Heat, hurricanes, rolling blackouts, food shortages, high fuel costs, more COVID, political violence. By the end of summer, will people will take our dire situation more seriously?
The craziness seems to be speeding up, doesn’t it? It’s not difficult to see that we’re on a trajectory to a radically different world than the one we’ve been used to in the post-WWII era. The hard part is trying to predict when things will happen and pin them down to a useful time frame. With Memorial Day marking the beginning of the social (though not astronomical) summer season, let’s peer into the crystal ball and see what we might expect to live through by the end of summer.
First: it’s going to be a hot one. The NOAA’s most recent monthly climate trends report anticipates higher than average temperatures across almost all of the continental United States, save for a couple very lucky bubbles in the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Plains states. The desert Southwest and New England should prepare for a real scorching by the end of summer, with no end in sight for the western drought. This means more wildfires than usual, although with the climate in flux, what’s “normal” anymore anyway?
By all accounts, there’s a food shortage coming. Sara Menker, an expert food insecurity analyst, told the UN Security Council on May 19th that global wheat stocks were lower than expected, with only about ten weeks left at the current rate of consumption (and that was over a week ago), with other grains like maize and rice (and cooking oil) also in low supply. That means some serious hunger by the end of summer, before the next grain harvest is due in the Northern hemisphere.
That next harvest is also looking to be smaller than usual. The Russia/Ukraine war in one of the world’s most important breadbaskets will impact food supplies, of course. But so will the rising heat, ongoing drought and climate crisis, fertilizer shortage and price hikes, export bans in countries who want to safeguard their domestic food supply first, and continuing logistical bottlenecks. Some farmers in the southern Plains have already abandoned their crops. Readers in the United States already feel the shortage as higher food prices, but it means that many people in poorer countries are likely to be priced out of food altogether, much as they were after the Great Recession in 2007.
Expect some bad hurricanes by the end of summer and into fall. For the 7th season in a row, NOAA’s hurricane forecast predicts more storms than the 30-year average, with 14 to 21 named storms, 6-10 of which become hurricanes, and 3-6 of those being particularly intense. Hurricanes gain strength from warm ocean surface temperatures and warm air that holds more moisture.
Relief efforts after those hurricanes (and everything else in the country, really) will be harder and more expensive due to the fuel shortage and the rising price of diesel. Some big trucks already burn through $500-$700 per day in diesel. Not only does this directly worsen the food shortage, it will also do so indirectly as grain from the coming (pitiful) harvest will be diverted away from hungry people and into hungry gas tanks as biofuels. Last month, President Biden told Iowa farmers that he’s raising the percentage of corn ethanol that can be blended into gasoline this summer, saving consumers $0.10 per gallon as prices zoom upwards of $6 in California.
By the end of summer, we can also look forward to rolling blackouts across large swaths of the West and Midwest. California could be 1700 megawatts short of what is needed to properly run the grid across the state. (One megawatt powers 750 homes.) Michigan could also experience planned outages as a means of balancing demand with available supply in order to safeguard the grid. It’s also possible that enough customers voluntarily reduce usage in order to conserve energy, especially during peak hours in the heat of the day, but what are the chances?
Don’t forget, there’s still a major virus going around that can be fatal or cause lifetime disability. COVID transmission is five times greater than it was this time last year, and people are traveling more and taking fewer precautions to prevent the next spike or new variant from catching hold. Dr. Deborah Birx predicts that waning immunity and an uptick of cases internationally will mean another wave of infections by the end of summer.
In Ukraine, Russian officials expect to win by the end of summer, seizing at least the Donbas as Western nations weary of sending weapons and aid as the grind drags on. For their part, Ukrainian forces seem grittily determined to retain their homeland and drive out the invaders, unwilling to appease Moscow (at least momentarily) by ceding land (permanently). Russia may be right; how long can a world beset by hunger, fuel shortages, storms and heat maintain the kind of excess economic activity that underwrites billions of dollars in weapons sent as charity in a potential forever war?
As the economic costs tick upward and relief becomes harder to find, we can also expect everyday people to act out, whether or not those actions are aimed at the causes of our converging crises. It shouldn’t be surprising to see a rise in political tension as the hunger hits, especially in the poorest countries where bread becomes unaffordable. As material conditions degrade, expect a growing number of attacks on minority populations as people kick downward at those with less social power or ability to resist. Fascism won’t solve this interrelated rat’s nest of crises. However, it can feel like in-group bonding, perhaps, among a certain authoritarian demographic that expects to rise to the top of the dungheap after the system implodes.
If there’s a silver lining to be found here, it’s that by the end of summer, more people will have more clues about where things are headed, and how the crises all feed into each other. It’s too late to hit rewind and fix the problem, of course; we already collectively decided to sell out the future for a more convenient present that has since faded into the past. However, it’s not to late to take some actions, however, small, to mitigate and adapt to the path ahead, especially at the community level. The sooner we start, the better.
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