In early September 1998, many parts of the world are dealing with the aftermath of one of the most brutal summers in memory. A severe drought and heat wave cut the North American grain harvest to 20 percent below normal, following a 10 percent shortfall the year before. In an unusual coincidence, droughts also reduced grain harvests in Australia and China, while a series of fierce summer rain storms damaged crops in Europe. A decade earlier, such disasters might have caused only a minor ripple in commodity markets, but the excess grain reserves of the ’80s are a distant memory. The world entered the 1998 growing season with storage bins nearly empty. Rapidly growing food demands – particularly in Asia – are outstripping supplies.
By mid-September, the prices of corn and wheat triple, and a consumer revolt forces the US government to restrict grain exports and halt food aid. The rising grain prices cause a dramatic worsening of the famines that first appeared in parts of Africa and South Asia in the mid-1990s.
In late September, with newspapers still full of news of the food crisis, a Class 5 hurricane steams out of the Caribbean and slams into New York City. A week later, a similar storm strikes New Orleans. Each is larger than Andrew, the devastating storm that hit South Florida in 1992, and because the 1998 storms hit major urban centers, the economic damage is far greater. Early estimates place losses at $50 billion, sufficient to send the stock prices of several insurance companies reeling.
A few weeks later, a cyclone strikes south of Dacca, the capital of Bangladesh. The storm is similar in magnitude to the ones in the US, but rapid growth in the number of people living along the mouth of the Ganges leaves millions vulnerable. UN relief officials estimate that as many as a million Bangladeshis have died.
In mid-October, one of the most dramatic scientific press conferences ever held takes place in a Geneva ballroom. Called by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change (IPCC) and attended by 130 leading climate scientists, the message is simple and disturbing: advances in the understanding of atmospheric dynamics show that rising concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased the frequency and severity of catastrophic droughts and storms. The scientists warn that the situation could worsen in the next two decades, and urge evacuation of many low-lying areas. Carried live on CNN, the press conference causes shock waves in many countries. Headlines the next day proclaim: "Unnatural Disasters Threaten Millions." The world’s stock exchanges, still reeling from the calamities of the previous month, plunge again.
In early November, a special session of the UN General Assembly is convened to consider the climate threat. In an unprecedented joint appearance, the president of the United States and the newly elected prime minister of China address the assembled ministers. Representing the world’s largest carbon emitters, the two leaders announce unilateral actions to cut carbon emissions.
China’s prime minister says that his government has concluded that coal-fired air pollution is causing so much damage within China that, for purely domestic reasons, China will be better off following a different path. The US President observes that the potential market for technologies such as fuel cells and photovoltaics is so large that the government wants to get a head start in "growing these new industries and creating good American jobs."
The next few months are extraordinarily hectic. Round-the-clock climate negotiations commence in Geneva, and within weeks, binding carbon emission limits have been adopted by international climate negotiators, while 17 countries have announced plans for sizable carbon dioxide taxes. Burning coal is becoming as popular as cigarette smoking was in the early ’90s. Canada and Germany announce plans to end coal combustion within a decade, and India and Russia say they will cut coal’s use by 50 percent.
In December, the grim news is interrupted by a series of announcements suggesting that the renewable energy business is taking off. General Electric reveals plans to invest billions of dollars in wind power manufacturing, while Siemens and Mitsubishi launch even larger efforts to expand their commitment to photovoltaic and solar thermal energy development. And in a step reminiscent of the media mega-mergers of the early ’90s, Amoco and Asea Brown Boveri declare that they are joining forces to build an array of hydrogen pipelines and fueling stations that will stretch from Los Angeles to Washington, DC.
In January 1999, a surprise press conference is called at Toyota City in Japan. The world’s eight leading auto makers disclose plans to accelerate introduction of a new generation of hybrid-electric cars they have been working on for several years, then go on to call for a phase out of gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines by 2010.
Reprinted with permission by Worldwatch from Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution.