Saturday, August 27, 2016

Is climate change an existential risk bottleneck?

I was rereading an old David Roberts' piece about how climate change links with sub-issues, and was struck by how well it describes my own thinking about asteroid defense, space exploration and existential risk:
This is what you might call climate change’s totalizing tendency. If you think about it enough, follow all the various connections far enough, it ends up subsuming everything else. You end up thinking that everyone should be working on climate change.
This insight gets 98% of the way there: given a long enough time frame, there's nothing more important than the survival of the human race. Amen. But in Roberts' thinking, Earth's life-sustaining climate/biosphere is the ultimate precondition that's necessarily prior to all other moral concerns. Everything else is contingent and instrumental to this ultimate goal of environmental sustainability.

I respectfully disagree.

Roberts leaves out other forms of existential risk, notably asteroids but also things like pandemic, AI, supervolcanism and [unknown]. Even if humanity were to master its greenhouse gas emissions or achieve sustainability in biosphere use, these other x-risks would linger (and eventually strike). Thus space exploration and the establishment of permanent multiplanetary colonies is the true 'ultimate goal'--the only guaranteed way to ensure long-run survival--within which climate change is subsumed.

Space elevators would drastically reduce the cost of getting stuff into space
Artist: GlennClovis (Deviantart)

If pressed, I actually doubt Roberts would disagree. Rather, the decision to prioritize climate change over other x-risks is a practical one, based on implicit judgements about sequencing and risk optimization. Climate change is a more immediate world-ender, so any amount of asteroid defense capacity won't save us if our ecosystem security collapses. The implication is that climate change is a bottleneck, with most of the other x-risks lurking on the other side (and to be tackled in turn).

An opposite perspective might view climate/biosphere sustainability as a fundamentally unachievable goal, in which case the only chance humanity has for long-run survival is to maximally try for space colonization.

A variant on this pessimistic attitude might see all-out space boosterism as an appealing tactic, concluding that the social and technological changes that are necessary to beat climate change are more effectively (or perhaps only) developable via space-centric goals. Call this the 'Star Trek Utopia' scenario.

The converse argument--that aggressively tackling climate change is the best (or only) way to achieve ultimate space-based sustainability--is also a valid line of reasoning.

Embedded in this Big Issue matrix is an unavoidable set of intermediate considerations, each with its own dire logic and stakeholder incentive structure. Whatever you think about climate change and existential risk, perhaps defeating poverty and improving global education is the only possible chance humanity has to quickly invent the ideas and technologies necessary to ensure survival. Perhaps an ideological awakening ushering in Full Communism is required. Maybe we gotta scrap religion. Or Republicans.

A key insight here is that process topics aren't necessarily aligned with outcome topics. Even if you view x-risk as the more important goal, spending your time fighting for climate change action or researching fusion power might be the highest-return choice from a risk-mitigation perspective.

Healthy forests --> productive economy --> space colonization --> no-death
Artist: Ivan Shishkin

So are the climate change-first positions justified? It's hard to say--which is sort of the point.

Assigning accurate probabilities and magnitudes to outcomes involving the sum total of humanity's institutional arrangements is essentially impossible; the density of causal relationships and informational complexity involved are boundless.

Climate change action has zero-sum relationships with various x-risks (fixed budgets, agenda priority, media bandwidth), but complementarities and incentive alignments also exist. The 'totalizing tendency' of these issues cuts both ways: it can unify disparate topics, but any high-level conceptual judgement is mediated through a gazillion decisionmaking institutions.

At the end of the day, meaningful progress on global warming is leaps and bounds ahead of most x-risks, and will be for some time. That's fine.

Enthusiasm about asteroids and existential risk was never realistically about trying to dominate the social agenda at the expense of climate change or poverty or any other issue. But increasing awareness about x-risk has its benefits.

First and foremost, it brings intellectual clarity. Sustainable space colonization--the only way to bring human extinction risk down to near-zero--is the most important thing. Period. End of story. The profundity of this revelation is a sleeping giant; its influence will only grow with time.

NASA helps with both climate change and asteroid defense. It deserves 1% of the US federal budget ("a penny for NASA") Artist: Robert T. McCall

Thinking about existential risk forces climate change into perspective. Climate change matters to the extent that it threatens our ability to maintain the sort of rich, vibrant, industrialized economy that underpins the rapid development of advanced technologies and progress in space exploration.

It also exposes certain strains of anti-technology environmentalism as deeply misguided. Although any environmentalist is a dear ally in a context where parochial incentive-zombies oppose any meaningful policy action, the intellectual cores of degrowth, return-to-nature and limits-to-growth environmentalist clans are fatalistic and morose. If we were all Amish or Indonesian islanders, they say, we would be in harmony with nature, and climate change wouldn't be a problem anymore because our industrial emissions and population would be low. Humanity would be set.


Some asteroid would still get us in the end. If humanity has a future, it will be through the development of advanced technologies and space colonization. That is a fact. Whether climate change is a hurdle we'll first have to jump over is irrelevant. Whether social and political change is a necessary precondition--it doesn't matter. Technology is our only hope.

Recognizing this doesn't solve our problems, of course. It doesn't help us decide whether to fight for a cradle-to-cradle economy or a guaranteed basic income or asteroid defense or asteroid mining or CDC funding or AI safety research. But it does say something. It says that science and intellectual innovation is our lodestar. Ideologies and institutions and cultural systems that devalue and diminish this fact are poisonous and deadly. There are only two futures: science or death. We should choose wisely.

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