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Connected and vulnerable: Climate change, trade wars and the networked world

Connected and vulnerable: Climate change, trade wars and the networked world

The increasing connectedness of the global economic system has long been touted as the path to greater prosperity and peaceful relations among nations and their peoples. There’s just one hitch: Complex systems have more points of failure and also hidden risks that only surface when something goes wrong.

For example, our dependence on cheap shipping to move commodities and finished goods has resulted in a system vulnerable to environmental disruption, particularly climate change, and to rising political and military tensions.

The extreme drought in Germany last summer, the warmest ever recorded in the country, has resulted in such low water in the Rhine River that shipping has been greatly curtailed. Ships can only be loaded lightly so as to avoid running aground. Consequently, many more barges and other vessels have been pressed into service to carry the lighter but more numerous loads along the river. This has driven up the cost of shipping considerably. In addition, fuel tankers have not been able to reach some river ports resulting in scattered fuel shortages. Some industrial installations along the river have had to reduce operations.

The natural inhabitants of the river have also suffered as die-offs of fish and other marine life have spread along the river.

A world away trade tensions between China and the United States are resulting in an unexpected threat to the preparedness of the U.S. military. The neoliberal program of free trade embraced by one U.S. president after another regardless of party has resulted in curious vulnerabilities for the military.

Because of the hollowing out of American manufacturing—as much of it migrated to China’s low-cost labor market—the military can no longer fulfill certain needs from U.S. or even European manufacturers. Instead, the only place to source certain supplies is China, a country many now consider a potential military adversary of the United States.

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