The ELN Is launching a new project called NEVER (New European Voices on Existential Risk) that will create a network of 30 individuals under 30, from across Europe, who are future leaders in the field of existential risk. Existential risk encompasses many fields of study, including but not limited to nuclear policy, threats from malign AI, climate change, and biological threats.
In advance of the project’s launch, ELN network member Martin Rees (Lord Rees of Ludlow, OM, FRS), Astronomer Royal and Co-Founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, has written for the ELN about the alliance between science and the public sphere that needs to be made to ensure the survival of our planet.
The challenges posed by the Covid-19 crisis were unprecedented (at least in peacetime) in their urgency, impact, and global scope. Scientists have seldom had so much public prominence and appreciation. We’re living in an ever more interconnected world, a world where catastrophes can cascade globally. For instance, new global threats, such as pandemics and massive cyber-attacks, could happen at any time and the probability of such events occurring increases every year.
Moreover, looming over the world is a different threat – one that’s predictable but gradual and insidious, anthropogenic climate change. This is a “global fever”, in some ways resembling a slow-motion version of Covid-19. Both crises aggravate the level of inequality within and between nations. It’s the poorest countries, and the poorest people in them, that will suffer the most from global warming and its effects on food production and biodiversity.
But potential slow-motion catastrophes don’t engage the public and politicians – our predicament resembles that of the proverbial boiling frog – contented in a warming tank until it’s too late to save itself. We’re well aware of them, but we fail to prioritise countermeasures because their worst impact stretches beyond the time-horizon of political and investment decisions.
...potential slow-motion catastrophes don’t engage the public and politicians – our predicament resembles that of the proverbial boiling frog – contented in a warming tank until it’s too late to save itself. Martin Rees
To cope with the climate crisis, nations should accelerate research and development into all forms of low-carbon energy generation. States must also invest in other technologies where parallel progress is crucial – especially storage in the form of batteries, compressed air, pumped storage, hydrogen etc. As well as smart transcontinental grids.
This should ease Europe and North America’s path to sustainability. But there’s something even more important. The faster these “clean” technologies advance, the sooner their prices will fall, so they will become affordable to developing countries in the global south. These nations can’t reach acceptable living standards without generating more power than they do today. Not only will their currently low per capita energy needs rise, unlike ours – but they will collectively harbour a billion more people by 2050. “Bending the trajectory” of CO2 emissions from these countries is crucial: they must be enabled to leapfrog more speedily to clean energy rather than building coal-fired power stations – just as they leapfrogged to mobile phones without having landlines first.
It would be hard to think of a more inspiring challenge for young scientists and engineers than devising clean and economical energy systems that can achieve “net zero” for the world. Likewise, we shall need advances in “sustainable intensive” agriculture to feed a global population of 9 million without undue encroachment on natural forests and habitats.
Except in emergencies like Covid 19, scientists have little direct influence on policy; they must enhance their leverage, by involvement with NGOs, via blogging and journalism, and by enlisting charismatic individuals and the media to amplify their voice and change the public mindset. We have seen, for instance, what the disparate quartet of Pope Francis, David Attenborough, Bill Gates and Greta Thunberg have achieved in shifting public perspectives on crucial long-term goals – and even changing the rhetoric of the business sector. We need more such individuals to influence us and our political leaders – individuals who resonate with science but can inspire the ethical guidance and motivation that science alone can’t offer.
We need more such individuals to influence us and our political leaders – individuals who resonate with science but can inspire the ethical guidance and motivation that science alone can’t offer. Martin Rees
It’s encouraging to witness more activists – especially among the young, who can hope to live into the 22nd century. Their campaigning is welcome. Their commitment gives grounds for hope.
To quote an optimistic thought from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
If you are under 30 years old, live in or are from Europe, work in the field of existential risk, and would like to join a network of future leaders in your sector, please apply below. Membership of NEVER will be conducted on a voluntary and honorary basis. The network will be designed with collaborative working in mind, with the aim of creating a space for future leaders to work together and advance in their careers in a supportive environment. We shall also be offering mentoring opportunities provided by pre-existing members of our networks.
The ELN is keen to publish pieces on the various subtopics within the field of existential risk. If you have an idea or an article that you would like to pitch, irrespective of whether you would like to join NEVER, please do get in touch. Read our guidelines here and contact [email protected] for more information.
More information on NEVER and how to apply can be found here.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or all of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.