10 Recent Publications on Existential Risk (January 2020 update)

05 February 2020

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. Rampino, M. R. (2019). Relationship between impact-crater size and severity of related extinction episodes. Earth-Science Reviews, 102990.

How large must an extraterrestrial impact be to cause a peak episode of increased extinctions of life? Impact energies ≥ 3 × 107 Mt TNT (associated with terrestrial impact craters with final diameters ≥ 100 km) seem to be required to generate significant widespread climatic effects from sub-micron dust and soot in the atmosphere, leading to a distinct extinction episode (≥ 15% extinction of marine genera). Impacts creating craters smaller than ∼100 km in final diameter (in the 106 to 107 Mt TNT range) are capable of mostly regional destruction, with minimal impact on global climate or biota. These results are supported by the fact that the ages of the four known ≥ 100-km diameter craters of the last 260 My (Popigai, Chicxulub, Morokweng, and Manicouagan) are all correlative with times of documented extinction episodes, whereas smaller craters are not. The largest crater, the 180–km diameter Chicxulub crater (a ∼108 Mt TNT event) is associated with the more severe “major” mass-extinction event (≥ 45% extinction of genera) at the end of the Cretaceous. The percent species extinctions show a significant linear relationship with final crater diameter and impact energy. The very large Chicxulub impact lies close to the predicted curve of percent extinction versus impact-crater diameter (and energy), but the low-angle of impact, an unusual composition of the target area (with thick sediments rich in carbonates, sulfates and organic material), and a large excavated transient crater, may have led to the generation of unusually large amounts of CO2, widely distributed dust, soot and sulfate aerosols, and a uniquely severe impact-related environmental disaster. Chicxulub may thus be the only large-body impact associated with a “major” mass extinction in the Phanerozoic. Target sensitivity may apply to large impacts into ocean crust having only a thin cover of organic-poor and carbonate-poor pelagic sediments, and thus even large oceanic impacts (which are still unknown) may not produce enough dust, soot and aerosols to cause environmental crises leading to global extinction peaks above background levels.

2. Watson, M. J., & Watson, D. M. (2020). Post-Anthropocene Conservation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 35(1), 1-3.

Conditions capable of supporting multicellular life are predicted to continue for another billion years, but humans will inevitably become extinct within several million years. We explore the paradox of a habitable planet devoid of people, and consider how to prioritise our actions to maximise life after we are gone.

3. Palinkas, L. A., & Wong, M. (2019). Global climate change and mental health. Current opinion in psychology.

Although several empirical studies and systematic reviews have documented the mental health impacts of global climate change, the range of impacts has not been well understood. This review examines mental health impacts of three types of climate-related events: (1) acute events such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires; (2) subacute or long-term changes such as drought and heat stress; and (3) the existential threat of long-lasting changes, including higher temperatures, rising sea levels and a permanently altered and potentially uninhabitable physical environment. The impacts represent both direct (i.e. heat stress) and indirect (i.e. economic loss, threats to health and well-being, displacement and forced migration, collective violence and civil conflict, and alienation from a degraded environment) consequences of global climate change.

4. Cernev, T., & Fenner, R. (2020). The importance of achieving foundational Sustainable Development Goals in reducing global risk. Futures, 115, 102492.

Until recently the extensive inter-dependencies between the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which consist of 169 targets, has received limited attention. Furthermore, the impact of the non-achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals may expose humanity to forms of global catastrophic risk and existential risk. The paper examines systems approaches to identify and prioritise key SDGs whose implementation will have a desired feedback effect on other goals. Leverage points are also identified which may mitigate potential causes of global catastrophic risk and existential risk if the SDGs are not achieved, or if reinforcing feedback loops dominate. An awareness of these loops is essential and understanding the nature of the system structure they embody is important for the design of effective policy interventions. Through a detailed inspection of a Causal Loop Diagram which conceptually links all the goals based on a review of recent literature, the following foundational Sustainable Development Goals are identified; SDG 1 No Poverty; SDG3 Good Health and Well Being; SDG 14 Life Below Water and SDG 15 Life on Land. These represent vital outcomes of achieving other goals and they are also critical in maintaining both a healthy human and environmental resource base on which progress towards all goals can be built. By examining a range of potential global threats based on a review of global catastrophic risk and existential risk, a further set of goals that can act as important leverage points are identified. The most important of these is SDG 13 Climate Action and SDG 4 Quality Education with SDG 2 Zero Hunger, SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth, SDG12 Responsible Consumption and Production and SDG 16 Peace Justice and Strong Institutions also having important roles to play. The interaction of all SDGs, acting synergistically together, is important to move the global system towards desirable outcomes and reduce currently increasing levels of risk.

5. Blair, B. G. (2020). Loose cannons: The president and US nuclear posture. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 76(1), 14-26.

The US president’s unfettered authority to order the use of nuclear weapons and an unstable US nuclear posture create a compound existential risk. Reducing the risk requires eliminating the dangerously unstable warfighting contingencies of first use of nuclear weapons and launch on warning of nuclear attack from the repertoire of presidential options; re-configuring the nuclear chain of command; and building a robust and enduring nuclear command system to stabilize the contingency of second-strike retaliation on which true deterrence depends.

6. Moynihan, T. (2020). Existential risk and human extinction: An intellectual history. Futures, 116, 102495.

Of late, existential risks have become the target of an emerging field of scientifically serious study. This baptism of ‘X-risk studies’ is symptomatic of what Riel Miller has diagnosed as an ever-increasing demand for ‘futures literacy’, inasmuch as we are progressively conversant with progressively distal perils. Yet this dynamic, of incremental ‘future orientation’, is not itself without a history. We have been being swept up in the future for some time now. Accordingly, we embark upon supplying an intellectual history to humanity's responsivity to existential risks. The aim is to reveal how contemporary X-risk research emerges from the broader sweep of human history. Our contention is that providing this edifying backdrop helps legitimise the furtherance of present initiatives. This takes us to the Enlightenment. This period saw the consolidation of the various scientific vocabularies requisite for the first explicit prognoses on existential catastrophe. Yet the discovery of X-risk was a question of ‘Enlightening’, construed as humanity's global undertaking of self-responsibility, in an altogether more fundamental way. For, ultimately, it was only through realizing that we may never reason again that we became increasingly motivated to reason ever better, and, thus, were first summoned to the modernity-defining projects of long-term foresight, mitigation, and strategizing.

7. Moser, S. C. (2020). The work after “It's too late”(to prevent dangerous climate change). Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 11(1), e606.

The fact that the question “Is it too late (to prevent dangerous climate change”)? is being debated in serious science circles constitutes a culturally significant moment. This article does not offer a simplistic answer to “is it too late – or not?”, but explores the uncomfortable space of denying neither endings nor possibilities. In so doing, it asks readers to witness and engage with what appears to be a serious psychological and cultural struggle within ourselves, now publicly visible, over what and how to confront endings, what kind of hope to sustain, and how to be and act in the face of these accumulating apocalyptic (i.e., revelatory) facts. The article sketches the variety of endings being faced at this time and the psychological responses to them. It then outlines the political, policy, and practical work, as well as the deeper, underlying socio-cultural and psychological work, that the paradoxical tension between endings and possibilities demands. This article is categorized under: Perceptions, Behavior, and Communication of Climate Change > Communication.

8. Lushkina, T. A. (2018, October). Future of Civilization. In The International Science and Technology Conference" FarEastСon" (pp. 177-185). Springer, Cham.

In this paper, we analyze social forecasting methods using ideas that stand in as determinants of social development of civilization. An attempt is made to explain how an image of ideal future is modeled in terms of values and ideals of social order. Potentiality and necessity of a change in the future and aspirations for an optimal social order are seen as a major focus of futures studies. Evolution of social ideals and ways to recognize patterns in history prediction are considered. Content of values in the composition of social ideal was identified. Research into the structure of social ideal, anticipated dynamics and stages of externalization of ideal was made. We emphasize the role and significance of creative consciousness evolution in a complex and multi-aspect process of advancement of the future of civilization. In this context, a number of domestic and foreign conceptions providing insights into the risks of global civilization (based on a classification as a tool of scientific inquiry) are analyzed consistent with the strategies and tactics of civilization future prediction. We also pay attention to the issues of integration and differentiation of global processes, and to recognition of real danger to the humans to survive as a species on Earth.

9. Beard, S., Rowe, T., & Fox, J. (2020). An analysis and evaluation of methods currently used to quantify the likelihood of existential hazards. Futures, 115, 102469.

This paper examines and evaluates the range of methods that have been used to make quantified claims about the likelihood of Existential Hazards. In doing so, it draws on a comprehensive literature review of such claims that we present in an appendix. The paper uses an informal evaluative framework to consider the relative merits of these methods regarding their rigour, ability to handle uncertainty, accessibility for researchers with limited resources and utility for communication and policy purposes. We conclude that while there is no uniquely best way to quantify Existential Risk, different methods have their own merits and challenges, suggesting that some may be more suited to particular purposes than others. More importantly, however, we find that, in many cases, claims based on poor implementations of each method are still frequently invoked by the Existential Risk community, despite the existence of better ones. We call for a more critical approach to methodology and the use of quantified claims by people aiming to contribute research to the management of Existential Risk, and argue that a greater awareness of the diverse methods available to these researchers should form an important part of this.

10. Jordan, S. R. (2019, November). Designing Artificial Intelligence Review Boards: Creating Risk Metrics for Review of AI. In 2019 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS) (pp. 1-7). IEEE.

Discussions of the need for a review committee dedicated to ethical oversight of artificial intelligence (AI) research have not yet advanced to organization design discussions. What are the essential components for an AI research review board? Based upon precedent for composition and conduct of high-Technology review boards, one essential component is a risk-Adjusted review mechanism that assists review boards in the categorization of research needing review. In this paper, risk assessment tools are developed based upon lessons learned from other review boards, such as Institutional Biosafety Committees.

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