Observer: Martin Rees Q&A

19 August 2019
by Ian Tucker

Lord Martin Rees was interviewed by the Observer/Guardian newspaper:

"At the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, you study some of the potential impacts for humanity of speedy technological change… 
One consequence of modern technology is that the world is more interconnected. It’s possible for small groups or even individuals to produce an effect that cascades very widely, even globally.

But doesn’t that interconnectedness mean we’re able to monitor what’s going on around the world? 
The International Atomic Energy Agency can monitor compliance with nuclear regulation. But we have minimal success in enforcing drug or tax laws globally. Regulations of cyber and biotech will likewise be harder to enforce because, unlike the nuclear case, they don’t require conspicuous special-purpose facilities. We may have a bumpy ride because we can’t eliminate these threats completely.

The climate crisis is another area where international agreements have had limited impact. There is a strong grassroots movement led by Greta Thunberg and others, yet we have populist presidents in the US and Brazil who are climate-change deniers and reneging on agreements… 
Politicians don’t prioritise things when the benefits are diffuse and in the far future. They will only take action if the voters are behind them. That’s why it’s very important to sustain these campaigns.

We want to make sure that these issues of climate stay on the agenda. For instance, the 2015 papal encyclical on climate change. The pope has a billion followers from Latin America, Africa, East Asia and this helped towards consensus at the Paris conference.

To take a more parochial example, we have to give some credit to Michael Gove, who introduced legislation against non-reusable plastics. However, he wouldn’t have done that had it not been for the influence of our secular pope David Attenborough, who introduced us to Blue Planet footage of albatrosses coughing up plastic and so on.

Is climate change the threat that you’re most concerned about? 
The most worrying thing on a 10- or 20-year timescale is the misuse of cyber- and biotechnology.

Are the dangers from rogue individuals or rogue states? 
I think both, and error as well as terror. We are so dependent on the electricity grid that the lights going out are the least of the problems. A 2012 report from the US Department of Defense says a cyber-attack from another state that downs the grid in the eastern US would merit a nuclear response.

Society is getting more fragile and vulnerable. To take another example, if there is a pandemic, hospitals would be overwhelmed before the number of cases reached 1% of the population, leading to a breakdown in social order."

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