Biggest threat to mankind
Two of our respondents list artificial intelligence as the biggest threat to humanity. However, what worries far more of the Nobel laureates surveyed is the environment, with one in three citing issues such as global warming and overpopulation.
The number is particularly striking given the US’ withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord and Donald Trump’s appointment of climate change sceptic Scott Pruitt to head the US Environmental Protection Agency. While Trump may regard climate change as a Chinese hoax to hamstring US manufacturing, it is clear that Nobel laureates beg to differ.
“Climate change [and providing] sufficient food and fresh water for the growing global population…are serious problems facing humankind,” says one US laureate. “Science is needed to address these problems and also to educate the public to create the political will to solve these problems.”
For Roberts, feeding the world’s growing population is the biggest problem facing humanity. And he worries about the opposition in many quarters to the use of genetically modified plants and animals to meet this challenge, despite the scientific consensus over its safety.
“The blatant disregard for scientific opinion is going to lead to a worldwide crisis,” predicts Roberts, who cites a letter signed by 124 Nobel laureates in June calling on Greenpeace and other non-governmental organisations to drop their campaigns against certain types of biotechnology-enhanced crops.
“To tell people that they cannot eat or grow a food type that might stop them from starving is plain disgusting,” says Roberts, who adds that climate change will make the need for genetically modified organisms more pressing than ever.
Meanwhile, Nasa’s Mather notes that “humans are very busy with the greatest climate change experiment since the ice ages, but science has the potential to completely transform the system of economic rewards that encourage the use of fossil fuel. In other words, if renewable energy becomes cheaper than fossil fuels, people will switch over very quickly.”
With North Korean missile tests straining US-China relations and the fallout of Russia’s interference in the US elections ratcheting up tensions already stoked by the country’s actions in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria, it is hardly surprising that nuclear war is the second most common threat to humanity cited by survey respondents.
Among the 23 per cent of respondents to mention it (some respondents cited more than one threat) is a laureate from Israel who complains of “warmonger dictators”. A respondent from Germany singles out “populist regimes in possession of nuclear weapons”, while Mather is more concerned about nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist groups.
Other threats to humankind cited by respondents include medical fears such as global pandemics and antibiotic resistance (8 per cent), fundamentalism and terrorism (6 per cent) and a loss of selflessness, honesty or a “humanist perspective as we rush into the age of the internet and its seductions” (8 per cent). And two respondents specifically mention Trump – “I don’t think science can do much about him,” one adds.
Several laureates, however, are optimistic that a worldwide apocalyptic scenario is unlikely.
“The human species is so successful in making the world a better place,” says one. Another concedes that there are “several low probability but quite existential threats to humanity, including pandemics, nuclear war and artificial intelligence”.
But science, the laureate believes, could offer a way out: “The ultimate insurance policy is to make humanity a multiplanet species. And science obviously has a big role to play in that.”