By Gwynne Dyer
Maybe we can get through the climate crisis without a global catastrophe, although that door is closing fast. And maybe we can cope with the huge loss of jobs caused by the revolution in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) without a social and political calamity.
But can we do both at the same time?
We should know how to deal with the AI revolution, because we have been down this road before. However, the original industrial revolution in 1780-1850 created as many new jobs (in manufacturing) as it destroyed (in cottage industries and artisan guilds). Whereas the AI revolution is not producing nearly enough replacement jobs – but it is making us much wealthier.
The value of manufactured goods doubled in the United States in the past thirty years even as the number of good industrial jobs fell by a third (8 million jobs gone). Maybe we could use that extra wealth to ease the transition to a job-scarce future.
The climate emergency is unlike any challenge we have faced before. Surmounting it would require an unprecedented level of global cooperation and very big changes in how people consume and behave. These are things that people have not historically been very good at.
These two crises are already interacting. The erosion of middle-class jobs and the stagnation (or decline) of real wage levels is driving the victims into the arms of populist, authoritarian regimes throughout the world. These regimes despise international cooperation and often deny climate change as well (Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil).
So what can we do about all this? The first thing is to recognise that we cannot plot a safe course that takes us from here and now to ultimate safety, maybe fifty years from now.
We know a good deal about both AI and climate change, but not enough to be confident about our choices – and besides, they may well mutate and head off in unforeseen directions as the crises deepen.
But there are two big things we can do right now. We need to stop the slide into populist and increasingly authoritarian governments (because we are not going to stop the spread of AI). And we have to win ourselves more time to get our greenhouse gas emissions under control (because we are certainly going to go through 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent, which would give us +2̊ C higher average global temperature).
The best bet for getting our politics back on track is a guaranteed minimum income high enough to keep everybody comfortable whether they are working or not. That is well within the reach of any developed country’s economy, and has the added benefit of putting enough money into people’s pockets to save everybody’s business model.
And the best way to win more time on the climate front is to start geo-engineering (direct intervention in the atmosphere to hold the global temperature down) as soon as we get anywhere near +2̊ C. To be ready then, we need to be doing open-air testing on a small scale now.
There will be howls of protest from the right about a guaranteed minimum income, and from the greener parts of the left about geo-engineering. However, both will probably be indispensable if we want to get through these huge changes without mass casualties or even civilisational collapse.