Looming Crisis: Can We Act in Time?

May 7, 2007
Robert O'Neill

There are some crises we see coming. We know what can happen. We know what their impact will be. We sometimes even know when they will happen. And yet we do nothing.
The John F. Kennedy’s School of Government’s weekend conference – Looming Crisis: Can We Act in Time? – placed that inaction squarely in the crosshairs. A dozen panels met to dissecting approaches to long-term challenges, and the reasons for inaction.
The conference was part of a wider initiative, launched by Dean David T. Elwood last year, to understand why certain problems are not being addressed and how more effective action could be taken.
The issues included “creeping crises” as well as “catastrophic events,” Elwood told conferees. “But they all share the common feature that the costs of acting sooner would far outweigh the cost of acting later.”
Former President Bill Clinton and President Festus Mogae of Botswana added their voices to those of dozens of leading experts.
“I know there is no great political constituency for it,” Clinton said at the keynote address on Friday. “But we can avert these disasters for not very much money if they can be put into the public debate and people understand clearly what’s going to happen.”
Just over 400 people attended, including students, alumni and representatives from the public, private and non-profit sectors.
In the panel “How Civil Society Organizations Affect Government Action to Prevent or Halt Genocide,” panelist Rebecca Hamilton MPP2007 said genocides continue to occur because those outside persist in explaining them as the result of "inevitable tribal hatred." The actual reason, said Hamilton, co-founder of the Harvard Darfur Action Group and Genocide Intervention Network, is attributable to something much more systematic.
Other panel discussions included the role of leadership, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the U.S. health care system, and the role of the media in discussing climate change.
In addition to the conference, four interdisciplinary research projects led by faculty from across the school are currently examining: Preparation for landscape-scale disasters like Katrina; Efforts to end pandemics that threaten public health in developing countries; The structural challenges presented by distant risks, like those posed by global warming; And the looming crisis in long-term health care.

David Ellwood and Bill Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton (right), pictured here with Dean David Ellwood, was the keynote speaker at the Harvard Kennedy School conference, “The Looming Crises: Can We Act in Time?”

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