A World at Risk: Royal Astronomer Looks Ahead

CAMBRIDGE, UK, April 21, 2021 (ENS) – From bioengineered pandemics to city-ravaging cyber attacks to nuclear annihilation, life on Earth could soon change radically due to humanity’s impact on the planet, the United Kingdom’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, is warning.

Rees points out other dangers, too: population rise leading to shrinking biodiversity, catastrophic climate change, uncontrollable cybercriminals, plans for artificial intelligence that erodes privacy, security, and freedom.

“Our Earth is 45 million centuries old. But this century is the first when one species – ours – can determine the biosphere’s fate,” said Rees, who is also a founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks at Cambridge University.

Martin Rees, formally known as The Lord Rees of Ludlow, is the UK’s Astronomer Royal. (Photo courtesy the British Parliament)

“Our globally-linked society is vulnerable to the unintended consequences of powerful new technologies – not only nuclear, but (even more) biotech, cyber, advanced AI, space technology,” he said.

Rees thinks biohackers pose a particularly underappreciated threat to humanity.

In the near future, he says, simple equipment will enable people to re-engineer the human genome irrevocably or build a super spreading influenza. Like drug laws, regulations could never prevent all such actions, Rees believes and in a world more interconnected than ever before, he says, the consequences would spread globally.

But Rees is an optimist. He sees a path forward while avoiding these risks and achieving a sustainable future.

“If all of us passengers on spaceship Earth want to ensure that we leave it in better shape for future generations we need to promote wise deployment of new technologies, while minimizing the risk of pandemics, cyberthreats, and other global catastrophes,” he advised.

The Nuclear Threat

Recently, Russia, China, and North Korea have deployed new types of nearly unstoppable nuclear missiles, risk experts warn, in an effort to remind the world that a single nuclear weapon could kill millions and destroy a city instantantly.

Even a limited nuclear war could cause a climate catastrophe, leading to the starvation of hundreds of millions of people.

“Missile defense is an idea that can sound appealing at first – doesn’t defense sound like the right thing to do?” said Frederick Lamb, astrophysicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, cochair of the 2003 American Physical Society’s Study of Boost-Phase Missile Defense, and chair of the current APS Panel on Public Affairs Study of Missile Defense and National Security.

“But when the technical challenges and arms race implications are considered, one can see that deploying a system that is intended to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles is unlikely to improve the security of the United States,” Lamb said.

A Trident missile is fired. Trident is Britain’s nuclear weapons system. Each submarine carries up to eight missiles on board, and each missile carries up to five nuclear warheads. (Photo courtesy UK Defence Journal)

Lamb points out the United Kingdom’s decision to increase its nuclear arsenal by 44 percent, announced in March, was possibly motivated by Russia’s new missile defense system around Moscow.

He sees the UK’s move as yet another sign that existing limits on nuclear weapons are unraveling. Even missile defenses that would never work in practice can catalyze the development of new nuclear weapons and increase global risk.

If the United States ramps up new missile defense systems, that act would amp up the risk even more. Lamb says, “What is done about nuclear weapons and missile defenses by the United States and other countries affects the safety and survival of every person on the planet.”

Featured Image: Wildfires have been growing more frequent and intense as the planet has warmed since the Industrial Revolution. Here, a controlled burn was set to get rid of dead brush and tinder at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, February 9, 2021 (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

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