Martin Rees speaks on Existential Risks at the Kennedy School of Government

13 November 2014

This past week, CSER co-founder and emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at Cambridge, Lord Rees, spoke at a panel on Catastrophic Risks, organised by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Science Technology and Society in Cambridge, MA.

Rees and the other panelists discussed risks ranging from artificial intelligence to climate change.

“We just don’t know the boundary of what may happen and what will remain science fiction,” Rees commented, arguing that “existential crises deserve more attention even though they are unlikely.” “The unfamiliar is not the same as the impossible,” he reminded the audience of students and academics.

The panel was chaired by Shiela Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard and also featured Sven Beckert, the Laird Bell Professor of History; George Daley of the Children’s Hospital Boston and the Harvard Medical School; Jennifer Hochschild, the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and Daniel Schrag, the Director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

Jennifer Hochschild spoke on the political aspects of mitigating existential risks, describing how scientific and technological advances have now become partisan matters. More than simply seeing the issue as one of right or left, she argued that for politicians the immediate and the parochial will always outweigh the distant and the global. “The right policy is the one that gets 50 percent plus one of the vote,” she commented, regardless of political orientation.

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