The List

The End of the World

While the apocalypse is pretty unlikely to come in 2012, it does have to happen sooner or later. Here are five possible scenarios for the end of humanity.

ASTEROID

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How it could happen: Objects from space impact Earth all the time, generally burning up in the atmosphere. Occasionally, a large object makes it through, resulting in a massive impact. The most recent major impact was the 1908 Tunguska event that flattened a 2,000-square-mile area of Siberian forest with an explosion about 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The object involved, which was likely only a few dozen meters in diameter, could have wiped out a major metropolitan area.

The real danger would come from an object more than a kilometer in diameter, which could kick up enough sediment to cause environmental damage and crop failures worldwide. A rock the size of the 15-kilometer object that is thought to have killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago would probably wipe us out too.

How likely is it? Another large object is sure to hit the earth eventually, but almost certainly not during our lifetimes. An object big enough to kill off a substantial portion of the earth's population only hits earth about twice every million years. None of the objects yet discovered by NASA's Near Earth Objects program have a high probability of hitting the earth -- though one known as 1950 DA will come extremely close in 2880. Given the relatively small effort devoted to identifying near-earth objects, there's no guarantee that the earth would have much warning time before one hit. A previously unknown seven-meter asteroid passed just 14,000 kilometers from the earth's surface on Nov. 6 and was noticed by NASA only 15 hours before what counts as an entirely too close encounter.

CLIMATE DISASTER

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How it could happen: Under the worst-case scenario predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change, the global surface temperature of the Earth could increase by as much as 4-5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. (Many scientists believe that estimate is conservative). Such a scenario would lead to as much as a half-meter rise in sea levels, flooding coastal regions including many of the world’s major cities.

Meanwhile, nearly one-third of the planet could become desert and more than half would experience drought. The salinization of much of the Earth’s groundwater supply will only make this worse. The IPCC found that at even a 3.5 degree increase would put 40-70 percent of the world’s species at risk of extinction, and the potential for new geopolitical conflicts over dwindling resources is mind-boggling.

How likely is it? A recent MIT study found that current carbon trends bear out the IPCC’s worst-case scenarios or even exceed them. Global carbon levels are currently at 380 parts per million compared to 280 before the Industrial Revolution. Most scientists conclude that catastrophic effects will begin to be felt once those levels pass 450. If the Earth reaches 800-1000 parts per million, as the worst-case scenarios predict, it’s really anybody’s guess. While recent research by the National Oceanographic and Aeronautics Administration suggests that many of the effects of climate change are already irreversible, the worst, potentially civilization-ending outcomes could be mitigated by a substantial reduction in carbon emissions.

NUCLEAR WAR

How it could happen: There are currently more than 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world, of which 8,000 are currently operational and 2,000 are on high alert and ready to launch on short notice. While nuclear apocalypse has long been a popular subject for books and movies, the Dr. Strangelove scenario is actually fairly unlikely. Even in 1977, with nuclear arsenals near their Cold War height, the U.S. Defense Department of Defense predicted a maximum of 265 million casualties from a full-scale U.S.-Soviet nuclear war. Certainly, such a death toll would be enough to destroy both countries as superpowers, but not the end of life as we know it. With nuclear stockpiles substantially reduced since then, the casualties would likely be much lower today.

However, scientists in the 1980s developed models showing that the dust and smoke caused by a superpower nuclear war would cause temperature and precipitation shifts unprecedented in human history -- a "nuclear winter." A study by Cornell ecologist Mark Harwell in 1986 predicted that global agriculture would be wiped out completely for a year, leading to a famine that would wipe out most of humanity. A 2007 study by ecologists at Rutgers University found that current global nuclear stockpiles are still capable of producing this outcome.

How likely is it? The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the famous "Doomsday Clock" in 1947 to convey how close humanity is to "catastrophic destruction." The clock reached its high-point -- 2 minutes to midnight -- after the first hydrogen bomb tests in 1953. The BAS moved the clock back to 17 minutes after the end of the Cold War but it has been steadily ticking back toward midnight since then, with rogue states such as North Korea developing nuclear weapons and tensions increasing between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan and it currently stands at 5 minutes to midnight.

Despite this, the worst-case scenario of all-out nuclear war between two superpowers is far less likely than it once was. The nuclear winter theory also remains controversial, with some scientists saying the predicted effects have been exaggerated.

PLAGUE

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How it could happen: Throughout history, plagues have brought civilizations to their knees. The Black Death killed more off more than half of Europe's population in the Middle Ages. In 1918, a flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people, nearly 3 percent of the world's population, a far greater impact than the just-concluded World War I. Because of globalization, diseases today spread even faster - witness the rapid worldwide spread of H1N1 currently unfolding.

A global outbreak of a disease such as ebola virus -- which has had a 90 percent fatality rate during its flare-ups in rural Africa -- or a mutated drug-resistant form of the flu virus on a global scale could have a devastating, even civilization-ending impact.

How likely is it? Treatment of deadly diseases has improved since 1918, but so have the diseases. Modern industrial farming techniques have been blamed for the outbreak of diseases, such as swine flu, and as the world’s population grows and humans move into previously unoccupied areas, the risk of exposure to previously unknown pathogens increases.  More than 40 new viruses have emerged since the 1970s, including ebola and HIV. Biological weapons experimentation has added a new and just as troubling complication.

THE UNKNOWN UNKNOWN

NASA

How it could happen: There are any number of theories for how human civilization -- the world as we know it -- might end. Some are natural: supervolcanoes erupting like the one in Yellowstone National Park that could severely alter the Earth’s climate or a gamma-ray burst from a star that would cause dangerous radiation in the Earth’s atmosphere. Others are man-made: overpopulation causing a food crisis or the accidental development of dangerous new technologies.

 How likely is it? Sooner or later, the world will end. In about 5-8 billion years, according to astronomers' estimates, our sun will burn out the last of its hydrogen into helium and will balloon up into a red giant hundreds of  times its current size, dragging the Earth to its inevitable doom. Even if the planet escapes destruction, it’s atmosphere and oceans will be boiled away. Human beings have only been around for a small fraction of that time -- around 200,000 years -- and one way or another, the chances of us being around for the real end of the world are pretty slim.

The List

Next in Line

Who will step up if Abbas steps down?

On Thursday night, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced his intention not to seek another term in the presidential election scheduled for January. The move was widely seen as a reflection of Abbas's frustration with the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the Obama administration's retreat from its previous demand of a complete halt to Israeli settlement construction before beginning negotiations. FOREIGN POLICY decided to take a look at the various candidates who are next in line whenever Abbas leaves the political scene.

 

MARWAN BARGHOUTI

Pros: Of all the possible candidates, Barghouti is perhaps the most popular on the Palestinian street. Born in a village outside the West Bank city of Ramallah, he joined Fatah at 15 and has played an active role in Palestinian politics ever since. He helped organize Palestinian protests during the first intifada, in 1987, and then directed Palestinian military action during the second intifada in 2000.

Despite this fact, some Israelis would also not be upset to see Barghouti rise to the top. Although Barghouti unapologetically admits that he is no pacifist, he also maintains that violence is only a means to establish a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders. For many Israelis working to make the two-state solution a reality, Barghouti is a strong, credible leader who has the potential to unite Palestine's divided factions behind a negotiated settlement. Recently, he has committed himself to bridging the Fatah-Hamas rivalry and is seen as a figure who could drag Hamas, kicking and screaming, away from armed resistance and back to the negotiating table.

Cons : The most obvious objection to Barghouti has less to do with his politics than his location. He languishes in an Israeli prison in the Negev, serving out a sentence of five consecutive life terms for the murder of four Israelis and a Greek monk during the second intifada. Although this imprisonment has only increased his popularity among Palestinians, it would be difficult for Barghouti to guide the Palestinian Authority from behind bars. While he could act as a sort of figurehead, offering broad proclamations on the course of Palestinian politics, any concrete policy decisions would be known immediately by the Israelis. A number of dovish Israeli Knesset deputies have called for Israel to commute his sentence, but the Likud government is unlikely to do so in the short term. Today, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon stated that Barghouti would not be pardoned even if he were elected president.

Path to victory: Barghouti would need to unite the younger generation of Palestinian leaders -- those in their 40s and 50s who made their reputation during the first and second Intifada -- behind his candidacy. If he runs, he will no doubt exploit his reputation as a "clean" politician who has sacrificed for the Palestinian movement, in contrast with the corruption of Fatah's current leadership. He will also need to gain his freedom or, failing that, prove that he can be an effective leader from behind bars. Paradoxically, some analysts think that Barghouti's imprisonment will actually influence some Palestinian leaders to support his candidacy. Because he will be unable to handle the details of governance, it will allow them to maintain their fiefdoms and patronage networks within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

SALAM FAYYAD


Pros: The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has won plaudits from both international observers and Palestinians for reforming the PA and overseeing an economic boom in the West Bank. His plan to unilaterally establish a Palestinian state within two years also has won him praise from those eager to see Palestinian institutions that run transparently and effectively, without the widespread corruption that existed in Arafat's day. His rise would be supported by the United States and Israel, who would view his election as the best possible scenario.


Cons: Fayyad is not a member of Fatah, and it is hard to see how he can win a popular election without the party's organizational muscle. His centrist Third Way party won only 2 percent of the vote in the 2006 legislative elections. There is no evidence that Fayyad's support has expanded since then. Furthermore, Hamas would be extremely hostile to Fayyad's candidacy due to his prominent role in suppressing their activities in the West Bank, and his close relations with Israel and the West.


Path to victory: Fayyad needs to erase his reputation as a technocrat and establish his Palestinian nationalist credentials, which means standing up to Israel and the United States. Even if he demonstrates the ability to give a fiery speech, he will also need to win over influential segments within Fatah -- for example, winning the support of Abbas. The most likely result, however, is that he throws his weight behind a more popular Palestinian leader, who promises to give him an important policy role in the new government. Right now, the rumor is of an alliance between Fayyad and former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan.

ISMAIL HANIYEH


Pros: The Hamas political leader served as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority until his dismissal, by Abbas, following Hamas's violent 2007 takeover of Gaza. He has continued to exercise official authority in Gaza, and Hamas refuses to recognize the legality of his dismissal. If Haniyeh expects to come out on top of a free and fair presidential election, he must hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to remain in limbo, which will bolster his case that violent struggle is the only way to establish a Palestinian state. He must also hope for a catalyzing event, which rallies support to Hamas. This could include a new violent confrontation with Israel or another political flub by Hamas's rivals, on par with the PLO's initial failure to push for U.N. recognition of the Goldstone report on Gaza war crimes.   


Cons: In terms of popularity, Hamas isn't what it was in 2006, when it won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Gazans are increasingly disillusioned by Hamas's inability to provide basic services, in light of the blockade of basic goods in and out of Gaza. Even in the midst of the Goldstone debacle, only 18.7 percent of Palestinians said that they would vote for Hamas, according to a poll last month by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre. In contrast, 40 percent said they would vote for Fatah in the next legislative elections. Furthermore, aggressive PLO action against Hamas members in the West Bank has had a debilitating effect on the Islamist party's ability to rally its supporters.


Path to victory: If Fayyad's election is the dream result for the United States and Israel, Haniyeh's election is their nightmare. Realistically, if it appears that Palestinians won't reject Haniyeh on their own, these two outside powers will do it for them. Israel and the West learned their lesson from the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, which Hamas won, and are unlikely to allow the Islamist organization to participate in an election where the result is in doubt. Hamas probably has its eye on a longer timeline -- hoping for a complete collapse of PLO support in the West Bank or a waning of Western support for the isolation of Hamas which has been in place since 2007.

MOHAMMED DAHLAN


Pros: Like Barghouti, Dahlan is a member of Fatah's younger generation who rose to prominence during the two intifadas. Hailing from the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza, Dahlan was named the head of the Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip in 1994, where he built a security force designed to suppress any dissent to the PLO in the region. After the 1993 Oslo Accords, he cultivated good relations with Israel and the United States, which saw him as a pragmatist willing to reach a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Following Yasser Arafat's death, Dahlan cultivated a close relationship with Abbas. He engaged in often brutal measures to suppress Hamas's rising strength in Gaza and held joint security meetings with Israel following its withdrawal from Gaza. His reputation took a hit following Hamas's 2007 takeover of Gaza, but he has rebounded nicely in recent months. This September, he was elected to Fatah's Central Committee, showing that his standing among the party elite hasn't been harmed by his failure in Gaza. If anything, his anti-Hamas bona fides might help him among PLO loyalists, who have been embittered by the long-running struggle with their Islamist rival.


Cons: Dahlan is absolutely detested by Hamas for the years that his security forces spent suppressing the group's political rise. The feeling is mutual, and Dahlan's ascension to the presidency would inevitably solidify divisions between the two factions. Dahlan also has a reputation for brutality and corruption, thanks to the patronage networks that he cultivated during his days as a Gaza strongman.

 

Path to victory: Dahlan will need to overcome his reputation for being overly eager to work with Israel and the West, and solidify his Palestinian nationalist credentials. He has taken the first steps to do this in recent months, arguing that Fatah never recognized Israel and, more recently, refusing to open negotiations with Israel unless there is a complete halt to settlement construction. Because Dahlan's relationship with Hamas appears irreparably damaged, he will also benefit if the Islamist organization's popularity continues to wane.


 

AHMED QUREI


Pros: The 72 year-old Qurei has been a member of Fatah since the 1960s and is one of the most prominent members of the "Old Guard" of Palestinian leaders who were close to Arafat. He rose to power as the PLO's moneyman, directing foreign investments into Arafat's coffers. He also played a leading role in negotiating the Oslo Accords and served as prime minister from 2003 to 2005. During the Fatah Central Committee elections held this August, Qurei was one of the many Arafat loyalists forced from power to make way for a younger generation of leaders, most of whom were tied to Abbas.

He did not take his dismissal quietly, publicly attacking the election process as fraudulent and designed to benefit those who favor accommodation toward Israel. Qurei might be able to position himself as the leader of Fatah loyalists who favor a more hard-line policy than that of Abbas and his associates, but who still are opposed to Hamas.


Cons: Much of Qurei's influence was tied to Arafat, and it's unclear whether he still has any popular support. He spent a good part of his political career in exile, unlike figures such as Dahlan and Barghouti, and therefore lacks their connections among ordinary Palestinians. Furthermore, like many leaders from the Arafat generation, he has a reputation for corruption.


Path to victory: Qurei will need to capitalize on widespread disenchantment with Palestinian leadership under Abbas, but he is unlikely to have the support to ride it to victory.


MUHAMMAD GHNEIM


Pros: Ghneim is another septuagenarian member of Fatah's old guard. Unlike Qurei, he has established an alliance with Abbas rather than opposing him. Ghneim returned from exile in Tunisia this June to attend Fatah's internal elections, after Abbas negotiated his return with Israel. He was one of the few members of the older generation to maintain his position in the Central Committee after the elections. As an aging leader who nevertheless has credibility with current Fatah cadres, he could enter the picture if the younger generation of leaders is unable to unite around one candidate.


Cons: Like Qurei, his long career in exile means that Ghneim lacks the support base of leaders who have spent the bulk of their career in Palestine. He was also a vocal opponent of the Oslo Accords and continued to espouse a hard-line stance, which would cause the United States and Israel to look askance at his candidacy.


Path to victory: First, Ghneim needs to hope for serious infighting among the younger, more popular Palestinian leaders such as Barghouti and Dahlan. It's possible that such a scenario would cause the leaders to turn to Ghneim to act as a unifying force, bringing together the various Fatah factions under his wing. The continuing failure of negotiations with Israel also would be a boon for him, as it validates his uncompromising line.

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