Requested in 2003, the UK’s astronomer royal, Martin Rees, gave our current society 50/50 odds of lasting till the tip of the century. It’s truthful to say the percentages haven’t improved within the years since he made this name. The planet is warming, a pandemic runs wild, the specter of nuclear conflict nonetheless hangs overhead and rising applied sciences are permitting for the event of recent weapons of mass destruction. Existential threats to human existence are rising – and the time left to handle them will get ever shorter.
So the brand new presidential time period on this planet’s strongest nation takes on a particular significance. The Biden-Harris administration can not sort out the worldwide challenges we face alone, however the US might be pivotal to efforts to wind again the doomsday clock. Joe Biden made his agenda clear in a brief passage of his inaugural speech:
A once-in-a-century virus silently stalks the nation … A cry for racial justice, some 400 years within the making, strikes us … A cry for survival comes from the planet itself … The rise of political extremism, white supremacy, home terrorism, that we should confront, and we’ll defeat.
After the Trump years, these new political commitments from the world’s dominant energy are welcome. But this rhetoric reveals a flaw in Biden’s conception of the threats dealing with the world. Every subject is handled as a definite problem. However our analysis on catastrophic dangers reveals that such threats are literally deeply interconnected. Threats dealing with humanity are a many-headed Hydra – they’re all elements of the identical beast.
There are 10 catastrophic threats dealing with people proper now, and coronavirus is just one of them
Menace and inequality
The catastrophic dangers are held collectively by a sinew of racial, gender, financial and political inequalities that concurrently exacerbate every menace and block potential motion to handle them. Take the local weather disaster. Desertification, land degradation and excessive climate disproportionately have an effect on the world’s poorest international locations and are estimated to have elevated worldwide inequality by 25% previously 50 years.
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However inequality additionally drives local weather change. The richest 10% of the worldwide inhabitants are answerable for greater than 52% of all emissions. Globally, carbon dioxide emissions monitor GDP development with outstanding tenacity.
Increased inequality means much less of the advantages of development accrue to these on the backside. Extra development, and subsequently emissions, are then required to fulfill the fabric wants of the world’s inhabitants. In the meantime the fossil gas trade has stymied motion with its fixed lobbying and sowing of doubt concerning the connection between fossil fuels and local weather change. These elements collectively threaten to lock us right into a downward spiral of worsening inequality and local weather breakdown.
The same story could be instructed about different threats. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities each between and inside international locations. Social distancing is made tougher the additional down the financial scale you might be. And entry to vaccines appears to comply with the identical sample, particularly on a global scale.
Or think about synthetic intelligence (AI). The rising capabilities of AI applied sciences pose a menace to the worldwide political order. These embody the usage of facial recognition to empower surveillance states, worsening disinformation, the large-scale use of deadly autonomous weapons (killer robots) and – extra speculatively and long-term – the potential improvement of an “synthetic common intelligence” as good and succesful as people, with all of the dystopian potentialities that conjures up. Huge tech corporations equivalent to Google and Fb have a disproportionate affect within the improvement and regulation of many of those applied sciences and functions. This has allowed them to monopolise the advantages whereas passing the dangers on to everybody else.
Searching for international management
These connections between threats and inequality are a worldwide phenomenon. Options must be equally international. On local weather change, rejoining the Paris Settlement is a essential step for the brand new US administration – however it’s not sufficient. Most urgently, Biden should work to reconcile bipartisan anti-China sentiment with the fact that China is now a serious participant in local weather politics and have to be factored into any options.
However there may be rather more the US, and certainly different wealthy international locations, can do. Each by addressing their very own emissions, but additionally constructing worldwide partnerships to supply growing international locations with the financing and know-how required for power transition. As an alternative of locking decrease revenue international locations into the delicate place of counting on commodity exports to take care of their economies, these efforts ought to help international locations in diversifying into excessive value-added industries wanted within the new inexperienced economic system and supply them with larger management over their financial improvement as companions within the international low-carbon economic system.
Biden can leverage America’s place in worldwide monetary establishments such because the World Financial institution and Worldwide Financial Fund to sort out the debt disaster that not solely prevents poorer international locations from taking motion to mitigate local weather change and adapt to its impacts, however has additionally stymied their COVID-19 aid efforts.
The regulation of massive tech is one other key battleground. Australia’s current makes an attempt to unfold the earnings from tech monopolies provoked a public retaliation from Fb, which quickly blocked entry to Australian information content material on its website.
These occasions are a stark reminder of the ability of massive tech, and it’s this similar energy that have to be restricted within the context of AI governance. The US has a stake in these points, and it should play its half in decreasing the dangers related to the event and deployment of AI by worldwide companies.
On this space and lots of others, coordinated worldwide approaches are wanted to handle the hyperlinks between threats and inequalities pushing our civilisation in direction of collapse. Such efforts needs to be on the prime of the Biden-Harris agenda.
Jacob Ainscough receives funding from Thirty Percy.
Alex McLaughlin receives funding from the British Academy
Luke Kemp's work is funded by the Templeton Basis.
Natalie Jones' work is funded by the Isaac Newton Belief.