This article by John Roach, writing for NBC News digital references a new report by the World Economic Forum. This report is, “Heralding a shift in the climate change debate from who to blame to how to cope,” he writes.
Section 5 of the Annual Risk Assessment Report published by the World Economic Forum is titled, “X Factors.” These are described as follows:
“X factors are serious issues, grounded in the latest scientific findings, but somewhat remote from what are generally seen as more immediate concerns such as failed states, extreme weather events, famine, macroeconomic instability or armed conflict. They capture broad and vaguely understood issues that could be hatching grounds for potential future risks (or opportunities).”
In order, these are the “X factors” that this year’s World Economic Forum addresses. Under each heading, I have included some paragraphs from the report:
Runaway Climate Change
While climate change debates of the past decade centred on whether or not humans could be responsible for altering a system as great as Earth’s climate, we may be rapidly moving into forced discussions on how best to strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to cope as Earth’s climate auto-pilot mercilessly hurtles us towards a new and unknown equilibrium.
Significant Cognitive Advancement
Such advancements could have profound impacts in 20 to 50 years on societal norms affecting how we approach issues including education and training, disparity between groups in society, informed consent and exploitation, and international laws on warfare.
Rogue Deployment of Geoengineering
Geoengineering can refer to many things, but it is most often associated with a scientific field that has come to be known as “solar radiation management”. The basic idea is that small particles could be injected high into the stratosphere to block some of the incoming solar energy and reflect it back into space, much as severe volcanic eruptions have done in the past. In stark contrast to decades of technological evolution and political disputes about overhauling energy infrastructure to reduce greenhouse emissions, solar radiation management would act quickly and would be cheap to implement – though side-effects may make it a very expensive option.
But this has led some geoengineering analysts to begin thinking about a corollary scenario, in which a country or small group of countries precipitates an international crisis by moving ahead with deployment or large-scale research independent of the global community. The global climate could, in effect, be hijacked by a rogue country or even a wealthy individual, with unpredictable costs to agriculture, infrastructure and global stability.
The problem is that the only way to truly test solar radiation management is at scale. This potentially conflates large-scale research with deployment, thereby giving rogue nations political cover under the guise of science. Much research has gone into whether a programme could be targeted at the Arctic, for instance, where the impacts of global warming are being felt the most, but some researchers suggest that the impacts could quickly migrate from the Arctic to other regions. Many say that a true test of solar radiation management would have to be global.
Due to such complexities, most of the science to date has been conducted via computer modelling, although scientists are looking for ways to test these ideas with local experiments. But overall, despite calls for more coordinated government science programmes, the funding landscape for this kind of science remains spotty.
This leaves a gap for unregulated experimentation by rogue parties. For example, an island state threatened with rising sea levels may decide it has nothing to lose, or well-funded individuals with good intentions may take matters into their own hands. There are signs that this is already starting to occur. In July 2012, an American businessman sparked controversy when he dumped about 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Canada in a scheme to spawn an artificial plankton bloom. The plankton absorbs carbon dioxide and may then sink to the ocean bed, removing the carbon – another type of geoengineering, known as ocean fertilization. Satellite images confirm that his actions succeeded in producing an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres.
Costs of Living Longer
We are getting better at keeping people alive for longer. Are we setting up a future society that must struggle to cope with a mass of arthritic, demented and, above all, expensive elderly who are in need of long-term care and palliative solutions?
The blessings of 20th-century medicine appear ready to explode with the deciphering of the genome and attendant advances. It is hoped that big inroads against common banes such as heart disease, cancer and stroke may be in the offing. But these advancements may also enhance risks. Consider the impact on society of a growing number of elderly infirm who are protected from the most common causes of death today, but with an ever deteriorating quality of life, as other ailments that do not kill, but seriously disable, start to dominate.
Current trends are already setting the stage for such a future scenario in the West. The demographics of the Baby Boom are such that, according to conservative estimates, the number of Americans afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease will at least double, to 11 million, by mid-century.9 Similar rises are projected for many countries, with the global population of the demented expected to double every 20 years until it exceeds 115 million in 2050.10 A key driver will be increasing elderly populations and potentially declining fertility rates in low- and middle-income countries.
Are there fixes that can avert the coming storm? There are well-known but difficult-to-implement preventive measures that could help us live longer and to have better quality of lives: paramount among them is exercise, with its near-universal benefits for our physiologies and for warding off pathology.16 Obvious ways to mitigate cost implications would include raising the eligibility ages for the programmes that support the elderly from the public purse – retirement income, social support services or reduced-cost health care – and raising the retirement age, requiring older adults to be productive economically for longer. One recent analysis, using a “delayed ageing” model, found that hundreds of billions of dollars in increased costs to the US Medicare and Social Security programmes could be entirely offset by raising the eligibility ages for Medicare and Social Security by a few years (from 65 to 68, and from 67 to 68).17
However, increasing eligibility ages for public services is not a panacea, in part because financial costs are not the only challenge. The impacts of ageing populations will be felt throughout society, from changing best practices in urban planning to impacting social norms on care-giving. More research is needed to turn chronic conditions to acute conditions (i.e. by developing curative treatments), and to find solutions that increase the capacity of all citizens to manage chronic conditions and to create wealth at the same time.
Discovery of Alien Life
Over the long term, the psychological and philosophical implications of the discovery could be profound. If life forms (even fossilized life forms) are found in our solar system, for example, the origin of life is “easy” – that any place in the universe life can emerge, it will emerge. It will suggest that life is as natural and as ubiquitous a part of the universe as the stars and galaxies. The discovery of even simple life would fuel speculation about the existence of other intelligent beings and challenge many assumptions that underpin human philosophy and religion.
Through basic education and awareness campaigns, the general public can achieve a higher science and space literacy and cognitive resilience that would prepare them and prevent undesired social consequences of such a profound discovery and paradigm shift concerning humankind’s position in the universe.