Dubai-UAE: 9 March 2021 – In a riveting conversation on Day 1 of the World Government Summit Dialogues (WGS Dialogues), Professor Paul Saffo, eminent futurist and technology forecaster warned the world to start reprioritizing and build more sustainable ways of living as it comes together to manage global, borderless problems that are increasingly confronting humanity. In a conversation with Corinne Iozzio, Editor-in-Chief of Popular Science, he pointed out that the failure to do so will see the human race become climate refugees in less than 30 years.
Contradicting the belief that the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis caught the world unawares, Prof Saffo said with climate change, we have had plenty of warning – we have known about the climate crisis since the 1970s, and yet have chosen to do nothing as a globe to tackle the problem.
He pointed out that now, the world can approach the climate change crisis in two ways – turn back the clock to what the climate was two centuries ago and recover what we can, or to fast track into the future and implement geo engineering and biotechnology. He pointed out that while we cannot practically reverse time, moving ahead with geoengineering appears to be a challenge too without a proper global governance structure.
He noted that this explained the relevance of the World Government Summit, and said: “We live in a world of global borderless problems and yet we have no governmental structure to tackle those problems. We have a world of quarrelling nation states and our institutions at an international level are not strong enough to coordinate geoengineering. My fear is that we are going to see some nations unilaterally engage in geoengineering, without the permission or engagement of the rest of the world, and then we are going to be fighting over what to do to fix the globe.”
To a question on whether we had the choice to start better in some other space, Prof Paul Saffo, quipped: “My feeling about that is that if we can’t fix earth, we are sure not going to do better in Mars. It is not a fun place to be. The atmosphere is primarily CO2 – I am not sure I want to live there.”
He encouraged governments to take a gardener’s perspective – look at the problem and leverage patience and attention to take small steps to fix the planet rather than work to achieve dramatic moves that could lead to dramatic consequences.
Asked whether we had enough time to fix the situation, he said: “We don’t have a choice. The events of the last 12 to 24 months indicate that we are in an age of unpredictable climate catastrophes. The Atlantic Meridional Overturn Circulation (AMOC) and the changing levels of salt in the oceans could see Europe witnessing a freeze, and lower latitudes start overheating. Several places around the world could become uninhabitable. That starts to cascade. We are all going to become climate refugees over the next 30 years.”
He noted that yet another challenge was communicating the significance of these developments to ensure the message reaches all corners of the globe.
“We have gone through dramatic media transformations. Media in the age of TV was mass media and everyone had the same experience and shared reality,. With the arrival of world wide web and social media, we have shifted from mass media to personalized media. No longer is this a shared experience but more fragmented than ever. From considering the world a single global village, social media and the internet have recreated the world as a collection of several global villages.”
Professor Saffo also criticized the weakness of international systems – that could be attributed to weak nation states not giving up control of sovereign issues. He quoted the UN CITES agreement an example to show more needed to be done and said: “We really have to figure out an entirely new structure. The Paris Agreement is fine, but it does not go far enough. The difficulty is with human nature, we find it difficult to think long term. “
He added: “Globalization is a test for humanity. And so far, we are failing the test. We are constitutionally incapable of thinking long-term and acting long-term. In an age of unpredictable climate catastrophes, we will become climate refugees over the next 30 years. The key to building an effective global society is to focus on social cohesion and to find a way to strengthen the realization. We are all passengers on Spaceship Earth. Our fates are intertwined. If we can build social cohesion things will fall into place. “Inequality is coming up more and more – at a social, cultural and economic level, hoarding things we don’t need is creating inequality. Sugar is an example. Our ancestors needed to collect it for survival, today it is available in abundance. We need to come up with a new way of being in a world of abundance or it will literally kill us.”
Prof Saffo said lasting changes would only grow out of the myriad small changes. Inspirational leadership that aggregates these changes alone may help us out of this crisis environment. He added that the act of buying and hoarding toilet paper during the lockdown was an act of control – people wanted to have some semblance of control in the midst of an environment where everything was going crazy. While they had the right instinct about control, it needs to be channelized in a different direction.