Worst-case scenarios: Why we should welcome warnings

Why not act?
But if experts are often raising concerns, why do those warnings get ignored? Clarke emphasized that being quick to recognize concerns produces its own set of problems, starting with a lack of consensus. When experts are “yelling to a decison maker, ‘There’s a problem,’ the decision maker says, ‘Yeah? Who else believes you? What other experts in the field agree?’”

Then too, Clarke said, data-based concerns over catastrophes can be ignored due to what he calls “first occurrence syndrome,” namely, the fact that many potential problems have “never happened before, in the memory of the people involved.” New Orleans, for example, had never previously flooded to the degree that it did due to Hurricane Katrina. It is easier to imagine that history will continue within its recent bounds.  

Meanwhile, Clarke noted, there can be a “diffusion of accountability” in organizations. One data scientist repeatedly told the firm Equifax recently that it was vulnerable to being hacked, he said. But the responsibility for acting on that was essentially distributed among several people — which can lead to institutional inertia.

Additionally, Clarke added, to stave off disaster, especially in matters related to climate change, “You might have to do something ideologically abhorrent to you. You might have to raise taxes or try carbon capture or enact regulations.” Thus solutions mean to pre-empt catastrophes of all kinds can languish.

See the sea rise
The Starr Forum consists of a series of public discussions, sponsored by MIT’s Center for International Studies, focused on global security issues and other matters of international politics. About 125 people attended the event Wednesday, which was open to the public.

Clarke’s remarks were followed by a dialogue with counterintelligence expert and Center for International Studies Fellow Joel Brenner, as well as a question-and-answer session with the audience.

In his remarks, Clarke observed that being a “Cassandra” can take a heavy psychological toll on experts who find their ideas marginalized.

“A lot of these people get agitated when they are ignored,” he said.

Brenner largely concurred, but wryly noted that “a lot of these people have a special talent for burning bridges” within the organizations they are serving. Still, Brenner noted, the complications of contemporary society and technology mean it is generally safe to assume, at any given time, that “something is going seriously wrong somewhere.”

Asked to produce a hierarchy of issues for us to worry about, Clarke emphasized the vast problems that sea level rise, as a product of climate change, could create in the decades ahead. Rather than the consensus estimate of 3 meters of sea level rise by the year 2100, Clarke stated, we could see 6 to 9 meters of sea level rise by 2050 or 2075.

‘Think about the economic, political, social implications of that,” Clarke said. “Some countries diappear. Mass migrations of people.” He also cited the potential for economic “collapse” in some areas.

Still, Clarke did try to inject some hope into the proceedings.

“I believe in good government’s ability to be rational and save the world from some of these disasters,” Clarke said, adding: “I think it’s an optimistic book, because it holds out the hope that if you had systematic thinking [and] rational analysis, systems thinking, if you want to call it that, we could see problems coming, and stop them from being really big problems.”  

Reprinted with permission of MIT News