The Covid-19 pandemic is clearly the most important threat affecting the world: it can make everything else feel minor by comparison. Yet important things are happening that may soon affect us all.
Too many locusts. Locusts are one of the worst biblical plagues. Luckily, these plagues are rare. In the entire 20th century, there were only five outbreaks bad enough to devastate crops and leave famines in their wake. But at the end of last year, the largest outbreak in a quarter of a century began in one of the most isolated places in the world: the Rub al-Khali desert of Saudi Arabia. The insects in this swarm are younger than usual, fly faster, and can travel up to 200 kilometers a day. The swarm’s population multiplies by a factor of 20 every three months. In Kenya, a swarm of locusts three times the size of New York City – an estimated 192 billion insects – has wreaked havoc on crops. And it takes only one day for a regular-sized swarm to eat through enough crops to feed 35,000 people.
The current locust crisis is also more international. It left the Arabian Peninsula to take aim at Africa. Now it is devastating crops in India and Pakistan. The cause? The cyclones that generate the humid conditions ideal for locust breeding. Cyclones used to occur very rarely in the areas where swarms originate, at most once per year. But in 2018 there were two cyclones and in 2019 there were eight. Experts say this is another manifestation of climate change.
Too much oil. These days, not only are there too many locusts in the world, but there’s also too much oil. With many economies shut down, half the world’s formal sector workers at home, and transportation severely restricted, oil consumption has fallen dramatically. Amy Jaffe, an expert in energy policy, estimates that by the end of 2020 we’ll have an oil surplus of more than one billion barrels. That crude must be stored, and the world’s existing capacity of storage tanks and tanker ships is reaching its limit. As a result, oil is at its lowest price in 18 years.
This massive oil glut will have enormous consequences for the future of energy. For example, it makes investing in energy much less attractive. The International Energy Agency has just reported the largest fall in investment in the industry’s history. Capital investments have decreased not only in coal, oil and gas, but also in renewables such as solar and wind. Lack of investment will eventually decrease the supply of energy, which will cause prices to rise. But until that happens, low prices will bankrupt the energy companies with high production costs or that are in a precarious financial situation. Additionally, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Nigeria and Venezuela, whose economies depend almost exclusively on the export of oil and gas, will suffer from a debilitating economic crisis that could spark internal political turmoil or provoke international conflicts.
Hong Kong is dead. Not because of the virus, but because of China’s leadership. The Chinese National People’s Congress passed a national security law that prohibit acts of “treason, secession, sedition and subversion” in Hong Kong. Now, Beijing can intervene in Hong Kong at will, repressing any activity it feels constitutes a threat and ignoring the elected authorities. Inevitably, the critical role that Hong Kong has played so far in propping up the Chinese economy will dramatically decline.
Why does Beijing feel so threatened by Hong Kong? China has a territory of 9.3 million square kilometers and a population of 1.4 billion. Hong Kong has 1,100 square kilometers and 7.5 million inhabitants. How can such a small city be so threatening to such a giant country? Because China has a growing appetite for world hegemony.
For a long time, Chinese authorities have insisted that the rest of the world had nothing to fear from its economic boom or its growing international influence. The national priority, they said, was to lift as many citizens out of poverty as quickly as possible. It was not in China’s plans to become the dominant player on the world stage. Lately, however, signs are emerging that China’s economic success has whetted the geopolitical appetites of Beijing’s leaders. Taking control of Hong Kong is just one of those signs. More are coming.