Tuesday, April 17th 2012, 6:54 AM EDT
In Perth, Australia I'm staying with one of the country's most brilliant polymaths David Archibald. This morning, he treated to me to a scary presentation he recently delivered to the Institute of World Policy in Washington DC, where he is a visiting fellow. The title is Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, representing the four threats which Archibald believes are the ones we should most fear.
The four horsemen, i.e. great challenges the world will soon have to face, are:
...a decreasing extraction of oil, causing growing prices of energy and, by extension, food; Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, which threatens proliferation and, perhaps, even a nuclear war in the region; rapid population growth in the Middle East and North Africa coupled with higher food imports in those regions, which spells mass starvation; and a 210-year climate cooling cycle.
I'm not sure I'm quite as pessimistic as Archibald is on peak oil and shale gas – the latter, he estimates, is only good for another twenty years (the real energy solution, he reckons, is thorium reactors). But the area where I really hope he is wrong is on global cooling. If his analysis of declining sunspot activity is correct, then global mean temperatures are going to decline by about 2 degrees C by 2040 – completely undoing all that lovely beneficial (but rather meagre 0.8 degrees C) global warming we have experienced in the last 150 years.
It will mean longer, colder winters and cooler summers. But far worse than the discomfort will be the effect it has on grain production. The shift in latitudes at which corn and wheat can be grown will be the equivalent of losing a belt 300 kilometres wide all around the world, leading to the loss perhaps 400 million tonnes per annum of grain. The result will be rising food prices, grain shortages – and a 50 per cent likelihood of the kind of volcanic-influenced disaster that led to the horrors of the 1816 Year Without A Summer, precipitating crop failures, weird Turner sunsets, and 200,000 deaths in Europe alone.
Still there will be at least one consolation. Phil Jones, Michael Mann, James Hansen and Al Gore will all, most likely, still be around to see their entire religious belief system collapsing around their ears.
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