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A nurse takes care of a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit in Germany. Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

A new UN report on human development makes the case that our species faces a dire future of our own making.

The big picture: The COVID-19 pandemic — which emerged from nature but is in every other way a human-made catastrophe — is the most recent signal that we are firmly in the Anthropocene, a new epoch in which human beings are the most powerful force on the Earth. What comes next is on us.

What's happening: The 2020 Human Development Report — published earlier this week — marks the 30th year the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has assessed the holistic state of humanity.

  • The short version: it's not good, as COVID-19 illustrates the pressures we've put on the planet — pressures that have "grown exponentially over the past 100 years," as UNDP administrator Achim Steiner writes.
  • Beyond the direct costs of the pandemic, COVID-19 has thrown human development into reverse, with social mobility declining and social instability rising.
  • Climate change — the clearest and biggest challenge posed by the Anthropocene — continued its acceleration, with 2020 likely to go down as the hottest year on record.

Of note: The peril and the promise of the Anthropocene are seen most clearly in the case of existential risks, those catastrophic dangers that threaten the future of human civilization.

  • While we've always faced rare but potent cosmic threats like asteroids, today "the dominant risks to its survival come from humanity itself," writes existential risk scholar Toby Ord in the report.
  • But the same power that poses existential risks in the form of nuclear war or bioengineered pandemics means that "humanity’s future is largely within humanity’s control" — provided we're willing to take those risks more seriously than we have to date.

The bottom line: For better or for worse, we'll be the authors of our own future.

Go deeper

UN poll: Most see climate change as global emergency during pandemic

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (C) fronts a Fridays For Future protest at the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm in September. Photo: Jonathan Nacksrtrand/AFP via Getty Images

64% of people from around the world say climate change is a global emergency, a UN poll published Wednesday finds.

Why it matters: It's the biggest global survey on climate change ever conducted, with some 1.2 million participants from 50 countries — including the U.S., where 65% of those surveyed view climate change as an emergency.

Taiwan leader confirms U.S. troops on island training forces

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei earlier this month. Photo: I-Hwa Cheng/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen told CNN Thursday that a small number of American troops are on the island for training purposes and she has "faith" the U.S. would defend the democracy against a Chinese military attack.

Why it matters: This is the first time a Taiwanese leader has publicly acknowledged the presence of U.S. troops on the self-governing island since the last U.S. garrison left in 1979, when Washington switched formal diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

Updated 4 hours ago - Health

NYC firefighters union urges members to defy mayor's vaccine mandate

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The president of New York City's firefighters union told reporters Wednesday that he's advised unvaccinated members to ignore Mayor Bill de Blasio's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers, per Reuters.

Why it matters: Under de Blasio's order that's due to take effect Friday, unvaccinated city employees would be placed on unpaid leave. But Uniformed Firefighters Association head Andrew Ansbro said he told members that "if they choose to remain unvaccinated, they must still report for duty," according to Reuters.

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