Talking about... connected risk with Lord Martin Rees
What leaders must learn about connecting risks. From the pandemic to the climate emergency, social media and the misuse of technology, the threats are increasing year on year. Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees reveals his greatest fears to TtU’s Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon. Why technology has the power enhance our lives if used wisely and how science is the one truly global culture. This is the latest in the series of leadership conversations.
Welcome to Talking about Thinking the Unthinkable, our latest leadership conversation and webcast. I’m Nik Gowing, Founder and Co-Director of the project.
Hello, I’m Chris Langdon. I’m the co-author with Nik of the book Thinking the Unthinkable, and Co-Director of the project.
We’re delighted to welcome from the University of Cambridge Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal here in the United Kingdom. Prolific in so many areas of science, above all, visionary thinker on defining risk and a great backer of Thinking the Unthinkable work. Thanks, Martin, and welcome.
Good to be with you.
It’s a very warm welcome, Martin. I’ve been reading your book On The Future, the paperback which you’ve updated during the COVID crisis. You talk about a gloomy perception, you point out that our entire world is so interconnected, a catastrophe in any region can cascade globally, making our society vulnerable to breakdowns.
This has been manifested by the pandemic, hasn’t it, which has spread globally and has had consequences for society.
In my earlier edition of the book, I said that if we had a pandemic that killed 1% of the world’s population, it would lead to societal breakdown, because it would overwhelm hospitals. We’ve got about point four percent in some countries, and we know what effect it’s had. And the upside, of course, is that science has been our salvation in that the development very quickly of vaccines has prevented something even worse.
That’s certainly a point we want to take up with you in our 20 minutes together, Martin. What I’d like to ask you to first of all, can you explain to people watching, particularly leaders, the way that risks are connected, what you call cascading risk? How do we understand that in the current situation?
I think any kind of threat which disrupts life in a connected world is going to have consequences. To take some slightly parochial example, in the pandemic, who would have thought that a big concern would have been education and exams for university entrants and things like that. There’s a cascade.
And of course, if there’s a disruption in a part of the world, as there’s been recently in Ukraine, that will affect world wheat prices, and things of that kind. So we are all interconnected. And of course, not just by physical trade, but by media. And social media can spread panic and rumour literally at the speed of light.
You mentioned in the book other scenarios, for example, a massive cyber attack, an episode of bio-terror, a cascading failure of critical infrastructure, or accidental nuclear war, the likelihood which, you warn, an impact of which is rising by the year.
Explain, given you are the doyen of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, how will these big risks have to be understood under different timeframes and how we need to be aware and respond to them?
Well, I think nuclear war we know has been in abeyance for decades compared to the Cold War, but it hasn’t gone away, as we know. But I think what is new, and what I highlight in my book, is the threat that even a small group of people, or even a crazy loner, could be so empowered by technology, that they would have global consequences if they misused that power.
And cyber and bio are the two examples. We know that it is possible to have a cyber attack on the internet. And incidentally, think how much worse things would have been if the internet had failed during the pandemic. So the internet is vulnerable, and the electricity grid is vulnerable. And it’s possible for cyber attacks, which could be a state actor of course, but it can be very serious, even done by a small group. And they are the kind of things which we need to guard against.
Similarly, another emerging threat is the possibility of tinkering with viruses to make them more virulent or more transmissible. It’s called gain of function experiments. And this is a technology which is widely available, and it’s understood by many people, and could be catastrophic.
What really scares me is that these are threats which are getting more probable year by year. And they’re very hard to cope with. It’s not like building an H bomb, which can’t be done by small group and requires large special purpose facilities which can be verified and monitored by international bodies like the International Atomic Energy Agency. These can be done by people in everyday environments. Access to a computer, or a biological laboratory.
My biggest worry is that this new trend, the empowerment of individuals and small groups by the power of technology is going to present all countries with a serious governance issue of a trade off between three things we want to preserve: privacy, liberty and security. Because in a world where, as I like to say, the village idiots in a global village have global range, even one of these people is too many.
I think we’re all going to have to have this trade off. And I think in China, it’s clear it’s the one of those three the virtues that will go is privacy, we have to decide what’s going to happen in the West. But there is going to be a trade off, since we can’t afford to have any people doing this. And regulation is talked about but regulation is ineffective in enforcing the drug laws, or the tax laws globally and it will be in itself ineffective in preventing these dangers. So that’s my biggest threat actually is emergent.
Let me ask one question before handing over to Nik. You write in the book, “we’re currently in denial about a whole raft of newly emergent threats” - you just described them in our interconnected world - which could be “devastating”. What should leaders be doing? We seem to be very poor at anticipating and planning these risks. What is the role of leaders already dealing with a whole series of current crises, to address the sort of issues that keep you awake at night,
Well obviously, they need preparedness and there needs to be an acceptance that we need to pay an insurance premium. We saw this in the pandemic. If we’d been more prepared, we could have dealt with it more quickly. And there are a lot of other things for which we need to prepare more. And of course, the problem is that politicians will get accused of wasting money if they prepare for an event that doesn’t happen. But that is as unfair as complaining about wasting money on your fire insurance if your house doesn’t burn down.
We’ve got to be prepared to pay more. So that’s one thing. And that’s necessary in dealing with cyber threats and biotechs. But there’s another kind of threat, which is the slowly emerging threat. This is like the frog in the slowly heated pot of water, which doesn’t realise its predicament until it is too late to escape. Climate change and the ancillary risks stemming from that is the prime example. This is a near certainty in the second half of the century. But to persuade people to prepare and do things which will mitigate this serious, long term threat is very, very hard because the downside is going to occur, not for many decades, or not for several decades. And of course, it’s going to affect remote parts of the world, rather than countries like the UK.
That makes it very hard for politicians to prioritise it. To speak as a scientist, obviously, I know that all scientific advisors to government do all they can to persuade the government’s to take it seriously. And of course, the UK Government, by a target of Net Zero by 2050, has taken a lead. But it’s a big ask and whether they will achieve this, I don’t know.
I think there is something that we can do in democracies, and that is to ensure that the scientists can enlist charismatic individuals who can amplify their voice. And then the public will have an impact collectively on politicians and voters. Let me just mention that in the climate context, four very disparate individuals have had a big effect.
Pope Francis, David Attenborough, Bill Gates, and Greta Thunberg. Four people very different from each other. They have collectively amplified the voice of scientists and have helped to make the wider public and voters aware of these concerns. And that makes it easier for politicians to take the action that is needed in order to move towards zero carbon.
Let me just pick up if I can on what Chris quoted there. We are currently in denial. And we’re speaking at a time of real dire warnings from scientists about the scale of the climate emergency, with the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with worse to come. And we’ve been watching the collapse of society across much of Ukraine that has been decimated by the brutality of the Russian invasion. We saw the same in the former Yugoslavia 25 years ago. But what we’ve seen is a society in Ukraine determined and emboldened to resist what’s going on at any price. And what I’m really pressing you here on is, is there public awareness? Is there really public awareness and acceptability that we’re now well into a dramatic time of change at very high speed?
Well, not adequate. But I think in the context of climate, then things are improving in that respect. But of course, the timescale for the worst climate catastrophes, although it’s less than a human lifetime, and we ought to care about our children and grandchildren, it is very long compared to the electoral cycle of the democratic politicians, and that is why it doesn’t rise high on the agenda.
But as regards these other catastrophes like Ukraine, terrorism and all that, these are downsides of new technologies, particularly social media. And I do think that the fact that social media are the way most people get their news, rather than as in the old days filtered through responsible journalists, into broadcasters and newspapers, this is something - it’s not just President Trump - this is a real change which we have to live with. It means that the public get their news filtered, in some way. And of course, in countries like ours, this used to be filtered by responsible journalists.
That word ‘denial’. They can say ‘actually, it’s too much for me now, I can’t cope with it. And therefore I don’t, even if I’m worried about it, I can’t. It’s bad enough as it is’. The don’t look up problem? In other words, the meteor or is coming to the earth, but actually, it’s not going to affect me. And I say that because you make a point of talking about intractable politics and intractable sociology, which is getting in the way of understanding the scale of risk?
Well, I think that’s certainly true that if politicians talk about doing something which will make the world safer in 10 years time, then they won’t get the resonance, which they will get if they talk about some immediate problem. People do have a short horizon. That’s one point. But also, of course, the background noise in the social media can of course, confuse the public and scare them unduly, or, of course, can be used by dictatorial governments to bias what is getting to the public, as happened in Russia recently regarding Ukraine. That can happen.
I do think that the social media issue is polarising our politics in a more serious way than in the past and I don’t see any good way of dealing with that.
You’re saying that’s having an impact on whether the scale of change, which we’re now facing, which your warning about, can be accepted and factored into the way we will run our life?
Well, let’s hope it can be. One point which emphasise in my book is we should worry about the inequalities between nations and regions. Because one consequence of the pervasiveness of the internet and social media is that the global south, India and Sub Saharan Africa, they may not have toilets and things like that, but they do have access to the internet. So they know what’s going on. They know the injustice of their fates. And that’s a recipe for disaffection and instability.
One important point if we want to make the world safer, is to ensure that there are fewer legitimate causes for grievance. And among the biggest are going to be the differences in standard living between the global north and global south. And this is very, very important for things like climate to change. Because to get those in the global south to care about climate change when it’s caused by those of us in the north, and they have immediate, short term problems to worry about, is a big ask.
On the other hand it’s crucial that they do, because if we think towards 2050, there will be four billion people in India in Sub Saharan Africa. And if they are to develop in the way that China already has, for instance, using as much energy as China does, they will by 2050 be producing 40% of the world’s energy. And if that’s all by coal, then that completely dwarfs any attempt we make to go towards global zero, which is where we are only producing one or 2% of the world’s emissions now.
So for the world it is crucial in the context of climate change, which is plainly a global problem, to keep onside and support the global south.
I would very much want to stress, Martin, the point about support.
The latest IPCC report talks about three to 3.6 billion people already affected by climate change. Those are the people in the tropics, the global south. And therefore, in terms of your work on future generations, you’re a leading member of the all party committee (for future generations) in the British House of Parliament, why is it that the Welsh have managed to create legislation looking ahead and understanding the consequence of immediate actions on future generations? Why is that so difficult within the Westminster context?
Well, of course, the Welsh, and for a time the Hungarians and others, had an official person who was to scrutinise all legislation and comment on its impact for future generations.
I think it’s crucial this should be done in some way. We need long term thinking, sometimes called cathedral thinking, because one of the paradox I mentioned in my book is that in mediaeval times, their horizons were very limited in both space and time. But nonetheless, they built cathedrals, which they knew wouldn’t be finished in a lifetime, and which still inspire us centuries later. Whereas we don’t think so far ahead.
But the reason that, although our cosmic horizons are vast compared to those in the Middle Ages, change is so much more rapid that we can’t be so confident of what people will want, what the issues will be in 50 years time or even 25 years time. Whereas in the Middle Ages, people expected that their children or grandchildren would live similar lives to theirs, and would appreciate the finished cathedral.
So we’ve got to introduce more cathedral thinking, be good ancestors, and ensure that we don’t leave a depleted world for those generations.
You talk in the book about a happy awareness, or a “happier awareness” is that well directed, internationally deployed science and technology can offer salvation. You’ve already mentioned vaccines. In what other ways do you think science can, if well directed, actually make a major difference?
If I can just add, you talk about you have cause - we all have cause - to be technological optimists?
Well, I think even the technology we understand already, if deployed optimally, would enable everyone in the world to have a decent life.
Food production could be enhanced and distributed more fairly. I mean, when famines occur, it’s not overall scarcity, it is mal-distribution, and wars and troubles of various kinds. So already, technology could provide a decent life for everyone. And we can be optimistic that it can do even better in future and allow us to surmount these problems.
But what is depressing is the gap between the way the world is and the way the world could be, is widening rather than narrowing because the world in practice is more disrupted, more unstable than it’s ever been perhaps. But we do have the ability to provide a far better life for everyone than ever before.
Picking up on Chris’s point, were you amazingly heartened by the speed at which the vaccines were developed for COVID? In other words, showing that actually, even all the scientific norms which people like you have to follow with peer review and so on, were really thrown to the wind in the interest of getting something done at high speed because the world needed it?
Well, that’s right. That showed that an emergency can be coped with on a sort of war-time footing and cut all the bureaucracy. And of course, science is the one truly global culture and scientists can more easily cut across all divisions of ideology and faith. And that they have done. They did this in the middle of the Cold War with Pugwash Conferences, and they can do this now. So the scientists, if they are listened to, can clearly be a positive force.
That’s an excellent positive. Thanks. Thanks very much indeed, Martin. And thanks from both me and Chris.
Do please join us when we have a conversation about Thinking the Unthinkable. Martin again, thank you very much indeed for joining us from Cambridge University. Let’s hope that we can share your optimism although what’s going on at the moment, one has to be rather cautious about being too positive.
From both me and from Chris as well, until the next time keep thinking unthinkables. More than ever it’s both possible and necessary.
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