By: Fred Burondwa
Fossil fuels and electricity have helped to create the modern world by driving up farm productivity and thereby drastically reducing agricultural populations; mechanizing industrial production and letting the labor force move into the service sector; making megacities and conurbations a reality; globalizing trade and culture; and imposing many structural uniformities onto the diverse world.
Inevitably, all of these developments had enormous personal and collective consequences as they released hundreds of millions of people from hard physical labor, improved health and longevity, spread literacy, allowed for rising material affluence, broke traditional social and economic confines, and made the Western ideas of personal freedom and democracy into a powerfully appealing (as well as fanatically resented) global force. But these benefits are fully or largely enjoyed only by a minority (only 15%) of the world’s population.
The great energy transitions of the past century raised standards of living everywhere, but they have not been accompanied by any impressive decline in disparities between rich and poor societies. In the year 2000, the richest 10% of the world’s population consumed more than 40% of all commercial primary energy. In addition to being liberating and constructive, modern high-energy civilization is an enormous source of environmental pollution and degradation of ecosystems (perhaps even endangering the very maintenance of a habitable biosphere), is prone to many social ills accentuated by urban living, has acquired weapons of mass destruction, and is highly vulnerable to asymmetrical threats of terrorism.
As we have seen, climate change is an energy problem because of our unprecedented degree of affluence and the improving quality of life. As you can see, increasingly large amounts of energy are used to turn resources into junk. Just from things we derive ephemeral benefit and pleasure. If only we could devote energy only to tasks or processes directly relevant to our survival.
Confronting today’s energy and climate challenges is the epitome of a series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems. Never let a challenge go to waste!
As the climate gets warmer, droughts and floods will become more frequent, wiping out harvests more often. Livestock eat less and produce less meat and milk. The air and soil lose moisture, leaving less water available for plants; farmland will become substantially drier. Crop eating pests are already infesting more acreage as they find more hospitable environments to live in. The growing season will also get shorter.
When you’re already living on the edge, any one of these changes could be disastrous. If you don’t have any money saved up and your crops die off, you can’t go buy more seeds; you’re just wiped out. What’s more, all of these problems will make food far more expensive for those who can least afford it. Because of climate change, prices will skyrocket for hundreds of millions of people who already spend more than half of their incomes on food. As food becomes less available, an already enormous inequity between rich and poor will get even worse.
Today, a child born in Uganda is 50 times more likely to die before her fifth birthday than a child born in Wales. With growing food scarcity, more kids won’t get all the nutrients they need, weakening their bodies’ natural defenses and making them much more likely to die of diarrhea, malaria, or pneumonia. One study found that the number of additional heat-related deaths could approach 10 million a year by the end of the century (that’s roughly as many people as are killed by all infectious diseases today), with a large majority of the deaths occurring in poor countries. And the children who don’t die will be far more likely to suffer from stunting—that is, to not fully develop physically or mentally.
One thing that concerns me about 4IR is job loss. 2/3 of all currently existing jobs in developing countries will be lost because of automation. Now we have to make up for these jobs. One of the ways to make up for these jobs is to turn community health workers into a formal labor force. But here is the problem: jobs in the future will be digitally demanding, and there is a crisis in childhood stunting. If we don’t address stunting, how are we going to compete in 4IR if our workers cannot achieve educationally and economically for the country to grow?
In the end, the worst impact of climate change will be to make health worse—to raise the rates of malnutrition and death. So we need to invest in improving health. I see two ways to do that: one, we need to raise the odds that malnourished children will survive. That means improving primary health-care systems, doubling down on malaria prevention, and continuing to provide vaccines for conditions like diarrhea and pneumonia. Although the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly makes all these things harder, the world knows a lot about how to do them well. The vaccine program known as GAVI, which has prevented 13 million deaths since 2000, ranks as one of humanity’s greatest achievements. We can’t let climate change undo this progress. In fact, we need to accelerate it by developing vaccines for other diseases, including HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis, and getting them to everyone who needs them.
Then, in addition to saving the lives of malnourished children, we need to make sure that fewer children are malnourished in the first place. With population growth, the demand for food will likely double or triple in Africa. So we need to help poor farmers grow more of it, even when droughts and floods strike. Africa is responsible for only about 2 percent of all global emissions. What we really should be advocating for is funding for adaptation. The best way we can help the poor adapt to climate change is to make sure they’re healthy enough to survive it. And to thrive despite it by creating the innovations that will help poor farmers adapt to climate change in the years ahead. Finally, developing new climate-smart crops and livestock for Africa’s farmers. One of my favorite examples is drought-tolerant maize.
For people who have been privileged with elaborate educations, we need to begin asking some pretty fundamental questions. What is the nature of our responsibility to the world?
It is our role to help the poor leapfrog into a better world. This is important. The future of all of us will depend on how much care and compassion we bring to ensuring that we provide equality of opportunity.