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Examining Priorities: Climate Change or World Poverty?

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Knowing which issues are worth spending time solving is one of the things I find perhaps most daunting about volunteering and development work. There is no agreed upon to-do task list on which global issues we should solve first; and people mostly outside of development (like me) are easily swayed by emotional reactions to the images perpetuated by the mainstream media. I have to admit, it’s hard to resist the emotional pull of a well-written documentary or a news story illustrating a new cause. There are dozens of issues the United Nations and several organizations have prioritized, but even as they focus development work on certain areas, budgetary concerns and intersecting interests can change where the world is focusing international aid.

Then you add to the mix variables like climate change, which has taken center stage over the past decade, and the needed focus blurs more. Should I, as a volunteer, support this cause above others since it seems like such a looming threat? Which problem is more immediate? This question haunts me, and that’s why this TED Talk I watched recently fascinated me so much—what if we as a society have to re-examine our priorities and take a leap of faith that the unknown future will provide better answers than we can imagine on problems that don’t have solutions yet. Bjorn Lomborg is a Danish political scientist who uses this question as the foundation of his TED talk:

Given $50 billion to spend, which would you solve first, AIDS or global warming?

He says that in focusing on the problems, we are focusing on the wrong thing. By its very nature the problems is the issue, so we should instead focus efforts on solutions to problems (his organization’s annual list of solutions from the Copenhagen Consensus is intriguing). He theorizes that we should center spending our global monetary resources and assistance on the current problems we can afford to solve.  I’ll stop now though, as he has the facts and data, and let you watch the TED Talk; it’s embedded below or you can watch it here.

What do you think about his idea that we are focusing on the wrong problems and prioritizing an uncertain future over the current ability to save human lives? I’d love to hear your take in the comments.