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.

  • Rishi

    Very important topic here. My preference are based on my principles and thus are perhaps on the extreme.

    For example I feel that in order to eradicate poverty one doesn’t need to send money as aid, let alone airdrop food and such. For one most of these underdeveloped nations are extremely corrupt-some are ruled by invisible dictators at will. You don’t have to wager your life on the guess that the money sent by aid doesn’t even reach the ground level for the most part.

    I came to the conclusion that education is the way to go. The system needs an upheaval, as irrational as it sounds. Educate the masses on everything from basic finances to sex. And this leads me to the giant elephant in the room- population and population control.
    I think population control is not just required, it is a must, especially among the poor in countries like India or most of Africa. Do something…air drop condoms and give books because just by sending aid, the problem only multiplies. The poor are still poor… and clueless.

    Climate control has become a political issue, much to the dismay of intelligent people everywhere. That it is a reality is a given, but even there the solution lies within the heart of our civilization, and not by taming the weather or the arctic cold.

    On a totally different topic, what do you think of animal welfare, Shannon? I think the preservation of nature, and of species should be very high in the priority stakes. To give you an example: India has 1.2 billion people(and growing) and only around 300 wild tigers. Predictions calculate their extinction in the next 3 decades. Perhaps the same for Dolphins being overfished by Japan and Elephants and Rhinos being poached to death in Africa! There are some images which will translate through propaganda and rationality. You might say, as many do, that animals are not that important, or even beneath us. At the sound of being immodest- I disagree.

    In the end, we all have to do our bit. Let’s start.


    • shannon

      To some extent I completely agree Rishi, I do think there is a lot of corruption in the developing world, and that education is the long-term solution. But I also believe that eliminating extreme poverty is not done with one solution. People cannot learn and thrive and create new businesses and education opportunities until their basic needs are met: food, shelter, clothing. And for that, Aid and development workers have to fight the politics and corruption and create the baseline necessities before education can be implemented.

      Animal welfare and endangered animals is a topic that really makes me sad most days; I do believe we are tipping the balance of the world by over-population and there is no telling precisely what long-term effect that will have. On the one hand, animals have been going extinct for hundreds of millions of years even without our help — it’s the basics of Darwin’s theory that they either adapt or die to the new realities of life on this planet. Sadly that means us and we are altering it faster than evolution or adaption can happen. I care deeply about animals and conservation efforts, but in this lifetime of mine it’s not the primary cause I have taken on. I am vegetarian, socially conscious, and travel responsibly to limit my eco-impact, but my volunteer work usual involves education and working with children.

      Thanks for weighing in Rishi, and sharing your ideas, I really appreciate your perspective on this.

  • alamin//

    I completely agree with Rishi and Shannon what said.Rishi and Shannon has said many important things that somebody can’t think.
    it’s an excellent question that Given $50 billion to spend, which would you solve first, AIDS or global warming?.Yeah, it’s a deep matter for thinking.I think everybody should think about this question.we should immediately think about the climate change, it’s taking many people’s lives and devastating many peoples families.So we should immediately be aware about the climate change.