How to Worry

COPENHAGEN -- Since time immemorial, people have worried about the earth’s future. We once believed that the sky would fall. More recently we worried that the planet might freeze, and then that technology would grind to a halt because of a computer bug that was supposed to be unleashed at the turn of the millennium.

Those fears melted away, but today the world has many real, pressing problems. Think about the environment, governance, economics, health, or population, and you’ll find plenty of reasons to worry.

Unfortunately, however, we tend to focus on just some of the planet’s biggest issues, and we get a distorted view of the world as a result. Deforestation is a challenge that has attracted alarming headlines, celebrity firepower, and widespread anxiety. It is, to be blunt, a popular cause.

It seems surprising, then, to learn that deforestation is a diminishing problem. The solution wasn’t found in condemnation from the West of developing country practices, or in protests by well-meaning environmentalists, but in economic growth. Developed countries generally increase their forested areas, because they can afford to do so. Developing countries can’t. To encourage less deforestation – and more reforestation – the best thing we can do is help undeveloped nations get richer, faster.

Some challenges fail to ignite widespread concern. We should probably worry a lot more than we do about demographic changes that will cause a dramatic decline in the potential labor force in rich countries, and a rise in those relying on pensions and health care. In most industrialized countries, employment is concentrated in a narrow age range, so a decline in the labor force will cause a decline in production – and make us less well off.

This problem will hit even China. So we need to start talking about the options – raising the retirement age, increasing immigration from developing nations, and reforming labor markets.

When we over-worry about some things, we forget other, possibly much more important issues. In the West, we worry about the use of pesticides in crop creation. This has somehow become a rallying issue for environmentalists.

But indoor air pollution poses a much greater environmental problem. The fumes from cooking indoors with firewood and dung will kill more than 1.5 million people this year. Many will be children. We could combat the problem relatively cheaply and efficiently by getting improved cooking devices (such as cookers with a flue) and clean fuel to those who need them, and by encouraging fuel drying, stove and chimney maintenance, and the use of pot lids to conserve heat. We could keep vulnerable children away from the smoke.

The biggest concern about our planet right now is, of course, climate change. This is a serious problem that requires a serious response. However, our blinkered focus on reducing carbon emissions has led us to look in the wrong place for answers to other challenges. Losses from weather disasters are increasing, but the reason isn’t climate change – as many of us assume – but demographics.

More people with more belongings live closer to harm’s way. What’s worse, many governments are doing little to prepare for hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods. They don’t do enough to discourage people from living in foolhardy locations, and response plans are often poor.

The narrow focus of the climate debate on emissions reductions has worked against a clear focus on reducing vulnerability. The United Nations Framework Convention has refused to fund disaster preparedness efforts unless states demonstrate exactly how the disasters they feared were linked to climate change. According to a recent RAND study, the United States’ funding for disaster loss-reduction research in 2003 amounted to about $127 million – only 7% of the amount invested in climate-change research for that year.

Climate change policies are not the best way to reduce the effects of weather disasters. During the 2004 hurricane season, the Dominican Republic, which has invested in hurricane shelters and emergency evacuation networks, suffered fewer than ten deaths. In neighboring Haiti, which wasn’t prepared, 2,000 lives were lost.

Why is disaster vulnerability so low on the list of global development priorities?

Like the rest of us, governments tend to focus their attention on a small number of planetary problems. Every dollar they spend on climate change research, for example, is money not being spent on disaster loss reduction research.

That is the point of my new book Solutions for the World’s Problems , in which 23 eminent researchers address 23 global challenges. The book also allows readers to set their own priorities: leading economists sketch out solutions and provide cost-benefit ratios so that different policy options can be compared side-by-side, and the best ones identified and prioritized.

After all, while there is no shortage of ideas for resolving the big issues, governments and international organizations do have limited money. It would be wrong to pretend that we can do everything at once.

There is no harm in worrying about the planet. But we should be sure to look at the full picture, so that we know what to worry about first.