Global threats, global responses

Peter Hain

Peter Hain

Lecture at the University of South Wales, 26 February 2015

Former Cabinet Minister, The Right Honourable Peter Hain is MP for Neath and a Visiting Professor to the University of South Wales.

International terrorism, climate change, cross border crime, unprecedented levels of migration, population growth, global poverty, pandemics, online crime and cyber-attacks – these are the familiar threats to global stability and peace.

However, to that lengthening list should be added the new and growing threats of food and water shortages. Together these constitute all the ingredients for a ‘perfect storm’ to hit humankind.

So how does Britain respond in this new world and to these specific new threats? Let’s start with the emerging economies of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Their growing economic wealth and rapidly rising middle class populations (now numbering hundreds of millions of people), represent a shift of economic and global power toward Asia and the South, and away from the US and the old European colonial nations like Britain in the West and North. By 2050 the developing countries could constitute 85 per cent of the world’s population, twelve times Europe’s at 7 per cent, according to a 2012 United Nations Report. By 2050, Nigeria could have more people than the US.

By 2013, China had become the second biggest economy in the world, the number one trading partner for the vast majority of countries, the biggest holder of foreign reserves, the world’s biggest polluter, the biggest consumer of Middle Eastern oil and gas, the country with the fastest growing defence budget and the biggest contributor among the Permanent 5 members of the Security Council to United Nations peace-keeping missions. Over the next decade or so, its economy could grow to twice the size of America’s. And with that economic power will certainly follow diplomatic, geopolitical and international power.

Where in decades past Britain was one of the major world powers supporting the US as the only genuine superpower, today we are a medium-sized nation-state in a multi-polar world, with the US no longer as dominant.

Not simply China’s momentous rise but that of the whole of Asia – especially India – will necessitate Europe, Britain included, recognising that Pacific alliances will become at least as important as Atlantic alliances.

Just as the modern global financial system needs to be tamed and regulated through international intervention and collaboration by governments to avoid another banking crisis, so governments need to collaborate to avoid the increasing and indiscriminate threats to the whole planet. And not simply for the obvious reasons that have traditionally encouraged governments to cooperate – to tackle disasters, avoid war, thwart terrorism and prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Today all the big and fundamental global challenges require new and global solutions, because the old nation-state solutions simply will not work. The new threats could be overwhelming if not combated by governments working together. When global warming and climate change, food and water insecurity, threaten the future of humankind, there is no escape for any country either acting alone or leaving these problems to be resolved by market forces.

Food and Water Shortages

Take the very basics of life. Food and water supplies are under acute pressure from a booming global population, estimated to be approaching 7.2 billion but growing by 200,000 people a day to an estimated 10 billion by 2050.

Rocketing food prices and an exponential increase in the demand for food, especially in China and India, means food security is a major problem – not simply for the near billion people undernourished or starving, but for us all, Britain included. Food reserves are at a fifty-year low, hindered by climate extremes. Yet rising demand seems insatiable.

In China, for instance, urbanisation and a rapidly growing middle class has seen a radical change in dietary preferences, with a fall in traditional staples such as rice and corn and a massive rise in meat consumption. Consumption of more water-intensive fruits and vegetables, now the largest part of the average Chinese diet, has more than quadrupled since the early 1960s. Meat, fruit and vegetables require much more land and water to produce than cereal crops. And over twelve times the quantity of water is required to produce the equivalent amount of beef as rice and wheat.

Consequently food and water security are inextricably linked. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 40 per cent of the population, or 330 million people, have no accessible decent water, a plight affecting nearly 900 million people across the world. To get access to water, more than one billion people make a three-hour journey on foot, and over a third of the world’s population live in a water-scarce region.

Food prices are set to more than double by 2050, and food production will have to rise by 60 per cent to keep up with expected population growth. This could mean millions more people facing starvation in Asia and Africa. Coupled with rising temperatures, that might turn whole regions of Africa into “permanent disaster zones” according to leading scientists. With one billion people without reliable access to food right now, how can those populations possibly be expected to adapt to even greater food scarcity?

In South East Asia for example, the fertile Lower Mekong (mainly covering Laos, Thailand and Cambodia) basin will have to provide food for the 100 million people living there by 2050; but climate change researchers expect future temperature changes so extreme in this region that food production will be all but entirely disrupted.

A more immediate problem – evident in the slashing of milk prices in the UK with, for example, dairy farmers receiving 20p for a pint of milk costing them 30p to produce – is set to get worse. Globally, there is a total lack of consumer and producer protection from price instability because of the behaviour of mass retailers abusing their oligopolistic power to cut prices paid to famers across the world so that only large industrialised farms can compete. This means a bad deal for producers and poor quality for consumers – hardly a desirable let alone sustainable model.

As societies urbanise and industrialise, modern lifestyles require huge additional amounts of water, and it is estimated that by 2050, four billion people (almost half the world’s population) will be living with water scarcity, that is to say less than 1,000 cubic metres a year. That is in turn a potential source of conflict, and it would not be a surprise to see ‘water wars’ in future.

Indeed access to water problems have already become national security matters. For instance Egypt’s Presidents, Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Mohamed Morsi in 2013, both made thinly veiled threats to use military force against Ethiopia to uphold Egypt’s historic access to the waters of the Nile, the world’s longest river, upon which its 84 million people totally depend for their water, along with many African countries. The dispute arose over the construction of the $4.8 billion hydroelectric Grand Renaissance Dam, the largest in Africa. Trying to fend of these threats, the Ethiopian Prime Minister observed in February 2014 that there was no international court specialising in arbitrating water disputes.

Water became a weapon in the Iraq civil war in 2014, when rivers, canals, dams, sewage and desalination plants all became military targets. Iraq’s semi-arid region climate produces regular and extreme water shortages, and, as Michael Stephen, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, explained: ‘Control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside. We are seeing a battle for control of water. Water is now the major strategic objective of all groups in Iraq. It’s life or death. If you control water in Iraq you have a grip on Baghdad, and you can cause major problems. Water is essential in this conflict.’

Control of water in the Levant around the Red Sea could equally cause more tensions between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. One of the problems at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict is access to water which is in scarce supply and over which Israelis have assumed de facto control, even in so-called Palestinian ‘territory’.

The world will require fully 50 per cent more food and water by 2030 and the same amount of extra energy – in part to source the extra food and water. And acute energy shortages coupled with extreme volatility in fuel costs are another source of potential civil unrest, all combining to trigger mass migration northwards from the Southern Hemisphere and directly impacting upon Britain where migration has already become politically problematic.

The World Health Organisation believes that reliable access to water for all is achievable, but requires both the commitment of the countries where access is worst as well as the commitment of the international community. Access to decent sanitation could be a more entrenched problem.

Social justice and global stability

Added to all these security threats is a collision between rising popular expectations and inequality realities. Much greater prosperity, mobility, and access to information in a digital age have all contributed to rising expectations of, and demands upon, governments worldwide. Assertiveness has replaced deference, especially amongst those who feel left behind by globalisation and are bombarded daily by television or the internet with inviting images of materialism and opulence.

Since 1950 global economic output is up fivefold and per capita incomes have increased by 350 per cent; and since the early 1980s, 660 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty; indeed Asians living in extreme poverty have dropped to a sixth of their former number.

Nevertheless stronger international institutions still have to be driven by a progressive purpose: although globalisation has brought with it great opportunities for the ‘Starbucks generation’, that is not the case for the 1.3 billion people living on less than a dollar a day; for the 30,000 children who die every day due to extreme poverty; or for the 90 per cent of sub-Saharan Africans outside South Africa who have no access to electricity.

In January 2015 an Oxfam report highlighted the appalling global inequality which helps perpetuate world poverty: within two years, the richest 1 per cent of people in the world will have more wealth than the remaining 99 per cent of the world’s population. In 2014, the top 80 people on the Forbes rich list had a collective wealth of $1.9 trillion, an increase of $600bn in just 4 years. For far too many people the promise of globalisation is at best totally hollow; at worst, globalisation appears to stack already poor odds ever more heavily against them.

All of which demands a new ‘globalisation of responsibility’ as the cornerstone of promoting social justice and sustainable development around the world, based upon equal opportunities regardless of race, gender, religion, nationality, sexuality or disability. This imperative is not only the right course, it is based upon self-interest: that injustice and inequality breed despair, social division and conflict which in turn can affect the powerful, indeed us all.

Climate Change

But the most pressing case for coordinated global action springs from climate change. As the 2006 Stern Report made clear, ‘business as usual’ could see global temperatures rise by five degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, leading to massive costs – far outweighing those costs required to invest and place the world on a sustainable agenda – and a five to twenty per cent cut in global living standards. Ominously, Lord Stern announced in 2013 that his earlier prognosis on climate change had been wrong; the situation was much worse than he had anticipated only seven years earlier.

Climate change won’t just dramatically affect temperatures, or sea levels, or weather. Stern laid out the links to increases both in mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, and major incidences of flooding, and that each tonne of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere costs approximately $85 in mitigation measures.

The costs are already hitting hardest and earliest in the developing world despite the fact that much of the climate damage has been done by industrialised nations. Stern’s report predicted a decline in crop yields in parts of Africa already scarred by famine, affecting hundreds of millions of people, and some of the world’s poorest countries which are likely to lose 10 per cent of their economic output. According to the Lancet, 2.1 million people a year are dying prematurely from air pollution in the cities of Asia.

In September 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that human-related activities would alone raise global temperatures by more than 2°C from pre-industrial levels which could trigger plumes of gas methane from the thawing Arctic Tundra, while the polar ice caps, which reflect solar radiation back into space, could disappear and sea levels could rise by a metre by 2100 and three metres by 2200, swamping many coastal cities worldwide.

Each of the past three decades has been warmer than all the previous decades on record. Increased land surface and sea temperatures have already reversed the previous 5,000 years of cooling across the Northern Hemisphere. In March 2014 the UN Panel of scientists went further, finding evidence of climate change far beyond thawing Arctic permafrost and crumbling coral reefs ‘on all continents and across the oceans’. Importantly the UN Panel showed that climate change was certainly damaging food availability, including the staple crop wheat and fish.

Most scientists maintain that the primary issue is that the earth is in radiative imbalance, with more energy from the sun entering than exiting the top of the atmosphere since about 1970, because of ‘greenhouse’ gasses. Since the start of the industrial revolution, carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production are estimated to have released 365 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, and deforestation a further 180 billion tonnes, at a rate that increases year on year. Humanity is responsible for creating the ‘greenhouse’ phenomenon, which is slowly suffocating the planet, and only radical changes in human behaviour can reverse this and dramatically cut our carbon dioxide emissions.

Extreme weather means that wetter regions get wetter and dryer areas dryer, causing more and worse monsoons, typhoons, hurricanes, flooding, droughts, wildfires and famine. According to Jeffrey Mazzo, by 2009 such climate change was causing 300,000 deaths, economic losses of $125 billion and ‘seriously affecting 325 million people every year. He also argues that the huge spike in global food prices in 2010-11 – in turn triggered by climate change-induced droughts – was an important (albeit by no means the sole) trigger in the Arab Spring uprisings.

The UN Panel report of March 2014 found evidence that ‘climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflict in the form of civil war and inter-group violence’, for example riots triggered by food shortages and spiralling prices.

Western nations have failed to accept that we are, in the large part, responsible for these problems and we should therefore bear the larger part of the burden of finding and implementing solutions. That is why, at the beginning of this century, it was never acceptable for the United States, with 5 per cent of the world’s population and 25 per cent of the world’s emissions, to opt out of international curbs. Equally however China and India are now major and fast expanding polluters, Brazil is pursuing development often at the expense of its environment, and South Africa is also a significant polluter for its size because of its reliance upon coal. Only agreement amongst the major powers, North and South, East and West, will resolve the gridlock over effective global action to combat climate change.

Sustainable development is not about the avoidance of tough choices; it is about making different choices. Sustainable development is not about zero growth; it’s about smarter growth and greener growth: about exploiting the massive economic and job opportunities which arise from the need, first to restore and then to sustain our environment.

Women: a Global Injustice

However – and badly neglected – the exclusion of women from economic development is a central reason for the endurance of world poverty. Sixty per cent of the poorest people in the world are women and whilst gender inequality continues, climate change and food and water insecurity will have a disproportionate impact on women.

Where the state is weak to non-existent in developing economies, women play an even greater role because they have primary responsibility for the health and education of their children. Women know intimately their families’ needs and the resources they have available to meet those needs. Therefore it is not just women but their families and the societies they live in who suffer from only 10 to 20 per cent of women possessing land rights in the developing world; this seriously hampers their ability to make decisions over the allocation of resources. Or, indeed, when women are denied the basic right to plan their pregnancies, taking them out of the labour force and preventing them from playing an active role in society.

The empowerment of women has become crucial to combating climate change and creating a sustainable future for our planet, whether through sustainable agricultural practices, reducing greenhouse gas emissions or overcoming food and water insecurity. Targeted investment in modern, safe and renewable energy production for every household means women will no longer have to spend their time collecting firewood or struggling with primitive and dangerous domestic fuels which in turn cause greenhouse emissions.

Throughout the developing world women are disproportionately deprived of the fruits of economic growth and prosperity. The World Bank estimates that in some countries, the full participation of women in the workforce could on its own lead to a 25 per cent increase in labour productivity.

Girls must therefore have the same opportunities as their brothers to learn to read and receive a formal education, providing an invaluable boost to the economies of developing nations. Too many Muslim countries, where women are discriminated against and where girls are denied equal educational and work opportunities, need to reflect on this negative impact on their economies and therefore their prosperity.

The urgent challenges we face as a planet cry out for creativity and ingenuity. To deprive future generations of the talents of half the population is not simply a global injustice but a global tragedy. It is not simply an injustice that a miniscule 1 per cent of the world’s wealth is in women’s hands, such glaring inequality is unsustainable economically and politically when women make up 40 per cent of the global workforce.

Furthermore, both denial of opportunity for women at one end of the discrimination spectrum, and entrenched domestic violence at the other, not just in conflict zones but across the developing world and industrialised nations, undermines social stability and economic prosperity – and therefore nation state progress.


Yet, just when the world is in such flux, when danger lurks everywhere threatening everyone, there are those who wish to block Britain’s international influence, either by isolating us within Europe or by withdrawing from the European Union.

Despite the enduring euro crisis, despite the drastic consequences of its ill-advised austerity agenda, and its failure to deliver strong, collective leadership on foreign and defence policy, Europe’s progress over the past sixty years has been massive: the creation of once unimaginable peace and stability across a continent where more wars were fought in recent centuries than on any other; the promotion of democracy and human rights, especially in the former dictatorships of southern and eastern Europe; and the development of a competitive single market in which social justice and environmental standards have all been enhanced.

The European experience is a remarkable story of how, by sharing sovereignty but still retaining national identity, states can work together to confront common challenges and threats, promote mutual interests and achieve shared aims, and thereby each become stronger together than they would be apart. For the first 50 years of its existence the European Union delivered faster economic growth as trade among member states multiplied faster than trade with the rest of the world. Then came the 2008 global financial crisis triggering a sharper initial drop in world trade than even at the start of the 1930s Great Depression.

With China already an economic and geopolitical superpower and the emergence of the BRICS group of countries, US global dominance is being superseded. Britain is still big enough to stand up for itself; we still count for something. The UK economy still ranks in the world top ten in terms of GDP and in the top 25 in terms of GDP per capita. But by acting in concert with our European Union partners we can move up several gears, increasing our effectiveness and getting more punch from every ounce of effort we put in.

The European Union already contributes over half the world’s overseas aid. It negotiates as equals with the US over international trade. It can help Britain combat threats like illegal migration, drug and human trafficking, terrorism, cybercrime, pollution or pandemics in a way that we cannot accomplish effectively on our own.

Furthermore, Britain, working for reform within the European Union could in future help the EU to become a serious global power: not so much a rival for the US as a force to be reckoned with by the US and the emerging powers in the emerging multi-polar world.

International Problems, International Solutions

For the new global threats are all internationally interconnected. For instance how have we allowed vast tracts of rain forests, the ‘lungs of the earth’, to be destroyed? The answer is: in order to satisfy rising, market-driven, global consumption – most of it initiated in the West and now being emulated almost everywhere, especially in China and India. Yet we know that the destruction of rain forests deprives the planet of a key means of absorbing carbon dioxide and generates hugely destructive climate change.

Another example: the global banking crisis of 2007-8, which was triggered by world-wide contagion from ‘sub-prime’ mortgages in America. It gridlocked private sector credit and investment. The initial response was a widespread rise in government spending on welfare benefits as unemployment rose, and in public sector investment to try to stem the threat of recession. But a combination of budgetary pressures and neoliberal orthodoxies meant that this soon gave way to massive cuts in Western government spending and investment, not just domestically but on overseas aid and development, triggering a crisis in recipient countries with no direct link at all to the poor US householders who could not maintain their loan repayments. As a consequence the UN estimated there was a financing gap of up to $200 billion needed from developed countries to achieve its anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals in 2015.

And rich countries like Britain are just as vulnerable, blurring the distinction between ‘foreign’ policy and ‘domestic’ policy. A domestic government campaign against HIV/AIDS faced the fact that in 2000 three quarters of British victims were infected whilst travelling in Africa; therefore British funding for HIV/AIDS programmes on the continent helps tackle the problem at source.

Both the resilience and the encroachment into personal life of the global communications infrastructure is now a major question. No single country could prevent a handful of students in the Philippines in 2000 sending out a virus disabling ten million computers worldwide. Over the succeeding 10 years, protection against cyber-attacks became a pre-occupation of government security agencies. Meanwhile there was a global backlash against the threat to privacy from those very same agencies when their seemingly ubiquitous surveillance was revealed in 2013 by US national security whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

Global warming and drug trafficking are not caused by some hostile power’s ambition or greed, but by millions of individual decisions made mainly by Western consumers. These challenges require multi-lateral, inter-governmental responses, the ‘foreign’ being now inextricably intertwined with the ‘domestic’.

Over the coming decades the main threats and changes to our economy, our security, our health and our general well-being will not be domestic, but global in both origin and impact. A major global flu pandemic could cause global economic losses of $1 trillion due to knock-on macroeconomic effects. Migration – with 200 million people (the size of Brazil’s population) now on the move globally every year – places huge strains on the entire domestic agenda from jobs to housing to race relations. Furthermore, the pensions of European workers are likely to depend in part on investments made in fast growing economies such as China and India.

The problems are joined up, so governments must be joined up. Previously, responsibility for foreign policy resided in an elite group of specialist diplomats. But tensions arising from declining water tables and rising populations in the Middle East, collapsing fish stocks in the Atlantic and persistent drought in East Africa cannot be solved at a summit. The task requires the specialised skills of all government departments in each of the countries trying to address the problems – and the committed and innovative involvement of non-government actors in business and civil society.

Because the new threats presented by globalisation will frequently come from beyond our own borders, so too will the solutions. That’s why international institutions and respect for common international rules are more crucial than ever.

Britain is well placed to lead the imperative for effective, global multilateralism because of its membership of all the key international institutions: the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, the G7/G20, NATO, the Commonwealth, IMF, World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

Yet these traditional bodies are mostly Western dominated and need reform, especially the IMF, the World Bank and the United Nations Security Council. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was right to call for the IMF to be reshaped in line with its original purpose in a new Bretton Woods-style agreement on global stability. Bretton Woods was the 1944 conference that wrote the post war rules governing commercial and financial relations between the world’s major powers and set up international institutions to promote stability. Sadly, in Welby’s view, the IMF 'tends to look like a police officer when it should look like the fire brigade’.

United Nations

The membership of the UN Security Council should reflect the world as it is now, not as it was in the colonial age of 1945. It is absurd that Germany, Japan and India are not permanent members like the US, Russia, China, Britain and France. It is also ludicrous that neither Africa nor Latin America has a permanent member: adding South Africa and Brazil would remedy that.

Not that UN reform will of itself be a cure-all for global problems. The old adage remains valid: that the UN is only as strong as its most powerful members will allow it to be. What reform means is that UN leadership will become more representative and that countries now able only to carp from the side-lines will have to take responsibility for solving conflicts and tackling human rights abuses – or face the consequences of failing to do so.

Nevertheless, over seventy years since the UN was established there have been no wars between the major powers, a sign of success unequalled in previous history. Cyber-attacks, terrorism, proxy conflicts and trade wars certainly, but no world wars comparable to the past. As the former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold memorably put it: ‘the UN is not here to take us to heaven, but to prevent us from going to hell.’

At the same time the international bodies are no longer as powerful as they once were, and are coping uneasily with a new world. Power is increasingly being diffused away from the most influential Western nations – and from nation states to non-governmental organisations from Oxfam to ISIL, requiring of Britain a new progressive multilateralism rather than a focus upon US or EU alliances alone.

There is an even deeper ‘crisis of legitimacy’ for the Old Order, from the Tea Party on the right to Occupy Wall Street on the left; from the Arab Spring to the people protests against governments in Turkey and South Africa – and of course the rise of populist parties threatening traditional ones, from Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain on the left, to the Front National in France and UKIP in Britain on the right.

Radical change, radical reform must happen. But one truth remains: we all need each other more than ever before in the global search for a ‘perfect solution’ to the gathering ‘perfect storm’.