PRINCETON – If we were to judge the state of the world by the news headlines, 2015 was the year of Islamist terror, especially in Paris. It began with the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and included the much deadlier November 13 shootings in the city, in addition to attacks in Beirut, Ankara, and on a center for disabled people in San Bernadino, California.
But even if we focused on terrorism, that would be a misleading view of the year’s events. In 2015, terrorism killed more people in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Kenya than in France or the United States. And if the crash in October of a Russian civilian airliner in Egypt’s Sinai Desert was, as the Islamic State (ISIS) and Russians experts assert, the result of an ISIS plot, then that incident alone killed more people than both terrorist attacks in Paris.
In any case, concentrating on what the news media find most important to cover can give us a distorted sense of the world. The death of each of the innocent victims of last year’s terrorist attacks is a terrible tragedy for that person and his or her family and friends; but that is also true of deaths that occur in traffic accidents, which receive much less media attention.
Terrorism is shocking, violent, and makes for “good television.” If it occurs in cities like our own, or in cities we might visit, it attracts even greater interest because of the “It could have been me!” factor. From a global perspective, however, the two most important things that happened in 2015 were both highly encouraging, though only one, the international climate agreement reached in Paris in December, received significant media coverage.
Decades will pass before we know if the Paris agreement succeeds in meeting its stated aim of limiting global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels. But this is more ambitious language than most observers had expected, and it was accepted by all 194 participating countries.
Experts tell us that adding up the reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions that these countries have pledged yields a total drop that is still well short of the agreement’s stated goal. But a sliver of hope is offered by the commitment to review these targets at five-year intervals and consider what adjustments are needed to meet the goal.
We will see whether it works (or those of us young enough to live to 2050 will). But after the disappointment of the Copenhagen climate-change summit in 2009, the spirit of agreement that animated the Paris meeting should lift our spirits. If it does prove to be a turning point for efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change, its importance will dwarf anything else that happened in 2015.
In contrast to the outcome of the Paris meeting, the second most important thing that happened in 2015 was unequivocally positive: The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has fallen below 10% for the first time. That, at least, is the view of the World Bank, which has been monitoring global poverty since 1990.
As extreme poverty has fallen, developing countries’ “working middle class,” defined as people living on more than $4 per day, has grown, from only 18% of their workforce in 1991 to one-half today. In the same period, the proportion of undernourished people in developing regions has also fallen sharply, from 23.3% to 12.9%.
The rapid decline in extreme poverty may not attract viewers and readers, but its impact on human welfare surely outstrips that of terrorism. In 1990, 1.95 billion people, or nearly 37% of the world’s population, lived in extreme poverty; today there are 702 million. If the proportion of people living in extreme poverty had remained unchanged, there would be 2.7 billion of them. In other words, the decline in poverty has improved the lives of almost two billion people.
Extreme poverty kills, through inadequate food and diseases like malaria, measles, and diarrhea. So it is not surprising that a drop in child mortality has accompanied the decline in extreme poverty. In 1990, 35,000 children per day died before reaching their fifth birthday. Today that figure is down to 16,000.
Yes, 16,000 child deaths a day is far too many, and the fact that 2015 was the hottest year on record shows that the struggle against climate change has only just begun. But we can build on the gains made last year. We need to be active citizens, pushing our leaders not just to meet, but to surpass, the emission targets they have pledged to achieve. If we live in an affluent society, we should also demand that our country play its role in reducing extreme poverty. And, whatever our government does, we can find out which charities fighting poverty are the most effective –and contribute to them.
Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal Liberation, One World, The Most Good You Can Do, and, most recently, Famine, Affluence and Morality.
By Peter Singer