Global catastrophes are events so large — global warming, nuclear war, pandemics, and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology — that they threaten the entire future of human civilization If we fail to we avoid a global catastrophe, nothing else matters. Therefore, preventing a global catastrophe must be a top priority for society today. We should all try as hard as we can on this, but it’s not enough to try. To succeed, we must be smart.
We need to be smart because some actions are a lot more effective than others at confronting global catastrophes. We should not waste our time on inefficient, ineffective little efforts when we could be going big. But how to go big can be a subtle endeavor. That means we need to invest in — and listen to — practical research that helps us confront global catastrophes more effectively.
Smart action on global catastrophes does two things well. First, it makes large reductions in the risk of global catastrophe. Second, it is easy. The larger the risk reduction, and the easier the action is to do, the smarter it is.
Take global warming. We can all act in our daily lives to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but we often guess wrong about which actions are most effective. One study found that people tend to focus on reducing their consumption, by taking steps like turning off the lights or driving less. Too often, we overlook the option of switching to energy efficient products like fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars, which could have a bigger impact. Choosing energy efficient products is an easier way to reduce emissions, since it requires just one initial purchase instead of repeated effort. And these products can save us money on electricity and gasoline. That’s smart.
We can be smarter about global warming policy too. Global warming is often low on the policy agenda, but we can still use policy to reduce emissions. Here in New York City, Mayor Bill DeBlasio recently announced a new plan for reforming the city’s zoning code. DeBlasio’s plan reduces parking requirements and allows the construction of taller buildings. These changes would help real estate developers create more new housing, especially around transit, and is aimed at increasing affordable housing. But the plan would also pull thousands of people out of automobile-centric suburbs and into the most transit-friendly city in the country, which would greatly reduce emissions. A global warming policy that doesn’t need global warming on the agenda? That’s really smart.
DeBlasio’s zoning plan teaches us an important lesson about how to get things done on global catastrophes. The plan works because it makes sense for New York City, for the people who must implement the plan. Imagine trying to push the same policy in a city with no affordable housing problem. Maybe you could do it, but it would be a lot harder.
It’s always smart to promote policies that make sense for those impacted by the policy, but it’s crucial for global catastrophes. That’s because global catastrophes are global and permanent. The benefits of preventing global catastrophes are spread out across the billions of people alive today and the countless members of countless future generations. They get these benefits, but they will not thank you for it.
So it’s crucial to find other reasons for taking these actions, like saving money on electricity or making housing more affordable.
We can now see what it takes to get smart on global catastrophes. First, we need to know what the risks are, so we can know how effective our actions are at reducing the risks. Second, we need to know how easy those actions are. In particular, we need to understand the perspectives of whoever must take these actions. That means getting to know them and what they care about. And we need to do this for all global catastrophes, not just global warming. My institute calls this integrated assessment, which means integrating all the global catastrophes into one study in order to learn the smartest, most effective ways to reduce the risk. If we take these steps, we can confront global catastrophes the smart way.
Nobody knows for sure whether a global catastrophe will destroy human civilization. What we do know is that the risk is alarmingly high — that is, there is an alarmingly high probability of catastrophes whose impacts could be severe enough to destroy human civilization. More importantly, the risk is in our control. We can reduce it. We can prevent global catastrophe. But to do so, we must act smart. For the sake of the entire future of human civilization, let’s get this one right.