Australia’s West in 2031

I was recently asked to talk about Western Australia in 2031 focussing on climate change. Before I spoke on this topic I made two important points: firstly, that due to the convergence of various critical trends at the global scale, it is difficult to make any kind of reasonable guess for 2020, let alone 2031; and secondly, even a future without global warming or peak energy promises to be scary because of these trends.

The most important of these trends are: the increasing fragility of the global economy; the growing hegemonic contest between the declining US and rising China; the age wave; and technological change, good and bad. Each one threatens to destabilise global development and of course they will actually act with mutual effect.

I went on to make the point that WA is utterly unique in the world, and actually perhaps the least sustainable community on the planet, excluding utterly crazy places like Dubai. It is isolated, large in scale, has a low population, has poor soils and unreliable water, but plenty of mineral and energy resources. Its core economic activities and income earners, mining and farming, are energy intensive and its cities sprawl along the coast. Due to all these things, it is completely unsustainable as it faces climate change and rising energy costs.

So my prediction was that in 2031, as much as could be anticipated, WA would be in big trouble. A volatile global economy would hammer demand for WA resources, especially if the US-China tension was still a major factor. Indeed north-west resources, especially the offshore oil reserves, might become assets fought over by hostile powers (a realisation reflected in changing federal defence policy and the recent agreement between Gillard and Obama to post marines in Darwin). In addition, rising transport coasts will impact on the WA economy both internally and externally. Since we have placed all our eggs in the boom economy basket, a marked global economic downtown will hurt WA in a serious way.

Furthermore, WA has very poor social networks, poor institutional arrangements and immature political processes due to low population and our history of relying on exports of bulk raw materials. This situation compares badly even with the rest of Australia which has the golden triangle and more mature social and political development.

And finally, WA is currently investing in physical infrastructure to support the boom economy and a growing population, including power, water, housing and transport, while existing infrastructure is under growing strain.

So, just as these investments in infrastructure to meet the demands of the boom are being made, the underlying demand powering the boom is likely to diminish, even collapse. The simple truth is that for the last couple of decades conditions for the boom have never been better (cheap energy, readily available investment funds, stable global economy and stable international relations), and as we head into future they must worsen with obvious effect.

In short, WA is only a viable community if it can rely on high demand from overseas and readily available cheap energy. Both these requirements are under growing threat.

Given this scenario, and the associated national and global ramifications, WA in 2031 may well be facing economic ruin, social agitation, political chaos with possible authoritarian responses, and depopulation as those who came to WA for the boom leave for safer pastures. And all just as the effects of climate change (more and worse storms, more hot days, loss of rainfall, sea level rises) really start to kick in.