The final countdown?

21st December 2017


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Luke Tattersall

Steve Mustow looks at the global catastrophic risks to the environment at a time of political upheaval

The 2017 Doomsday Clock Statement, which reflects the level of global catastrophic risk, gives the time as only two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, the time of apocalypse. This is 30 seconds closer than in 2016. The time of the famous Doomsday Clock is set by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and is 70 years old this year. The threat of apocalypse increased due to the international community’s continued failure to tackle the most severe existential threats of nuclear war and climate change. The current nuclear stand-off between the USA and North Korea, and President Trump’s decision to quit the Paris climate deal have subsequently exacerbated this situation.

Have we as environmental and sustainability professionals been paying enough attention to the existential threats that confront our planet? Our work involves protection of the environment and sustainable management of resources. However, this is often on a relatively small scale, for example, managing the environmental risks of an individual development project, protecting a particular habitat or improving the sustainability performance of an organisation. Although this is important work, is there more we should be doing to address the greatest threats to the environment? It is often tempting to ignore such global threats on the basis that they have a relatively low probability of occurring and may fall outside our area of expertise. However, although the probability of occurrence in any one year is low, the scale of potential impact is huge. Also, although we tend to think in terms of our own lifetimes, on a planetary time span there are millions of years ahead of us. Comparisons to risks that we can understand are therefore helpful, albeit sobering. For example, it has been calculated that an individual would be more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event than a car crash (Global Challenges Foundation, Global Catastrophic Risks 2016).

The term ‘existential threat’ is often used in relation to threats of human extinction or the catastrophic reduction of human potential. However, here we consider existential threats that would impact the environment so heavily that all life on the planet would cease to exist, or the biosphere would be so altered that biodiversity would be immensely reduced. Existential threats to the environment are by nature existential threats to humanity. However, certain existential threats that are specific to the human species may have limited or even beneficial effects on the environment.

Existential threats to the human species are commonly categorised into anthropogenic risks and natural risks. Examples of natural risks include:

• Asteroid impact • Super-volcanic eruption • Natural long-term climate change • Global pandemic • Extraterrestrial life reaching earth • Gamma ray burst from space

Examples of anthropogenic risks include:

• Technology risks, such as hostile Artificial Intelligence (AI), biotechnology, nanotechnology and cyber-terrorism • Global war with nuclear weapons, bio-weapons or similarly destructive devices • Overpopulation and unsustainable resource use • Anthropogenic global warming • Extraterrestrial life transported to earth by human activity

In relation to natural risks there is an argument to be made that in purely environmental terms these are part of the natural cycle and there is no need to take precautions against them. After all, the evolutionary history of life on earth has been heavily influenced by asteroid impacts, super-volcanic eruptions and natural long-term climate change. These have led to mass extinctions followed by significant species diversification. Homo sapiens and other species could potentially be wiped out by such events in future, but in the long-term it is likely that biodiversity would recover. Other natural existential threats to the human species, such as global pandemics, could have a positive effect on biodiversity and the global environment, if they greatly reduced the size of human populations. In practice, however, humanity will of course take what measures it can to avoid these threats.

Some anthropogenic threats pose a global catastrophic risk both to humanity and to the environment. Examples include global war, in particular global nuclear war, unsustainable resource use, biotechnology risks and man-made global warming. Environmental and sustainability professionals are closely involved in actions to prevent global warming, in terms of both mitigation and adaptation. They are also involved in promoting and supporting sustainable resource use. However, the latter is not usually linked to the potential existential threat to the environment and there is often a reluctance to address associated issues such as wealth distribution, standards of governance, population growth and migration. The environmental and sustainability profession has been largely silent on the threat posed by nuclear war, leaving this to politicians, the military and campaign groups (some of them environmental). It is surprising, given the scale of the threat to the environment, that we have not been more involved in action to avoid nuclear war and to plan for the consequences, should it ever occur. Biotechnology, such as the development of genetically modified organisms, potentially offers environmental benefits, such as greater crop yields and reduced pesticide use. However, it also has risks such as the potential for harmful genes to pass between species and for bio-weapons to be produced.

Other anthropogenic existential threats to humanity could also pose a global catastrophic risk to the environment, depending on the circumstances. For example, hostile AI, should it ever emerge, could take action detrimental to both humanity and the environment, or just target the former. Likewise, nanotechnology, if weaponised or accidentally released in a dangerous form, might cause impacts specific to humans or have wider environmental effects.

Other anthropogenic existential threats to humanity may have limited or positive effects on the environment. Such effects include bio-weapons that act specifically on humans and cyber-terrorism or geomagnetic storms that destroy digital infrastructure.

So what should environmental and sustainability professionals be doing? As a starting point my recommendations include:

1) Professional bodies involved in environmental protection, such as IEMA, should lobby government to regularly review and report on the full range of global catastrophic risks to the environment. They should also contribute expert advice and issue guidance to members and others to raise awareness. Most emphasis should be placed on anthropogenic rather than natural catastrophic risks.

2) Prevention is obviously the key approach, but often identifying preventative measures is highly complex and contentious. In relation to reducing the risk of nuclear war, for example, opinion is divided between options such as retaining nuclear weapons as a deterrent, multilateral disarmament and unilateral disarmament. Environmental and sustainability professionals have a key role to play in such debates given their ability to provide rigorous and unbiased expert opinion on complex issues.

3) Planning for the aftermath of global catastrophic events is generally very limited, even in relation to human populations. A possible exception is climate change, where climate change adaptation is starting to be incorporated into development plans in many countries. For many global catastrophic environmental risks it is difficult to undertake post event response planning. The effects on the global environment may be difficult to predict and the capabilities of surviving human populations are likely to be uncertain. However, it should be possible to better quantify the pathways and probabilities of existential threats to the global environment and to carry out environmental impact assessments on a global scale, including the development of recovery plans. Specific measures to come out of such plans might include creating more seed banks in various worldwide locations and identifying areas of biodiversity that can be ‘quarantined’ and act as ‘arcs’, for example in island locations. Environmental and sustainability professionals should lobby the United Nations and other global bodies to devote more resources to this area.

Avoiding global catastrophic events, and planning for the aftermath should they ever occur, requires true global leadership.

Steve Mustow is a director at WYG where he is head of the environmental planning practice

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