Ideas

'We need to get our game on': Your guide to sensible worrying in the 21st century

Three expert analysts, each from a different discipline, reveal their greatest fears for the near-ish future and make the case for how we must now prepare for it. From the threat of conflict between great powers, to the "war" for net-zero carbon emissions, to introducing a new global authority that can exercise authority over individual nations.

Nuclear war vs. climate catastrophe vs. enemy states — which apocalypse should we get ready for?

How can we realistically face the multitude of existential threats to the human race on a global scale? Experts offer their advice on getting ready for trouble this century. (Dean Drobot/Shutterstock)
Listen to the full episode53:58

Should we defend our Arctic with a multibillion-dollar military project to update our surveillance and early-warning systems?

Or should we start stockpiling minerals and other raw materials so we can fight China with economics rather than nuclear weapons?

Or what about establishing a new global super-authority to force nations to cut their carbon emissions, even if it's against their will?

The military, economic, and administrative strategies in each scenario carry monumental costs. And they each respond to a different fear about the future.

Three experts from three different fields of expertise joined IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed for a faceoff in studio. They recommend ways for Canada and the U.S. to get ready now to avoid big trouble ahead this century.

"Canadians generally have been under the impression that Canada is still this fireproof house," said Andrea Charron, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.

She wants to see more spending on making citizens aware of what Canada's military does. And her big-ticket item would be to overhaul the North Warning System, a radar network set up by the U.S. and Canada to deal with threats during the Cold War. 

A soldier holds a machine-gun as he patrols the Russian northern military base on Kotelny Island, beyond the Arctic Circle, on April 3, 2019. The Russian military base is home to 250 soldiers. Andrea Charron argues northern defence needs to be on the radar for Canada. (Maxime Popov/AFP/Getty Images)

What worries Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., is the possibility of a new war among great powers coming this century, possibly involving the U.S. and China. He wants the U.S. and its allies to get better prepared for extinguishing the tiny sparks that can escalate into huge conflicts, as happened in the First World War.

Specifically, O'Hanlon fears that the U.S. currently depends too heavily on military responses to minor attacks on U.S. allies. He argues we need to rethink the meaning of "deterrence," an idea which has been at the core of the U.S.'s defence strategy since the mid-20th century.

A new global authority as a solution

All of this might matter little, however, if human habitats melt, flood, or burn due to global warming. And it's toward this possibility that philosopher David McClean wants to direct our attention — and to his plan for a new global environmental authority. Its creation would mean that nation-states yield some of their own sovereignty, and hand power for combating climate change over to a central body, perhaps an arm of the UN Security Council.

"If states won't rely on voluntary compliance to raise tax revenue, how is it that we're going to allow voluntary compliance to determine how we meet the biggest threat to humanity that we've ever faced?" asks McClean.

Creating a global authority for climate change is something David McClean deeply believes in. But when it comes to the odds of it happening in our lifetime, he’s pessimistic. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While the military and economic proposals from Charron and O'Hanlon raised little criticism from McClean, who sees military readiness as "common sense" at a time when major disruptions in international politics seem unavoidable, his own idea of a global enforcer for climate change hit some resistance from the other two experts.

"I would like the idea of an authority that is well-respected, and that can make realistic recommendations with a little bit of, you know, a coercive edge, at least in rhetorical terms," said O'Hanlon.

But the real power, especially when it comes to setting policy, needs to remain at the level of national governments, he believes. "I think it's not realistic to expect otherwise," he said.

A nightmare scenario for Michael O’Hanlon would be if China put troops on the disputed Senkaku Islands. The Chinese and Japanese both claim these islands. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

O'Hanlon also stressed that he believes the warnings of humanity's imminent doom are exaggerated. He criticized the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' recent announcement that its "Doomsday Clock" puts us closer to midnight — existential catastrophe — than we've ever been before.

"I think they're just wrong," says O'Hanlon, who sees moments such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as much closer brushes with doom than we are currently experiencing. He argues that, for the majority of North Americans, the current moment is a relatively safe time to be alive.


Guests in this episode:

 



* This episode ws produced by Tom Howell.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.