Pic of the day: If worst comes to worst... (Screenshot from City of Heroes, I'm happy to say.)
Two likely disasters
It is true that a terrorist attack with poison gas or homemade bombs is a thoroughly unpleasant event. But there are at least two highly likely disasters that far surpass these threats and indeed anything seen in centuries.
The hardest to avoid is probably an outbreak of bird flu adapted to human hosts. Flu virus routinely move from species to species, and interbreed with other flu virus by infecting the same cells. The twice- infected cells will then churn out viruses with any random combination of their "parents". It is this randomness that is the problem. So far, the avian flu virus seems to kill at least half of those humans it infects at all, but has a hard time spreading. Conversely, normal flu spreads easily but is fairly harmless if you have an intact immune system. Theoretically we could get the worst of both, a flu that spreads readily around the globe and kills off 2-3 billion people. This would totally change history in a way nothing has done in recorded history. But even a compromise between the two would dwarf the World Wars of the past century.
The avian flu is now endemic in East Asia and spreading in Russia and Europe, transferring between poultry and wild birds. It is already infecting humans, and in a few cases seems to have killed family members who did not have direct contact with the birds.
Luckily we are not entirely helpless against this threat. In recent years a couple flu medicines have been deemed safe for human use. The most popular is Tamiflu, which has few side effects and so can be taken before the flu breaks out. The competitor, Relenza, has a more limited use due to side effects in people with asthma, but it still beats dying. (Do I really have to say that? I'm all for stringent side effect checks before launching a drug, but when the fatality rate is 50%, I think most people would be willing to accept side effects.)
Even though production has been stepped up, there is no chance that even the rich countries will have enough for everybody. Governments are however building a stockpile that should assure the survival of critical personnel such as health care workers, law enforcement and almost certainly politicians. The priorities beyond this will probably depend on how large we get the stockpile before the pandemic starts. (Norway has enough for 1/3 of its population.) There is also work on a vaccine. If we get as much as ten years, chances are that only the poor will die. And the poor are always dying, right? Right?
While this first disaster scenario can be called an act of God, the next is squarely in the hands of man. And not necessarily the smartest of men either. We are talking about a possible war between China and the USA, following the Chinese invasion of Taiwan. This event is probably near at hand, but I sincerely doubt it will happen during the presidency of W. Bush. The Chinese as a people have been cultivating intelligence for millennia, and they are probably aware by now that Bush is far from bright, as well as having an unshakable faith in Holy Scriptures that portray Armageddon as unavoidable and in some ways a good thing, where the Good Guys are ascertained to come out on top.
Once Bush is replaced, however, all bets are off. China has made it abundantly clear that it regards Taiwan as a rogue province that must be re-assimilated into the mother country by any means necessary. They did get Hong Kong back, after all, and they will probably try to acquire Taiwan peacefully if possible within reasonable time. But if Taiwan goes too far in declaring itself independent, the leaders may risk losing face if they don't take drastic measures. And losing face is worse than death, which is another possible outcome.
A direct confrontation between China and the US over Taiwan would really be the joker of the deck. It could end up in a limited stalemate, similar to Korea. It could lead to local use of nuclear missiles. Or it could lead to an all-out nuclear war between the two. If the rest of the world stays out of it, mankind would almost certainly survive even that, probably civilization too. But in a much reduced state, and with widespread starvation, sickness and panic even in the least affected areas.
Even something as small as a full diplomatic breakdown would probably lead to a collapse of the world economy we are used to, which depends on the US as consumer and borrower, and China as producer and lender. Something akin to the Great Depression would be likely in case of even the smallest armed conflict between the two. How long this problem would last depends on whether governments around the world were able to stay calm. Their track record so far is not exactly a reason to dance in the streets.
Visit the ChaosNode.net for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.