Eleven Global Issues That Will Shape the Future
Understand the challenges that will define our lifetime.
Picture this: You’re scrolling through Instagram when your curiosity is piqued by an interesting fact about the relationship between climate change and immigration. Three hours later, you emerge from an internet rabbit hole more confused than ever about how the world’s biggest issues overlap and why they matter.
You’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed—the world is mind-bogglingly complex. But as we wrap up our journey through the history books exploring how our intricately connected world came to be, one overarching idea should be coming into focus: what happens in one part of the world, one way or another, has an effect on us all.
You’ll find this idea animated in the lesson below, which takes a curated look through the global issues that define our modern lives and will likely continue to define them in the future. Getting a handle on these fundamental challenges and how they connect to each other now will prepare you to understand and participate in that future.
If any (or all) of these ideas fascinate you, each is an excerpt from a longer module-slash-rabbit hole that we invite you to fall down to learn more.
Most of what we interact with comes to us via a different part of the world. But globalization is about more than just access to a wider world of people, goods, and ideas—it’s at the root of some of the biggest challenges we face. The COVID-19 pandemic spread so quickly because of the same international travel system that makes it possible to catch a flight to just about every country on earth any day of the week; the 2008 financial crisis got as bad as it did because of the same interlinked finance system that enables Americans to buy cheap prescription drugs manufactured in India and import avocados from Mexico. From global pandemics and climate change to automation and inequality, understanding how the most pressing issues of today connect back to globalization is essential for successfully navigating our interconnected world. This video lesson from our Globalization module breaks down the challenges governments face as they try to balance the benefits and drawbacks of this defining force in our lives.
In recent decades, many acts of international terrorism can be attributed to Islamist extremism, but the word “terrorism” was first used during the French Revolution, and the practice has been around much longer than that. Terrorism is one of those words that’s used so widely that what it means, and what makes it distinct from other forms of violence, can be hard to nail down. But understanding what terrorism refers to—and how that definition has changed over time—is vitally important because counterterrorism policies enacted in the name of national security affect a wide range of issues, from immigration policy to information privacy. This video lesson from our Terrorism module explores the diverse political agendas that have motivated individuals and groups to perform violence throughout history and what tools governments around the world employ to stop them.
A nuclear war could end most life on Earth, which is why nonproliferation, or stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, has been a top priority for world leaders since the United States detonated the first nuclear weapons more than seventy years ago. As more governments began to develop stockpiles of these weapons of mass destruction, treaties engineered to stop their spread, such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), gained steam. Though 191 countries are now signatories of the NPT, the dangers of nuclear war remain present, especially as countries such as Iran and North Korea continue to develop their own bombs. This video lesson from our Nuclear Proliferation module surveys how nuclear weapons are developed, the effect of the NPT and other nonproliferation treaties on our daily lives, and how world leaders attempt to prevent nuclear technology from ending up in the wrong hands.
Our world is getting warmer and this change in climate is already disrupting the lives of people around the globe, from where they can safely live to how they can make a stable living. Most people have moved past questioning whether global warming exists because the science is clear: climate change already has led to more natural disasters, more migration, and more loss of life. However, world leaders struggle to gain consensus on how to address this existential challenge. Global efforts to mitigate climate change, such as the 2015 Paris Agreement, are a promising start. But the world needs to take drastic action to avoid a future defined by the far-reaching and varied effects of a warmer planet, from rising sea levels and deeper droughts to bigger wildfires and more intense storms. This video lesson from our Climate Change module unpacks why the climate is changing and what strategies exist to mitigate its effects and adapt to the new normal it presents.
Today, over 250 million people (roughly one out of every thirty people on the planet) live in a country in which they were not born. Why do so many leave home? Typically, a mix of push and pull factors drive someone’s decision to migrate. For example, conflict often pushes people from their homes while economic opportunity pulls them across borders. Though the decision to leave home is personal, governments get to decide who is allowed to enter and stay in their countries. They often make distinctions about who counts as an economic migrant, refugee, or asylum seeker, classifications that have enormous consequences for millions of people who have left home in search of a better life. This video lesson from our Migration module explores where migrants come from, where they go, and the unique challenges faced by those who are displaced within their own countries.
Cyberspace and Cybersecurity
Likely more than any other innovation in the past thirty years, the internet has revolutionized our world. Although this tool has made life easier in a million ways, it has also opened us up to frightening new threats, including cyberattacks. These attacks are often carried out by hackers, acting on their own or sponsored by their governments, who target everything from credit card numbers to sensitive national intelligence. What makes cyberattacks so dangerous is that the very nature of the internet makes it exceedingly difficult for governments to use traditional tools to find and punish perpetrators. This video lesson from our Cyberspace and Cybersecurity module explores how hackers work, how data breaches happen, and how international organizations are attempting to address these challenges.
COVID-19 has placed global health policies and organizations front and center in the news. But even when a pandemic isn’t causing an international crisis, global health organizations face a multitude of challenges as they try to make the world a healthier place. For example, despite these organizations’ hard-won successes at driving infant mortality rates down and life expectancy up, more than five million children around the world still die before their fifth birthday—and most of these deaths are preventable. To understand how much work remains to be done, take a look at the United Nations’ seventeen sustainable development goals, eleven of which relate to global health. This video lesson from our Global Health module discusses how governments and international organizations work together to combat disease and extend the lengths of our lives, and reveals why it can be difficult for these different entities to cooperate.
The phone in your pocket is likely composed of parts made in and assembled all over the world. International trade and the cheap consumer goods it has made ubiquitous are a potent symbol of our globalized world. Before World War II, however, tariffs—or fees on foreign imports—encouraged countries to manufacture and sell many goods domestically rather than buy them from abroad. After the war ended, newly formed institutions such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade lowered these barriers, leading to an explosion in international free trade and a rise in global prosperity. This revolution didn’t just yield benefits, though; many workers lost jobs that could be done more cheaply somewhere else. This video lesson from our Trade module explores the trade-offs governments around the world weigh when considering the upsides and downsides of free trade.
Monetary Policy and Currencies
Have older people in your life ever told you about how much less things cost—or how little they were paid—when they were young? These nostalgia-filled anecdotes tell us a lot about the concept of inflation. As U.S. currency has accumulated in circulation over time, each dollar’s value has slightly decreased. (This means you need more dollars to buy the same thing as before, and it’s one reason why going to the movies costs far more than a nickel today.) More money in the market also means many businesses have more capital to hire more people—but too much money could drive inflation up to the point that people’s savings become worthless. In the United States, the Federal Reserve (also known as the Fed) is focused on these two issues: how much money is being pumped into the economy and how many people have jobs. This video lesson from our Monetary Policy and Currencies module explores how the Fed maintains the right balance between trying to achieve maximum employment and keeping inflation low.
What does it mean for a country to be “developed” or “developing,” and why do we divide the world into these two categories? One way to determine a country’s developmental stage is to consider its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. Though not a perfect measurement, GDP per capita tells us how much economic output—from cars built to tables waited—a country is producing per person. When GDP per capita is growing, a country is likely successfully developing. Development is crucial because it helps alleviate poverty. And though extreme poverty on a global scale has retreated in recent decades, the COVID-19 pandemic could unravel some of these advances. This video lesson from our Development module takes a look at how the fight to develop the world and eradicate poverty is far from over.
The Liberal World Order
As the world wars that defined the first half of the twentieth century faded into the history books, the United States took the lead in creating a system of global governance—known as the liberal world order—that they believed would foster cross-border cooperation, generate prosperity, and help prevent future conflicts. But today, those institutions struggle to address many of the global era issues we face. With democracy under stress around the world and authoritarian governments like China’s creating separate spheres of influence, it’s not far fetched to wonder whether the liberal world order will survive. This video lesson from our Global Governance module provides a detailed explanation of how our current international system took shape and why it could be time to think about a new approach to solving the world’s most pressing issues.