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Steep Oil Prices, Food Shortages Will Likely Spark Deadly Riots This Year

From now on, rising prices, powerful storms, severe droughts and floods, and other unexpected events are likely to play havoc with the fabric of global society.

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Mainstream analysts and government officials are loathe to attribute this traffic jam of extreme weather events to global warming.  Huge variations in rainfall can be normal, especially in places like Australia that are susceptible to El Niño/La Niña ocean-temperature oscillations, and politicians are fearful of assuming responsibility for a problem as massive as climate change.  But climate change theory has long suggested that the warming trend -- 2010 tied 2005 for the warmest year on record and nine of the 10 warmest years have come in the last decade -- will be accompanied by an increase in the frequency and severity of storms.  It’s hard to escape the conclusion that recent events, including those Australian floods, are tied to rising global temperatures.

The Energy Crisis Returns

Soaring food prices are being driven as well by speculative investments and the rising price of oil.  Partly in response to the diminishing value of the dollar, some investors are sinking their money into food futures (along with gold and silver) as a speculative hedge.  At the same time, the price of oil is edging toward the $100 mark, making it increasingly profitable for farmers to switch from growing corn for human consumption to growing it for the manufacture of ethanol, which in turn reduces the amount of farm acreage devoted to staples.  Oil would have to fall below $50 per barrel to make the cultivation of corn as a food product competitive with ethanol production -- and that’s not likely to happen.  So even if more corn is produced this year, less will be available for food purposes and the price of what remains is bound to rise.

The precipitous rise in oil prices has startled the experts.  Not so long ago, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) was projecting a price range of $70-$80 per barrel in 2011, but as the year began oil was already trading above $90 a barrel and some analysts predict that it will reach $100 before the year is out.  A few are even talking about the $150 barrel and gas prices at the pump of $4 or more.  If prices climb above $100, global consumer spending could take another nosedive.

“Oil prices are entering a dangerous zone for the global economy,” says Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency (IEA).  “The oil import bills are becoming a threat to the economic recovery.”

As with food, the rising cost of oil is a product of growing demand, insufficient supplies, and speculative investments.  According to the most recent projections from the IEA, daily global oil consumption in 2011 will average 87.4 million barrels, an increase of about two million barrels from the first quarter of 2010.  Much of the extra demand is coming from China, where a newly-minted middle class is buying automobiles at a record clip, as well as from the United States, where previously cautious consumers are slowly returning to pre-2008 driving habits.

At a time when the oil industry is experiencing declining rates of output at many existing oil fields and finding it ever more difficult to add production, even two million extra barrels per day can be a daunting challenge (and greater demand is expected in the coming years).  In the United States, for example, much hope was placed in oil exploration in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and offshore Alaska, but in the wake of the BP disaster, this seems like a forlorn prospect.  Production in Mexico and the North Sea, two bright spots of recent years, is facing a sharp decline, while other key producers, including those in the Middle East, are struggling to maintain current output levels at existing fields.

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