2016: Climate, China and ConflictValerie Morse
The New Year is a time for reflection and an opportunity to predict what lies ahead. The interesting thing about predicting the future is that it isn’t really as much guesswork as one might think. Of course, things—the contingent—will arise that we had not anticipated or planned for, but if we remove our rose-coloured glasses and look carefully, we can see clearly the challenges that will continue to command attention for the next 12 months: climate change, the economic slowdown in China and escalating political conflict in the Middle East.
1. The CLIMATE
From my vantage point, 2016 looks like the year when climate change becomes undeniably real. As I write, major parts of the US, the UK and South America are underwater from massive flooding, and fires rage across large areas of Indonesia and Australia. Drought is sweeping across Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and India threatening the lives of millions of people, while here in Aotearoa, many farmers who have not recovered from last year’s drought are facing extremely tough conditions again. Some of the extreme weather conditions are a direct result of the El Niño, and in turn, it is significantly exacerbating the effects of climate change. Greenland is experiencing temperatures that are 40-50 degrees higher than normal at this time of year. The knock on effect of that is faster ice melting; the total loss of Greenland’s ice sheet (some 1.7 million square kilometers) would result in a sea level rise of six metres, an outcome that now appears inevitable.
Climate change should not be regarded as a mere “environmental issue” of concern. Rather, it should be the centrepiece of our analysis of the global economy and society. Globally, the effects are chilling. Ethiopia, for example, is requesting $1.4 billion in food aid in addition to the nearly $500 million it has already received. India’s agricultural sector, worth some $370 billion and millions of jobs, is seriously threatened.
In NZ, a quick search of the Internet reveals the aggregate cost of repetitive droughts: in 2008-2009 it was $2.8 billion; in 2010, the worst drought in 60 years hit Northland at an estimated cost of $500 million; in 2012-2013 it was $1.3 billion; and now we’re confronting another year of drought with further potentially devastating consequences across agricultural and horticultural sectors. This is what climate change looks like. To add to our collective challenges, our waterways are severely taxed by the combination of irrigation demands and effluent runoff – both factors aggravated by an increasingly unsustainable dairy industry.
Far more important than the economic costs of climate change are the costs in human lives and the ability to sustain ourselves. According to Ora Taiao, the NZ climate and health council, “Climate change is already contributing to global disease, disability and premature death—most seriously affecting people in poor countries, and the most disadvantaged and vulnerable within all countries.” World leaders have directly linked the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Africa with the extended drought: a painful illustration of the deathly impacts of climate change. Major food production is under threat across the globe forcing millions from their homes. We can reasonably predict that in 2016 this will get significantly worse.
New Zealand is heavily reliant on Chinese markets; goods and services exports to China were valued at $10.3 billion for the year ending June 2015. It ranks as NZ’s second biggest trading partner. Thus the state of the Chinese economy is a significant issue for New Zealand; without a doubt, its economy is slowing considerably.
For two decades, China had enjoyed phenomenal economic growth in excess of 10% a year (compared with 2-3% in most OECD nations). Much of this growth can be attributed to economic liberalisation – the opening up of a market of more than a billion people. Such growth cannot be sustained; however, it is not clear whether the Chinese economy will plateau at a “new normal” closer to 4-6% or continue to fall. Large amounts of debt, much of it in property speculation, points to the potential of a bursting bubble. Further, the government injection of some $800 billion in 2015 alone to prop up the economy demonstrates that things in China are quite rocky indeed.
In terms of China, the situation for New Zealand is two-fold: first, the stability of the Chinese economy is problematic; and secondly, NZ exports to China are primarily commodities (such as dairy) and in today’s global market commodity prices are highly volatile.
While dairy prices are difficult to predict, with greater dairy liberalisation across Europe, it is likely that an abundant supply will signal continued lower prices over the longer term. Indeed, farmers may need to come to terms with a “new normal” in which dairy prices fail to meet the costs of production. While such a situation would have some significant benefits insofar as it would put an end to intensification and potentially could encourage some farmers to diversify out of dairy altogether, you may be sure that industry would resist vociferously.
The year has already gotten off to a very bad start with Saudi Arabia executing 47 people. This has provoked a major diplomatic fracture with Iran as the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was one of those put to death. Diplomats have been withdrawn from Iran, not only by Saudi Arabia, but also by its Sunni allies in Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates [UAE], while Iranian diplomats have been expelled from the Kingdom.
For some time, Middle Eastern sectarian governments and armed movements have been creating tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims, tensions that before the 2001 War on Terror were in abeyance. These include the Saudi-led coalition aligned against the Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen; the self-proclaimed Sunni caliphate of Daesh (ISIS) fighting a Shia-dominated military in Iraq; and Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite army confronting the Sunni Free Syrian Army and Daesh in Syria proper. Behind the screen of these conflicts is the proxy war being waged anew by old enemies, the US and Russia, each with its own cluster of client regimes, in Syria and Iraq.
Such conflict is hardly limited to the Middle East. Here at home, the NZ government’s Intelligence and Security review is due in late February; it will almost certainly insist that more surveillance powers are essential to protect New Zealanders from their claims of an existential global terrorism threat. Despite a paucity of evidence and widespread public opposition, the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) will be awarded further enhanced powers and larger budgets irrespective of their current powers so total that a camera can be installed in your shower tomorrow. NZ Muslims are already under intrusive surveillance, tantamount to harassment, as their mosques are infiltrated and their homes are raided; concurrently, unsubstantiated allegations of young Muslim women accepting invitations to marry into Daesh are deployed to soften up the populace to accept more draconian spying.
Along with extending the intelligence services’ watch over local Muslims, the government will likely accept a US request for an expanded role in the war in Iraq. The Labour Party has already signaled that it is prepared to endorse an Iraqi deployment of the Special Air Service (SAS), presumably hoping to reap any domestic political benefit from a pro-war position. Apparently, the government does not need parliamentary support in order to aid the US with its latest war, since clearly sending combat trainers in 2015 against a tide of public opinion did not dent its approval rating.
There are no clear pathways out of this quagmire; it could be argued that for the United States, such chaos in the Middle East, particularly draining the resources of Russia, is a desirable strategic goal in itself. The US does not need to “win” (as if “winning” was definable); it simply needs to perpetuate instability and chaos, which given the US military’s overwhelming resources should not be difficult. The US essentially “wins” by not winning since US weapons sales to the Middle East continue to expand exponentially with Saudi Arabia now comprising the world’s fourth largest arms market. The US’s closest ally in the region, Israel, does not fear the conflict: it deflects attention from the State-sponsored settler violence against Palestinians and land-grabbing in the West Bank.
What should never be forgotten in this discussion of conflict, nation-states, armies and guns are the people. Just within the last year millions of innocent people have fled Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic and elsewhere—trying desperately to escape war and violence. Altogether, some 60 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. It is difficult to grasp the scale of this horror.
Of course, in the coming year our attention will be diverted by headlines trumpeting other scoops and scandals, both serious and trivial. Clearly the US presidential election will provide some entertainment; one must either laugh or cry at its absurdity.
Here in Aotearoa, I predict that the TPPA will continue to be hotly contested but not passed in 2016 as a result of the election circus in the US. Further, Kim Dotcom’s extradition saga will continue to make news. His is our own sort of circus; alas, it seems all too likely that he will the sad clown not the ringmaster. Serco, Inc. will come under extreme pressure, as the truth about improper and/or illegal activities at the private prison it mis-managed becomes public knowledge. Jobs and houses will be harder to come by; more and more people in New Zealand will be on the streets, struggling to survive day-to-day.
Nevertheless, I am optimistic about 2016. In this morass that I have sketched, I see sparkling possibilities. I see that the linking and deepening of social justice, indigenous and ecological struggles currently underway will continue to grow. Change, real, profound, earth-moving change, looms and is unstoppable. It can be positive change for good, for the common good of humanity if we demand it and if we work for it. It is here that I place my hopes and dreams for the year. Go well.