The List

The 10 Worst Predictions for 2009

Ten pundits and politicians whose prognostications for this year completely missed the mark. 

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"I do know this. At the end of this first year of Congress, there will be an energy bill on the president's desk."

Rahm Emanuel on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, April 19, 2009

The bill the White House chief of staff was optimistically referring to, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, passed the House in June and included the cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon emissions that Emanuel described as "our goal."

The White House had hoped to have an energy bill passed by the time Obama traveled to the climate change conference in Copenhagen, but the legislation has stalled in the Senate and been largely marginalized by the ongoing debate over health-care reform. Senate leaders are now hoping to take up the debate again in the spring, leaving the president able to make only provisional commitments in Denmark.

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"Declaring that his work is done, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will announce he'll leave the Fed upon the expiration of his four-year term as chairman on Jan. 31, 2010. While mostly not his fault, the recession has hurt his standing with the Obama Administration -- and it also has worn him down on a personal level. He'll be succeeded by Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary under the Clinton Administration."

BusinessWeek, Jan. 2, 2009

Obama announced on Aug. 25 that he was reappointing Bernanke -- Foreign Policy's top Global Thinker of 2009 -- to a second term, praising him for his "calm and wisdom" and crediting him with putting "the brakes on our economic freefall." Bernanke is facing a tough sledding in his Senate confirmation hearings, but his support from the Obama administration is robust, and, for what it's worth, Time magazine has just named him its "person of the year."

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"While the precise impact of the fall resurgence of 2009-H1N1 influenza is impossible to predict, a plausible scenario is that the epidemic could: produce infection of 30-50% of the U.S. population this fall and winter, ... lead to as many as 1.8 million U.S. hospital admissions during the epidemic, ... [and] cause between 30,000 and 90,000 deaths in the United States."

Report to the President on U.S. Preparations for the 2009-H1N1 Influenza, President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Aug. 7, 2009

Although U.S. President Barack Obama's science advisors were careful to point out that the exact impact of H1N1 couldn't be predicted, no other possibilities besides the "plausible scenario" above were presented in their report. The dire numbers, particularly the 50 percent infection rate, were widely reported in the media. The reality turned out to be far milder. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this fall there were 33,490 confirmed hospitalizations, 1,445 deaths, and 56,410 cases from all types of flu total as of Dec. 5. A bad flu season to be sure, but nothing close to what the advisors were expecting. Visits to the doctor for swine flu declined throughout November and early December.


"The economy went into freefall and is still falling and we don't know where the bottom will be until we get there and there's no sign that we are anywhere near a bottom."

George Soros at Columbia University, Feb 20, 2009

Billionaire investor George Soros has a reputation for prognostication and is widely credited with having seen the current recession coming. But he got a bit overzealous in early 2009, declaring the crash the "collapse of the financial system." He also dismissed the Obama administration's stimulus measures as insufficient, saying "radical and unorthodox policy measures'' were needed to prevent a financial meltdown on the scale of the Great Depression. However, just one month after his fire-and-brimstone speech at Columbia, Soros told Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, "The economic freefall has been stopped, the collapse of the financial system averted. National economic stimulus programs are starting to take effect. The downward dynamic is easing." So much for no end in sight. Soros feels a global recovery is likely in 2010.

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Chris Wallace: "Best guess: Will the president end up giving McChrystal the troops he wants, or will he change the war strategy?"

Charles Krauthammer: "I think he doesn't and McChrystal resigns."

Fox News Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009

On Dec. 1, Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. If you count the 7,000 troops promised by NATO, the new levels are close to the 40,000 requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Kabul. After the announcement, the general issued a statement saying that Obama had "provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task." Undeterred, Krauthammer -- who has made FP's worst predictions list for the second straight year -- blasted Obama in a Washington Post op-ed for ignoring McChrystal's advice.

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"Brown will be tempted to fight on, but if he is well advised and sensible, he will see that this cannot go on. He will concede what Tony Blair also eventually also conceded when the pressure grew too great -- that he has no wish to be an impediment to Labour's electoral success. He will step down soon, maybe today, certainly this weekend."

Martin Kettle, The Guardian, June 5, 2009

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's already precarious political fortunes took yet another turn for the worse in June when, amid a growing scandal over MPs' expense accounts, three of his cabinet ministers resigned one after another -- the last of whom, pensions secretary and close Brown ally James Purnell, called on the British prime minister to "stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning." Kettle's paper, the staunchly pro-Labour Guardian, recommended in an editorial that Brown step down. But after a failed revolt of Labour backbenchers and a cabinet reshuffle, Brown managed to hang on and now appears likely to stay in office until the bitter end of his term.


"I'm very pleased to announce that we've had a breakthrough in negotiations in Honduras. I want to congratulate the people of Honduras as well as President Zelaya and Mr. Micheletti for reaching an historic agreement.... I cannot think of another example of a country in Latin America that having suffered a rupture of its democratic and constitutional order overcame such a crisis through negotiation and dialogue."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Oct. 30, 2009

Clinton was right that ousted President Manuel Zelaya and interim leader Roberto Micheletti had reached an agreement, but it wasn't a breakthrough and Honduras didn't overcome anything. The agreement was intended to return Zelaya to office for the remainder of his term, pending the approval of the Honduran Congress. Trouble is, the Congress didn't approve him. The agreement appears to have been little more than a stalling tactic aimed at international critics, particularly the United States, which was bought hook, line, and sinker by diplomats anxious to resolve the crisis. One month later, the United States reluctantly recognized Honduras's elections.

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"I think if they [Israel] are to do anything, the most likely period is after our elections and before the inauguration of the next president. I don't think they will do anything before our election because they don't want to affect it. And they'd have to make a judgment whether to go during the remainder of President Bush's term in office or wait for his successor."

John Bolton, Fox News, June 22, 2008

 "It will have to make a decision soon, and it will be no surprise if Israel strikes by year's end. Israel's choice could determine whether Iran obtains nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future."

John Bolton, The Wall Street Journal, July 28, 2009

An Israeli airstrike on Iran always seems to be just around the corner for former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, no matter what the circumstances. Around the same time as the Fox News statement, he expanded on his opinion in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, saying that an Obama victory would "rule out" military action. Nevertheless, a year later he was still saying, "you would have to bet" that Israel would soon launch an attack, Obama or not. To put Bolton's warning in perspective, he was advocating military action against Iran back in 2007, saying "our time is limited."

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"This is going to unleash rampant inflation around the world, rampant confusion in the currency markets. You're going to have currencies gyrating all over the world. Bond markets are going to start to collapse, and then we're going to have a real problem. The stock market understands this. They're unleashing an inflationary Holocaust because they don't know what else to do."

Jim Rogers, CNBC, Oct. 10, 2008


Famed investor and financial commentator Rogers made this prediction immediately before a G-7 summit in Washington at which finance ministers from around the world pledged "decisive action" to unfreeze credit markets. (Rogers thought it would be a better idea for them to "go down to the bar and have a beer and leave the rest of us alone.") Although Obama later committed the United States to almost $800 billion more in deficit spending, Rogers's prediction still failed to materialize. Inflation rates have remained in negative territory for most of 2009, and most predictions place it in the range of 1 to 2 percent in the year ahead. Rumors of the dollar's demise have also been greatly exaggerated.


"If we do nothing, I can guarantee you that within a decade, a communist Chinese regime that hates democracy and sees America as its primary enemy will dominate the tiny country of Panama, and thus dominate the Panama Canal, one of the world's most important strategic points."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Dec. 7, 1999

Rohrabacher made this alarming prediction during a debate on the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal. His fellow hawk, retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, even warned that China could sneak missiles into Panama and use the country as a staging ground for an attack on the United States. Well, Rohrabacher's decade ran out this December, and all remains quiet on the Panamanian front. As for China, the United States is now its largest trading partner.



The List

What to Watch for in Copenhagen

Carbon targets, money honeys, watchdogs, and protests -- welcome to Climate-palooza 2009!

Casual observers could be forgiven for treating the two-week U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, which began Monday, a bit like surgery: We care about the outcome -- but please just wake us up and deliver the final verdict when it's all over.

Last month, world leaders announced that they no longer expect to reach a fully binding legal agreement in Copenhagen, but Barack Obama's last-minute decision to attend the final day of the conference signals that the U.S. president now thinks there will be something significant to announce on that date. (And perhaps to take credit for?) Until then, here are some developments to watch. How these debates play out could determine what, if anything, will emerge from this month's gathering.

National Commitments to Reduce Emissions

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The issue: The end goal of international climate negotiations, as affirmed by leaders at July's G-8 meeting, is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by cutting global carbon emissions to half of 1990 levels by 2050. With Western industrialized countries focused on upping the energy efficiency of old cities, and developing countries focused on first moving their populations into new megacities, the debate over how much commitment countries in such different circumstances should make to trim their emissions has been contentious.

Obama recently pledged that the United States would reduce emissions about 17 percent by 2020 as compared with 2005 levels (though the Wall Street Journal is reporting that he might soon announce steeper cuts for 2050); his current pledge reflects numbers in bills now under review by Congress. The president probably can't offer much more without risking that any final treaty would later be rejected by Congress, similar to what happened when the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the Kyoto climate treaty in 1997.

Rather than absolute carbon cuts, some developing countries, including China and India, have declared goals of reducing the "carbon intensity" of their economies. In other words, they will use less carbon per unit of GDP growth, but as their overall economies grow, so too will carbon emissions, at least for the short term. China has pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 40 to 45 percent. India has a target of 20 to 25 percent. The targets have been applauded by some as a step forward and pilloried by others as far too low.

The upshot: Most observers think the final numbers coming out of the summit will roughly resemble those put on the table beforehand. That means carbon emissions are likely to continue to grow for the next several years. China's current efforts to rein in emissions will likely mean that, instead of tripling between now and 2020, its national emissions will only double. Gulp.

It's worth noting that any targets that emerge from Copenhagen will likely be short-term first steps, up until 2020. Long-term, the goal of negotiations is to stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2050. So watch for whether developing countries also make any pledges regarding their "peak carbon years," after which emissions should begin a downturn. The essential question, which will not be fully addressed at this summit, is what steps developing countries can take now to dramatically bend down their emissions curves as they grow in the future.

Show Me the Money

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The issue: Once countries make their carbon vows, who will foot the bill? At present, developed countries have proposed providing $10 billion per year through 2012 for carbon reduction and adaptation programs in poorer countries, after which a new long-term financing mechanism -- whose shape is also yet to be determined -- should take effect.

Meanwhile, analysts at the World Bank and in China say much more money is needed, with estimates ranging up to $300 billion per year. (China reportedly would consider upping its reduction targets if more money from developed countries were made available.)

The upshot: Nothing will happen unless there's money behind it, and for some countries, the financial pledge may be as politically difficult as the carbon-reduction pledge. (Sen. John Kerry has proposed that the United States pony up $2.5 billion to $3 billion, roughly equivalent to the annual budget of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.) With many industrialized countries stuck in recessions and struggling with high unemployment, short-term generosity will be difficult.

But the long-term challenge of designing a financial architecture for climate-change mitigation and adaptation efforts will be even trickier. At Copenhagen, get ready to witness the early design stages of, in effect, a World Bank-meets-WTO for carbon: an international system to distribute funds, impose terms, and arbitrate disputes about carbon-reduction efforts worldwide.

Big Brother Carbon


The issue: The dictum "trust, but verify" has been adapted and updated in climate circles as measurement, reporting, and verification, or MRV. Once carbon-reduction promises have been made, what system will exist to ensure those commitments will be kept? An international carbon police?

Trust is a huge issue, especially between countries that have been strategic rivals. Beijing, for instance, doesn't want some global carbon patrol stomping around its factories any more than Americans want Chinese storm troopers fiddling around with their electric grids and meters in the Midwest. And yet, it's not clear that any country would be satisfied simply allowing its peers to self-report data, without some independent watchdog to check that carbon books haven't been cooked.

The upshot: At Copenhagen, expect to hear proposals for an international review board to assess each country's pledges and progress every two years. In the meantime, several technical collaborations are already under way to ensure that developing countries have the tools and expertise needed to track basic carbon emissions.

Networking, venture capital, and yes, brothels


The issue: In addition to officially sanctioned activity and possibly illegal activity (protests and discounted prostitution, respectively), Copenhagen will feature several hundred side presentations and meet-ups organized by green-tech businesses and environmental organizations. After all, only a fraction of the 30,000 people descending on Copenhagen over the two weeks will be professional negotiators. Think of it as a giant green-tech trade conference.

The upshot: Whatever carbon-reduction targets are set, someone has to make it happen. Governments will play a role in incubating some breakthrough technologies and providing financial incentives for green tech. But much of the work will be accomplished by the private sector and NGOs, and by a variety of partnerships. Expect much trading of business cards and beers at Copenhagen, as green start-ups vie for venture capitalists' attention and green-tech suppliers shake hands with distributors.

Mexican Tourism Brochures


The issue: See y'all in 2010! The weather is better in Mexico, we promise! The date for the next U.N. climate conference -- from which, hopefully, a truly legally binding agreement will emerge -- has already been set for December 2010 in Mexico City. We know already that the two-week Copenhagen conference won't, in itself, save the world from global warming. No great surprise. But if the United States and China, which abstained from signing the last global climate treaty, stay at the table, it will be at least a symbolic victory. The substance, to be worked out next year, will likely include making countries' proposed carbon-reduction targets internationally binding and hammering out a long-term financial mechanism to give the planet a clean-tech retrofit.

The upshot: On the one hand, the inevitably inconclusive nature of Copenhagen is to be expected -- neither Rome nor the World Bank was built in a day. On the other hand, how much longer can the planet wait? Keeping global temperatures from rising no more than 2 degrees Celsius already seems a difficult target, and delay makes that hope seem ever more distant.

For more: For readers wanting minute-by-minute summaries of breaking climate micronews, there will be ample places to turn. For general Copenhagen news: the New York Times' Andrew Revkin, Grist's David Roberts, and the New Republic's Bradford Plumer. For Sino-climate news: the Center for American Progress's Julian L. Wong and China Environmental Law's Charlie McElwee.