Only scientists and voters can change disaster policy


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According to a group of experts, a Covid-19 style pandemic was both predictable and preventable. The fact that it led to a global catastrophe killing 3.3 million people was largely due to failure of governance and the lack of a coordinated international response.

“There was a lack of global political leadership,” conclude two lead authors, Helen Clark, former New Zealand Prime Minister, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia, in the report released this week.

As historian Niall Ferguson writes in his latest book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, the distinction between “natural” and “man-made” disasters is often misleading. The decisive factor is how people anticipate and react to events that are predictable in their frequency, if not in their specificity. And while it may be tempting to blame incompetent leaders for such disasters, they also reflect a broader societal inability to prepare and respond to them.

What worries most about this failure is that humanity will soon face even greater threats. The risks of environmental degradation, nuclear annihilation, cyber war, bioterrorism and artificial intelligence are easily predictable and terrible to look at. However, trying to forestall such threats is becoming increasingly difficult as access to powerful technology becomes easier and cheaper.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, believes that an alarmingly different type of Moore’s Law is in place today: the minimum IQ needed to destroy the world drops by one point every 18 months.

It might be a mountainous challenge, but at least some clever researchers study humanity. In an article for the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford, Waqar Zaidi and Allan Dafoe analyze the earliest attempts to control the atomic bomb and highlight some resonance lessons. In short, we should invest little hope in political leaders who take these risks on their own initiative. We have to rely on scientific experts and civil society to provide the necessary knowledge and political impetus, as did the environmental movement.

Zaidi said in an interview that he was amazed at how radical some early considerations on nuclear arms control were and how relevant they are to our time. The devastation of World War II and the threat of nuclear disaster had increased support for the creation of the United Nations. As early as 1944, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr had urged the war leaders of Great Britain and the USA to place nuclear weapons under international control.

Later, leading scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” and Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, argued that nuclear power should only be used for peaceful purposes. Their campaign garnered some public support, but also hostility from the military establishment, which they branded as politically naive and classified them as a security risk.

For a while, the US played with such radical “idealistic” thinking, which was reflected in the Baruch Plan presented to the newly created UN Atomic Energy Commission. In a “realistic” statement to the US Congress in 1946, Leslie Groves, who led the Manhattan project that built the atomic bomb, presented a surprising decision. “Either we have to have a tough, realistic, enforceable world treaty that ensures the ban on nuclear weapons, or we and our trusted allies must have exclusive supremacy in this area,” he said.

Stalin’s determination to build its own bomb and growing distrust of the Soviet Union led the US to choose the second route, which sparked the start of a decade-long Cold War.

Zaidi said that if scientists are to influence the public debate, they must learn how to mobilize political support. “Technological experts are essential because they have the credibility and sometimes the notoriety. Politicians never want to be one step ahead of public opinion, but sometimes they react to it. “

Interestingly, this week, when talk of a new US-China Cold War filled the air, I heard a leading AI researcher alert that a new arms race would only encourage poor results and demand international scrutiny. “What I want is a working version of the UN with a set of guiding principles that all major players would join and cede power,” he said.

Distracted politicians are likely to always delay and postpone “realistic” arguments unless “idealistic” scientific experts, empowered by civil society, can convince them otherwise.

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