Armageddon 2.0

From The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

By Fred Guterl
28 November 2012

Article Highlights

  • During the Cold War, the prospect of nuclear annihilation weighed heavily on the minds of Americans, Soviets, and people of other nations.
  • Although the threat of nuclear war seems more distant now, other threats have arisen from the very technologies responsible for human progress, such as computing and energy production.
  • There may be very little time left in which to head off pandemics, abrupt climate shifts, and computer attacks. Understanding these threats — and possible solutions — is critical.

The world lived for half a century with the constant specter of nuclear war and its potentially devastating consequences. The end of the Cold War took the potency out of this Armageddon scenario, yet the existential dangers have only multiplied.

Today the technologies that pose some of the biggest problems are not so much military as commercial. They come from biology, energy production, and the information sciences — and are the very technologies that have fueled our prodigious growth as a species. They are far more seductive than nuclear weapons, and more difficult to extricate ourselves from. The technologies we worry about today form the basis of our global civilization and are essential to our survival.

The mistake many of us make about the darker aspects of our high-tech civilization is in thinking that we have plenty of time to address them. We may, if we’re lucky. But it’s more likely that we have less time than we think. There may be a limited window of opportunity for preventing catastrophes such as pandemics, runaway climate change, and cyber attacks on national power grids.

Emerging diseases. The influenza pandemic of 2009 is a case in point. Because of rising prosperity and travel, the world has grown more conducive to a destructive flu virus in recent years, many public health officials believe. Most people probably remember 2009 as a time when health officials overreacted. But in truth, the 2009 virus came from nowhere, and by the time it reached the radar screens of health officials, it was already well on its way to spreading far and wide.

“H1N1 caught us all with our pants down,” says flu expert Robert G. Webster of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Before it became apparent that the virus was a mild one, health officials must have felt as if they were staring into the abyss. If the virus had been as deadly as, say, the 1918 flu virus or some more recent strains of bird flu, the result would have rivaled what the planners of the 1950s expected from a nuclear war. It would have been a “total disaster,” Webster says. “You wouldn’t get the gasoline for your car, you wouldn’t get the electricity for your power, you wouldn’t get the medicines you need. Society as we know it would fall apart.”

Climate change. Climate is another potentially urgent risk. It’s easy to think about greenhouse gases as a long-term problem, but the current rate of change in the Arctic has alarmed more and more scientists in recent years. Tim Lenton, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter in England, has looked at climate from the standpoint of tipping points — sudden changes that are not reflected in current climate models. We may already have reached a tipping point — a transition to a new state in which the Arctic is ice-free during the summer months.

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