Issue 15: the US election & X-risk

Political unrest, climate policy, Iran deals and China confrontation

Dear reader,

Welcome to this week’s issue of the Anti-Apocalyptus newsletter. Each week I send you five links about some of the most important challenges of our time: climate change, weapons of mass destruction, emerging technologies, mass causes of death and great power wars. If you haven’t done so yet, feel free to subscribe at the button below, hit the heart button or share this email with anyone who could be interested.

Next week Tuesday is election day in the US, where their citizens will decide their next president. As a European, I often harbour a little (somewhat irrational) disdain for the US, and its vulgarity, which is now abundantly clear in its politics. Yet the country, for all its declining power, is still the most powerful state in the world, with the biggest military, the biggest nuclear arsenal, the biggest economy, a major part of world emissions and a major part of the world technological development. Finally, if there’s going to be a great power war in the 21st century, it will likely be between China and the US.

Many extreme risks, even existential risks, run through the US and its government, which makes the presidential election something to look out for. Which is why I’m dedicating this newsletter to the US election, which I’m looking at through the lens of extreme risk. In other words I will be looking at where it can go wrong, during the election (aka instability), or afterwards (what does this mean for risks that can derail humanity or kill a lot of us).

The structure of this newsletter is also slightly different. Instead of five links, I will divide the newsletter in two sections: the first part sets the scene and discusses the technicalities of the vote, and the threats there. The second part offers three links, each of which discusses a key extreme risk after the election.

Before we start, however, I just want to leave you with this article, noting the important milestones of the election. Election day might be on Tuesday, but we probably won’t know the results for weeks to come.



FiveThirthyEight - 2020 election forecast

The Economist - Forecasting the US elections

GoodJudgment - Who will win the 2020 United States presidential election?

To start, these are the major forecasts for who will likely win the election. All of them have slightly different results, but favour Biden over Trump (upwards of 80% for each of them at the time of writing). Nevertheless a real chance remains that Trump wins.

Unrest scenario’s

Transition Integrity Project - Preventing a Disrupted Presidential Election and Transition

Unrest or even political violence has been a dark cloud that hangs over this election. Scenario’s have been posited where Trump might not recognise unfavourable results, tries to interfere with vote collection or where political violence between different factions breaks out. The linked report is a summary of a scenario planning exercise including politicians, experts and journalists to look at what situations might be possible.

Why vote?

80,000 Hours - How much does a single vote matter?

Often we encourage voting out of civic principles: it’s your duty as a citizen. This article goes into detail why it’s actually a rational thing to do (if you live in a swing state) from a cost-benefit perspective, where you want to do as much good as possible. The article also goes into detail why elections in the US are important.

Day-after risks

Climate change

Grist - The Foreseeable Future

Great piece by Grist which runs through the different scenario’s for climate policy. Instead of writing them all down in one long article, they explain it as if you’re in a “choose-your-own-adventure” game. You explore the different possibilities for when each candidate wins, and what legal and practical challenges they would face in terms of climate policy.

Weapons of mass destruction

The Guardian - Even if Biden wins US election, time is running out to save Iran nuclear deal

One area of nuclear policy which a Biden presidency might shift is Iran. Trump has been particularly aggressive against a deal with the Middle-Eastern country that would prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon, but a Biden presidency might salvage it. Although that also depends on what happens in Iran, besides a range of practical constraints.

Great power war

Nikkei - US election: Trump's China policy is here to stay, no matter who wins

A Biden presidency might not shift everything, and Trump’s China policy might be here to stay. The author of this (interesting) essay, Richard McGregor, is a noted China critic, so take the piece with a pinch of salt. But the possibility that the US will simply continue Trump’s confrontation with China, seeing the anti-China atmosphere in the country, is very real I think. In some areas, continuity might trump change.

I hope you enjoyed this newsletter. Feel free to send me comments or remarks by responding to this email. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe at the link below, hit the heart button or forward this email to anyone who could be interested.