Secular Eschatology - what secular scholars are predicting about the future of the world Summary

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  • I seek to encourage Christians to take eschatology (teaching on the End Times) seriously, which many don’t – they don’t even think about it. Ironically, there are secular scholars who take what is sometimes called (secular) “Eschatology” very seriously. Is this a case of the people of this world being wiser than the people of light? Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities have an organisation dedicated to such concerns: The Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.
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  • The Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk

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  • This was founded by Professor Huw Price, a philosopher, and Professor Martin Rees, a cosmologist and astrophysicist and others. Their advisers include seven other professors, one of whom is Stephen Hawking. Their publicity states: “Many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole.” They list Artificial Intelligence (intelligent computers/machines), biotechnology (including genetic engineering), nanotechnology (engineering at molecular level), and man-made climate change.
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  • Professor Huw Price wrote: “By ‘existential risks’ (E.R.) we mean, roughly, catastrophic risks to our species that are ‘our fault,’ in the sense that they arise from human technologies. These are not the only catastrophic risks we humans face, of course: asteroid impacts and extreme volcanic events could wipe us out, for example. But in comparison with possible technological risks, these natural risks are comparatively well studied ….. So the greatest need, in our view, is to pay a lot more attention to these technological risks. That’s why we chose to make them the explicit focus of our center.”
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  • Professor Martin Rees wrote: “Those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, and so forth. But we are less secure than we think. ….. But the wide public is in denial about two kinds of threats: those that we’re causing collectively to the biosphere, and those that stem from the greater vulnerability of our interconnected world to error or terror induced by individuals or small groups.”
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  • The Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford

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  • This was founded by Nick Bostrom, Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University, and is supported by nine academic research fellows. He makes the following comment which is very relevant to Christians: “The future of humanity is often viewed as a topic for idle speculation. Yet our beliefs and assumptions on this subject matter shape decisions in both our personal lives and public policy – decisions that have very real and sometimes unfortunate consequences. It is
  • therefore practically important to try to develop a realistic mode of futuristic thought about big picture questions for humanity.”
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  • He goes on to warn: “Predictions about future technical and social developments are notoriously unreliable – to an extent that have led some to propose that we do away with prediction altogether in our planning and preparation for the future. Yet while the methodological problems of such forecasting are certainly very significant, the extreme view that we can or should do away with prediction altogether is misguided.”
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  • The institute’s publicity states: “Global catastrophic risks are those that pose serious threats to human well-being on a global scale. An immensely diverse collection of events could constitute global catastrophes: they range from volcanic eruptions to pandemic infections, nuclear accidents to worldwide tyrannies, out-of-control scientific experiments to climatic changes, and cosmic hazards to economic collapse…”
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  • The Institute studies human enhancement (human genetic engineering), artificial intelligence (or superintelligence), transhumanism (attempts to transform human abilities technologically), bioterrorism (germ warfare), etc.
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  • Secular “Eschatology”: Threats to humanity

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  • Professor Nick Bostrom points out various scholarly predictions of human extinction:
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  • ·         Professor Martin Rees says the odds of humanity surviving the 21st century are not more than 50%
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  • ·         Professor John Leslie, a philosopher, who says the probability in the next 500 years is 30%.
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  • Bostrom adds that “there seems to be a consensus among those researchers who have seriously looked into the matter that there is a serious risk that humanity’s journey will come to a premature end.”
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  • He writes that the greatest risks arise not from natural disasters but from technological developments:
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  • ·         Biotechnology creating disastrous new viruses.
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  • ·         Molecular nanotechnology (engineering at molecular level) creating terrible new weapons.
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  • ·         Superintelligent machines which will determine the future (or demise) of humanity.
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  • ·         Scholars are anticipating the development of superior, genetically-altered human beings which is very controversial and is criticised as having various inherent dangers.
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  • Dangers of Bioterrorism (Germ Warfare) and Nuclear Terrorism

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  • There have been examples over the last century of extremists releasing bacteria, viruses or toxins in order to cause sickness or death. Such biological agents are not too difficult to obtain and are cheap. They are also easy to spread and difficult to detect.
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  • Professor Martin Rees wrote: “Malign or foolhardy individuals or small groups have far more power and leverage than in the past. Concern about cyber-attack, by criminals or by hostile nations, is rising sharply. Advances in synthetic biology, likewise, offer huge potential for medicine and agriculture – but they amplify the risk of bioerror or bioterror …. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think that all those with the technical expertise to pursue such work will be balanced and rational: expertise can be allied with fanaticism. And there will be individual weirdos with the mindset of those who now unleash computer viruses. The global village will have its village idiots – and their idiocies can have global range.”
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  • Dr William Potter, Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, wrote a paper on preventing nuclear terrorism and, according to the Future of Humanity Institute, “found it implausible in the near term for non-state actors [terrorists] to use nuclear means to threaten the extinction of mankind, but stressed the very real risks that they could design and build crude but functional nuclear explosives (i.e., improvised nuclear devices), as well as acquire intact nuclear weapons (especially relatively small tactical nuclear weapons).”
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  • Dangers resulting from Globalism

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  • Professor Martin Rees speaks of the possibility of catastrophic breakdowns in global technology.  “There are indeed grounds for anxiety …. the advances in technology – hugely beneficial though they are – render us vulnerable in new ways. For instance, our interconnected world depends on elaborate networks: electric power grids, air traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery and so forth. Unless these are highly resilient, their manifest benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns cascading through the system.”

  • In December 2012 Kharunya Paramaguru, wrote in Time magazine about “the still little-understood flash crash of May 6 2010. In just six minutes, automated trades executed by computers caused one of the biggest single-day declines in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, causing the stock index to plummet almost 1,000 points, only to recover again within minutes. The dip caused alarm among regulators who realized that this technology — lightning-fast trades set to execute based on computerized analysis of market conditions — is already in many ways beyond our control.”
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  • Martin Rees also wrote about the danger of pandemics in our global village. “Pandemics could spread at the speed of jet aircraft, causing maximal havoc in the shambolic but burgeoning megacities of the developing world. Social media could spread psychic contagion – rumours and panic – literally at the speed of light.”
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  • Dangers from Artificial Intelligence (Ai)

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  • This can seem like the stuff of science fiction but there is real danger from the development of supercomputers. We already have very advanced AI machines. They can exceed human performance in chess, flying, driving, financial trading, face, speech and handwriting recognition. They can compose music, understand continuous speech, pick stocks, guide missiles, diagnose health problems, drive cars etc.
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  • Professor Huw Price wrote: “I do think that there are strong reasons to think that we humans are nearing one of the most significant moments in our entire history: the point at which intelligence escapes the constraints of biology. And I see no compelling grounds for confidence that if that does happen, we will survive the transition in reasonable shape.”
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  • Professor Hans Moravec, chief scientist of the Seegrid Corporation which makes vision-guided industrial mobile robots, believes that the robots will eventually replace humans as the dominant form of life on earth.
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  • Huw Price and Jaan Tallinn comment: “The greatest concerns stem from the possibility that computers might take over domains that are critical to controlling the speed and direction of technological progress itself. If intelligent machines were able to develop even more intelligent machines this would lead to an intelligence explosion leaving humans far behind.
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  • Price and Tallin continued: “We seem to have no reason to think that intelligent machines would share our values. The good news is that we probably have no reason to think they would be hostile, as such: hostility, too, is an animal emotion. The bad news is that they might simply be indifferent to us – they might care about us as much as we care about the bugs on the windscreen …. A suspicious attitude would seem more than sensible, then, even if we had good reason to think the risks are very small.”
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  • Computers have been developed which can recognise emotion. In 2012 an Israeli firm Beyond Verbal claimed its software can “understand a speaker's transient mood and emotional decision-making characteristics in real time, by analysing the modulations of the voice.” A US company, Affectiva, is releasing software to mobile developers that can sense human emotion by analysing the expression on our faces.
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  • Professor Gary Marcus, (professor of psychology at New York University) estimates that human level AI will be available in the mid-21st century.  He comments: “If machines will eventually overtake us, as virtually everyone in the A.I. field believes, the real question is about values: how we instill them in machines, and how we then negotiate with those machines if and when their values are likely to differ greatly from our own.”
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  • He concludes: “Before we get complacent and decide there is nothing to worry about after all, it is important to realize that the goals of machines could change as they get smarter. Once computers can effectively reprogram themselves, and successively improve themselves, leading to a so-called ‘technological singularity’ or ‘intelligence explosion,’ the risks of machines outwitting humans in battles for resources and self-preservation cannot simply be dismissed.”
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  • Professor Nick Bostrom writes that Artificial Intelligence could develop very powerful computers, advanced weaponry, space travel, elimination of aging and disease, fine-grained control of human mood, emotion, and motivation, reanimation of cryonics patients (humans preserved in deep freeze) and fully realistic virtual reality.  “General superintelligence would be capable of independent initiative and of making its own plans, and may therefore be more appropriately thought of as an autonomous agent.”
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  • Bostrom goes on to point out that superintelligence could thwart any attempt to hinder its goals and neutralise any agents that sought to do so. He believes that “the best way to ensure that a superintelligence will have a beneficial impact on the world is to endow it with philanthropic values. Its top goal should be friendliness.” However he is not sure how this should be implemented.
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  • Professor Robert Pepperell says that computers must be developed so they can constantly react to random stimulation from the environment. This means they would be unpredictable. To create very powerful, superhuman computers which are unpredictable in their responses to their environment seems to involve significant dangers.
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  • Verner Vinge, Professor of Mathematics at San Diego State University, wrote in 1993Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended.”
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  • Human Rights Watch are very concerned about killer robots selecting and attacking targets without human intervention. They write: “Distinguishing between a fearful civilian and a threatening enemy combatant requires a soldier to understand the intentions behind a human’s actions, something a robot could not do.”
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  • Some scientists have argued that strong AI could be developed in the twenty-first century. So it is still unattainable. However some experts argue that there is a substantial possibility of it happening.
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  • Dangers from Genetically-Enhanced Humans

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  • Other terms used for genetically-enhanced human beings are “posthuman” or “transhuman.” Basically these are human beings with unprecedented physical, psychological, emotional and intellectual abilities which are not subject to biological aging or deterioration. They could have indefinite health-spans, much greater intellectual faculties than any current human being …. as well as the ability to control their own emotions. It is anticipated that this will be achieved by nanotechnology (engineering at molecular level), genetic engineering (altering genetic makeup and inserting new DNA), the use of psychiatric drugs (including memory enhancing drugs), the interfacing of mind and computers (including wearable computers), anti-aging techniques, etc.
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  • Professor Nick Bostrom writes:Drugs and other neurotechnologies could make it increasingly feasible for users to shape themselves into the kind of people they want to be by adjusting their personality, emotional character, mental energy, romantic attachments, and moral character. Cognitive enhancements might deepen our intellectual lives.”
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  • Transhumanists anticipate that genetically-altered human beings would no longer be unambiguously human by present standards. They could be a combination of human and artificial intelligence. In fact some people anticipate that posthuman beings will become so superior in intelligence and other qualities as to appear God-like: “posthuman gods.” 
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  • Some scientists are cautious but nevertheless acknowledge that future developments are likely to be unimaginable today. In 2006 nine scientists specialising in research into aging, wrote: “For now, and for the foreseeable future, all explicit and implicit claims of cures for human aging are pseudoscience….. Nevertheless, we believe the future will bring biomedical advances that are today almost unimaginable ….. Recent scientific advances have taken gerontological research to challenging and exciting new frontiers, and have given many scientists increased confidence that human aging is to some degree controllable.”
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  • We should note that there is research into creating intimate links between humans and computers. One development is wearable computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs). For example, the Google Glass is a tiny wearable computer attached to a pair of glasses. It can take photos and video. On its tiny screen it can display current events, including weather forecasts, give directions, send messages, etc. It can do searches for information and report back audibly (though being close to the wearer’s ear it is quite enough not to be heard by others).It can be operated by voice command as well as touch. Concerns have been expressed about the device being able to record people without permission.
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  • However there is also research into direct control of computers through brain activity, which might involve implanting electrodes in the brain and computers learning to interpret signals and commands. So paralysed people can control a computer cursor with just a single electrode. Also electrodes implanted deep in patient's brains have stabilised the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
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  • ‘Creativity caps’ that deliver magnetic pulses to the head are in use to boost memory and mathematical ability. It can also relieve symptoms of depression. The implantation of a device in a human nervous system has enabled a patient to control a robotic arm simply by thinking about it. Scientists have demonstrated how a person in New York with a device implanted in their nervous system can control a robotic arm in the UK, moving it around and sensing the position of objects just by thinking about it.
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  • However, there are safety concerns involved in this research. It could change people's personalities, create bionic supermen for military applications or be used to control minds with disturbing implications for society. Some Parkinsons patients with electrodes planted in their brains have developed personality changes, deterioration in relationships, increased sexual urges and criminal behaviour.
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  • Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and member of the US President’s Council on Bioethics, believes Transhumanism is a most dangerous idea. He believes it undermines basic human rights because it would mean there were superior and inferior human beings. Professor Nick Bostrom disagrees and says humans already vary greatly in ability but this doesn’t undermine human rights.
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  • However Bostrom does consider “the hypothetical case in which someone intends to create, or turn themselves into, a being of so radically enhanced capacities that a single one or a small group of such individuals would be capable of taking over the planet.” He comments that this could be an issue in a few decades’ time but his response is, in my view weak: “The would-be creator of a new life form with such surpassing capabilities would have an obligation to ensure that the proposed being is free from psychopathic tendencies and, more generally, that it has humane inclinations.” Sadly, however, there is no guarantee that every “creator of a new life form” would be responsible or competent enough to avoid this danger. Then there is the danger of well-intentioned science going seriously wrong. Also, if such new life forms are as competent as they are predicted to be, how can it be certain that this life form would not decide to act wrongly? Bostrom himself goes on to say about posthumans: “If, for some inscrutable reason, they decided that they would prefer to be less intelligent, less healthy, and lead shorter lives, they would not lack the means to achieve these objectives and frustrate our designs.”  What if they decided to be inhumane or psychopathic?
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  • It is disturbing to read the ‘Posthuman Manifesto’ by Professor Robert Pepperell. Here are some extracts:
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  • “It is now clear that Humans are no longer the most important things in the Universe. ….. All technological progress of Human society is geared towards the redundancy of the Human species as we currently know it …. In the Posthuman era machines will be Gods. Intelligent Agents will be the religious authorities of the Information Age. We will ask them to interpret the Chaos of the God machines for us ….  Logic is an illusion of Human imagination. Truth and Falsity do not exist in Nature - other that in Human thought …. The Post-Human realises that the ultimate questions about existence and being do not require an answer. The answer to the question ‘Why are we here?’ is that there is no answer.”
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  • These quotations do not inspire confidence that all will be well with the development of posthumans.
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  • Professor Nick Bostrom also warns: “Transhumanism does not entail technological optimism. While future technological capabilities carry immense potential for beneficial deployments, they also could be misused to cause enormous harm, ranging all the way to the extreme possibility of intelligent life becoming extinct. Other potential negative outcomes include widening social inequalities or a gradual erosion of the hard-to-quantify assets that we care deeply about but tend to neglect in our daily struggle for material gain, such as meaningful human relationships and ecological diversity. Such risks must be taken very seriously, as thoughtful transhumanists fully acknowledge …. While disasters and setbacks are inevitable in the implementation of the transhumanist project (just as they are if the transhumanist project is not pursued), there is one kind of catastrophe that must be avoided at any cost: Existential risk – one where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.”
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  • The area of genetic engineering also includes controversial issue such as the manipulation of human embryos, which could, of course lead to ‘designer babies,’ and human cloning. Scientists have developed a technique called Crispr (pronounced ‘crisper’) which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” This enables them to engineer any part of the human genome with extreme precision. Scientist believe it will be used in gene therapy to treat incurable viruses such as HIV and perhaps to correct gene defects in human embryos. In 2013 the UK government approved a technique which would replace damaged mitochondrial DNA in one embryo with healthy mitochondrial DNA from another embryo.
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  • Also scientists have managed to turn skin cells into early-stage embryos, which can be used to create tissue cells for transplant operations. They have also grown miniature human brains from skin cells. These mini-brains are the equivalent of the brain development of a nine week old human foetus. They stress that they are still far from being described as true human brains with a potential for self-awareness or consciousness. They regard crossing that threshold as unethical (at present).
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  • Speaking of experts in human genetic enhancement, Professor Sherwin Nuland warned: “The world will be destroyed by well-meaning geniuses.” He went into further detail: “If we are to be destroyed, I am now convinced that it will not be a neutral or malevolent force that will do us in, but one that is benevolent in the extreme, one whose only motivation is to improve us and better our civilization. If we are ever immolated, it will be by the efforts of well-meaning scientists who are convinced that they have our best interests at heart.”
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  • Dangers of oppressive world government

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  • I have already written on this subject but it is interesting to read what secular scholars say about it:
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  • One of the concerns connected with human enhancement is described by Professor Nick Bostrom: “that powerful new mindcontrol technologies would be deployed globally to change people’s motivation, or that an intensive global surveillance system would be put in place and used to manipulate the direction of human development along a predetermined path.” He doesn’t anticipate that happening but he helpfully describes one of the widespread fears about genetic engineering and other human enhancement techniques. I think such a prospect is not impossible and it could be related fairly easily to aspects of biblical apocalyptic.
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  • Professor Martin Rees speaks of the need of greater surveillance: “In a future era of vast individual empowerment where even one malign or careless act could be too many, we’ll need more intrusion and less privacy. Indeed the rash abandon with which people put their intimate details on Facebook and our acquiescence in ubiquitous CCTV suggest that such a shift would meet surprisingly little resistance.”
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  • Dangers from Nanotechnology

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  • Before looking at the dangers we need to understand what nanotechnology is.
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  • Nanotechnology is about constructing incredibly tiny functional machines (nanonmachines) – motors, robots (nanobots) arms, drug delivery systems, even whole computers – just a few molecules wide, or even smaller than one molecule.  It is measured in ‘nanometers’ and a nanometer is a billionth of a meter (about the size of six carbon atoms in a row). A sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick and nanotechnology functions on a scale of less than 100 nanometers (i.e. one thousandth the thickness of a sheet of newspaper).
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  • Nanotechnology includes building electronic circuits from single atoms and molecules in order to create computer chips etc. It is already used in chemistry, electronics, engineering, medicine etc. Scientists expect it to create new medical treatments, e.g. inserting nanobots (tiny robots) into human bodies to repair cells and cure cancers. The many other uses include providing clean water from polluted water sources (including arsenic pollution), contributing to building and maintaining lighter, smarter, more efficient, and “greener” vehicles, aircraft, and ships, improving the performance, resiliency, and longevity of highway and transportation infrastructure components while reducing their cost. There are currently over 800 everyday commercial products that rely on nanoscale materials and processes. They include anti-bacterial wound dressings which use nanoscale silver, more effective sunscreens with nanoscale titanium oxide or zinc oxide, scratch- and glare-resistant coatings (nanofilms) for spectacles, windows and car mirrors, very strong but light carbon nanotubes in tennis racquets and car parts and a powder which can neutralize gas and liquid toxins in chemical spills.
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  • Many nations are now spending millions on nanotechnology. The Royal Society estimated global expenditure on it in 2004 as 5 billion euros.
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  • The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) is not negative towards nanotechnology. It includes the aims of raising awareness about the benefits of nanotechnology and assisting in “the creation and implementation of wise, comprehensive, and balanced plans for responsible worldwide use of this transformative technology.” However it states: “The next Industrial Revolution is right around the corner. Fourth generation nanotechnology — molecular manufacturing — will radically transform the world, and the people, of the early 21st century. Whether that transformation will be peaceful and beneficial or horrendously destructive is unknown. Although nanotechnology carries great promise, unwise or malicious use could seriously threaten the survival of the human race. The vision of CRN is a world in molecular manufacturing is widely used for productive and beneficial purposes, and where dangerous uses are limited.” 
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  • The Royal Society in its 2004 report “Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties” expresses concern about possible dangers to health by people of “deliberately manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes that are free rather than fixed to or within a material.” However it comments: “It is very unlikely that new manufactured nanoparticles could be introduced into humans in doses sufficient to cause the health effects that have been associated with the nanoparticles in polluted air. However, some may be inhaled in certain workplaces in significant amounts and steps should be taken to minimise exposure.” (They are referring to academic research laboratories and they also refer to use of certain cosmetics). Another danger they describe is that combustible nanoparticles could increase the risk of explosion.
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  • The Royal Society is also concerned about the implications of a possible future convergence of nanotechnologies with biotechnology, information and cognitive sciences which could be used for radical human enhancement. It comments: “If these possibilities were ever realised they would raise profound ethical questions.”
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  • The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) says the technology could produce small, cheap, powerful, and very numerous weapons and surveillance devices. “Criminals and terrorists with stronger, more powerful, and much more compact devices could do serious damage to society. Defenses against these devices may not be installed immediately or comprehensively. Chemical and biological weapons could become much more deadly and easier to conceal. Many other types of terrifying devices are possible, including several varieties of remote assassination weapons that would be difficult to detect or avoid.”
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  • It will be possible make weapons the size of an insect which could seek and inject toxins into a human being. CRN calculates that “as many as 50 billion toxin-carrying devices—theoretically enough to kill every human on earth—could be packed into a single suitcase.” Bullets could be self-guided. Weapons could be remotely activated.
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  • The Royal Society report notes that “Manipulation of biological and chemical agents using nanotechnologies could result in entirely new threats that might be hard to detect and counter. …..”
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  • It also quotes Bill Joy, Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, who wrote: “The 21st-century technologies – genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) – are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.’ 
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  • Those who think this is unnecessarily alarmist should remember that it really is only a matter of time before terrorists get hold of nuclear weapons. The same is likely to happen with nanotechnology.
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  • Nanotechnology would facilitate the creation of very small, inexpensive supercomputers that conceivably could be used for 24/7 surveillance of every individual. (There are already full-size computers which can analyse a video feed, learn familiar patterns, and notice unfamiliar patterns).  This sounds like science fiction but the danger of oppressive political regimes is always with us. We should remember that, despite overstatements and the discovery that there are almost one million fewer CCTV cameras in the UK than previously thought, Britain still appears to have far more cameras trained on its population than other countries.
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  • The Royal Society states: “The perceived opportunities and threats of nanotechnologies often stem from the same characteristics. For example, the convergence of nanotechnologies with information technology, linking complex networks of remote sensing devices with significant computational power, could be used to achieve greater personal safety, security and individualised healthcare and to allow businesses to track and monitor their products. It could equally be used for covert surveillance, or for the collection and distribution of information without adequate consent.”
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  • Some people are dismissive of the dangers inherent in Artificial Intelligence, Genetically-enhanced humans, nanotechnology, etc., but we are in uncharted waters, so dogmatism is unwise. Also we noted above that the Future of Humanity Institute said: “Because of the extreme severity of existential risks, they deserve extremely careful attention even if their probability could confidently be assessed to be very small.”
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  • Dangers from man-made climate change

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  • PERSONAL PREFACE: I am aware that there is still controversy in some quarters over global warming. This section is not an attempt to prove that human-induced global warming is happening (even if I had the ability to do that) but is part of my paper on secular eschatology, outlining what scholars see as the future threats to life on earth. Having said that, I do think we must take seriously (though not uncritically) what 97% of climate scientists, 196 scientific organisations worldwide plus NASA and the Met Office affirm. We are told that, unless radical action is taken, global warming will lead to extreme weather: droughts, floods and more severe storms, displacement of millions of people because of flooding or spreading deserts, many human deaths, extensive reduction in agricultural productivity and economic difficulties. If these predictions are correct they fit well into the subject of secular eschatology.  It is worth noting that some global warming sceptics have changed their minds. For example in the UK, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, which have cast doubt on global warming in the past, have now changed their tune and accept that it is happening and human beings play a role in it.
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  • Professor Robert Jensen, wrote an article in February 2013 entitled “Rationally Speaking, We Are All Apocalyptic Now.”  This was not written from a Christian point of view. He said we see “groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of ‘dead zones’ in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity, and the ultimate game-changer of climate disruption.” He added: “We are in end times of sorts—not the end of the physical world, but the end of the First-World way of living and the end of the systems on which that life is based ….. We are all apocalyptic now, whether we like it or not.”
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  • But is such an apocalyptic approach sensible? For example, is man-made global warming really happening and really as serious as people say? We need to examine the evidence.
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  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in 2013 “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.”
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  • It is true that there has been variation in temperature over the last thousand years, with a medieval warm period and a ‘little ice age’ but the rise in average global temperature in the 20th century is well above the range of such variability. There was a cooler period between 1950 and1970 but scientists believe that was caused by an increase in particles from industrial sources which reflected sunlight back into space and so cooled the surface of the earth. Global temperatures have risen more slowly in the last decade but all of the top ten warmest years have happened since 1998. So this decade was warmer than the last which was warmer than the previous one.
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  • It is difficult to prove that any particular extreme weather event in recent years is due to global warming, but it is likely to be an important factor. However it is true that if temperatures are increasing, as the scientists tell us is the case, there will be more temperature extremes, more evaporation leading to higher rainfall, and more hurricanes from a warmer sea. The 19 hottest, wettest or stormiest events have happened in the last decade, often with disastrous results. Sea levels are rising which leads to storm surges. It is clear that the climate is changing.
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  • Dangers from climate change: Melting of the ice caps

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  • There is some natural variation. Less ice was lost from the Arctic in 2013 than in 2012 but 2013 still had the sixth greatest ice loss since observations began in 1979. Some newspapers pointed out that there was more Arctic ice in August 2013 than a year earlier and argued that this showed the earth was not warming. However this increase of ice was not a surprise to scientists. The loss of ice in 2012 was extreme so it could be expected that the loss in 2013 might be less. The fact remains that, despite annual variations, overall the Arctic has lost 75% of its summer ice volume over the last 30 years. The rapid loss of ice is clear from the records kept by military submarines, from land measurements taken over many decades and from satellite observations from space. Also Arctic temperatures have risen twice as fast as the global average in the last 50 years.
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  • Over recent decades the surface of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica has gradually melted, forming nearly 3,000 lakes. But in 2002, all the lakes drained away in the space of a week and the 2,700-square-kilometre ice shelf, about 220 metres thick which might have existed for 12,000 years, rapidly disintegrated into small icebergs.
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  • The European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite was launched in April 2010 to measure the thickness of Arctic and Antarctic ice with unprecedented accuracy and to tell scientists how melting polar ice affects ocean circulation patterns, sea level and global climate. By December 2013 it had shown that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing over 150 cubic kilometres of ice each year – considerably more than when last surveyed.  Preliminary results also showed that 900 cubic kilometres of summer ice had disappeared from the Arctic between 2011 and 2012.
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  • The diminishing of the ice caps will in itself cause global warming. The white caps’ brilliance reflects heat back into space so any significant reduction in the caps will reduce that reflection and cause the region to heat up. Professor Chris Rapley of University College London said: “With the temperature gradient between the Arctic and equator dropping, as is happening now, it is also possible that the jet stream in the upper atmosphere could become more unstable. That could mean increasing volatility in weather in lower latitudes.”
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  • Another concern is that melting of the ice releases methane which is a powerful greenhouse gas (23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide). Some people have disputed that the methane would make it from the sea floor to the atmosphere but research shows that it can. In 2008 scientists discovered intense concentrations of methane – sometimes at up to 100 times background levels – over an area of thousands of square miles of the Siberian continental shelf. They saw the sea foaming with gas bubbling up through “methane chimneys” rising from the sea floor.  They were able to document these “chimneys” on echo sounder and with seismic instruments.
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  • These conclusions are disputed but Professor Peter Wadhams, head of Polar ocean physics at Cambridge University, said the scientists who rejected his scenario as implausible were simply unacquainted with the unique dynamics of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, the nature of permafrost melting there, and its relationship to ongoing releases of methane in recent years: “Those who understand Arctic seabed geology and the oceanography of water column warming from ice retreat do not say that this is a low probability event. I think one should trust those who know about a subject rather than those who don't. As far as I'm concerned, the experts in this area are the people who have been actively working on the seabed conditions in the East Siberian Sea in summer during the past few summers where the ice cover has disappeared and the water has warmed. The rapid disappearance of offshore permafrost through water heating is a unique phenomenon, so clearly no 'expert' would have found a mechanism elsewhere to compare with this... I think that most Arctic specialists would agree that this scenario is plausible.” Atmospheric methane levels in the Arctic are currently at new record highs, 70 parts per billion higher than the global average. Methane plumes up to 150 kilometres across have been observed. Methane has the potential to cause catastrophic effects on crops, rising sea levels, coastal flooding and extreme weather.
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  • Dangers from climate change: Rising sea levels

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  • The IPCC reports that “The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia …. Global mean sea level will continue to rise during the 21st …. the rate of sea level rise will very likely exceed that observed during 1971–2010 due to increased ocean warming and increased loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets.”
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  • In the 20th century sea levels rose by an average of around 1.7mm a year, but more recently they have been rising at around 3mm per year i.e. about 30cm (12inches) over the century, but it could increase. The IPCC has recently put it at between 26 and 59cm (10-23 inches).
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  • Dangers from climate change: Coastal flooding

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  • 634 million people live within 30 feet of sea level, according to the April 2007 edition of Environment and Urbanisation. Some two thirds of the world’s largest cities (with over 5 million people) are in low-lying coastal areas. Cities threatened by rising sea levels include Alexandria, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Miami, Mumbai, New Orleans, New York-Newark, Rotterdam, Shanghai, and Tokyo. The World Bank listed various countries at risk from serious coastal flooding: China, Egypt, Indonesia, Mauritania, Tunisia, Vietnam and all low-lying island states.
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  • Dangers from climate change: Growth in acidity of seawater

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  • The danger of flooding is obvious but another effect is the growth in ocean acidity. A report in the science journal ‘Nature’ in August 2013 said: “The slow and inexorable increase in the oceans’ acidity as they soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere could itself have an effect on climate and amplify global warming, according to a new study. Acidification would lead certain marine organisms to emit less of the sulphur compounds that help to seed the formation of clouds and so keep the planet cool.”
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  • Marine life is adversely affected by growing acidity and by the fact that warmer water holds less oxygen.
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  • Dangers from climate change: Disruption of ocean currents

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  • The thermohaline circulation, otherwise known as the ocean conveyor belt, is a circulation in the deep oceans.  The wind drives surface water from the equator towards the poles, which cools it, also causing evaporation which makes it more salty and so more dense. It therefore sinks near the poles and flows back towards the equator at depth. So water from the tropics is carried by the Gulf Stream to the region between Greenland and Scandinavia. Global warming will increase rain and fresh water from the polar caps and this will reduce the salt content of the sea water, making it less likely to sink. This will hinder the circulation and is likely to create large regional climate changes
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  • We have noted the effects on the weather of disruption of the ocean currents but there is more.
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  • Dangers from climate change: Disruption of the jet stream

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  • The jet streams are narrow band of strong west winds blowing at the height of jet aircraft. There are two main ones in the Northern hemisphere and two in the Southern hemisphere (the polar and subtropical streams). The jet stream we talk about in the Northern hemisphere has changed dramatically in the last few years, causing extreme weather. It has meandered and slowed down, trapping areas of high or low pressure. An increasing number of meteorologists (but not all) blame the warming of the Arctic. Normally the warm air of the tropics has meant the atmosphere is higher and there has been an atmospheric gradient to the lower atmosphere over the poles so that the air flows down that gradient. It is clear that global warming disrupts this gradient and the jet stream, slowing it down.
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  • Dangers from climate change: Increasing rain and flooding

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  • As the planet warms there will be more evaporation of water, more water vapour in the atmosphere and so more precipitation. The increased heat also intensifies the water (hydrological) cycle and produces heavier rain. However it is difficult to be dogmatic over the cause of particular weather events. Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science. In January 2013 he wrote: “It is not possible to attribute unambiguously any single extreme weather event, or indeed any set of weather events from a single year, to climate change. Statistical trends in extreme weather can only be detected over several decades. But much of the unprecedented weather we are seeing is consistent with what climate scientists warn will happen in a warming world.”
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  • The UK government Department of the Environment is more convinced. In their “Adapting to climate change” of 1st July 2013 they say “The world’s climate and weather patterns are changing. Global temperatures are rising, causing more extreme weather events, like flooding and heatwaves.”  “Climate risks affect all aspects of society. Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and increasing frequency of extreme events have direct effects on people’s lives, as well as disrupting commodity prices, supply chains, markets, and economies.”
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  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change adds: “There is strong scientific evidence that climate change will disrupt the global economy, environment and society due to projected warming, sea level rise and changes in global rainfall/snowfall patterns and extreme events. They point out that in England and Wales, currently around 50,000 hectares are at risk of flooding frequently (i.e. at least once every three years) and this is projected to increase to around 200,000 ha by the 2080s (or 1% of total agricultural land).”
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  • The World Meteorological Organisation is clear the global warming is causing extreme weather, the melting of ice sheets and glaciers and the rising of sea levels.
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  • Dangers from climate change: Earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis

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  • This is a controversial area. Bill McGuire, professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, writes: “The idea that a changing climate can persuade the ground to shake, volcanoes to rumble and tsunamis to crash on to unsuspecting coastlines seems, at first, to be bordering on the insane.” However, he goes on to point out that glaciers are melting at a staggering rate in Alaska and the reduction in the weight of ice is allowing faults in the earth’s crust to slide more easily causing increased earthquake activity. Similar effects in Greenland could cause tsunamis and increase volcanic activity. Permafrost which holds mountain peaks together is thawing increasing rock and ice avalanches.” McGuire has written a book “Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes”, published by Oxford University Press.
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  • Dangers from climate change: Environmental refugees

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  • The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has stated: “For UNHCR, the consequences of climate change are enormous. Scarce natural resources such as drinking water are likely to become even more limited. Many crops and some livestock are unlikely to survive in certain locations if conditions become too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. Food security is an immediate concern in many parts of the world. People will have to try and adapt to this situation, but for many this will mean a conscious move to another place if they are to survive. This has the potential to spark conflicts with other communities, as an increasing number of people compete for a decreasing amount of resources.”
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  • The most common claims are that there will be 150-200 million climate change refugees by 2050. The UNHCR comments: ““While there are no scientifically verified estimates of climate change-related displacement or of overall population flows triggered by the effects of climate change, it is evident that gradual and sudden environmental changes are already resulting in substantial human migration and displacement. This trend is expected to continue, with anywhere between 50 and 200 million people moving as a result by the middle of the century, either within their countries or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis. There is a possibility of even higher numbers if the IPCC’s worst-case scenarios materialize.”
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  • What is the evidence for human-induced global warming?

  • The increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere

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  • The IPCC said in 2013: “The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic [human-induced] carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.”
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  • The IPCC goes on to say that there is an “increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750. Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.”
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  • Tom Bawden, Environment Editor of the Independent, wrote  in May 2013: “The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has breached the symbolically important level of 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in 5 million years after rising at its fastest rate since records began in 1958 …. The elevated carbon emission reading harks back to the Pliocene period, between 3m and 5m years ago, when global average temperatures were 3 or 4C hotter than today, the Arctic was ice-free, sea levels were about 40m higher and jungles covered northern Canada.”
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  • So the scientists are saying that since the industrial revolution we have been responsible for increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 40%.
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  • The IPCC is, according to Professor Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, “the world's leading authority on climate change.” It is approved by 120 governments and by 196 scientific organisations worldwide plus NASA and the Met Office. Thousands of scientists contribute to its reports. Its conviction that recent global warming is attributable to human activity is shared by most scientists. A US poll of 1,380 climate scientists found that 97% backed the belief that carbon emissions are raising global temperatures. It would be very unwise not to take the IPCC’s conclusions seriously.
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  • Scientists are not claiming to be infallible and they can make mistakes but the IPCC says that it is 95% probable that most global warming is caused by human activities such as the increased production of greenhouse gases, burning fossil fuels, deforestation and release of aerosols. This seems convincing.
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  • It may be politically correct in some circles to deny human-induced global warming (in fact there has been an increase of people in the UK who do not believe the climate is changing) but if this is on the part of people who do not carefully weigh up the considerable scientific evidence and opinion it is hardly reliable. After all, 95% of scientific papers on the subject say that the planet is warming.
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  • Whereas some people who deny human-induced global warming are sincere, it must be borne in mind that there are vested interests in denying it. For example in 2007 the Guardian reported that a think tank funded by ExxonMobil (the world’s largest oil and gas company) offered scientists and economists over $10,000 each to undermine an IPCC report. There have been similar reports about other fossil fuel organisations in the media.
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  • One also has to be careful about some media reports. Two newspapers reported that Professor Tsonis of the University of Wisconsin, claimed his research showed global warming was only temporary. However, Tsonis’ co-author Kyle Swanson wrote: “What do our results have to do with Global Warming, i.e., the century-scale response to greenhouse gas emissions? VERY LITTLE, contrary to claims that others have made on our behalf.” The papers also claimed that global warming had ‘paused’ since 1997. In fact, it has risen, but more slowly than the previous 15 years, which research suggests is due to the heat being transferred to the deep ocean more efficiently due to recurring ocean cycles.

Scientists point out that, whereas global warming has slowed down, there has still been a rise of 0.2℃ over the last 15 years. They also point out that a reason for the slowdown is that excess heat is being stored in the Atlantic and Southern Oceans and that a natural ocean cycle will cause the temperature to rise in around 15 years’ time. The Pacific may also have a similar role. Trade winds help the oceans to absorb heat into an area 100 -300 metres below the surface. These trade winds are likely to drop in some years’ time (probably soon after 2020) which will facilitate the heat being released. Scientists also point out that volcanic eruptions spread particles into the atmosphere which reflect the sun’s heat back into space, thus acting against global warming.

The fact is that the World Meteorological Organisation has reported that 13 of the 14 warmest years have occurred since 2000 and each of the last three decades has been warmer than the previous one, with 2001-2010 the warmest on record.

The WMO also reported that concentrations of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere increased faster in 2012-13 than at any time since 1984. They were 142% of pre-Industrial Revolution levels. Methane was 253% and Nitrous Oxide 121% of pre-industrial levels, both of them greenhouse gases. The seas are becoming more acidic at a greater rate than for 300 years.
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  • Professor Stephen Belcher, head of the Met Office Hadley Centre, said the pause in the rate of increase of global temperatures, is unusual but not exceptional, with similar pauses of about 10 years expected on average twice every century.
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  • Similarly, the Department of Meteorology at Reading University commented: “The recent slowdown or hiatus in the rate of global warming at the Earth’s surface is continuing to receive media attention. However, surface temperature is only one measure of climate change examined by scientists and it is useful for measuring long term trends but less informative over short timescales. Trends in other variables, such as sea level change, Arctic sea ice cover, glacier volume, and ocean temperatures, are consistent with a planet continuing to warm. It is extremely likely that various factors including natural fluctuations in the ocean have played a role in the slowdown, with discussion continuing about the weight given to specific factors.”
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  • Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organisation said in November 2013:
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  • “The observations from WMO’s extensive Global Atmosphere Watch network highlight yet again how heat-trapping gases from human activities have upset the natural balance of our atmosphere and are a major contribution to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its recent 5th Assessment Report stressed that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.
  • “As a result of this, our climate is changing, our weather is more extreme, ice sheets and glaciers are melting and sea levels are rising. 
  • “According to the IPCC, if we continue with ‘business as usual,’ global average temperatures may be 4.6 degrees higher by the end of the century than pre-industrial levels – and even higher in some parts of the world. This would have devastating consequences. 
  • “Limiting climate change will require large and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. We need to act now, otherwise we will jeopardize the future of our children, grandchildren and many future generations. Time is not on our side.”
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  • The Independent Editorial for the 2nd January 2014 stated: “For all the protestations from the political fringes, controversy is waning. The UN’s most recent judgment is that global warming is all but certain to result from human activity. Even in Washington, where sceptics were once in the ascendant, the reality of climate change is no longer in doubt.”
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  • The case of Richard Muller, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, is instructive. He calls himself a converted climate-change sceptic. He wrote in the New York Times in July 2012: “CALL me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.
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  • “My total turnaround, in such a short time, is the result of careful and objective analysis by the Berkley Earth Surface Temperature project, which I founded with my daughter Elizabeth. Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.”
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  • He is still sceptical about unsubstantiated or more extreme claims about global warming. He writes: “Hurricane Katrina cannot be attributed to global warming. The number of hurricanes hitting the United States has been going down, not up; likewise for intense tornadoes. Polar bears aren’t dying from receding ice, and the Himalayan glaciers aren’t going to melt by 2035.”
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  • However, he concludes: “What about the future? As carbon dioxide emissions increase, the temperature should continue to rise. I expect the rate of warming to proceed at a steady pace, about one and a half degrees over land in the next 50 years, less if the oceans are included. But if China continues its rapid economic growth (it has averaged 10 percent per year over the last 20 years) and its vast use of coal (it typically adds one new gigawatt per month), then that same warming could take place in less than 20 years.”

Attempts to combat global warming


Various methods have been suggested, for example:

•    Reflecting sunlight back into space: This could be done by spraying sulphate particles high in the atmosphere, whitening low clouds by spraying salt water above the oceans, thinning high cirrus clouds to allow more heat to escape from the earth, whitening the ocean surface to reflect more sunlight by generating microbubbles or covering deserts with shiny material. However a study in November 2014 showed that these methods would cause worse floods and droughts for billions of people.

•    Extracting Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere: This would require burning many plants and trees in power plants and capturing the Carbon Dioxide from them. It would require the planting of huge numbers of trees. This would be very expensive.
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  • Consequences of global warming

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  • So, we have noted the predicted results of global warming, which will have serious effects on the world’s population:
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  • 1.      Extreme weather: droughts, floods and more severe storms
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  • 2.      Displacement of millions of people because of flooding or spreading deserts. Oxfam says: “Scientific estimates indicate that by 2050 there will be a billion climate displaced people with one in every 45 people in the world a victim.” Lord Stern warned in the Guardian: “That would lead to conflict and war, not peace and prosperity.”
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  • 3.      Many human deaths. Oxfam reports: “By 2030, climate change will indirectly cause nearly one million deaths a year and inflict 157 billion dollars in damage, according to estimates presented at UN talks.”
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  • 4.      Extensive reduction in agricultural productivity.
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  • 5.      Economic difficulties (see 3. above).
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  • If, as seems convincing, these predictions are accurate, they do fit into the same category as some of the apocalyptic predictions in the Book of Revelation. 
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  • General conclusion on secular eschatology

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  • We have noted that some secular scholars take eschatological risks to the future of humanity more seriously than many Christians.
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  • They stress dangers from bioterrorism (germ warfare) and nuclear terrorism, globalism, AI (Artificial Intelligence), genetically-enhanced humans, oppressive world government, nanotechnology and global warming.
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  • Putting all these risks together shows that the idea that the world has an apocalyptic future is not just the teaching of the highly symbolical Book of Revelation but is held by secular scholars who have researched the subject seriously. We should all take note.
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