Human extinction may sound crazy, but it’s not impossible if you consider the world’s current situation.
Occasionally, we hear colourful theories of how the world is going to end in x amount of years – some plausible while others downright wild. While most of the population pass these by with fleeting curiosity, others take them very seriously. After all, there is no smoke without fire. But where do these theories about human extinction originate from, and how many of them actually have some truth in them? Are there any that are actually backed up with hard facts?
The Global Challenges Foundation does just that; they create awareness on Global Catastrophic Risks, which are defined as “risk of events or processes that would lead to the deaths of approximately a tenth of the world’s population, or have a comparable impact.” Using the logical equation that risk = potential future damage x probability of occurrence, they have made a comprehensive list of risks to humanity – primarily focusing on climate change, other environmental degradation and politically motivated violence as well as how these threats are linked to poverty and rapid population growth.
The Global Challenges Foundation teamed up with Oxford-based The Future of Humanity Institute and recently published a Global Catastrophic Risk 2016 report which addresses the most likely risks that humanity faces.
The risks in the report can be divided into two categories. Some are on-going and could potentially occur in any given year. Others are emerging and may be very unlikely today but will become significantly more likely in the coming decades.
Here is a list of the main threats, which could potentially lead to human extinction, outlined in this report:
1. Climate Change
This one comes as no surprise; everyone has heard about global warming and greenhouse gases. The immense awareness around the world has made certain of that. With the level of greenhouse gases being the highest they have been for hundreds of thousands of years and the global mean temperature increasing by 4°, it is a serious cause for concern. According to the report, the repercussions of increasing temperatures include severe and widespread impacts on unique and threatened systems, substantial species extinction, large risks to global and regional food security, and the combination of high temperature and humidity compromising normal human activities, including growing food or working outdoors in some areas for parts of the year. That is just to name a few.
2. Nuclear War
Although there have been no nuclear attacks since World War 2, there have been plenty of near-misses scattered throughout the last few decades. It is not just the use of the nuclear weapons itself, but the inevitability of a following nuclear winter which will exacerbate the climate worries. As of 2014, 9,920 nuclear warheads combined with the ever increasing tensions between nuclear states do not sound promising.
3. Natural Pandemics
Up until the birth of nuclear weapons, natural pandemics were the biggest and most important threat to humanity. And they could still possibly remain so; influenza pandemics hit quite frequently with a rate of approximately ten in the past 300 years. There have already been pandemics in the past that have wiped out more than 10% of the world’s population at the time – The Black Death and Spanish influenza to name a few. However, with the progression of modern medicine, it is unlikely that any single influenza could have a similar impact today.
Currently H5N1 is the greatest pandemic threat, and the report has provided a rough estimate of the death toll that an H5N1 pandemic could cause, by multiplying the usual pandemic attack rate (24% to 38%) by the global population (7 billion) times the case-fatality ratio (1% to 60%). This produces an estimated death toll of between 16.8 million and 1.7 billion fatalities.
4. Exogenous risks
These are risks that arise independent of human activity, for example, volcano eruptions and asteroid impacts. While historically and statistically speaking, the chances of these risks are much lower than the aforementioned, they are still worth worrying over. Whenever they have hit, they have caused major damage. The dinosaurs could bear witness to this.
Some experts believe that the Toba super-volcano in Indonesia was about to bring human extinction 70,000 years ago – reducing the population from 100,000 to around 4,000. That is not factoring in the impact it had on the atmosphere, with the 15cm thick layer of ash, the 3-5°C global cooling, and the loss of animal and plant life.
In addition to these, there are some emerging threats that are also mentioned in this report – engineered pandemics are likely if advanced biotechnology falls into the wrong hands. Geoengineering technology could give single countries or smaller terrorist groups the power to alter the Earth’s climate. Artificial intelligence could very well develop a mind of its own and leave human control. For those who scoff at the idea, remember that films are indeed based on real life and with humanity’s rapidly increasing intelligence and achievements, anything is possible.