A new report highlights the biggest problems now facing the world. It warns that the environmental crisis is deepening every year. Human consumption is now 30% larger than nature’s capacity to regenerate. By 2015 the number of people suffering climate-related disasters could mushroom to more than 375 million a year. By 2030 as many as 660 million people could be affected, with economic losses rising to $340 billion a year. There are currently 15 wars taking place and the report predicts that 3 billion people will have no access to water by 2025. Exclusive report by environment editor Rob Edward
The Seven Terrors of the World
The world is facing a series of interlinked crises which threatens billions of people and could cause the collapse of civilisation, according to an international report out this week.
Climate pollution, food shortages, diseases, wars, disasters, crime and the recession are all conspiring to ravage the globe and threaten the future of humanity, it warns. Democracy, human rights and press freedom are also suffering.
The report, called 2009 State Of The Future, has been compiled by the Millennium Project, an international think-tank based in Washington DC, and involved 2700 experts from 30 countries.
"Half the world appears vulnerable to social instability and violence," the report says. "This is due to rising unemployment and decreasing food, water and energy supplies, coupled with the disruptions caused by global warming and mass migrations."
The project has been backed by organisations including United Nations agencies, the Rockefeller Foundation, private companies and governments. It provides "invaluable insights into the future for the United Nations, its member states, and civil society," according to the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.
The report's bleakest warning is on the dangers of the climate chaos being caused by pollution. It also highlights the 15 wars taking place in the world. It further predicts there could be three billion people without access to adequate water by 2025.
the people in the world are at risk of several endemic diseases," "About half it says. These include HIV/Aids, swine flu, drug-resistant superbugs and a string of new infections.
The global income from the proceeds of international crime is reckoned to be around $3 trillion.
"Democracy and freedom have declined for the third year in a row, and press freedoms declined for the seventh year in a row," the report says. The global recession was caused by "too many greedy and deceitful decisions", it argues, but there were now some signs that humanity was growing out of its "selfish, self-centred adolescence".
The most serious danger is the pollution that is affecting the climate, the report says. Every day the world's oceans absorb 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, increasing their acidity.
The number of dead zones - areas like La Jolla off the coast of San Diego, which have too little oxygen to support life - has doubled every decade since the 1960s.
The oceans are warming about 50% faster than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2007, while the amount of ice flowing out of Greenland last summer was nearly three times more than the previous year. Summer ice in the Arctic could disappear by 2030, the report warns.
"Over 36 million hectares of primary forest are lost every year," it says. "Human consumption is 30% larger than nature's capacity to regenerate, and demand on the planet has more than doubled over the past 45 years."
The strains these changes will put on the world include floods, droughts and storms.
"This important report puts climate change up there with the major economic, social and political challenges that the human race faces," said Dr Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland. "Whether you are worried about food security, the threat of war or mass migration, climate change is going to make things worse."
The Millennium Project report argues that combating climate change requires a 10-year programme by the US and China equivalent to the Apollo moon mission launched in 1961.
Other environmental problems are highlighted, including toxic waste dumping. About 70% of the world's 50 million tonnes of annual electronic waste is dumped in developing countries in Asia and Africa, much of it illegally. A quarter of all fish stocks are over-harvested, the report says, and 80% cannot withstand increased fishing.
2: Food and water
A global food crisis may be "inevitable", the report warns, because of an obscure fungus called Ug99 which causes stem rust on plants. It is threatening to wipe out more than 80% of the world's wheat crops, and it could take up to 12 years to develop resistant strains of wheat.
Food prices rose by 52% between 2007 and 2008, while the cost of fertiliser has nearly doubled in the past year. Meanwhile, 30%-40% of food production is lost in many poor countries because of a lack of adequate storage facilities.
Nearly a billion people are undernourished and hungry, while 700 million face water scarcity - this could hit three billion by 2025, the report warns. The world's population is expected to grow from the current 6.8 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050 - and could reach 11 billion.
"Christian Aid's partners in developing countries are already reporting that water is hard to find," said Claire Aston, acting head of Christian Aid Scotland. "The idea that three billion people will be in this position as a result of climate change by 2030 is a frightening prospect."
Water shortages are also being worsened by the growing global consumption of meat. The report predicts demand for meat may rise by 50% by 2025 and double by 2050.
About 17 million people - nine million of them young children - are killed by infectious diseases every year, according to the report.
Half of the world's population is at risk from endemic diseases, with TB, malaria and HIV/Aids together causing more than 300 million illnesses and five million deaths a year.
The number of people living with HIV/Aids is estimated at between 30 million and 36 million, two-thirds in sub-Saharan Africa.
The dangers from other diseases seem to be getting worse, too. Over the past 40 years, 39 infectious diseases have been discovered, and in the last five years more than 1100 epidemics have been verified. There are up to 20 new strains of "superbugs", such as MRSA, that are difficult to counter, while three-quarters of emerging pathogens have the ability to jump species.
Old diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, plague, dengue fever, haemorrhagic fever and diphtheria are re-emerging, not to mention new strains, like the H1N1 swine flu virus.
"Massive urbanisation, increased encroachment on animal territory, and concentrated livestock production could trigger new pandemics," the report cautions.
"Climate change is altering insect and disease patterns. Other problems may come from synthetic biology laboratories."
4: Wars and disasters
More than two billion people have been affected by the world's 35 wars and 2500 natural disasters over the last nine years, the report says. By mid-2009, there were 15 conflicts raging around the globe - one more than in 2008. Four wars were taking place in Africa, four in Asia, four in the Middle East, two in the Americas and one, against terrorism, internationally.
"A pending unknown is whether Iran and North Korea will trigger a nuclear arms race," the report says. "Another more distant spectre, but possibly even a greater threat, is that of single individuals acting alone to create and deploy weapons of mass destruction."
The Iraq war has left behind an environmental catastrophe of 25 million land mines, hazardous waste, polluted water and depleted uranium contamination. "It will take centuries to restore the natural environment of Iraq," said the country's environment minister, Nermeen Othman.
The number and intensity of natural disasters is increasing, the report says. In 2008 there were a total of 354 disasters with an estimated 214 million victims, 80% of them in Asia.
Increasing climate chaos could exacerbate the damage wrought by natural disasters and see the number of people suffering grow to 375 million a year by 2015 and 660 million by 2030. Economic losses could reach $340 billion a year.
"The world has moved from a global threat once called the cold war, to what now should be considered the warming war," said Afelee Pita, the UN ambassador from Tuvalu, a small, low-lying island in the Pacific Ocean.
The report also reveals the world recently escaped a potentially planet-ending event.
"In March 2009 an asteroid missed Earth by 77,000 kilometres," it says. "If it had hit Earth, it would have wiped out all life on 800 square kilometres. No-one knew it was coming."
Organised crime is very big business, according to the Millennium Project report, with an income of $3 trillion a year. That's twice as much as all the world's military budgets combined. This includes more than $1 trillion paid in bribes to corrupt officials, and maybe another $1 trillion from cybercrime thefts. Counter feiting and piracy could bring in at least $300bn, the global drug trade $321bn, human trafficking $44bn and illegal weapons sales $10bn.
"Governments can be understood as a series of decision points, with some people in those points vulnerable to very large bribes," the report says. "Decisions could be bought and sold like heroin, making democracy an illusion."
Shockingly, there are reckoned to be between 14 million and 27 million people still being held in slavery, the vast majority of them in Asia. This is more than at the peak of the African slave trade.
The report argues that the world is beginning to wake up to the "enormity of the threat of transnational organised crime". The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has called on all states to develop a coherent strategy, but efforts are still piecemeal.
The 2009 G8 meeting of justice and home affairs ministers explored anti-crime strategies, and in June the US launched the International Organised Crime Intelligence and Operations Centre.
"Meanwhile, transnational organised crime continues to expand in the absence of a comprehensive, integrated global counter-strategy," observes the report.
6: Human rights
Freedom and democracy are waning, the report reveals. They have declined for the third year in a row, with press freedoms worsening for the seventh year in a row.
In 2008, democracy declined in 34 countries, and only improved in 14. Just 17% of the world's population lives in 70 countries with a free press, while 42% lives in 64 countries with no free press.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, 14.4% of humanity enjoys full democracy, while 35% live under authoritarian regimes. "Democratic forces will have to work harder to make sure that the short-term reversals do not stop the longer-term trend of democratisation," the report says.
Women account for more than 40% of the world's workforce but earn less than 25% of the wages and own only 1% of the assets, it found.
"Many countries still have laws and cultures that deny women basic human rights," the report states. "Gender equity is essential for the development of a healthy society and is one of the most effective ways to address all the other global challenges."
The human rights organisation Amnesty International warns that the recession is having a "devastating impact" on the world's poor, driving more and more people into poverty, unemployment and homelessness.
"The recession is also leading to repression of people who are desperate," said Amnesty's Scottish programme director, John Watson. "It is creating new tensions between governments and vulnerable people."
7: Science and technology
The Millennium Report warns that, due to the staggering rate of technological advances, politicians and the public need a "global collective intelligence system" to track the effects of such rapid changes. Contingency plans need to be prepared by governments in case the speed of development has a "highly negative impact" on the human race.
Although advances in science and technology are increasing the chances of major breakthroughs in medicine, computing and biotechnology, these breakthroughs come with a health warning as we are unsure what the flipside may be. Some experts speculate that civilisation is heading for a "singularity", the report says. This would mean that "technological change is so fast and significant that we today are incapable of conceiving what life might be like beyond the year 2025".
The electronics company IBM has promised a computer capable of performing 20,000 trillion calculations per second by 2011 - just like Hal, above, from 2001: A Space Odyssey - roughly equivalent to the speed of the human brain.
On the upside, the boom in power generated by wind turbines and other renewable sources has been unprecedented. For the first time in 2008 the majority of the increase in electricity production in the US and the European Union came from renewable sources.
"Mobile phones, the internet, international trade, language translation and jet planes are giving birth to an interdependent humanity that can create and implement global strategies to improve the prospects for humanity."