World’s leaders need plan to confront crises

April 15, 2010 • Daily Email Recap

Congratulations to Bob Walker for having this piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

World’s leaders need plan to confront crises
Robert Walker
Sunday, January 31, 2010

John Beddington, England’s chief scientific adviser, warned last year of an approaching “perfect storm.” He forecast that by 2030, population growth and climate change, along with a 50 percent increase in demand for food and energy and a 30 percent jump in demand for fresh water, could precipitate a global crisis. “There’s not going to be a complete collapse,” said Beddington, “but things will start getting really worrying if we don’t tackle these problems.”

Judging by 2009, it looks as if we aren’t tackling them.

In July, a U.N. study warned that, despite a large unmet need for contraceptive services in the developing world, “conspicuous” funding gaps existed in international support for family planning. But in October, a U.N. gathering of parliamentarians in Ethiopia yielded almost no concrete commitments of donations for increased assistance for family planning. Without more support, global population is likely to increase from 6.8 billion in 2009 to 8.3 billion over the next two decades.

Several reports this year warned that greenhouse gas emissions are still rising and that climate change is accelerating, but international negotiators meeting in Copenhagen in December were not able to reach any kind of binding agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Chances that Congress will pass a meaningful “cap and trade” bill this year to control emissions also are not good. Here and abroad, it’s still more or less “business as usual.”

In September, the United Nations announced that the number of chronically hungry has been growing over the past decade and would pass the 1 billion mark in 2009. Another report warned that “dramatic increases in water productivity” were needed to avert an expanded food crisis in Asia. But in November, donor nations met at the World Food Summit in Rome without committing to any new aid.

Meanwhile, despite the lingering Great Recession, commodity prices staged an impressive rebound in 2009. Oil prices rose 75 percent, and copper and zinc prices more than doubled. As the year ended, food analysts were worried that poor harvests because of bad weather could precipitate another sharp increase in the price of rice. Another food crisis could be right around the corner. Supply and demand are on a collision course.

As Beddington’s “perfect storm” draws ever closer, there is little reason to believe that coordinated international efforts aimed at preventing it will materialize anytime soon. Policymakers everywhere need to take a closer look at the radar. If population growth remains on track, and efforts to mitigate climate change stay largely off track, the storm could arrive even sooner than expected.

The biggest near-term global threat is food. Over the next forty years, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization says global food production will have to increase by 70 percent, and in the developing world by 100 percent.

That’s a tall order. Look what the world’s farmers will be up against: diversion of farmland to biomass production, rising temperatures and sea levels, increasing drought and flooding due to climate change, higher prices for fertilizer and transportation because of rising energy prices, the depletion of underground water aquifers in many parts of the world, and, quite possibly, dwindling international assistance.

Two years ago, grain prices more than doubled, world grain reserves grew dangerously low, and food riots spread around the world. Grain reserves have rebounded since then, but World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned several weeks ago that the food crisis could recur in 2010. The nations most adversely affected would be those least able to cope with higher food prices. The list includes trouble spots such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen and potential trouble spots such as Egypt, Syria and the Philippines.

Looking 20 years down the road to 2030, it’s not hard to envision an increasingly destabilized world in which climate change is more pronounced, with concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dangerously close to the 450 parts per million level that scientists say could trigger the worst effects of climate change. It’s not difficult to imagine a world that is desperately short of energy and a global economy crippled by high energy prices. It’s easy to construct a plausible scenario in which hundreds of millions of people are on the verge of starvation, conflicts are erupting in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, and global leaders are unable to cope.

What’s difficult is seeing how today’s leaders will summon the vision and the will to deal with these threats before it’s too late. For reasons of both prevention and preparation, Congress and policymakers around the world need to do what military planners and emergency relief agencies already do: scenario planning. Unless legislators develop a clearer understanding of the damage that could be inflicted by Beddington’s “perfect storm,” the odds of a global calamity grow ever higher. Scenario planning can also give policymakers a keener sense of the inevitable policy conflicts that will arise in an increasingly overcrowded and over-consuming world.

War games are not just for the generals, because military conflict is by no means the only or even the chief security threat in today’s world. It’s time for policymakers to anticipate and build in detailed plans for the perfect storm that is approaching.

Robert J. Walker is the executive vice president of the Population Institute, a nonprofit organization striving to achieve a world population in balance with a healthy global environment and resource base.

Current World Population


Net Growth During Your Visit