“The most acute problem of plenty is the impact of global growth on natural resources and the environment. It is not an exaggeration to say that the world is running out of clean air, potable water, agricultural produce, and many vital commodities. Some of these problems can be fixed—by improving efficiency and developing new sources of supply—but progress so far has been far too slow [and I might add very difficult]. Agricultural productivity, for example, is rising. [Probably, not by much in the U.S. where heavy mechanization and fertilizer, insecticide, and herbicide use must mean that there would be very little return from additional investments of that sort.] But feeding a global population of eight billion, which we will get by 2025, will require crop yields to reach four tons per hectare from only three tons today. [This kind of improvement may be possible in underdeveloped countries with available arable land and a willingness to buy into the mega-agric-business concept.]
Similarly, our ability to manage and conserve water is not growing nearly as fast as our consumption of it. World population tripled in the twentieth century, but water consumption increased six fold. Americans use more than four hundred liters of water a day to drink, cook, and clean themselves [and their clothes.] People in poorer countries today are lucky to get forty, but as they get richer, their rising demands will cause greater stress. Violent clashes over water have already broken out in Africa and the Middle East. [Even in the U.S., there was a border dispute between Tennessee and Georgia when drought struck the Southeast.] Historically, people have moved to find water; if water sources dry up in the future, tens of millions of people will be forced to start moving. [In the Southwestern U.S., cities with burgeoning populations are buying up water rights leaving the land fallow and unable to grow the food needed by the additional people.]
Over the past decade, many predictions about the effects of climate change have proven to be underestimates because global [population] growth has exceeded all projection. The most recent assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released in mid-2007. By the year’s end, scientists had shown that the polar ice caps are melting twice as fast as the report expected. There is a greater demand for electricity, more cars, and more planes than anyone imagined fifteen years ago. And it keeps growing. The McKinsey Global Institute projects that, from 2003 to 2020, the number of vehicles in China will rise from 26 million to 120 million. And then there’s India, Russia, the Middle East—the rest.
Demand for electricity is projected to rise over 4 percent a year for decades. And that electricity will come mostly from the dirtiest fuel available—coal. Coal is cheap and plentiful, so the world relies on it to produce most of its electricity. To understand the impact on global warming, consider this fact. Between 2006 and 2012, China and India will build eight hundred new coal-fired power plants—with combined CO2 emissions five times the total savings of the Kyoto accords [if they were implemented].
-- from Fareed Zakaria, "The Post American World" (on Obama's reading list)