Addressing uncertainties: Facing the worldat breaking point

POINT OF VIEW - Selva Ramachandran - The Philippine Star

We are living in uncertain times.

Extreme weather patterns are becoming usual occurrences around the world. The onslaught of recent typhoons like Odette and Karding that swept parts of the Philippines clearly demonstrate the worsening climate crisis, greatly affecting those at the fringes of society. They provide a preview of what inaction on climate change can lead to: escalating needs for disaster response and recovery; increasing fiscal stress as the government is compelled to provide humanitarian aid to disaster-stricken areas and widening gap across income groups as low-income groups are, more often than not, more vulnerable to climate-related disasters.

Unfortunately, these extreme events may become more frequent and even more damaging with the changing climate.

Headlines may scream for urgent action, but implementing change is tough. Filipinos, just like the rest of the world, may appear to be trapped in a whirlpool of real problems and possible solutions, fueled by the uncertain world we live in. It is unsettling lives everywhere, and perhaps more so for the Philippines, an archipelago that’s situated along both the Pacific typhoon belt and the so-called ring of fire.

Global development has stalled. Until 2020, the global human development index (HDI) – a measure of a nation’s health, education and average income – had risen every year since 1991 when UNDP began calculating it. It fell in 2020. And it fell again in 2021. And it fell almost everywhere: 90 percent of countries saw a decline in one or other year, wiping out five years of progress. The Philippines is no exception. In 2021, the country slid back to “medium” HDI category, after years of maintaining a spot amongst the “high” HDI group.

Development today, with its new dimensions of uncertainty, is the focus of UNDP’s Human Development Report 2022. The report examines the ways in which crises are piling up to unsettle life, and interacting with our changing planet, increasing polarization and societal transformation. These are all moving at unprecedented speed and scale and interacting with each other in ways we cannot ignore. We are navigating uncharted waters around the world.

An obvious example is humanity’s impact on planetary processes, from rising temperature to dwindling wildlife. For the first time in history, manufactured materials, such as concrete and asphalt, outweigh the Earth’s biomass. Microplastics are everywhere: in country-sized garbage patches in the ocean, in protected forests and distant mountaintops, in people’s lungs and blood. This is threatening humanity’s very survival.

Aside from the planetary crisis, we are faced with a quickly eroding social fabric. Our societies are divided all over the world. Globally, trust in one another is at its lowest recorded level, coming in at just 30 percent in the latest HDR 2022. This erosion of trust pushed people to extreme positions, with those feeling very insecure twice as likely to support extremist views, which makes it even harder for a society to take collective action. Locally, there is clamor for climate justice, with efforts to curb emission being contingent upon climate finance, technologies and capacity development which developed countries are expected to provide in accordance with the Paris Agreement.

The future looks challenging, but this can be reversed. Our success will depend on our ability to take decisive action and to prioritize policies that invest, insure and innovate.

We are not starting from zero. There is already progress to cheer from the dramatic increase in renewable energy capacity. With serious investment this could rapidly accelerate and ensure a more sustainable source of energy. As investment ramps up, people also need to feel safe. Alongside insurance for companies and countries, social protection should be the bedrock of our societies, with universal basic income and cash transfers helping insulate people from increasing shocks.

However, it is innovation that will be at the epicenter of us conquering the unknowable challenges ahead. Artificial intelligence is already helping in modeling climate change impacts and in predicting disasters. And we are only just scratching the surface.

Humanity’s only certainty is that our future is uncertain. To thrive together, we must throw out the old rulebook and recognize the world has changed. We trialed a new playbook during the pandemic, from cash transfers reaching over a billion people to saving 20 million lives through vaccination in 2021 alone. This shows what is possible when we put our minds to it. It is time to usher in a new era. To rekindle hope and re-write the future. To decide that this is not our end, but the start of a new beginning.

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Dr. Selva Ramachandran is UNDP Philippines Resident Representative.

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