2009 was the year when some serious underlying problems became all too clear, but solutions seemed a long way away. We now have a global civilisation faced with global threats, but what we don’t have is a global institutional structure to deal with these threats.
The two outstanding problems of the year were global warming and the global economic crisis while some other issues, like terrorism and nuclear proliferation, remain as threats. As if to drive home the growing sense of despair the two great hopes of 2009, new US President Barack Obama and the Copenhagen global warming conference, proved to be disappointments.
In 2009 the news on global warming was all bad. 2009 was the fifth-warmest year on record in the hottest decade on record. Polar ice is melting faster than expected, as are glaciers, and sea levels are rising faster than expected. Although it is still too early to tell, global weather has been behaving oddly along the lines climate modelers have predicted. In a year of extremes China experienced unusually hot weather, Brazil unusually wet weather and the Philippines unusually stormy weather. Here in Australia we saw continuing drought, major floods, vast dust storms and devastating bush fires on both east and west coasts.
The impact of extreme weather on humans grows, although disproportionately affecting the less developed regions. There were 200 official weather-related disasters in 2009, with the numbers of people affected by such disasters having tripled in a decade. On average more than 200 million people are directly affected yearly by such events.
Meanwhile the problem of basic food and water availability which has been worsening over the decade continues. There are now more than a billion hungry people around the world. As for water, the newly rising powers China and India, which have increasingly driven the global economy, both face serious water shortages, while other regions just get drier every year.
In addition, concern grows over oceanic acidity, which has increased by nearly a third since the start of the industrial revolution. Fish stocks and eventually all sea life are under threat as the species at the bottom of the food chain are affected.
Of course global warming is not to blame for all this - in addition to natural cycles like El Niño, destructive development activity had a major part to play - but all indications are that it is an increasingly important factor.
So the failure of the Copenhagen conference to produce a viable plan for global action was a major setback. We should not minimise the importance of the fact that so many countries and even world leaders turned up to discuss the issue, but in the end they were unable to get to work to collectively solve the problem. Instead, differences developed along obvious fault lines determined mostly by economic interest.
By contrast, action was swift in dealing with the global economic meltdown as the world suffered the first economic contraction since World War II. There was unprecedented collaboration between world leaders, especially through the G20, the IMF and central banks, to staunch the bleeding then introduce more long term solutions. In the end massive amounts of money (trillions, not billions) was transferred from the public to the financial system that had just failed so catastrophically, courtesy of national lawmakers. These same legislatures, some argued, were in the pockets of the financial interests they were supposed to be minding.
By year’s end, some were opining that the crisis was over, despite little problems like Dubai going into the red. This ignored ongoing high employment rates, the wreckage in the actual manufacturing and trade sectors, the inability of small business to access funding, and the truly impressive public debt left to be paid off by future wage-earners.
Two basic viewpoints emerged from the global economic crisis. One was that a new age of Keynesian regulation was at hand, with the finance sector giving way to the governments who bailed them out. Angry voters and chastened legislators, it is argued, will contain the excesses of the financial sector through regulation, or reregulation, and perhaps even new impostures such as a Tobin tax.
The other view was the financiers have just pulled off a global coup. They had utterly failed on their own terms, then got taxpayers to foot the bill, and emerged almost unscathed. They have such pervasive influence over all social, economic and political processes they could get away with just about anything, and have done so.