The number of people on Earth has exceeded 8 billion. What happens when all of them are exposed to a collective risk? How should citizens, governments, businesses and organisations respond? Under what conditions could we develop and implement a strategy of coordinated measures to defend ourselves?
This article compares two real-life threat scenarios that triggered a decisive and carefully planned action in one case, and a weak response in the other. The comparison aims to kickstart a discussion on how to respond to the second threat.
Threat no 1: “NEO = Near Earth Objects”
Near Earth Objects are asteroids or comets that could hit our planet.
Some errant space objects can be very large. If, or when, these big objects hit the earth, the effect would not be limited to local physical damage. Tidal waves, changes in the temperature of the atmosphere, or the darkening of the sky over long periods of time by dust particles are just some of the effects of large asteroids that can cause incalculable harm worldwide.
The asteroid that 66 million years ago triggered a massive extinction of species worldwide and put an end to the era of the dinosaurs is familiar on an intellectual level to us, but its distance in time makes it feel irrelevant. We may be slightly more familiar with a much smaller object that exploded and caused widespread devastation in Siberia on 30 June 1908 ("The Tunguska event"). Capital market experts use this example to caution that even the most prudent investment strategy can collapse at any time by an unforeseeable event (e.g. the explosion of a comet of the Tunguska scale over a densely populated area).
There have always been NEO events, but the shock was immediate when the NASA Galileo Orbiter and Hubble Space Telescope witnessed the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet breaking into pieces between 16 and 24 July 1993, destroying vast areas of the neighbouring planet Jupiter with the force of 300 million atomic bombs and heating the atmosphere up to at least 30,000 °C.
Something comparable, possibly the impact of a larger asteroid, could wipe out human civilisation. Even if the statistical probability of an event is extremely low, the magnitude of the damage that may result if it occurs is a sufficient reason to act.#
The observation of a dramatic event on a neighbouring planet was the tailwind for an extensive array of globally coordinated activities:
The European Space Agency developed "Fly Eye", a technology allowing the early detection of potentially dangerous objects more than 40 metres wide, starting in 2030.
NASA initiated the development of the NEOWISE technology, which enables the early detection of NEOs by infrared telescopes.
On 26 September 2022, NASA succeeded in forcing a smaller asteroid named "Dimorphos" into a different orbit by a planned collision with a spacecraft named “DART”. This happened at a distance of 23,000 km (!) from earth, and the success of this deflection, confirmed by subsequent measurements, is evidence that the "kinetic impact" method works under certain conditions. A "gravity tractor" or a nuclear standoff (!) are other technically conceivable approaches. The size of the object can make a lot of difference.
All this is not to say that we are perfectly safe from NEOs, but our complete helplessness in the face of them is no longer the case.
We note that:
The occurrence of the global risk is not likely, but the scenario is easy to understand.
Governments have acknowledged the scale of the risk after seeing events on Jupiter unfold rapidly in 1993, and thus decided to provide necessary financial resources to cope with it.
Scientists have successfully developed some early approaches to identifying and averting the global threat within three decades.
Threat no 2: global warming
The damage to our planet, by an initially slow and now accelerating industrialisation processes, industrialised agriculture and particularly power generation, which has led to environmental pollution and the overheating of the atmosphere, has been known for decades. There are still sceptics who question the observations, but they cannot offer any other explanation or remedy for rising sea levels and the increase in weather disasters.
Although the facts are clear, it is obvious that not enough action is being taken to slow down or reverse the collective downward spiral. Concrete consequences of the resolutions adopted by global conferences are difficult to discern and it’s clear that the status quo is neither sufficient nor suitable for overcoming the threat.
Lamentation does not help, moral appeals and dispute about ethical principles do not help, hope without action does not help. Soup thrown on classical paintings probably has the least possible effect. The inertia seems overwhelming. We are moving towards disaster with our eyes wide open.
What’s interesting though, is the chasm of difference between the prevailing lukewarm reaction of governing institutions to global warming and the rational and determined response to the threat posed by Near Earth Objects.
Reasons for indecisiveness
So what are the reasons for the objectively inadequate responses to climate change.
One reason is that while most of the world's countries are or will be affected, many of them do not have the technical and financial means to take effective action. Thus it appears they can only demand financial compensation for environmental damage. But even if such commitments were kept, compensation would not reduce the global threat.
Another reason may be psychological. The thought of a quick and catastrophic disaster (e.g., a giant asteroid hitting our planet) seems more tangible and dramatic than the prospect of gradual deterioration. The tendency to put off unpleasant things and give in to the hope that the worst will not happen is human nature and cannot be changed. Most of the time it pays off, but not here.
What we are learning is that the tendency to procrastinate affects not only individuals but also larger entities such as states, political parties, companies and associations.
Another explanation is offered by behavioural economics under the heading "Prospect Theory and Loss Aversion": There is consistent evidence that the emotional reaction of human beings to a loss is about twice as intense as that to a gain of the same size. So if people believe that a proposed change in their living conditions would make them economically worse off, they will build up strong emotional resistance. Rational arguments can hardly overcome these emotions.
It is fair to point out that the economists’ findings come from the observation of individuals. They do not (yet) cover the case of a collective loss of wealth. Nevertheless, we propose the extension of the "Loss Aversion Theory" as a working hypothesis.
If one combines the above arguments and the hypothesis with the prevailing perception among the population that averting a climate catastrophe will be extremely expensive and will thus entail a loss of prosperity, an explanation emerges as to why governments and companies are treading water: they have not found a way to communicate the necessity of structural change to their citizens and shareholders as in line with their interests.
How to overcome the proclivity to procrastination
Our emotions shift immediately when a shock occurs. This would be the case if, for example, a dramatic flood happened in one part of the world as a result of rising sea levels and a great many people lost their lives.
Perhaps this sort of scenario could happen and lead to systematic mobilisation against climate change. But it would be incredibly cynical to have a mitigation strategy based on waiting for a horror to arise.
The civilised and therefore preferable way is to change the narrative about the expected scenario, and to do so in a strictly realistic and emotionally engaging way at the same time.
What are the goals of science and technology?
The criteria for climate-friendly new technologies in the crucial energy sector can be presented in a nutshell:
The path that takes a scientific discovery to market maturity and broad distribution is long and inevitably fraught with many obstacles. Worldwide, there is an extremely high level of activity and progress in the area of research and development within the framework described above.
But in many areas, without the public taking much note, technologies have become highly advanced:
Space technology has recently succeeded in locating and quantifying known and unknown "super-emitters" of climate gases on Earth so that action can be taken on the ground.
Renewable energies are often produced at times when there is little demand for energy. So storage facilities are needed that can immediately deliver energy during peak hours. New solutions for storing energy generated from renewables are now reaching market maturity, e.g. highly efficient thermal batteries and batteries made from readily available and cheap raw materials.
Cheaply produced environmentally friendly "green" hydrogen is becoming increasingly likely as a substitute for coke, natural gas and oil in industry, at the same time as, or possibly after the use of "red" hydrogen. One industrialised nation has put all its eggs in this latter basket, even though there will be more nuclear waste.
The transport of hydrogen in the form of ammonia for shipping is already routine. The storage of hydrogen as a paste is fully developed and promises to solve problems of safety and logistics. Development of hydrogen storage in the form of powder is underway.
“Lego”, “Click”: Materials science is accelerating discovery processes by increasingly replacing lengthy experiments with the use of advanced information technologies. Scientists can thus generate hitherto non-existent artificial materials that are tailor-made for specific functions.
Fusion research, which has been going on for many decades, has recently made sudden progress via start-ups that have impressed the expert sceptics. A not too distant prospect would be very cheap energy from readily available raw materials, combined with minimal externalities.
Some paths will turn out to be dead ends, new paths will prove their worth. Industrial use cases are becoming more specific and can change. These are normal processes. The overall movement is forward, and fast.
These are just a few pieces of a complex mosaic. But these are already proof that a public narrative oriented towards the completing the picture is viable and capable of replacing a defeatism that disorients citizens. This defeatism can be replaced by an honest presentation of facts and prospects.
The armies that fight against global warming are made up of first-class scientists and engineers. Once they have clear targets, well-funded budgets and minimal distraction from bureaucratic obstacles, they can deliver. They are the most reliable élite we have.
Once the scientists and engineers get the support and respect they deserve, we will move out of the fog.
There is no reason to worry about our industry. In a market economy, change is the recipe for growth and prosperity and useful new technologies are its catalysts.
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” (Who said that?)
The stumbling block
The issue of immigration is stirring up emotions all over Europe, but in order to consider the appropriate rational response, we need to first distinguish between the different forms of migrations. In fact, only one of the four categories of immigration distinguished below is to be classified as a challenge:
Migration of High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNWI)
Let's start with the probably smallest group of migrants, which is also the least debated: very wealthy people who are able to move from one country to another with ease. Members of this group seldom encounter rejection and in some cases are actively sought after by countries.
HNWI can weigh up their motives and choose their targets according to their criteria. These include, for example,
security for personal life and wealth
quality of life
quality of the healthcare system
landscape or climatic preferences
quality of schools and universities.
Protection of wealth is frequently a major motivation for migration among the super wealthy and countries with low or no income tax are popular in this regard. On the other hand, while certain countries encourage HNWI to migrate to them, the benefits are not always as great as they might expect, especially when the migrant’s assets do not always accompany them to the country they are settling in. Furthermore, with laws that say an individual faces taxation if they spend more than 182 days in a country, those wishing to avoid this, simply rotate through different countries each year thus avoiding paying any income tax at all.
The number of migrants from this group is increasing, and the countries concerned are well known.
This group of migrants does not pose major challenges to European states.
2. Migration within the European Union: everyone with an EU passport
Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 on freedom of movement for workers within the Union guarantee the freedom of every EU citizen to take up a job in any other state of the Union and to settle there with their family. This freedom of choice is a cornerstone of the European Union. It has led to significant migratory movements, which, due to the enlargement of the Union into Central Europe, have been accelerating gradually since the 1990s. In most cases, families put down roots in their new place of residence and do not move back to their countries of origin, although they maintain ties there.
The disadvantage of this migration is that citizens whose education took place at the expense of their home states now move to member states with higher wage levels and better career prospects, in effect creating what is known as an internal ‘brain drain’ scenario, where talented workers move out of the country of origin, depleting the national workforce. The receiving states thus strengthen their national economies at almost zero cost to them and at the expense of domestic countries responsible for their education and socialization.
These implications were clear from the outset, but the net benefits from a large economic area with free movement of people, capital and goods outweigh the drawbacks. Free movement has had a predominantly positive impact on the prosperity of citizens. Changing this structure and enacting new restrictions on internal migration would have a negative impact on the powerful new industrial structures that have emerged over the years.
Traditionalists should be very careful when they argue against free migration within the Union as there is a long-standing practice of it within the continent. The last two centuries have seen massive migrations within the area that now makes up the European Union: the countries of origin were mainly Italy, Poland and Greece. These movements are themselves a valuable component of European identity and increased wealth.
3. Migration from outside the European Union: skilled labour
While the world population is still increasing, a simultaneous decline in birth rates has been evident worldwide for many years. The trend is more pronounced in Europe, where population numbers are increasingly moving towards shrinkage.
Clearly it is not possible to fill the gaps in the labour market out of the continent's existing population. This would not change even if Europeans could be persuaded to sharply increase the current birth rate. In that unlikely case it would take at least two decades for a generation to become visible in the labour market.
Many industrial processes and services can be designed through additional automation in such a way that even fewer human resources are needed than now. This may mitigate the bottleneck somewhat, but would not eliminate it.
If there is no quick turnaround, Europe’s economies will inevitably enter a shrinking process.
The only possible countermeasure is to enter the global competition and attract talent for the known gaps in the labour market. This has been crystal clear for a long time, but fear of traditionalist and conservative voters’ sensitivities has led to most governments to only address the issue in the abstract and try to cook the necessary debates on a low flame. Slogans like "We are not a country of immigration" earn significantly more public applause in Europe than "We urgently need lots of immigrants". Yet everyone knows from their own experience that when a tooth hurts, it is better to go straight to the dentist. Postponing the treatment makes the pain worse.
The fight for human talents is not much different from the struggle for other scarce resources such as raw materials or technical components. The difference is that the competition for material things is rarely a source of cultural friction. Imported goods and commodities don’t arouse sensitivities among traditionalist voters. When it comes to human migration however, public decision makers tend to tread more cautiously and thus do not give the issue the visibility which corresponds to its actual relevance.
The Europeans are now operating a "Blue Card" system, which allows people from outside the Union to take jobs offered to them and apply for nationality after five years. This is a relatively arduous path for applicants. The “Blue Card” approach is less attractive than the more successful American "Green Card" system in which holders are granted permanent residency from the outset, and after five years they can apply for US citizenship.
Under the present circumstances the winners in the competition for talent are likely to be those countries that have a tradition of continuous immigration, have a long history of selective immigration and have the lowest bureaucratic barriers for immigrants who fit into their labour markets. These would be, for example, Canada, the USA and Australia.
4. Migration from outside the European Union: refugees, skilled or unskilled
The right to be granted asylum is not only enshrined in national constitutions and laws, it is also based on:
The right to asylum protects people irrespective of their origin who are exposed to political, racial or religious persecution in their home country. These rules, born out of painful historical experiences that includes the societies of Europe itself, are more than set in stone. All European national states are firmly bound by them. Debates about their abolition are as pointless as those about the abolition of gravity. Yet they are common.
The legal criteria do not extend to refugees who seek to migrate to another country for economic or climatic reasons and who are therefore unlikely to be regarded as refugees from a legal perspective. In order not to be classified unfavourably, refugees may exaggerate or embellish stories of persecution in their country of origin. It is difficult for the authorities of the receiving countries to properly verify the truth of such statements.
The examination procedures are complicated and take a long time. Even if an application is rejected, expulsion to the country of origin tends to be the exception. Suffice it to say that the length of procedures creates new social realities as applicants more or less take root, children are born and are shaped by the national school system.
Growing influx of refugees
The number of refugees is considerable and on average it has been increasing strongly over the years. According to Eurostat's findings, the number of asylum seekers in the Union in 2022 was 881,220 persons, up by 64% compared with 2021. Once individuals have been recognised as eligible for asylum, a second wave of immigration begins when family members are allowed to join them.
Some member states of the Union pursue a restrictive policy by enforcing the legal requirements very strictly or selectively, or even by infringing them. This leads to greater refugee flows to those countries that comply more closely with the rules.
As the authorities of the countries with the highest numbers of refugees become increasingly overloaded with examination procedures, processing times are getting longer. The accommodation of asylum seekers in camps is pushing municipal administrations to the limits of their capacity.
Xenophobic currents in the public debate are gaining support. Surprisingly, part of the growing opposition consists of former refugees and their descendants born or raised in the country who have obtained citizenship and successfully achieved social status in their new homeland.
When frightened or even traumatised people from a different cultural background enter a European country for the first time, their first impressions have a powerful influence on how they think and feel. In the case of many refugees, their first experiences are often crowded refugee camps, questioning, long waiting times, further questioning, etc. Bureaucracy weighs them down, and there is no end in sight.
While they are in limbo for a long time, the idea that dealing with bureaucracy is the way to a better life is imprinted in the immigrants' minds. This puts people on the wrong mental tracks and impairs their chances to settle in an industrial society. While they may become adept at filling out forms, they are missing essential cultural impulses and opportunities to learn and improve on valuable skillsets for an industrial economy.
The material interests of the immigration countries
If the member states want to maintain their prosperity, a proper discussion on immigration would mean that all four categories need to be considered.
The first two categories (HNWIs and citizens of other EU countries) do not pose major problems.
The third category ("Blue Card programme") is presently far too small. So a more thorough approach is needed.
This thorough approach could involve giving priority to pre-skilled immigrants from outside the European Union. Labour offices and companies know exactly which human resources are needed. This can be done with low bureaucratic barriers, high-quality language courses to introduce immigrants to the national mentality, help in finding accommodation and schools for children, advice on access to banks and tax advisors, and perhaps even tax holidays for a few years. The threshold before obtaining citizenship should be low for people who prove to be valuable contributors. Employers can be involved in the process of accelerating integration as they themselves have a legitimate interest of their own and will be supportive.
The approach to dealing with the fourth category (asylum seekers) can be to abandon the illusory goal of carefully assessing at the outset whether an asylum seeker has a legal right to stay. Any person whose identity has been verified, who has not already applied for asylum in another member state of the Union and against whom there are no security concerns, should immediately be offered a language course and a first job determined by the labour authorities. This is inconvenient for the applicants, but it provides them with a primary orientation and momentum. It is also more beneficial to their human dignity than the endless dependency on bureaucratic processes. If they prove themselves within a year, for example, they should be given a residence permit and the right to choose a job. This would also give a chance to people who would not be entitled to asylum but who fit into the labour market.
Formal procedures for asylum applications would be resumed only for applicants who cannot be integrated into the country's labour market. Applicants who do not meet the criteria for asylum should be included. Delinquent applicants should be excluded.
For the labour market, the reason for entering the country is not relevant. What counts is a committed and reliable workforce. So the primary responsibility here should lie with labour ministries and administration, while the overburdened immigration authorities are given some air to breathe.
War-disabled, traumatised and seriously ill people should continue to be given special protection and attention. Unfortunately, their number is not small.
Canada, a country with not quite 39 million inhabitants, is an example of a country that derives and updates its demographic needs very accurately from the labour market. There are numerous national and regional programmes that make it easy for needed immigrants to quickly gain a foothold in the country. And the country additionally uses the pool of asylum seekers to enrich the labour market.
“ . . . the Government of Canada is maintaining its target of 485,000 permanent residents for 2024 and completing the final step to reach 500,000 in 2025. Starting in 2026, the government will stabilize permanent resident levels at 500,000, allowing time for successful integration, while continuing to augment Canada’s labour market.”
The demographic gap in European countries is a well-documented fact. The EU's population is ageing and shrinking, and there are not enough people to replace the working population.
This demographic contraction will lead to a decline in economic performance and prosperity. The only way to avoid this is through well-managed immigration.
Traditionalists and xenophobes are against immigration, but they have no realistic solutions to the demographic gap. If we give in to them, we will condemn our economies to decline.
To develop a successful immigration programme, we should look to countries with a long history of immigration . These countries have shown that it is possible to manage immigration in a way that benefits both the host country and the immigrants.