In parts of the West African nation of Ghana, water has become so scarce that young women ask suitors about the distance to sources of clean water in their communities before accepting marriage proposals. Where water is hard to find, food is also often scarce, so girls are interrogating potential husbands about their ability to farm and feed a family. Should the rest of the world be taking these kinds of practical inventories of disappearing natural resources too?
Earlier this year, Britain’s Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs commissioned a study of global resources that may soon be in short supply, especially because of China’s seemingly endless appetite for things like fish, oil, timber, precious metals, and common ingredients in fertilizer such as phosphorus. Another key target of the study is rare earth elements, minerals used for a host of modern technologies, such as heavy magnets that allow electric cars and wind turbines to function efficiently, modern LED lights, and even pain-relievers.
The Brits say they’re concerned about wars and other geopolitical factors that may further restrict access to vital materials, but their study will also examine the impact of countries like China stockpiling reserves of these resources. Japan has stated it too is storing supplies of metals it claims are "essential to modern life and industry."
The US, EU, and Mexico are asking similar tough questions, raising concerns in the World Trade Organization over Chinese restrictions on exports of bauxite and magnesium (key ingredients in aluminum and steel), while a report from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development last year cited dozens of strategically important resources it believes are going to be in short supply from these various causes. All of these studies also examine growing concerns over water shortages. The World Bank reports that 80 countries already suffer serious shortages of water that threaten both public health and economic development—about 2 billion people simply don’t have access to clean water.
If these reports show that growing economies are using resources productively, that’s one thing. If countries like China and Japan are indeed hoarding scarce materials, that’s quite another. I recall as California’s Cabinet Secretary in 2005, I had to deal with a temporary shortage of gas and diesel fuel caused by unplanned refinery outages. The most important message to consumers was to avoid hoarding - - at any given time, about half of our gas tanks are empty, but if suddenly filled, the entire supply chain goes dry for days or weeks, causing shortages that would not have occurred except for motorists topping off their tanks in fear. The same is true for global supplies of necessary resources. Work together to make the most of critical materials and the global economy keeps on humming. Gobble up reserves and the prophesy of shortages becomes self-fulfilling and economies grind to a halt.
All of this highlights the need to rapidly commercialize alternatives to basic commodities like oil and to make the most of what we have, such as energy efficiency opportunities in factories, buildings, and transportation. Those who scoff at climate change science and carbon pollution may want to consider these growing resource constraints as ample reason to join forces on a progressive energy and climate bill in Congress next year - - each side may come at these things from different angles, but the solutions are identical.
In this highly partisan political year, perhaps politicians on both sides of the aisle can find this common ground. If they do, the resulting environmental and economic marriage will be one of which even the young women in Ghana would approve.
Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).