There is nothing like a pandemic to illustrate what the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once described as the “fierce urgency of now.” The battle against COVID-19 is far from over—more missteps may come, and resurgences might occur. But at least for now, stay-at-home orders, social distancing requirements and other emergency measures appear to be “flattening the curve” in the U.S. and other hard-hit countries. It proves that collective, effective action in the face of a common enemy is possible, so long as the threat is imminent, evident and lethal. That raises a question about other global challenges, including climate change, that may be less immediate, but no less important. What will it take to spur effective action on them?
COVID-19 has demonstrated that if the need is sufficiently strong or the danger readily apparent, people can be remarkably adaptive, wonderfully creative, admirably self-sacrificing and incredibly generous. Necessity is not just the mother of invention; it is the father of courage and compassion.
It also demonstrates the need to act with vision and foresight long before a threat becomes a mortal danger or a deficiency becomes a serious detriment. An ounce of preparation and prevention can be worth a pound of cure or, if no cure is available, a ton of triage and treatment.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 should remind us that our slowness to grasp the implications of exponential growth can be our swift undoing. Fast-growing problems can sneak up on us like a robber in the night.
We have much to learn from this experience. Fiscal conservatives should note that the amount that the federal government will spend in response to COVID-19 could approach the $4.4 trillion price tag of last year’s federal budget. We are already well past the $2 trillion mark. Civil libertarians should recognize that this crisis has done far more to restrict many of our essential freedoms, including freedom of movement and freedom of assembly, than anything since World War II. In the short-term, it also has done far more to restrict commerce, ruin small businesses and lower economic output than all the federal regulations currently on the books. The unemployment rate in the next few months will likely surge to levels not experienced in the Great Recession.
The real discussion we should be having is not about the age-old debate of big government versus small government. It’s about smart government versus dumb government, science versus wishful thinking, preparation versus procrastination, prevention versus neglect. Domestically, we know that investments in healthy lifestyles and early childhood education can be far less costly and far more effective than remedial fixes, like more hospitals and more prisons. The same is true globally.
We live in a rapidly changing world, one bursting with challenges. With rapidly growing urban centers, inadequate public health systems and more humans coming into contact with animals capable of transmitting a deadly zoonotic virus, COVID-19 was a pandemic waiting to happen, and it is not likely to be the last. Pandemics, however, are not the only global threat we face.
Last year, 11,000 scientists signed a declaration warning that unless greenhouse gas emissions are radically reduced, the world is in for “untold suffering.” Unless we change course, upwards of 200 million people could be displaced by drought, flooding and rising seas by 2050. Well before the end of this century, the number of people killed every year by increased drought, heat, storms, flooding and other climatic effects, including the wider spread of mosquito-borne diseases, could well exceed the toll likely to be taken this year by COVID-19. Last year, Dr. Michael Greenstone, co-director of the Climate Impact Lab, warned Congress that more people could die prematurely from climatic changes in 2100 than the number who die today from all infectious diseases combined.
The cumulative economic losses from climate change will be far greater than the financial toll likely to be inflicted this year by COVID-19. If global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius, the global price tag could reach $69 trillion by 2100. Rising temperatures will also reduce crop yields; each degree Celsius increase in global temperatures could cut wheat yields alone by six 6 percent. Climate change will also accelerate the loss of wildlife. Within 50 years, one-third of the world’s plant and animal species could be facing extinction.
And it’s not just climate change. Growth in population and our insatiable demand for resources is destroying the life-supporting capacity of the planet. Its vital organs—tropical forests, wetlands, soil, rivers and reefs—are increasingly compromised. In addition to the natural world, human civilization will also come under siege. Many of the advances we have made in peace, health and prosperity over the past two centuries could be imperiled.
Genuine existential challenges loom large on the horizon. We started this century with 6 billion people, and by mid-century we could have 10 billion. By the end of the century, we could have 11 billion or more. If climatic conditions and soil erosion worsen, will we be able to feed billions more? And will the food we produce be affordable by the urban poor, many of whom subsist on $2 or $3 a day?
By the end of this century, a third or more of the world’s population may be living in what is currently the world’s poorest continent: Africa. Will Africa, which will be severely impacted by climate change, be able to break the bonds of poverty, disease and conflict to become the world’s next economic growth engine? And if not Africa, which country or region will become the “next China”?
Will our children and their children have access to the water and energy they will require to grow crops, run factories, mine ore and meet their household needs? Will disputes over land, water and other resources lead to regional or global conflict? Will the workers of tomorrow have the education and workforce training needed to compete with advances in automation and artificial intelligence?
Capitalism, as we know it today, can’t answer these questions. It is focused on boosting quarterly profits, not on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting natural resources, building human capital or preventing pandemics.
Those tasks are more properly the province of governments. But too many of our elected officials are focused on winning the next election rather than preparing us to meet the challenges that loom ahead.
As they scramble to cope with the real-time COVID-19 emergency, our political leaders are coming to understand the “fierce urgency of now.” But they have yet to come to grips with the fierce importance of tomorrow.
This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on April 22, 2020 in Newsweek