they’re not feeling as good, and there’s really no way the politician can respond, or the politician has limited resources and can only respond so much.

And if that’s the driving function then what you see is this exogenous shock leading to an ouster of a democratically elected politician, perhaps not directly related to the performance of that politician. And that can lead to added electoral churn; If you see increased rates of electoral churn where politicians are losing office with increasing frequency, it can shorten the electoral time horizons that politicians have. If they think that every election they stand a real good chance of losing office they may be less likely to pursue policies that have benefits over two or three election cycles. That was the crux of that paper.

Ariel: Fran, did you have anything you wanted to add to that?

Fran: I think it’s a really really fascinating question. This is one of my favorite of Nick’s papers. We think about how these really fundamental institutions that we think when we go to the ballot box, and we do our election, there’s a lot of factors that go into that, right? Even the very fact that you can pick up any kind of temperature signal on that is surprising to me, and I think it’s a really important finding. And then trying to pin down these mechanisms I think is interesting for trying to play out the scenarios of how does climate change proceed in terms of the effects of changing the political environment in which we’re operating, and having, like Nick said, these potentially long term effects on the types of issues politicians are willing to work on. It’s really important, and I think it’s something that needs more work.

Nick: Fran makes an excellent point embedded in there, which is the understanding of what we call causal mediation. In other words, if you see that hot temperatures lead to a reduction in GDP growth, why is that? What exactly is causing that? GDP growth is this huge aggregate of all of these different things. Why might temperature be causing that? Or even, for example, if you see that temperature is affecting people’s sleep quality, why is that the case? Is it because it’s influencing the degree to which people are stressed out during the day because they’re grumpier, they’re having more negative interactions, and then they’re thinking about that before they fall asleep? Is it due to purely physiological reasons, circadian rhythm and sleep cascades?

The short of it is, we don’t actually have very good answers to most of these questions for most of the climates impacts that we’ve looked at, and it’s pretty critical to have better answers, largely because if you want to adapt to coming climate changes, you’d like to spend your policy money on the things that are most important in those equations for reducing GDP growth or causing mental health outcomes or worsening people’s mood. You’d like to really be able to tell people precisely what they can do to adapt, and also spend money precisely where it’s needed, and it’s just strictly difficult science to be able to do that well.

Ariel: I want to actually go back real quick to something that you had said earlier, too: the idea that if politicians know that they’re unlikely to get elected during the next cycle, they’re also unlikely to plan long term. And I think especially when we’re looking at a situation like climate change where we need politicians who can plan long term, it seems like can this actually exacerbate our short-term thinking?

Nick: Yeah. That’s what I was concerned about, and still something that I am concerned about. As you get more and more extremes that are occurring more and more regularly and politicians are either responding well or not responding well to those extremes it may be somewhat like our weather and expectations paper — similar underlying psychological dynamics — which is just that people become more and more focused on their recent past, and their recent experience in history, and what’s going on now.

And if that’s the case then if you’re a politician, and you’ve had a bunch of hurricanes, or you’re dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes in your district, really should you be spending your policy efforts on carbon mitigation, or should you be trying to make sure that all of your constituents right now are housed and fed? That’s a little bit of a false dichotomy there, but it isn’t fully a false dichotomy because politicians only have so many resources, and they only have so much time. So as their risk of losing election goes up due to something that is more immediate, politicians will tend to focus on those risks as opposed to longer-term risks.

Ariel: I feel like in that example, too, in defense of the politicians, if you actually have to deal with people who are without homes and without food, that is sort of the higher priority.

Nick: Totally. I mean, I did a bunch of field work in Sub-Saharan Africa for my graduate studies and spent a lot of time in Malawi and South Africa, and talking to politicians there about how they felt about climate change, and specifically climate change mitigation policy. And half the time that I asked them they just looked at me as if I was crazy, and would explicitly say, like, “You must be crazy if you think that we have a  time horizon that gives us 20 years to worry about how our people are doing 20 years from now when they can’t feed themselves, and don’t have running water, and don’t have electricity right now. We’re working on the day to day things, the long term perspective just gets thrown out the window.” I think to a lesser degree that operates in every democratic polity.

Fran: This gets back to that question that we were talking about earlier: Are extreme events kind of fundamentally different in motivating action to reduce emissions? And this is exactly the reason why I’m not convinced that it’s the case, in that when you have the repeated extreme events, yes, there’s a lot of focus on rebuilding or restoring or kind of recovering from those events — potentially at the detriment of longer-term, less immediate action that would affect the long-term probability of getting those events in the future, which is reducing emissions.

And so I think it’s a very complex, causal argument to make in the face of a hurricane or a catastrophe that you need to be reducing emissions to address that, right, and that’s why I’m not convinced that just getting more and more disasters is going to automatically lead to more action on climate change. I think it’s actually almost this kind of orthogonal process that generates the political will to do something about climate change.

Having these disasters and operating in this very resource-constrained world — that’s a world in which action on climate change might be less likely, right? Doing some things that are quite costly involve a lot of political will and political leadership, and doing that in an environment where people are feeling vulnerable and feeling kind of exposed to natural disasters I think is actually going to be more difficult.

Nick: Yeah. So that’s an excellent point, Fran. I think you could see both things operating, which is I think you could see that people aren’t necessarily adapting their expectations to giant wildfires every single summer, that they realize that something is off and weird about that, but that they just simply can’t direct that attention to doing something about climate change because literally their house just burnt down. So they’re not going to be out in the streets lobbying their politicians as directly because they have more things to worry about. That is troubling to me, too.

Ariel: So that, I think, is a super, super important point, and now I have something new to worry about. It makes sense that the local communities that are being directly impacted by these horrific events have to deal with what’s just happened to them, but do we see an increase in external communities looking at what’s happening and saying, “Oh, we’ve got to stop this, and because we weren’t directly impacted we actually can do something?”

Nick: Anecdotally, somewhat yes. I mean, for example, if you look at the last couple of summers and the wildfire season, when there are big wildfire outbreaks the news media does a better than average job at linking that extreme weather to climate change, and starting to talk about climate change.

So if it is the case that people consume that news media and are now thinking about climate change more, that is good. And I think actually from some of the more recent surveys we’ve actually seen an uptick in awareness about climate change, worry about climate change, and willingness to list it as a top priority. So there are some positive trends on that front.

The bigger question is still an empirical one, though, which is what happens when you have 10 years of wildfires every summer. Maybe people are now not talking about it as much as they did in the very beginning.

Ariel: So I have two final questions for both of you. The first is: is there something that you think is really important for people to know or understand that we didn’t touch on?

Nick: I would say this, and this is maybe more extreme than Fran would say, but we are in really big trouble. We are in really, really big trouble. We are emitting more and faster than we were previously. We are probably dramatically underestimating the social cost of carbon because of all the reasons that we noted here and for many more, and the one thing that I kind of always tell people is don’t be lulled by the relatively banal feeling of your sleep getting disrupted, because if your sleep is disrupted it’s because everything is being disrupted, and it’s going to get worse.

We’ve not seen even a small fraction of  the likely total cost of climate change, and so yeah, be worried, and ideally use that worry in a productive way to lobby your politicians to do something about it.

Fran: I would say we talked about the social cost of carbon and the way it’s used, and I think sometimes it does get criticized because we know there’s a lot of things that it doesn’t capture, like what Nick’s been talking about, but I also know that we’re very confident that it’s greater than zero at this point, and substantially greater than zero, right? So the question of, should it be 40 dollars a ton, or should it be 100 dollars a ton, or should it be higher than that, is frankly quite irrelevant when right now we’re really not putting any price on carbon, we’re not doing any kind of ambitious climate policy.

Sometimes I think people get bogged down in these arguments of, is it bad, or is it catastrophic, and frankly either way we should be doing something to reduce our emissions, and they shouldn’t be going up, they should be going down, and we should be doing more than we’re doing right now. And arguing about where we end that process, or when we end that process of reducing our emissions is really not a relevant discussion to be having right now because right now everyone can agree that we need to start the process.

And so I think not getting too hung up on should it be two degrees, should it be 1.5, but just really focused on let’s do more, and let’s do it now, and let’s start that, and see where that gets us, and once we start that process and can begin to learn from it, that’s going to take us a long way to being where we want to be. I think these questions of, “Why aren’t we doing more than we’re doing now?” are the most important and some of the most interesting around climate change right now.

Nick: Yeah. Let’s do everything we can to avoid four or five degrees Celsius, and we can quibble over 1.5 or two later. Totally agree.

Ariel: Okay. So I’m going to actually add a question. So we’ve got two more questions for real this time I think. What do we do? What do you suggest we do? What can a listener right now do to help?

Fran: Vote. Make climate change your priority when you’re thinking about candidates, when you’re engaged in the democratic process, and when you’re talking to your elected representative — reach out to them, and make sure they know that this is the priority for you. And I would also say talk to your friends and family, right? Like these scientists or economists talking about this, that’s not something that’s going to reach everyone, right, but reaching out to your network of people who value your opinion, or just talking about this, and making sure people realize this is a critical issue for our generation, and the decisions we take now are going to shape the future of the planet in very real ways, and collectively we do have agency to do something about it.

Nick: Yes. I second all of that. I think the key is that no one can convince your friends and family that climate change is a threat perhaps better than you, the listener, can. Certainly Fran and I are not going to be able to convince your friends, and that’s just the way that humans work. We trust those that we are close to and trust. So if we want to get a collective movement to start doing something about carbon, it’s going to have to happen via the political process, and it’s also just going to have to happen in our social networks, by actually going out there and talking to people about it. So let’s do that.

Ariel: All right. So final question, now that we’ve gone through all these awful things that are going to happen: what gives you hope?

Fran: If we think about a world that solves this problem, that is a world that has come together to work on a truly global problem. The reason why we’ll solve this problem is because we recognize that we value the future, that we value people living in other countries, people around the world, and that we value nature and nonhuman life on the planet, and that we’ve taken steps to incorporate those values into how we organize our life.

When we think about that, that is a very big ask, right? We shouldn’t underestimate just how difficult this is to do, but we should also recognize that it’s going to be a really amazing world to live in. It’s going to provide a kind of foundation for all kinds of cooperation and collective action I think on other issues to build a better world.

Recognizing that that’s what we’re working towards, these are the values that we want to reflect in our society, and that is a really positive place to be, and a place that is worth working towards — that’s what’s giving me hope.

Nick: That’s a beautiful answer, Fran. I agree with that. It would be a great world to live in. The thing that I would say is giving me hope is actually if I had looked forward in 2010 and said, “Okay, where do I think that renewables are going to be? Where do I think that the electrification of vehicles is going to be?” I would have guessed that we would not be anywhere close to where we are right now on those fronts.

We are making much more progress on getting certain aspects of the economy and our lives decarbonized than I thought we would have been, even without any real carbon policy on those fronts. So that’s pretty hopeful for me. I think that as long as we can continue that trend we won’t have everything go poorly, but I also hesitate to hinge too much of our fate on the hope that technological advances from the past will continue at the same rate into the future. At the end of the day we probably really do need some policy, and we need to get together and engage in collective action to try and solve this problem. I hope that we can.

Ariel: I hope that we can, too. So Nick and Fran, thank you both so much for joining us today.

Nick: Thanks for having me.

Fran: Thanks so much for the interesting conversation.

Ariel: Yeah. I enjoyed this, thank you.

As always, if you’ve been enjoying the show, please take a moment to like it, share it, and follow us no your preferred podcast platform.

 

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Updates From the COP24 Climate Change Meeting

For the first two weeks in December, the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) gathered in Katowice, Poland for the 24th annual Conference of the Parties (COP24).

The UNFCCC defines its ultimate goal as “preventing ‘dangerous’ human interference with the climate system,” and its objective for COP24 was to design an “implementation package” for the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. This package, known as the Katowice Rules, is intended to bolster the Paris Agreement by intensifying the mitigation goals of each of its member countries and, in so doing, ensure the full implementation of the Paris Agreement.

The significance of this package is clearly articulated in the COP24 presidency’s vision — “there is no Paris Agreement without Katowice.”

And the tone of the event was, fittingly, one of urgency. Negotiations took place in the wake of the latest IPCC report, which made clear in its findings that the original terms of the Paris Agreement are insufficient. If we are to keep to the preferred warming target of 1.5°C this century, the report notes that we must strengthen the global response to climate change.

The need for increased action was reiterated throughout the event. During the first week of talks, the Global Carbon Project released new data showing a 2.7% increase in carbon emissions in 2018 and projecting further emissions growth in 2019. And the second week began with a statement from global investors who, “strongly urge all governments to implement the actions that are needed to achieve the goals of the [Paris] Agreement, with the utmost urgency.” The investors warned that, without drastic changes, the economic fallout from climate change would likely be several times worse than the 2008 financial crisis.

Against this grim backdrop, negotiations crawled along.

Progress was impeded early on by a disagreement over the wording used in the Conference’s acknowledgment of the IPCC report. Four nations — the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait — took issue with a draft that said the parties “welcome” the report, preferring to say they “took note” of it. A statement from the U.S. State Department explained: “The United States was willing to note the report and express appreciation to the scientists who developed it, but not to welcome it, as that would denote endorsement of the report.”

There was also tension between the U.S. and China surrounding the treatment of developed vs. developing countries. The U.S. wants one universal set of rules to govern emissions reporting, while China has advocated for looser standards for itself and other developing nations.

Initially scheduled to wrap on Friday, talks continued into the weekend, as a resolution was delayed in the final hours by Brazil’s opposition to a proposal that would change rules surrounding carbon trading markets. Unable to strike a compromise, negotiators ultimately tabled the proposal until next year, and a deal was finally struck on Saturday, following negotiations that carried on through the night.

The final text of the Katowice Rules welcomes the “timely completion” of the IPCC report and lays out universal requirements for updating and fulfilling national climate pledges. It holds developed and developing countries to the same reporting standard, but it offers flexibility for “those developing country parties that need it in the light of their capacities.” Developing countries will be left to self-determine whether or not they need flexibility.

The rules also require that countries report any climate financing, and developed countries are called on to increase their financial contributions to climate efforts in developing countries.

The photo for this article was originally posted here.

US Government Releases Its Latest Climate Assessment, Demands Immediate Action

At the end of last week, amidst the flurry of holiday shopping, the White House quietly released Volume II of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4). The comprehensive report, which was compiled by the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), is the culmination of decades of environmental research conducted by scientists from 13 different federal agencies. The scope of the work is truly striking, representing more than 300 authors and encompassing thousands of scientific studies.

Unfortunately, the report is also rather grim.

If climate change continues unabated, the assessment asserts that it will cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions a year by the close of the century — causing some $155 billion in annual damages to labor and another $118 billion in damages to coastal property. In fact, the report notes that, unless we immediately launch “substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts,” the impact on the agricultural sector alone will reach billions of dollars in losses by the middle of the century.

Notably, the NCA4 authors emphasize that these aren’t just warnings for future generations, pointing to several areas of the United States that are already grappling with the high economic cost of climate change. For example, a powerful heatwave that struck the Northeast left local fisheries devastated, and similar events in Alaska have dramatically slashed fishing quotas for certain stocks. Meanwhile, human activity is exacerbating Florida’s red tide, killing fish populations along the southwest coast.

Of course, the economy won’t be the only thing that suffers.

According to the assessment, climate change is increasingly threatening the health and well-being of the American people, and emission reduction efforts could ultimately save thousands of lives. Young children, pregnant women, and aging populations are identified as most at risk; however, the authors note that waterborne infectious diseases and global food shortages threaten all populations.

As with the economic impact, the toll on human health is already visible. For starters, air pollution is driving a rise in the number of deaths related to heart and lung problems. Asthma diagnoses have increased, and rising temperatures are causing a surge in heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses. And the report makes it clear that the full extent of the risk extends well beyond either the economy or human health, plainly stating that climate change threatens all life on our planet.

Ultimately, the authors emphasize the immediacy of the issue, noting that without immediate action, no system will be left untouched:

“Climate change affects the natural, built, and social systems we rely on individually and through their connections to one another….extreme weather and climate-related impacts on one system can result in increased risks or failures in other critical systems, including water resources, food production and distribution, energy and transportation, public health, international trade, and national security. The full extent of climate change risks to interconnected systems, many of which span regional and national boundaries, is often greater than the sum of risks to individual sectors.”

Yet, the picture painted by the NCA4 assessment is not entirely bleak. The report suggests that, with a concerted and sustained effort, the most dire damage can be undone and ultimate catastrophe averted. The authors note that this will require international cooperation centered on a dramatic reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions.

The 2015 Paris Agreement, in which 195 countries put forth emission reduction pledges, represented a landmark in international effort to curtail global warming. The agreement was designed to cap warming at 2 degrees Celsius, a limit scientists then believed would prevent the most severe and irreversible effects of climate change. That limit has since been lowered to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, current models predict that the even if countries hit their current pledges, temperatures will still climb to 3.3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The Paris Agreement offers a necessary first step, but in light of these new predictions, pledges must be strengthened.

Scientists hope the findings in the National Climate Assessment will compel the U.S. government to take the lead in updating their climate commitments.

Podcast: Can We Avoid the Worst of Climate Change? with Alexander Verbeek and John Moorhead

“There are basically two choices. We’re going to massively change everything we are doing on this planet, the way we work together, the actions we take, the way we run our economy, and the way we behave towards each other and towards the planet and towards everything that lives on this planet. Or we sit back and relax and we just let the whole thing crash. The choice is so easy to make, even if you don’t care at all about nature or the lives of other people. Even if you just look at your own interests and look purely through an economical angle, it is just a good return on investment to take good care of this planet.” – Alexander Verbeek

On this month’s podcast, Ariel spoke with Alexander Verbeek and John Moorhead about what we can do to avoid the worst of climate change. Alexander is a Dutch diplomat and former strategic policy advisor at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He created the Planetary Security Initiative where representatives from 75 countries meet annually on the climate change-security relationship. John is President of Drawdown Switzerland, an act tank to support Project Drawdown and other science-based climate solutions that reverse global warming. He is a blogger at Thomson Reuters, The Economist, and sciencebasedsolutions.com, and he advises and informs on climate solutions that are economy, society, and environment positive.

Topics discussed in this episode include:

  • Why the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees C of global warming is so important, and why we can’t exceed 2 degrees C of warming
  • Why the economy needs to fundamentally change to save the planet
  • The inequality of climate change
  • Climate change’s relation to international security problems
  • How we can avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change: runaway climate change and a “Hothouse Earth”
  • Drawdown’s 80 existing technologies and practices to solve climate change
  • “Trickle up” climate solutions — why individual action is just as important as national and international action
  • What all listeners can start doing today to address climate change

Publications and initiatives discussed in this episode include:

You can listen to this podcast above, or read the full transcript below. And feel free to check out our previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

 

Ariel: Hi everyone, Ariel Conn here with the Future of Life Institute. Now, this month’s podcast is going live on Halloween, so I thought what better way to terrify our listeners than with this month’s IPCC report. If you’ve been keeping up with the news this month, you’re well aware that the report made very dire predictions about what a future warmer world will look like if we don’t keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Then of course there were all of the scientists’ warnings that came out after the report about how the report underestimated just how bad things could get.

It was certainly enough to leave me awake at night in a cold sweat. Yet the report wasn’t completely without hope. The authors seem to still think that we can take action in time to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. So to consider this report, the current state of our understanding of climate change, and how we can ensure global warming is kept to a minimum, I’m excited to have Alexander Verbeek and John Moorhead join me today.

Alexander is a Dutch environmentalist, diplomat, and former strategic policy advisor at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Over the past 28 years, he has worked on international security, humanitarian, and geopolitical risk issues, and the linkage to the Earth’s accelerating environmental crisis. He created the Planetary Security Initiative held at The Hague’s Peace Palace where representatives from 75 countries meet annually on the climate change-security relationship. He spends most of his time speaking and advising on planetary change to academia, global NGOs, private firms, and international organizations.

John is President of Drawdown Switzerland in addition to being a blogger at Thomson Reuters, The Economist, and sciencebasedsolutions.com. He advises and informs on climate solutions that are economy, society, and environment positive. He affects change by engaging on the solutions to global warming with youth, business, policy makers, investors, civil society, government leaders, et cetera. Drawdown Switzerland an act tank to support Project Drawdown and other science-based climate solutions that reverse global warming in Switzerland and internationally by investment at scale in Drawdown Solutions. So John and Alexander, thank you both so much for joining me today.

Alexander: It’s a pleasure.

John: Hi Ariel.

Ariel: All right, so before we get too far into any details, I want to just look first at the overall message of the IPCC report. That was essentially: two degrees warming is a lot worse than 1.5 degrees warming. So, I guess my very first question is why did the IPCC look at that distinction as opposed to anything else?

Alexander: Well, I think it’s a direct follow up from the negotiations in the Paris Agreement, where in a very late stage after the talk for all the time about two degrees, at a very late stage the text included the reference to aiming for 1.5 degrees. At that moment, it invited the IPCC to produce a report by 2018 about what the difference actually is between 1.5 and 2 degrees. Another major conclusion is that it is still possible to stay below 1.5 degrees, but then we have to really urgently really do a lot, and that is basically cut in the next 12 years our carbon pollution with 45%. So that means we have no day to lose, and governments, basically everybody, business and people, everybody should get in action. The house is on fire. We need to do something right now.

John: In addition to that, we’re seeing a whole body of scientific study that’s showing just how difficult it would be if we were to get to 2 degrees and what the differences are. That was also very important. Just for your US listeners, I just wanted to clarify because we’re going to be talking in degrees centigrade, so for the sake of argument, if you just multiply by two, every time you hear one, it’s two degrees Fahrenheit. I just wanted to add that.

Ariel: Okay great, thank you. So before we talk about how to address the problem, I want to get more into what the problem actually is. And so first, what is the difference between 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius in terms of what impact that will have on the planet?

John: So far we’ve already seen a one degree C increase. The impacts that we’re seeing, they were all predicted by the science, but in many cases we’ve really been quite shocked at just how quickly global warming is happening and the impacts it’s having. I live here in Switzerland, and we’re just now actually experiencing another drought, but in the summer we had the worst drought in eastern Switzerland since 1847. Of course we’ve seen the terrible hurricanes hitting the United States this year and last. That’s one degree. So 1.5 degrees increase, I like to use the analogy of our body temperature: If you’re increasing your body temperature by two degrees Fahrenheit, that’s already quite bad, but if you then increase it by three degrees Fahrenheit, or four, or five, or six, then you’re really ill. That’s really what happens with global warming. It’s not a straight line.

For instance, the difference between 1.5 degrees and two degrees is that heat waves are forecast to increase by over 40%. There was another study that showed that fresh water supply would decrease by 9% in the Mediterranean for 1.5 degrees, but it would decrease by 17% if we got to two degrees. So that’s practically doubling the impact for a change of 1.5 degrees. I can go on. If you look at wheat production, the difference between two and 1.5 degrees is a 70% loss in yield. Sea level rise would be 50 centimeters versus 40 centimeters, and 10 centimeters doesn’t sound like that much, but it’s a huge amount in terms of increase.

Alexander: Just to illustrate that a bit, if you have just a 10 centimeters increase, that means that 10 million people extra will be on the move. Or to formulate it another way, I remember when Hurricane Sandy hit New York and the subway flooded. At that moment we had, and that’s where we now are more or less, we have had some 20 centimeters of sea level rise since the industrial revolution. If we didn’t have those 20 centimeters, the subways would not have flooded. So it sounds like nothing, but it has a lot of impacts. I think another one that I saw that was really striking is the impact on nature, the impact on insects or on coral reefs. So if you have two degrees, there’s hardly any coral reef left in the world, whereas if it would be 1.5 degrees, we would still lose 70-90%, but there could still be some coral reefs left.

John: That’s a great example I would say, because currently it’s 50% of coral reefs at one degree increase have already died off. So at 1.5, we could reach 90%, and two degrees we will have practically wiped off all coral reefs.

Alexander: And the humanitarian aspects are massive. I mean John just mentioned water. I think one of these things we will see in the next decade or next two decades is a lot of water related problems. The amount of people that will not have access to water is increasing rapidly. It may double in the next decade. So any indication here that we have in the report on how much more problems we will see with water if we have that half degree extra is a very good warning. If you see the impact of not enough water on the quality of life of people, on people going on the move, increased urbanization, more tensions in the city because there they also have problems with having enough water, and of course water is related to energy and especially food production. So its humanitarian impacts of just that half degree extra is massive.

Then last thing here, we’re talking about global average. In some areas, if let’s say globally it gets two degrees warmer, in landlocked countries for instance, it will go much faster, or in the Arctic, it goes like twice as fast with enormous impacts and potential positive feedback loops that might end up with.

Ariel: That was something interesting for me to read. I’ve heard about how the global average will increase 1.5 to two degrees, but I hadn’t heard until I read this particular report that that can mean up to 3.5 degrees Celsius in certain places, that it’s not going to be equally distributed, that some places will get significantly hotter. Have models been able to predict where that’s likely to happen?

John: Yeah, and not only that, it’s already happening. That’s also one of the problems we face when we describe global warming in terms of one number, an average number, is that it doesn’t portray the big differences that we’re seeing in terms of global warming. For instance, in the case of Switzerland we’re already at a two degree centigrade increase, and that’s had huge implications for Switzerland already. We’re a landlocked country. We have beautiful mountains as you know, and beautiful lakes as well, but we’re currently seeing things that we hadn’t seen before, which is some of our lakes are starting to dry out in this current drought period. Lake levels have dropped very significantly. Not the major ones that are fed by glaciers, but the glaciers themselves, out of 80 glaciers that are tracked in Switzerland, 79 are retreating. They’re losing mass.

That’s having impacts, and in terms of extreme weather, just this last summer we saw these incredible – what Al Gore calls water bombs – that happened in Lausanne and Eschenz, two of our cities, where we saw centimeters, months worth of rain, fall in the space of just a few minutes. This is caused all sorts of damages as well.

Just a last point about temperature differences is that, for instance, northern Europe this last summer, we saw four, five degrees, much warmer, which caused so much drying out that we saw forest fires that we hadn’t seen in places like Sweden or Finland and so on. We also saw in February of this year what the scientists call a temperature anomaly of 20 degrees, which meant that for a few days it was warmer in the North Pole than it was in Poland because of this temperature anomaly. Averages help us understand the overall trends, but they also hide differences that are important to consider as well.

Alexander: Maybe the word global warming is, let’s say for a general public, not the right word because it sounds a bit like “a little bit warmer,” and if it’s now two degrees warmer than yesterday, I don’t care so much. Maybe “climate weirding” or “climate chaos” are better because we will just get more extremes. Let’s say you follow for instance how the jet stream is moving, it used to have rather quick pulls going around the planet at the height where the jets like to fly at about 10 kilometers. It is now, because there’s less temperature difference between the equator and the poles, it’s getting slower. It’s getting a bit lazy.

That means two things. It means on the one hand that you see that once you have a certain weather pattern, it sticks longer, but the other thing is by this lazy jet stream to compare it a bit like a river that enters the flood lands and starts to meander, is that the waves are getting bigger. Let’s say if it used to be that the jet stream brought cold air from Iceland to the Netherlands where I’m from, since it is now wavier, it brings now cold weather all the way from Greenland, and same with warm weather. It comes from further down south and it sticks longer in that pattern so you get longer droughts, you get longer periods of rain, it all gets more extreme. So a country like the Netherlands which is a delta where we always deal with too much water, and like many other countries in the world, we experience drought now which is something that we’re not used to. We have to ask foreign experts how do you deal with drought, because we always tried to pump the water out.

John: Yeah I think the French, as often is the case, have the best term for it. It’s called dérèglement climatique which is this idea of climate disruption.

Ariel: I’d like to come back to some of the humanitarian impacts because one of the things that I see a lot is this idea that it’s the richer, mostly western but not completely western countries that are causing most of the problems, and yet it’s the poorer countries that are going to suffer the most. I was wondering if you guys could touch on that a little bit?

Alexander: Well I think everything related to climate change is about that it is unfair. It is created by countries that generally are less impacted by now, so we started let’s say in western Europe with the industrial revolution and came followed by the US that took over. Historically the US produced the most. Then you have a different groups of countries. Let’s take a country in Sahel like Burkina Faso for instance. They contributed practically zero to the whole problem, but the impact is much more on their sides. Then there’s kind of a group of countries in between. Let’s say a country like China that for a long time did not contribute much to the problem and is now rapidly catching up. Then you get this difficult “tragedy of the commons” behavior that everybody points at somebody else for their part, what they have done, and either because they did it in past or because they do it now, everybody can use the statistics in their advantage, apart from these really really poor countries that are getting the worst.

I mean a country like Tuvalu is just disappearing. That’s one of those low-lying natural states in the Pacific. They contributed absolutely zero and their country is drowning. They can point at everybody else and nobody will point at them. So there is a huge call for that this is an absolutely globalized problem that you can only solve by respecting each other, by cooperating together, and by understanding that if you help other countries, it’s not only your moral obligation but it’s also in your own interest to help the others to solve this.

John: Yeah. Your listeners would most likely also be aware of the sustainable development goals, which are the objectives the UN set for 2030. There are 17 of them. They include things like no poverty, zero hunger, health, education, gender equality, et cetera. If you look at who is being impacted by a 2 degree and a 1.5 degree world, then you can see that it’s particularly in the developing and the least developed countries that the impact is felt the most, and that these SDGs are much more difficult if not impossible to reach in a 2 degree world. Which again is why it’s so important for us to stay within 1.5 degrees.

Ariel: And so looking at this from more of a geopolitical perspective, in terms of trying to govern and address… I guess this is going to be a couple questions. In terms of trying to prevent climate change from getting too bad, what do countries broadly need to be doing? I want to get into specifics about that question later, but broadly for now what do they need to be doing? And then, how do we deal with a lot of the humanitarian impacts at a government level if we don’t keep it below 1.5 degrees?

Alexander: A broad answer would be two things: get rid of the carbon pollution that we’re producing every day as soon as possible. So phase out fossil fuels. The other that’s a broad answer would be a parallel to what John was just talking about. We have the agenda 2030. We have those 17 sustainable development goals. If we would all really follow that and live up to that, we’d actually get a much better world because all of these things are integrated. If you just look at climate change in isolation you are not going to get there. It’s highly integrated to all those related problems.

John: Yeah, just in terms of what needs to be done broadly speaking, it’s the adoption of renewable energy, scaling up massively the way we produce electricity using renewables. The IPCC suggested there should be 85% and there are others that say we can even get to 100% renewables by 2050. The other side is everything to do with land use and food, our diet has a huge impact as well. On the one hand as Alexander has said very well, we need to cut down on emissions that are caused by industry and fossil fuel use, but on the other hand what’s really important is to preserve our natural ecosystems that protect us, and add forest, not deforest. We need to naturally scale up the capture of carbon dioxide. Those are the two pieces of the puzzle.

Alexander: Don’t want to go too much into details, but all together it ultimately asks for a different kind of economy. In our latest elections when I looked at the election programs, every party whether left or right or in the middle, they all promise something like, “when we’re in government, they’ll be something like 3% of economic growth every year.” But if you grow 3% every year, that means that every 20 years you double your economy. That means every 40 years you quadruple your economy, which might be nice if it will be only the services industry, but if you talk about production we can not let everything grow in the amount of resources that we use and the amount of waste we produce, when the Earth itself is not growing. So apart from moving to renewables, it is also changing the way how we use everything around and how we consume.

You don’t have to grow when you have it this good already, but it’s so much in the system that we have used the past 200, 250 years. Everything is based on growth. And as the Club of Romes said in the early ’70s, there’s limits to growth unless our planet would be something like a balloon that somebody would blow air in and it would be growing, then you would have different system. But as long as that is not the case and as long as there’s no other planets where we can fly to, that is the question where it’s very hard to find an answer. You can conclude that we can not grow, but how do we change that? That’s probably a completely different podcast debate, but it’s something I wanted to flag here because at the end of today you always end up with this question.

Ariel: This is actually, this is very much something that I wanted to come back to, especially in terms of what individuals can do, I think consuming less is one of the things that we can do to help. So I want to come back to that idea. I want to talk a little bit more though about some of the problems that we face if we don’t address the problem, and then come back to that. So, first going back to the geopolitics of addressing climate change if it happens, I think, again, we’ve talked about some of the problems that can arise as a result of climate change, but climate change is also thought of as a threat multiplier. So it could trigger other problems. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about some of the threats that governments need to be aware of if they don’t address climate change, both in terms of what climate change could directly cause and what it could indirectly cause.

Alexander: There’s so much we can cover here. Let’s start with security, it’s maybe the first one you think of. You’ll read in the paper about climate wars and water wars and those kind of popular words, which of course is too simplified. But, there is a clear correlation between changing climates and security.

We’ve seen it in many places. You see it in the place where we’re seeing more extreme weather now, so let’s say in the Sahel area, or in the Middle East, there’s a lot of examples where you just see that because of rising temperatures and because of less rainfall which is consistently going on now, it’s getting worse now. The combination is worse. You get more periods of drought, so people are going on the move. Where are they going to? Well normally, unlike many populists like to claim in some countries, they’re not immediately going to the western countries. They don’t go too far. People don’t want to move too far so they go to an area not too far away, which is a little bit less hit by this drought, but by the fact that they arrived there, they increased pressures on the little water and food and other resources that they have. That creates, of course, tensions with the people that are already there.

So think for instance about the Nomadic herdsman and the more agricultural farmers that you have and the kind of tension. They all need a little bit of water, so you see a lot of examples. There’s this well known graph where you see the world’s food prices over the past 10 years. There were two big spikes where suddenly the food prices as well as the energy prices rapidly went up. The most well known is in late 2010. Then if you plot on that graph the revolutions and uprisings and unrest in the world, you see that as soon as the world’s food price gets above, let’s say, 200, you see that there is so much more unrest. The 2010 one led soon after to the Arab Spring, which is not an automatic connection. In some countries there was no unrest, and they had the same drought, so it’s not a one on one connection.

So I think you used the right word of saying a threat multiplier. On top of all the other problems they have with bad governance and fragile economies and all kinds of other development aspects that you find back in those same SDGs that were mentioned, if you add to that the climate change problem, you will get a lot of unrest.

But let me add one last thing here. It’s not just about security. There’s also, there’s an example for instance, when Bangkok was flooding, the factory that produced chips was flooded. The chip prices worldwide suddenly rose like 10%, but there was this factory in the UK that produced perfectly ready cars to sell. The only thing they missed was this few-centimeters big electronic chip that needed to be in the car. So they had to close the factory for like 6 weeks because of a flooding in Bangkok. That just shows that this interconnected worldwide economy that we have, you’re nowhere in the world safe from the impacts of climate change.

Ariel: I’m not sure if it was the same flood, but I think Apple had a similar problem, didn’t they? Where they had a backlog of problems with hard drives or something because the manufacturer, I think in Thailand, I don’t remember, flooded.

But anyway, one more problem that I want to bring up, and that is: at the moment we’re talking about actually taking action. I mean even if we only see global temperatures rise to two degrees Celsius, that will be because we took action. But my understanding is, on our current path we will exceed two degrees Celsius. In fact, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Report that came out recently basically says that a 4 degree increase is inevitable. So I want to talk about what the world looks like at that level, and then also what runaway climate change is and whether you think we’re on a path towards runaway climate change, or if that’s still an extreme that hopefully won’t happen.

John: There’s a very important discussion that’s going on around at what point we will reach that tipping point where because of positive feedback loops, it’s just going to get worse and worse and worse. There’s been some very interesting publications lately that were trying to understand at what level that would happen. It turns out that the assessment is that it’s probably around 2 degrees. At the moment, if you look at the Paris Agreement and what all the countries have committed to and you basically take all those commitments which, you were mentioning the actions that already have been started, and you basically play them out until 2030, we would be on a track that would take us to 3 degrees increase, ultimately.

Ariel: And to clarify, that’s still with us taking some level of action, right? I mean, when you talk about that, that’s still us having done something?

John: Yeah, if you add up all the countries’ plans that they committed to and they fully implement them, it’s not sufficient. We would get to 3 degrees. But that’s just to say just how much action is required, we really need to step up the effort dramatically. That’s basically what the 1.5 degrees IPCC report tells us. If we were to get already to 2 degrees, let’s not talk about 3 degrees in the moment. But what could happen is that we would reach this tipping point into what scientists are describing a “Hothouse Earth.” What that means is that you get so much ice melting — now, the ice and snow serve an important protective function. They reflect back out, because it’s white it reflects back out a lot of the heat. If all that melts and is replaced by much darker land mass or ocean, then that heat is gonna be absorbed, not reflected. So that’s one positive feedback loop that constantly makes it even warmer, and that melts more ice, et cetera.

Another one is the permafrost, where the permafrost, as its name suggests, is frozen in the northern latitudes. The risk is that it starts to melt. It’s not the permafrost itself, it’s all the methane that it contains, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas which would then get released. That leads to warmer temperatures which melts even more of the permafrost et cetera.

That’s the whole idea of runaway, then we completely lose control, all the natural cooling systems, the trees and so on start to die back as well, and so we get four, five, six … But as I mentioned earlier, 4 could be 7 in some parts of the world and it could be 2 or 3 in others. It would make large parts of the world basically uninhabitable if you take it to the extreme of where it could all go.

Ariel: Do we have ideas of how long that could take? Is that something that we think could happen in the next 100 years or is that something that would still take a couple hundred years?

John: Whenever we talk about the temperature increases, we’re looking at the end of the century, so that’s 2100, but that’s less than 100 years.

Ariel: Okay.

Alexander: The problem is looking to, at the end of the century, this always come back to “end of the century.” It sounds so far away, it’s just 82 years. I mean if you flip back, you’re in 1936. My father was a boy of 10 years old and it’s not that far away. My daughter might still live in 2100, but by that time she’ll have children and maybe grandchildren that have to live through the next century. It’s not that once we are at the year 2100 that the problem suddenly stops. We talk about an accelerating problem. If you stay on the business-as-usual scenario and you mitigate hardly anything, then it’s 4 degrees at the end of the century, but the temperatures keep rising.

As we already said, 4 degrees at the end of the century, that is kind of average. In the worst case scenario, it might as well be 6. It could also be less. And in the Arctic it could be anywhere between let’s say 6 or maybe even 11. It’s typically the Arctic where you have this methane, what John was just talking about, so we don’t want to get some kind of Venus, you know. This is typically the world we do not want. That makes it why it’s so extremely important to take measures now because anything you do now is a fantastic investment in the future.

If you look at risks on other things, Dick Cheney a couple of years ago said, if there’s only 1% chance that terrorists will get weapons of mass destruction we should act as if they have them. Why don’t we do it in this case? If there’s only 1% chance that we would get complete destruction of the planet as we know it, we have to take urgent action. So why do it on the one risk that hardly kills people if you look on big numbers, however bad terrorism is, and now we talk something about a potential massive killer of millions of people and we just say, “Yeah, well you know, only 50% chance that we get in this scenario or that scenario.”

What would you do if you were sitting in a plane and at takeoff the pilot says, “Hi guys. Happy to be on board. This is how you buckle and unbuckle your belt. And oh by the way, we have 50% chance that we’re gonna make it today. Hooray, we’re going to take off.” Well you would get out of the plane. But you can’t get out of this planet. So we have to take action urgently, and I think the report that came out is excellent.

The problem is, if you’re reading it a bit too much and everybody is focusing on it now, you get into this energetic mood like, “Hey. We can do it!” We only talk about corals. We only talk about this because suddenly we’re not talking about the three or four or five degree scenarios, which is good for a change because it gives hope. I know that in talks like this I always try to give as much hope as I can and show the possibilities, but we shouldn’t forget about how serious the thing is that we’re actually talking about. So now we go back to the positive side.

Ariel: Well I am all for switching to the positive side. I find myself getting increasingly cynical about our odds of success, so let’s try to fix that in whatever time we have left.

John: Can I just add just briefly, Alex, because I think that’s a great comment. It’s something that I’m also confronted with sometimes by fellow climate change folk, is that they come up to me, and this is after they’ve heard me talk about what the solutions are. They tell me, “Don’t make it sound too easy either.” But I think it’s a question of balance and I think that when we do talk about the solutions and we’ll hear about them, but do bear in mind just how much change is involved. I mean it is really very significant change that we need to embark on to avoid 1.5 or beyond.

Alexander: There’s basically two choices. We’re going to massively change everything we are doing on this planet, the way we work together, the actions we take, the way we run our economy, and the way we behave towards each other and towards the planet and towards everything that lives on this planet. Or we sit back and relax and we just let the whole thing crash. The choice is so easy to make, even if you don’t care at all about nature or the lives of other people. Even if you just look at your own interests and look purely through an economical angle, it is just a good return on investment to take good care of this planet.

It is only because those that have so much political power are so closely connected to the big corporations that look for short-term profits, and certainly not all of them, but the ones that are really influential, and I’m certainly thinking about the country of our host today. They have so much impact on the policies that are made and their sole interest is just the next quarterly financial report that comes out. That is not in the interest of the people of this planet.

Ariel: So this is actually a good transition to a couple of questions that I have. I actually did start looking at the book Drawdown, which talks about, what is it, 80 solutions? Is that what they discuss?

John: Yeah, 80 existing solutions or technologies or practices, and then there’s 20 what they call coming attractions which would be in addition to that. But it’s the 80 we’re talking about, yeah.

Ariel: Okay, so I started reading that and I read the introduction and the first chapter and felt very, very hopeful. I started reading about some of the technologies and I still felt hopeful. Then as I continued reading it and began to fully appreciate just how many technologies have to be implemented, I started to feel less hopeful. And so, going back, before we talk too much about the specific technologies, I think as someone who’s in the US, one of the questions that I have is even if our federal government isn’t going to take action, is it still possible for those of us who do believe that climate change is an issue to take enough action that we can counter that?

John: That’s an excellent question and it’s a very apropos question as well. My take on this is I had the privilege of being at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. You’re living it, but I think it’s two worlds basically in the United States at the moment, at least two worlds. What really impressed me, however, was that you had people of all political persuasions, you had indigenous people, you had the head of the union, you had mayors, city leaders. You also had some country leaders as well who were there, particularly those who are gonna be most impacted by climate change. What really excited me was the number of commitments that were coming at us throughout the days of, one city that’s gonna go completely renewable and so on.

We had so many examples of those. And in particular, if you’re talking about the US, California, which actually if it was its own country would be the fifth economy I believe — they’re committed to achieving 100% renewable energy by 2050. There was also the mayor of Houston, for instance, who explained how quickly he wanted to also achieve 100% renewables. That’s very exciting and that movement I think is very important. It would be of course much much better to have nations’ leaders as well to fully back this, but I think that there’s a trickle-up aspect, and I don’t know if this is the right time to talk about exponential growth that can happen. Maybe when we talk about the specific solutions we can talk about just how quickly they can go, particularly when you have a popular movement around saving the climate.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Geneva. There was a protest there. Geneva is quite a conservative city actually. I mean you’ve got some wonderful chocolate as you know, but also a lot of banks and so on. At the march, there were, according to the organizers, 7000 people. It was really impressive to see that in Geneva which is not that big a city. The year before at the same march there were 500. So we’re more than increasing the numbers by 10, and I think that there’s a lot of communities and citizens that are being affected that are saying, “I don’t care what the federal government’s doing. I’m gonna put a solar panel on my roof. I’m going to change my diet, because it’s cheaper, it saves me money, and it also is much healthier to do that and with much more resilience,” when a hurricane comes around for instance.

Ariel: I think now is a good time to start talking about what some of the solutions are. I wanna come back to the idea of trickle up, because I’m still gonna ask you guys more questions about individual action as well, but first let’s talk about some of the things that we can be doing now. What are some of the technological developments that exist today that have the most promise that we should be investing more in and using more?

John: What I perhaps wanted to do is just take a little step back, because the IPCC does talk about some very unpleasant things that could happen to our planet, but they also talk about what the steps are to stay within 1.5 degrees. Then there’s some other plans we can discuss that also achieve that. So what does the IPCC tell us? You mentioned it earlier. First of all, we need to significantly cut, every decade actually, by half, the carbon dioxide emission and greenhouse gas emissions. That’s something called the Carbon Law. It’s very convenient because you can imagine defining what your objective is and say okay, every 10 years I need to cut in half the emissions. That’s number one.

Number two is that we need to go dramatically to renewables. There’s no other way, because of the emissions that fossil fuels produce, they will no longer be an option. We have to go renewable as quickly as possible. It can be done by 2050. There’s a professor at Stanford called Mark Jacobson who with an international team has mapped out the way to get to 100% renewables for 139 countries. It’s called The Solutions Project. Number Three has to do with fossil fuels. What the IPCC says is that there should be practically no coal being used in 2050. That’s where there are some differences.

Basically, as I mentioned earlier, on the one hand you have your emissions and on the other hand you have this capture, the sequestration of carbon by soils and by vegetation. They’re both in balance. One is putting CO2 into the air, and the other is taking it out. So we need to favor obviously the sequestration. It’s an area under the curve problem. You have a certain budget that’s associated with that temperature increase. If you emit more, you need to absorb more. There’s just no two ways about it.

The IPCC is actually in that respect quite conservative, because they’re saying there still will be coal around. Whereas there are other plans such as Drawdown and the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap, as well as The Solutions Project which I just mentioned, which get us to 100% renewables by 2050, and so zero emissions for sake of argument.

The other difference I would say with the IPCC is that because you are faced with this tremendous problem of all this carbon dioxide we need to take out of the atmosphere, which is where Drawdown comes from. The term means to draw out of the atmosphere the carbon dioxide. There’s this technology which is around, it’s basically called energy crops. You basically grow crops for energy. That gives us a little bit of an issue because it encourages politicians to think that there’s a magic wand that we’ll be able to use in the future to all of a sudden be able to remove the carbon dioxide. I’m not saying that we may very well have to get there, what I am saying is that we can, with for instance Drawdown’s 80 solutions, get there.

Now in terms of the promise, the thing that I think is important is that the thinking has to evolve from the magic bullet syndrome that we all live every day, we always want to find that magic solution that’ll solve everything, to thinking more holistically about the whole of the Earth’s planetary system and how they interact and how we can achieve solutions that way.

Alexander: Can I ask something John? Can you summarize that Drawdown relies with its 80 technologies, completely on proven technology whereas in the recent 1.5 report, I have the impression that they practically, for every solution that they come up with, they rely on still unproven technologies that are still on the drawing table or maybe tested on a very small scale? Is there a difference between those two approaches?

John: Not exactly. I think there’s actually a lot of overlap. There’s a lot of the same solutions that are in Drawdown are in all climate solutions, so we come back to the same set which is actually very reassuring because that’s the way science works. It empirically tests and models all the different solutions. So what I always find very reassuring is whenever I read different approaches, I always look back at Drawdown and I say, “Okay yes, that’s in the 80 solutions.” So I think there is actually a lot of over overlap. A lot of IPCC is Drawdown solutions, but the IPCC works a bit differently because the scientists have to work with governments in terms of coming up with proposals, so there is a process of negotiation of how far can we take this which scientists such as the Project Drawdown scientists are unfettered by that.

They just go out and they look for what’s best. They don’t care if it’s politically sensitive or not, they will say what they need to say. But I think the big area of concern is this famous bio-energy carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which are these energy crops that you grow and then you capture the carbon dioxide. So you actually are capturing carbon dioxide. There’s both moral hazard because politicians will say, “Okay. I’m just going to wait until BECCS comes round and that will solve all our problems,” on the one hand. On the other hand it does pose us with some serious questions about competition of land for producing crops versus producing crops for energy.

Ariel: I actually want to follow up with Alexander’s question really quickly because I’ve gotten a similar impression that some of the stuff in the IPCC report is for technologies that are still in development. But my understanding is that the Drawdown solutions are in theory at least, if not in practice, ready to scale up.

John: They’re existing technologies, yeah.

Ariel: So when you say there’s a lot of overlap, is that me or us misunderstanding the IPCC report or are there solutions in the IPCC report that aren’t ready to be scaled up?

John: The approaches are a bit different. The approaches that Drawdown takes is a bottom up approach. They basically unleashed 65 scientists to go out and look for the best solutions. So they go out and they look at all the literature. And it just so happens that nuclear energy is one of them. It doesn’t produce greenhouse gas emissions. It is a way of producing energy that doesn’t cause climate change. A lot of people don’t like that of course, because of all the other problems we have with nuclear. But let me just reassure you very quickly that there are three scenarios for Drawdown. It goes from so-called “Plausible,” which I don’t like as a name because it suggests that the other ones might not be plausible, but it’s the most conservative one. Then the second one is “Drawdown.” Then the third one is “Optimum.”

Optimum doesn’t include solutions that are called with regrets, such as nuclear. So when you go optimum, basically it’s 100% renewable. There’s no nuclear energy in there either in the mix. That’s very positive. But in terms of the solutions, what they look at, what IPCC looks at is the trajectory that you could achieve given the existing technologies. So they talk about renewables, they talk about fossil fuels going down to net zero, they talk about natural climate solutions, but perhaps they don’t talk about, for instance, educating girls, which is one of the most important Drawdown solutions because of the approach that Drawdown takes where they look at everything. Sorry, that’s a bit of a long answer to your question.

Alexander: That’s actually part of the beauty of Drawdown, that they look so broadly, that educating girls… So a girl leaving school at 12 got on average like five children and a girl that you educate leaving school at the age of 18 on average has about two children, and they will have a better quality of life. They will put much less pressure on the planet. So this more holistic approach of Drawdown I like very much and I think it’s good to see so much overlap between Drawdown and IPCC. But I was struck by IPCC that it relies so heavily on still unproven technologies. I guess we have to bet on all our horses and treat this a bit as a kind of wartime economy. If you see the creativity and the innovation that we saw during the second World War in the field of technology as well as government by the way, and if you see, let’s say, the race to the moon, the amazing technology that was developed in such a short time.

Once you really dedicate all your knowledge and your creativity and your finances and your political will into solving this, we can solve this. That is what Drawdown is saying and that is also what the IPCC 1.5 is saying. We can do it, but we need the political will and we need to mobilize the strengths that we have. Unfortunately, when I look around worldwide, the trend is in many countries exactly the opposite. I think Brazil might soon be the latest one that we should be worried about.

John: Yeah.

Ariel: So this is, I guess where I’m most interested in what we can do and also possibly the most cynical, and this comes back to this trickle up idea that you were talking about. That is, we don’t have the political will right now. So what do those of us who do have the will do? How do we make that transition of people caring to governments caring? Because I do, maybe this is me being optimistic, but I do think if we can get enough people taking individual action, that will force governments to start taking action.

John: So trickle up, grassroots, I think we’re in the same sort of idea. I think it’s really important to talk a little bit, and then we will get into the solutions, but to talk about not just as the solutions to global warming, but to a lot of other problems as well such as air pollution, our health, the pollution that we see in the environment. And actually Alexander you were talking earlier about the huge transformation. But transformation does not necessarily always have to mean sacrifice. It doesn’t also have to mean that we necessarily, although it’s certainly a good idea, for instance, I think you were gonna ask a question also about flying, to fly less there’s no doubt about that. To perhaps not buy the 15th set of clothes and so on so forth.

So there certainly is an element of that, although the positive side of that is the circular economy. In fact, these solutions, it’s not a question of no growth or less growth, but it’s a question of different growth. I think in terms of the discussion in climate change, one mistake that we have made is emphasized too much the “don’t do this.” I think that’s also what’s really interesting about Drawdown, is that there’s no real judgments in there. They’re basically saying, “These are the facts.” If you have a plant-based diet, you will have a huge impact on the climate versus if you eat steak every day, right? But it’s not making a judgment. Rather than don’t eat meat it’s saying eat plant-based foods.

Ariel: So instead of saying don’t drive your car, try to make it a competition to see who can bike the furthest each week or bike the most miles?

John: For example, yeah. Or consider buying an electric car if you absolutely have to have a car. I mean in the US it’s more indispensable than in Europe.

Alexander: It means in the US that when you build new cities, try to build them in a more clever way than the US has been doing up until now because if you’re in America and you want to buy whatever, a new toothbrush, you have to get in your car to go there. When I’m in Europe, I just walk out of the door and within 100 meters I can buy a toothbrush somewhere. I walk or I go on a bicycle.

John: That might be a longer-term solution.

Alexander: Well actually it’s not. I mean in the next 30 years, the amount of investment they can place new cities is an amount of 90 trillion dollars. The city patterns that we have in Europe were developed in the Middle Ages in the centers of cities, so although it is urgent and we have to do a lot of things, you should also think about the investments that you make now that will be followed for hundreds of years. We shouldn’t keep repeating the mistakes from the past. These are the kinds of things we should also talk about. But to come back to your question on what we can do individually, I think there is so much that you can do that helps the planet.

Of course, you’re only one out of seven billion people, although if you listen to this podcast it is likely that you are in that elite out of that seven billion that is consuming much more of the planet, let’s say, than your quota that you should be allowed to. But it means, for instance, changing your diet, and then if you go to a plant-based diet, the perks are not only that it is good for the planet, it is good for yourself as well. You live longer. You have less chance of developing cancer or heart disease or all kinds of other things you don’t want to have. You will live longer. You will have for a longer time a healthier life.

It means actually that you discover all kinds of wonderful recipes that you had never heard of before when you were still eating steak every day, and it is actually a fantastic contribution for the animals that are daily on an unimaginable scale tortured all over the world, locked up in small cages. You don’t see it when you buy it at a butcher, but you are responsible because they do that because you are the consumer. So stop doing that. Better for the planet. Better for the animals. Better for yourself. Same with use your bicycle, walk more. I still have a car. It is 21 years old. It’s the only car I ever bought in my life, and I use it maximum 20 minutes per month. I’m not even buying an electrical vehicle because I still got an old one. There’s a lot that you can do and it has more advantages than just to the planet.

John: Absolutely. Actually, walkable cities is one of the Drawdown solutions. Maybe I can just mention very quickly. I’ll just list out of the 80 solutions, there was a very interesting study that showed that there are 30 of them that we could put into place today, and that that added up to about 40% of the greenhouse gases that we’ll be able to remove.

I’ll just list them quickly. The ones at the end, they’re more, if you are in an agricultural setting, which of course is probably not the case for many of your listeners. But: reduced food waste, plant-rich diets, clean cookstoves, composting, electric vehicles we talked about, ride sharing, mass transit, telepresence (basically video conferencing, and there’s a lot of progress being made there which means we perhaps don’t need to take that airplane.) Hybrid cars, bicycle infrastructure, walkable cities, electric bicycles, rooftop solar, solar water (so that’s heating your hot water using solar.) Methane digesters (it’s more in an agricultural setting where you use biomass to produce methane.) Then you have LED lighting, which is a 90% gain compared to incandescent. Household water saving, smart thermostats, household recycling and recyclable paper, micro wind (there are some people that are putting a little wind turbine on their roof.)

Now these have to do with agriculture, so they’re things like civil pasture, tropical staple trees, tree intercropping, regenerative agriculture, farmland restoration, managed grazing, farmland irrigation and so on. If you add all those up it’s already 37% of the solution. I suspect that the 20 is probably a good 20%. Those are things you can do tomorrow — today.

Ariel: Those are helpful, and we can find those all at drawdown.org; that’ll also list all 80. So you’ve brought this up a couple times, so let’s talk about flying. This was one of those things that really hit home for me. I’ve done the carbon footprint thing and I have an excellent carbon footprint right up until I fly and then it just explodes. As soon as I start adding the footprint from my flights it’s just awful. I found it frustrating that one, so many scientists especially have … I mean it’s not even that they’re flying, it’s that they have to fly if they want to develop their careers. They have to go to conferences. They have to go speak places. I don’t even know where the responsibility should lie, but it seems like maybe we need to try to be cutting back on all of this in some way, that people need to be trying to do more. I’m curious what you guys think about that.

Alexander: Well start by paying tax, for instance. Why is it — well I know why it is — but it’s absurd that when you fly an airplane you don’t pay tax. You can fly all across Europe for like 50 euros or 50 dollars. That is crazy. If you would do the same by your car, you pay tax on the petrol that you buy, and worse, you are not charged for the pollution that you cause. We know that airplanes are heavily polluting. It’s not only the CO2 that they produce, but where they produce, how they produce. It works three to four times faster than all the CO2 that you produce if you drive your car. So we know how bad it is, then make people pay for it. Just make flying more expensive. Pay for the carbon you produce. When I produce waste at home, I pay to my municipality because they pick it up and they have to take care of my garbage, but if I put garbage in the atmosphere, somehow I don’t go there. Actually, it is by all sorts of strange ways, it’s actually subsidized because you don’t pay a tax for it, so there’s worldwide like five or six times as much subsidies on fossil fuels than there is on renewables.

We completely have to change the system. Give people a budget maybe. I don’t know, there could be many solutions. You could say that everybody has the right to search a budget for flying or for carbon, and you can maybe trade that or swap it or whatever. There’s some NGOs that do it. They say to, I think the World Wildlife Fund, but correct me if I’m wrong. All the people working there, they get not only a budget for the projects, they also get a carbon budget. You just have to choose, am I going to this conference or going to that conference, or should I take the train, and you just keep track of what you are doing. That’s something we should maybe roll out on a much bigger scale and make it more expensive.

John: Yeah, the whole idea of a carbon tax, I think is key. I think that’s really important. Some other thoughts: Definitely reduce, do you really absolutely need to make that trip, think about it. Now with webcasting and video conferencing, we can do a lot more without flying. The other thing I suggest is that when you at some point you absolutely do have to travel, try to combine it with as many other things as possible that are perhaps not directly professional. If you are already in the climate change field, then at least you’re traveling for a reason. Then it’s a question of the offsets. Using calculators you can see what the emissions were and pay for what’s called an offset. That’s another option as well.

Ariel: I’ve heard mixed things about offsets. In some cases I see that yes, you should absolutely buy them, and you should. If you fly, you should get them. But that in a lot of cases they’re a bandaid or they might be making it seem like it’s okay to do this when it’s still not the solution. I’m curious what your thoughts on that are.

John: For me, something like an offset, as much as possible should be a last resort. You absolutely have to make the trip, it’s really important, and you offset your trip. You pay for some trees to be planted in the rainforest for instance. There are loads of different possibilities to do so. It’s not a good idea. Unfortunately Switzerland’s plan, for instance, includes a lot of getting others to reduce emissions. That’s really, you can argue that it’s cheaper to do it that way and somebody else might do it more cheaply for you so to speak. So cheaper to plant a tree and it’ll have more impact in the rainforest than in Switzerland. But on the other hand, it’s something which I think we really have to avoid, also because in the end the green economy is where the future lies and where we need to transform to. So if we’re constantly getting others to do the decarbonization for us, then we’ll be stuck with an industry which is ultimately will become very expensive. That’s not a good idea either.

Alexander: I think also the prices are absolutely unrealistic. If you fly, let’s say, from London to New York, your personal, just the fact that you were in the plane, not all the other people, the fact you were in the plane is responsible for three square meters of the Arctic that is melting. You can offset that by paying something like, what is it, 15 or 20 dollars for offsetting that flight. That makes ice in the Arctic extremely cheap. A square meter would be worth something like seven dollars. Well I personally would believe that it’s worth much more.

Then the thing is, then they’re going to plant a tree that takes a lot of time to grow. By the time it’s big, it’s getting CO2 out of the air, are they going to cut it and make newspapers out of it which you then burn in a fireplace, the carbon is still back to where it was. So you need to really carefully think what you’re doing. I feel it is very much a bit like going to a priest and say like, “I have flown. Oh, I have sinned, but I can now do a few prayers and I pay these $20 and now it’s fine. I can book my next flight.” That is not the way it should be. Punish people up front to pay the tickets. Pay the price for the pollution and for the harm that you are causing to this planet and to your fellow citizens on this planet.

John: Couldn’t agree more. But there are offset providers in the US, look them up. See which one you like the best and perhaps buy more offsets. Economy is half the carbon than Business class, I hate to say.

Alexander: Something for me which you mentioned there, I decided long ago, six, seven years ago, that I would never ever in my life fly Business again. I’m not, as somebody who had a thrombosis and the doctors advised me that I should take business, I don’t. I still fly. I’m very much like Ariel that my footprint is okay until the moment that I start adding flying because I do that a lot for my job. Let’s say in the next few weeks, I have a meeting in the Netherlands. I have only 20 days later a meeting in England. I stay in the Netherlands. In between I do all my travel to Belgium and France and the UK, I do everything by train. It’s only that by plane I’m going back from London to Stockholm, because I couldn’t find any reasonable way to go back. I wonder why don’t we have high speed train connections all the way up to Stockholm here.

Ariel: We talked a lot about taxing carbon. I had an interesting experience last week where I’m doing what I can to try to not drive if I’m in town. I’m trying to either bike or take the bus. What often happens is that works great until I’m running late for something, and then I just drive because it’s easier. But the other week, I was giving a little talk on the campus at CU Boulder, and the parking on CU Boulder is just awful. There is absolutely no way that, no matter how late I’m running, it’s more convenient for me to take my car. It never even once dawned on me to take the car. I took a bus. It’s that much easier. I thought that was really interesting because I don’t care how expensive you make gas or parking, if I’m running late I’m probably gonna pay for it. Whereas if you make it so inconvenient that it just makes me later, I won’t do that. I was wondering if you have any other, how can we do things like that where there’s also this inconvenience factor?

Alexander: Have a look at Europe. Well coincidentally I know CU Boulder and I know how difficult the parking is. That’s the brilliance of Boulder where I see a lot of brilliant things. It’s what we do in Europe. I mean one of the reasons why I never ever use a car in Stockholm is that I have no clue how or where to park it, nor can I read the signs because my Swedish is so bad. I’m afraid of a ticket. I never use the car here. Also because we have such perfect public transport. The latest thing they have here is the VOI that just came out like last month, which is, I don’t know the word, we call it “step” in Dutch. I don’t know what you call that in English, whether it’s the same word or not, but it’s like these two-wheeled things that kids normally have. You know?

They are now here electric, so you download an app on your mobile phone and you see one of them in the street because they’re everywhere now. Type in a code and then it unlocks. Then it starts using your time. So for every minute, you pay like 15 cents. So all these electric little things that are everywhere for free, you just drive all around town and you just drop them wherever you like. When you need one, you look on your app and the app shows you where the nearest one is. It’s an amazing way of transport and it’s just, a month ago you saw just one or two. Now they are everywhere. You’re on the streets, you see one. It’s an amazing new way of transport. It’s very popular. It just works on electricity. It makes things so much more easy to reach everywhere in the city because you go at least twice as fast as walking.

John: There was a really interesting article in The Economist about parking. Do you know how many parking spots The Shard, the brand new building in London, the skyscraper has? Eight. The point that’s being made in terms of what you were just asking about in terms of inconvenience, in Europe it just really, in most cases it really doesn’t make any sense at all to take a car into the city. It’s a nightmare.

Before we talk more about personal solutions, I did want to make some points about the economics of all these solutions because what’s really interesting about Drawdown as well is that they looked at both what you would save and what it would cost you to save that over the 30 years that you would put in place those solutions. They came up with some things which at first sight are really quite surprising, because you would save 74.4 trillion dollars for an investment or a net cost of 29.6 trillion.

Now that’s not for all the solutions, so it’s not exactly that. In some of the solutions it’s very difficult to estimate. For instance, the value of educating girls. I mean it’s inestimable. But the point that’s also made is that if you look at The Solutions Project, Professor Jacobson, they also looked at savings, but they looked at other savings that I think are much more interesting and much more important as well. You would basically see a net increase of over 24 million long-term jobs that you would see an annual decrease in four to seven million air pollution deaths per year.

You would also see the stabilization of energy prices, because think of the price of oil where it goes from one day to the next, and annual savings of over 20 trillion in health and climate costs. Which comes back to, when you’re doing those solutions, you are also saving money, but you are also saving more importantly peoples’ lives, the tragedy of the commons, right? So I think it’s really important to think about those solutions. I mean we know very well why we are still using fossil fuels, it’s because of the massive subsidies and support that they get and the fact that vested interests are going to defend their interests.

I think that’s really important to think about in terms of those solutions. They are becoming more and more possible. Which leads me to the other point that I’m always asked about, which is, it’s not going fast enough. We’re not seeing enough renewables. Why is that? Because even though we don’t tax fuel, as you mentioned Alexander, because we’ve produced now so many solar panels, the cost is getting to be much cheaper. It’ll get cheaper and cheaper. That’s linked to this whole idea of exponential growth or tipping points, where all of a sudden all of us start to have a solar panel on our roof, where more and more of us become vegetarians.

I’ll just tell you a quick anecdote on that. We had some out of town guests who absolutely wanted to go to actually a very good steakhouse in Geneva. So along we went. We didn’t want to offend them and say “No, no, no. We’re certainly not gonna go to a steakhouse.” So we went along. It was a group of seven of us. Imagine the surprise when they came to take our orders and three out of seven of us said, “I’m afraid we’re vegetarians.” It was a bit of a shock. I think those types of things start to make others think as well, “Oh, why are you vegetarian,” and so on and so forth.

That sort of reflection means that certain business models are gonna go out of business, perhaps much faster than we think. On the more positive side, there are gonna be many more vegetarian restaurants, you can be sure, in the future.

Ariel: I want to ask about what we’re all doing individually to address climate change. But Alexander, one of the things that you’ve done that’s probably not what just a normal person would do, is start the Planetary Security Initiative. So before we get into what individuals can do, I was hoping you could talk a little bit about what that is.

Alexander: That was not so much as an individual. I was at Yale University for half a year when I started this, but then when I came back in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for one more year, I had some ideas and I got support from the ministers of doing that, on bringing the experts in the world together that work in the field of the impact that climate change will have on security. So the idea to start was creating an annual meeting where all these experts in the world come together because that didn’t exist yet, and to make more scientists and researchers in the world energetic to study more in the field of how this relationship works. But more importantly, the idea was also to connect the knowledge and the insights of these experts on how the changing climate and the impacts impacts has on water and food, and our changing planetary conditions, how they are impacting the geopolitics.

I have a background, both in security as well as environment. That used to be two completely different tracks that weren’t really interacting. The more I was working on those two things, the more that I saw that the changing environment is actually directly impacting our security situation. It’s already happening and you can be pretty sure that the impact is going to be much more in the future. So what we then started was a meeting in the Peace Palace in the Hague. There were some 75 countries the first time that we were present there, and then the key experts in the world. It’s now an annual meeting that always takes place. For anybody that’s interested, contact me and then I will provide you with the right contact. It is growing now into all kinds of other initiatives and other involvement and more studies that are taking place.

So the issue is really taking off, and that is mainly because more and more people see the need of getting better insights into the impact that all of these changes that we’ve been discussing, that it’ll have on security whether that’s individual security, human security of individuals, that’s also geopolitical security. Imagine that when so much is changing, when the economies are changing so rapidly, when interests of people change and when people start going on the move, tensions will rise for a number of reasons, partly related to climate change, but it’s very much a situation where climate change is already in an existing fragile situation, it’s making it worse. So that is the Planetary Security Initiative. The government of the Netherlands has been very strong on this, working closely together with something other governments. Sweden, for instance, where I’m living, Sweden has in the past year been focusing very much on strengthening the United Nations, that you would have experts at the relevant high level in New York that can connect the dots and connect to people and the issues to not just raise awareness for the issue, but make sure that in the policies that are made, these issues are also taken into account because you better do it up front than repair damage afterwards if you haven’t taken care of these issues.

It’s a rapidly developing field. There is a new thing as, for instance, using AI and data, I think the World Resources Institute in Washington is very good at that, where they combine let’s say, the geophysical data, let’s say satellite and other data on increasing drought in the world, but also deforestation and other resource issues. They are connecting that now with the geopolitical impacts with AI and with combining all these completely different databases. You get much better insight on where the risks really are, and I believe that in the years to come, WRI in combination with several other think tanks can do brilliant work where the world is really waiting for the kind of insights. International policies will be so much more effective if you know much better where the problems are really going to hit first.

Ariel: Thank you. All right, so we are starting to get a little bit short on time, and I want to finish the discussion with things that we’ve personally been doing. I’m gonna include myself in this one because I think the more examples the better. So what we’ve personally been doing to change our lifestyles for the better, not sacrifice, but for the better, to address climate change. And also, to keep us all human, where we’re failing that we wish we were doing better.

I can go ahead and start. I am trying to not use my car in town. I’m trying to stick to biking or taking public transportation. I have dropped the temperature in our house by another degree, so I’m wearing more sweaters. I’m going to try to be stricter about flying, only if I feel that I will actually be having a good impact on the world will I fly, or a family emergency, things like that.

I’m pretty sure our house is on wind power. I work remotely, so I work from home. I don’t have to travel for work. I those are some of the big things, and as I said, flying is still a problem for me so that’s something I’m working on. Food is also an issue for me. I have lots of food issues so cutting out meat isn’t something that I can do. But I have tried to buy most of my food from local farms, I’m trying to buy most of my meat from local farms where they’re taking better care of the animals as well. So hopefully that helps a little bit. I’m also just trying to cut back on my consumption in general. I’m trying to not buy as many things, and if I do buy things I’m trying to get them from companies that are more environmentally-conscious. So I think food and flying are sort of where I’m failing a little bit, but I think that’s everything on my end.

Alexander: I think one of the big changes I made is I became years ago already vegetarian for a number of good reasons. I am now practically vegan. Sometimes when I travel it’s a bit too difficult. I hardly ever use the car. I guess it’s just five or six times a year that I actually use my car. I use bicycles and public transport. The electricity at our home is all wind power. In the Netherlands, that’s relatively easy to arrange nowadays. There’s a lot of offers for it, so I deliberately buy wind power, including in the times when wind power was still more expensive than other power. I think about in consumption, when I buy food, I try to buy more local food. There’s the occasional kiwi, which I always wonder it’s arrives in Europe, but that’s another thing that you can think of. Apart from flying, I really do my best with my footprint. Then flying is the difficult thing because with my work, I need to fly. It is about personal contacts. It is about meeting a lot of people. It’s about teaching.

I do teaching online. I use Skype for teaching to classrooms. I do many Skype conferences all the time, but yes I’m still flying. I refuse flying business class. I started that some six, seven years ago. Just today business class ticket was offered to me for a very long flight and I refused it. I say I will fly economy. But yes, the flying is what adds to my footprint. I still, I try to combine trips. I try to stay longer at a certain place, combining it, and then by train go to all kinds of other places. But when you’re stuck here in Stockholm, it’s quite difficult to get here by other means than flying. Once I’m, let’s say, in the Netherlands or Brussels or Paris or London or Geneva, you can do all those things by train, but it gets a bit more difficult out here.

John: Pretty much in Alexander’s case, except that I’m very local. I travel actually very little and I keep the travel down. If I do have to travel, I have managed to do seven hour trips by train. That’s a possibility in Europe, but that sort of gets you to the middle of Germany. Then the other thing is I’ve become vegetarian recently. I’m pretty close to vegan, although it’s difficult with such good cheese we have in this country. But the way it came about is interesting as well. It’s not just me. It’s myself, my wife, my daughter, and my son. The third child is never gonna become vegetarian I don’t think. But that’s not bad, four out of five.

In terms of what I think you can do and also points to things that we perhaps don’t think about contributing, being a voice, vis a vis others in our own communities and explaining why you do what you do in terms of biking and so on so forth. I think that really encourages others to do the same. It can grow a lot like that. In that vein, I teach as much as I can to high school students. I talk to them about Drawdown. I talk to them about solutions and so on. They get it. They are very very switched on about this. I really enjoy that. You really see, it’s their future, it’s their generation. They don’t have very much choice unfortunately. On a more positive note, I think they can really take it away in terms of a lot of actions which we haven’t done enough of.

Ariel: Well I wanted to mention this stuff because going back to your idea, this trickle up, I’m still hopeful that if people take action that that will start to force governments to. One final question on that note, did you guys find yourselves struggling with any of these changes or did you find them pretty easy to make?

Alexander: I think all of them were easy. Switching your energy to wind power, et cetera. Buying more consciously. It comes naturally. I was already vegetarian, and then moving to vegan, just go online and read it about it and how to do it. I remember when I was a kid that hardly anybody was vegetarian. Then I once discussed it with my mother and she said, “Oh it’s really difficult because then you need to totally balance your food and be in touch with your doctor, whatever.” I’ve never spoken to any doctor. I just stopped eating meat and now I … Years ago I swore out all dairy. I’ve never been ill. I don’t feel ill. Actually I feel better. It is not complicated. The rather complicated thing is flying, there are sometimes I have to make difficult choices like being for a long time away from home, I saved quite a bit on that part. That’s sometimes more complicated or, like soon I’ll be in a nearly eight hour train ride in something I could have flown in an hour.

John: I totally agree. I mean I enjoy being in a train, being able to work and not be worried about some truck running into you or the other foibles of driving which I find very very … I’ve got to a point where I’m becoming actually quite a bad driver. I drive so little that, I hope not, but I might have an accident.

Ariel: Well fingers crossed that doesn’t happen. Amd good. That’s been my experience so far too. The changes that I’ve been trying to make haven’t been difficult. I hope that’s an important point for people to realize. Anything else you want to add either of you?

Alexander: I think there’s just one thing that we didn’t touch on, on what you can do individually. That’s perhaps the most important one for us in democratic countries. That is vote. Vote for the best party that actually takes care of our long-term future, a party that aims for taking rapidly the right climate change measures. A party that wants to invest in a new economy that sees that if you invest now, you can be a leader later.

There is, in some countries, you have a lot of parties and there is all kinds of nuances. In other countries you have to deal with basically two parties, where just the one part is absolutely denying science and is doing exactly the wrong things and are basically aiming to ruin the planet as soon as possible, whereas the other party is actually looking for solutions. Well if you live in a country like that, and there are coincidentally soon elections coming up, vote for the party that takes the best positions on this because it is about the future of your children. It is the single most important influential thing that you can do, certainly if you live in a country where the emissions that the country produces are still among the highest in the world. Vote. Take people with you to do it.

Ariel: Yeah, so to be more specific about that, as I mentioned at the start this podcast, it’s coming out on Halloween, which means in the US, elections are next week. Please vote.

John: Yeah. Perhaps something else is how you invest, where your money is going. That’s one that can have a lot of impact as well. All I can say is, I hate to come back to Drawdown, but go through the Drawdown and think about your investments and say, okay, renewables whether it’s LEDs or whatever technology it is, if it’s in Drawdown, make sure it’s in your investment portfolio. If it’s not, you might want to get out of it, particularly the ones that we already know are causing the problem in the first place.

Ariel: That’s actually, that’s a good reminder. That’s something that has been on my list of things to do. I know I’m guilty of not investing in the proper companies at the moment. That’s something I’ve been wanting to fix.

Alexander: And tell your pension funds: divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewables and all kinds of good things that we need in the new economy.

John: But not necessarily because you’re doing it as a charitable cause, but really because these are the businesses of the future. We talked earlier about growth that these different businesses can take. Another factor that’s really important is efficiency. For instance, I’m sure you have heard of The Impossible Burger. It’s a plant-based burger. Now what do you think is the difference in terms of the amount of crop land required to produce a beef burger versus an impossible burger?

Alexander: I would say one in 25 or one in 35, but at range.

John: Yeah, so it’s one in 20. The thing is that when you look at that type of gain in efficiency, it’s just a question of time. A cow simply can’t compete. You have to cut down the trees to grow the animal feed that you ship to the cow, that the cow then eats. Then you have to wait a number of years, and that’s that 20 factor difference in efficiency. Now our capitalist economic system doesn’t like inefficient systems. You can try to make that cow as efficient as possible, you’re never going to be able to compete with a plant-based burger. Anybody who thinks that that plant-based burger isn’t going to displace the meat burger should really think again.

Ariel: All right, I think we’re ending on a nice hopeful note. So I want to thank you both for coming on today and talking about all of these issues.

Alexander: Thanks Ariel. It was nice to talk.

John: Thank you very much.

Ariel: If you enjoyed this podcast, please take a moment to like it and share it, and maybe even leave a positive review. And o f course, if you haven’t already, please follow us. You can find the FLI podcast on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.

[end of recorded material]

An image of Hurricane Michael making landfall October 11, 2018. Photo courtesy of NASA.

IPCC 2018 Special Report Paints Dire — But Not Completely Hopeless — Picture of Future

Click here to see this page in other languages:  Russian 

On Wednesday, October 10, the panhandle of Florida was struck by Hurricane Michael, which has already claimed over 30 lives and destroyed communities, homes and infrastructure across multiple states. Michael is the strongest hurricane in recorded history to make landfall in that region. And in coming years, it’s likely that we’ll continue to see an increase in record breaking storms — as well as record-breaking heat waves, droughts, floods, and wildfires.

Only two days before Michael unleashed its devastation on the United States, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a dire report on the prospects for maintaining global temperature rise to 1.5°C—and why we must meet this challenge head on.

In 2015, roughly during the time that the Paris Climate Agreement was being signed, global temperatures reached 1°C above pre-industrial levels. And we’re already feeling the impacts of this increase in the form of bigger storms, bigger wildfires, higher temperatures, melting arctic ice, etc.

The recent IPCC report concludes that, if society continues on its current trajectory — and even if the world abides by the Paris Climate Agreement — the planet will hit 1.5°C of warming in a matter of decades, and possibly in the next 12 years. And every half degree more that temperatures rises is expected to bring on even more extreme effects. Even if we can limit global warming to 1.5°C, the report predicts we’ll lose most coral reefs, sea levels will rise and flood many coastal communities, more people around the world will experience extreme heat waves, and other natural disasters can be expected to increase.

As global temperatures rise, they don’t rise evenly across the globe. Land air is expected to reach higher temperatures than that over the oceans, so what could be 1.5°C on average across earth, might be a 3-4.5°C increase in some sections of the world. This has the potential to trigger deadly heat waves, wildfires and droughts, which would also negatively impact local ecosystems and farmland.

But what about if we reach 2°C? This level of temperature increase is often floated as the highest limit the world can handle without too much suffering – but how much worse will it be than 1.5°C?

A difference of 0.5°C may not seem like much, but it could mean the difference between a world with some surviving coral reefs, and a world in which they — and many other species — are all destroyed. Two degrees could lead to an extra 420 million people experiencing extreme and possibly deadly heat waves. Some regions of the world will see increases in temperatures as high as 4-6°C. Sea levels are predicted to rise an extra 10 centimeters at 2°C versus 1.5°C, which could impact an extra 10 million people along coastal areas.

Meanwhile, human health will deteriorate; diseases like malaria and dengue fever could become more prevalent and spread into new regions with this increase in temperature. Farmland for many staple crops could decrease, and even livestock are expected to be adversely affected as feed quality and water availability may decrease.

The list goes on and on. But perhaps one of the greatest threats of climate change is that those who will likely be the hardest hit by increasing temperatures are those who are already among the poorest and most vulnerable.

Yet we’re not quite out of time. As the report highlights, all of these problems arise as a result of society taking little to no action. But what if we did start taking steps to reduce global warming? What if we could get governments and corporations to recognize the need to reduce emissions and switch to clean, alternative, renewable energy sources? What if individuals made changes to their own lifestyles while also encouraging their government leaders to take action?

The report suggests that under those circumstances, if we can achieve global net-zero emissions — that is, such low levels of carbon or other pollutants are emitted that they can be absorbed by trees and soil — then we can still prevent temperatures from exceeding 1.5°C. Temperatures will still increase somewhat as a result of current emissions, but there’s still time to curtail the most severe effects.

There are other organizations that believe we can achieve global net-zero emissions as well. For example, this summer, the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap was released, which offers a roadmap to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement by 2030. Or there’s The Solutions Project, which maps out steps to quickly achieve 100% renewable energy. And Drawdown provides 80 steps we can take to reduce emissions.

We don’t have much time left, but it’s not too late. The prospects are dire if we continue on our current trajectory, but if society can recognize the urgency of the situation and come together to take action, there’s still hope of keeping the worst effects of climate change at bay.

An edited version of this article was originally published on Metro. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Podcast: Martin Rees on the Prospects for Humanity: AI, Biotech, Climate Change, Overpopulation, Cryogenics, and More

How can humanity survive the next century of climate change, a growing population, and emerging technological threats? Where do we stand now, and what steps can we take to cooperate and address our greatest existential risks?

In this special podcast episode, Ariel speaks with Martin Rees about his new book, On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, which discusses humanity’s existential risks and the role that technology plays in determining our collective future. Martin is a cosmologist and space scientist based in the University of Cambridge. He is director of The Institute of Astronomy and Master of Trinity College, and he was president of The Royal Society, which is the UK’s Academy of Science, from 2005 to 2010. In 2005 he was also appointed to the UK’s House of Lords.

Topics discussed in this episode include:

  • Why Martin remains a technical optimist even as he focuses on existential risks
  • The economics and ethics of climate change
  • How AI and automation will make it harder for Africa and the Middle East to economically develop
  • How high expectations for health care and quality of life also put society at risk
  • Why growing inequality could be our most underappreciated global risk
  • Martin’s view that biotechnology poses greater risk than AI
  • Earth’s carrying capacity and the dangers of overpopulation
  • Space travel and why Martin is skeptical of Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars
  • The ethics of artificial meat, life extension, and cryogenics
  • How intelligent life could expand into the galaxy
  • Why humans might be unable to answer fundamental questions about the universe

Books and resources discussed in this episode include

You can listen to the podcast above and read the full transcript below. Check out our previous podcast episodes on SoundCloudiTunesGooglePlay, and Stitcher.

Ariel: Hello, I am Ariel Conn with The Future of Life Institute. Now, our podcasts lately have dealt with artificial intelligence in some way or another, and with a few focusing on nuclear weapons, but FLI is really an organization about existential risks, and especially x-risks that are the result of human action. These cover a much broader field than just artificial intelligence.

I’m excited to be hosting a special segment of the FLI podcast with Martin Rees, who has just come out with a book that looks at the ways technology and science could impact our future both for good and bad. Martin is a cosmologist and space scientist. His research interests include galaxy formation, active galactic nuclei, black holes, gamma ray bursts, and more speculative aspects of cosmology. He’s based in Cambridge where he has been director of The Institute of Astronomy, and Master of Trinity College. He was president of The Royal Society, which is the UK’s Academy of Science, from 2005 to 2010. In 2005 he was also appointed to the UK’s House of Lords. He holds the honorary title of Astronomer Royal. He has received many international awards for his research and belongs to numerous academies, including The National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy, the Japan Academy, and the Pontifical Academy.

He’s on the board of The Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, and has served on many bodies connected with international collaboration and science, especially threats stemming from humanity’s ever heavier footprint on the planet and the runaway consequences of ever more powerful technologies. He’s written seven books for the general public, and his most recent book is about these threats. It’s the reason that I’ve asked him to join us today. First, Martin thank you so much for talking with me today.

Martin: Good to be in touch.

Ariel: Your new book is called On the Future: Prospects for Humanity. In his endorsement of the book Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “From climate change, to biotech, to artificial intelligence, science sits at the center of nearly all decisions that civilization confronts to assure its own survival.”

I really liked this quote, because I felt like it sums up what your book is about. Basically science and the future are too intertwined to really look at one without the other. And whether the future turns out well, or whether it turns out to be the destruction of humanity, science and technology will likely have had some role to play. First, do you agree with that sentiment? Am I accurate in that description?

Martin: No, I certainly agree, and that’s truer of this century than ever before because of greater scientific knowledge we have, and the greater power to use it for good or ill, because the technologies allow tremendously advanced technologies which could be misused by a small number of people.

Ariel: You’ve written in the past about how you think we have essentially a 50/50 chance of some sort of existential risk. One of the things that I noticed about this most recent book is you talk a lot about the threats, but to me it felt still like an optimistic book. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about, this might be jumping ahead a bit, but maybe what the overall message you’re hoping that people take away is?

Martin: Well, I describe myself as a technical optimist, but political pessimist because it is clear that we couldn’t be living such good lives today with seven and a half billion people on the planet if we didn’t have the technology which has been developed in the last 100 years, and clearly there’s a tremendous prospect of better technology in the future. But on the other hand what is depressing is the very big gap between the way the world could be, and the way the world actually is. In particular, even though we have the power to give everyone a decent life, the lot of the bottom billion people in the world is pretty miserable and could be alleviated a lot simply by the money owned by the 1,000 richest people in the world.

We have a very unjust society, and the politics is not optimizing the way technology is used for human benefit. My view is that it’s the politics which is an impediment to the best use of technology, and the reason this is important is that as time goes on we’re going to have a growing population which is ever more demanding of energy and resources, putting more pressure on the planet and its environment and its climate, but we are also going to have to deal with this if we are to allow people to survive and avoid some serious tipping points being crossed.

That’s the problem of the collective effect of us on the planet, but there’s another effect, which is that these new technologies, especially bio, cyber, and AI allow small groups of even individuals to have an effect by error or by design, which could cascade very broadly, even globally. This, I think, makes our society very brittle. We’re very interdependent, and on the other hand it’s easy for there to be a breakdown. That’s what depresses me, the gap between the way things could be, and the downsides if we collectively overreach ourselves, or if individuals cause disruption.

Ariel: You mentioned actually quite a few things that I’m hoping to touch on as we continue to talk. I’m almost inclined, before we get too far into some of the specific topics, to bring up an issue that I personally have. It’s connected to a comment that you make in the book. I think you were talking about climate change at the time, and you say that if we heard that there was 10% chance that an asteroid would strike in 2100 people would do something about it.

We wouldn’t say, “Oh, technology will be better in the future so let’s not worry about it now.” Apparently I’m very cynical, because I think that’s exactly what we would do. And I’m curious, what makes you feel more hopeful that even with something really specific like that, we would actually do something and not just constantly postpone the problem to some future generation?

Martin: Well, I agree. We might not even in that case, but the reason I gave that as a contrast to our response to climate change is that there you could imagine a really sudden catastrophe happening if the asteroid does hit, whereas the problem with climate change is really that it’s first of all, the effect is mainly going to be several decades in the future. It’s started to happen, but the really severe consequences are decades away. But also there’s an uncertainty, and it’s not a sort of sudden event we can easily visualize. It’s not at all clear therefore, how we are actually going to do something about it.

In the case of the asteroid, it would be clear what the strategy would be to try and deal with it, whereas in the case of climate there are lots of ways, and the problem is that the consequences are decades away, and they’re global. Most of the political focus obviously is on short-term worry, short-term problems, and on national or more local problems. Anything we do about climate change will have an effect which is mainly for the benefit of people in quite different parts of the world 50 years from now, and it’s hard to keep those issues up the agenda when there are so many urgent things to worry about.

I think you’re maybe right that even if there was a threat of an asteroid, there may be the same sort of torpor, and we’d fail to deal with it, but I thought that’s an example of something where it would be easier to appreciate that it would really be a disaster. In the case of the climate it’s not so obviously going to be a catastrophe that people are motivated now to start thinking about it.

Ariel: I’ve heard it go both ways that either climate change is yes, obviously going to be bad but it’s not an existential risk so therefore those of us who are worried about existential risk don’t need to worry about it, but then I’ve also heard people say, “No, this could absolutely be an existential risk if we don’t prevent runaway climate change.” I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what worries you most regarding climate.

Martin: First of all, I don’t think it is an existential risk, but it’s something we should worry about. One point I make in my book is that I think the debate, which makes it hard to have an agreed policy on climate change, stems not so much from differences about the science — although of course there are some complete deniers — but differences about ethics and economics. There’s some people of course who completely deny the science, but most people accept that CO2 is warming the planet, and most people accept there’s quite a big uncertainty, matter of fact a true uncertainty about how much warmer you get for a given increase in CO2.

But even among those who accept the IPCC projections of climate change, and the uncertainties therein, I think there’s a big debate, and the debate is really between people who apply a standard economic discount rate where you discount the future to a rate of, say 5%, and those who think we shouldn’t do it in this context. If you apply a 5% discount rate as you would if you were deciding whether it’s worth putting up an office building or something like that, then of course you don’t give any weight to what happens after about, say 2050.

As Bjorn Lomborg, the well-known environmentalist argues, we should therefore give a lower priority to dealing with climate change than to helping the world’s poor in other more immediate ways. He is consistent given his assumptions about the discount rate. But many of us would say that in this context we should not discount the future so heavily. We should care about the life chances of a baby born today as much as we should care about the life chances of those of us who are now middle aged and won’t be alive at the end of the century. We should also be prepared to pay an insurance premium now in order to remove or reduce the risk of the worst case climate scenarios.

I think the debates about what to do about climate change is essentially ethics. Do we want to discriminate on grounds of date of birth and not care about the life chances of those who are now babies, or are we prepared to make some sacrifices now in order to reduce a risk which they might encounter in later life?

Ariel: Do you think the risks are only going to be showing up that much later? We are already seeing these really heavy storms striking. We’ve got Florence in North Carolina right now. There’s a super typhoon hit southern China and the Philippines. We had Maria, and I’m losing track of all the hurricanes that we’ve had. We’ve had these huge hurricanes over the last couple of years. We saw California and much of the west coast of the US just on flames this year. Do you think we really need to wait that long?

Martin: I think it’s generally agreed that extreme weather is now happening more often as a consequence of climate change and the warming of the ocean, and that this will become a more serious trend, but by the end of the century of course it could be very serious indeed. And the main threat is of course to people in the disadvantaged parts of the world. If you take these recent events, it’s been far worse in the Philippines than in the United States because they’re not prepared for it. Their houses are more fragile, etc.

Ariel: I don’t suppose you have any thoughts on how we get people to care more about others? Because it does seem to be in general that sort of worrying about myself versus worrying about other people. The richer countries are the ones who are causing more of the climate change, and it’s the poorer countries who seem to be suffering more. Then of course there’s the issue of the people who are alive now versus the people in the future.

Martin: That’s right, yes. Well, I think most people do care about their children and grandchildren, and so to that extent they do care about what things will be like at the end of the century, but as you say, the extra-political problem is that the cause of the CO2 emissions is mainly what’s happened in the advanced countries, and the downside is going to be more seriously felt by those in remote parts of the world. It’s easy to overlook them, and hard to persuade people that we ought to make a sacrifice which will be mainly for their benefit.

I think incidentally that’s one of the other things that we have to ensure happens, is a narrowing of the gap between the lifestyles and the economic advantages in the advanced and the less advanced parts of the world. I think that’s going to be in everyone’s interest because if there continues to be great inequality, not only will the poorer people be more subject to threats like climate change, but I think there’s going to be massive and well-justified discontent, because unlike in the earlier generations, they’re aware of what they’re missing. They all have mobile phones, they all know what it’s like, and I think there’s going to be embitterment leading to conflict if we don’t narrow this gap, and this requires I think a sacrifice on the part of the wealthy nations to subsidize developments in these poorer countries, especially in Africa.

Ariel: That sort of ties into another question that I had for you, and that is, what do you think is the most underappreciated threat that maybe isn’t quite as obvious? You mentioned the fact that we have these people in poorer countries who are able to more easily see what they’re missing out on. Inequality is a problem in and of itself, but also just that people are more aware of the inequality seems like a threat that we might not be as aware of. Are there others that you think are underappreciated?

Martin: Yes. Just to go back, that threat is of course very serious because by the end of the century there might be 10 times as many people in Africa as in Europe, and of course they would then have every justification in migrating towards Europe with the result of huge disruption. We do have to care about those sorts of issues. I think there are all kinds of reasons apart from straight ethics why we should ensure that the less developed countries, especially in Africa, do have a chance to close the gap.

Incidentally, one thing which is a handicap for them is that they won’t have the route to prosperity followed by the so called “Asian tigers,” which were able to have high economic growth by undercutting the labor cost in the west. Now what’s happening is that with robotics it’s possible to, as it were, re-shore lots of manufacturing industry back to wealthy countries, and so Africa and the Middle East won’t have the same opportunity the far eastern countries did to catch up by undercutting the cost of production in the west.

This is another reason why it’s going to be a big challenge. That’s something which I think we don’t worry about enough, and need to worry about, because if the inequalities persist when everyone is able to move easily and knows exactly what they’re missing, then that’s a recipe for a very dangerous and disruptive world. I would say that is an underappreciated threat.

Another thing I would count as important is that we are as a society very brittle, and very unstable because of high expectations. I’d like to give you another example. Suppose there were to be a pandemic, not necessarily a genetically engineered terrorist one, but a natural one. Then in contrast to what happened in the 14th century when the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death, occurred and killed nearly half the people in certain towns and the rest went on fatalistically. If we had some sort of plague which affected even 1% of the population of the United States, there’d be complete social breakdown, because that would overwhelm the capacity of hospitals, and people, unless they are wealthy, would feel they weren’t getting their entitlement of healthcare. And if that was a matter of life and death, that’s a recipe for social breakdown. I think given the high expectations of people in the developed world, then we are far more vulnerable to the consequences of these breakdowns, and pandemics, and the failures of electricity grids, et cetera, than in the past when people were more robust and more fatalistic.

Ariel: That’s really interesting. Is it essentially because we expect to be leading these better lifestyles, just that expectation could be our downfall if something goes wrong?

Martin: That’s right. And of course, if we know that there are cures available to some disease and there’s not the hospital capacity to offer it to all the people who are afflicted with the disease, then naturally that’s a matter of life and death, and that is going to promote social breakdown. This is a new threat which is of course a downside of the fact that we can at least cure some people.

Ariel: There’s two directions that I want to go with this. I’m going to start with just transitioning now to biotechnology. I want to come back to issues of overpopulation and improving healthcare in a little bit, but first I want to touch on biotech threats.

One of the things that’s been a little bit interesting for me is that when I first started at FLI three years ago we were very concerned about biotechnology. CRISPR was really big. It had just sort of exploded onto the scene. Now, three years later I’m not hearing quite as much about the biotech threats, and I’m not sure if that’s because something has actually changed, or if it’s just because at FLI I’ve become more focused on AI and therefore stuff is happening but I’m not keeping up with it. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what some of the risks you see today are with respect to biotech?

Martin: Well, let me say I think we should worry far more about bio threats than about AI in my opinion. I think as far as the bio threats are concerned, then there are these new techniques. CRISPR, of course, is a very benign technique if it’s used to remove a single damaging gene that gives you a particular disease, and also it’s less objectionable than traditional GM because it doesn’t cross the species barrier in the same way, but it does allow things like a gene drive where you make a species extinct by making it sterile.

That’s good if you’re wiping out a mosquito that carries a deadly virus, but there’s a risk of some effect which distorts the ecology and has a cascading consequence. There are risks of that kind, but more important I think there is a risk of the misuse of these techniques, and not just CRISPR, but for instance the the gain of function techniques that we used in 2011 in Wisconsin and in Holland to make influenza virus both more virulent and more transmissible, things like that which can be done in a more advanced way now I’m sure.

These are clearly potentially dangerous, even if experimenters have a good motive, then the viruses might escape, and of course they are the kinds of things which could be misused. There have, of course, been lots of meetings, you have been at some, to discuss among scientists what the guidelines should be. How can we ensure responsible innovation in these technologies? These are modeled on the famous Conference in Asilomar in the 1970s when recombinant DNA was first being discussed, and the academics who worked in that area, they agreed on a sort of cautious stance, and a moratorium on some kinds of experiments.

But now they’re trying to do the same thing, and there’s a big difference. One is that these scientists are now more global. It’s not just a few people in North America and Europe. They’re global, and there is strong commercial pressures, and they’re far more widely understood. Bio-hacking is almost a student recreation. This means, in my view, that there’s a big danger, because even if we have regulations about certain things that can’t be done because they’re dangerous, enforcing those regulations globally is going to be as hopeless as it is now to enforce the drug laws, or to enforce the tax laws globally. Something which can be done will be done by someone somewhere, whatever the regulations say, and I think this is very scary. Consequences could cascade globally.

Ariel: Do you think that the threat is more likely to come from something happening accidentally, or intentionally?

Martin: I don’t know. I think it could be either. Certainly it could be something accidental from gene drive, or releasing some dangerous virus, but I think if we can imagine it happening intentionally, then we’ve got to ask what sort of people might do it? Governments don’t use biological weapons because you can’t predict how they will spread and who they’d actually kill, and that would be an inhibiting factor for any terrorist group that had well-defined aims.

But my worst nightmare is some person, and there are some, who think that there are too many human beings on the planet, and if they combine that view with the mindset of extreme animal rights people, etc, they might think it would be a good thing for Gaia, for Mother Earth, to get rid of a lot of human beings. They’re the kind of people who, with access to this technology, might have no compunction in releasing a dangerous pathogen. This is the kind of thing that worries me.

Ariel: I find that interesting because it ties into the other question that I wanted to ask you about, and that is the idea of overpopulation. I’ve read it both ways, that overpopulation is in and of itself something of an existential risk, or a catastrophic risk, because we just don’t have enough resources on the planet. You actually made an interesting point, I thought, in your book where you point out that we’ve been thinking that there aren’t enough resources for a long time, and yet we keep getting more people and we still have plenty of resources. I thought that was sort of interesting and reassuring.

But I do think at some point that does become an issue. At then at the same time we’re seeing this huge push, understandably, for improved healthcare, and expanding life spans, and trying to save as many lives as possible, and making those lives last as long as possible. How do you resolve those two sides of the issue?

Martin: It’s true, of course, as you imply, that the population has risen double in the last 50 years, and there were doomsters who in the 1960s and ’70s thought that mass starvation by now, and there hasn’t been because food production has more than kept pace. If there are famines today, as of course there are, it’s not because of overall food shortages. It’s because of wars, or mal-distribution of money to buy the food. Up until now things have gone fairly well, but clearly there are limits to the food that can be produced on the earth.

All I would say is that we can’t really say what the carrying capacity of the earth is, because it depends so much on the lifestyle of people. As I say in the book, the world couldn’t sustainably have 2 billion people if they all lived like present day Americans, using as much energy, and burning as much fossil fuels, and eating as much beef. On the other hand you could imagine lifestyles which are very sort of austere, where the earth could carry 10, or even 20 billion people. We can’t set an upper limit, but all we can say is that given that it’s fairly clear that the population is going to rise to about 9 billion by 2050, and it may go on rising still more after that, we’ve got to ensure that the way in which the average person lives is less profligate in terms of energy and resources, otherwise there will be problems.

I think we also do what we can to ensure that after 2050 the population turns around and goes down. The base scenario is when it goes on rising as it may if people choose to have large families even when they have the choice. That could happen, and of course as you say, life extension is going to have an affect on society generally, but obviously on the overall population too. I think it would be more benign if the population of 9 billion in 2050 was a peak and it started going down after that.

And it’s not hopeless, because the actual number of births per year has already started going down. The reason the population is still going up is because more babies survive, and most of the people in the developing world are still young, and if they live as long as people in advanced countries do, then of course that’s going to increase the population even for a steady birth rate. That’s why, unless there’s a real disaster, we can’t avoid the population rising to about 9 billion.

But I think policies can have an affect on what happens after that. I think we do have to try to make people realize that having large numbers of children has negative externalities, as it were in economic jargon, and it is going to be something to put extra pressure on the world, and affects our environment in a detrimental way.

Ariel: As I was reading this, especially as I was reading your section about space travel, I want to ask you about your take on whether we can just start sending people to Mars or something like that to address issues of overpopulation. As I was reading your section on that, news came out that Elon Musk and SpaceX had their first passenger for a trip around the moon, which is now scheduled for 2023, and the timing was just entertaining to me, because like I said you have a section in your book about why you don’t actually agree with Elon Musk’s plan for some of this stuff.

Martin: That’s right.

Ariel: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about why you’re not as big a plan of space tourism, and what you think of humanity expanding into the rest of the solar system and universe?

Martin: Well, let me say that I think it’s a dangerous delusion to think we can solve the earth’s problems by escaping to Mars or elsewhere. Mass emigration is not feasible. There’s nowhere in the solar system which is as comfortable to live in as the top of Everest or the South Pole. I think the idea which was promulgated by Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking of mass emigration is, I think, a dangerous delusion. The world’s problems have to be solved here, dealing with climate change is a dawdle compared to terraforming Mars. SoI don’t think that’s true.

Now, two other things about space. The first is that the practical need for sending people into space is getting less as robots get more advanced. Everyone has seen pictures of the Curiosity Probe trundling across the surface of Mars, and maybe missing things that a geologist would notice, but future robots will be able to do much of what a human will do, and to manufacture large structures in space, et cetera, so the practical need to send people to space is going down.

On the other hand, some people may want to go simply as an adventure. It’s not really tourism, because tourism implies it’s safe and routine. It’ll be an adventure like Steve Fossett or the guy who fell supersonically from an altitude balloon. It’d be crazy people like that, and maybe this Japanese tourist is in the same style, who want to have a thrill, and I think we should cheer them on.

I think it would be good to imagine that there are a few people living on Mars, but it’s never going to be as comfortable as our Earth, and we should just cheer on people like this.

And I personally think it should be left to private money. If I was an American, I would not support the NASA space program. It’s very expensive, and it could be undercut by private companies which can afford to take higher risks than NASA could inflict on publicly funded civilians. I don’t think NASA should be doing manned space flight at all. Of course, some people would say, “Well, it’s a national aspiration, a national goal to show superpower pre-eminence by a massive space project.” That was, of course, what drove the Apollo program, and the Apollo program cost about 4% of The US federal budget. Now NASA has .6% or thereabouts. I’m old enough to remember the Apollo moon landings, and of course if you would have asked me back then, I would have expected that there might have been people on Mars within 10 or 15 years at that time.

There would have been, had the program been funded, but of course there was no motive, because the Apollo program was driven by superpower rivalry. And having beaten the Russians, it wasn’t pursued with the same intensity. It could be that the Chinese will, for prestige reasons, want to have a big national space program, and leapfrog what the Americans did by going to Mars. That could happen. Otherwise I think the only manned space flight will, and indeed should, be privately funded by adventurers prepared to go on cut price and very risky missions.

But we should cheer them on. The reason we should cheer them on is that if in fact a few of them do provide some sort of settlement on Mars, then they will be important for life’s long-term future, because whereas we are, as humans, fairly well adapted to the earth, they will be in a place, Mars, or an asteroid, or somewhere, for which they are badly adapted. Therefore they would have every incentive to use all the techniques of genetic modification, and cyber technology to adapt to this hostile environment.

A new species, perhaps quite different from humans, may emerge as progeny of those pioneers within two or three centuries. I think this is quite possible. They, of course, may download themselves to be electronic. We don’t know how it’ll happen. We all know about the possibilities of advanced intelligence in electronic form. But I think this’ll happen on Mars, or in space, and of course if we think about going further and exploring beyond our solar system, then of course that’s not really a human enterprise because of human life times being limited, but it is a goal that would be feasible if you were a near immortal electronic entity. That’s a way in which our remote descendants will perhaps penetrate beyond our solar system.

Ariel: As you’re looking towards these longer term futures, what are you hopeful that we’ll be able to achieve?

Martin: You say we, I think we humans will mainly want to stay on the earth, but I think intelligent life, even if it’s not out there already in space, could spread through the galaxy as a consequence of what happens when a few people who go into space and are away from the regulators adapt themselves to that environment. Of course, one thing which is very important is to be aware of different time scales.

Sometimes you hear people talk about humans watching the death of the sun in five billion years. That’s nonsense, because the timescale for biological evolution by Darwinian selection is about a million years, thousands of times shorter than the lifetime of the sun, but more importantly the time scale for this new kind of intelligent design, when we can redesign humans and make new species, that time scale is a technological time scale. It could be only a century.

It would only take one, or two, or three centuries before we have entities which are very different from human beings if they are created by genetic modification, or downloading to electronic entities. They won’t be normal humans. I think this will happen, and this of course will be a very important stage in the evolution of complexity in our universe, because we will go from the kind of complexity which has emerged by Darwinian selection, to something quite new. This century is very special, which is a century where we might be triggering or jump starting a new kind of technological evolution which could spread from our solar system far beyond, on the timescale very short compared to the time scale for Darwinian evolution and the time scale for astronomical evolution.

Ariel: All right. In the book you spend a lot of time also talking about current physics theories and how those could evolve. You spend a little bit of time talking about multiverses. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about why you think understanding that is important for ensuring this hopefully better future?

Martin: Well, it’s only peripherally linked to it. I put that in the book because I was thinking about, what are the challenges, not just challenges of a practical kind, but intellectual challenges? One point I make is that there are some scientific challenges which we are now confronting which may be beyond human capacity to solve, because there’s no particular reason to think that the capacity of our brains is matched to understanding all aspects of reality any more than a monkey can understand quantum theory.

It’s possible that there be some fundamental aspects of nature that humans will never understand, and they will be a challenge for post-humans. I think those challenges are perhaps more likely to be in the realm of complexity, understanding the brain for instance, than in the context of cosmology, although there are challenges in cosmology which is to understand the very early universe where we may need a new theory like string theory with extra dimensions, et cetera, and we need a theory like that in order to decide whether our big bang was the only one, or whether there were other big bangs and a kind of multiverse.

It’s possible that in 50 years from now we will have such a theory, we’ll know the answers to those questions. But it could be that there is such a theory and it’s just too hard for anyone to actually understand and make predictions from. I think these issues are relevant to the intellectual constraints on humans.

Ariel: Is that something that you think, or hope, that things like more advanced artificial intelligence or however we evolve in the future, that that evolution will allow “us” to understand some of these more complex ideas?

Martin: Well, I think it’s certainly possible that machines could actually, in a sense, create entities based on physics which we can’t understand. This is perfectly possible, because obviously we know they can vastly out-compute us at the moment, so it could very well be, for instance, that there is a variant of string theory which is correct, and it’s just too difficult for any human mathematician to work out. But it could be that computers could work it out, so we get some answers.

But of course, you then come up against a more philosophical question about whether competence implies comprehension, whether a computer with superhuman capabilities is necessarily going to be self-aware and conscious, or whether it is going to be just a zombie. That’s a separate question which may not affect what it can actually do, but I think it does affect how we react to the possibility that the far future will be dominated by such things.

I remember when I wrote an article in a newspaper about these possibilities, the reaction was bimodal. Some people thought, “Isn’t it great there’ll be these even deeper intellects than human beings out there,” but others who thought these might just be zombies thought it was very sad if there was no entity which could actually appreciate the beauties and wonders of nature in the way we can. It does matter, in a sense, to our perception of this far future, if we think that these entities which may be electronic rather than organic, will be conscious and will have the kind of awareness that we have and which makes us wonder at the beauty of the environment in which we’ve emerged. I think that’s a very important question.

Ariel: I want to pull things back to a little bit more shorter term I guess, but still considering this idea of how technology will evolve. You mentioned that you don’t think it’s a good idea to count on going to Mars as a solution to our problems on Earth because all of our problems on Earth are still going to be easier to solve here than it is to populate Mars. I think in general we have this tendency to say, “Oh, well in the future we’ll have technology that can fix whatever issue we’re dealing with now, so we don’t need to worry about it.”

I was wondering if you could sort of comment on that approach. To what extent can we say, “Well, most likely technology will have improved and can help us solve these problems,” and to what extent is that a dangerous approach to take?

Martin: Well, clearly technology has allowed us to live much better, more complex lives than we could in the past, and on the whole the net benefits outweigh the downsides, but of course there are downsides, and they stem from the fact that we have some people who are disruptive, and some people who can’t be trusted. If we had a world where everyone could trust everyone else, we could get rid of about a third of the economy I would guess, but I think the main point is that we are very vulnerable.

We have huge advances, clearly, in networking via the Internet, and computers, et cetera, and we may have the Internet of Things within a decade, but of course people worry that this opens up a new kind of even more catastrophic potential for cyber terrorism. That’s just one example, and ditto for biotech which may allow the development of pathogens which kill people of particular races, or have other effects.

There are these technologies which are developing fast, and they can be used to great benefit, but they can be misused in ways that will provide new kinds of horrors that were not available in the past. It’s by no means obvious which way things will go. Will there be a continued net benefit of technology, as I think we’ve said there as been up ’til now despite nuclear weapons, et cetera, or will at some stage the downside run ahead of the benefits.

I do worry about the latter being a possibility, particularly because of this amplification factor, the fact that it only takes a few people in order to cause disruption that could cascade globally. The world is so interconnected that we can’t really have a disaster in one region without its affecting the whole world. Jared Diamond has this book called Collapse where he discusses five collapses of particular civilizations, whereas other parts of the world were unaffected.

I think if we really had some catastrophe, it would affect the whole world. It wouldn’t just affect parts. That’s something which is a new downside. The stakes are getting higher as technology advances, and my book is really aimed to say that these developments are very exciting, but they pose new challenges, and I think particularly they pose challenges because a few dissidents can cause more trouble, and I think it’ll make the world harder to govern. It’ll make cities and countries harder to govern, and a stronger tension between three things we want to achieve, which is security, privacy, and liberty. I think that’s going to be a challenge for all future governments.

Ariel: Reading your book I very much got the impression that it was essentially a call to action to address these issues that you just mentioned. I was curious: what do you hope that people will do after reading the book, or learning more about these issues in general?

Martin: Well, first of all I hope that people can be persuaded to think long term. I mentioned that religious groups, for instance, tend to think long term, and the papal encyclical in 2015 I think had a very important effect on the opinion in Latin America, Africa, and East Asia in the lead up to the Paris Climate Conference, for instance. That’s an example where someone from outside traditional politics would have an effect.

What’s very important is that politicians will only respond to an issue if it’s prominent in the press, and prominent in their inbox, and so we’ve got to ensure that people are concerned about this. Of course, I ended the book saying, “What are the special responsibilities of scientists,” because scientists clearly have a special responsibility to ensure that their work is safe, and that the public and politicians are made aware of the implications of any discovery they make.

I think that’s important, even though they should be mindful that their expertise doesn’t extend beyond their special area. That’s a reason why scientific understanding, in a general sense, is something which really has to be universal. This is important for education, because if we want to have a proper democracy where debate about these issues rises above the level of tabloid slogans, then given that the important issues that we have to discuss involve health, energy, the environment, climate, et cetera, which have scientific aspects, then everyone has to have enough feel for those aspects to participate in a debate, and also enough feel for probabilities and statistics to be not easily bamboozled by political arguments.

I think an educated population is essential for proper democracy. Obviously that’s a platitude. But the education needs to include, to a greater extent, an understanding of the scope and limits of science and technology. I make this point at the end and hope that it will lead to a greater awareness of these issues, and of course for people in universities, we have a responsibility because we can influence the younger generation. It’s certainly the case that students and people under 30 may be alive towards the end of the century are more mindful of these concerns than the middle aged and old.

It’s very important that these activities like the Effective Altruism movement, 80,000 Hours, and these other movements among students should be encouraged, because they are going to be important in spreading an awareness of long-term concerns. Public opinion can be changed. We can see the change in attitudes to drunk driving and things like that, which have happened over a few decades, and I think perhaps we can have a more environmental sensitivity so to become regarded as sort of rather naff or tacky to waste energy, and to be extravagant in consumption.

I’m hopeful that attitudes will change in a positive way, but I’m concerned simply because the politics is getting very difficult, because with social media, panic and rumor can spread at the speed of light, and small groups can have a global effect. This makes it very, very hard to ensure that we can keep things stable given that only a few people are needed to cause massive disruption. That’s something which is new, and I think is becoming more and more serious.

Ariel: We’ve been talking a lot about things that we should be worrying about. Do you think there are things that we are currently worrying about that we probably can just let go of, that aren’t as big of risks?

Martin: Well, I think we need to ensure responsible innovation in all new technologies. We’ve talked a lot about bio, and we are very concerned about the misuse of cyber technology. As regards AI, of course there are a whole lot of concerns to be had. I personally think that the takeover AI would be rather slower than many of the evangelists suspect, but of course we do have to ensure that humans are not victimized by some algorithm which they can’t have explained to them.

I think there is an awareness to this, and I think that what’s being done by your colleagues at MIT has been very important in raising awareness of the need for responsible innovation and ethical application of AI, and also what your group has recognized is that the order in which things happen is very important. If some computer is developed and goes rogue, that’s bad news, whereas if we have a powerful computer which is under our control, then it may help us to deal with these other problems, the problems of the misuse of biotech, et cetera.

The order in which things happen is going to be very important, but I must say I don’t completely share these concerns about machines running away and taking over, ’cause I think there’s a difference in that, for biological evolution there’s been a drive toward intelligence being favored, but so is aggression. In the case of computers, they may drive towards greater intelligence, but it’s not obvious that that is going to be combined with aggression, because they are going to be evolving by intelligent design, not the struggle of the fittest, which is the way that we evolved.

Ariel: What about concerns regarding AI just in terms of being mis-programmed, and AI just being extremely competent? Poor design on our part, poor intelligent design?

Martin: Well, I think in the short term obviously there are concerns about AI making decisions that affect people, and I think most of us would say that we shouldn’t be deprived of our credit rating, or put in prison on the basis of some AI algorithm which can’t be explained to us. We are entitled to have an explanation if something is done to us against our will. That is why it is worrying if too much is going to be delegated to AI.

I also think that constraint on the development of self-driving cars, and things of that kind, is going to be constrained by the fact that these become vulnerable to hacking of various kinds. I think it’ll be a long time before we will accept a driverless car on an ordinary road. Controlled environments, yes. In particular lanes on highways, yes. In an ordinary road in a traditional city, it’s not clear that we will ever accept a driverless car. I think I’m frankly less bullish than maybe some of your colleagues about the speed at which the machines will really take over and be accepted, that we can trust ourselves to them.

Ariel: As I mentioned at the start, and as you mentioned at the start, you are a techno optimist, for as much as the book is about things that could go wrong it did feel to me like it was also sort of an optimistic look at the future. What are you most optimistic about? What are you most hopeful for looking at both short term and long term, however you feel like answering that?

Martin: I’m hopeful that biotech will have huge benefits for health, will perhaps extend human life spans a bit, but that’s something about which we should feel a bit ambivalent. So, I think health, and also food. If you asked me, what is one of the most benign technologies, it’s to make artificial meat, for instance. It’s clear that we can more easily feed a population of 9 billion on a vegetarian diet than on a traditional diet like Americans consume today.

To take one benign technology, I would say artificial meat is one, and more intensive farming so that we can feed people without encroaching too much on the natural part of the world. I’m optimistic about that. If we think about very long term trends then life extension is something which obviously if it happens too quickly is going to be hugely disruptive, multi-generation families, et cetera.

Also, even though we will have the capability within a century to change human beings, I think we should constrain that on earth and just let that be done by the few crazy pioneers who go away into space. But if this does happen, then as I say in the introduction to my book, it will be a real game changer in a sense. I make the point that one thing that hasn’t changed over most of human history is human character. Evidence for this is that we can read the literature written by the Greeks and Romans more than 2,000 years ago and resonate with the people, and their characters, and their attitudes and emotions.

It’s not at all clear that on some scenarios, people 200 years from now will resonate in anything other than an algorithmic sense with the attitudes we have as humans today. That will be a fundamental, and very fast change in the nature of humanity. The question is, can we do something to at least constrain the rate at which that happens, or at least constrain the way in which it happens? But it is going to be almost certainly possible to completely change human mentality, and maybe even human physique over that time scale. One has only to listen to listen to people like George Church to realize that it’s not crazy to imagine this happening.

Ariel: You mentioned in the book that there’s lots of people who are interested in cryogenics, but you also talked briefly about how there are some negative effects of cryogenics, and the burden that it puts on the future. I was wondering if you could talk really quickly about that?

Martin: There are some people, I know some, who have a medallion around their neck which is an injunction of, if they drop dead they should be immediately frozen, and their blood drained and replaced by liquid nitrogen, and that they should then be stored — there’s a company called Alcor in Arizona that does this — and allegedly revived at some stage when technology advanced. I find it hard to take these seriously, but they say that, well the chance may be small, but if they don’t invest this way then the chance is zero that they have a resurrection.

But I actually think that even if it worked, even if the company didn’t go bust, and sincerely maintained them for centuries and they could then be revived, I still think that what they’re doing is selfish, because they’d be revived into a world that was very different. They’d be refugees from the past, and they’d therefore be imposing an obligation on the future.

We obviously feel an obligation to look after some asylum seeker or refugee, and we might feel the same if someone had been driven out of their home in the Amazonian forest for instance, and had to find a new home, but these refugees from the past, as it were, they’re imposing a burden on future generations. I’m not sure that what they’re doing is ethical. I think it’s rather selfish.

Ariel: I hadn’t thought of that aspect of it. I’m a little bit skeptical of our ability to come back.

Martin: I agree. I think the chances are almost zero, even if they were stored and et cetera, one would like to see this technology tried on some animal first to see if they could freeze animals at liquid nitrogen temperatures and then revive it. I think it’s pretty crazy. Then of course, the number of people doing it is fairly small, and some of the companies doing it, there’s one in Russia, which are real ripoffs I think, and won’t survive. But as I say, even if these companies did keep going for a couple of centuries, or however long is necessary, then it’s not clear to me that it’s doing good. I also quoted this nice statement about, “What happens if we clone, and create a neanderthal? Do we put him in a zoo or send him to Harvard,” said the professor from Stanford.

Ariel: Those are ethical considerations that I don’t see very often. We’re so focused on what we can do that sometimes we forget. “Okay, once we’ve done this, what happens next?”

I appreciate you being here today. Those were my questions. Was there anything else that you wanted to mention that we didn’t get into?

Martin: One thing we didn’t discuss, which was a serious issue, is the limits of medical treatment, because you can make extraordinary efforts to keep people alive long before they’d have died naturally, and to keep alive babies that will never live a normal life, et cetera. Well, I certainly feel that that’s gone too far at both ends of life.

One should not devote so much effort to extreme premature babies, and allow people to die more naturally. Actually, if you asked me about predictions I’d make about the next 30 or 40 years, first more vegetarianism, secondly more euthanasia.

Ariel: I support both, vegetarianism, and I think euthanasia should be allowed. I think it’s a little bit barbaric that it’s not.

Martin: Yes.

I think we’ve covered quite a lot, haven’t we?

Ariel: I tried to.

Martin: I’d just like to mention that my book does touch a lot of bases in a fairly short book. I hope it will be read not just by scientists. It’s not really a science book, although it emphasizes how scientific ideas are what’s going to determine how our civilization evolves. I’d also like to say that for those in universities, we know it’s only interim for students, but we have universities like MIT, and my University of Cambridge, we have convening power to gather people together to address these questions.

I think the value of the centers which we have in Cambridge, and you have in MIT, are that they are groups which are trying to address these very, very big issues, these threats and opportunities. The stakes are so high that if our efforts can really reduce the risk of a disaster by one part in 10,000, we’ve more than earned our keep. I’m very supportive of our Centre for Existential Risk in Cambridge, and also the Future of Life Institute which you have at MIT.

Given the huge numbers of people who are thinking about small risks like which foods are carcinogenic, and the threats of low radiation doses, et cetera, it’s not at all inappropriate that there should be some groups who are focusing on the more extreme, albeit perhaps rather improbable threats which could affect the whole future of humanity. I think it’s very important that these groups should be encouraged and fostered, and I’m privileged to be part of them.

Ariel: All right. Again, the book is On the Future: Prospects for Humanity by Martin Rees. I do want to add, I agree with what you just said. I think this is a really nice introduction to a lot of the risks that we face. I started taking notes about the different topics that you covered, and I don’t think I got all of them, but there’s climate change, nuclear war, nuclear winter, biodiversity loss, overpopulation, synthetic biology, genome editing, bioterrorism, biological errors, artificial intelligence, cyber technology, cryogenics, and the various topics in physics, and as you mentioned the role that scientists need to play in ensuring a safe future.

I highly recommend the book as a really great introduction to the potential risks, and the hopefully much greater potential benefits that science and technology can pose for the future. Martin, thank you again for joining me today.

Martin: Thank you, Ariel, for talking to me.

[end of recorded material]

What Can We Learn From Cape Town’s Water Crisis?

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The following article was contributed by Billy Babis.

Earlier this year, Cape Town, a port city in South Africa, prepared for a full depletion of its water resources amidst the driest 3-year span on record. The threat of ”Day Zero” —  the day when the city would officially have cut off running water — has subsided for now, but the long-term threat remains. And though Cape Town’s crisis is local, it exemplifies a problem several regions across the globe may soon have to address.

Current situation in Cape Town

In addition to being part of Cape Town’s driest 3-year span on record, 2017 was the city’s driest single year since 1933. With a population that has nearly doubled to 3.74 million in the past 25 years, water consumption has increased as the supply dwindles. 

The video below (added on November 28, 2018) illustrates how one of Cape Town’s largest reservoirs, the Theewaterskloof Dam, has been affected by this three-year drought.

 

In January of this year, the city of Cape Town made an emergency announcement that Day Zero would land in mid-April and began enforcing restrictions and regulations. Starting on February 1st, the Cape Town government put emergency water regulations into effect, increasing the cost of water to 5-8 times its previous rate and placing a suggested 50 liter per person per day cap on water use. For context, the average American uses approximately 300-380 liters of water per day. And while Cape Town residents continue to use 80 million liters more than the city’s goal of 450 million liters per day, these regulations and increased costs have made progress. Water consumption decreased enough that Day Zero has now been postponed until 2019, as the rainy season (July-August) is expected to partially replenish the reservoirs.

Cape Town’s water consumption decreased largely due to its increased cost. The municipality also restricted agricultural use of water, which usually makes up just under half of total consumption. These restrictions are worsening Cape Town’s already struggling agricultural sector; which in this 3-year drought has slashed 37,000 jobs and lost R14 billion (US$1.17 billion), contributing to inflated food prices that shoved 50,000 people below the poverty line.

On the innovation side, the city has made major investments in infrastructure to increase water availability: 3 desalination plants, 3 aquifer abstraction facilities, and 1 waste-water recycling project are currently underway to ultimately increase Cape Town’s water availability by almost 300 million liters per day.

Did climate change cause the water crisis?

Severe droughts have plagued subtropical regions like Cape Town long before human-caused climate change. Thus, it’s difficult to conclude that climate change directly caused the Cape Town water crisis. However, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continues to find evidence suggesting that climate change has caused drought in certain regions and will cause longer, more frequent droughts over the next century.

Drought can either be meteorological (abnormally limited rainfall), agricultural (abnormally dry soil, excess evaporation), or hydrological (limited stream-water). While each of these problems are interrelated, they have varying impacts on drought in different regions. Meteorological drought is often the most important, and this is certainly the case in Cape Town.

Meteorological drought occurs naturally in Cape Town and the other few regions of the world with a “Mediterranean” climate: Central California, central Chile, northern Africa and southern Europe, southwestern Australia, and the greater Cape Town area have dry summers and variably rainy winters. Due to global weather oscillations like El Nino, the total rainfall in winter varies dramatically. A given winter is usually either very rainy or very dry. But as long as repeated and prolonged periods of drought don’t strike, these regions can prepare for dry seasons by storing water from previous wet seasons.

But climate change threatens to jeopardize this. With “robust evidence and high agreement,” the IPCC concluded that while tropical regions will receive more precipitation this century, subtropical dry regions (like these Mediterranean climates) will receive less. In fact, warm, rising air near the equator ultimately settles and cools in these subtropical regions, creating deserts and droughts. Therefore, increasing equatorial heat and rain (as global warming promises to do) will likely lead to drier subtropical conditions and more frequent meteorological drought.  

But the IPCC also expects these Mediterranean climates to experience more frequent agricultural drought, (IPCC 5) largely due to growing human populations. In addition, renewable surface water and groundwater will decrease and hydrologic drought will likely occur more frequently, due in large part to the increasing population and resulting consumption.

What we can learn from this crisis

Earlier this year, many Capetonians feared a total catastrophe: running out of water. Wealthier citizens might have been able to pay for imported water or outbound flights, but poorer communities would have been left in a much more dire situation. International aid likely would have been necessary to avoid any fatal consequences.

The city seems to have averted that for now, but not without cost. The drought has caused immense strain on the agricultural economy that “will take years to work out of the system,” explains Beatrice Conradie, Professor of Economics and Social Sciences at University of Cape Town. “Primary producers are likely to act more conservatively as a result and this will make them less inclined to invest and create jobs. The unemployed will migrate to cities where they will put additional pressure on already strained infrastructure.”

And while Cape Town’s water infrastructure projects — desalination plants, aquifer abstraction facilities, and waste-water recycling projects — provided some immediate and prospective relief, they will not always be an option for every region. Desalination plants are very expensive and energy intensive (thus, climate change contributors), and pollute the local ocean ecosystem by releasing the brine remnants of desalination back into the water. Conradie raises further concerns about unregulated well-drilling in response to surface water restrictions. Regulated and unregulated over-abstraction from aquifers commonly leads to salt-water intrusion, permanently contaminating that fresh water and killing wetland wildlife. These are the best solutions available, and none of them are sustainable.

“Cape Town is really a wake-up call for other cities around the world,” shares NASA’s senior water scientist, Jay Famiglietti. “We have huge challenges ahead of us if we want to avert future day zeros in other cities around the world.”

Just as Capetonians failed to heed the cries of their government before reaching crisis-mode, global citizens are adjusting very slowly to the climate change cries of scientists and governments around the globe. But Cape Town’s response offers some valuable sociological lessons on sustainability. One is that behavioral changes can swing abruptly on a mass scale. Once a sufficient sense of urgency struck the people of Cape Town in early February (see figure below), the conservation movement gained a critical mass. Community members exponentially fed off each others’ hope.

But the role of governance proved indispensable. While Cape Town had long tried to inform the public of the water shortages, residents didn’t adjust their consumption until the government made the emergency announcement on January 17th and began enforcing drastic regulations and fees.

As Cape Town’s sustainability efforts demonstrate, addressing climate change is a social problem as much as a technical problem. Regardless of technological innovations, understanding human behavioral habits will be crucial in propelling necessary changes. As such, sociologists will grow just as important as climate scientists or chemical engineers in leading change.

Cape Town’s main focus over the past few months has been discovering the best ways to make behavioral nudges to its citizens on a mass scale to reduce water consumption. This entailed research partnerships with University of Cape Town’s sociology departments and the Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU). The principle of reciprocity reigned true – that people are more likely to contribute to the public good if they see others doing it – and enhancing this effect on a global scale will grow increasingly important as we attempt to mitigate and adapt to environmental threats in this century.

With or without a changing climate, though, water scarcity will become an increasingly urgent issue for humanity’s growing population. Population growth continues to catapult our ecological footprint and increasingly threaten the ability of future, presumably larger, generations to flourish. Amidst their environmental challenge, the people of Cape Town demonstrated the importance of effective governance and collaboration. As more subtropical regions begin to suffer from drought and water shortages, learning from the failures and successes of Cape Town’s 2018 crisis will help avoid disaster.

Can Global Warming Stay Below 1.5 Degrees? Views Differ Among Climate Scientists

The Paris Climate Agreement seeks to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial temperatures. In the best case scenario, warming would go no further than 1.5 degrees.

Many scientists see this as an impossible goal. A recent study by Peter Cox et al. postulates that, given a twofold increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, there is only a 3% chance of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees.

But a study by Richard Millar et al. provides more reason for hope. The Millar report concludes that the 1.5 degree limit is still physically feasible, if only narrowly. It also provides an updated “carbon budget”—a projection of how much more carbon dioxide we can emit without breaking the 1.5 degree limit.

Dr. Joeri Rogelj, a climate scientist and research scholar with the Energy Program of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, co-authored the Millar report. For Rogelj, the updated carbon budget is not the paper’s most important point. “Our paper shows to decision makers the importance of anticipating new and updated scientific knowledge,” he says.

Projected “carbon budgets” are rough estimates based on limited observations. These projections need to be continually updated as more data becomes available. Fortunately, the Paris Agreement calls for countries to periodically update their emission reduction pledges based on new estimates. Rogelj is hopeful “that this paper has put the necessity for a strong [updating] process on the radar of delegates.”

For scientists who have dismissed the 1.5 degree limit as impossible, the updating process might seem pointless. But Rogelj stresses that his team looked only at geophysical limitations, not political ones. Their report assumes that countries will agree to a zero emissions commitment—a much more ambitious scenario than other researchers have considered.

There is a misconception, Rogelj says, that the report claims to have found an inaccuracy in the Earth system models (ESMs) that are used to estimate human-driven warming. “We are using precisely those models to estimate the carbon budget from today onward,” Rogelj explains.

The problem is not the models, but rather the data fed into them. These simulations are often run using inexact projections of CO2 emissions. Over time, small discrepancies accumulate and are reflected in the warming predictions that the models make.

Given information about current CO2 emissions, however, ESMs make temperature predictions that are “quite accurate.” And when they are provided with an ambitious future scenario for emissions reduction, the models indicate that it is possible for global temperature increases to remain below 1.5 degrees.

So what would such a scenario look like? First off, emissions have to fall to zero. At the same time, the carbon budget needs to be continually reevaluated, and strategy changes must be based on the updated budget. For example, if emissions fall to zero but we’ve surpassed our carbon budget, then we’ll need to focus on making our emissions negative—in other words, on carbon dioxide removal.

Rogelj names two major processes for carbon dioxide removal: reforestation and bio-energy with carbon capture and storage. Some negative emissions processes, such as reforestation, provide benefits beyond carbon capture, while others may have undesired side effects.

But Rogelj is quick to add that these negative emissions technologies are not “silver bullets.” It’s too soon to know if carbon dioxide removal at a global scale will actually be necessary—we’ll have to get to zero emissions before we can tell. But such technologies could also help us reach zero in the first place.

What else will get us to zero emissions? According to Rogelj, we need “a strong emphasis on energy efficiency, combined with an electrification of end-use sectors like transport and building and a shift away from fossil fuels.” This will require a major shift in investment patterns. We want to avoid “locking into carbon dioxide-intensive infrastructure” that would saddle future generations with a dependency on non-renewable energy, he explains.

Rogelj stresses that his team’s findings are based only on geophysical data. Societal factors are a different matter: It is up to individual countries to decide where reducing emissions falls on their list of priorities.

However, the stipulation in the Paris Climate Agreement that countries periodically update their pledges is a source of optimism. Rogelj, for his part, is cautiously hopeful: “Looking at real world dynamics in terms of costs of renewables and energy storage, I personally think there is room for pledges to be strengthened over the coming five to ten years as countries better understand what is possible and how these pledges can align with other priorities.”

But not everyone in the scientific community shares the hopeful tone struck by Rogelj and his team. An article by the MIT Technology Review outlines “the five most worrisome climate developments” from 2017.

To start, global emissions are on the rise, up 2% from 2016. While the prior few years had seen a relative flattening in emissions, this more recent data shattered hopes that the trend would continue. On top of that, scientists are finding that observable climate trends line up best with “worst-case scenario” models of global warming—that is, global temperatures could rise five degrees in the next century.

And the arctic is melting much faster than scientists predicted. A recent report by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared “that the North Pole had reached a ‘new normal,’ with no sign of returning to a ‘reliably frozen region.’”

Melting glaciers and sea ice trigger a whole new set of problems. The disappearing ice will cause sea levels to rise, and the “reflective white snow and ice [will] turn into heat-absorbing dark-blue water…[meaning] the Arctic will send less heat back into space, which leads to more warming, more melting, and more sea-level rise still.”

And finally, natural disasters are becoming increasingly ferocious as weather patterns mutate. The United States saw this first-hand, with massive wildfires on the west coast—including the largest ever in California’s history—and a string of hurricanes that ravaged the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and many southern states.

These consequences of global warming are beginning to affect areas of social interest beyond the environment. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, for example, has been a massive economic burden, wracking up more than $200 billion in damages.

In Rogelj’s words, “Right now we really need to find ways to achieve multiple societal objectives, to find policies and measures and options that allow us to achieve those together.” As governments come to see how climate protection “can align with other priorities like reducing air pollution, and providing clean water and reliable energy,” we have reason to hope that it may become a higher and higher priority.

As Acidification Increases, Ocean Biodiversity May Decline

Dubbed “the evil twin of global warming,” ocean acidification is a growing crisis that poses a threat to both water-dwelling species and human communities that rely on the ocean for food and livelihood.

Since pre-industrial times, the ocean’s pH has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1—a change that may seem insignificant, but actually represents a 30 percent increase in acidity. As the threat continues to mount, the German research project  BIOACID (Biological Impacts of Ocean Acidification) seeks to provide a better understanding of the phenomenon by studying its effects around the world.

BIOACID began in 2009, and since that time, over 250 German researchers  have contributed more than 580 publications to the scientific discourse on the effects of acidification and how the  oceans are changing.

The organization recently released a report that synthesizes their most notable findings for climate negotiators and decision makers. Their work explores “how different marine species respond to ocean acidification, how these reactions impact the food web as well as material cycles and energy turnover in the ocean, and what consequences these changes have for economy and society.”

Field research for the project has spanned multiple oceans, where key species and communities have been studied under natural conditions. In the laboratory, researchers have also been able to test for coming changes by exposing organisms to simulated future conditions.

Their results indicate that acidification is only one part of a larger problem. While organisms might be capable of adapting to the shift in pH, acidification is typically accompanied by other environmental stressors that make adaptation all the more difficult.

In some cases, marine life that had been able to withstand acidification by itself could not tolerate the additional stress of increased water temperatures, researchers found. Other factors like pollution and eutrophication—an excess of nutrients—compounded the harm.

Further, rising water temperatures are forcing many species to abandon part or all of their original habitats, wreaking additional havoc on ecosystems. And a 1.2 degree increase in global temperature—which is significantly under the 2 degree limit set in the Paris Climate Agreements—is expected to kill at least half of the world’s tropical coral reefs.

Acidification itself is a multipronged threat. When carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, a series of chemical reactions take place. These reactions have two important outcomes: acid levels increase and the compound carbonate is transformed into bicarbonate. Both of these results have widespread effects on the organisms who make their homes in our oceans.

Increased acidity has a particularly harmful effect on organisms in their early life stages, such as fish larvae. This means, among other things, the depletion of fish stocks—a cornerstone of the economy as well as diet in many human communities. Researchers “have found that both [acidification and warming] work synergistically, especially on the most sensitive early life stages of [fish] as well as embryo and larval survival.”

Many species are harmed as well by the falling levels of carbonate, which is an essential building block for organisms like coral, mussels, and some plankton. Like all calcifying corals, the cold-water coral species Lophelia pertusa builds its skeleton from calcium carbonate. Some research suggests that acidification threatens both to slow its growth and to corrode the dead branches that are no longer protected by organic matter.

As a “reef engineer,” Lophelia is home to countless species; as it suffers, so will they. The BIOACID report warns: “[T]o definitely preserve the magnificent oases of biodiversity founded by Lophelia pertusa, effects of climate change need to be minimised even now–while science continues to investigate this complex marine ecosystem.”

Even those organisms not directly affected by acidification may find themselves in trouble as their ecosystems are thrown out of balance. Small changes at the bottom of the food web, for example, may have big effects at higher trophic levels. In the Artic, Limacina helicina—a tiny swimming snail or “sea butterfly—is a major source of food for many marine animals. The polar cod species Boreogadus saida, which feeds on Limacina, is a key food source for larger fish, birds, and mammals such as whales and seals.

As acidification increases, research suggests that Limacina’s nutrional value will decrease as its metabolism and shell growth are affected; its numbers, too, will likely drop. With the disappearance of this prey, the polar cod will likely suffer. Diminishing cod populations will in turn affect the many predators who feed on them.

Even where acidification stands to benefit a particular species, the overall impact on the ecosystem can be negative. In the Baltic Sea, BIOACID scientists have found that Nodularia spumigena, a species of cyanobacteria, “manages perfectly with water temperatures above 16 degrees Celsius and elevated carbon dioxide concentrations–whereas other organisms already reach their limits at less warming.”

Nodularia becomes more productive under acidified conditions, producing bacterial “blooms” that can extend upwards of 60,000 square kilometers in the Baltic Sea. These blooms block light from other organisms, and as dead bacteria degrade near the ocean floor they take up precious oxygen. The cells also release toxins that are harmful to marine animals and humans alike.

Ultimately biodiversity, “a basic requirement for ecosystem functioning and ultimately even human wellbeing,” will be lost. Damage to tropical coral reefs, which are home to one quarter of all marine species, could drastically reduce the ocean’s biodiversity. And as biodiversity decreases, an ecosystem becomes more fragile: ecological functions that were once performed by several different species become entirely dependent on only one.

And the diversity of marine ecosystems is not the only thing at stake. Currently, the ocean plays a major mitigating role in global warming, absorbing around 30 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans. It also absorbs over 90 percent of the heat produced by the greenhouse effect. But as acidification continues, the ocean will take up less and less carbon dioxide—meaning we may see an increase in the rate of global warming.

The ocean controls carbon dioxide uptake in part through a biological mechanism known as the carbon pump. Normally, phytoplankton near the ocean’s surface take up carbon dioxide and then sink towards the ocean floor. This process lowers surface carbon dioxide concentrations, facilitating its uptake from the atmosphere.

But acidification weakens this biological carbon pump. Researchers have found that acidified conditions favor smaller types of phytoplankton, which sink more slowly. In addition, heavier calcifying plankton—which typically propel the pump by sinking more quickly—will have increasing difficulty forming their weighty calcium carbonate shells. As the pump’s efficiency decreases, so will the uptake of carbon dioxide from the air.

The BIOACID report stresses that the risks of acidification remain largely uncertain. However, despite — or perhaps because of — this, society must tread cautiously with care of the oceans. The report explains, “Following the precautionary principle is the best way to act when considering potential risks to the environment and humankind, including future generations.”

As CO2 Levels Rise, Scientists Question Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios of Climate Change

Scientists know that the planet is warming, that humans are causing it, and that we’re running out of time to avoid catastrophic climate change. But at the same time, their estimates for future global warming can seem frustratingly vague — best-case scenarios allow decades to solve the energy crisis, while worst-case scenarios seem utterly hopeless, predicting an uninhabitable planet no matter what we do.

At the University of Exeter, some researchers disagree with these vague boundaries. Professors Peter Cox, Chris Huntingford, and Mark Williamson co-authored a recent report in Nature that argues for a more constrained understanding of the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide. In general, they found that both the worst-case and best-case scenarios for global warming are far more unlikely than previously thought.

Their research focuses on a measure known as equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) — defined as “the global mean warming that would occur if the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration were instantly doubled and the climate were then brought to equilibrium with that new level of CO2.”

This concept simplifies Earth’s actual climate — CO2 won’t double instantly and it often takes decades or centuries for the climate to return to equilibrium — but ECS is critical for gauging the planet’s response to fossil fuel emissions. It can help predict how much warming will come from increases in atmospheric CO2, even before the climate settles into equilibrium.

 

How hot will it get if atmospheric CO2 doubles?

In other words, what is Earth’s ECS? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that ECS is between 1.5-4.5 °C, with a 25% chance that it exceeds 4 °C and a 16% chance that it’s lower than 1.5 °C.

Cox and his colleagues argue that this range is too generous. Using tighter constraints based on historical observations of warming, they conclude that doubling atmospheric CO2 would push temperatures between 2.2–3.4 °C higher, with a 2% chance that ECS exceeds 4 °C and a 3% chance that ECS is lower than 1.5 °C. The extremes (both good and bad) of global warming thus appear less likely.

Although some scientists applauded these findings, others are more skeptical. Kevin Trenberth, a Senior Scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), says the study’s climate models don’t adequately account for natural variability, making it difficult to give the findings much weight.

“I do think some previous estimates are overblown and they do not adequately use the observations we have as constraints,” he explains. “This study picks up on that a bit, and in that sense the new results seem reasonable and could be important for ruling out really major extreme changes. But it is much more important to improve the models and make better projections into the future.”

 

But When Will Atmospheric CO2 Double?

CO2 levels may not have doubled from pre-industrial levels yet, but they’re increasing at an alarming rate.

In 1958, NOAA’s Mauna Loa observatory opened in Hawaii to monitor atmospheric change. Its first reading of atmospheric CO2 levels clocked in at 280 parts per million (ppm). In 2013, CO2 levels surpassed 400 ppm for the first time, and just four years later, the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded its first-ever carbon dioxide reading above 410 ppm.

The last time CO2 levels were this high, global surface temperatures were 6 °C higher, oceans were 100 feet higher, and modern humans didn’t exist. Unless the international community makes massive strides towards the Paris Agreement goals, atmospheric CO2 could rise to 560 ppm by 2050 — double the concentration in 1958, and a sign of much more global warming to come.

Annual CO2 Emissions from Fossil Fuels by Country, 1959-2017 / Source: Carbon Brief

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Avoiding the worst, while ensuring the bad

On the one hand, Cox’s findings come as a sigh of relief, as they reduce uncertainty about ECS and renew hope of avoiding catastrophic global warming.

But these results also imply that there’s very little hope of achieving the best-case scenarios predicted by the Paris Agreement, which seeks to keep temperatures at or below a 1.5 °C increase. Since atmospheric CO2 levels could plausibly double by midcentury, Cox’s results indicate that not only will temperatures soar past 1.5 °C, but that they’ll quickly rise higher than Paris’ upper limit of 2 degrees.

Even 2 °C of warming would be devastating for the planet, leading to an ice-free Arctic and over a meter of sea level rise — enough to submerge the Marshall Islands — while leaving tropical regions deathly hot for outdoor workers and metropolises Karachi and Kolkata nearly uninhabitable. Deadly heat waves would plague North Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia, and the Southeast US, while decreasing the yields of wheat, rice and corn by over 20%. Food shortages and extreme weather could trigger the migration of tens of millions of people and leave regions of the world ungovernable.

This two-degree world might not be far off. Global temperatures have already risen 0.8 degrees celsius since pre-industrial levels, and the past few years have provided grave indications that things are heating up.

In January, NASA announced that 2017 was the second-hottest year on record (behind 2016 and ahead of 2015) while NOAA recorded it as their third-hottest year on record. Despite this minor discrepancy, both agencies agree that the 2017 data make the past four years the hottest period in their 138-year archives.

Global warming continues, and since the climate responds to rising CO2 levels on a delay of decades, there is more warming “in the pipeline,” no matter how quickly we cut fossil fuel emissions. But understanding ECS and continuing to improve climate models, as Dr. Trenberth suggests, can provide a clearer picture of what’s ahead and give us a better idea of the actions we need to take.

Rewinding the Doomsday Clock

On Thursday, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists inched their iconic Doomsday Clock forward another thirty seconds. It is now two minutes to midnight.

Citing the growing threats of climate change, increasing tensions between nuclear-armed countries, and a general loss of trust in government institutions, the Bulletin warned that we are “making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II.”

The Doomsday Clock hasn’t fallen this close to midnight since 1953, a year after the US and Russia tested the hydrogen bomb, a bomb up to 1000 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And like 1953, this year’s announcement highlighted the increased global tensions around nuclear weapons.

As the Bulletin wrote in their statement, “To call the world nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger—and its immediacy.”

Between the US, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, the threats of aggravated nuclear war and accidental nuclear war both grew in 2017. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry said in a statement, “The events of the past year have only increased my concern that the danger of a nuclear catastrophe is increasingly real. We are failing to learn from the lessons of history as we find ourselves blundering headfirst towards a second cold war.”

The threat of nuclear war has hovered in the background since the weapons were invented, but with the end of the Cold War, many were pulled into what now appears to have been a false sense of security. In the last year, aggressive language and plans for new and upgraded nuclear weapons have reignited fears of nuclear armageddon. The recent false missile alerts in Hawaii and Japan were perhaps the starkest reminders of how close nuclear war feels, and how destructive it would be. 

 

But the nuclear threat isn’t all the Bulletin looks at. 2017 also saw the growing risk of climate change, a breakdown of trust in government institutions, and the emergence of new technological threats.

Climate change won’t hit humanity as immediately as nuclear war, but with each year that the international community fails to drastically reduce carbon fossil fuel emissions, the threat of catastrophic climate change grows. In 2017, the US pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and global carbon emissions grew 2% after a two-year plateau. Meanwhile, NASA and NOAA confirmed that the past four years are the hottest four years they’ve ever recorded.

For emerging technological risks, such as widespread cyber attacks, the development of autonomous weaponry, and potential misuse of synthetic biology, the Bulletin calls for the international community to work together. They write, “world leaders also need to seek better collective methods of managing those advances, so the positive aspects of new technologies are encouraged and malign uses discovered and countered.”

Pointing to disinformation campaigns and “fake news”, the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board writes that they are “deeply concerned about the loss of public trust in political institutions, in the media, in science, and in facts themselves—a loss that the abuse of information technology has fostered.”

 

Turning Back the Clock

The Doomsday Clock is a poignant symbol of the threats facing human civilization, and it received broad media attention this week through British outlets like The Guardian and The Independent, Australian outlets such as ABC Online, and American outlets from Fox News to The New York Times.

“[The clock] is a tool,” explains Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University and member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. “For one day a year, there are thousands of newspaper stories about the deep, existential threats that humanity faces.”

The Bulletin ends its report with a list of priorities to help turn back the Clock, chocked full of suggestions for government and industrial leaders. But the authors also insist that individual citizens have a crucial role in tackling humanity’s greatest risks.

“Leaders react when citizens insist they do so,” the authors explain. “Citizens around the world can use the power of the internet to improve the long-term prospects of their children and grandchildren. They can insist on facts, and discount nonsense. They can demand action to reduce the existential threat of nuclear war and unchecked climate change. They can seize the opportunity to make a safer and saner world.”

You can read the Bulletin’s full report here.

Harvesting Water Out of Thin Air: A Solution to Water Shortage Crisis?

The following post was written by Jung Hyun Claire Park.

One in nine people around the world do not have access to clean water.  As the global population increases and climate heats up, experts fear water shortages will increase. To address this anticipated crisis, scientists are turning to a natural reserve of fresh water that has yet to be exploited: the atmosphere.

The atmosphere is estimated to contain 13 trillion liters of water vapor and droplets, which could significantly contribute to resolving the water shortage problem. However, a number of attempts have already been made to collect water from air. Previously, researchers have used porous materials such as zeolites, silica gel, and clay to capture water molecules, but these approaches suffered from several limitations. First, the aforementioned materials work efficiently only in high-humidity condition. Yet it’s low-humidity areas, like sub-Saharan Africa, which are in greatest need of clean drinking water. Another limitation is that these materials tend to cling too tightly to the water molecules they collect. Thus, these previous methods of collecting water from air have required high energy consumption to release the absorbed water, diminishing their viability as a solution to the water shortage crisis.

Now, Dr. Omar Yaghi and a team of scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California Berkeley have developed a new technology that provides a solution to these limitations. The technology uses a material called a metal-organic framework (MOF) that effectively captures water molecules at low-humidity levels. And the only energy necessary to release drinkable water from the MOFs can be harnessed from ambient sunlight.

How Does This System Work?

MOFs belong to a family of porous compounds whose sponge-like configuration is ideal for trapping molecules. The MOFs can be easily modified at the molecular level to meet various needs, and they are highly customizable. Researchers can modify the type of molecule that’s absorbed, the optimal humidity level for maximum absorption, and the energy required to release trapped molecules — thus yielding a plethora of potential MOF variations. The proposed water harvesting technology uses a hydrophilic variation of MOFs called microcrystalline powder MOF-801. This variation is engineered to more efficiently harvest water from an atmosphere in which the relative humidity level as low as 20% — the typical level found in the world’s driest regions. Furthermore, the MOF-801 only requires energy from ambient sunlight to relinquish its collected water, which means the energy necessary for this technology is abundant in precisely those desert areas with the most severely limited supply of fresh water.  MOF-801 overcomes most, if not all, of the limitations found in the materials that were previously proposed for harvesting water from air.

A Schematic of a metal-organic framework (MOF). The yellow balls represent the porous space where molecules are captured. The lines are organic linkers, and the blue intersections are metal ions. UC Berkeley, Berkeley Lab image

The prototype is shaped like a rectangular prism and it operates through a simple mechanism. To collect water from the atmosphere, MOF is pressed into a thin sheet of copper metal and placed under the solar absorber located on top of the prism. The condenser plate is placed at the bottom and is kept at room temperature. Once the top layer absorbs solar heat, water is released from the MOF and collected in the cooler bottom layer due to concentration and temperature difference. Tests showed that one kilogram (about 2 pounds) of MOF can collect about 2.8L of water per day. Yaghi notes that since the technology collects distilled water, all that’s needed is the addition of mineral ions. He suggests that one kilogram of MOF will be able to produce enough drinkable water per day for a person living in some of the driest regions on earth.

Image of a water harvesting prototype with MOF-801 with outer dimension of 7cm by 7cm x 4.5cm. MIT.

Why This Technology Is Promising

The promise of this technology mostly lies in its sustainability. Water can be pulled from the air without any energy input beyond that which can be collected from the ambient sunlight. In addition, MOF-801 is a zirconium-based compound that is widely available for a low cost. And the technology has a long-life span: Yaghi predicts that the MOF will last through at least 100,000 cycles of water absorption and desorption, and thus it does not require frequent replacement. Plus, the water harvesting technology employing MOF isn’t limited to drinking water. It could be used for any service requiring water, such as agriculture. Yaghi believes that this water harvesting technology could pose a viable solution for water shortage problems in various regions of the world.

Yaghi also anticipates that the material itself could be used for the separation, storage, and catalysis of molecules other than water as well. For instance, MOF can be tailored to capture carbon emissions before those emissions reach the atmosphere. Or they may be designed to remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere. MOF, as the name suggests, is simply a framework, and thus it has opened up many opportunities for modification to suit practical needs.

Future of Water Harvesting Technology

The team of researchers from Berkeley and MIT are currently pushing to test the water harvesting technology in real-life settings in regions with low humidity levels. Yaghi remarked that his ultimate goal would be to “have drinking water widely available, especially in areas that lack clean water.” He envisions providing water to villages that are “off-grid,” where each household will have a machine and create their own “personalized water.” And he hopes his envisioned future may not be too far away.

15,000 Scientists Sign “Second Notice” Warning About Climate Change

In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences penned the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” Pointing to growing problems like ocean dead zones, biodiversity destruction, climate change, and continued human population growth, the scientists argued that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

Now, 25 years after this initial dire warning, over 15,000 scientists from 184 countries have signed a much more urgent letter to humanity.

Led by William Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University, the “second notice” to humanity warns that we are on a collision course with the natural world, and that “soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

“Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse,” the scientists write.

In particular, the authors fear that rising greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use, deforestation, and agricultural production significantly raise the risk of catastrophic climate change. As the growing population continues to stress ecosystems, more communities will face water shortages, failed harvests, and growing unrest.

The authors write: “By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperiled biosphere.”

Globally, freshwater resources continue to be depleted, ocean dead zones continue to expand, and the amount of species and forestry continue to plummet at unprecedented rates. Our growing population, land use, and fossil fuel use are threatening the very foundations for life on Earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: Ripple et al, Bioscience 2017

 

Is There Hope?

Twenty-five years ago, scientists feared that our rapid population growth and economic growth were stressing Earth’s ecosystems “beyond their capacities to support the web of life,” and that we were “fast approaching many of the limits of what the biosphere can tolerate without substantial and irreversible harm.”

But despite these dire warnings, scientists aren’t without hope. They point to ozone depletion as an example of reversing humanity’s impact on the environment, and they also note that extreme poverty and hunger have diminished globally, while investments in girls’ and women’s education have contributed to more stable fertility rates.

The authors also note that the renewable energy sector has rapidly grown since 1992, and that some regions have successfully limited deforestation.

But these measures alone aren’t enough. As such, Ripple and his coauthors present 13 different strategies for moving towards sustainability, including: establishing well-funded nature reserves, reducing food waste through education and infrastructure, promoting dietary shifts towards plant-based foods, developing green technologies, and establishing economic incentives to shift patterns of consumption.

Few of these changes can happen without popular support, however, and the authors argue that scientists, media influencers and regular citizens must take action “as a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life.”

“Scientists are in the business of analyzing data and looking at the long-term consequences,” Ripple said in a release. “Those who signed this second warning aren’t just raising a false alarm. They are acknowledging the obvious signs that we are heading down an unsustainable path. We are hoping that our paper will ignite a widespread public debate about the global environment and climate.”

In the letter’s conclusion, Ripple writes: “We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home. … Working together while respecting the diversity of people and opinions and the need for social justice around the world, we can make great progress for the sake of humanity and the planet on which we depend.”

If you’re a scientist reading this, you can sign the “second notice” here, and join The Alliance of World Scientists (AWS), a new international assembly of scientists founded by William Ripple, which is independent of both governmental and non-governmental organizations and corporations. 

Podcast: Choosing a Career to Tackle the World’s Biggest Problems with Rob Wiblin and Brenton Mayer

If you want to improve the world as much as possible, what should you do with your career? Should you become a doctor, an engineer or a politician? Should you try to end global poverty, climate change, or international conflict? These are the questions that the research group, 80,000 Hours, tries to answer.

To learn more, I spoke with Rob Wiblin and Brenton Mayer of 80,000 Hours. The following are highlights of the interview, but you can listen to the full podcast above or read the transcript here.

Can you give us some background about 80,000 Hours?

Rob: 80,000 Hours has been around for about six years and started when Benjamin Todd and Will MacAskill wanted to figure out how they could do as much good as possible. They started looking into things like the odds of becoming an MP in the UK or if you became a doctor, how many lives would you save. Pretty quickly, they were learning things that no one else had investigated.

They decided to start 80,000 Hours, which would conduct this research in a more systematic way and share it with people who wanted to do more good with their career.

80,000 hours is roughly the number of hours that you’d work in a full-time professional career. That’s a lot of time, so it pays off to spend quite a while thinking about what you’re going to do with that time.

On the other hand, 80,000 hours is not that long relative to the scale of the problems that the world faces. You can’t tackle everything. You’ve only got one career, so you should be judicious about what problems you try to solve and how you go about solving them.

How do you help people have more of an impact with their careers?

Brenton: The main thing is a career guide. We’ll talk about how to have satisfying careers, how to work on one of the world’s most important problems, how to set yourself up early so that later on you can have a really large impact.

The second part that we do is do career coaching and try to apply advice to individuals.

What is earning to give?

Rob: Earning to give is the career approach where you try to make a lot of money and give it to organizations that can use it to have a really large positive impact. I know people who can make millions of dollars a year doing the thing they love and donate most of that to effective nonprofits, supporting 5, 10, 15, possibly even 20 people to do direct work in their place.

Can you talk about research you’ve been doing regarding the world’s most pressing problems?

Rob: One of the first things we realized is that if you’re trying to help people alive today, your money can go further in the developing world. We just need to scale up solutions to basic health problems and economic issues that have been resolved elsewhere.

Moving beyond that, what other groups in the world are extremely neglected? Factory farmed animals really stand out. There’s very little funding focused on improving farm animal welfare.

The next big idea was, of all the people that we could help, what fraction are alive today? We think that it’s only a small fraction. There’s every reason to think humanity could live for another 100 generations on Earth and possibly even have our descendants alive on other planets.

We worry a lot about existential risks and ways that civilization can go off track and never recover. Thinking about the long-term future of humanity is where a lot of our attention goes and where I think people can have the largest impact with their career.

Regarding artificial intelligence safety, nuclear weapons, biotechnology and climate change, can you consider different ways that people could pursue either careers or “earn to give” options for these fields?

Rob: One would be to specialize in machine learning or other technical work and use those skills to figure out how can we make artificial intelligence aligned with human interests. How do we make the AI do what we want and not things that we don’t intend?

Then there’s the policy and strategy side, trying to answer questions like how do we prevent an AI arms race? Do we want artificial intelligence running military robots? Do we want the government to be more involved in regulating artificial intelligence or less involved? You can also approach this if you have a good understanding of politics, policy, and economics. You can potentially work in government, military or think tanks.

Things like communications, marketing, organization, project management, and fundraising operations — those kinds of things can be quite hard to find skilled, reliable people for. And it can be surprisingly hard to find people who can handle media or do art and design. If you have those skills, you should seriously consider applying to whatever organizations you admire.

[For nuclear weapons] I’m interested in anything that can promote peace between the United States and Russia and China. A war between those groups or an accidental nuclear incident seems like the most likely thing to throw us back to the stone age or even pre-stone age.

I would focus on ensuring that they don’t get false alarms; trying to increase trust between the countries in general and the communication lines so that if there are false alarms, they can quickly diffuse the situation.

The best opportunities [in biotech] are in early surveillance of new diseases. If there’s a new disease coming out, a new flu for example, it takes  a long time to figure out what’s happened.

And when it comes to controlling new diseases, time is really of the essence. If you can pick it up within a few days or weeks, then you have a reasonable shot at quarantining the people and following up with everyone that they’ve met and containing it. Any technologies that we can invent or any policies that will allow us to identify new diseases before they’ve spread to too many people is going to help with both natural pandemics, and also any kind of synthetic biology risks, or accidental releases of diseases from biological researchers.

Brenton: A Wagner and Weitzman paper suggests that there’s about a 10% chance of warming larger than 4.8 degrees Celsius, or a 3% chance of more than 6 degrees Celsius. These are really disastrous outcomes. If you’re interested in climate change, we’re pretty excited about you working on these very bad scenarios. Sensible things to do would be improving our ability to forecast; thinking about the positive feedback loops that might be inherent in Earth’s climate; thinking about how to enhance international cooperation.

Rob: It does seem like solar power and storage of energy from solar power is going to have the biggest impact on emissions over at least the next 50 years. Anything that can speed up that transition makes a pretty big contribution.

Rob, can you explain your interest in long-term multigenerational indirect effects and what that means?

Rob: If you’re trying to help people and animals thousands of years in the future, you have to help them through a causal chain that involves changing the behavior of someone today and then that’ll help the next generation and so on.

One way to improve the long-term future of humanity is to do very broad things that improve human capabilities like reducing poverty, improving people’s health, making schools better.

But in a world where the more science and technology we develop, the more power we have to destroy civilization, it becomes less clear that broadly improving human capabilities is a great way to make the future go better. If you improve science and technology, you both improve our ability to solve problems and create new problems.

I think about what technologies can we invent that disproportionately make the world safer rather than more risky. It’s great to improve the technology to discover new diseases quickly and to produce vaccines for them quickly, but I’m less excited about generically pushing forward the life sciences because there’s a lot of potential downsides there as well.

Another way that we can robustly prepare humanity to deal with the long-term future is to have better foresight about the problems that we’re going to face. That’s a very concrete thing you can do that puts humanity in a better position to tackle problems in the future — just being able to anticipate those problems well ahead of time so that we can dedicate resources to averting those problems.

To learn more, visit 80000hours.org and subscribe to Rob’s new podcast.

The U.S. Worldwide Threat Assessment Includes Warnings of Cyber Attacks, Nuclear Weapons, Climate Change, etc.

Last Thursday – just one day before the WannaCry ransomware attack would shut down 16 hospitals in the UK and ultimately hit hundreds of thousands of organizations and individuals in over 150 countries – the Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, released the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community.

Large-scale cyber attacks are among the first risks cited in the document, which warns that “cyber threats also pose an increasing risk to public health, safety, and prosperity as cyber technologies are integrated with critical infrastructure in key sectors.”

Perhaps the other most prescient, or at least well-timed, warning in the document relates to North Korea’s ambitions to create nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Coats writes:

“Pyongyang is committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States; it has publicly displayed its road-mobile ICBMs on multiple occasions. We assess that North Korea has taken steps toward fielding an ICBM but has not flight-tested it.”

This past Sunday, North Korea performed a missile test launch, which many experts believe shows considerable progress toward the development of an ICBM. Though the report hints this may be less of an actual threat from North Korea and more for show. “We have long assessed that Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities are intended for deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy,” says Coats in the report.

More Nuclear Threats

The Assessment also addresses the potential of nuclear threats from China and Pakistan. China “continues to modernize its nuclear missile force by adding more survivable road-mobile systems and enhancing its silo-based systems. This new generation of missiles is intended to ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrent by providing a second-strike capability.” In addition, China is also working to develop “its first long-range, sea-based nuclear capability.”

Meanwhile, though Pakistan’s nuclear program doesn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S., advances in Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities could risk further destabilization along the India-Pakistan border.

The report warns: “Pakistan’s pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons potentially lowers the threshold for their use.” And of the ongoing conflicts between Pakistan and India, it says, “Increasing numbers of firefights along the Line of Control, including the use of artillery and mortars, might exacerbate the risk of unintended escalation between these nuclear-armed neighbors.”

This could be especially problematic because “early deployment during a crisis of smaller, more mobile nuclear weapons would increase the amount of time that systems would be outside the relative security of a storage site, increasing the risk that a coordinated attack by non-state actors might succeed in capturing a complete nuclear weapon.”

Even a small nuclear war between India and Pakistan could trigger a nuclear winter that could send the planet into a mini ice age and starve an estimated 1 billion people.

Artificial Intelligence

Nukes aren’t the only weapons the government is worried about. The report also expresses concern about the impact of artificial intelligence on weaponry: “Artificial Intelligence (Al) is advancing computational capabilities that benefit the economy, yet those advances also enable new military capabilities for our adversaries.”

Coats worries that AI could negatively impact other aspects of society, saying, “The implications of our adversaries’ abilities to use AI are potentially profound and broad. They include an increased vulnerability to cyber attack, difficulty in ascertaining attribution, facilitation of advances in foreign weapon and intelligence systems, the risk of accidents and related liability issues, and unemployment.”

Space Warfare

But threats of war are not expected to remain Earth-bound. The Assessment also addresses issues associated with space warfare, which could put satellites and military communication at risk.

For example, the report warns that “Russia and China perceive a need to offset any US military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems and are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine.”

The report also adds that “the global threat of electronic warfare (EW) attacks against space systems will expand in the coming years in both number and types of weapons.” Coats expects that EW attacks will “focus on jamming capabilities against dedicated military satellite communications” and against GPS, among others.

Environmental Risks & Climate Change

Plenty of global threats do remain Earth-bound though, and not all are directly related to military concerns. The government also sees environmental issues and climate change as potential threats to national security.

The report states, “The trend toward a warming climate is forecast to continue in 2017. … This warming is projected to fuel more intense and frequent extreme weather events that will be distributed unequally in time and geography. Countries with large populations in coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to tropical weather events and storm surges, especially in Asia and Africa.”

In addition to rising temperatures, “global air pollution is worsening as more countries experience rapid industrialization, urbanization, forest burning, and agricultural waste incineration, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). An estimated 92 percent of the world’s population live in areas where WHO air quality standards are not met.”

According to the Assessment, biodiversity loss will also continue to pose an increasing threat to humanity. The report suggests global biodiversity “will likely continue to decline due to habitat loss, overexploitation, pollution, and invasive species, … disrupting ecosystems that support life, including humans.”

The Assessment goes on to raise concerns about the rate at which biodiversity loss is occurring. It says, “Since 1970, vertebrate populations have declined an estimated 60 percent … [and] populations in freshwater systems declined more than 80 percent. The rate of species loss worldwide is estimated at 100 to 1,000 times higher than the natural background extinction rate.”

Other Threats

The examples above are just a sampling of the risks highlighted in the Assessment. A great deal of the report covers threats of terrorism, issues with Russia, China and other regional conflicts, organized crime, economics, and even illegal fishing. Overall, the report is relatively accessible and provides a quick summary of the greatest known risks that could threaten not only the U.S., but also other countries in 2017. You can read the report in its entirety here.

Podcast: Climate Change with Brian Toon and Kevin Trenberth

Too often, the media focus their attention on climate-change deniers, and as a result, when scientists speak with the press, it’s almost always a discussion of whether climate change is real. Unfortunately, that can make it harder for those who recognize that climate change is a legitimate threat to fully understand the science and impacts of rising global temperatures.

I recently visited the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO and met with climate scientists Dr. Kevin Trenberth and CU Boulder’s Dr. Brian Toon to have a different discussion. I wanted better answers about what climate change is, what its effects could be, and how can we prepare for the future.

The discussion that follows has been edited for clarity and brevity, and I’ve added occasional comments for context. You can also listen to the podcast above or read the full transcript here for more in-depth insight into these issues.

Our discussion began with a review of the scientific evidence behind climate change.

Trenberth: “The main source of human-induced climate change is from increasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And we have plenty of evidence that we’re responsible for the over 40% increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times, and more than half of that has occurred since 1980.”

Toon: “I think the problem is that carbon dioxide is rising proportional to population on the Earth. If you just plot carbon dioxide in the last few decades versus global population, it tracks almost exactly. In coming decades, we’re increasing global population by a million people a week. That’s a new city in the world of a million people every week somewhere, and the amount of energy that’s already committed to supporting this increasing population is very large.”

The financial cost of climate change is also quite large.

Trenberth: “2012 was the warmest year on record in the United States. There was a very widespread drought that occurred, starting here in Colorado, in the West. The drought itself was estimated to cost about $75 billion. Superstorm Sandy is a different example, and the damages associated with that are, again, estimated to be about $75 billion. At the moment, the cost of climate and weather related disasters is something like $40 billion a year.”

We discussed possible solutions to climate change, but while solutions exist, it was easy to get distracted by just how large – and deadly — the problem truly is.

Toon: “Technologically, of course, there are lots of things we can do. Solar energy and wind energy are both approaching or passing the cost of fossil fuels, so they’re advantageous. [But] there’s other aspects of this like air pollution, for example, which comes from burning a lot of fossil fuels. It’s been estimated to kill seven million people a year around the Earth. Particularly in countries like China, it’s thought to be killing about a million people a year. Even in the United States, it’s causing probably 10,000 or more deaths a year.”

Unfortunately, Toon may be underestimating the number of US deaths resulting from air pollution. A 2013 study out of MIT found that air pollution causes roughly 200,000 early deaths in the US each year. And there’s still the general problem that carbon in the atmosphere (not the same as air pollution) really isn’t something that will go away anytime soon.

Toon: “Carbon dioxide has a very, very long lifetime. Early IPCC reports would often say carbon dioxide has a lifetime of 50 years. Some people interpreted that to mean it’ll go away in 50 years, but what it really meant was that it would go into equilibrium with the oceans in about 50 years. When you go somewhere in your car, about 20% of that carbon dioxide that is released to the atmosphere is still going to be there in thousands of years. The CO2 has lifetimes of thousands and thousands of years, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of years. It’s not reversible.”

Trenberth: “Every springtime, the trees take up carbon dioxide and there’s a draw-down of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but then, in the fall, the leaves fall on the forest floor and the twigs and branches and so on, and they decay and they put carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. People talk about growing more trees, which can certainly take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to some extent, but then what do you do with all the trees? That’s part of the issue. Maybe you can bury some of them somewhere, but it’s very difficult. It’s not a full solution to the problem.”

Toon: “The average American uses the equivalent of about five tons of carbon a year – that’s an elephant or two. That means every year you have to go out in your backyard and bury an elephant or two.”

We know that climate change is expected to impact farming and sea levels. And we know that the temperature changes and increasing ocean acidification could cause many species to go extinct. But for the most part, scientists aren’t worried that climate change alone could cause the extinction of humanity. However, as a threat multiplier – that is, something that triggers other problems – climate change could lead to terrible famines, pandemics, and war. And some of this may already be underway.

Trenberth: “You don’t actually have to go a hundred years or a thousand years into the future before things can get quite disrupted relative to today. You can see some signs of that if you look around the world now. There’s certainly studies that have suggested that the changes in climate, and the droughts that occur and the wildfires and so on are already extra stressors on the system and have exacerbated wars in Sudan and in Syria. It’s one of the things which makes it very worrying for security around the world to the defense department, to the armed services, who are very concerned about the destabilizing effects of climate change around the world.”

Some of the instabilities around the world today are already leading to discussion about the possibility of using nuclear weapons. But too many nuclear weapons could trigger the “other” climate change: nuclear winter.

Toon: “Nuclear winter is caused by burning cities. If there were a nuclear war in which cities were attacked then the smoke that’s released from all those fires can go into the stratosphere and create a veil of soot particles in the upper atmosphere, which are very good at absorbing sunlight. It’s sort of like geoengineering in that sense; it reduces the temperature of the planet. Even a little war between India and Pakistan, for example — which, incidentally, have about 400 nuclear weapons between them at the moment — if they started attacking each other’s cities, the smoke from that could drop the temperature of the Earth back to preindustrial conditions. In fact, it’d be lower than anything we’ve seen in the climate record since the end of the last ice age, which would be devastating to mid-latitude agriculture.

“This is an issue people don’t really understand: the world food storage is only about 60 days. There’s not enough food on that planet to feed the population for more than 60 days. There’s only enough food in an average city to feed the city for about a week. That’s the same kind of issue that we’re coming to also with the changes in agriculture that we might face in the next century just from global warming. You have to be able to make up those food losses by shipping food from some other place. Adjusting to that takes a long time.”

Concern about our ability to adjust was a common theme. Climate change is occurring so rapidly that it will be difficult for all species, even people, to adapt quickly enough.

Trenberth: “We’re way behind in terms of what is needed because if you start really trying to take serious action on this, there’s a built-in delay of 20 or 30 years because of the infrastructure that you have in order to change that around. Then there’s another 20-year delay because the oceans respond very, very slowly. If you start making major changes now, you end up experiencing the effects of those changes maybe 40 years from now or something like that. You’ve really got to get ahead of this.

“The atmosphere is a global commons. It belongs to everyone. The air that’s over the US, a week later is over in Europe, and a week later it’s over China, and then a week later it’s back over the US again. If we dump stuff into the atmosphere, it gets shared among all of the nations.”

Toon: “Organisms are used to evolving and compensating for things, but not on a 40-year timescale. They’re used to slowly evolving and slowly responding to the environment, and here they’re being forced to respond very quickly. That’s an extinction problem. If you make a sudden change in the environment, you can cause extinctions.”

As dire as the situation might seem, there are still ways in which we can address climate change.

Toon: “I’m hopeful, at the local level, things will happen, I’m hopeful that money will be made out of converting to other energy systems, and that those things will move us forward despite the inability, apparently, of politicians to deal with things.”

Trenberth: “The real way of doing this is probably to create other kinds of incentives such as through a carbon tax, as often referred to, or a fee on carbon of some sort, which recognizes the downstream effects of burning coal both in terms of air pollution and in terms of climate change that’s currently not built into the cost of burning coal, and it really ought to be.”

Toon: “[There] is not really a question anymore about whether climate change is occurring or not. It certainly is occurring. However, how do you respond to that? What do you do? At least in the United States, it’s very clear that we’re a capitalistic society, and so we need to make it economically advantageous to develop these new energy technologies. I suspect that we’re going to see the rise of China and Asia in developing renewable energy and selling that throughout the world for the reason that it’s cheaper and they’ll make money out of it. [And] we’ll wake up behind the curve.”

Note from FLI: Among our objectives is to inspire discussion and a sharing of ideas. As such, we interview researchers and thought leaders who we believe will help spur discussion within our community. The interviews do not necessarily represent FLI’s opinions or views.

Why 2016 Was Actually a Year of Hope

Just about everyone found something to dislike about 2016, from wars to politics and celebrity deaths. But hidden within this year’s news feeds were some really exciting news stories. And some of them can even give us hope for the future.

Artificial Intelligence

Though concerns about the future of AI still loom, 2016 was a great reminder that, when harnessed for good, AI can help humanity thrive.

AI and Health

Some of the most promising and hopefully more immediate breakthroughs and announcements were related to health. Google’s DeepMind announced a new division that would focus on helping doctors improve patient care. Harvard Business Review considered what an AI-enabled hospital might look like, which would improve the hospital experience for the patient, the doctor, and even the patient’s visitors and loved ones. A breakthrough from MIT researchers could see AI used to more quickly and effectively design new drug compounds that could be applied to a range of health needs.

More specifically, Microsoft wants to cure cancer, and the company has been working with research labs and doctors around the country to use AI to improve cancer research and treatment. But Microsoft isn’t the only company that hopes to cure cancer. DeepMind Health also partnered with University College London’s hospitals to apply machine learning to diagnose and treat head and neck cancers.

AI and Society

Other researchers are turning to AI to help solve social issues. While AI has what is known as the “white guy problem” and examples of bias cropped up in many news articles, Fei Fei Li has been working with STEM girls at Stanford to bridge the gender gap. Stanford researchers also published research that suggests  artificial intelligence could help us use satellite data to combat global poverty.

It was also a big year for research on how to keep artificial intelligence safe as it continues to develop. Google and the Future of Humanity Institute made big headlines with their work to design a “kill switch” for AI. Google Brain also published a research agenda on various problems AI researchers should be studying now to help ensure safe AI for the future.

Even the White House got involved in AI this year, hosting four symposia on AI and releasing reports in October and December about the potential impact of AI and the necessary areas of research. The White House reports are especially focused on the possible impact of automation on the economy, but they also look at how the government can contribute to AI safety, especially in the near future.

AI in Action

And of course there was AlphaGo. In January, Google’s DeepMind published a paper, which announced that the company had created a program, AlphaGo, that could beat one of Europe’s top Go players. Then, in March, in front of a live audience, AlphaGo beat the reigning world champion of Go in four out of five games. These results took the AI community by surprise and indicate that artificial intelligence may be progressing more rapidly than many in the field realized.

And AI went beyond research labs this year to be applied practically and beneficially in the real world. Perhaps most hopeful was some of the news that came out about the ways AI has been used to address issues connected with pollution and climate change. For example, IBM has had increasing success with a program that can forecast pollution in China, giving residents advanced warning about days of especially bad air. Meanwhile, Google was able to reduce its power usage by using DeepMind’s AI to manipulate things like its cooling systems.

And speaking of addressing climate change…

Climate Change

With recent news from climate scientists indicating that climate change may be coming on faster and stronger than previously anticipated and with limited political action on the issue, 2016 may not have made climate activists happy. But even here, there was some hopeful news.

Among the biggest news was the ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement. But more generally, countries, communities and businesses came together on various issues of global warming, and Voices of America offers five examples of how this was a year of incredible, global progress.

But there was also news of technological advancements that could soon help us address climate issues more effectively. Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have discovered a way to convert CO2 into ethanol. A researcher from UC Berkeley has developed a method for artificial photosynthesis, which could help us more effectively harness the energy of the sun. And a multi-disciplinary team has genetically engineered bacteria that could be used to help combat global warming.

Biotechnology

Biotechnology — with fears of designer babies and manmade pandemics – is easily one of most feared technologies. But rather than causing harm, the latest biotech advances could help to save millions of people.

CRISPR

In the course of about two years, CRISPR-cas9 went from a new development to what could become one of the world’s greatest advances in biology. Results of studies early in the year were promising, but as the year progressed, the news just got better. CRISPR was used to successfully remove HIV from human immune cells. A team in China used CRISPR on a patient for the first time in an attempt to treat lung cancer (treatments are still ongoing), and researchers in the US have also received approval to test CRISPR cancer treatment in patients. And CRISPR was also used to partially restore sight to blind animals.

Gene Drive

Where CRISPR could have the most dramatic, life-saving effect is in gene drives. By using CRISPR to modify the genes of an invasive species, we could potentially eliminate the unwelcome plant or animal, reviving the local ecology and saving native species that may be on the brink of extinction. But perhaps most impressive is the hope that gene drive technology could be used to end mosquito- and tick-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue, Lyme, etc. Eliminating these diseases could easily save over a million lives every year.

Other Biotech News

The year saw other biotech advances as well. Researchers at MIT addressed a major problem in synthetic biology in which engineered genetic circuits interfere with each other. Another team at MIT engineered an antimicrobial peptide that can eliminate many types of bacteria, including some of the antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” And various groups are also using CRISPR to create new ways to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Nuclear Weapons

If ever there was a topic that does little to inspire hope, it’s nuclear weapons. Yet even here we saw some positive signs this year. The Cambridge City Council voted to divest their $1 billion pension fund from any companies connected with nuclear weapons, which earned them an official commendation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In fact, divestment may prove a useful tool for the general public to express their displeasure with nuclear policy, which will be good, since one cause for hope is that the growing awareness of the nuclear weapons situation will help stigmatize the new nuclear arms race.

In February, Londoners held the largest anti-nuclear rally Britain had seen in decades, and the following month MinutePhysics posted a video about nuclear weapons that’s been seen by nearly 1.3 million people. In May, scientific and religious leaders came together to call for steps to reduce nuclear risks. And all of that pales in comparison to the attention the U.S. elections brought to the risks of nuclear weapons.

As awareness of nuclear risks grows, so do our chances of instigating the change necessary to reduce those risks.

The United Nations Takes on Weapons

But if awareness alone isn’t enough, then recent actions by the United Nations may instead be a source of hope. As October came to a close, the United Nations voted to begin negotiations on a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons. While this might not have an immediate impact on nuclear weapons arsenals, the stigmatization caused by such a ban could increase pressure on countries and companies driving the new nuclear arms race.

The U.N. also announced recently that it would officially begin looking into the possibility of a ban on lethal autonomous weapons, a cause that’s been championed by Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, Stephen Hawking and thousands of AI researchers and roboticists in an open letter.

Looking Ahead

And why limit our hope and ambition to merely one planet? This year, a group of influential scientists led by Yuri Milner announced an Alpha-Centauri starshot, in which they would send a rocket of space probes to our nearest star system. Elon Musk later announced his plans to colonize Mars. And an MIT scientist wants to make all of these trips possible for humans by using CRISPR to reengineer our own genes to keep us safe in space.

Yet for all of these exciting events and breakthroughs, perhaps what’s most inspiring and hopeful is that this represents only a tiny sampling of all of the amazing stories that made the news this year. If trends like these keep up, there’s plenty to look forward to in 2017.

Podcast: FLI 2016 – A Year In Review

For FLI, 2016 was a great year, full of our own success, but also great achievements from so many of the organizations we work with. Max, Meia, Anthony, Victoria, Richard, Lucas, David, and Ariel discuss what they were most excited to see in 2016 and what they’re looking forward to in 2017.

AGUIRRE: I’m Anthony Aguirre. I am a professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz, and I’m one of the founders of the Future of Life Institute.

STANLEY: I’m David Stanley, and I’m currently working with FLI as a Project Coordinator/Volunteer Coordinator.

PERRY: My name is Lucas Perry, and I’m a Project Coordinator with the Future of Life Institute.

TEGMARK: I’m Max Tegmark, and I have the fortune to be the President of the Future of Life Institute.

CHITA-TEGMARK: I’m Meia Chita-Tegmark, and I am a co-founder of the Future of Life Institute.

MALLAH: Hi, I’m Richard Mallah. I’m the Director of AI Projects at the Future of Life Institute.

KRAKOVNA: Hi everyone, I am Victoria Krakovna, and I am one of the co-founders of FLI. I’ve recently taken up a position at Google DeepMind working on AI safety.

CONN: And I’m Ariel Conn, the Director of Media and Communications for FLI. 2016 has certainly had its ups and downs, and so at FLI, we count ourselves especially lucky to have had such a successful year. We’ve continued to progress with the field of AI safety research, we’ve made incredible headway with our nuclear weapons efforts, and we’ve worked closely with many amazing groups and individuals. On that last note, much of what we’ve been most excited about throughout 2016 is the great work these other groups in our fields have also accomplished.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve sat down with our founders and core team to rehash their highlights from 2016 and also to learn what they’re all most looking forward to as we move into 2017.

To start things off, Max gave a summary of the work that FLI does and why 2016 was such a success.

TEGMARK: What I was most excited by in 2016 was the overall sense that people are taking seriously this idea – that we really need to win this race between the growing power of our technology and the wisdom with which we manage it. Every single way in which 2016 is better than the Stone Age is because of technology, and I’m optimistic that we can create a fantastic future with tech as long as we win this race. But in the past, the way we’ve kept one step ahead is always by learning from mistakes. We invented fire, messed up a bunch of times, and then invented the fire extinguisher. We at the Future of Life Institute feel that that strategy of learning from mistakes is a terrible idea for more powerful tech, like nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, and things that can really alter the climate of our globe.

Now, in 2016 we saw multiple examples of people trying to plan ahead and to avoid problems with technology instead of just stumbling into them. In April, we had world leaders getting together and signing the Paris Climate Accords. In November, the United Nations General Assembly voted to start negotiations about nuclear weapons next year. The question is whether they should actually ultimately be phased out; whether the nations that don’t have nukes should work towards stigmatizing building more of them – with the idea that 14,000 is way more than anyone needs for deterrence. And – just the other day – the United Nations also decided to start negotiations on the possibility of banning lethal autonomous weapons, which is another arms race that could be very, very destabilizing. And if we keep this positive momentum, I think there’s really good hope that all of these technologies will end up having mainly beneficial uses.

Today, we think of our biologist friends as mainly responsible for the fact that we live longer and healthier lives, and not as those guys who make the bioweapons. We think of chemists as providing us with better materials and new ways of making medicines, not as the people who built chemical weapons and are all responsible for global warming. We think of AI scientists as – I hope, when we look back on them in the future – as people who helped make the world better, rather than the ones who just brought on the AI arms race. And it’s very encouraging to me that as much as people in general – but also the scientists in all these fields – are really stepping up and saying, “Hey, we’re not just going to invent this technology, and then let it be misused. We’re going to take responsibility for making sure that the technology is used beneficially.”

CONN: And beneficial AI is what FLI is primarily known for. So what did the other members have to say about AI safety in 2016? We’ll hear from Anthony first.

AGUIRRE: I would say that what has been great to see over the last year or so is the AI safety and beneficiality research field really growing into an actual research field. When we ran our first conference a couple of years ago, they were these tiny communities who had been thinking about the impact of artificial intelligence in the future and in the long-term future. They weren’t really talking to each other; they weren’t really doing much actual research – there wasn’t funding for it. So, to see in the last few years that transform into something where it takes a massive effort to keep track of all the stuff that’s being done in this space now. All the papers that are coming out, the research groups – you sort of used to be able to just find them all, easily identified. Now, there’s this huge worldwide effort and long lists, and it’s difficult to keep track of. And that’s an awesome problem to have.

As someone who’s not in the field, but sort of watching the dynamics of the research community, that’s what’s been so great to see. A research community that wasn’t there before really has started, and I think in the past year we’re seeing the actual results of that research start to come in. You know, it’s still early days. But it’s starting to come in, and we’re starting to see papers that have been basically created using these research talents and the funding that’s come through the Future of Life Institute. It’s been super gratifying. And seeing that it’s a fairly large amount of money – but fairly small compared to the total amount of research funding in artificial intelligence or other fields – but because it was so funding-starved and talent-starved before, it’s just made an enormous impact. And that’s been nice to see.

CONN: Not surprisingly, Richard was equally excited to see AI safety becoming a field of ever-increasing interest for many AI groups.

MALLAH: I’m most excited by the continued mainstreaming of AI safety research. There are more and more publications coming out by places like DeepMind and Google Brain that have really lent additional credibility to the space, as well as a continued uptake of more and more professors, and postdocs, and grad students from a wide variety of universities entering this space. And, of course, OpenAI has come out with a number of useful papers and resources.

I’m also excited that governments have really realized that this is an important issue. So, while the White House reports have come out recently focusing more on near-term AI safety research, they did note that longer-term concerns like superintelligence are not necessarily unreasonable for later this century. And that they do support – right now – funding safety work that can scale toward the future, which is really exciting. We really need more funding coming into the community for that type of research. Likewise, other governments – like the U.K. and Japan, Germany – have all made very positive statements about AI safety in one form or another. And other governments around the world.

CONN: In addition to seeing so many other groups get involved in AI safety, Victoria was also pleased to see FLI taking part in so many large AI conferences.

KRAKOVNA: I think I’ve been pretty excited to see us involved in these AI safety workshops at major conferences. So on the one hand, our conference in Puerto Rico that we organized ourselves was very influential and helped to kick-start making AI safety more mainstream in the AI community. On the other hand, it felt really good in 2016 to complement that with having events that are actually part of major conferences that were co-organized by a lot of mainstream AI researchers. I think that really was an integral part of the mainstreaming of the field. For example, I was really excited about the Reliable Machine Learning workshop at ICML that we helped to make happen. I think that was something that was quite positively received at the conference, and there was a lot of good AI safety material there.

CONN: And of course, Victoria was also pretty excited about some of the papers that were published this year connected to AI safety, many of which received at least partial funding from FLI.

KRAKOVNA: There were several excellent papers in AI safety this year, addressing core problems in safety for machine learning systems. For example, there was a paper from Stuart Russell’s lab published at NIPS, on cooperative IRL. This is about teaching AI what humans want – how to train an RL algorithm to learn the right reward function that reflects what humans want it to do. DeepMind and FHI published a paper at UAI on safely interruptible agents, that formalizes what it means for an RL agent not to have incentives to avoid shutdown. MIRI made an impressive breakthrough with their paper on logical inductors. I’m super excited about all these great papers coming out, and that our grant program contributed to these results.

CONN: For Meia, the excitement about AI safety went beyond just the technical aspects of artificial intelligence.

CHITA-TEGMARK: I am very excited about the dialogue that FLI has catalyzed – and also engaged in – throughout 2016, and especially regarding the impact of technology on society. My training is in psychology; I’m a psychologist. So I’m very interested in the human aspect of technology development. I’m very excited about questions like, how are new technologies changing us? How ready are we to embrace new technologies? Or how our psychological biases may be clouding our judgement about what we’re creating and the technologies that we’re putting out there. Are these technologies beneficial for our psychological well-being, or are they not?

So it has been extremely interesting for me to see that these questions are being asked more and more, especially by artificial intelligence developers and also researchers. I think it’s so exciting to be creating technologies that really force us to grapple with some of the most fundamental aspects, I would say, of our own psychological makeup. For example, our ethical values, our sense of purpose, our well-being, maybe our biases and shortsightedness and shortcomings as biological human beings. So I’m definitely very excited about how the conversation regarding technology – and especially artificial intelligence – has evolved over the last year. I like the way it has expanded to capture this human element, which I find so important. But I’m also so happy to feel that FLI has been an important contributor to this conversation.

CONN: Meanwhile, as Max described earlier, FLI has also gotten much more involved in decreasing the risk of nuclear weapons, and Lucas helped spearhead one of our greatest accomplishments of the year.

PERRY: One of the things that I was most excited about was our success with our divestment campaign. After a few months, we had great success in our own local Boston area with helping the City of Cambridge to divest its $1 billion portfolio from nuclear weapon producing companies. And we see this as a really big and important victory within our campaign to help institutions, persons, and universities to divest from nuclear weapons producing companies.

CONN: And in order to truly be effective we need to reach an international audience, which is something Dave has been happy to see grow this year.

STANLEY: I’m mainly excited about – at least, in my work – the increasing involvement and response we’ve had from the international community in terms of reaching out about these issues. I think it’s pretty important that we engage the international community more, and not just academics. Because these issues – things like nuclear weapons and the increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence – really will affect everybody. And they seem to be really underrepresented in mainstream media coverage as well.

So far, we’ve had pretty good responses just in terms of volunteers from many different countries around the world being interested in getting involved to help raise awareness in their respective communities, either through helping develop apps for us, or translation, or promoting just through social media these ideas in their little communities.

CONN: Many FLI members also participated in both local and global events and projects, like the following we’re about  to hear from Victoria, Richard, Lucas and Meia.

KRAKOVNA: The EAGX Oxford Conference was a fairly large conference. It was very well organized, and we had a panel there with Demis Hassabis, Nate Soares from MIRI, Murray Shanahan from Imperial, Toby Ord from FHI, and myself. I feel like overall, that conference did a good job of, for example, connecting the local EA community with the people at DeepMind, who are really thinking about AI safety concerns like Demis and also Sean Legassick, who also gave a talk about the ethics and impacts side of things. So I feel like that conference overall did a good job of connecting people who are thinking about these sorts of issues, which I think is always a great thing.  

MALLAH: I was involved in this endeavor with IEEE regarding autonomy and ethics in autonomous systems, sort of representing FLI’s positions on things like autonomous weapons and long-term AI safety. One thing that came out this year – just a few days ago, actually, due to this work from IEEE – is that the UN actually took the report pretty seriously, and it may have influenced their decision to take up the issue of autonomous weapons formally next year. That’s kind of heartening.

PERRY: A few different things that I really enjoyed doing were giving a few different talks at Duke and Boston College, and a local effective altruism conference. I’m also really excited about all the progress we’re making on our nuclear divestment application. So this is an application that will allow anyone to search their mutual fund and see whether or not their mutual funds have direct or indirect holdings in nuclear weapons-producing companies.

CHITA-TEGMARK:  So, a wonderful moment for me was at the conference organized by Yann LeCun in New York at NYU, when Daniel Kahneman, one of my thinker-heroes, asked a very important question that really left the whole audience in silence. He asked, “Does this make you happy? Would AI make you happy? Would the development of a human-level artificial intelligence make you happy?” I think that was one of the defining moments, and I was very happy to participate in this conference.

Later on, David Chalmers, another one of my thinker-heroes – this time, not the psychologist but the philosopher – organized another conference, again at NYU, trying to bring philosophers into this very important conversation about the development of artificial intelligence. And again, I felt there too, that FLI was able to contribute and bring in this perspective of the social sciences on this issue.

CONN: Now, with 2016 coming to an end, it’s time to turn our sites to 2017, and FLI is excited for this new year to be even more productive and beneficial.

TEGMARK: We at the Future of Life Institute are planning to focus primarily on artificial intelligence, and on reducing the risk of accidental nuclear war in various ways. We’re kicking off by having an international conference on artificial intelligence, and then we want to continue throughout the year providing really high-quality and easily accessible information on all these key topics, to help inform on what happens with climate change, with nuclear weapons, with lethal autonomous weapons, and so on.

And looking ahead here, I think it’s important right now – especially since a lot of people are very stressed out about the political situation in the world, about terrorism, and so on – to not ignore the positive trends and the glimmers of hope we can see as well.

CONN: As optimistic as FLI members are about 2017, we’re all also especially hopeful and curious to see what will happen with continued AI safety research.

AGUIRRE: I would say I’m looking forward to seeing in the next year more of the research that comes out, and really sort of delving into it myself, and understanding how the field of artificial intelligence and artificial intelligence safety is developing. And I’m very interested in this from the forecast and prediction standpoint.

I’m interested in trying to draw some of the AI community into really understanding how artificial intelligence is unfolding – in the short term and the medium term – as a way to understand, how long do we have? Is it, you know, if it’s really infinity, then let’s not worry about that so much, and spend a little bit more on nuclear weapons and global warming and biotech, because those are definitely happening. If human-level AI were 8 years away… honestly, I think we should be freaking out right now. And most people don’t believe that, I think most people are in the middle it seems, of thirty years or fifty years or something, which feels kind of comfortable. Although it’s not that long, really, on the big scheme of things. But I think it’s quite important to know now, which is it? How fast are these things, how long do we really have to think about all of the issues that FLI has been thinking about in AI? How long do we have before most jobs in industry and manufacturing are replaceable by a robot being slotted in for a human? That may be 5 years, it may be fifteen… It’s probably not fifty years at all. And having a good forecast on those good short-term questions I think also tells us what sort of things we have to be thinking about now.

And I’m interested in seeing how this massive AI safety community that’s started develops. It’s amazing to see centers kind of popping up like mushrooms after a rain all over and thinking about artificial intelligence safety. This partnership on AI between Google and Facebook and a number of other large companies getting started. So to see how those different individual centers will develop and how they interact with each other. Is there an overall consensus on where things should go? Or is it a bunch of different organizations doing their own thing? Where will governments come in on all of this? I think it will be interesting times. So I look forward to seeing what happens, and I will reserve judgement in terms of my optimism.

KRAKOVNA: I’m really looking forward to AI safety becoming even more mainstream, and even more of the really good researchers in AI giving it serious thought. Something that happened in the past year that I was really excited about, that I think is also pointing in this direction, is the research agenda that came out of Google Brain called “Concrete Problems in AI Safety.” And I think I’m looking forward to more things like that happening, where AI safety becomes sufficiently mainstream that people who are working in AI just feel inspired to do things like that and just think from their own perspectives: what are the important problems to solve in AI safety? And work on them.

I’m a believer in the portfolio approach with regards to AI safety research, where I think we need a lot of different research teams approaching the problems from different angles and making different assumptions, and hopefully some of them will make the right assumption. I think we are really moving in the direction in terms of more people working on these problems, and coming up with different ideas. And I look forward to seeing more of that in 2017. I think FLI can also help continue to make this happen.

MALLAH: So, we’re in the process of fostering additional collaboration among people in the AI safety space. And we will have more announcements about this early next year. We’re also working on resources to help people better visualize and better understand the space of AI safety work, and the opportunities there and the work that has been done. Because it’s actually quite a lot.

I’m also pretty excited about fostering continued theoretical work and practical work in making AI more robust and beneficial. The work in value alignment, for instance, is not something we see supported in mainstream AI research. And this is something that is pretty crucial to the way that advanced AIs will need to function. It won’t be very explicit instructions to them; they’ll have to be making decision based on what they think is right. And what is right? It’s something that… or even structuring the way to think about what is right requires some more research.

STANLEY: We’ve had pretty good success at FLI in the past few years helping to legitimize the field of AI safety. And I think it’s going to be important because AI is playing a large role in industry and there’s a lot of companies working on this, and not just in the US. So I think increasing international awareness about AI safety is going to be really important.

CHITA-TEGMARK: I believe that the AI community has raised some very important questions in 2016 regarding the impact of AI on society. I feel like 2017 should be the year to make progress on these questions, and actually research them and have some answers to them. For this, I think we need more social scientists – among people from other disciplines – to join this effort of really systematically investigating what would be the optimal impact of AI on people. I hope that in 2017 we will have more research initiatives, that we will attempt to systematically study other burning questions regarding the impact of AI on society. Some examples are: how can we ensure the psychological well-being for people while AI creates lots of displacement on the job market as many people predict. How do we optimize engagement with technology, and withdrawal from it also? Will some people be left behind, like the elderly or the economically disadvantaged? How will this affect them, and how will this affect society at large?

What about withdrawal from technology? What about satisfying our need for privacy? Will we be able to do that, or is the price of having more and more customized technologies and more and more personalization of the technologies we engage with… will that mean that we will have no privacy anymore, or that our expectations of privacy will be very seriously violated? I think these are some very important questions that I would love to get some answers to. And my wish, and also my resolution, for 2017 is to see more progress on these questions, and to hopefully also be part of this work and answering them.

PERRY: In 2017 I’m very interested in pursuing the landscape of different policy and principle recommendations from different groups regarding artificial intelligence. I’m also looking forward to expanding out nuclear divestment campaign by trying to introduce divestment to new universities, institutions, communities, and cities.

CONN: In fact, some experts believe nuclear weapons pose a greater threat now than at any time during our history.

TEGMARK: I personally feel that the greatest threat to the world in 2017 is one that the newspapers almost never write about. It’s not terrorist attacks, for example. It’s the small but horrible risk that the U.S. and Russia for some stupid reason get into an accidental nuclear war against each other. We have 14,000 nuclear weapons, and this war has almost happened many, many times. So, actually what’s quite remarkable and really gives a glimmer of hope is that – however people may feel about Putin and Trump – the fact is they are both signaling strongly that they are eager to get along better. And if that actually pans out and they manage to make some serious progress in nuclear arms reduction, that would make 2017 the best year for nuclear weapons we’ve had in a long, long time, reversing this trend of ever greater risks with ever more lethal weapons.

CONN: Some FLI members are also looking beyond nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence, as I learned when I asked Dave about other goals he hopes to accomplish with FLI this year.

STANLEY: Definitely having the volunteer team – particularly the international volunteers – continue to grow, and then scale things up. Right now, we have a fairly committed core of people who are helping out, and we think that they can start recruiting more people to help out in their little communities, and really making this stuff accessible. Not just to academics, but to everybody. And that’s also reflected in the types of people we have working for us as volunteers. They’re not just academics. We have programmers, linguists, people having just high school degrees all the way up to Ph.D.’s, so I think it’s pretty good that this varied group of people can get involved and contribute, and also reach out to other people they can relate to.

CONN: In addition to getting more people involved, Meia also pointed out that one of the best ways we can help ensure a positive future is to continue to offer people more informative content.

CHITA-TEGMARK: Another thing that I’m very excited about regarding our work here at the Future of Life Institute is this mission of empowering people to information. I think information is very powerful and can change the way people approach things: they can change their beliefs, their attitudes, and their behaviors as well. And by creating ways in which information can be readily distributed to the people, and with which they can engage very easily, I hope that we can create changes. For example, we’ve had a series of different apps regarding nuclear weapons that I think have contributed a lot to peoples knowledge and has brought this issue to the forefront of their thinking.

CONN: Yet as important as it is to highlight the existential risks we must address to keep humanity safe, perhaps it’s equally important to draw attention to the incredible hope we have for the future if we can solve these problems. Which is something both Richard and Lucas brought up for 2017.

MALLAH: I’m excited about trying to foster more positive visions of the future, so focusing on existential hope aspects of the future. Which are kind of the flip side of existential risks. So we’re looking at various ways of getting people to be creative about understanding some of the possibilities, and how to differentiate the paths between the risks and the benefits.

PERRY: Yeah, I’m also interested in creating and generating a lot more content that has to do with existential hope. Given the current global political climate, it’s all the more important to focus on how we can make the world better.

CONN: And on that note, I want to mention one of the most amazing things I discovered this past year. It had nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with people. Since starting at FLI, I’ve met countless individuals who are dedicating their lives to trying to make the world a better place. We may have a lot of problems to solve, but with so many groups focusing solely on solving them, I’m far more hopeful for the future. There are truly too many individuals that I’ve met this year to name them all, so instead, I’d like to provide a rather long list of groups and organizations I’ve had the pleasure to work with this year. A link to each group can be found at futureoflife.org/2016, and I encourage you to visit them all to learn more about the wonderful work they’re doing. In no particular order, they are:

Machine Intelligence Research Institute

Future of Humanity Institute

Global Catastrophic Risk Institute

Center for the Study of Existential Risk

Ploughshares Fund

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Open Philanthropy Project

Union of Concerned Scientists

The William Perry Project

ReThink Media

Don’t Bank on the Bomb

Federation of American Scientists

Massachusetts Peace Action

IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers)

Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence

Center for Effective Altruism

Center for Applied Rationality

Foresight Institute

Leverhulme Center for the Future of Intelligence

Global Priorities Project

Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence

International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence

Partnership on AI

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

The Future Society at Harvard Kennedy School

 

I couldn’t be more excited to see what 2017 holds in store for us, and all of us at FLI look forward to doing all we can to help create a safe and beneficial future for everyone. But to end on an even more optimistic note, I turn back to Max.

TEGMARK: Finally, I’d like – because I spend a lot of my time thinking about our universe – to remind everybody that we shouldn’t just be focused on the next election cycle. We have not decades, but billions of years of potentially awesome future for life, on Earth and far beyond. And it’s so important to not let ourselves get so distracted by our everyday little frustrations that we lose sight of these incredible opportunities that we all stand to gain from if we can get along, and focus, and collaborate, and use technology for good.