Let’s look at that list:
Famine According to the United Nations, there is a global food shortage approaching quickly, egged on by the rising cost of fertilizer, the declining availability of water, the erosion and urbanization of cropland, and the substitution of ethanol-producing crops—primarily corn—for food crops. By next year at this time, we could start to see starvation in Asia and Africa on an unprecedented scale, with no stocks of grain in reserve to relieve the crisis.
The collapse of the US dollar With the world’s reserve currency plunging in value to record lows, and the US trade deficit soaring out of control, leaving the Federal Reserve with no ability to stem the fall, it’s only a matter of time before the US becomes a broken economy, unable to fund its deficits any longer. Already, shop owners in New York are accepting Euros and Canadian dollars for goods, seeing those bills as a better store of value than the Greenback. The OPEC nations, for sure, will not be far behind. Iran has already set in motion plans to accept only payment in Euros for its oil.
The loss of the Arctic ice sheet It is increasingly looking like it is only a matter of years before the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the summer. Greenland is losing its huge cap of ice too at an accelerating rate, way past the outer limit imagined by UN scientists only last year. We could be looking at sea rises measured in meters in a matter of years, not decades, if this keeps up. There is growing evidence too that the Western Antarctic Ice Shelf too is melting at an increasing rate, adding to the risk.
An end to commercial fishing Fish stocks in most of the world’s key fisheries—a primary source of protein for much of the world—are nearing collapse, and the habitats, thanks to the scouring of sea bottoms by industrial fishing fleets—are being destroyed forever. Add to that the acidification of the oceans thanks, to airborne and river-borne pollutants, a process which is destroying the plankton at the bottom of the oceanic food chain, and we have another major food crisis on our hands, not to mention the loss of the world’s primary carbon sink.
Climate disruptions The oceans are warming, with a concomitant risk of ever worse El Nino phenomena in the Pacific, and the slowing and shrinking of the Gulf Stream and other ocean currents critical to the global weather patterns upon which the world’s current population centers have depended. This doesn’t just mean more severe storms along America’s coasts. It means, most likely, growing drought across the nation’s midsection, a loss of snowpack in the Rockies, critical to irrigation in the western US, and catastrophic droughts in Africa, Asia, South Asia and South America, and possibly even Spain and southern Europe.
Mass extinctions It's not just the polar bears and black rhinos. Everything from songbirds to whales, from sea otters to penguins, from the whole class of amphibians to even cottontail rabbits, are facing extinction. In fact, there are predictions from knowledgeable and cool-headed ecologists that in short order we could see the mass extinction of perhaps half the species on the planet--a tragic and dangerous event only seen several times in the half billion years of life on Earth.
Resource wars and mass migrations The US, obsessed with controlling events in the world through its use of military power, has been run into a corner. The American military is now stymied in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and is at this point incapable of responding to yet another military crisis. Yet the world, for all the above reasons, is heading full-speed towards an era of global resource wars, as overcrowded countries full of starving people begin to press outward to claim lands with needed water, soil and other resources. Desperate migrants will also predictably be fleeing to safer havens, the US included. No mere fence is going to stop this inexorable flow of desperate humanity.
There are responses one can imagine which might be taken to confront or at least prepare for each of these crises, but they will require innovative and inspirational leadership of a kind not seen in American politics in generations. They will require, too, a massive shift in thinking on the part of the American people, who will have to shed their parochial isolationist and triumphalist mindset, and begin to see themselves as just another part of a global humanity. We are talking about threats and challenges greater than those posed by the Cold War, World War II, or even the Civil War.
Yet astonishingly and depressingly, not one of the candidates running for the presidency is addressing any of these critical issues, or is even attempting to speak to American voters about the crisis that lies ahead. Equally astonishingly, given that we are about to hand our children and grandchildren a devastated planet and a hopeless future, nobody seems to be demanding that they address these crucial issues.
That being the case, what is the likelihood that our next government will take any kind of effective action on any of them?
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This story was published on February 27, 2008.