The summer of 2023 was a devastating one for Greece.
The largest wildfire on record in the European Union ravaged its northeastern regions in August, killing more than 20 people. Weeks later, floods ripping through central Greece left 16 people dead.
Those episodes “prove more than ever that the climate crisis is the greatest security challenge of our century,” said President Katerina Sakellaropoulou of Greece in her opening address last week to the Athens Democracy Forum, a conference established in 2013 and held every year in association with The New York Times.
Democracies around the world are “under severe stress” as a result of the crisis, she said, because of the impact on food security, migration, water availability, biodiversity and natural disasters.
“If no drastic response is provided,” she warned, “our democracy will be weakened, and the future of the next generations will be seriously undermined.”
The global climate emergency and its threats to democracy dominated the conversations at this year’s forum, a three-day gathering of policymakers, business leaders, lawmakers, activists, academics and students.
The other potential threat that was singled out: artificial intelligence, with remarks by executives from technology giants, including Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs.
While the discussions were mostly thematic, talks were also dedicated to specific continents (Africa, South America) and countries (China, Ukraine), although no discussions focused on pro-democracy protests in Iran led by women, which broke out a year ago and are ongoing.
Greece’s catastrophic summer came up in a video address by John Kerry, the former United States secretary of state and now President Biden’s special envoy for climate (Mr. Kerry was unable to attend in person). He noted that Greece had been “decimated by floods and historic wildfires,” and that one particular blaze was “so powerful, it grew four times the size of New York City.”
“These disasters and the climate crisis aren’t just increasingly threatening our environment. They are a test of the very way in which we govern, and in some cases don’t,” he said. “The stakes have literally never been higher.”
He noted that every year, air pollution alone killed more than 7 million people, or one person every five seconds. And since 2000, climate disasters causing $1 billion in damage occurred somewhere on the planet every 18 days.
At the same time, “bad actors” were jeopardizing democracy by targeting environmental defenders and Indigenous communities, and engaging in climate misinformation and disinformation, especially when it came to scientific facts, he said. “This science needs to be on the front page, my friends, not censored.”
Leading academics further hammered home the magnitude of the climate crisis.
Michael Oppenheimer, a professor and director of the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment at Princeton, said that the interval between extreme events — such as severe heat waves, hurricanes or coastal flooding — was shrinking.
“It means we have less and less time to adapt,” he added, warning that by 2050, “a lot of places in the world are going to see what used to be a 100-year flood every year.”
Ann Florini, a professor at Arizona State University, said people had to “stop looking at the central governments all the time” for solutions, because “there is no way for any central authority to be able to cope.”
Local communities should manage their own resources without central government control, she said, noting that when the U.S. government passed the Inflation Reduction Act — the biggest climate investment in the country’s history — 40 percent of the benefits were required to go to frontline communities that were hardest hit by the climate catastrophe.
Ultimately, she advised, human beings had to face up to their powerlessness in the face of climate events. “Mother Nature doesn’t actually negotiate,” she said. “She always has the last word.”
In a separate panel on the final day of the forum, participants illustrated the impact of climate change on individuals.
Fatou Jeng, the founder of Clean Earth Gambia, a nonprofit dedicated to raising environmental awareness, said in a video exchange that Gambia’s 2.6 million people survived on farming and agriculture. And every year since 2020, the rainy season has had a “massive” impact on them: “With the flooding, a lot of families actually were displaced, leading to them losing their houses and their main source of income.”
In countries like Niger and Nigeria, she said, clashes had broken out between farmers and herders, and conflicts were flaring up in other ways, because “the main sources of income of people are being lost.”
The conference also examined concerns around A.I., including the fear that superintelligent machines could one day not only eliminate human jobs, but human beings themselves.
Mr. Clegg of Meta, Britain’s former deputy premier, tried to allay fears by noting that governments had the power to regulate A.I. and stop it from being used for manipulation, disinformation and the endangerment of the human race. He advised the public to “continue to reserve judgment until we see how things play out.”
He said that technology could be used “for good and for bad purposes,” and that inventions ranging from the bicycle and the car to radio and the internet had all, at one point, triggered the “natural human instinct to fear the worst.” The recent release of ChatGPT, the free A.I. tool, had led collective concerns to run “quite far ahead of the technology.”
“This idea of A.I.s developing an autonomy and an agency of their own, a demonic wish to destroy humanity and turn us all into paper clips,” he said, was “not yet the case,” because “these are systems that don’t know anything. They don’t have any real meaningful agency or autonomy.”
He said cross-industry standards on watermarking, transparency and stress testing could keep A.I. in check.
Another panel examined A.I.’s impact on education.
Royal Hansen, Google’s vice president of privacy, safety and security engineering, said his 13-year-old son, a long-Covid sufferer, hadn’t been to school in three years, and “remains at grade level in no small part because of the resources he has online, A.I. being one element.”
“If he were going to school every day and playing baseball like normal kids, I would say let’s work on the limiting” of time spent online, Mr. Hansen said. “As it stands, that’s his window to the world. He lives in his bedroom.”
He said that even though A.I. as a technology was “relatively new,” it rested on a couple of decades of learning and experience, particularly related to cybersecurity, privacy controls and time management, and that Google had released something called the Secure A.I. Framework as a way to talk about these issues.
“The first step is, let’s not throw out the lessons of the last couple of decades as we chase something brand-new,” he said. “It’s this balance between embracing something new but taking advantage of the controls or responsibility we’ve learned in the past.”
Also on the panel was Irina Bokova, the former director-general of UNESCO, the United Nations body that focuses on education and culture. She said school was “where values are being instilled,” and education was “an act of social interaction.” She expressed worries that human interaction would be lost if schooling was led by artificial intelligence and by computers alone.
When it comes to A.I., she said, “think with your own minds,” and “be ahead of it,” rather than “run after it.”
As the delegates were debating the hazards of artificial intelligence and the future impact of climate change, Ukraine faced the everyday reality of war. According to U.S. officials, close to 500,000 Ukrainian and Russian troops have been killed or wounded since Ukraine was invaded 18 months ago.
Appearing at the forum, Sergii Shutenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Greece, made an impassioned plea for his country to be supported by the West.
“It is not the time now to abandon Ukraine,” he said, adding that the conflict is at a “decisive moment” that would determine whether Ukraine would “continue, or be destroyed and eliminated.”
His plea was supported by one of the many young participants in the conference: Victoria Portnaya, a 20-year-old Ukrainian democracy and human rights advocate. “If we allow Ukraine to lose,” she warned, “we will lose democracy, peace and security.”
Serge Schmemann, a member of The New York Times editorial board who was also on the panel, said “we really don’t know what comes next” in Ukraine, and the “wholesale destruction” going on needed to end.
“The only possible solution is some kind of frozen conflict,” he said. Waiting for an all-out victory by Ukraine was unfeasible, as was expecting the toppling of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, because, “I would fear that if they did overthrow him, it would be in the name of somebody worse.”
Speaking after the panel, he said the best option for the West in the war was to “continue to support Ukraine to the hilt” by sending shells and artillery systems and to “ensure that it ends in conditions favorable to Ukraine.”
“We have to make sure they have a strong hand at the table” when the terms of a cease-fire are negotiated, he said. “We cannot abandon Ukraine.”
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