Author Archives: Tracey Dixon

Carbon Law roadmap risks from artificial intelligence and automation

Christopher Lyon

Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience, University of Dundee

Abstract: Widespread adoption of the carbon law roadmap likely means a major investment in technological innovations, including those using artificial intelligence (AI). This occurs at the same time significant concerns are being raised about AI safety risks and human labour displacement through automation. Adoption of the carbon law roadmap must therefore include social equity and AI safeguards.

In their recent and widely publicised paper Rockström et al. (2017) describe what they term a ‘carbon law’ roadmap to rapidly decarbonize the atmosphere in order to stem global warming in line with the internationally agreed target of well below 2.0C. Essentially, they argue that in order to meet this critical challenge, humanity must halve, and halve again greenhouse gas emissions as well as remove atmospheric carbon at decadal rates until 2050 in a manner akin to Moore’s Law for the doubling rates of computing power. Central to this massive enterprise are the needs for technological innovations in carbon-free energy production and atmospheric carbon removal. While there can be no doubt about the need for such a massive shift if humanity is to have a credible chance of keeping planetary warming to within Paris Agreement limits, the carbon law roadmap is also heavily dependent on technological innovation in key areas such as energy production, transportation and carbon capture and storage.

Such a radical plan for rapid technological innovation occurs while other widely discussed research stresses existential risks for humanity stemming from the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and the mass obsolescence of human wage labour due to automation. For example, a recent prediction suggests that up to 47% of ‘routine’ US jobs are at risk from automation within the next 20 years (Frey and Osborne, 2017). What is more, AI theorists propose that in the coming years or decades advances in machine intelligence could produce technology able to meet or exceed human intelligence and capabilities (known as superintelligence or HLMI – High-level machine intelligence) that may render humans superfluous to machine aims where AI machines are able to self-perpetuate and expand in scope of capability and scale beyond human controls (Bostrom, 2014; Bostrom et al., 2016). The midpoint estimates of achieving HLMI have recently been speculated by industry experts at a 10% chance by 2024 and 50% by 2050 and 90% by 2075 (Müller and Bostrom, 2016), which roughly parallels the carbon law timeline. A worrisome scenario thus exists where the carbon law roadmap leads to a crossing of the HLMI threshold, thereby compounding a different risk for humanity as it attempts to halt another.

The risks involved in implementing the carbon law roadmap therefore involve a further sophistication of Moore’s Law, where the innovation required to decarbonise society and the atmosphere also result in even more rapid advances in machine intelligence and automation at the expense of the necessity for human beings relative to the aim of decarbonisation. At best, this may mean AI and automation play significant roles in designing, producing and even implementing low or zero/negative-carbon technologies at least decadal doubling rates. At worst, major investment in carbon law schemes may result in innovations leading to a machine superintelligence that regards human beings as the causal entity of greenhouse gas emissions and that the most effective pathway toward rapid decarbonisation (a human or AI introduced goal parameter?) is to regard humans as a carbon intensive technology. A heuristic representation of this relationship is presented in figure 1. Indeed, science and society have already drawn a form of this conclusion through the anthropogenic global warming consensus that the Carbon Law aims to resolve, as well as the general Anthropocene proposition (Lewis and Maslin, 2015).

Thus, should the carbon law roadmap be adopted at scale, very careful attention must be paid by researchers, industry, and policymakers to how policies, investments and technologies are crafted and implemented to avoid the displacing the need for humanity in a rapid technology-driven push for carbon reduction. The nascent principles of ‘friendly AI’ (Muehlhauser and Bostrom, 2014) and technology justice (Miekle, 2016) suggest conceptual research and policy pathways forward to help ensure humanity remains relevant in the effort to decarbonise society. Friendly AI involves steps that ensure AI does not harm humanity. Technology justice is a principle that ensures the fair and helpful distribution of technology across society to promote equity. Incorporating these kinds of principles into carbon law efforts will help ensure that any implementation of the roadmap contains safeguards for social equity and major unintended AI risks.

Figure 1 HLMI/automation risk and Carbon Law growth vs human necessity over time

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Bostrom N, Dafoe A and Flynn C (2016) Policy Desiderata in the Development of Machine Superintelligence [version 3.6]. Working Paper, Oxford: Future of Humanity Institute.

Frey CB and Osborne MA (2017) The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Technological Forecasting and Social Change 114: 254–280.

Lewis SL and Maslin MA (2015) Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 519(7542): 171–180.

Miekle A (2016) Technology justice: a call to action. Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing. Available from: http://

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Reflection on Facing the Future 2016

Realising Resilience was the theme of this year’s Facing the Future conference which was organised and hosted at the University of Aberdeen. I have attended each one of these conferences since they began, and each year I come away with a whole new perspective as well as a network to share this lens with. A particular focus of all FtF conference is the emphasis on interaction and connectivity, and this was really confirmed by the attendees who praised the event for feeling like a reunion. Being part of an FtF conference is really more than just tapping into a network. It’s about becoming connected, and it’s the value of connectivity and the processes by which it is forged which I think are important.

Facing the Future 2016

Facing the Future 2016

Our connectivity through this year’s event was facilitated by the International Futures Forum Tony Hodgson and David Beatty from the University of the third horizon H3 Uni. We were introduced to an exercise which involved a giant icosahedron and split into various sustainable development goals (SDG). What followed can only really be described as an expansive learning experience which not only allowed for practical principles of collaborative thinking and learning to emerge, but gave a new space in which the SDG goals could be exercised. It was an embodied experience which allowed us to really problematise in a real world context, and put into focus what is as Patrick Geddes coined our “drama in time”.

Facing the Future 2016

Facing the Future 2016

Coming away from this event, I have realised that connectivity is not just working together on research but realising and becoming conscious together of the competency in our connection, just as much as the incompetency. In times where questions like how we create rapid and significant changes are becoming increasingly popular, these experiences of connectivity are important and have practical impacts. I am really looking forward to building on this connectivity over the year where FtF17 will run before the Transformations2017 conference, held here at the Centre of Environmental Change and Human Resilience.

Whilst I am still profoundly moved by the power of ‘unlikely alliances’ (a term which I first heard from John Colvin and Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, at the Transformation Conference, Oslo) over the past four years of FtF I have come to appreciate the value this event has for making these alliances less unlikely.

Fort McMurray Wildfire: Some difficult considerations around context and recovery

Christopher Lyon


Christopher is completing a PhD in the social dimensions of resilience at CECHR and Geography at the University of Dundee. For his MSc at the University of Alberta he examined resource-dependent community resilience following industry upheaval. Later, he conducted early scoping fieldwork on youth and wildfire recovery in Slave Lake, Alberta. He has visitKolbert-Canada-Wildfire-690x465-1462461019ed both Fort McMurray and Slave Lake.

It is early days yet in the Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta, Canada, but there are a few things that might be said about the social and ecological context and potential impacts of this unfolding disaster.

For social context, Fort McMurray is officially an ‘urban service area’ located in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and is the main permanent residential, logistics and service hub for the Athabasca Oil Sands (aka Tar Sands) bitumen extraction and distribution industry. Because of this, the city sits at the centre of volatile public, political, and academic discourses on climate change, the future of the Canadian and provincial economy, global energy markets, changes in rural and natural resource economies, pipeline development projects, social and environmental impact assessments, relationships with Indigenous peoples, and Canadian political rhetoric. What happens in and to Fort McMurray has local and global resonance. For a stark example, the wildfire immediately impacted oil prices and production.

Ecologically, Fort McMurray is located within the Earth’s northern belt of boreal forest biome. This region is deeply impacted by climate change and El Niño linked climate and weather events. Warmer winters trigger tree-killing insect infestations Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) and unseasonable, record setting hot and dry spells, even in Spring. The latter, driven by climate change has been long predicted to create ideal conditions for wildfire, and recent research suggests that northern boreal forests are experiencing burn rates unseen in 10 000 years (±1000 years post-Wisconsin glaciation!). Further, the bitumen extraction technology used in the Oil Sands necessitates the destruction of vast tracts of the boreal forest.
As a colleague from Alberta put it, there is a “terrible symbolism” in a climate induced wildfire destroying the place with an economy central to the production of fossil fuel that produces climate change.

This unavoidable social-ecological backdrop aside, Fort McMurray is immediately a disaster-struck community of people whose lives and livelihoods are profoundly disrupted. While the ongoing rapid evacuation of at least 80 000 people has thankfully resulted in precious few casualties (two people perished in a road accident at the time of writing), the deeper social impacts of the disaster are likely yet to be felt.

Fort McMurray is essentially a rural, remote, natural resource-dependent community with its economic fortune bound to its resource. With the dramatic increase in global oil prices and despite vast reserves, oil sands production is only lucrative over certain price thresholds. With the increase in oil price and corresponding exploitation of oil sands, the population has rapidly quickly since the early 2000s, from about 38 000 to an estimated 80 000 today, largely from people migrating to high-income oil-sector jobs. Housing construction featured in this expansion, and it has mostly been residential neighbourhoods that have been impacted by fire. This does not include the ‘shadow population’ of temporary residents in nearby mobile workcamps in the bitumen extraction areas. Indeed, while it hasn’t been stressed in reporting so far, the availability of beds in workcamps for evacuees is possibly the result of curtailed shadow workforces.

The Fort McMurray region is deeply impacted by the rapid decline in oil prices over the past couple of years, with a corresponding significant rise in unemployment (10.2% in April 2016). Even without climate change, the brutal question of the economic viability and therefore the extent to which it is feasible to rebuild Fort McMurray in the recovery remains outstanding. Some early estimates put the cost to insurers at record-setting C$9 billion (£4.82 billion), which does not include the costs of government response efforts and lost economic activity.

For evacuees (environmental refugees? internally displaced persons?), many of whom arrived during the boom period from elsewhere in Canada (or abroad), this means the impacts of the disaster are really only beginning. Indications that a large number of dwellings have been destroyed, even if critical infrastructure remains intact, suggest that any return can happen only after a major reconstruction effort, which must only occur after insurance claims are settled. In the coming weeks, displaced people without homes will leave emergency relief centres to stay with relatives and friends elsewhere in Canada. The wide dispersal of displaced residents could mean the loss of social cohesion and mutual support integral to community resilience and disaster recovery.

Thus, the longer-term direct impacts of this disaster may be much less visible and limited to individuals and families, rather than ‘community’. These impacts are difficult to address, and will be economic and psychological as lost incomes, homes, and livelihoods disrupt senses of identity, place, and well-being, sometimes for years to come. Research on Hurricane Katrina suggests children maybe hit especially hard.

Socially and politically, a hard reckoning is likely in store that pits the psychological impact of the disaster and emotional desire to rebuild against political, economic and environmental realities and competing narratives.

The challenge is immense for how governments, the public, industry, and most importantly the displaced residents of Fort McMurray collectively navigate the aftermath once the fires stop burning. It will likely define Canada’s future energy and environmental pathways, setting a global benchmark for how a developed country responds to a direct climate-linked disaster in the causal heart of anthropogenic climate change.

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