Q: Do you believe that climate change is the greatest threat to humanity’s long-term survival? If not, what is?
A: Climate change on its own is not the end of the world… but it makes the world worse. It amplifies other risks, and it might make it harder for us to solve the problems we need to solve for our survival. Nuclear war, bioweapons, uncontrolled AI and the fragility of the global supply chains keeping us alive are more direct risks.
“We need a peaceful, prosperous world with less distractions to handle the risks.”
Q: Out of the “low probability, high risk” existential threats that you’ve studied, is there one that you think we’re not talking about enough? Conversely, is there one whose danger we are exaggerating?
A: We used to not talk enough about nuclear war. When I grew up in the 1980s, it was an ever present, ominous threat. As we later found out, there were some extremely close calls where things truly hung in the balance. Then 1990 came. The Eastern Bloc disintegrated, and people seemed to forget about the missiles in their silos. This is despite the many accidents and close calls. For more than 20 years the threat was ignored. Now it’s back in our minds again.
“The moral of this story is that, collectively, we often quickly forget about very important threats.”
One threat that people have conveniently forgotten about today is that of pandemics. We are so tired of Covid. Yet, the important lessons on how to handle the next pandemic (which could be worse) need to be learned.
Q: As a Fellow at the University of Oxford Philosophy Faculty, what role can philosophy play in helping us confront such existential risks?
One function of philosophy is to help us figure out the moral value at stake: how bad are these risks compared to others? How do we balance our current needs against those of future generations? How does fairness come in to play? Another function of it is helping us reason under uncertainty: how do we think well about future, unprecedented events? When we know we are uncertain about important things, how should we act? Is it better to be safe than sorry or is it better to wait and see?
“Philosophy is great at working with problems for which we do not yet have a great theoretical understanding. As we figure it out, it often moves into some other specialised department. But thinking wide and abstract about problems is a good start.”
Q: Considering how our over-reliance on technology is one of the primary causes of man-made global warming, how do you think that technology can help us mitigate its risk?
A: Not having technology can also be dangerous. Our ancestors often died from starvation, exposure and disease: they were very vulnerable. Similarly, old-fashioned industry and agriculture tends to be more polluting. It requires more land (hence leading to a shrinking global biodiversity). The solution to climate change involves using low-carbon energy sources. Making agriculture efficient enough so that less land is needed, telework, carbon capture and so on. It is not just about technology, of course, but if going green is cheaper, more luxurious and more convenient than the current practice, it will happen.