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Is this how it ends?
Getting to grips with existential risks
Could the 'polycrisis' of 2023, marked by interconnected existential threats from nuclear tension, climate catastrophe, and AI breakout, lead humanity to its finest hour or final century?
The 2023 global risk landscape is uncertain, complex and connected. Some analysts are referring to the current environment as a “polycrisis”. According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Risk Report supported by SecDev, there are multiple interdependent threats facing the world in the short, mid- and long-term. At least three existential risks sit at the apex of the risk pyramid - nuclear catastrophe, climate chaos, and AI breakout - and each of them is becoming more severe by the day.
Figure 1. Global risks landscape
Source: WEF (2023)
The first apex risk involves a nuclear exchange. Today, the US and Russia have over 5,000 strategic and tactical nuclear warheads, respectively, with the highest threat of first use since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. What makes the risk particularly acute is the steady erosion of verification regimes and widening threat of proliferation beyond the nine countries that already possess them. The weakening and shirking of nuclear non-proliferation treaties and signs of heightened investment in new nuclear technologies are cause for concern.
Figure 2. Distribution of nuclear weapons
Source: FAS (2023)
The second apex risk is climate disruption, which continues to show signs of increasing severity. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to rise, increasing the risk that the planet exceeds the 1.5C threshold set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Successive IPCC reports have shown that the world has just a 10-year window to mitigate the effects of climate change. Extreme weather events are also increasing in intensity and frequency and the world faces a dangerous risk of soaring temperatures over the next few years owing to the return of El Nino in 2023.
The third apex risk is AI, and in particular artificial general intelligence, or AGI. The rapid spread of large language models and explosion of computational capabilities is generating both excitement and dread. While the timeframe for the development of superintelligence is unclear, there is agreement that breakout could occur much earlier than expected with potentially devastating implications. The speed and scale to which AI is outperforming humans across a range of functions is stunning. The lack of regulation, alignment, and safety measures poses a significant threat to humanity, and in the short term, there is a risk of job losses (as many as 300 million positions, about two thirds of all employment in Europe and the US, according to Goldman Sachs), cyber attacks, bio threats, and disinformation in the short-term.
Figure 3. AI performance relative to humans from 2000-2022
Data Source: World in Data (2022)
These apex risks are existential and the time horizon to respond is rapidly shrinking. Each of them is also linked to a range of subordinate triggers that could hasten their onset. These include political tensions, cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, and deepening inequality and polarization. Government, business and non-governmental leaders need to move quickly and collaboratively to mitigate them before they escalate beyond our control.
Even as the world grapples with the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic and continued economic volatility, several geopolitical hotspots have been simmering and are now showing signs of boiling over. Tensions between China and the US over Taiwan are steadily intensifying, with a major increase in military incursions into Taiwanese airspace and provocative air balloon displays over the US. With communication channels between the two countries breaking down, the risks of an accident or misunderstanding leading to outright conflict are rising.
The great paradox of the current era is that the twenty-first century could be our best century, or our last one.
Another flashpoint is the escalating conflict between Ukraine, Russia, and NATO allies. The situation has the potential to rapidly escalate both vertically, with the use of fighter jets and battlefield nuclear weapons, and horizontally, with the spread of armed conflict to neighboring countries. The invocation of Article 5 could pull the US and Europeans more fully into the theatre, further exacerbating tensions. There is also the possibility of spreading internal protests and implosion in Russia, which would have tremendous contagions effects.
The threats of cyber attacks targeting critical infrastructure, such as banking, energy, health, and water treatment facilities, are also growing. When polled last year, more than 90% of cybersecurity experts said that a catastrophic cyber event is likely within the subsequent two years. The lack of clear global rules around cyber security raises tricky questions about attribution and retaliation, leaving governments without a playbook for responding to these types of attacks.
In East Asia, North and South Korea are experiencing rising tensions over nuclear issues and degrading deterrence. North Korea has been developing and testing short, medium, and long-range missiles at a higher rate than in the previous decade, which could lead to accidental escalation. North Korea conducted at least 68 tests in 2022 alone, about ten times more than in 2021. Both South Korea and Japan are deeply alarmed and rapidly militarizing, heightening the risk of conflict in the region.
Tensions between Israel and Iran have also intensified, with a military confrontation over Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities a real possibility. On-again, off-again negotiations have failed to produce a resolution, with Iran currently enriching uranium up to 84% - enough to create a bomb with 90% enrichment. Israel has vowed to never allow Iran to have nuclear capability, potentially leading to an attack on Iran and retaliation in other countries ranging from Lebanon to Syria.
Finally, there is the growing instrumentalization and weaponization of companies by governments notably China. By promoting monopolies, subsidizing state-owned firms and using export regulations to target foreign companies, China and the US are rapidly decoupling. Many large and medium-sized companies are at risk of being caught in the crosshairs, leading to further geopolitical tension.
These scenarios are undoubtedly gloomy, but they can be slowed and even reversed with investment in trust building and collective action. Unfortunately, the odds of such action being taken in the current geopolitical environment are slim. Indeed, lines of communication between rivals are being systematically closed down. It is imperative that global leaders prioritize the mitigation of these geopolitical risks to prevent them from turning into catastrophic outcomes.
A divided world
The Russian-Ukraine war is deepening geopolitical decisions. Superficially, there appears to be general agreement that Russia is in the wrong. In March 2022, 141 members of the UN General Assembly backed a resolution condemning the Russian invasion. In September 2022, 143 countries rejected Russia’s attempts to annex Ukrainian territories. And in February 2023, 141 countries backed a resolution calling for “comprehensive, just and lasting peace”, with 32 abstaining and just 7 voting against. Yet despite apparent unanimity in the UN, there is deep division below the surface.
Figure 4. Countries voting in UNGA to condemn Russian intervention (March 2023)
Source: UN Twitter (2023)
In fact, the Russian-Ukraine war appears to be galvanizing divides that were decades in the making - between liberal democracies and more authoritarian nations. A 2022 Cambridge assessment found that the war has strengthened western and some Latin America and Eastern European opinion and their allegiance to the US and NATO. It has also increased support in some illiberal and undemocratic societies in East Asia, the Middle East and West Africa toward China and Russia.
At a time when the world rapidly must develop coordinated and collaborative solutions, it is separating into liberal and illiberal spheres. Put another way, of the 1.2 billion people inhabiting 57 liberal democracies, over 75 percent hold negative views of China and 87 percent a negative view of Russia. And of the 6.3 billion living in the other 136 countries, 70 percent feel positively toward China and 66 percent toward Russia.
Facing multiple crises, from geopolitical tensions to climate change, innovative approaches are needed to mitigate risks and maximize opportunities. Prioritizing existential risks and radically increasing cooperation and trust building is essential. However, traditional systems of cooperation, such as the UN, are being sidelined and the separation between the west and the rest is deepening, further politicizing key fora for risk reduction.
Facing multiple crises, from geopolitical tensions to climate change, innovative approaches are needed to mitigate risks and maximize opportunities.
A major shift is needed in how leadership engages with existential risks, including the promotion of face-to-face and repeated encounters and the standing-up of task forces and commissions on areas of common interest. Specifically, with nuclear risks, a restart of START and strengthening of the NPT is required, as are more verification and confidence-building measures.
With AI, a dramatic increase in funding into alignment and safety research is needed together with the creation of agreements, committees, and other mechanisms to reduce collective action problems. Related priorities include robust third-party auditing and verification, minimum regulation of access to computational power, the establishment of national AI agencies, and the development of standards for identifying and managing AI-generated content and recommendations.
The accelerating AI breakthroughs are awe-inspiring yet terrifying. The prospect of 300 million job losses and a superintelligence breakout poses an urgent call for safety measures and regulation to prevent an AI-induced existential catastrophe.
As for climate change, a dramatic acceleration is needed in climate mitigation and adaptation financing. There is a clear responsibility of the G20 to ramp-up climate financing since they collectively generate 75-80% of all global emissions. Radical emissions reductions are essential, as is speeding up the green energy transition. All of these issues are not without challenges, including paying for these investments and tricky questions related to securing supply chains for critical minerals and rare earths.
The alternative to taking action is skepticism, cynicism, paralysis, and self-fulfilling prophecies. The stakes could not be higher. Now is not the moment to succumb to anxiety and dread. The most noble action is to push back against these existential risks by rebuilding trust in global, regional, national and city institutions and reinforcing resilience. The great paradox of the current era is that the twenty-first century could be our best century, or our last one.
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