He gave two examples. First, climate change: apparently in the economics literature, there has been an extended debate about the optimal level of a carbon tax; however, in the US, all of this debate and finding exactly the optimal level is kind of irrelevant, given that there is no carbon tax and there is considerable opposition to creating one. So the practical work that needs to be done, has been various organizations that are working to get support for politicians that care about climate change. Also valuable are some seemingly unrelated efforts like work to stop gerrymandering, because it turns out that if you didn’t have gerrymandering, it would be easier to elect politicians who are willing to implement things like a carbon tax.
His other example was nuclear disarmament. Academia has produced various models of nuclear winter and of how that might be an x-risk; however, in practice this isn’t very relevant, because the people who are in charge of nuclear weapons already know that nuclear war would be terribly bad. For them, the possibility of nuclear winter might make things slightly worse, but the possibility of nuclear war is already so bad that such smaller differences are irrelevant. This is a problem, because nuclear disarmament and reducing the size of the nuclear stockpile could help avert nuclear winter, but the decision-makers are thinking that nuclear war is so bad that we must be sure to prevent it, and one of the ways to prevent it is to have a sufficiently large nuclear arsenal to serve as a deterrent.
His suggestion was that the thing that would actually help in disarmament, would be to make various countries – particularly Russia – feel geopolitically more secure. The US basically doesn’t need a nuclear arsenal for anything else than deterring a nuclear strike by another power; for any other purpose, their conventional military is already strong enough to prevent any attacks. But Russia is a different case: they have a smaller military, smaller population, smaller economy, and they border several countries that they don’t have good relations with. For them, maintaining a nuclear arsenal is an actual guarantee for them not getting invaded. Similarly for Pakistan, maybe Israel. The key for actually getting these countries disarm would be to change their conditions so that they would feel safe in doing so.
He emphasized that he wasn’t saying that academic research was useless, just that the academic research should be focused and it should be used in a way that actually helps achieve change. I’ve been thinking about the usefulness of my x-risk/s-risk research for a while, so this was very thought-provoking, though I don’t yet know what actual updates I should do as a result of the talk.