15 April 2019

Extinction Rebellion are wasting our time – and their own

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With great fanfare, the climate group Extinction Rebellion has taken to the streets of London to demand more government action on climate change. The protesters plan to cause widespread disruption by blocking traffic, and they have threatened to escalate their direct action over the next few weeks.

Despite the disruption, I do have some sympathy for groups such as Extinction Rebellion or the schoolchildren going on ‘strike’. According to current estimates, unmitigated greenhouse emissions such as carbon dioxide are likely to lead to significant global temperature increases by 2100. If this did take place, then we’d likely see an increase in extreme weather, food shortages, the spread of infectious diseases, and social unrest. There is a clear case for steps to reduce carbon emissions if we are to avoid causing long term damage to our planet.

However, I can’t help but feel that the protesters are wasting their time. The increased congestion they aim to create in central London will actually lead to far more pollution. Then there are all the people who will have their livelihoods disrupted because they can’t get to work. And there will be almost certainly people who will suffer as the emergency services will not be able to reach them on time.

Rather than just shouting ever more loudly about the risks, the protesters’ energy would be better spent focusing on policies which will actually make a difference. One such measure is a border-adjusted carbon tax. Evidence suggests such a levy is an effective way to reduce carbon dioxide. Sweden, for instance, has seen a significant fall in emissions since the introduction of a carbon tax. Taxing carbon is also both fairer and more effective than the hodge-podge of different taxes, regulations and subsidies we currently have in the UK.

It’s also questionable whether these protests are going to tell us anything we don’t already know. After all, it is surely only a handful of people who are not aware of the risks posed by climate change and only those on the fringes who believe that we should not take action.

The protesters tend to act as though it is a topic which is being ignored when in fact climate change is taught in schools, receives billions of pounds for research every year, and the majority of the world’s leaders agree that action needs to be taken. This is obviously a good thing. Climate change is a pressing issue, but one cannot argue that it is a neglected one.

More to the point, there are a host of other pressing but much less publicised issues which could potentially have catastrophic consequences for humanity.

Take AI, for example. The positives abound — machine learning has the potential to improve virtually every aspect of our lives and bring huge increases in productivity which will increase wages, drive economic growth, and improve living standards.

However, it is not without its risks. AI could develop to the point where it has a degree of sentience and is self-aware. It could decide that the aims it has been programmed for — to help the environment, reduce crime, or to eradicate disease are at odds with the flourishing of humanity. This might sound like the plot of every bad sci-fi film you’ve ever seen, but it is potentially a very real and very serious problem. The fact that we are developing AI which might not share the values we would like it to is known as the alignment problem. As Professor Nick Bostrom of Oxford University points out in his excellent book, Superintelligence, a system which becomes much more intelligent than human beings could pose a risk to the future of humanity.

Then there are the risks posed by synthetic biology. As with AI, there is a huge potential to benefit humanity by finding new cures for disease. However, as pointed out by the Global Priorities Project at the University of Oxford, there are also huge potential risks involved. Pandemics such as Spanish Flu and smallpox have killed hundreds of millions of people in the past, but pressures from natural selection limit the destructive potential of pathogens. Synthetic biology can overcome these natural limits, allowing pandemics of unprecedented scale.

AI and synthetic biology both have the potential to pose very serious risks to humanity. However, they are pretty much neglected and receive very little funding, media attention, and government action – especially when compared to climate change.

It might be tempting to dismiss these problems and focus on issues which are having an impact on our lives in the here and now. In fact, humans do have a tendency to place less of an emphasis on events which will take place in the future — a psychological bias known as temporal discounting.

However, when we take into account that the Earth has the potential to be habitable for up to another 800 million years, by which time humanity could have developed the technology to set up bases on other planets, then humanity has the potential to be around for a very long time. Not only will there be far more human lives in the future, if human progress continues on its current trajectory, then these humans will enjoy lives which are wealthier, happier, and healthier than anything we could possibly imagine. Therefore, as the Philosopher Derek Parfit pointed out, we have the ability and the duty to maximise the welfare of future generations.

Climate change is a real problem and it needs to be addressed — a carbon tax would be very good place to start. However, we ought not to let a necessary focus on greenhouse gases distract us from the many other potentially serious risks that humanity faces.

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Ben Ramanauskas is a Policy Analyst at the Taxpayers' Alliance.