2020, the year of living dangerously

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Jorge Heine
The beginning of a new decade has a happy ring to it – a feeling of turning a page, of starting anew, of a fresh impetus. Yet, this year of the rat according to the Chinese calendar looks ominous, one in which the world will face many daunting challenges. The gathering storm between the US and Iran brought to the fore by the killing of General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad and the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane over Iran with which the year began is, of course, the most obvious signal of simmering conflicts around the world. How likely is it they will explode, drawing in many other players? Which are the flashpoints to watch? Is it true, as many say, that things will get worse before they get better? Here is my take on some key issues and how they will shape our increasingly endangered planet. Global warming: Climate change is perhaps the defining issue of our time. We only have a small window of opportunity to do the needful to avoid reaching a 2-centigrade increase in temperatures that would be catastrophic. Yet, no substantial progress is taking place in reducing global carbon emissions. COP25, the big conference held on the subject in Madrid in December, was a fiasco. Some would say that the fires that engulf much of New South Wales and other states in Australia, burning eight million hectares and killing a billion animals, provide a frightening, hell-like preview of what we shall soon see elsewhere as a result of rising temperatures, widespread droughts and climate-change denialist governments. The second cold war: Far from de-escalating, tensions between the US and China have, if anything, increased in 2019. Welcome news is the signing of phase one of a trade agreement between both parties, and some details about what the second phase would entail are emerging. But tensions on the technology front have not diminished, and many seem happy to ratchet up, rather than down, the us-versus-them rhetoric that feeds on itself. In a US election year, this is unlikely to change. The relaunch of the Committee on the Present Danger, once focused on the Soviet Union, and now on China, is not encouraging. An unraveling WTO: Much of the growth and prosperity we have seen in the course of the past three decades, which has led, among other things, to the achieving of the UN Millennium Development Goals, including the drastic, worldwide reduction of poverty, has been driven by high global trade volumes. This slowed down after the 2008-09 financial crisis. Yet, the entity responsible for this open trading system is in crisis. The Doha Round negotiations have stalled since 2008, thus rendering moot one of the WTO’s main functions. Now, since December 10, 2019, its other function, that of resolving trade disputes, is also inoperative. Its Appellate Body, normally made up of seven members, has now been left with only one, as the US has blocked all new appointments, leaving it with no working quorum. A go-for-it Brexit: Until the recent UK elections, there was still hope Brexit might be stalled in one way or another, and thus avoid what some consider to be the first step toward the break-up of Europe. With an overwhelming majority won by the Tories in these elections, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the helm, that hope is now gone.