As United States President Barack Obama took the oath of office in a public ceremony on Martin Luther King Jr Day last Monday, Klaus Schwab, the Swiss economist who founded and directs the World Economic Forum (WEF), on the eve of its annual meeting in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos, was telling the world press that "the world is in a very serious situation".
The problems and the risks which led to, and were caused by, the global financial crisis and recession beginning in 2008 have not gone away, he said, and "the world economy may still confront a collapse". Note, not another recession, but a collapse.
That a paternally first-generation African-American can be president of the republic two times round and a black civil-rights leader can have his birth marked as a national public holiday show how far America has advanced in race relations, though far from achieving the sort of peaceful coexistence that we take for granted in Jamaica.
all are equal
In obvious tribute to King and the civil-rights activists, the president said, "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths - that all of us are created equal - is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."
Race relations and ethnic civil rights will definitely not be President Obama's biggest problems in the second term. While there will be other large domestic issues to confront, not even those will be his biggest problems. The biggest problems which will confront the leader of the world's sole superpower will be the mega, whole globe problems.
WEF's Klaus Schwab is hoping that the world's biggest economic and military power will become more assertive on the world stage. "What the world expects is that someone, if there's a major crisis, takes the lead, and I'm really hopeful that the United States, with the second mandate [for Obama], will assume its responsibility as the strongest power," Schwab said. But much of the world is deeply resentful of American leadership.
While Schwab's focus is on the global economy, as our government's is on the national economy, perhaps the world is facing an even more fundamental problem. While January has been unseasonably hot and dry in Jamaica, forcing the minister of water to announce special measures to deal with water supply during the drought, Russia is facing the worst winter in generations with record-breaking low and deadly temperatures. While the Arctic has lost polar ice, the Antarctic has gained polar ice. Sections of the Caribbean and the US East Coast were devastated by late-season superstorm Sandy last October.
erratic global weather patterns
The Obama presidency has probably witnessed the most erratic global weather patterns since the founding of the republic, although reliable records extend only to about the middle of the 19th century. Climate change there is, for sure. But, despite the presidential certainty and the 'scientific terrorism' on which it is based, global warming, as cause of climate change, and human industrial activity, as the cause of global warming, are not beyond question.
The president, in the second inaugural, said: "We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.
"The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries: we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure - our forests and waterways; our croplands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commended to our care by God."
Precisely how this feat of dealing with climate change is to be achieved is yet to unfold. Perhaps if policymakers were to let all science contend, rather than be controlled by 'scientific terrorism' which brooks no dissent, more workable solutions could emerge.
In any case, if the greenhouse-gas theory of global warming is irrefutable, the United States, with the planet's largest carbon footprints and its long refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol for the reduced emission of carbon dioxide, is the biggest culprit. The president's contending for US economic dominance may be incompatible with his drive to "respond" to climate change.
Modern civilisation is powered by non-renewable fossil fuels, and a weaning is nowhere in sight. Dissident minority voices in the scientific community have been raising the matter of substantial thermodynamic challenges to the use of renewables as major sources of alternative energy, challenges which political rhetoric cannot resolve and which even research and development may not be able to remove, if indeed the technologies are seeking to defy fundamental laws of science.
Basically, the scientific situation is that you can never get out of a system more energy than is put in, or even get back the amount put in; and what you get out may not economically justify what is put in. Obama may fare no better than King Canute commanding the tide to retreat.
Towards the end of the Obama first term, the world population was officially declared to have reached the seven-billion mark - and continues to grow. But it is not population so much that is pressing against every segment of the global environment; it is more so the American-led advanced consumption of the advanced and advancing countries. The planet cannot afford American-style consumerism.
Remarkably, the price of oil kept rising through a global recession with no real shortages in sight, reflecting the fear and speculative activity characterising the global economy. Klaus Schwab wants world leaders, and particularly American leadership, "to give people the confidence again to look with more optimism into the future". This is against the very visible shakiness of the global financial system, a system built on credit and debt, on unbacked paper and electronic money, and rife with speculative activity.
It is not at all certain that any ruler, or country, however powerful, or even an international consortium of power, can now rationally manage the global environmental system or the global financial and economic system. In fact, tipping points may have been already passed. In chaos theory, the flap of a butterfly's wings in the Amazon may set off a tornado in Texas.
Between Obama's re-election and second inauguration, America approached and pulled back at the eleventh hour from the edge of the 'fiscal cliff'. The cliff is a creation of the clash of the congressional intent to fix and to hold a cap on the debt which the federal executive government can incur to run its programmes and the desire of the executive to incur further debt to maintain federal programmes.
America has the world's highest stock of debt in absolute dollar terms, at some US$16 trillion, up from US$10.6 trillion at the start of Obama's first term, an increase of US$5.4 trillion, the most spectacular rise in American history. And if the debt is bad, cutbacks on federal spending run the risk of pushing not just the US but the world economy, which it leads, back into recession!
As Obama addressed America - and the world - Syria was in the midst of a virtual civil war. Regime changes and potential instability in Libya and Egypt, Iran, Turkey/Syrian tensions and the Israeli/Palestinian problem will together continue to make the Middle East an area of special foreign-policy challenge for the second Obama administration.
America faces imperial overstretch in policing the world and could be sucked into more asymmetric warfare with non-statal enemies as it pursues its shadow-boxing war against terrorism. That war has already placed substantial stress on domestic civil rights in an emergent police state. Globally, war is returning to ethnic and religious conflicts rather than big blowouts between big states.
"Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution," the president said. The big civil-rights battle of Term 2 of the Obama presidency will not be racial but those over First Amendment religious rights against which legislation and federal regulations are beginning to press, and over the Second Amendment right to "keep and bear" arms.
Although the president proudly proclaimed, "We have never relinquished our scepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone," the Obama presidency will domestically continue the relentless march of the US federal government towards greater concentration of power, more intrusiveness, and more authoritarian command and control encouraged by greater disorder and fractiousness in American society, and greater threats from within and without.
And internationally, we can expect greater flexing of American power in defence of perceived American interests. FATCA, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, a product of the Obama first term, which forces foreign banks to report US persons holding accounts with them over US$50,000, is a good case in point.
Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.