It’s particularly trendy among politicians and members of the media to be worried about climate change. When President Obama recently spoke before a crowd in Berlin, he said that climate change “is the global threat of our time.”
But that’s not true. Just a cursory glance around the world reveals that, given the enormous problems facing our planet, it would be surprising if climate change cracked a list of the top 10 immediate concerns.
As I discussed in my book Science Left Behind, the single biggest threat facing humanity is poverty. That’s a mundane topic; it’s neither sexy nor trendy, but it’s nonetheless true.
About 1.3 billion people don’t have electricity. A poignant article in TIME described what that life looks like:
It’s boring, for one thing — no television, no MP3 player, no video games. And it’s lonely and disconnected as well — no computer, no Internet, no mobile phone. You can read books, of course — but at night you won’t have light, other than the flicker of firewood. And about that firewood — you or someone in your family had to gather it during the day, taking you away from more productive work or schooling, and in some parts of the world, exposing you to danger. That same firewood is used to cook dinner, throwing off smoke that can turn the air inside your home far more toxic than that breathed in an industrial city. You may lack access to vaccines and modern drugs because the nearest hospital doesn’t have regular power to keep the medicine refrigerated. You’re desperately poor — and the lack of electricity helps to ensure that you’ll stay that way.
The lack of adequate healthcare explains why, in the world’s poorest countries, six of the ten leading causes of death are infectious diseases: lower respiratory infections, diarrhea, AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and neonatal infections.
In fact, microbiologists in particular would disagree that climate change is the world’s #1 threat. Instead, their biggest fear is the terrifying rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria, as well as the ever-present threat of deadly viruses going pandemic, such as influenza and MERS.
Foreign policy analysts worry about nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and the long-term stability of regional hot spots, such as the Middle East, the Korean peninsula, and the India-Pakistan border. Economists worry about the Eurozone and the possibility of another global financial panic. Energy analysts worry about peak oil and society’s capability of utilizing new forms of energy. Global health experts worry about malnutrition.
And for good reason. Did you know that 250,000 to 500,000 children go blind annually from vitamin A deficiency, half of whom die within 12 months? You won’t find that sad statistic on the front page (or on any page, for that matter) of our newspapers. But think about it. Comprehend it. It might just change your perspective on global priorities.
None of this is meant to subtract from the seriousness of climate change. Yes, it is a threat. Rising sea levels could displace millions of people. But, we can start preparing for that contingency now by building floodwalls. We can adapt to marine ecosystem damage via ocean acidification by doing more aquaculture – that is, growing our seafood in tanks on land. We have several decades to adapt to climate change, and there are practical solutions we can implement to mitigate the negative effects.
Other consequences of climate change, such as worsening food and water shortages or quickening the spread of malaria, are simply exacerbating pre-existing problems that would need to be addressed whether or not climate change was occurring.
Basically, what the average person in the Westernized world considers to be a big problem is rarely aligned with reality. Instead, our concerns are more of a reflection of what our culture and the media say our concerns should be.
Tackling the world’s real problems doesn’t make for exciting television, like watching a climate alarmist and a climate denier yell at each other does. But it is the right thing to do.
And that should be exciting enough.