Aug 1, 2023 - World

Existential threats to humanity are soaring this year

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Put aside your politics and look at the world clinically, and you'll see the three areas many experts consider existential threats to humanity worsening in 2023.

Why it matters: This isn't meant to start your day with doom and gloom. But focus your mind on how the threats of nuclear catastrophe, rising temperatures and all-powerful AI capabilities are spiking worldwide.

  • It underscores the urgent need for smart people running government — and big companies — to solve increasingly complex problems at faster rates.

Climate: The danger is becoming impossible to ignore, Axios' Andrew Freedman writes.

  • You just lived through the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. The world’s oceans are absurdly warm, with temperatures in the 90s° around the Florida Keys, bleaching and even killing coral reefs in just one week.
  • Antarctic sea ice is plummeting even in the dead of winter. Wildfires are raging.
  • Climate scientists don’t relish saying, “I told you so,” but they've been warning for years that each seemingly incremental rise in global average temperatures would translate into severe heat waves, droughts, floods and stronger hurricanes.
  • And the worst part is, we can't even call this our "new normal," because it's going to keep getting worse as long as carbon emissions keep increasing.
  • This is a global problem that will require a global solution, but tensions between the world's top two emitters — the U.S. and China — are high, and getting the big global powers to abide by a sufficiently hardcore climate commitment has so far proven impossible.

AI: The technology's top architects say there's a non-zero chance it'll destroy humanity — and they don't really know how or why it works, Axios' Ryan Heath reports.

  • AI — with its ability to mass-produce fake videos, soundbites and images — poses clear risks to Americans' already tenuous trust in elections and institutions.

Nukes: China has expanded its nuclear arsenal on land, air and sea — raising the likelihood of a dangerous new world with three, rather than two, nuclear superpowers, Axios' Sam Baker writes.

  • "Beijing, Moscow and Washington will likely be atomic peers," the N.Y. Times reports. "This new reality is prompting a broad rethinking of American nuclear strategy that few anticipated a dozen years ago."
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said this summer that he moved some of his country's roughly 5,000 nuclear weapons into Belarus — closer to Ukraine and Western Europe. President Biden warned in June that Putin's threat to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine is "real."

The bottom line: Humanity has a decent track record of pulling back from the brink. No one has used a nuclear weapon since World War II. A more effective global climate agreement is still possible. Rules to govern AI absolutely can exist.

  • The scariest problems don't have to reach their full potential — but it takes serious work by serious people to stop them from getting there.
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