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Resource Shock: How Resource Scarcity and Climate Change Could Produce a Global Explosion

Whether you know it or not, you’re on a new planet, a resource-shock world of a sort humanity has never before experienced.

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By all accounts, resource-driven potential conflicts like these will only multiply in the years ahead as demand rises, supplies dwindle, and more of what remains will be found in disputed areas.  In a 2012 study titled Resources Futures, the respected British think-tank Chatham House expressed particular concern about possible resource wars over water, especially in areas like the Nile and Jordan River basins where several groups or countries must share the same river for the majority of their water supplies and few possess the wherewithal to develop alternatives.  “Against this backdrop of tight supplies and competition, issues related to water rights, prices, and pollution are becoming contentious,” the report noted.  “In areas with limited capacity to govern shared resources, balance competing demands, and mobilize new investments, tensions over water may erupt into more open confrontations.”

Heading for a Resource-Shock World

Tensions like these would be destined to grow by themselves because in so many areas supplies of key resources will not be able to keep up with demand.  As it happens, though, they are not “by themselves.”  On this planet, a second major force has entered the equation in a significant way.  With the growing reality of climate change, everything becomes a lot more terrifying.

Normally, when we consider the impact of climate change, we think primarily about the environment -- the melting Arctic ice cap or Greenland ice shield, rising global sea levels, intensifying storms, expanding deserts, and endangered or disappearing species like the polar bear.  But a growing number of experts are coming to realize that the most potent effects of climate change will be experienced by humans directly through the impairment or wholesale destruction of habitats upon which we rely for food production, industrial activities, or simply to live.  Essentially, climate change will wreak its havoc on us by constraining our access to the basics of life: vital resources that include food, water, land, and energy.  This will be devastating to human life, even as it significantly increases the danger of resource conflicts of all sorts erupting.

We already know enough about the future effects of climate change to predict the following with reasonable confidence:

  • Rising sea levels will in the next half-century erase many coastal areas, destroying large cities, critical infrastructure (including roads, railroads, ports, airports, pipelines, refineries, and power plants), and prime agricultural land.
  • Diminished rainfall and prolonged droughts will turn once-verdant croplands into dust bowls, reducing food output and turning millions into “ climate refugees.”
  • More severe storms and intense heat waves will kill crops, trigger forest fires, cause floods, and destroy critical infrastructure.

No one can predict how much food, land, water, and energy will be lost as a result of this onslaught (and other climate-change effects that are harder to predict or even possibly imagine), but the cumulative effect will undoubtedly be staggering.  In Resources Futures, Chatham House offers a particularly dire warning when it comes to the threat of diminished precipitation to rain-fed agriculture.  “By 2020,” the report says, “yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%” in some areas.  The highest rates of loss are expected to be in Africa, where reliance on rain-fed farming is greatest, but agriculture in China, India, Pakistan, and Central Asia is also likely to be severely affected.

Heat waves, droughts, and other effects of climate change will also reduce the flow of many vital rivers, diminishing water supplies for irrigation, hydro-electricity power facilities, and nuclear reactors (which need massive amounts of water for cooling purposes).  The melting of glaciers, especially in the Andes in Latin America and the Himalayas in South Asia, will also rob communities and cities of crucial water supplies.  An expected increase in the frequency of hurricanes and typhoons will pose a growing threat to offshore oil rigs, coastal refineries, transmission lines, and other components of the global energy system.

 
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