The other ticking time bomb

Bill Sims Contributing columnist

Bill Sims Contributing columnist

In case you missed it, the United Nations and announced recently that the world’s population hit 8 billion people on Nov. 15, 2022. For perspective, that’s more than a 500% increase since 1900.

More perspective. For the 10,000 years before the birth of Christ, the population of the world stayed below 100 million, rising to 232.12 million around the birth of Christ, which is more than a 100 million less than the current population of just the U.S. At the signing of our Declaration of Independence in 1776 the world’s population was approximately 850 million. Then, visualizing graphically, the “hockey stick” effect kicked in. From a population of about 1.5 billion in 1900 to 2022, the planet felt the surge and ultimate weight of 8 billion people, a 500% increase in just over 100 years.

We hear a lot today about the climate-change threat to the planet. The facts are true enough. But separately and intertwined, these two ticking time bombs could have devastating consequences for life on our planet, and the lack of urgency is remarkable.

Most demographers now believe that birth rates in China, Europe, North America and Australia will start to trend downward over the next few years. But India and Africa are a very different proposition.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, “More than half of the world’s population is concentrated in just seven countries: India, China, the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Brazil. By the year 2100, half the world’s population is projected to be concentrated in 10 countries: India, China, Nigeria, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, United States of America, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Tanzania and Egypt. By 2050, the population is projected to increase in just eight countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Tanzania and India.”

What should we in the United States and other countries around the world need to conclude from these demographic trends?

First, most of the growth is occurring in poorer countries, notably in Africa and India. The obvious questions are, how will these burgeoning populations be fed? How will they be able to access enough clean water? How will they be able to access adequate health care? Where will the money come from to deliver not only these needs but also the adequate infrastructure, the roads, housing and other constructs and institutions of a healthy civil society?

Factor in climate-change issues that are burdening many of these countries like floods, droughts, elevating temperature patterns and the evolving picture becomes potentially catastrophic. Factor in desperate populations looking for simplistic solutions from corrupt and autocratic populist leaders and the picture becomes even more grim.

According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI), of the top 10 nations in the world with food insecurity issues, all are in Africa, although the war in Ukraine and Yemen may be bending these indexes slightly.

What do desperate people do if their human needs aren’t being met, if they feel malnourished, if they are homeless, if they have no access to health care, if their children are dying of starvation? This is what’s happening now in many of these African nations? What do desperate people do? They migrate. This is not speculation. All the evidence is there in Africa, the Mediterranean, southern Europe, and on our own southern border.

The facts are that climate issues are getting worse and population trends will continue their upward trajectory, at least until 2100. Mass migrations of desperate people are inevitable. Developed countries have shown remarkable levels of tolerance for absorbing some of the mass migrations currently underway, but tolerances are starting to wear thin. Cultural, economic and social services concerns are challenging host countries who want to do the right thing but who also don’t want to see catastrophic and destabilizing consequences affecting their own socio-economic and cultural circumstances, lifestyles and welfare systems.

As these ticking time bombs of climate and population become potentially more explosive and desperately migrating people more nomadic, what in the world, literally, are we to do?

The COP27 climate conference that just ended in Egypt offers clues of good news and perhaps increasingly bad news. Let me summarize:

1. Agreement was reached that developing countries negatively affected by climate change damages should be compensated for what the biggest polluters have caused, namely in places like island nations and the recent horrific floods in Pakistan. This “loss and damage” agreement is a milestone, but what nations are ultimately responsible for payments into this fund and how much they owe is yet to be determined.

2. More disconcerting is that no further progress was made on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Even more distressing is that countries that have promised specific goals on limiting such emissions have not made promised progress. Fiona Harvey, a reporter from The Guardian attending the summit, put it this way: “The 2015 Paris agreement contained two temperature goals — to keep the rise “well below 2C” above pre-industrial levels, and “pursuing efforts” to keep the increase to 1.5C. Science since then has shown clearly that 2C is not safe, so at Cop26 in Glasgow last year countries agreed to focus on a 1.5C limit. As their commitments on cutting greenhouse gas emissions were too weak to stay within the 1.5C limit, they also agreed to return each year to strengthen them. At Cop27, some countries tried to renege on the 1.5C goal and to abolish the ratchet. They failed, but a resolution to cause emissions to peak by 2025 was taken out, to the dismay of many.

3. Making matters more troubling is that besides these backsliding nations, corporations have made much public fanfare about their commitment to achieve climate gains, oil companies in particular. The summit revealed that many of the corporations have been “green washing,” or dishonest about their actual efforts, burnishing their bonafides on false deceptive pretenses.

Albert Camus, French philosopher and Nobel Laureate once said: “Life is the sum of all your choices and by extrapolation, equals the accumulated choices of all mankind.”

The comet or asteroid that vanquished the dinosaurs 66 million years ago was devastatingly quick. The twin ticking time bombs we are now facing have the potential to kill our planet just as devastatingly, but more slowly as we dither and default in the decisions we need to make. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Will we do the same?

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

Bill Sims Contributing columnist Sims Contributing columnist