Longtermists are an existential risk

We all have lots to worry about already, with pandemics and climate change and political crises and growing irrationality, but one I’m increasingly alarmed by is the popularity of these pseudo-intellectual frauds parading about as “longtermists” or “effective altruists” who believe we should be worshipping potential future generations rather than dealing with real people in the here and now. It leads to distorted priorities. It doesn’t help that their thought-leaders are cocky ignoramuses. Émile P. Torres writes about William MacAskill’s opinion of the importance of climate change.

One finds the same insouciant attitude about climate change in MacAskill’s recent book. For example, he notes that there is a lot of uncertainty about the impacts of extreme warming of 7 to 10 degrees Celsius but says “it’s hard to see how even this could lead directly to civilisational collapse.” MacAskill argues that although “climatic instability is generally bad for agriculture,” his “best guess” is that “even with fifteen degrees of warming, the heat would not pass lethal limits for crops in most regions,” and global agriculture would survive.

I am not a climate scientist, but I know a number of them, and follow the work, and that statement is jaw-droppingly idiotic. Even with the amount of warming we’ve got now, we’ve had heat waves that kill large numbers of people, and this past year has seen a series of extreme weather disasters.

Record-breaking heat waves baked India and Pakistan, then monsoon flooding left about a third of Pakistan under water, affecting an estimated 33 million people. Temperatures exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) for prolonged periods in many places, and even broke 122 F (50 C) in Jacobabad, Pakistan, in May.

The Asian heat helped to melt some glaciers in the Himalayas, elevating rivers. At the same time, three times the normal annual rain fell in Pakistan during the weekslong monsoon. More than 1,500 people died in the flooding, an estimated 1.8 million homes were damaged or destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of livestock were lost. Food for the coming seasons will be in short supply.

Extreme heat in Europe led to wildfires, especially in Spain and Portugal. The drought in Spain dried up a reservoir, revealing the long-submerged “Spanish Stonehenge,” an ancient circle of megalithic stones believed to date back to around 5000 B.C. Electricity generation in France plummeted, with low rivers reducing the ability to cool nuclear power towers, and German barges had difficulty finding enough water to navigate the Rhine River.

That’s just this year! And the trend is ever upwards! Keep in mind that when climate experts tell you they’re concerned about a 3 degree rise, they’re looking at the mean temperature…and the extremes will be far worse. It’s the extremes that kill people and devastate regions, not the mean.

Yet here’s MacAskill blithely claiming that a FIFTEEN FUCKING DEGREE rise would be acceptable. Agriculture would survive, he thinks, so we’d be OK. Never mind the floods & fires & storms & mass upheaval & total disruption & civilization collapse. William MacAskill thinks he’ll still get his corn flakes every morning.

But don’t listen to me. Torres contacted real climatologists about that claim.

For example, I shared the section about global agriculture with Timothy Lenton, who directs the Global Systems Institute and is Chair in Climate Change and Earth System Science at the University of Exeter. Lenton told me that MacAskill’s assertion about 15 degrees of warming is “complete nonsense—we already show that in a 3-degree-warmer world there are major challenges of moving niches for human habitability and agriculture.”

Similarly, Luke Kemp, a research associate at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk who recently co-authored an article with Lenton on catastrophic climate change and is an expert on civilizational collapse, told me that “a temperature rise of 10 degrees would be a mass extinction event in the long term. It would be geologically unprecedented in speed. It would mean billions of people facing sustained lethal heat conditions, the likely displacement of billions, the Antarctic becoming virtually ice-free, surges in disease, and a plethora of cascading impacts. Confidently asserting that this would not result in collapse because agriculture is still possible in some parts of the world is silly and simplistic.”

If we’re really worried about existential risk and the possible extinction of the human species, I say we need to tar and feather these longtermist fantasists and launch them on a rail to the moon. It looks like delusional crackpots are going to kill us all.

Fifteen degrees. My god, that’s insane.


  1. doctorworm says

    Kind of gives the whole EA game away, doesn’t it? They claim to be all about systemic risk, that the survival of the species is worth any short-term cost. But when confronted with a genuine threat to the long-term stability of human civilization, they find excuses to disregard it.

    The robber barons of the 19th and 20th centuries used philanthropy to whitewash the various crimes and abuses that made their fortunes. The robber barons of the 21st seem to think that the crimes and abuses are a necessary part of the philanthropy.

  2. says

    The entire Eastern side of Australia has been hit with multiple record floods causing the loss of a major part of Australia’s grain crops and the loss of thousands of sheep and cattle and billions of dollars of infrastructure that supports agriculture. Major cities face significant water shortages because the chemicals and organic matter and suspended sediment washing into overflowing reservoirs has rendered much of the water supply untreatable for human consumption. This follows on from record bushfires. This is the product of less than 2 degrees of global warming. Does he really think 15 degrees is survivable.

  3. wzrd1 says

    Nonsense and poppycock!
    CO2 is good for planets. It made Venus the wonder that it is today.

    What he really was saying is worse, as only those with dark skin tend to be in the high thermal impact regions and are obviously beneath mention.

  4. strangerinastrangeland says

    The “best guess” of a philosopher versus the expertise and data of climate researchers. Hmm, difficult… who should I trust???

  5. raven says

    There is a related group to the long termists.
    They are the pronatalists who want to outbreed everyone else and take over human evolution.
    Elon Musk is one of them. Peter Theil is another.

    A source who worked closely with Musk for several years described this thinking as core to the billionaire’s pronatalist ideology. “He’s very serious about the idea that your wealth is directly linked to your IQ,” he said. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for this article, also said Musk urged “all the rich men he knew” to have as many children as possible.

    This is an article about the genetic imperialists who want to outbreed the rest of the world. Elon Musk is one of them. There are more.

    These aren’t gentically superior people though. They are loons, lunatic fringers, narcissists, sociopaths, and other creeps.

    There is so much wrong with this idea of self eugenics that it would take pages to point out.
    There are often attempts of one group to outbreed others, something called biological colonialism. It almost never works.
    The next generation of children decide they have better things to do with their time and money than have lots of kids because mom and dad had lots of kids and it was a miserable experience for them.

    And oh yeah, wealth is only lowly correlated with IQ.
    College professors and scientists aren’t known for their wealth. Ask PZ about that.

    This is a link to the article from Insider than isn’t behind a paywall.
    Billionaires like Elon Musk want to save civilization by having tons of genetically superior kids. Inside the movement to take ‘control of human evolution.’
    Julia Black Nov 17, 2022, 11:00 AM

    What these movements all have in common is a fixation on the future. And as that future starts to look more and more apocalyptic to some of the world’s wealthiest people, the idea of pronatalism starts to look more heroic. It’s a proposition uniquely suited to Silicon Valley’s brand of hubris: If humanity is on the brink, and they alone can save us, then they owe it to society to replicate themselves as many times as possible.

    The article is very long and I’m not going to post it here. Read it at the link if you want.

  6. says

    Surviving climate change is just a simple matter of everyone moving to areas that aren’t on fire yet.
    Seriously, anyone purporting to make long-term predictions regarding a complex system like global climate and doesn’t take feedback effects into account is wearing blinders. That sort of linear thinking in a world that is relentlessly non-linear will be the death of us all.

  7. Akira MacKenzie says

    These people are willing to kill humanity just so they can live like Olympian gods for the rest of their lives. Waving signs at these rich ghouls or dumping canned soup on a dead Dutch impressionists painting isn’t going to do anything. The nations with the power to change things are in the pockets of these billionaire scum, they won’t stop them.

    What are you willing to do?

  8. birgerjohansson says

    I am reminded of the (very bad) seventies SF film Zardoz with an enclave of rich people living the high life after the apocalypse.

  9. raven says

    Malcolm, 36, and his wife, Simone, 35, are “pronatalists,” part of a quiet but growing movement taking hold in wealthy tech and venture-capitalist circles. People like the Collinses fear that falling birth rates in certain developed countries like the United States and most of Europe will lead to the extinction of cultures, the breakdown of economies, and, ultimately, the collapse of civilization.

    The pronatalist movement is part of the right wingnut tech bro culture.
    It overlaps a lot with the longtermists.

    It isn’t much different from the white supremacists who babble on about the Great Replacement.
    Or the fundie xian quiverfull movement that produces such horrors as the Duggars and their 19 kids on a TV show.

  10. flange says

    “Longtermism” sounds suspiciously like religion. Poor people putting their last pennies in a plate collected by a man in gold vestments. The promise of a wonderful afterlife.

  11. snarkrates says

    Well, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum only saw 5-8 degrees warming, and a lot more slowly than current warming. It completely changed life on Earth.
    MacAskill’s so-called Longtermism is just another piece of evidence that humans suck at assessing risk.

  12. says

    Let’s see if I understand. Longtermists care more about the suffering of future humans who haven’t even been born yet than they care about the suffering of currently living humans. There seems to be a comparison with pro-lifers.

  13. brightmoon says

    Is he stupid? even in my local backyard the fact that the temperature went from 75 to 95 over about 3 days was enough to kill a few of my houseplants. They were all tropical and were used to being in the sunlight.
    The extra CO2 isn’t good for some plants either as it forces them to make sugars at the expense of making needed proteins ,other compounds and nutrients.

  14. raven says

    For example, he notes that there is a lot of uncertainty about the impacts of extreme warming of 7 to 10 degrees Celsius but says “it’s hard to see how even this could lead directly to civilisational collapse.”

    MacAskill is an idiot.

    He is in the UK and has never read or heard of Toynbee?
    Toynbee pointed out that 21 previous civilizations had fallen, and 19 of them destroyed themselves from within.

    We know from previous history that civilizations are fragile and ephemeral and easily destroyed.

    In my lifetime, we have already seen one fall apart.
    The new Russian empire, known as the USSR, was the other Superpower. And one day it all fell apart.
    Right now, we are still dealing with the after effects with a vicious war of conquest in Ukraine as Russia tries to put itself back together without much success.

  15. says

    …one I’m increasingly alarmed by is the popularity of these pseudo-intellectual frauds parading about as “longtermists” or “effective altruists”…

    How popular is that rubbish, really? It can certainly be made to LOOK or SOUND popular if the 0.01% hype it up enough; but beneath the noise, how many ordinary people really take it seriously?

    For example, [MacAsshole] notes that there is a lot of uncertainty about the impacts of extreme warming of 7 to 10 degrees Celsius but says “it’s hard to see how even this could lead directly to civilisational collapse.” MacAskill argues that although “climatic instability is generally bad for agriculture,” his “best guess” is that “even with fifteen degrees of warming, the heat would not pass lethal limits for crops in most regions”…

    Note the “subtle” eliminationist angle here: these sheltered plutocrats are perfectly okay with billions of PEOPLE dying (mostly nonwhite and dirt-poor white people, mind you), but what he calls CIVILIZATION will survive, since only the least “civilized” and most expendable humans will be lost. So it also doesn’t really matter if MOST farmland is no longer productive, as long as SOME farmland is left to feed the “chosen” minority who survive the purge — oops, I mean catastrophe.

    I have long suspected that most opposition to any effort to protect our environment come from people who secretly — perhaps unconsciously — WANT an environmental catastrophe to annihilate all the “surplus” people they never liked or cared about, and leave us “civilized” white folks a brand-new “frontier” to claim and colonize. And now today’s “longtermists” are confirming I was right all along.

  16. says

    Billionaires like Elon Musk want to save civilization by having tons of genetically superior kids.

    Elon Musk has had, what, about a dozen kids already? Are any of them “genetically superior” in any meaningful and demonstrable way? I think not — if they were, he’d be showing them off to the world and rubbing their “genetic superiority” in all our faces for the rest of his “life.”

    How many of the One-Percent have made any serious claims that their kids were “superior” to the rest of us in any way? I have yet to hear a single such claim. Have you?

  17. hemidactylus says

    I kinda agree with the notion of Childfree. Some antinatalists go too far. Voluntary extinction is pushing the boundary a bit. But sure beats pronatalist elitism for genuine longtermism in terms of sustainability and minimizing anthropogenic effects. Not having kids isn’t exactly a sacrifice when it comes to budgeting and sharing living arrangements. Egoistic AND other regarding combined.

  18. raven says

    How many of the One-Percent have made any serious claims that their kids were “superior” to the rest of us in any way?

    IQ isn’t all that heritable anyway.
    The numbers are variable, but run around 0.5 to 0.70.

    There is also the genetic phenomenon called Regression to the mean.
    Children of very intelligent parents tend to not score as high in IQ as them.

    To take one example, Einstein had children.
    In fact, his descendants are still living.
    They aren’t however, like their parent.

    Regression toward the mean simply means that, following an extreme random event, the next random event is likely to be less extreme. Regression toward the mean was first described by Francis Galton. He found that offspring of tall parents tended to be shorter. Also, offspring of shorter parents tended to be taller.

    Regression toward the mean – Simple Wikipedia https://simple.wikipedia.org › wiki › Regression_toward_t…

    It’s all ancient genetic and eugenic fallacies that have barely been updated for the 21st century.

  19. Artor says

    Doesn’t something like 90% of all humanity live within 50′ of sea level? Imagine the catastrophic refugee crisis on every spot of habitable land as all the starving hordes have no choice but to move inland.

  20. says

    “‘I may fall,’ said Weston. ‘But while I live I will not, with such a key in my
    hand, consent to close the gates of the future on my race. What lies in that
    future, beyond our present ken, passes imagination to conceive: it is
    enough for me that there is a Beyond.’
    ‘He is saying,’ Ransom translated, ‘that he will not stop trying to do all this
    unless you kill him. And he says that though he doesn’t know what will
    happen to the creatures sprung from us, he wants it to happen very much.'”
    From “Out of the Silent Planet”, CS Lewis.

  21. StevoR says

    For people who claim to be thinking long term these “longtermists”seem staggeringly short-sighted.

    Also 15 degrees? I’d presumed and hoped we’re talking degrees Fahrenheit there at least NOT Celsisus – but then, checked to quote intheOp here and, no, wait, what the..!? Wow. Celsius. That really is clueless considering our planet’s current average temperature is 14 degrees Celsius. (57 F – Google.) So over double the current global ave – and think of the new extremes everywhere that that will mean and, note, the poles are heating faster with consequent sea ice loss and thus rise in level et cetera.. yeah. Utterly catastrophic change. Humanity might survive but the world as we know it won’t.

  22. xohjoh2n says

    launch them on a rail to the moon.

    What’s that you say? We should forget about this climate change nonsense and put all our money into building a giant railgun so we can more easily send people to the moon? That’s true long-term thinking – you, sir, are a genius!

  23. Larry says

    his “best guess” is that “even with fifteen degrees of warming, the heat would not pass lethal limits for crops in most regions,” and global agriculture would survive.

    Of course, with rainfall and snowfall totals dropping into the catastrophic drought levels world-wide, finding the water necessary to sustain agriculture let alone millions of people may cause more than a few difficulties. I suppose desalinization could be a partial answer but we don’t currently have the technology to do it on a global scale.

  24. John Morales says

    There’s a certain similarity (in my mind, anyway) between longtermism with religion. A bit like Marxism, actually.

    (I don’t think much of teleological-based morality)

  25. lanir says

    Well I guess that’s that. Longtermerism is just a religion. It’s goofy ideas don’t require any connection to reality for the True Faithful to believe them.

    The fatal flaw with this fluffcake philosophy is that it ignores that tomorrow is built from today. And far distant futures are built from many tomorrows. They don’t pop up wholly formed from nothing. I get that shallow trends can vanish in a big enough data set but they’re not talking about shallow trends. They’re talking about events that will destroy everything any of us cares about, even them.

    These willfully ignorant clowns and their “forward thinking” would happily kill us all off. Either they’ve fallen for the classic rich asshole idea that they truly don’t need the rest of the world (yes, it’s mind-boggling; yes, they think it anyway). Or they’re so clueless about their chosen field of expertise that they can only fall back on it as religious dogma. And maybe, just maybe, they’re practicing a particularly noxious combination of the two.

  26. lanir says

    Oh, and for some actual forward thinking and an idea of what this will all actually do to the planet and us…

    An optimistic but practical view of what varying degrees of climate change will mean, along with a justification for being optimistic about it.
    Kurzgesagt – We WILL Fix Climate Change (youtube)

    A look at what our current 1.2-ish degree reality actually means and information on how 3 degrees will actually change this. Focus on real impact on humanity so not optimistic.
    The Economist – See what three degrees of global warming looks like (youtube)

  27. leerudolph says

    SC@11 remarks that “the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk […] must be a relaxing place to work.” Certainly, as a study center its work is largely theoretical, so comparatively relaxing. The experimental work down the street at the Laboratory for the Investigation of Existential Dread, on the other hand …

  28. birgerjohansson says

    Hockey legend Börje Salming is dead.
    He died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
    He was 71 years old.
    This has nothing to do with global warming, but fits into the ‘everything is awful’ sense I have been feeling lately.
    The Toronto Maple Leafs gave the death notice at their home page.

  29. unclefrogy says

    well the way things are going the only thing good about all of this is the actual results of climate change including of “civilization” (living in cities?) are happening soon enough that I may get to see these fools try and make up excuses of why they got it so wrong.
    happy times ahead.

  30. rrutis1 says

    Nomdeplume @23
    People like these longtermerists don’t think the displaced will actually go anywhere or be upset about the loss of their homes. I fully expect to lead the hungry right through the homes of the wealthy…and I’ll bring barbeque sauce;-)

  31. numerobis says

    StevoR: 15 degrees of warming doesn’t double the temperature, it increases it from about 290 K to about 305 K.

    If you want to stick with the “double” word though you can: The end permian extinction — the most severe of them all — was about an 8 degree shift. So was the K-Pg extinction. In other words, 15 degrees of warming is about twice as much of a warming as two of the top five extinction events.