New Year predictions for a wild year ahead
The start of a new year is a traditional time for making predictions about the coming year, so here I go with mine. Not that I usually make predictions, but the ones I’m making are about trends so massive and important, in my humble opinion, that I feel the need to emphasise those trends by making predictions about them in order to highlight the pressing imminence and intensity of those trends.
The most important prediction is that global warming will manifest in 2012 in the form of even more extreme weather events than last year, or any previous year, for that matter. That does not necessarily mean that the frequency of weather events will increase, although it is worth noting that some places in the world had a record-breaking sequence of extreme weather events, most notably the USA. But I do feel that whatever extreme weather events that do occur will occur with record-breaking intensity and especially in places not used to such extreme events. Climate scientists predict that global warming will make droughts and floods more extreme and frequent and the increased heat energy of the atmosphere will make storms and heatwaves more extreme than they would otherwise be. We saw these predictions amply borne out by the extreme weather of 2011 , so it’s a no-brainer that 2012 will see more, perhaps a lot more, of the same, especially now that it is so clear now that there is massive (and, in places such as the Arctic, exponential) loss of ice occurring across the world. This throws into sharp relief the complete inadequacy of the Durban deal in the most recent round of the IPCC COP climate summit talks. We simply cannot wait until 2020 for a legally binding deal for reduction in carbon emissions to kick in. Given the present lack of global political will to deal with climate change now, what will reduce carbon emissions quickly enough? At this stage it looks like only a massive global economic recession will do the trick. Not that I would welcome that, but it is a fact, according to the Global Carbon Project, that global carbon emissions dropped significantly only in 2009, at the height of the global financial crash that started in 2007, and that drop has probably only lasted one year as a recovery of sorts began in 2010.
That brings me to the next prediction of 2012: that there will be a severe recession within Europe which will have a severe impact upon the USA, especially given the rapidly growing sovereign debt problems of the US, and there may even be a severe impact upon the ability of the Chinese economy to maintain its own growth. The irony of the present situation is that the agonies of economic recession will have the unexpected, unintended effect of increasing the chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change, or at least delaying it, which would impose the most severe economic catastrophe of all as the natural capital we all rely upon – such as fertile agricultural land, reliable rainfall patterns, etc. – would be irreversibly damaged and unable to sustain the basic indsutries we depend upon, especially the food industry.
Of course, the zero-sum game of economic growth versus planetary salvation can be massively mitigated by an immediate and sustained shift towards a zero-carbon economy that is primarily based on renewable energies and more efficient use of scarce resources, with less emphasis on growing GDP and more emphasis on increasing quality of life. But few places in the world have shown the political will so far to push on with such a long-term, sustainable strategy. Instead, the overwhelming focus of most politicians and government officials is on how to regain the economic growth rates of the recent past, as their perceived urgency is to reduce the debt burden that consumers, banks and countries have built up and which cannot be maintained, let alone paid off, unless there is enough new revenue created to at least pay the interest on that debt. But most of that debt is simply unsustainable and has to be written off somehow. Debt forgiveness will have to feature large in any realistic scenario for containing the debt problem. The global financial crisis of 2007/8 has left a toxic legacy so great that it cannot be overcome without massive change to the global financial and banking system, which is now in a chronic state of crisis. Indeed, because governments and policy makers are now so focussed upon dealing with the immediate debt and banking crises, the focus is not on the even greater challenge of dealing with the threat of catastrophic climate change, a threat much greater than that of a collapsing Euro or a string of banking failures.
But here’s the thing: what will prevent GDP growth rates returning to anything like the historical norm for the most advanced industrial societies is the rapidly growing impact of peak oil. Peak conventional crude oil as a geological fact occurred in 2006, according to the International Energy Agency in its 2010 report. Crude oil production rates globally have been declining at over 4% a year since then, so it is no surprise that the price of oil has risen from about $20 a barrel to over $100 a barrel since then. So my final prediction for 2012 is that the price of oil will go even higher. That’s not much of a prediction, but what I think we might see is that the price will go even higher despite a major recession in much of the industrialised world. Why? Because India and China are still industrialising so fast and their demand for oil is so great, and still increasing, that whatever reduction in oil consumption is achieved by the OECD countries is more than offset by the increase in consumption by China and India. Plus there are so many growing constraints – goelogic, economic and political – on the ability of the major oil producers to maintain present oil output let alone increase that output, and many of them, especially within OPEC, are reducing the amount of oil they export in order to fuel their own growing economies and populations. Particularly pertinent here is an analysis by Chris Skrebowski, one of the best peak oil analysts, that shows that 2012 is bound to be another oil crunch year because of the lack of new oil production megaprojects coming on stream this year. And, of course, there is always the danger of political crises erupting which create an immediate spike in the oil price to economically devastating levels; think of an attack on Iran by Israel and an immediate closing of the Straits of Hormuz by Iran.
But again, as in the case of a debt and financial crisis induced economic recession that leads to a decrease in carbon emissions, a sustained spike in the oil price could be the catalyst for a dramatic decrease in the consumption of oil as unintended price rationing crushes demand, and that in turn would lead to both a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions and a faster switch to non-oil dependent forms of transport, such as electric cars, than would otherwise be the case, thereby further contributing to a delay or prevention of catastrophic climate change. Yet again, short-term pain could lead to a massive, unexpected long-term gain, always assuming, of course, that this is facilitated by a political will to drive through the necessary social and economic changes.
But what I cannot predict is how all these three factors – global warming, the debt crisis and its associated banking crisis and suppression of economic growth, and the onset of peak oil – will actually interact with each other in 2012 to mitigate or enhance the effects of each, or manifest in various political, social, or economic crises. Who would have predicted that the Arab Spring occurred when it did, or where it would manifest next, or how it will still evolve? But what is clear already with hindsight is that oil price rises ultimately led to food price rises, which were a powerful factor in creating the social and political tensions that led to the Arab Spring. These are indeed turbulent times, with wild weather, wild economic oscillations and wild fallout from peak oil. You could ask the same question that W.B.Yeats asks: “and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
- PBS Covers Link Between 2011′s “Mind-Boggling” Extreme Weather and Global Warming: “It’s Like Being on Steroids” (thinkprogress.org)
- Joe Romm’s Climate Story of the Year: Extreme weather and threat to global food security (dailykos.com)
- 2011 the costliest ever for extreme weather damage (summitcountyvoice.com)