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article imageTop 10 most pressing worldwide issues in 2015 Special

By Kay Mathews     Dec 20, 2014 in World
The predictions are not based on gazing into a crystal ball. Instead, research and insights from experts make the most urgent issues facing the world in 2015 crystal clear.
Extreme Realities is a new Journey to Planet Earth episode that connects the dots between extreme weather, climate change, and national security threats. And, as the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2014 report highlights, “global risks are not only interconnected but also have systemic impacts.” Many urgent issues are interconnected and that is true for a number of the ten most pressing issues facing the world in 2015 listed below. They are listed independently, but links between them are also a reality. The rankings (1 = worst/most pressing) are based on likelihood of lives lost; human pain and suffering, including loss of homes and livelihoods; and, likelihood of broader, negative economic implications.
1. Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “The global effects of climate change are already apparent in the rapid melting of glaciers, the thawing of the permafrost, changing precipitation patterns, fringe forests dying and being converted to marsh and a rising sea-level.” Moreover, Chris Field, one of the authors of the UN's recent report on the impacts of climate change, stated, “We are now in an era where climate change isn’t some kind of future hypothetical.”
There are a number of documented events to support those assertions. In fact, in December, when discussing the influence of global warming on extreme climate and weather events, Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of environmental Earth system science at the Stanford School of Earth Sciences, said, "If we look over the last decade in the United States, there have been more than 70 events that have each caused at least $1 billion in damage, and a number of those have been considerably more costly."
At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla., unusually high tides and hurricanes destroyed sand dunes near two spaceport facilities. The sand dunes were reconstructed this year, but looking into the future with a “managed threat” approach, Nancy Bray, center operations director for Kennedy, said, “That means if sea-level rise becomes insurmountable, NASA eventually may have to move roads, utilities and perhaps even launch pads ~ a costly and complex possibility.”
In this time lapse photograph taken Jan. 23  2014  an Atlas V rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral A...
In this time lapse photograph taken Jan. 23, 2014, an Atlas V rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41 boosting NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite to Earth orbit. The light of the launch illuminates the sand dune restoration site at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
NASA/Tony Gray
Other examples in recent years include: Superstorm Sandy, which was responsible for almost 200 deaths, billions of dollars in damages, and over 100 million miles of severely eroded shoreline beaches; A decade-long rainfall decline in the Amazon, with NASA reporting, “With global climate models projecting further drying over the Amazon in the future, the potential loss of vegetation and the associated loss of carbon storage may speed up global climate change.”; and, the gradual disappearance of island nations due to rising sea levels, such as the Carteret Islands that are expected to be “uninhabitable by 2015, as high tides have inundated the islands, destroying crops, wells, and homes.”
A headline from the World Economic Forum reads: "2015: The year of storms?" Research suggests that the answer to that question is "yes" and the result will be lives lost, perhaps even entire islands lost, and untold amounts of money will be required to repair the damage caused worldwide due to global climate change and extreme weather events.
2. Hunger
One of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals is eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. Progress has been made on both fronts, but the UN states, “Globally, about 842 million people are estimated to be undernourished” and “More than 99 million children under age five are still undernourished and underweight.” Ultimately, the UN indicates that, worldwide, one in nine people remain hungry. Hunger is not only human suffering that many of us cannot begin to imagine, but it also results in death. “Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year,” according to the World Food Programme. notes that “About 21,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes.” While it is true that most of the “world’s hungry people live in developing countries,” it is also true that developed regions “saw the number of hungry rise, from 13 million in 2004-2006 to 16 million in 2010-2012.”
An Ethiopian family
This woman's daughter is sick and malnourished
Sadly, those hunger trends are likely to continue in 2015. Citing a report from the Financial Times, a Dec. 19, 2014 Worldwatch Institute article states, “The growth of biofuels, the impacts of climate change, and the rising prosperity of developing nations are all driving retail food prices to their biggest annual increase in 30 years.” Moreover, it is noted that “Experts warn that increases in food prices over the next 18 months may seriously affect developing nations, as food becomes less affordable for the poorest segments of the population.”
The poorest segments of the U.S. population are vulnerable to increased hunger in the coming year as well. Already, according to Feeding America, “Hunger exists in every community of our country. 1 in 6 people struggle to get enough to eat.” The Feeding America food banks provide service to 46.5 million people each year, which includes many military families (20%) struggling with hunger. But, a report issued in early December by the U.S. Conference of Mayors indicates that both “hunger and homelessness are on the rise in cities across the country.” Additionally, for both older adults in general and people living in the South (Arkansas, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina) in particular, food insecurity is likely to rise in coming years.
3. Vladimir Putin
It was the Extreme Realities episode that sparked my interest in writing this Top 10 article. Included in the episode was an examination of how extreme weather events in 2010 are linked to the Arab Spring and the rise of the Taliban. The argument centered on how climate change led to droughts, heat waves, and fires in Russia resulting in 56,000 deaths, a 40% reduction in grain production, and Putin banning grain exports. Grain prices skyrocketed and people in many grain-importing Arab nations found themselves going hungry. This, according to Extreme Realities, played a role in the Arab Spring. Also in 2010, climate change led to extreme monsoon rains and flooding in Pakistan, which led to 20 million homeless people - "climate change refugees." Suffering people will look for help, and Extreme Realities contends that the Taliban was more than willing to step-in to win hearts and minds. The overarching point was that climate change often leads to humanitarian challenges which can then lead to security threats. As I considered my lack of experience in foreign policy/international security issues, I decided to reach out to an expert in order to seek input on the Top 10 most pressing worldwide issues.
Jill Dougherty, formerly a Foreign Affairs Correspondent for CNN and currently a Public Policy Scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was the person I chose to contact. Ms. Dougherty responded and said she was "in Moscow on a very tight schedule." She indicated that she wouldn't be able to provide a Top 10 list. However, "I do think Russia has to be at the top of the list," said Dougherty. "Maybe you think there is another number one. But dealing with Putin will be a top challenge."
Vladimir Putin at a World Economic Forum meeting
Vladimir Putin at a World Economic Forum meeting
World Economic Forum / Remy Steinegger
In her Project Summary for the Wilson Center, Dougherty indicates that her research focuses on "President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to control the Russian media." She states, "The increasing centralization and mobilization of Russia’s domestic and international information resources in the hands of the state is providing the Kremlin the means to galvanize public opinion within the country, ignite passions in countries of the former Soviet Union with large populations of Russian-speakers, and forcefully assert Russia’s policies, views and values internationally."
We have seen Putin's ability to ignite the passions of people in Ukraine, one of the 15 former republics in the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR). In March of this year, residents of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, many of whom are ethnic Russians, voted on a referendum of independence from Ukraine and sought to join Russia as a federal subject. Days later, President Putin signed a law admitting Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation. The following month, conflict broke-out in eastern Ukraine. As Reuters reported in late November, “In total, more than 4,300 combatants and civilians have been killed in eastern Ukraine since pro-Russian rebels seized border regions in April.”
"To punish President Vladimir Putin for failing to end support for rebels in Ukraine," stated Bloomberg in July, the United Nations and EU imposed sanctions against Russian companies and limited Russia's access to financing. And so began the rapid decline of the ruble. Only days ago, reporting from President Vladimir Putin’s 10th news conference, Dougherty brought us up to date. “The value of the Russian currency, the ruble, was dropping like a stone, the U.S. and Europe were just announcing yet more sanctions, Russia was on the verge of a recession, but the president refused to call it a 'crisis'," Dougherty wrote.
Since rankings are based on likelihood of lives lost, we know that at least 4,300 have been lost since April and Putin gives us little reason to think that his goal is not "to re-establish the Soviet Union," as Lithuanian ambassador Žygimantas Pavilionis speculated. Thus, ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine is likely to occur in 2015 and more lives will be lost. Moreover, Putin has threatened to move nukes into Crimea. The Fiscal Times said the "Nuclear threat suggests a disturbing return to Cold War defense postures."
The rankings also take into consideration loss of livelihoods and likelihood of broader, negative economic implications. For post-Soviet states this is starting to happen in the wake of the economic crisis that Putin refuses to acknowledge. An RFE/RL article discusses how the former USSR republics are still interconnected with Russia economically. "Currencies throughout the region -- from the Moldovan leu to the Kazakh tenge have seen drops in value of between 10 and 20 percent this year," reports RFE/RL. Countries, and families, that rely on remittances sent back by citizens working in Russia are in trouble. "The biggest problem for Russia's neighbors is remittances," economist Roman Gotsiridze, chairman of the Center for Economic Development and a former president of the National Bank of Georgia, told RFE/RL. "Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan are affected by this because they have many citizens working in Russia. In November, remittances [to Georgia] decreased by $20 million, after a $16 million decrease in October."
4. Widening Income Disparities
Oxfam sums-up the issue[PDF] nicely, noting:
• Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
• The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
• The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
• Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
• The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
• In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
"This massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people presents a significant threat to inclusive political and economic systems,” Oxfam states. “Instead of moving forward together, people are increasingly separated by economic and political power, inevitably heightening social tensions and increasing the risk of societal breakdown.” The World Economic Forum's "Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014" states[PDF], "Widening wealth disparity affects every part of our lives. It’s impacting social stability within countries and threatening security on a global scale."
Luxury four deck super-yacht
Luxury four deck super-yacht
Alex Proimos
For a number of reasons, income inequality has moved up on the World Economic Forum's list to the top spot for 2015. "The inherent dangers of neglecting inequality are obvious," states the World Economic Forum. "People, especially young people, excluded from the mainstream end up feeling disenfranchised and become easy fodder of conflict. This, in turn, reduces the sustainability of economic growth, weakens social cohesion and security, encourages inequitable access to and use of global commons, undermines our democracies, and cripples our hopes for sustainable development and peaceful societies."
5. Gender Inequality
Another of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals is promoting gender equality and empowering women. Some progress has been made in education and political participation, but, “In many countries, gender inequality persists and women continue to face discrimination in access to education, work and economic assets, and participation in government.” Moreover, “Violence against women continues to undermine efforts to reach all goals.”
UN Women provides some of the most up-to-date data on violence against women:
• According to a 2013 global review of available data, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. However, some national violence studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime from an intimate partner.
• More often than not, cases of violence against women go unreported.
• Around 120 million girls worldwide (slightly more than 1 in 10) have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives.
• In the United States, 83 per cent of girls in grades 8 through 11 (aged 12 to 16) have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public schools.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states[PDF]that “intimate partner/family-related homicide disproportionately affects women: two thirds of its victims globally are female (43,600 in 2012) and one third (20,000) are male. Almost half (47 per cent) of all female victims of homicide in 2012 were killed by their intimate partners or family members, compared to less than 6 per cent of male homicide victims.”
The UN Secretary-General’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign invites you to “Orange Y...
The UN Secretary-General’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign invites you to “Orange YOUR Neighbourhood”
United Nations
The Copenhagen Consensus Center’s Gender Equality Assessment states, "Violence against women is widespread and persistent. This includes rape, domestic violence, violence outside the household, and ‘honor’ killings all of which affect women of all ages and irrespective of their socio-economic status." Moreover, the Gender Equality Assessment discusses important aspects of gender equality and makes calculations of the financial benefits for every dollar spent on gender equality targets. For example, for every dollar spent on “Improve access to sexual and reproductive health for all women” the benefit is $120. Yet, in the United States, record numbers of conservative bills and laws have been passed to limit women's reproductive rights.
Time provides a map that shows just how far the world has to go to reach gender equality. The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom are not among the "10 countries with the best gender parity."
Achieving gender equality is important because, as the Brookings Institution states, "Gender inequality holds back not just women but the economic and social development of entire societies."
6. Armed Violence
A Women’s Media Center article titled “The World Agrees: No Right to Bear Unregulated Arms” refers to a Control Arms finding that “more than 747,000 people are killed every year in armed violence, two thirds in countries that are at peace.”
In homes in America where peace is not present, Media Matters says, “The presence of a gun makes it five times more likely domestic violence will turn into murder.” Further it is asserted in the post, with appropriate links, that “Women are less safe when they live in a house with a gun, they're less safe when they live in states with more guns, they're less safe when they live in the United States, period. Women in this country represent 84 percent of all female firearm homicides throughout the developed world, a finding that is clearly linked to the prevalence of guns.” Readers are also reminded that “abusers can avoid background checks by purchasing their firearms through private sales,” somewhat like, it seems, the ISIS terrorist group in Syria and the use of missiles by militias in Ukraine to shoot down the Malaysian airliner are “cases involving arms that are under-the-table transfers.”
The United States has “more than 11,000 gun-related killings each year,” but a country that bans guns, Brazil, “tops the global list for gun murders.” In 2008, for example, “34,678 people were murdered by firearms in Brazil.”
A gun with holster
A gun with holster
Takeshi Mano
In this instance, I don’t want the US or any nation vying to be No. 1 in gun-related killings. But, I predict that in 2015 there will be many more than 11,000 killings because “most states do not require background checks for firearms purchased at gun shows from private individuals” and due to the State of Georgia’s “guns everywhere” law that went into effect in July. In Savannah alone there were nine shootings over a three-day period in November. This follows on the heels of eight people being shot within a four-day period in July, just after the "guns everywhere" law went into effect. Given the “guns everywhere” fervor currently present in the US, I predict that more states will adopt a law similar to the one enacted in Georgia, or expand ones already in place, and an increase in guns deaths will be seen in 2015.
7. Conflicts and Terrorism (tied)
The Council on Foreign Relations' Global Conflict Tracker "is an interactive guide to U.S. conflict prevention priorities in 2015. It is based on the most recent Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS), which asked government officials, foreign policy experts, and academics to assess ongoing and potential conflicts based on their likelihood to occur in 2015 and their potential impact on U.S. interests." Violence in eastern Ukraine, escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, increased violence and instability in Afghanistan, and North Korean crisis are among the hot spots on the tracker.
The United States and other nations are now engaged in military operations against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimates "The cost of U.S. military operations against ISIL through September 24 is likely between $780 and $930 million." The cost will increase based on the duration and scope of these operations and could reach as high as "$13 to $22 billion" annually.
The Face of Terror: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
The Face of Terror: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
Screen grab
Foreign Policy refers to a 2014 Rand report and provides this summary: "Since 2010, there has been a 58 percent increase in the number of jihadist groups, a doubling of jihadist fighters and a tripling of attacks by Al Qaeda affiliates. The most significant threat to the United States, the report concludes, comes from terrorist groups operating in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan."
FP also cites the State Department's "Country Reports on Terrorism 2013" and states, "It observes that last year attacks worldwide increased almost by half, from 6,700 to 9,700. Nearly 18,000 people died and nearly 33,000 were injured."
9. Health
As the World Economic Forum asserts, "Health presents a challenge for all nations" but it is a vital issue to focus on due to the fact that "improving the health of a nation’s citizens can directly result in economic growth, because there will be more people able to conduct effective activities in the workforce."
As Forbes reports, "The most notable way the U.S. differs from other industrialized countries is the absence of universal health insurance coverage." Here's a map of countries that administer some sort of universal health care plan. The U.S. did, however, implement the Affordable Care Act and the Kaiser Family Foundation states, "Baseline estimates show that over 41 million individuals were uninsured in 2013, prior to the start of the major ACA coverage provisions, and early evidence suggests that the ACA has reduced this number."
There are a number of financial, and other, implications for those who are uninsured including health providers can choose to not provide care to the uninsured, medical bills can put great strain on the uninsured and threaten their physical and financial well-being, the average uninsured household has no net assets and medical debts contribute to almost half of all bankruptcies in the United States. But, a good trend, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, is that "As of mid-April 2014 (after the first open enrollment period), over 8 million people selected plans through the federal or state Marketplaces."
Colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealing some of the ultrastructural morphology di...
Colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealing some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion.
CDC/Frederick A. Murphy
In recent months, there have been disease outbreaks in Saudi Arabia (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus), Brazil (West Nile virus), and Madagascar (Plague), reports the World Health Organization (WHO). But, it is the Ebola crisis that has taken center stage in the world. As World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said at the Opening Press Conference of the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings 2014, "unless we quickly contain and stop the Ebola epidemic, nothing less than the future of not only West Africa but perhaps even Africa is at stake. The Ebola crisis in West Africa has already infected more than 8,000 people and claimed more than 3,800 lives, and the epidemic continues to spread." The World Bank Group's study indicates that if the epidemic is not contained quickly, "as much as $32.6 billion could be lost by the end of 2015."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, "The 2014 Ebola epidemic is the largest in history." Case counts indicate that containment will not happen in 2014. Thus, many more are likely to die and billions will be lost in 2015.
10. Cyber Attacks
The World Economic Forum’s Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 tells us that "Perceived digital warfare is escalating as a sophisticated breed of attack against corporations, governments and individuals" and reminds us that a group called the Syrian Electronic Army, which supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime, "successfully managed to temporarily cripple the online operations of companies like Twitter and The New York Times."
The word "reminds" is used because what's at the top of people's minds right now on this issue is North Korea's massive cyber attack on Sony Pictures that crippled its computer network and threatened more acts if "The Interview" film was released. Sony capitulated and cancelled the movie's release in all forms (theaters, on-demand, etc.). Cyber-security sources told ABC News, "The primary suspects are members of an elite North Korean cyber-security unit known as 'Bureau 121.'"
Computer keyboard.
Computer keyboard.
R. Jason Brunson, U.S. Navy
Security experts argue that "Sony's capitulation could mean that more businesses will be targeted for cyberwarfare and extortion." Forbes reports that there have been a number of "brutal cyber attacks" in 2014 and more are expected in 2015. Business Insider states, "McAfee Labs' 2015 Threats Predictions report sees increased cyber-warfare and espionage, along with new strategies from hackers to hide their tracks and steal sensitive data."
Cyber attacks made the list because McAfee Labs estimates [PDF] "that the likely annual cost to the global economy from cybercrime is more than $400 billion." Cybercrime could cost as many as 200,000 American jobs and as many as 150,000 jobs in Europe, according to McAfee.
More about Climate change, extreme weather events, Putin, Hunger, Food insecurity
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