Cover of book: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Andrew Leigh
What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

The Doomsday Clock was set at 11.53pm when it was established by a group of Armageddon-conscious scientists in the 1940s. Thanks largely to global heating, it now stands at one minute and 40 seconds before midnight.

But even though some experts consider the likelihood of catastrophe greater than that of the everyday risks we mitigate against – such as car crashes and unprotected sex – they are still rarely prioritised by governments and policymakers. Andrew Leigh makes the case for putting this right. The Labor MP and former economics professor devotes chapters to deadly disease, nuclear warfare, artificial intelligence – alongside Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”. With just a slight shift in perspective, says Leigh, we could drastically improve the chances of future generations inheriting a planet fit for habitation.

The biggest risk of climate change is “not in the most probable outcomes”, such as temperature rises of a few degrees, but “in the extremes”. Discussing the potential for unpredictable weather to accelerate global heating, Leigh paints a terrifying portrait of conditions under a six-degree rise.

But the solutions he advocates are timid, inadequate and totally off target. This is most apparent when he turns to the electoral success of populist politicians. In spurning expertise, moderation and reasoned debate, he says populists sideline “long-term dangers such as climate change and nuclear war” in pursuit of quick fixes.

Leigh acknowledges “establishment centrists have done a lousy job of maintaining their supporter base”, but he sees this as purely an optical failure. It might be unfair to expect him to recognise that centrism, with its pursuit of perpetual economic growth, itself poses an existential threat to the planet. But it is a failure of basic scholarship to ignore the fact that every man-made risk in the book has ballooned under centrist rule.

Leigh offers sweeping generalisations such as “the opposite of a populist is an internationalist” or “virtually all climate deniers are populists”. In a muddled distinction between left- and right-wing populism, he brands Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as “populist egalitarians” – but ignores their advocacy of a Green New Deal. Far from sidelining work on climate change, left-wing populists have been the loudest advocates for radical action to save the planet. “It is impossible to envisage a project of radicalization of democracy in which the ‘ecological question’ is not at the centre of the agenda,” the political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues in her 2018 book For a Left Populism.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen? is at best too optimistic – and at worst disingenuous. It purports to make the case for change, but in fact it advocates a return to what he describes, unironically, as a “calm consensus” – the same failed consensus that brought the Doomsday Clock so close to midnight.

Conrad Landin

MIT Press, 240pp, $44.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, Andrew Leigh".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: Conrad Landin

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on August 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.