What does the public think about risks of human extinction?
We care a lot about reducing extinction risks and think doing so is one of the best ways you can have a positive impact with your career. But even before considering career impact, it can be natural to worry about these risks — and as it turns out, many people do!
In April 2023, the US firm YouGov polled 1,000 American adults on how worried they were about nine different potential extinction threats. It found the following percentages of respondents were either “concerned” or “very concerned” about extinction from each threat:
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We’re particularly interested in this poll now because we have recently updated our page on the world’s most pressing problems, which includes several of these extinction risks at the top.
Knowing how the public feels about these kinds of threats can impact how we communicate about them.
For example, if we take the results at face value, 46% of the poll’s respondents are concerned about human extinction caused by artificial intelligence. Maybe this surprisingly high figure means we don’t need to worry as much as we have over the last 10 years about sounding like ‘sci fi’ when we talk about existential risks from AI, since it’s quickly becoming a common concern!
How does our view of the world’s most pressing problems compare? Well, our top two problems, existential risks from AI and catastrophic pandemics, rank lower in the poll than some of the other threats, but many people do seem to have serious concerns about them. (Though we wonder if people are aware that engineered pandemics seem especially dangerous compared to natural ones.)
We shouldn’t be that surprised that our list doesn’ quite match the poll’s rankings. In our view, one of the factors that makes problems particularly pressing is when they’re relatively neglected — not getting the level of attention they warrant.
Some concerns among the respondents are, in our judgement, off base. While we do list climate change among our top problems, and is causing tremendous harm, we don’t think it’s very likely to cause human extinction — a conclusion we argue for in-depth in our problem profile. Though it may be a risk factor for other extinction threats.
Human extinction from asteroid impacts is even more unlikely. Objects in space smash into Earth all the time, but collisions with something big enough to cause a mass extinction are exceedingly rare. Toby Ord, an advisor to 80,000 Hours, has estimated that the chance that an asteroid causes human extinction is about one in a million.
Let’s put aside an “act of God” — it’s hard to know if respondents meant that figuratively or literally, and if it’s literally, we’re pretty stumped on how to assess its likelihood. Extinction from infertility or alien invasion also seems quite unlikely to us.
Overall, the American public seems to have a mix of more plausible and less plausible concerns, at least by our lights. But we’d guess most people will agree that avoiding human extinction from any source should be a top priority, which is why we want to help many of our readers use their careers to address these threats.