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Human Extinction Isn't That Unlikely


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Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.

These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.

In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.

Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.

The risk of human extinction due to climate change—or an accidental nuclear war—is much higher than that. The Stern Review, the U.K. government’s premier report on the economics of climate change, estimated a 0.1 percent risk of human extinction every year. That may sound low, but it also adds up when extrapolated to century-scale. The Global Challenges Foundation estimates a 9.5 percent chance of human extinction within the next hundred years.

And that number probably underestimates the risk of dying in any global cataclysm. The Stern Review, whose math suggests the 9.5-percent number, only calculated the danger of species-wide extinction. The Global Challenges Foundation’s report is concerned with all events that would wipe out more than 10 percent of Earth’s human population.

“We don’t expect any of the events that we describe to happen in any 10-year period. They might—but, on balance, they probably won’t,” Sebastian Farquhar, the director of the Global Priorities Project, told me. “But there’s lots of events that we think are unlikely that we still prepare for.”

Climate change also poses its own risks. As I’ve written about before, serious veterans of climate science now suggest that global warming will spawn continent-sized superstorms by the end of the century. Farquhar said that even more conservative estimates can be alarming: UN-approved climate models estimate that the risk of six to ten degrees Celsius of warming exceeds 3 percent, even if the world tamps down carbon emissions at a fast pace. “On a more plausible emissions scenario, we’re looking at a 10-percent risk,” Farquhar said. Few climate adaption scenarios account for swings in global temperature this enormous.

Other risks won’t stem from technological hubris. Any year, there’s always some chance of a super-volcano erupting or an asteroid careening into the planet. Both would of course devastate the areas around ground zero—but they would also kick up dust into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and sending global temperatures plunging. (Most climate scientists agree that the same phenomenon would follow any major nuclear exchange.)

Yet natural pandemics may pose the most serious risks of all. In fact, in the past two millennia, the only two events that experts can certify as global catastrophes of this scale were plagues. The Black Death of the 1340s felled more than 10 percent of the world population. Eight centuries prior, another epidemic of theYersinia pestis bacterium—the “Great Plague of Justinian” in 541 and 542—killed between 25 and 33 million people, or between 13 and 17 percent of the global population at that time.

 

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The report briefly explores other possible risks: a genetically engineered pandemic, geo-engineering gone awry, an all-seeing artificial intelligence. Unlike nuclear war or global warming, though, the report clarifies that these remain mostly notional threats, even as it cautions:

[N]early all of the most threatening global catastrophic risks were unforeseeable a few decades before they became apparent. Forty years before the discovery of the nuclear bomb, few could have predicted that nuclear weapons would come to be one of the leading global catastrophic risks. Immediately after the Second World War, few could have known that catastrophic climate change, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence would come to pose such a significant threat.

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1 hour ago, smudge said:

Human extinction will be a good thing for this planet.

I think restoration will be a better thing for this planet.

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2 hours ago, Randomguy said:

 “On a more plausible emissions scenario, we’re looking at a 10-percent risk,” Farquhar said. Few climate adaption scenarios account for swings in global temperature this enormous.

sounds like a bunch of farquhar

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Jesus described this in Matthew 24:22

“If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened."

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It's sad to think that humanity will all pass away and there will be no one left to appreciate the likes of Audrey.   :( 

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24 minutes ago, BuffJim said:

Jesus described this in Matthew 24:22

“If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened."

Jimmy Page wrote in Led Zeppelin I

"One of these days, and it won't be long, you'll look for me and baby, I'll be gone."

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59 minutes ago, Zealot said:

I think restoration will be a better thing for this planet.

Once the humans are out of the picture, the planet will do a nice job of restoration.

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15 minutes ago, smudge said:

Once the humans are out of the picture, the planet will do a nice job of restoration.

For perfect restoration, all planet inhabitants will be in the picture.

:)

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36 minutes ago, Zealot said:

Currently yes. Things will change.

No they won't, humans will never change.  The self-serving will continue to screw it up for the rest of us.

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Trump is almost guaranteed to win the GOP nomination.

Considering what I thought the odds of that were, I could not only believe easily in human extinction, but I could believe it's likely to come a lot sooner than I thought.

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Extinction is not that likely, a massive population decrease is.

Pockets of people would probably survive damn near anything. The survivalist's, a few of them are bound to make it. There are still isolated tribal people, that depending on which way the wind blows, or water flows, would make it.

And humanity starts again.

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2 hours ago, Randomguy said:

No they won't, humans will never change.  The self-serving will continue to screw it up for the rest of us.

Aren't all species self-serving?  Most of them don't have the capacity to dominate and destroy their environment like we do, but they all attempt to control as much of their environment as they can.  That control comes at the expense of some other thing's control (be it other organisms or natural resources).

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2 hours ago, Randomguy said:

No they won't, humans will never change.  The self-serving will continue to screw it up for the rest of us.

They won't change if their own accord, agreed.

But they will change.

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  • 4 years later...
On 5/4/2016 at 2:48 PM, ... said:

It's sad to think that humanity will all pass away and there will be no one left to appreciate the likes of Audrey.

I still get pissed off that people think "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was in any way good.

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13 hours ago, Randomguy said:

I still get pissed off that people think "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was in any way good.

Have you actually watched it?  If you have, then Chapeau!  I can think of no reason to.

To the main topic (a human extinction event), it is simply a matter of when, not if.  Meteors or the sun dying are guarantees (unless we figure out FTL travel).  All that other stuff is unlikely in the near term (oour lifetimes) except nukes.  A global super-virulent & deadly pandemic is clearly possible, but also unlikely to kill all of us, and climate change is a slow burn that simply leads to future generations eventually all being Canadians and then dying miserably.

"Civilization", though, is crumbling all over the place.  Especially "advanced" civilization which has seen a tide of barbarism few would have thought imaginable even 20 years ago.

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On 5/4/2016 at 7:07 PM, Reverend_Maynard said:

Aren't all species self-serving? 

Yes, but finite and sustainably for the most part, and at some point some competitor or other will balance invasive or out of control species.  We have no real controls, and nation's leadership can't figure out a long-term solution to anything, and there is no political will to try, not with the election cycles and all.  People are not set up for today's problems, we are set up for agrarian or nomadic lifestyles, intellectually.

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