Five political surprises for 2011

The Washington Post asked several political pundits: “What will be the biggest political surprise of 2011?” Here are some of the wild cards of U.S. politics this year:

  • Public-sector labor strikes and demonstrations as state/local governments cut budgets. “The same kind of protests that have rocked Paris, London and Rome could erupt in California, New York and Illinois.”
  • Efforts to repeal the big health care reform legislation will have the unintended effect of educating the public about the good things in it.
  • The consensus that marked the lame-duck congressional session will continue in the new year (e.g., the DREAM immigration act could be passed).
  • The emergence of a potentially serious third-party candidate for president in 2012.
  • President Obama will definitely end the war in Afghanistan, while Republicans will have the unpopular position of supporting open-ended commitment.

Underground storage of carbon dioxide could trigger earthquakes

There’s been some talk of storing massive amounts of carbon dioxide underground in an effort to combat global warming. But the law of unintended consequences may have other ideas. “Sequestration” may not be easy to do because of the potential for triggering small- to moderate-sized earthquakes, according to Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback. “It may not take a very big earthquake to damage the seal of an underground reservoir that has been pumped full of carbon dioxide.”

The other complication, Zoback said, is that for sequestration to make a significant contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the volume of gas injected into reservoirs annually would have to be almost the same as the amount of fluid now being produced by the oil and gas industry each year. This would likely require thousands of injection sites around the world.

Botox: Bioterrorism threat?

Researchers worry that an underground network of illicit Botox suppliers would sell the underlying toxin to terrorists hell-bent on contaminating water or food supplies. The anti-wrinkle treatment has a miniscule amount of the lethal toxin, but the same organized crime syndicates making counterfeit Botox could sell the toxin to terrorists. An al-Qaeda training manual discovered in 2001 advocated the use of botulinum toxin in terrorist attacks.

A speck of toxin smaller than a grain of sand can kill a 150-pound adult. A biologist with a master’s degree and $2,000 worth of equipment could easily make a gram of pure toxin, an amount equal to the weight of a small paper clip but enough, in theory, to kill thousands of people.

Source: “Officials fear toxic ingredient in Botox could become terrorist tool,” The Washington Post, 25 January 2010

Implications: The black market in a cosmetic treatment could lead to terrorists contaminating water or food supplies to create mass casualties. Presumably the counterfeiters would sell toxin to the highest bidder. Continue reading “Botox: Bioterrorism threat?”

The president-elect will face big problems, threats

It’ll be a short honeymoon. The next U.S. president will face high expectations (which may be impossible to fulfill), a recessionary economy and huge budget deficits. And that’s just domestically. Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, gave a speech this week that lays out the broader threats. As The Washington Post reported:

The next U.S. president will govern in an era of increasing international instability, including a heightened risk of terrorist attacks in the near future, long-term prospects of regional conflicts and diminished U.S. dominance across the globe, the nation’s top intelligence officer said Thursday.

Competition for energy, water and food will drive conflicts between nations to a degree not seen in decades, and climate change and global economic upheaval will amplify the effects, [McConnell said].

“After the new president-elect’s excitement subsides after winning the election, it is going to be dampened somewhat when he begins to focus on the realities of the myriad of changes and challenges,” he said.

Of course, besides the predictable conflicts and threats, “there is always surprise,” McConnell said. (Futurists call ’em wild cards.)

Continue reading “The president-elect will face big problems, threats”

More wild cards

Following up on my recent discussion of wild cards — i.e., low-probability but high-impact developments in the future — here are five wild cards discussed in brief reports by Social Technologies LLC:

Recorded Lives: Lifelogging, the use of information technology to comprehensively record and archive a person’s experiences, could become a mainstream practice, due to declining hardware costs and rising consumer interest. Life recording would build on the trends witnessed in current blog, online photo album, and video journal Web sites. (Brief GL-2007-50) Additional research here and here.

Bye-Bye Bees: Colony collapse disorder (CCD) — the disappearance of honeybees from commercial hives — is alarming but probably temporary, most experts say. But what if CCD isn’t temporary? The long-term loss of honeybees could be calamitous for agriculture and the downstream businesses that depend on it. (Brief GL-2007-43)

Continue reading “More wild cards”