Four Billion More

What to Do About Massive Population Growth

The populations in the poorest countries on earth are doubling every few decades. That necessarily leads to conflict over scarce resources such as land, food and work -- and to more migration to Europe. But there are solutions.

By Fiona Ehlers, Bartholomäus Grill, Laura Höflinger and Samiha Shafy

A crowded market square in central Lagos.

All it takes is a half-hour at this intersection in Lagos, the sprawling metropolis in Nigeria, to begin fearing this city. White oil tankers crawl along both on and beneath an overpass on the multilane Apapa Road, making their way out of the Niger River delta. Zipping around them are black-and-yellow rickshaws and minibuses, with sweaty passengers clinging to the doors.

Every few meters, a truck hits the brakes with an ear-splitting shriek, the clouds of exhaust mixing with the diesel fumes of the generators. The foul air hangs like a thick blanket over the corrugated metal slums to the right and left of the street. Just 30 minutes at this intersection is enough to make you want to flee this city -- a megalopolis that is growing faster than almost any other place on earth.

In the 1950s, Lagos was home to just 300,000 people. Today, around 20 million live here. And by 2050, that number is likely to double to 40 million. According to projections by the United Nations, Nigeria could have a population of 400 million people by then, which would make it the third most populous country in the world.

Lagos is a prime place to observe the effects of population growth in many developing and threshold countries. Unable to survive in the countryside do to the lack of work and shortages of food and water, people are flocking to the cities. And it isn't difficult to guess that some of them will continue onward to a place where hunger isn't a problem, where it is peaceful and where prosperity is at least a possibility. To Europe. In 2017, migrants from Nigeria represented the fourth-largest group of asylum-seekers in the European Union, after refuges from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2018, they were in seventh place.

Africa is in in the midst of a population explosion that will necessarily lead to a massive wave of migration toward Europe, writes Stephen Smith, an Africa studies professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in his soon-to-be-released book "The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent."

Smith, a former Africa correspondent, predicts that as a result of the massive wave of migration, between 150 and 200 million people of African heritage will live in Europe by 2050. He warns of a "stampede" and a "flood" that will reach across the globe, a scenario that plays right into the hands of right-wing populists and their xenophobic message.

Other scientists believe Smith's statistics are nonsense and have accused him of twisting the facts. French migration researcher François Héran, for example, argues that at most, Africans will make up between 3 and 4 percent of the European population. It is also true that the overwhelming majority of Africans simply do not have the financial means to afford the journey to the north.

But Smith does correctly depict a development that Western donor countries and aid organizations have long been playing down: In the next 30 years, the population of the African continent will more than double, from 1.2 billion people today to 2.5 billion. The result will be a population of which 50 percent will be younger than 30 years old and won't have much of a future to look forward to if the continent's economic outlook doesn't change drastically. The threat of conflict over scarce resources, land, food, water and work is very real.

World population growth is a long-term development and so abstract that it is difficult to truly comprehend. Way back in 1968, the American biologist Paul Ehrlich published his bestseller called "The Population Bomb," in which he predicted that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death as a consequence of overpopulation. In 1972, the Club of Rome published a report called "Limits to Growth," outlining the frontiers of economic and demographic expansion. Since then, though, humankind has managed to revolutionize agriculture, introducing industrial methods that have vastly increased harvests. And for the last several decades, the number of people suffering from hunger has been dropping.

The UN believes that population growth will slow by the end of this century and will come to a stop at around 11 billion people, which is welcome news, on one hand. On the other, though, that is 4 billion more people than currently live on the planet -- 4 billion people who will live predominantly in Africa and Asia, in three-dozen countries that are poorly prepared for what is coming because they are already overwhelmed with the situation as it currently stands. A team of DER SPIEGEL reporters set out to explore developments in three countries where the population is growing at a particularly rapid rate: Niger, Nigeria and India.

Liboré, Niger -- At Least 10 Children

Hamidou Moumouni is standing at the edge of his millet field, located not far from the Niger capital city of Niamey, and examining the tiny buds. "A bad harvest again," he says. The last one was also terrible because of a shortage of rain and because the soil is losing its fertility. "The earth has grown tired," says Moumouni, a gaunt 60-year-old. His green boubou, the traditional robes worn in the region, has golden embroidery, a sign of the prosperity that the farmer now fears he could be losing.

Moumouni has been through a lot in his life: droughts, flooding, plagues of locusts. But he says that what is now happening is different, that it is much larger and more threatening. "The weather has gone crazy," he says.

On the Human Development Index, compiled by the UN as a way of measuring prosperity and quality of life, Niger is last on the list of 189 countries. But on another list, the country is right at the top: Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world, with an average of more than seven children born to each woman. Nowhere is it more visible that a lack of development leads to extreme population growth.

Already today, the population needs more food than grows in the country's fields. In periods of extended drought, the government must import up to a million tons of grain. On its own, Niger would be able to feed perhaps 10 million people. But the country is home to 20 million, and that number is set to double by 2035 and reach fully 68 million by 2050.

Hamidou Moumouni together with his family
Hamidou Moumouni together with his family

Each year, 240,000 Young people in Niger join the labor market and most of them are unable to read and write. The majority of the population scratches out a living from the fields. For men who remain in the country, there are primarily two ways of escaping the misery: They can get involved in smuggling drugs, weapons or migrants; or they can join a jihadist group.

A similar demographic development can be seen across the entire Sahel zone, an arid, barren region just south of the Sahara that is home to around 80 million people. By 2060, the area's population is forecast to be around 400 million.

Hamidou Moumouni heads back into his clay home, where his wife and seven children are gathered in the courtyard. The youngest of the family's four sons, two-year-old Kidirou, is sitting on the lap of his mother Faty, 40. She says she would like to have even more children. "The family," her husband says, "has to get bigger so that we are better provided for in our old age."

How, though, will his sons get by once the 12 hectares of land are divided up between them? Only the oldest son receives the inheritance, says Moumouni. The second son should find a job in government, he says, the third is to become a Koran teacher and the fourth can make his way to Europe.

And his daughters? "They should marry rich men." Nima is 13 and will likely soon be married off. Once that happens, Nima says she wants to have at least 10 children.

A Warning from Paris

"The countries in the Sahel zone are heading toward a massive catastrophe," says French economist Serge Michailof, adding that he has delivered the same message to Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou. The 67-year-old Issoufou is a social democrat who wants to tackle his country's most pressing problem: poverty. Michailof, one of the leading experts on population growth in the Sahel zone, wants to help him in that endeavor. "What we are currently experiencing," Michailof says, "is the most spectacular demographic shift in the history of mankind."

Graphic: Projected population growth in select countries.

The author of the book "Africanistan: Development or Jihad," Michailof has long been familiar with Niger and lived in the country himself for five years in the 1980s; his apartment in Paris is full of mementos from Africa, including numerous figures carved out of stone or wood. Together with a colleague, Michailof has written a study about the country's economic prospects.

"Issoufou was shocked by the demographic forecasts for the next 30 years," Michailof says.

The meeting between the two, originally set to last an hour, ultimately went on for four hours and ended with the president inviting the economist to attend a cabinet meeting.

"There, too, demography was the focus," says Michailof. "But we were never able to say anything because everybody was yelling over each other." Some of the ministers, he says, insisted that children represented the country's future, no matter how many of them families had. Others said that drastic measures were necessary, such as establishing a maximum number of children allowed, like China did. Such an idea is absurd, others said, arguing that devout Muslims in the country would never accept such an arrangement and making enemies with them would be dangerous.

"There was no consensus," says Michailof. "Furthermore, the country's institutions are too weak and they have too few resources to act effectively." Michailof believes that famine will be the ultimate outcome, exacerbated by climate change.

Kano, Nigeria -- The Evangelists of Boko Haram

Isa Hashim, a deputy emir of Kano, is a religion scholar and sharia judge, a powerful and educated 85-year-old. He wears a white turban and his shoes are decorated with ostrich feathers. He receives guests in the emir's palace, with supplicants on the cold marble at his feet.

The deputy emir is also happy to hold an audience with foreigners, acting aloof initially before speaking openly in perfect English about Africa's demographic problems, polygamy and birth control. Such topics were considered taboo here just a few years ago and those who brought them up were suspected of harboring colonialist intentions of destroying the peoples of Africa. Now, though, Hashim has made those issues his own: "Reform must come from within," he says. "We have to change the system. The time has come."

Kano, a city of over 3 million in northern Nigeria, is located in the region where the terror group Boko Haram operates. Just 500 kilometers (311 miles) from here in the city of Chibok, the radical Islamists kidnapped 276 girls in 2014. That reality is one reason why Hashim has now begun speaking openly of the link between poverty and terrorism. And why he grumbles about "selfish men who collect wives like objects, curse birth control but then ask me quietly for the address of someone who can take care of the problem."

Hashim says that all of Nigeria must introduce modern, Western-style education into the country's school system -- a revolutionary message in a region that is so poor and uneducated that extremists have an easy time of recruiting new followers.

A family planning workshop in Niger
A family planning workshop in Niger

They can be found squatting in the dust just two kilometers from the palace, boys between the ages of five and 18, writing Koran suras on wooden tablets in black ink and praying out loud. For these children, the madrassa represents their only chance of receiving an education. But it is limited: They learn neither mathematics nor writing in their own language.

In the afternoons, the younger boys go begging while the older ones perform day jobs for their masters, who treat them like slaves. At night, they all sleep together in chambers next to the mosque, until the first call to prayer wakes them in the morning.

The number of these facilities is on the rise, a reality that is beneficial to the terrorists. And listening to Tukur, the 19-year-old son of a farmer with thick, black curls, it becomes clear just how great the danger is. Tukur feels poorly treated by his master, who beats him, and by the neighbors, who berate him with insults. He says he will one day demand what society is currently withholding from him: recognition and power. Tukur then turns around without a word, washes his hands, face and feet and hurries off to the next prayer.

Berlin -- Empowering Women to Save the World

"Before we get completely frantic, there are also countries in the world that have developed much better than expected," says Reiner Klingholz, 65, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. He has a more optimistic view of global development than the former Africa correspondent, Stephen Smith. Vietnam is such an example, says Klingholz, or Ethiopia, the "African wonderland," which for the last 15 years has experienced annual economic growth rates that have at times exceeded 10 percent.

The country has also seen fertility rates drop in the last two decades from around seven children per woman to four, an exception for sub-Saharan Africa. That primarily is a function of the country's economic upswing, growth rates that are among the fastest in the world. Hundreds of thousands of new jobs have been created and harvests have improved. The government invests a huge amount in education and health care.

It is an encouraging development: The number of people living in extreme poverty has been halved. If Ethiopia's development continues and the government maintains its current course, the country could disprove the Cassandras and become a model for Africa.

Or Bangladesh, a primarily Muslim country that was considered to be hopelessly poor and overpopulated in 1971 when it split off from Pakistan following a civil war. Today, Bangladesh is basically on the right path, Klingholz says, in part because there, too, the birthrate has plunged to around 2.1 children per woman. And, he says, because the government has allowed aid organizations, with the support of international backers, to help out with education and health care. Even in the most remote parts of the country, family planning programs have been in place for years, ensuring that women there receive the same care and consultation as in the cities.

"Never has a country anywhere in the world developed without first slowing population growth," says Klingholz. Three steps are necessary, he says, to avoid a demographic catastrophe: The countries in question must first improve health care and reduce infant mortality rates. "If more children survive, people eventually make the decision themselves to have fewer children."

Second, they have to invest in education, particularly for girls. "That is the most effective contraceptive that exists," says Klingholz. In African countries with high rates of population growth, it has become clear that women who have completed secondary school have up to two-thirds fewer children than those who have never attended school. Countries that are doing better today are those that have empowered and educated women.

The third step is the most difficult: A country that wants to slow population growth has to be creative and create jobs. "People need to have prospects," he says. "Otherwise they have no life plan, and without a life plan, there is no family plan."

Bangalore, India -- Three Generations, Three Stories

In a few years, India will take over from China as the world's most populous country. By the middle of the century, it will be home to more than 1.6 billion people, though precise projections vary. It is an almost frightening number, but it doesn't have to be, because India is a country that is doing many things right.

Within 40 years, the birth rate in India has plunged by more than 50 percent to 2.2 children per woman. Assuming the trend continues, the population will continue growing until 2050 -- and will then cease. Some changes can already be seen today, primarily in the south, which tends to be more prosperous than the north and which has a lower birth rate, especially in the cities.

In a district in northern Bangalore stands a house that looks no different from many that surround it: two floors, flat roof and narrow windows. It is home to a large family of nine. They are hardly wealthy, but they aren't poor either. Their story is one shared by many families in the area, and it is one that makes it clear how much has changed. Three generations are sitting in the living room: grandmother Savithri, 74, wrapped in an orange sari; daughter-in-law Alka, 39, dressed in a long robe; and granddaughter Preethi, 18, in tight jeans, her eyes fixed to her smartphone.

Three generations in Bangalore: Savithri, Preethi and Alka (left to right).
Three generations in Bangalore: Savithri, Preethi and Alka (left to right).

Savithri married at 19 and had her first child, a daughter, two years later. Two more girls and two boys would follow. When asked if that's what she had wanted, she says: "It wasn't about what I wanted, it just happened."

Her daughter-in-law Alka shakes her head. She, too, married young and also had a daughter at 21. But for her and her husband, having more than two children was out of the question. She hesitates for a bit before saying: "Yes, we used birth control."

Women in India want to have fewer children than they used to, a development that can be seen at all levels of society. Part of the phenomenon has to do with urbanization: the birth rate in Bangalore is 1.6, in Mumbai it is 1.4 and it is 1.7 in Delhi. They are essentially equivalent to the European average, but rural areas in the country exhibit similarly low birthrates.

Savithri went to school for six years while Alka went to university for three years after completing school. Preethi, meanwhile, is still in 12th grade at a private school. Once she finishes, she plans to study business and then work "an office job with a good salary" for two years. She then wants to go back to university -- she calls it her "education plan."

Preethi will have a life much different from that of her mother and grandmother. Her parents, too, will insist on marriage, but she realized early on how the world works: "A woman's education determines her place in society."

An Attempt at a Conclusion

There is no clear prescription for countries facing demographic explosion. A decisive factor will be whether governments finally take the demographic challenges seriously and invest in the education and health-care sectors, in comprehensive sex-education campaigns and in family planning programs. At the same time, they will have to create jobs to provide millions of young people with at least a modicum of prosperity.

That is much easier said than done, particularly given the incompetent and corrupt regimes in many African countries. But a country like Ethiopia is showing one possible path for doing so -- a country that just a few years ago was seen as hopelessly over-populated and suffered from frequent famines. Still, most countries on the continent are far away from the progress that Ethiopia has made. But might the West have a role to play in helping countries confront their demographic time bombs?

Serge Michailof, the government adviser from Paris, has a few ideas. "The countries that are most exposed to the population crisis badly need investment in the agriculture sector," he says. That is true, he says, of those countries in both Africa and Asia in which the majority of the population lives from farming and raising livestock.

They need fair conditions, he says, and a plan for confronting the challenges of global warming. Modernizing agricultural practices, Michailof believes, is the most effective way of combatting hunger and creating jobs.

Furthermore, the adviser says, functioning state institutions are vital: "A credible and disciplined army, a police force that respects human rights and an incorruptible judiciary, so that people don't organize into militant organizations." Because without a minimum of stability, he says, development aid makes no sense. "If the police can't guarantee security, then children won't go to school."

Once these conditions are fulfilled, once children have enough to eat and can go to school without fear, then miracles are possible even in countries where the situation appears hopeless. Miracles such as the one that has taken place in Ethiopia, a country which may have positioned itself to profit from a demographic dividend: fewer births, not too many elderly and a large number of people with jobs. When looked at through that lens, the many young men and women in Africa are not a millstone around the continent's neck, but its hope for the future.

They may even be able to disprove the pessimists, assuming they are able to overcome the huge hurdles to development in their countries: terrible governance, the power of tradition and the predominance of the old, male guard.

Tata to the rescue

Jaguar Land Rover is in a hole mostly of its own making

But the maker of upmarket SUVs looks fixable

RANGE ROVERS, the pricey range-topping models from Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), flaunt interiors swagged in leather and wood. Such opulence distracts attention from the car’s capability as a rugged off-roader, as adept at driving up a mountainside as gliding around the smartest part of town. JLR’s ability to haul itself out of the mire is also about to undergo a serious test.

After a string of quarterly losses, on February 7th JLR revealed another, of £273m ($351m) in the latest three-month period. On top of that there was a whopping asset write-down, of £3.1bn. In the immediate aftermath, shares in its parent company, Tata Motors, which is the carmaking arm of the Indian conglomerate, collapsed by 18% and have now fallen by 60% in the past year. Tata Motors relies on JLR for about 80% of its sales and all of its profits. Despite the blow, Natarajan Chandrasekaran, chairman of Tata Group as well as the car division, says his company is committed to JLR and determined to turn it around.

It would not be the first turnaround. When Tata acquired JLR from Ford in 2008 it was close to bankruptcy. Since then sales have tripled, to over 600,000 cars a year in 2017. Profits have rolled in. But Ralf Speth, a former BMW executive hired to lead JLR on a route to catch its German rivals, may in recent years have gone too far, too fast. He pushed to sell 1m cars a year to help spread the costs of developing future technology.

JLR hit the brakes in 2018. Sales volumes fell by 5% worldwide in the 12 months to December, after plummeting in China at the end of the year (see chart) as the slowing economy put off buyers and Jaguar’s relationship with its dealers in the country deteriorated. The company now faces an array of problems. Its best market continues to collapse and it is reliant on increasingly unpopular diesel engines (which power the vast majority of its cars in Europe). Add to that the threat of American tariffs and a hard Brexit and the near future looks worrisome.

Brexit and trade wars are out of JLR’s hands. Its huge bet on diesel engines and its poor handling of its Chinese dealers were not. The latter had to sell cars at a loss to meet stiff sales targets or keep them on forecourts—and have since refused to hold ever-growing inventories. JLR’s woes also owe much to its overambition. Mr Speth spent freely and costs have soared.

In going for growth JLR now spends too much making too many models for a carmaker of its size. Range Rovers are popular and the Evoque has been an unexpected success but the new Discovery and Velar have performed poorly. What to do with Jaguar is another conundrum. In the recent past the brand has probably never made an annual profit (Tata Motors does not break out figures). Mr Speth’s decision to invest in upmarket saloon cars, a contracting part of the market where the Germans have a stranglehold, looks a costly mistake. The XE and XF have never sold well. Mr Speth himself “may need to take responsibility for what’s gone wrong” says Robin Zhu of Bernstein, an equity-research firm.

Tata, nevertheless, remains committed to the management that turned JLR from near bankruptcy to become the world’s fourth-largest luxury car brand. It plans to cut costs by £2.5bn over the next 18 months and will axe 4,500 jobs (around a tenth of the workforce) on top of 1,500 job losses announced in 2018. That should turn its cashflow positive by 2020-21, according to Tata.

The Indian group’s judgment that JLR is a good business that will recover, seems sound. Tata may have washed its hands of Corus, another ailing British acquisition, putting the steelmaker into a joint venture with ThyssenKrupp of Germany last year, but it sees JLR as an important bet on new technology and thus the future. Jaguar may need to rethink what sort of cars it makes but Range Rover is among the most profitable brands in the business and updated models arriving in the next few years will give the firm a boost. If it can get through the next year, then concentrate on expensive SUVs, JLR should get back on track.

Is Chinese Quantitative Easing On the Way?

China has a problem. Its short rates are too low and its long rates are too high.

By Nathaniel Taplin

Chinese short-term borrowing rates are too low, helping stoke a new stock bubble. Long rates are too high, thanks to surging government debt issuance. Meanwhile, private-sector borrowing is weak. What to do?

Facing a similar situation in 2009, the Federal Reserve embarked on large-scale purchases of long-dated government debt to ease borrowing conditions—so-called quantitative easing. Chinese central bank officials deny similar measures are needed, but local media report they are under consideration. Whether, and how, the PBOC goes about implementing them will be a major factor for markets in the year ahead.

China’s central bank isn’t contending with near-zero benchmark overnight rates, unlike the Fed in 2009. But China’s bubbly stock market is up nearly 20% in the past month. Lower short rates would make it even harder to prevent a stock-market bubble. It would also put pressure on China’s currency, just as the U.S. is closely watching for signs of deliberate yuan devaluation.

Moreover, Chinese short rates are already about as low as at the end of China’s previous easing cycle in late 2016. That still hasn’t been enough to spark a solid recovery. Chinese five-year government bond yields, however, are about 0.7 percentage point higher than back then—and rising again as stocks draw funds out of fixed income. To make matters worse, debt issued by the central and local governments is set to increase sharply, with planned municipal bond issuance alone about 1 trillion yuan ($149 billion) higher this year than last. Unless plentiful buyers materialize, government borrowing risks further crowding out the private sector.

China is facing a similar problem to the Fed a decade ago: short rates are too low and long rates are too high.
China is facing a similar problem to the Fed a decade ago: short rates are too low and long rates are too high. Photo: kim kyung-hoon/Reuters

All this is prompting some navel gazing. Caixin, the respected Chinese financial publication, reported in late February that officials have discussed how Chinese government bonds could be used in monetary policy and “have reached a preliminary consensus to take practices used in developed countries as a guideline.”

QE-like policies would be embarrassing, especially as China prides itself on having avoided Western countries’ post-financial-crisis flailing. But government-debt buying by the central bank might be preferable to another politically fraught way to help private companies: a U-turn on the continuing shadow-banking crackdown.

There are a number of QE-like programs that could—quietly—be expanded or tweaked, such as the central bank’s pledged supplementary lending program or its new targeted medium-term lending facility. These extend long-term central bank funding to banks, usually with government bonds as collateral. One problem is that the loans aren’t cheap: a one-year TMLF loan costs 3.15%, well above benchmark retail deposit rates of 2%.

Cuts to PSL or TMLF rates may be one signal that the central bank is moving more explicitly toward QE. Actual U.S.-style government bond purchases are less near term, but could rise up the agenda if China’s economy continues to stagnate. Either way, holders of Chinese government debt would add to their gains since last summer—at least until the current easing cycle ends.


Time to Panic

The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us.

By David Wallace-Wells

                                                                                                         CreditCreditJules Julien

The age of climate panic is here. Last summer, a heat wave baked the entire Northern Hemisphere, killing dozens from Quebec to Japan. Some of the most destructive wildfires in California history turned more than a million acres to ash, along the way melting the tires and the sneakers of those trying to escape the flames. Pacific hurricanes forced three million people in China to flee and wiped away almost all of Hawaii’s East Island.

We are living today in a world that has warmed by just one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s, when records began on a global scale. We are adding planet-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate faster than at any point in human history since the beginning of industrialization.

In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released what has become known as its “Doomsday” report — “a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” as one United Nations official described it — detailing climate effects at 1.5 and two degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). At the opening of a major United Nations conference two months later, David Attenborough, the mellifluous voice of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and now an environmental conscience for the English-speaking world, put it even more bleakly: “If we don’t take action,” he said, “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Scientists have felt this way for a while. But they have not often talked like it. For decades, there were few things with a worse reputation than “alarmism” among those studying climate change.

This is a bit strange. You don’t typically hear from public health experts about the need for circumspection in describing the risks of carcinogens, for instance. The climatologist James Hansen, who testified before Congress about global warming in 1988, has called the phenomenon “scientific reticence” and chastised his colleagues for it — for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat actually was.

That tendency metastasized even as the news from the research grew bleaker. So for years the publication of every major paper, essay or book would be attended by a cloud of commentary debating its precise calibration of perspective and tone, with many of those articles seen by scientists as lacking an appropriate balance between bad news and optimism, and labeled “fatalistic” as a result.

In 2018, their circumspection began to change, perhaps because all that extreme weather wouldn’t permit it not to. Some scientists even began embracing alarmism — particularly with that United Nations report. The research it summarized was not new, and temperatures beyond two degrees Celsius were not even discussed, though warming on that scale is where we are headed. Though the report — the product of nearly 100 scientists from around the world — did not address any of the scarier possibilities for warming, it did offer a new form of permission to the world’s scientists. The thing that was new was the message: It is O.K., finally, to freak out. Even reasonable.

This, to me, is progress. Panic might seem counterproductive, but we’re at a point where alarmism and catastrophic thinking are valuable, for several reasons.

The first is that climate change is a crisis precisely because it is a looming catastrophe that demands an aggressive global response, now. In other words, it is right to be alarmed. The emissions path we are on today is likely to take us to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2040, two degrees Celsius within decades after that and perhaps four degrees Celsius by 2100.

As temperatures rise, this could mean many of the biggest cities in the Middle East and South Asia would become lethally hot in summer, perhaps as soon as 2050. There would be ice-free summers in the Arctic and the unstoppable disintegration of the West Antarctic’s ice sheet, which some scientists believe has already begun, threatening the world’s coastal cities with inundation. Coral reefs would mostly disappear. And there would be tens of millions of climate refugees, perhaps many more, fleeing droughts, flooding and extreme heat, and the possibility of multiple climate-driven natural disasters striking simultaneously.

There are many reasons to think we may not get to four degrees Celsius, but globally, emissions are still growing, and the time we have to avert what is now thought to be catastrophic warming — two degrees Celsius — is shrinking by the day. To stay safely below that threshold, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, according to the United Nations report. Instead, they are still rising. So being alarmed is not a sign of being hysterical; when it comes to climate change, being alarmed is what the facts demand. Perhaps the only logical response.

This helps explain the second reason alarmism is useful: By defining the boundaries of conceivability more accurately, catastrophic thinking makes it easier to see the threat of climate change clearly. For years, we have read in newspapers as two degrees of warming was invoked as the highest tolerable level, beyond which disaster would ensue. Warming greater than that was rarely discussed outside scientific circles. And so it was easy to develop an intuitive portrait of the landscape of possibilities that began with the climate as it exists today and ended with the pain of two degrees, the ceiling of suffering.

In fact, it is almost certainly a floor. By far the likeliest outcomes for the end of this century fall between two and four degrees of warming. And so looking squarely at what the world might look like in that range — two degrees, three, four — is much better preparation for the challenges we will face than retreating into the comforting relative normalcy of the present.

Fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California last summer, when more than a million acres burned in the state. Scientists cite climate change as a factor in California's increasingly destructive wildfire seasons. Credit Noah Berger/Associated Press 

The third reason is while concern about climate change is growing — fortunately — complacency remains a much bigger political problem than fatalism. In December, a national survey tracking Americans’ attitudes toward climate change found that 73 percent said global warming was happening, the highest percentage since the question began being asked in 2008. But a majority of Americans were unwilling to spend even $10 a month to address global warming; most drew the line at $1 a month, according to a poll conducted the previous month.

Last fall, voters in Washington, a green state in a blue-wave election, rejected even a modest carbon-tax plan. Are those people unwilling to pay that money because they think the game is over or because they don’t think it’s necessary yet?

This is a rhetorical question. If we had started global decarbonization in 2000, according to the Global Carbon Project, we would have had to cut emissions by only about 2 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. Did we fail to act then because we thought it was all over already or because we didn’t yet consider warming an urgent enough problem to take action against? Only 44 percent of those surveyed in a survey last month cited climate change as a top political priority.

But it should be. The fact is, further delay will only make the problem worse. If we started a broad decarbonization effort today — a gargantuan undertaking to overhaul our energy systems, building and transportation infrastructure and how we produce our food — the necessary rate of emissions reduction would be about 5 percent per year. If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut emissions by some 9 percent each year. This is why the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, believes we have only until 2020 to change course and get started.

In “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, Rachel Carson exposed the harm the pesticide DDT inflicted on wildlife and criticized the chemical industry for spreading false assurances of safety.CreditBettmann Archive/Getty Images

A fourth argument for embracing catastrophic thinking comes from history. Fear can mobilize, even change the world. When Rachel Carson published her landmark anti-pesticide polemic “Silent Spring,” Life magazine said she had “overstated her case,” and The Saturday Evening Post dismissed the book as “alarmist.” But it almost single-handedly led to a nationwide ban on DDT.

Throughout the Cold War, foes of nuclear weapons did not shy away from warning of the horrors of mutually assured destruction, and in the 1980s and 1990s, campaigners against drunken driving did not feel obligated to make their case simply by celebrating sobriety. In its “Doomsday” report, the United Nations climate-change panel offered a very clear analogy for the mobilization required to avert catastrophic warming: World War II, which President Franklin Roosevelt called a “challenge to life, liberty and civilization.” That war was not waged on hope alone.

But perhaps the strongest argument for the wisdom of catastrophic thinking is that all of our mental reflexes run in the opposite direction, toward disbelief about the possibility of very bad outcomes. I know this from personal experience. I have spent the past three years buried in climate science and following the research as it expanded into ever darker territory.

The number of “good news” scientific papers that I’ve encountered in that time I could probably count on my two hands. The “bad news” papers number probably in the thousands — each day seeming to bring a new, distressing revision to our understanding of the environmental trauma already unfolding.

I know the science is true, I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now. That is how hard it is to shake complacency. We are all living in delusion, unable to really process the news from science that climate change amounts to an all-encompassing threat. Indeed, a threat the size of life itself.

How can we be this deluded? One answer comes from behavioral economics. The scroll of cognitive biases identified by psychologists and fellow travelers over the past half-century can seem, like a social media feed, bottomless, and they distort and distend our perception of a changing climate. These optimistic prejudices, prophylactic biases and emotional reflexes form an entire library of climate delusion.

We build our view of the universe outward from our own experience, a reflexive tendency that surely shapes our ability to comprehend genuinely existential threats to the species. We have a tendency to wait for others to act, rather than acting ourselves; a preference for the present situation; a disinclination to change things; and an excess of confidence that we can change things easily, should we need to, no matter the scale. We can’t see anything but through cataracts of self-deception.

Flooding in a residential area near the Brazos River south of Houston in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey.CreditBarbara Davidson for The New York Times

The sum total of these biases is what makes climate change something the ecological theorist Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject” — a conceptual fact so large and complex that it can never be properly comprehended. In his book “Worst-Case Scenarios,” the legal scholar Cass Sunstein wrote that in general, we have a problem considering unlikely but potential risks, which we run from either into complacency or paranoia. His solution is a wonky one: We should all be more rigorous in our cost-benefit analysis.

That climate change demands expertise, and faith in it, at precisely the moment when public confidence in expertise is collapsing is one of its many paradoxes. That climate change touches so many of our cognitive biases is a mark of just how big it is and how much about human life it touches, which is to say, nearly everything.

And unfortunately, as climate change has been dawning more fully into view over the past several decades, all the cognitive biases that push us toward complacency have been abetted by our storytelling about warming — by journalism defined by caution in describing the scale and speed of the threat.

So what can we do? And by the way, who’s “we”? The size of the threat from climate change means that organization is necessary at every level — communities, states, nations and international agreements that coordinate action among them. But most of us don’t live in the halls of the United Nations or the boardrooms in which the Paris climate agreement was negotiated.

Instead we live in a consumer culture that tells us we can make our political mark on the world through where we shop, what we wear, how we eat. This is how we get things like The Lancet’s recent dietary recommendations for those who want to eat to mitigate climate change — less meat for some, more vegetables — or suggestions like those published in The Washington Post, around the time of New Year’s resolutions. For instance: “Be smart about your air-conditioner.”

But conscious consumption is a cop-out, a neoliberal diversion from collective action, which is what is necessary. People should try to live by their own values, about climate as with everything else, but the effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve.

Buying an electric car is a drop in the bucket compared with raising fuel-efficiency standards sharply. Conscientiously flying less is a lot easier if there’s more high-speed rail around. And if I eat fewer hamburgers a year, so what? But if cattle farmers were required to feed their cattle seaweed, which might reduce methane emissions by nearly 60 percent according to one study, that would make an enormous difference.

That is what is meant when politics is called a “moral multiplier.” It is also an exit from the personal, emotional burden of climate change and from what can feel like hypocrisy about living in the world as it is and simultaneously worrying about its future. We don’t ask people who pay taxes to support a social safety net to also demonstrate that commitment through philanthropic action, and similarly we shouldn’t ask anyone — and certainly not everyone — to manage his or her own carbon footprint before we even really try to enact laws and policies that would reduce all of our emissions.

That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals.

And politics, suddenly, is on fire with climate change. Last fall, in Britain, an activist group with the alarmist name Extinction Rebellion was formed and immediately grew so large it was able to paralyze parts of London in its first major protest. Its leading demand: “Tell the truth.” That imperative is echoed, stateside, by Genevieve Guenther’s organization End Climate Silence, and the climate-change panel’s calls to direct the planet’s resources toward action against warming has been taken up at the grass roots, inspiringly, by Margaret Klein Salamon’s Climate Mobilization project.

Of course, environmental activism isn’t new, and these are just the groups that have arisen over the past few years, pushed into action by climate panic. But that alarm is cascading upward, too. In Congress, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has rallied liberal Democrats around a Green New Deal — a call to reorganize the American economy around clean energy and renewable prosperity. Washington State’s governor, Jay Inslee, has more or less declared himself a single-issue presidential candidate.

And while not a single direct question about climate change was asked of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential debates, the issue is sure to dominate the Democratic primary in 2020, alongside “Medicare for all” and free college. Michael Bloomberg, poised to spend at least $500 million on the campaign, has said he’ll insist that any candidate the party puts forward has a concrete plan for the climate.

This is what the beginning of a solution looks like — though only a very beginning, and only a partial solution. We have probably squandered the opportunity to avert two degrees of warming, but we can avert three degrees and certainly all the terrifying suffering that lies beyond that threshold.

But the longer we wait, the worse it will get. Which is one last argument for catastrophic thinking: What creates more sense of urgency than fear?

A singed page from a book amid the burned remains of a house by a wildfire last year in Northern California. CreditJosh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells) is a columnist and deputy editor at New York magazine and the author of the forthcoming “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” from which this essay is adapted.

Doug Noland: Central Banks Are “Hostages Of Market Bubbles”

Doug Noland’s weekly Credit Bubble Bulletin is always required reading. The latest – befitting the amazing things that have happened lately – is more necessary than usual. But at 10,000 words it’s also a lot longer than usual. So while everyone should definitely read the whole thing, here are some excerpts to get you started:

I wonder if the Fed is comfortable seeing the markets dash skyward – the small caps up 16.4% y-t-d, the Banks 15.9%, the Transports 15.2%, Biotechs 18.5% and Semiconductors 17.0%. Or, perhaps, they’re quickly coming to recognize that they are now fully held hostage by market Bubbles. 
Similarly, I ponder how Beijing feels about January’s booming Credit data – Aggregate Financing up $685 billion in the month of January. Do officials appreciate that they are completely held captive by history’s greatest Credit Bubble?  
Bubbles have become a fundamental geopolitical device – a stratagem. Things have regressed to a veritable global Financial Arms Race. As China/U.S. trade negotiations seemingly head down the homestretch, each side must believe that rallying domestic markets beget negotiating power. Meanwhile, emboldened global markets behave as if they have attained power surpassing mighty militaries and even nuclear arsenals. 
China’s banks made the most new loans on record in January – totaling 3.23 trillion yuan ($477bn) – as policymakers try to jumpstart sluggish investment and prevent a sharper slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy. 
January’s record China new bank loans were 11.4% higher than the previous record from January 2018 – and 15% above estimates. Total Bank Loans expanded 13.4% over the past year; 28% in two years; 45% in three years; 91% in five years; and an incredible 323% over the past decade. 
“The San Francisco Fed put out a white paper about the benefits of negative interest rates. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but we can only cut rates about 225/250 bps to be at zero” — Kyle Bass, Hayman Capital Management. 
At 4.37%, 30-year conventional mortgage rates are today already below the lowest levels from 2009. And with the vast majority of borrows over recent years having refinanced at historically low mortgage rates, there’s limited prospects for reduced monthly payments to dampen financial burdens during the next recession. Worse yet, student loan debt has more than doubled since the crisis. And when the next recession hits, there will be record amounts of auto and Credit card debt. 
Auto lending, in particular, has gone through a protracted – arguably unprecedented – period of loose lending. A record 7 million Americans are 90 days or more behind on their auto loan payments, even more than during the wake of the financial crisis era.  
Among subprime borrowers — those with credit scores below 620— the delinquency rate was 16.3% in mid-2018. A car loan is typically the first payment people make because a vehicle is critical to getting to work, and someone can live in a car if all else fails. When car loan delinquencies rise, it is a sign of significant duress among low-income and working-class Americans. 
When it comes to Bubbles, the more conspicuous they are the less likely they are to be deeply systemic. The “tech” Bubble was obvious, yet the most egregious excess was contained within the technology sector. The mortgage finance Bubble was much more systemic, with excesses spread about and not as apparent. I believe today’s Super “Tech” Bubble is much more systemic than back in 2000. 
Today’s Bubble in leveraged lending and M&A is greater than 2006/2007. The Bubble in corporate Credit dwarfs that from the mortgage finance Bubble period. Excesses throughout the securities markets phenomenally exceed those from the prior Bubble period. Moreover, I suspect the current level of derivatives-related speculative leverage could be multiples of 2007. 
Thinking Ahead to the Next Recession, we should de deeply concerned about our nation’s tenuous fiscal position. To see deficits approaching 5% of GDP – with unemployment and interest rates at such historically low levels – should have us all fearful. Of course deficits matter. 
When it comes to a synchronized global policy response, keep in mind that ECB and BOJ policy rates are basically at zero – with little evidence of benefits from negative rates. The ECB just ended QE, while the BOJ just keeps printing. With little effective ammo, policymakers exploit what they can to sustain the Bubble and hold fragilities at bay. 
Policymakers continue to throw enormous stimulus at global markets and economies. Instead of stabilization, we’ve witnessed ongoing Bubble inflation and intensifying Monetary Disorder. And the more Bubbles inflate, the greater the underlying financial and economic fragilities – and the quicker the Fed was to conclude “normalization” and China was to, once again, aggressively spur lending. 
What worries me most is that underlying instability and vulnerabilities have policymakers resolved to abrogate bear markets and recessions. Extraordinary measures continue to be taken to nullify business and market cycles, with apparently no appreciation for how vital adjustments and corrections are to sound financial and economic systems. Worst of all, structurally maladjusted and highly speculative global markets are emboldened as never before. Party like it’s twenty nineteen – with global financial, economic and geopolitical backdrops uncomfortably reminiscent of ninety years ago. 
The 400 richest Americans – the top 0.00025% of the population – have tripled their share of the nation’s wealth since the early 1980s. Those 400 Americans own more of the country’s riches than the 150 million adults in the bottom 60% of the wealth distribution, who saw their share of the nation’s wealth fall from 5.7% in 1987 to 2.1% in 2014. 
U.S. small business optimism tumbled last month to its lowest level since President Donald Trump’s election more than two years ago amid growing uncertainty over the economic Outlook. 
The outlook for Wall Street earnings has deteriorated significantly in recent months, data shows, raising the risk that companies in the United States may slip into recession before its economy does – with Europe close behind. 
China’s securities regulator has started to remove many of the curbs designed to keep out speculators, signaling an end to the highly restrictive era that started when a boom in the country’s stocks turned to bust in 2015. The result has been an intensifying appetite for risk not seen in years. A gauge of small cap stocks has surged almost 11% over the past four trading days, the most since 2016. 
Two large Chinese borrowers missed payment deadlines this month, underscoring the risks piling up in a credit market that’s witnessing the most company failures on record. 
The collapse in China of a complex web of debt guarantees involving several private firms highlights risks in its financial system and opens up a potentially hazardous front for an economy in the grip of its slowest growth in nearly three decades. 
China’s residential mortgage-backed securities issuance more than tripled in 2018, just as the nation’s household debt to disposable income ratio exceeds that of the U.S.
Italy’s coalition government is in sharp disagreement over protecting the independence of the Bank of Italy, after senior politicians threatened to remove its leadership. Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant League party, said the central bank and Consob, the country’s stock market regulator, should be “reduced to zero.” 
Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said… that it was his responsibility to achieve the central bank’s 2% inflation target by persistently continuing its stimulus policy.