Fewer people, more heat

Secretary-General of the OECD

Demography and climate change: as I read the literature and consult the experts, I am increasingly convinced that many of this century’s important challenges, especially for our children and grandchildren, will flow from these two phenomena. Let me sketch some scenarios and questions with respect to each.

First, demography. Populations in the developed world are already ageing. Longer life expectancy is a great achievement. But coupled with declining birth rates, we are facing serious economic and social consequences – and soon, if current trends persist, fewer and fewer people of working age will have to support more and more retirees. The cost of pensions and healthcare, together with rising public debt, could very well place an intolerable burden upon public finances and on future workers.

Will policies be identified to arrest this demographic decline, or to increase the productivity of a smaller working population? Or will we revise social contracts in order to reduce pensions, healthcare or other social security benefits? Can we find ways to provide benefits more efficiently?

Alternatively, will OECD countries supplement their populations by attracting large numbers of migrants from the developing world? Are our societies ready to receive and integrate waves of new minorities with different cultures, religions and social values? It would be nice to think so. But even such a policy would likely founder because birth rates in many countries that send migrants are plummeting.

Perhaps our governments will respond by pushing the retirement age to 70 or 75, or higher. Perhaps they will increase the number of hours worked – from lows such as the 1,500 hours per year worked today in Germany, to higher numbers such as the 2,400 hours in Korea.

These are difficult questions facing the developed world today. In a slightly longer timeframe they will beset developing countries, especially China which has followed a one-child policy! I am worried. Will our politicians be able to deliver the answers?

About a decade ago, conventional wisdom held that the earth’s population would reach an unsustainable 12 billion people by the year 2050. We often referred to the “population time bomb” and the challenge of feeding this burgeoning population in the developing world. The reality is that the bomb already exploded as the world population increased from 1.6 billion at the end of the 19th century to over 6 billion at the end of the 20th.

The Malthusian nightmare has receded, at least for now. But humans are exerting enormous pressure on the global environment and this brings me to the second global phenomenon which will drive policy agendas during this century: climate change.

There now seems to be indisputable evidence that global warming is upon us and accelerating. The extent to which this warming is the result of human activity remains moot, although the strong coincidence of rising temperatures and rising CO2 emissions should give pause to even the most sceptical observers. The real question about climate change is “at what rate”: slow, rapid or abrupt?

The nightmare scenario is the abrupt climate change that would ensue if global temperatures passed a threshold that would induce the equivalent of climatic chaos. An analogy is a canoe which gradually tips as it fills with water – until it capsizes. This is a terrifying prospect and some argue that it may be only a decade away.

Fortunately, the more likely scenario is that climate change will continue at a pace which will permit us to adapt. It is for this reason that I have encouraged OECD members to address two issues in our environmental work: first, how to slow down climate change through the reduction of greenhouse emissions, including through the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, and the wider use of non-greenhouse gas emitting technologies; and, second, to identify areas where adaptation and preparedness are clearly necessary.

Adaptation is the relatively new issue. Evidence is mounting that extreme weather conditions, such as the heat wave which brought death to many elderly people in Europe last summer, will be more frequent. Are we now in a position to deal with such heat waves? Can our infrastructure, such as for power provision, withstand long periods of severe heat or deep freeze? Have we identified communities at risk from flash floods? Are we ready to fight the tropical diseases that will invade our warming climates? In agriculture, can we change crops as quickly as the climate evolves and can we cope with reduced rainfalls in some areas and dramatically increased precipitation elsewhere? If sea walls cannot protect low lands, are we ready to receive “environmental refugees”? Are we ready for the day that the Gulf Stream stops?

Many questions, yet they all point to just one: are we getting ready for inevitable climate change? Whether the problems are about demographic change or climate change, thinking about them – in laboratories or universities – is not enough. We need options for public policy that can be implemented in our capitals. Obviously, these are areas where the interdisciplinary strength of the OECD, complemented by direct access to decisionmakers, should be brought to bear, and as quickly as possible.

©OECD Observer No 243, May 2004

Economic data


Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive print editions delivered to you directly

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Africa's cities at the forefront of progress: Africa is urbanising at a historically rapid pace coupled with an unprecedented demographic boom. By 2050, about 56% of Africans are expected to live in cities. This poses major policy challenges, but make no mistake: Africa’s cities and towns are engines of progress that, if harnessed correctly, can fuel the entire continent’s sustainable development.
  • “Nizip” refugee camp visit
    July 2016: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría visits the “Nizip” refugee camp, situated between Gaziantep and the Turkish-Syrian border, accompanied by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek. The camp accommodates a small number of the 2.75 million Syrians currently registered in Turkey, mostly outside the camps. In his tour of the camp, Mr Gurría visits a school, speaks with refugees and gives a short interview.
  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • Queen Maxima of the Netherlands gives a speech next to Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (not pictured) during the International Forum of Financial Inclusion at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico June 21, 2016.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • OECD Environment Director Simon Upton presented a talk at Imperial College London on 21 April 2016. With the world awash in surplus oil and prices languishing around US$40 per barrel, how can governments step up efforts to transform the world’s energy systems in line with the Paris Agreement?
  • Happy 10th birthday to Twitter. This 2008 OECD Observer interview with Henry Copeland said you’d do well.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Once migrants reach Europe, countries face integration challenge: OECD's Thomas Liebig speaks to NPR's Audie Cornish.

  • Message from the International Space Station to COP21

  • The carbon clock is ticking: OECD’s Gurría on CNBC

  • If we want to reach zero net emissions by the end of the century, we must align our policies for a low-carbon economy, put a price on carbon everywhere, spend less subsidising fossil fuels and invest more in clean energy. OECD at #COP21 – OECD statement for #COP21
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa. blogs.worldbank.org
  • Pole to Paris Project
  • In order to face global warming, Asia needs at least $40 billion per year, derived from both the public and private sector. Read how to bridge the climate financing gap on the Asian Bank of Development's website.
  • How can cities fight climate change?
    Discover projects in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan and Mexico.
  • Climate: What's changed, what hasn't, what we can do about it.
    Lecture by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise, London, UK, 3 July 2015.
  • Is technological progress slowing down? Is it speeding up? At the OECD, we believe the research from our Future of ‪Productivity‬ project helps to resolve this paradox.
  • Is inequality bad for growth? That redistribution boosts economies is not established by the evidence says FT economics editor Chris Giles. Read more on www.ft.com.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .

Most Popular Articles


What issue are you most concerned about in 2016?

Euro crisis
International conflict
Global warming

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2016