Nov 9th 2008

Why the end of the world may be nigh

by Martin Rees

Martin Rees is an eminent British astrophysicist.

We live in an ever more complex world, and an ever more interconnected one. There are greater opportunities, but greater risks too. That's why it's an immensely difficult challenge for our political leaders to steer an optimum course - to achieve security and to avoid hazards.

There are powerful grounds for being an optimist. For most people in most nations, there's never been a better time to be alive. The innovations that will drive economic advances - information technology, biotech and nanotech - can boost the developing as well as the developed world. We're becoming embedded in a cyberspace that can link anyone, anywhere, to all the world's information and culture - and to every other person on the planet. Twenty-first century technologies will offer lifestyles that are environmentally benign - involving lower demands on energy or resources than what we'd consider a good life today. We have the resources - if the will were there - to ease the plight and enhance the life-chances of the world's two billion poorest people.

And there's another reason for optimism. The greatest threat to confront the world in the 1960s and 1970s - nuclear annihilation - has diminished. During the Cold War the superpowers could have stumbled towards Armageddon through muddle and miscalculation. We were at great hazard; a nuclear war could have killed a billion people, and devastated the fabric of civilisation - most catastrophically in Europe.

Now there are new anxieties. For the first time one species - ours - can threaten the Earth's future. Over most of history, the threats have come from nature - disease, earthquakes, floods and so forth. But now they come from us. Human activities are ravaging the entire biosphere - perhaps irreversibly. We've entered what some have called the "anthropocene" era.

Soon after World War II, some physicists at Chicago started a journal called the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, aimed at promoting arms control. The "logo" on the Bulletin's cover is a clock, the closeness of whose hands to midnight indicates the Editor's judgement on how precarious the world situation is. Every few year the minute hand is shifted, either forwards or backwards.

It came closest to midnight in 1962 because the Cuban Missile stand-off was the most dangerous moment in history. Robert MacNamara was then the US Secretary of Defense. It wasn't until he'd long retired that McNamara spoke frankly about it in his confessional movie "Fog of War". He said that "we came within a hairsbreadth of nuclear war without realising it. It's no credit to us that we escaped - Khrushchev and Kennedy were lucky as well as wise".

When the cold war ended, the Bulletin's clock was put back to 17 minutes to midnight. There is now far less chance of tens of thousands of bombs devastating our civilisation. But the clock has been creeping forward again. There's now more chance than ever of a nuclear weapon going off in a localised conflict. We are confronted by proliferation of nuclear weapons (in North Korea and Iran for instance). Al Qaida-style terrorists might some day acquire a nuclear weapon. If they did, they would willingly detonate it in a city centre, killing tens of thousands along with themselves; and millions around the world would acclaim them as heroes.

The threat of global nuclear catastrophe could be merely in temporary abeyance. During the last century the Soviet Union rose and fell and there were two world wars. In the next 40 years, geopolitical realignments could be just as drastic, leading to a nuclear standoff between new superpowers, which might be handled less well - or less luckily - than was the Cuba crisis.

That's why we should welcome the Nuclear Threat Initiative - the campaign to aim towards an eventual zero level of nuclear weapons - espoused by such prominent Americans as former Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger and former Defence Secretary William Perry.

Even if the nuclear threat can be contained, the 21st century could confront us with new global threats as grave as the bomb. They may not threaten a sudden world-wide catastrophe - the doomsday clock is no longer such a good metaphor - but in aggregate they are worrying and challenging.

Climate change looms as the 21st century's prime long term environmental challenge. Human actions - the burning of fossil fuels - have already raised the carbon dioxide concentration higher than it's ever been in the last half million years: moreover, its concentration is rising at about 0.5 % a year.

More disturbingly, coal, oil and gas are projected to supply most of the world's every-growing energy needs for decades to come - a new coal fired power station opens almost every week in China. If that trend continues, the concentration of CO2 will rise to twice the pre-industrial level by 2050, and three times that level later in the century.

These facts alone, combined with simple ideas on greenhouse warming dating back to the 19th century, are in my view enough to motivate deep concern about impending climate change. The details are uncertain. But the higher CO2 rises, the greater the warming and - more important - the greater will be the chance of triggering something irreversible such as rising sea levels due to the melting of Greenland's icecap.

The science is intricate. But it is simple compared to the economics and politics. Global warming poses a unique challenge for two reasons: First, unlike more familiar kinds of pollution, the effect is diffuse. The CO2 emissions from Europe have no more effect here than they do in Australia, and vice versa. That means that any credible framework for mitigation has to be broadly international. Second, the main downsides are not immediate, but lie a century or more in the future: inter-generational justice comes into play; how do we rate the rights and interests of future generations compared to our own?

In Europe specially, we're mindful of our heritage and the debt we owe to centuries past. Our forebears devotedly added bricks to cathedrals that would take a century to finish. Our space and time horizons are far wider than theirs, and history will judge us harshly if we discount too heavily what might happen when our grandchildren grow old.

The threat is long-term but we must change course quickly if we are to turn around the still rising graph of annual CO2 emissions. To quote Al Gore: "We must not leap from denial to despair. We can do something and we must".

The world spends nearly $7,000bn a year on energy and its infrastructure; yet our current R&D efforts are not up to meeting the climate change challenge. There is no single solution, but some measures like better insulation of buildings would actually save rather than cost money. Efforts to develop a whole raft of techniques for economising on energy, storing it and generating it by "clean" or low-carbon methods deserve priority and the sort of commitment from governments that were accorded to the Manhattan project or the Apollo moon landing. They should appeal to the idealistic young, and I can't think of anything that could do more to attract the brightest and best of them into science than a strongly proclaimed European commitment to clean and sustainable energy.

Top priority should be a coordinated effort by Europe, the US and the other G-8+5 countries to build demonstration plants to develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. This is crucial because whatever technical advances there may be in solar and other renewable energy sources, we're going to depend on coal and oil for the next 40 years. Yet unless the rising curve of annual emissions can be turned around sooner than that, the CO2 concentration will irrevocably reach a truly threatening level.

Mankind also has to confront other global "threats without enemies" that are separate from (though linked with) climate change. High among them is the threat to biological diversity. The extinction rate is 1000 times higher than normal and is increasing. We are destroying the book of life before we have read it.

Biodiversity is often proclaimed as a crucial component of human wellbeing and economic growth, and that is manifestly true. We're clearly harmed if fish stocks dwindle to extinction, and less evidently there are plants in the rain forest whose gene pool might be useful to us. But for environmentalists these "instrumental" - and anthropocentric - arguments aren't the only compelling ones. For them, preserving the richness of our biosphere has value in its own right, over and above what it means to us humans.

The pressures on our planet depend, of course, on our lifestyle. The world could not sustain its 6.5bn population if they all had the style of present-day Americans, or even of Italians. But it could if even prosperous people adopted a vegetarian diet, travelled little and interacted via super-internet and virtual reality. New technology will determine our lifestyle, and the demands people make on energy and environmental resources.

But all the problems are aggravated because the world's population is still rising fast. It's projected to reach 8bn or even 9bn by 2050. If the rise continues beyond 2050, one cannot help but be exceedingly gloomy about the prospects for most people.

There are now, however, more than 60 countries in which fertility is below replacement level, and we all know the social trends that have led to this demographic transition. If these were to extend to all countries, then the global population could start gradually to decline after 2050 - a development that would surely be benign.

The prognoses are not good, though especially in Africa where the rising population makes it harder to break out of deprivation and achieve the demographic transition that has occurred elsewhere. So the pressures on resources and water will inevitably be aggravated.

More people than ever are concentrated in megacities, and it is this overcrowding together with rapid travel that renders the world so much more vulnerable to pandemics. That's just one of the new vulnerabilities that stem from the greater empowerment of individuals or small groups by 21st century technology.

Science is not only evolving faster, but in qualitatively new ways, even if the one thing that hasn't changed for millennia is human nature and human character. In this century, however, novel mind-enhancing drugs, genetics, and "cyberg" techniques may start to change human beings themselves. That's something qualitatively new in recorded history. And we should keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to concepts that seem on the fringe of science fiction - superintelligent machines, for instance.

All these developments - cyber, bio or nano - will open up new risks of misuse. For instance, the American National Academy of Sciences has warned that: "Just a few individuals with specialised skills ... could inexpensively and easily produce a panoply of lethal biological weapons. ... The deciphering of the human genome sequence and the complete elucidation of numerous pathogen genomes ... allow science to be misused to create new agents of mass destruction." Not even an organised network would be required; just a fanatic with the mindset of those who now design computer viruses. The techniques and expertise for bio or cyber attacks will be accessible to millions, and we're kidding ourselves if we think that technical education leads to balanced rationality. It can be combined not just with the traditional fundamentalism that we're so mindful of today, but with new age irrationalities too. The Raelians, extreme eco-freaks, animal rights campaigners and the like. The global village will have its village idiots.

In a future era of vast individual empowerment, how can our open society be safeguarded against error or terror? Will we need to shift the balance between privacy and intrusiveness? These are stark and deeply questions. In our ever more interconnected world, there are new risks whose consequences could be widespread - and perhaps global. Even a tiny probability of global catastrophe is unacceptable if we apply to catastrophic risks the same prudent analysis that leads us to buy insurance - multiplying probability by consequences - we'd surely conclude that measures to reduce this kind of extreme risk needs higher priority.

We must surely accept, too, that scientific effort isn't deployed optimally - either in purely intellectual terms, or in respect of human welfare. Some fields have had the "inside track" and gained disproportionate resources, so that huge sums are still devoted to new weaponry. But environmental research and work on renewable energies and suchlike, deserve much more effort. In medicine, the focus is disproportionately on cancer and cardiovascular studies - the ailments that loom largest in prosperous countries - rather than on the infections that are still endemic in the tropics. In other words, the decisions that we will make both individually and collectively in the foreseeable future will determine whether 21st century science yields benign or devastating outcomes.


Copyright: Europe's World

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Below a video Sir Martin Rees: Earth in its final century?, recorded July, 2005 in Oxford, Great Britain.

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