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Terror, climate chaos, financial crisis are the costs of 'doing business'

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US Central Command (CENTCOM) documents from the 1990s until today justify a permanent US combat presence in the Gulf to defend "US and free-world interests," especially "critical economic interests," which include guaranteeing "the free flow of oil at stable and reasonable prices" along with "freedom of navigation and access to commercial markets".

This thinking did not change after 9/11.

A 2013 CENTCOM document promises that "oil and energy resources that fuel the global economy" will "keep US attention anchored in this region".

Alliances with key Gulf regimes to ratify US military access, free trade, and arms sales are pivotal to this strategy, despite them being brutal dictatorships sponsoring the very forces the West is purportedly fighting.

As General Colin Powell said after al-Qaeda's 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, terrorism "is the cost of doing business" in today's world.

Climate chaos

But terror is not the only cost.

Another is climate change. Over the past few centuries, the abundance of cheap fossil fuels has enabled exponential economic growth since the industrial revolution.

Yet fossil fuel emissions are now overwhelming the planet's natural balance with an ever-increasing quantity of atmospheric carbon, contributing to global warming, and destabilising eco-systems.

According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the current rate of fossil fuel emissions heralds a worst-case scenario of global average temperatures rising by around four to five degrees Celsius by 2100.

Most scientists agree this would render the Earth largely uninhabitable. "If global warming approaches 3C by the end of the century," writes former NASA chief climate scientist James Hansen, "it is estimated that 21-52% of the species on Earth will be committed to extinction."

Our business-as-usual trajectory means we are already on track to hit the worst-case scenario, even if countries comply with national pledges to slash emissions.

The worst case may also not even be the worst case. The very process of obtaining a consensus means IPCC forecasts are too conservative and consistently underestimate the severity of global warming.

To make matters worse, the world's major fossil fuel emitters -- especially the US, China and Saudi Arabia -- have repeatedly pressured the IPCC to "dilute" its landmark "Summary for Policymakers" reports, to minimise policies that could undermine fossil fuel interests.

Yet as even Bank of England governor Mark Carney acknowledges, avoiding dangerous climate change requires the "vast majority" of the world's oil, gas and coal reserves to be left in the ground. In which case, fossil fuel majors are sitting on defunct "stranded assets" that put investors and insurers at major financial risk.

End of oil, limits to growth

Fossil fuels are implicated in global financial woe in a more direct respect. Professor James Hamilton, an economist at the University of California, San Diego, has shown that oil price spikes helped trigger the consumer defaults behind the unraveling of mortgage debt, leading to the 2008 banking collapse.

The oil spikes had been triggered by the peak and plateau of world conventional oil production around 2005. Since then, most new production has come from more expensive unconventional oil and gas sources, such as shale gas and tar sands.

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Dr Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. A former Guardian writer, he writes the 'System Shift' column for VICE's Motherboard, and is also a columnist for Middle East Eye. He is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work.

Nafeez has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New (more...)

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