Ward, who is a regular on NPR's Science Friday, is a world-class expert on paleontology and mass extinctions. He is Principal Investigator at the University of Washington part of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, and the author of twelve books on science, including RARE EARTH: WHY COMPLEX LIFE IS UNCOMMON IN THE UNIVERSE. That one, which explains why we probably aren't going to find any other intelligent aliens Out There, apparently caused an epic run-in with Gregory Benford and David Brin, who think otherwise. I wish I had witnessed that.
This panel was supposed to feature SF writers generating story ideas about the material Ward presented, but we writers didn't do too much of that because we were too stunned. Ward, a personable and engaging speaker, cheerfully presented one disaster scenario after another, most of them "unstoppable." Seas rising from global warming, endangering three-quarters of the world's population. Dead oceans. In 100 years, way too much carbon dioxide in the air. In half a billion years, way too little carbon dioxide in the air, due to plants' fixing it, unless we heat up massive amounts of limestone to counteract. In five billion years, the end of the sun. By the end of the panel, the audience wanted to slit its collective wrists.
I raised this question: It's one thing to care what happens to humans 100 years from now but why should I, Nancy Kress, care if humanity no longer exists a half billion years in the future? Species come, species go. This question didn't seem to compute for many people, but it seems valid to me, and I got no real answer from anyone. I also pointed out that, in terms of writing ideas (the ostensible reason for the panel), a disaster did not have to be either forestalled or "solved" in the story. There is also a wealth of potential stories in "letting" the disaster happen and then imagining the world that might ensue afterward.
This is why I go to SF cons: for the mental stimulation. Well, that and the company in the bar.