8 Recent Publications on Existential Risk (November 2019 update)

04 December 2019

Each month, The Existential Risk Research Assessment (TERRA) uses a unique machine-learning model to predict those publications most relevant to existential risk or global catastrophic risk. The following are a selection of those papers identified this month.

Please note that we provide these citations and abstracts as a service to aid other researchers in paper discovery and that inclusion does not represent any kind of endorsement of this research by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk or our researchers.

1.       The apocalypse: It’s not the end of the world

Humanity is facing multiple possible apocalypses, with narratives that often miss an important point: The apocalypse probably won’t be quick or final. It will be an environment, not an event or an end point for humanity. The apocalypse is more likely to bring misery than catharsis or salvation. Although worst-case scenarios theoretically make it easier to prevent dire outcomes, in the case of slow-moving apocalypses such as climate change, it’s difficult for humans to envision the scale of the problem and to imagine how we will actually experience it.

2.       Revisiting the climate collapse: The view from Nuuk in the year 2070 

Planetary warming is one of several existential threats to human civilization. We are now in the climate end-game, facing a choice between dramatic action or a world plunged into outright chaos. The consequences of a failure to respond appropriately to the risks are explored in a scenario that illustrates the impacts of poorly-mitigated fossil fuel use over the next 50 years, including massive disruption of human societies, and identifies the main causes of the epochal failure of governments to protect the people and their future.

3.       The existential threat of antimicrobial resistance 

This article presents a scenario portraying the economic and human costs that antimicrobial resistance could impose on society 30 years from now, if it is not addressed soon.

4.       How an India-Pakistan nuclear war could start—and have global consequences

This article describes how an India-Pakistan nuclear war might come to pass, and what the local and global effects of such a war might be. The direct effects of this nuclear exchange would be horrible; the authors estimate that 50 to 125 million people would die, depending on whether the weapons used had yields of 15, 50, or 100 kilotons. The ramifications for Indian and Pakistani society would be major and long lasting, with many major cities largely destroyed and uninhabitable, millions of injured people needing care, and power, transportation, and financial infrastructure in ruins. But the climatic effects of the smoke produced by an India-Pakistan nuclear war would not be confined to the subcontinent, or even to Asia. Those effects would be enormous and global in scope.

5.       The hazard from fragmenting comets

Comet disintegration proceeds through both sublimation and discrete splitting events. The cross-sectional area of material ejected by a comet may, within days, become many times greater than that of the Earth, making encounters with such debris much more likely than collisions with the nucleus itself. The hierarchic fragmentation and sublimation of a large comet in a short-period orbit may yield many hundreds of such short-lived clusters. We model this evolution with a view to assessing the probability of an encounter that might have significant terrestrial effects, through atmospheric dusting or multiple impacts. Such an encounter may have contributed to the large animal extinctions and sudden climatic cooling of 12 900 yr ago, and the near-simultaneous collapse of civilisations around 2350 BC.

6.       Change isn’t always good

Anthropogenic climate change is one of the most existential threats humanity has faced. Its eventual outcomes, if we do not intervene now, will be catastrophic. Landscape architects are in a unique position to become some of the most influential voices in identifying solutions. There is no silver bullet that will solve the crisis. Multiple strategies require a systems-thinking approach on a variety of fronts and at a diversity of scales. Designing a more resilient future must span the spectrum of ecological, economic, and community-based approaches to tackle big topics like regaining the planet’s biodiversity, rethinking the impacts of our current agricultural practices, and engaging political leaders and ordinary citizens to support strategic investments that will reduce risk.

7.       Ecological Gentrification in Response to Apocalyptic Narratives of Climate Change: The Production of an Immuno-political Fantasy

Anxieties over the potential impacts of climate change, often framed in apocalyptic language, are having a profound, but little studied effect on the contemporary Western urbanscape. This article examines the ways in which current theorizations of 'ecological gentrification' express only half the process, describing how green space is used for social control, but not how ecology is used as a justification regime for such projects. As urbanites seek out housing and living practices that have a lower environmental impact, urban planners have responded by providing large-scale regeneration of the urbanscape. With the demand for this housing increasing, questions of inequality, displacement and dispossession arise. I ask whether apocalyptic anxiety is being enrolled in the justification regimes of these projects to make them hard to resist at the planning and implementation stages. The article shows that, in capitalizing on collective anxiety surrounding an apocalyptic future, these projects depoliticize subjects by using the empty signifier, ‘Sustainability’, leading them into an immuno-political relationship to the urbanscape. This leaves subjects feeling protected from both responsibility for, and the impacts of, climate change. Ultimately, this has the consequence of gentrification coupled with potentially worsening consumptive practices, rebound effects and the depoliticization of the environmentally conscious urbanite.

8.       The human cost of anthropogenic global warming: Semi-quantitative prediction and the 1,000-tonne rule 

Greenhouse-gas emissions are indirectly causing future deaths by multiple mechanisms. For example, reduced food and water supplies will exacerbate hunger, disease, violence, and migration. How will anthropogenic global warming (AGW) affect global mortality due to poverty around and beyond 2100? Roughly, how much burned fossil carbon corresponds to one future death? What are the psychological, medical, political, and economic implications? Predicted death tolls are crucial for policy formulation, but uncertainty increases with temporal distance from the present and estimates may be biased. Order-of-magnitude estimates should refer to literature from diverse relevant disciplines. The carbon budget for 2°C AGW (roughly 1012 tonnes carbon) will indirectly cause roughly 109 future premature deaths (10% of projected maximum global population), spread over one to two centuries. This zeroth-order prediction is relative and in addition to existing preventable death rates. It lies between likely best- and worst-case scenarios of roughly 3 × 108 and 3 × 109, corresponding to plus/minus one standard deviation on a logarithmic scale in a Gaussian probability distribution. It implies that one future premature death is caused every time roughly 1,000 (300–3,000) tonnes of carbon are burned. Therefore, any fossil-fuel project that burns millions of tons of carbon is probably indirectly killing thousands of future people. The prediction may be considered valid, accounting for multiple indirect links between AGW and death rates in a top-down approach, but unreliable due to the uncertainty of climate change feedback and interactions between physical, biological, social, and political climate impacts (e.g., ecological cascade effects and co-extinction). Given universal agreement on the value of human lives, a death toll of this unprecedented magnitude must be avoided at all costs. As a clear political message, the “1,000-tonne rule” can be used to defend human rights, especially in developing countries, and to clarify that climate change is primarily a human rights issue.

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