Post #55 – Obama’s Wars: Deeper into the Quagmire

President Obama continues to do everything to fulfill his prediction of September 12 that the Middle East wars will long outlast his administration. At that time (see my post #47, “Mission Impossible”) both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the army chief of staff warned that US ground forces might eventually be needed to defeat ISIS. Now, according to news reports, Obama has buckled under to Pentagon pressure and changed the US military mission in Afghanistan to a direct combat role—just as Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam in 1965. The reasons are plain: the war against ISIS is going badly, Afghanistan’s ability to carry on with only US advisory and logistical support is in doubt, and US military leaders cannot accept having fought there for 13 years without victory. Coupled with Obama’s decision to double the number of US advisers in Iraq to 3,000, we now face indefinite fighting in two countries from which he had once pledged to withdraw. Endless war, just as George W. Bush was accused of prosecuting.

In the latest (November-December) issue of Foreign Affairs, Peter Tomsen, who was the US special envoy to Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, addresses three persistent obstacles to success in Afghanistan. The first is US unwillingness to let the Afghans run any element of the war—not its own politics, its economy, or the conduct of the war itself. In these respects, he writes, the US is repeating the recipe for the Soviets’ failed intervention in Afghanistan. The second factor is corruption at every level of Afghanistan’s governing system. Third is Pakistan’s duplicitous role in the Afghan war—allowing US drone and other attacks on Pakistan’s territory, but also allowing the Inter Intelligence Service to protect and connive with the Taliban.

What is important about Tomsen’s account is that the first two of those three factors also apply to the war in Iraq. US control of the Iraq war hardly needs elaboration—from selection and removal of Iraq’s president on down to strategy and tactics. It has always been America’s war. As for corruption, the New York Times of November 24 reports on just one element of the rottenness that pervades Iraq society—the army. Numerous sources, including Iraqis, warn the US against distributing money and arms to the Iraqi army. But the Pentagon evidently isn’t listening, and thus well over $1 billion will flow to that army in 2015. Much of the cash will line the pockets of officers, while many of the weapons will find their way into the hands of ISIS. In short, the bad situation keeps getting worse, yet produces no change of course.

Don’t expect a peep from Congress in response to these latest US escalations of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. Conceivably, a few members might dare to raise objections on the basis of the War Powers Resolution, which not only requires notification to Congress of a direct commitment of US troops to combat, but also allows the President only 60 days to obtain Congressional authorization; otherwise, he must withdraw the troops. Of course the administration will insist, just as Bush did, that it already has all the authorization it needs, dating from 9/11, to prosecute war anywhere in the Middle East—not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in Syria and ISIS-controlled territory. Republicans, despite their distaste for Obama’s domestic policies, will support his wars on the usual basis of “national security.”

Americans are expected to quietly acquiesce in another extension of the Bush-Obama wars. And to judge from the absence of public debate, they (we) are. No one is rising to challenge the military-industrial complex. Meantime, US allies in the Middle East hold back from supporting the US on the ground and Russia and China quietly draw confidence from watching the US expend enormous funds and prestige on unwinnable conflicts. What a shame that the lives of so many young people continue to be sacrificed, so many villages destroyed by bombing, and so many billions of dollars squandered abroad when so much remains to be accomplished at home for the betterment of millions in need. Happy Thanksgiving.

Post #54 – Is North Korea Having a Coming-Out Party?

Considering the overwhelming margin by which a UN General Assembly committee voted on November 18 to condemn North Korea for human-rights violations, one might think that establishing a stable relationship with that regime is a fruitless enterprise. The vote (111-19 with 55 abstentions) sends the resolution to the General Assembly as a whole and then, if approved, on to the UN Security Council.

But several recent developments raise the possibility that North Korea’s leaders are rethinking their international strategy—and providing an opportunity for engagement.  One is the release in two stages of three Americans held prisoner there. Kim Jong-un, according to North Korean sources, personally ordered the initial release, and no doubt also the second after James R. Clapper, Jr., President Obama’s director for national intelligence, traveled to Pyongyang.  Second, North Korea is talking with Japan about its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, a very sensitive political issue in Japan whose resolution is central to resumption of Japanese aid.  Third is the unexpected visit of senior North Korean officials to the Asian Games held at Incheon, South Korea, which was clearly intended to signal a desire to revitalize North-South diplomacy.

Fourth is the DPRK regime’s openly defensive response to the debate at the UN over North Korea’s human-rights situation.  The basis for the debate was a report of the UN Commission of Inquiry last February that held the DPRK leadership responsible for a wide range of deplorable and systematic violations, including torture, forced labor, arbitrary arrests, and politically motivated arrests without trial (www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/Documents.aspx).

The highlight of the DPRK’s public defense against these charges was the unusual appearance of its UN ambassador, Jang Il-hun, at the Council of Foreign Relations on October 20.  In his response to questions, the ambassador, as expected, insisted that no political prisoner camps “of any kind” existed in the DPRK.  There are only ordinary prisons as in the US.  “In my country, we don’t even know the term political prisoners.”  He said the “hostile policy of the US” was responsible for lack of improvement in human rights, for efforts at the UN to bring DPRK leaders to justice on “fictitious” grounds, and for promoting regime change in the North.  However, Jang did say Pyongyang was willing to “have a human rights dialogue” with the European Union and “enter into technical cooperation with the UN Office for Human Rights Commission (transcript at www.cfr.org/north-korea/ambassador-jang-il-hun-human-rights-north-korea/p33642).  That prospect now seems dead in the water.

Besides these fairly high-profile actions, we should keep in mind more ordinary activities that belie the idea that North Korea is insulating itself.  It is no longer the “hermit kingdom.”  Increasing numbers of North Koreans are going abroad for training and touring. North Korean diplomats are active in Europe and Russia. Foreign educators are leading medical and science and technology training in the DPRK.  There is a sense among experts that the economic system is becoming more open and that the country’s economic performance, for example with respect to food production, is improving.

Before the General Assembly resolution came to a vote, a North Korean representative warned that if it passed, his country would have no choice but to conduct further nuclear-weapon tests.  China and Russia, which voted against the resolution, now face two unpleasant tasks: persuading the North not to incite new UN sanctions by conducting another nuclear test, and casting a veto to prevent the Security Council from referring the North Korea case to the International Criminal Court, which would consider prosecuting Kim Jong-un and colleagues for crimes against humanity.

Outsiders are right to demand that North Korean officials be called to account.  The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a dictatorship that runs a horrendous gulag. But the recent developments described above, though extremely modest, suggest that the DPRK may be testing the waters, and that engaging it in serious dialogue is worth trying notwithstanding its atrocious human-rights record.  The real problem is not North Korean unwillingness to talk; it has already indicated its preparedness to reenter the Six-Party Talks on its nuclear weapons, a position China strongly supports.  But the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be listening; it is sticking to the tired formula of “strategic patience” and no talks until the North agrees to verifiable nuclear disarmament.  Those are predictable nonstarters for Pyongyang.

Moreover, US officials continue to operate in the dark when it comes to North Korea. The administration does not allow them to visit the North—the Clapper assignment is a special case—nor does it allow North Korean officials outside a 25-mile perimeter from UN Headquarters in New York.  What this means is an analytical deficit and a gratuitous insult to North Korean sovereignty.  The analytical deficit must somehow be remedied by defectors’ and satellite observations—hardly the best sources for understanding North Korean political, economic, or social policy, as we saw most recently with all the wild speculation about the whereabouts of Kim Jong-un.  Limiting North Koreans’ travel not only deprives them of opportunities to interact with US audiences; it tells them that they are justified in their jaundiced view of the US government.

When Washington proposed to send a senior State Department official to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of two imprisoned Americans, is it any wonder that he was (twice) rejected?  The North Koreans want acknowledgment of their country’s legitimacy, not second-class treatment—hence, someone of the stature of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.  James Clapper evidently filled the bill because he was the President’s personal emissary.  Clapper brought the two Americans home, creating a potential opening for a US move.

Yet Obama dismissed the prisoner release as a “small gesture,” and gave no indication that he would make a small gesture in return.  Yet that is exactly what he should do.  Potential opportunities for a breakthrough with North Korea don’t come along very often, and the available evidence suggests that North Korea is sending a message, not reacting to foreign pressure.  (See Frank Jannuzi’s article at http://38north.org/2014/11/fjannuzi110914/.)  It’s time for the US to do the sensible thing, respond in a meaningful way to Pyongyang, and test whether or not the North Koreans are actually having a coming-out party.

Postscript on engagement:  The same goes for US relations with Iran and Cuba.  News reports indicate that the US and its negotiating partners are close to a nuclear agreement with Iran, but also that resistance is keen among right-wing members of Congress (and their Iranian counterparts). To his credit, President Obama reportedly has sent a letter to the Ayatollah Khamenei that proposes areas for future cooperation, starting with combating ISIS, once the nuclear issue is resolved.  (See Trita Parsi’s excellent analysis at www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/11/07/pen_palling_with_the_ayatollah_obama_letter_iran_khamenei?utm_content=bufferab8da&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer.)  Cuba is another opportunity for engagement, though there too anti-Castro forces in and outside Congress, and hardliners in Havana, will go to great lengths to undermine any prospective deal.  Fidel Castro’s unusual article in Granma, the official newspaper, responding to a New York Times editorial that proposed normalizing relations with Cuba, suggests avenues of cooperation worth talking about (www.nytimes.com/2014/10/15/opinion/still-pondering-us-cuba-relations-fidel-castro-responds.html).  The Times editorial board has added some positive ideas while chronicling a recent history of abject US failures at sabotage in Cuba in the name of improving conditions there (www.nytimes.com/2014/11/10/opinion/in-cuba-misadventures-in-regime-change.html).

Post #53 – AR5: Another Urgent Report on Climate Change

When we consider benchmarks that will help explain why the world ignored dire warnings of climate change, we will want to dwell on AR5, the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (www.ipcc.ch).  The report, put together by some of the world’s most eminent climatologists, describes what can only be called the cataclysmic consequences of our unceasing pursuit of the hard-energy path to growth.  One sentence says it all: “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts.”

Only the most die-hard climate change deniers—and as we know, there are many, including more than half the Republicans in the US Congress—will turn their backs and close their ears to this report.  (Actually, they probably won’t read a word of it.)  As the deniers insist, “I’m not a scientist” (see my post #49).  But then they should listen to those who are. The so-called core writing group that prepared AR5 consisted of 49 scientists—31 from the major industrialized countries (including 7 Americans), 8 from middle-income countries such as China, and 10 from low-income countries such as Sudan.

Here are some key findings (with italics in the original) from the full-length report, which is available at http://ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/SYR_AR5_LONGERREPORT.pdf:

  • On atmospheric changes: “Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. The period from 1983 to 2012 was very likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 800 years in the Northern Hemisphere, where such assessment is possible (high confidence) and likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years (medium confidence). . . . Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are at levels that are unprecedented in at least 800,000 years.”
  • Temperature: “It is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over most land areas on daily and seasonal timescales, as global mean surface temperature increases. It is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and longer duration. . . . Extreme precipitation events over most mid-latitude land masses and over wet tropical regions will very likely become more intense and more frequent as global mean surface temperature increases.”
  • Causation: “CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributed about 78% to the total GHG emission increase between 1970 and 2010, with a contribution of similar percentage over the 2000–2010 period (high confidence). . . . The contribution of population growth between 2000 and 2010 remained roughly identical to that of the previous three decades, while the contribution of economic growth has risen sharply (high confidence).”
  • Our role: “The evidence for human influence on the climate system has grown since AR4. Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, and in global mean sea-level rise; and it is extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
  • Consequences: “Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence). Impacts of such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, human morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being. For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors.”
  • Remedies: “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.”
  • Bottom line: “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally (high confidence). . . . Limiting warming to 2.5 °C or 3 °C . . . would require substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades, and near zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived GHGs [greenhouse gases] by the end of the century.”

The irresponsibility of the world’s governments when it comes to climate change will soon be on display in Lima, Peru, when leaders meet to consider a new agreement.  The meeting will (once again) be heavy on rhetoric and light on substance.  Some governments will agree to voluntarily curb greenhouse gas emissions, and a few of those will actually do so.  (Sweden is the lead country when it comes to “going green,” moving toward relying for less than 20 percent of its energy on fossil fuels.  See the global rankings at  http://earthtechling.com/2014/10/swedens-environmental-leadership/?google_editors_picks=true; and thanks to Glen Jackson for this item.)  But most countries will continue devoting far more resources (including subsidies) to fossil fuel extraction than to conservation and alternative energy.

What about the just-concluded verbal agreement on climate change between President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping?  Much ado about precious little, I’d say.  Obama promised that the US would emit 26 to 28 percent less carbon dioxide in 2025 than it did in 2005—an easy promise, since he won’t be around to carry it out, and still far short of the reductions that need to take place.  China’s promise was even less meaningful: allowing carbon dioxide emissions to peak “around 2030,” and by then to have renewable energy comprise 20 percent of China’s energy picture. Well, by 2030 (maybe), when Xi won’t be around either, China’s coal-driven economy will have further blackened the skies, and its consequent public health problems will have worsened considerably.  So where’s the sacrifice?

Future historians—I assume there will be some—will be bewildered by such willful shortsighted and political slights-of-hand.  As they peer out from their offices on the moon or some distant planet, they may wonder if the lesson of Earth’s failures at self-protection will be repeated.

 

 

Post #52 – The Dis-United States and the Withering of the American Model

 

American leaders of both parties have always prided themselves on the model democracy that they believe all other countries would benefit from adopting.  It’s part of our belief in exceptionalism: We don’t have periodic coups, fighting in the legislature, multiple parties and fractured politics.  We’re free, in short, of the chaos that accompanies political processes in so many countries.  Instead, our spirit of bipartisanship and tradition of shared power among three branches of government show how politics can be conducted with the assurance of stability from one party, and one generation, to the next.

But the midterm elections just concluded once again reveal just how bogus this model is.  The actual lessons are:

  •  Money talks more loudly than ever: By one count I heard, total spending by candidates in the midterm elections was $4 billion, and the approximate cost of winning a seat in the US Senate rose to around $100 million.  Thanks to Supreme Court decisions in the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases, “outside” groups—i.e., nonparty, noncandidate—spent $1 billion in 2012 federal elections (Public Citizen News, September-October 2014).  We’ll soon find out how much more they spent in 2014.
  • Ideas don’t count; getting the other guys out of power is all that matters.
  • Negativity is always more potent than positivity.
  • For progressive policies to prevail, such as on the environment, guns, and human rights, the only real hope lies with voters in local elections and not in Washington.
  • Corporate-funded advertising and political contributions, unlimited under the law, are the biggest threat to the popular vote.
  • The corporate interest consistently trumps the public interest. Federal agencies charged with protecting the public—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Department of Justice (DoJ)—have all deferred to if not directly supported the largest corporations, financial institutions, and campaign funds on crucial public policy regulatory issues.  They have done so by failing to investigate, delaying rulings, suppressing or ignoring information, and voting against measures that favor ordinary citizens.
  • Divided government—the President belonging to one party, the two houses of Congress dominated by the other party—is a sure-fire recipe for gridlock because the so-called bipartisan spirit is a myth—except when it comes to military spending and war. Each side wants domination, not cooperation.
  • For a president to rule effectively with divided government, he must resort to executive directives rather than legislative approval—which is to say, to subterfuge rather than through established democratic processes.
  • The right to vote is not sacred after all. In states with conservative leadership, every trick will be tried to restrict the votes of minorities, and many restrictions will be upheld in conservative-dominated courts.

Is any credibility left in the American model?  Do people feel as embarrassed and angry as I feel about the depths to which US democracy has sunk?

Post #51 – Back to Basics on an Israeli-Palestinian Peace

The September 2014 issue of Harper’s carried a fascinating dialogue among eight prominent Israeli and Palestinian citizens on the future of their relationship.  It took place against the background of the Gaza war, but tried hard (not always successfully) to be forward-looking.  I thought that a summary of the principal observations, at least as I view them, would be of interest.

 

  • “We live so close to each other, yet we know so little about each other.”
  • There was a time not so long ago when Palestinians had freedom of movement, without checkpoints.
  • Economic, social, and other Israeli concessions divorced from steps to end the occupation will never be accepted by the Palestinians. Unless the occupation ends, either another round of armed struggle will occur or Islamists will become dominant among the Palestinian population, which would mean an even more violent future and an end to talk of a two-state solution.
  • As of November 2012, by vote in the UN General Assembly, a Palestinian state has international recognition. Now it is up to the state of Israel to abide by the will of most of the world’s governments.
  • Israeli Arabs may be a bridge to a new stage in relations. Their status and living standards must be improved, however.
  • Israel’s rightward shift under Netanyahu, making it an ethno-religious (“Jewish”) state, not only limits peacemaking opportunities with the Palestinians; it also is alienating many Israelis and forcing them to consider emigrating.
  • Joint Israeli-Palestinian projects, such as development of Gaza’s gas fields and establishment of industrial and high-tech zones, should be an important component of promoting mutual understanding. (As Thomas Friedman recently wrote, the key to a nonviolent future is “relationships of trust that create healthy interdependencies.”  Water is a particularly crucial subject for cooperation. Friedman cites EcoPeace Middle East, a group that is addressing water quality and international cooperation to keep a common waterway, the Jordan River, clean (nytimes.com/2014/10/26/opinion/sunday/thomas-l-friedman-the-last-train.html).  There are plenty of other joint projects, but we rarely hear of them.
  • Israelis and Palestinians cannot get past the divide between (as one participant put it) the important and the attainable. “The important” is ending the occupation: “Simply put,” said a Palestinian industrialist and former office holder, “for almost half a century we Palestinians have been living in a big prison. . . . One and a half million people locked in an area of 365 square kilometers.”  “The attainable” is relaxing restrictions on movement and seriously addressing Palestinian apartheid—the intolerable living and working conditions in Gaza.  (One recommended resource among several: Gideon Levy’s The Punishment of Gaza.)
  • The United States, despite its lengthy diplomatic involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and its major aid programs to both sides (though obviously lopsided in Israel’s favor), has not been especially helpful or even well-informed in bringing the two sides together. The US has failed to use the leverage it possesses, either with Israel to enforce a two-state solution or with Palestine to enforce recognition of and security assurances to Israel.

As I have proposed in previous posts on this issue (see #13, 14, 34), the human interest lies in cooperative security: joint Israeli-Palestinian recognition of their common right to the land; dramatic improvement in Palestinians’ quality of life; demilitarization of relations, and a shift of funding from weapons to programs and projects that promote Palestinian-Israeli cooperation and mutual understanding of their common future (see, for instance, activities under the Geneva Initiative at www.geneva-accord.org); and US support of these principles without constant deference to the position of either the Israeli government or its American backers.

 

 

 

 

Post #50 – The Lessons of Ebola

The battle against Ebola is in danger of being lost.  A top official of MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders), the lead NGO in West Africa with about 3,000 people on the ground, said on October 16 that the organization has “reached our ceiling” in resources and that the disease was outrunning the capacity to stop it.  “70 in 60” is the latest warning from doctors who have visited Liberia and Sierra Leone: Unless 70 percent of those infected are isolated and in treatment within 60 days from now, the number of new victims will increase exponentially—by as much as 5,000-10,000 every week come December.  But stopping the disease is extremely risky: More than half the healthcare workers in West Africa who contracted Ebola have died.

As we are all too aware, epidemics can devastate societies and set back their development for generations.  Malnutrition has stunted the physical and mental growth of a generation of North Korean children.  HIV-AIDS has done the same in parts of Africa.  We can expect the Ebola virus to have a similar long-term impact on Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.  Thus, it is entirely apt to speak of Ebola as an international security crisis.  Without a dramatic worldwide response, the disease is bound to spin out of control and, as President Obama noted, “will spread globally.”

The fundamental drivers of the Ebola virus are grinding poverty and lack of preventive measures.  Both factors were cited by the heads of the World Health Organization and MSF in recent statements. Years ago I recall reading a study of global poverty in which the author said the main reason poverty is so difficult to halt is poverty itself.  That may seem like a silly statement, but it really isn’t—and the Ebola crisis shows it.  Impoverished populations, such as those living in the three countries most afflicted by Ebola, lack the money, education, and health care resources to deal with disease.  (One of the best indicators of the poverty-to-health care relationship is the ratio of doctors to population, and in these three countries that ratio is tragically low.  So many of their doctors have, of course, fled to richer countries.)  When a health crisis, or any crisis, erupts, poor people are least able to fight it.  And their vulnerability is passed on to the next generation, and the next. Ebola “isn’t a natural disaster.  This is the terrorism of poverty,” said Dr. Paul Farmer, famed for his humanitarian work in Haiti and co-founder of Partners in Health.

To make matters worse, the major industrialized countries typically only act when the crisis crosses borders and threatens them, as we see happening today.  Big Pharm—the major pharmaceutical companies—doesn’t emphasize research and development of vaccines that the poor cannot pay for.

In short, the rich-poor gap matters when it comes to international action, as Dr. Margaret Chan of WHO said.  The Ebola crisis, she observed, demonstrates “the dangers of the world’s growing social and economic inequalities.”  “The rich get the best care.  The poor are left to die” (www.nytimes.com/2014/10/14/world/africa/ebola-virus-outbreak.html).

Climate change may also be a factor in epidemics and pandemics. A just-released Pentagon report argues that health crises are among the many potentially destabilizing consequences of climate change (see 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, www.acq.osd.mil/ie/download/CCARprint.pdf).  Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a one-time climate change denier, now regards climate change as an immediate security challenge.  Few specialists have suggested a link between climate change and Ebola.  But we know that some consequences of climate change—such as rising sea levels, hurricanes, tsunamis, and drought—do play an important role in large-scale health problems as well as major social disruptions and consequent political instability.  In a word, environmental and social stresses are interrelated, and when government proves unable or unwilling to deal with those stresses, you can pretty well count on a political upheaval.

HIV-AIDS, SARS, avian flu, H1N1, and now Ebola—the list of local health problems that become global health crises is getting longer.  One of these days, some bright and courageous national leader is going to announce that, as a matter of national and international security, a significant portion of her country’s military budget is going to be shifted to confront global problems such as health care, climate change, and migrant labor.  But making that shift requires adopting a new paradigm of global community.  A high-powered group of former US officials, NGO leaders, and politicians, called Managing Global Insecurity, said as much in 2008 when it urged the US to embrace the idea of responsible sovereignty:

” . . . the vision necessary for a 21st century international security system is clouded by a mismatch between existing post-World War II multilateral institutions premised on traditional sovereignty—a belief that borders are sacrosanct and an insistence on noninterference in domestic affairs—and the realities of a now transnational world where capital, technology, labor, disease, pollution and non-state actors traverse boundaries irrespective of the desires of sovereign states.  The domestic burdens inflicted by transnational threats such as poverty, civil war, disease and environmental degradation point in one direction: toward cooperation with global partners and a strengthening of international institutions.” (www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2008/11/11-action-plan-mgi)

          That critique points to a far greater investment by the richest countries than they are making now in WHO, in their own disease prevention and control organizations, and in health care in the poorest countries.  Unless and until that happens, new security threats such as Ebola will continue to be dealt with episodically, which means leaping from one crisis to the next without the all-out international effort of prevention and treatment that is essential.

Post #49 – “I’m Not a Scientist, But…”

The People’s Climate March in New York City and (so it was declared) in 155 other countries has come and gone. Climate change, unfortunately, parades on. While people marched—an estimated 400,000 of them in New York—diplomats gathered at the UN Climate Summit, prepared to do the absolute minimum in response to perhaps the most pressing international security issue we face. They didn’t disappoint.  No doubt the so-called climate deniers were delighted.  They are the people who used to say that climate change is a figment of the imagination, but now they have a new line: “I’m not a scientist” (see Dawn Stover’s article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 26, 2014, http://thebulletin.org).

I’m not a scientist either, but I don’t disregard scientific facts or pretend that bad news is someone else’s problem.  My blog posts #1 and #8 reported on the dire warnings we have had about climate change and related environmental threats.  Here is an update, with some good news to go with the bad, since those posts.

Climate Change

National Audubon Society scientists report that over roughly the next 70 years, more than half the bird species in North America will be forced from their usual habitats by climate change. Many species won’t make it.

From a Washington Post article of September 9: “Concentrations of nearly all the major greenhouse gases reached historic highs in 2013, reflecting ever-rising emissions from automobiles and smokestacks but also, scientists believe, a diminishing ability of the world’s oceans and plant life to soak up the excess carbon put into the atmosphere by humans,” according to the World Meterological Organization. One of its chief scientists said: “The changes we’re seeing are really drastic. We are seeing the growth rate rising exponentially.” The level of atmospheric carbon is now just about at its limit—400 parts per million—and when it exceeds that limit, as is expected in another two years, dramatic climate-induced changes are likely.

For an uplifting video of our beautiful planet, and what our children and their children stand to lose, take a look at www.upworthy.com/it-might-be-the-most-mind-boggling-photograph-humanity-has-ever-taken?c=upw1.

Fracking

“A problem dressed up as a solution,” one demonstrator said of fracking (hydraulic drilling or fracturing). The Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org), reporting on the Halliburton fracking site spill into a tributary of the Ohio River, points out that both the US and Ohio environmental protection agencies “had to wait five long days before they were given a full list of chemicals used” at the Halliburton site. In the meantime, Ohio residents downstream of the spill faced hazardous conditions and tens of thousands of fish died.  “More than 15 million Americans now live within one mile of a fracking site,” NRDC claims. (More on NRDC below.)

Meantime, a new study of the effects of hydraulic drilling on water supplies has found numerous additional organic and inorganic chemicals in the waste water that are dangerous to human health. While one of the study’s authors said the findings weren’t as bad as anticipated, they are certainly bad enough.  In fact, water treatment techniques now being used in fracking may actually worsen the problem because of the way bacteria interacts with the chemicals. (A summary of the study is in Andrew Revkin’s blog at http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/08/a-new-study-clarifies-treatment-needs-for-water-from-fracked-gas-and-oil-wells/?_php.)

People all across the Midwest who are living in the path of proposed pipelines are battling the companies that seek to lay pipelines on their land or take the rights by eminent domain.  For a compelling story from Pennsylvania, see Ann Neumann, “A Pipeline Threatens Our Family Land,” www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/opinion/sunday/a-pipeline-threatens-our-family-land.html.

Carbon Tax

Someone called it Australia’s “tobacco moment”: The Tony Abbott administration reverse course on a carbon tax. Abbott is the first national leader to nix the tax, arguing that he would never put Australian businesses, workers, and families at a disadvantage by taxing them. (Bravo for shortsightedness!) As one Australian newspaper writer put it, “A major reform, established in law and largely working, has been rescinded.” There are no longer necessary emission targets, no longer pressure on industry to reduce emissions (www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/tony-abbott-battles-the-future-by-axing-carbon-tax-20140710-zt2d2.html). So long as Abbott’s administration is populated with climate deniers, Australia is simply going to be out of step with Europe and even with his own (and the US) military. As Andrew Wit reports (“US Pacific Climate Change and Collaborative Security,” The Asia-Pacific Journal,August 25, 2014, at www.japanfocus.org), Australia’s armed forces, as well as the US Pacific Command, are moving ahead on the security challenges posed by global warming.  Leaving their countries’ domestic politics behind, these military leaders understand that increasing hurricanes, storms, rising sea levels, and floods will put added pressure on humanitarian and other missions.

Leaders elsewhere in Asia are planning national markets for carbon permit trading to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  China, which accounts for about 30 percent of global emissions, has five trial markets right now, and plans to start nationwide carbon permit trading in 2016. If China follows through, its carbon trade market would be the world’s largest—much larger than Europe’s.  Other Asian countries also operate or are planning carbon markets: Kazakhstan, New Zealand, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

While China is going to be relying on coal for a long time to come, the Obama administration is getting kudos for seeking to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants. In June, the administration proposed new pollution rules that would probably shut down a number of these plants. Decrying this “war on coal,” Republicans in the US Congress have launched an investigation into the NRDC’s influence over crafting of the proposal. (The charge is probably true, and thank heavens for that! For some reason, however, the Republicans don’t seem nearly as agitated over the Koch brothers’ ownership and financing of dirty coal and its central role in the “I’m no scientist” propaganda.)  A New York Times article on July 29 gives another perspective, however. US coal exports are nullifying gains in reducing carbon emissions. The administration’s rationale for supporting such exports is similar to the usual justification for weapons exports—the other guy is doing it, so we have to keep pace—and let US gains become another country’s loss.

Nuclear Energy

I recently attended a conference at The Australian National University in Canberra where several experts provided devastating critiques of nuclear energy’s relevance in Australia and Southeast East Asia.  While China moves ahead with ambitious nuclear energy plans, seemingly oblivious to the lessons of Fukushima and Chernobyl, other countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand, and probably Indonesia, have either rejected nuclear power or are strongly leaning in that direction. Contrary to the notion that the future of nuclear power is bright as climate change takes hold, these experts’ opinion is exactly the opposite.  Australia, in fact, is in the enviable position of being able to rely entirely on renewable energy sources in the not-too-distant future.  But that change of direction is going to have to await the removal of Tony Abbott as national leader.  He’s a coal guy, and feeding China’s coal habit is uppermost in his mind.

The costs and potentially devastating consequences of reliance on nuclear energy plants haven’t changed Japan’s course under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.  His Nuclear Regulatory Agency has certified the safety of two nuclear reactors, which mean they will come back on line when Abe gives the green light, probably in December. That decision should be understood as political, not scientific.  It ignores concerns about radiation leaks since the Fukushima meltdown. One piece of research that suggests what those leaks can mean over time is the effect on birds.  Prof. Tim Mousseau at the University of South Carolina is a renowned authority on this topic, having spent years monitoring the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on birds and other wildlife.  His troubling findings may be viewed on YouTube in a presentation before the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo (http://youtu.be/8IcTGUMwVtU).  Besides observing how radiation has caused deformities in birds, Mousseau also notes the deliberate distortion of evidence by a United Nations agency, whose supposedly expert investigation reported no such problems.

What Works Dept.

Paul Krugman’s September 19 New York Times op-ed, citing reports of the International Monetary Fund and the New Climate Economy Project, writes that simultaneously reducing greenhouse gases and maintaining economic growth are entirely possible  (www.nytimes.com/2014/09/19/opinion/paul-krugman-could-fighting-global-warming-be-cheap-and-free.html). And we don’t have to wait for an international agreement to move rapidly ahead.  A carbon tax or cap-and-trade is especially feasible now that solar power’s costs have come dramatically down.  The health care and productivity gains from reduced emissions will significantly offset supposed economic losses from new regulations.

Germany is not waiting for others: Its energy picture is now 30 percent reliant on renewables (twice the US rate).  German utility companies are taking a major hit as the cost of wind and solar power goes rapidly down, thanks in no small part to Chinese manufacturers of solar panels.  Power company executives, the New York Times reports, “are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans” (www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/science/earth/sun-and-wind-alter-german-landscape-leaving-utilities-behind.htm).   Take a look at the chart in that article: nuclear power is still very important in France and South Korea, coal in China, and natural gas in Russia and the US; but the wave of the future is hydro, solar, and biofuels.

Preserving coral reefs is another very serious problem: As we’ve known for some time, loss of coral in the Pacific and the Caribbean due to overfishing, runoff from land, something called “development,” and climate change are all responsible in some part.  But two writers report some good news (www.nytimes.com/2014/09/18/opinion/we-can-save-coral-reefs.html). Local actions (in Bermuda among other places) are saving much of the coral and making it resistant to climate change by preventing overfishing and excessive catering to tourism. Here again is a demonstration that we don’t have to await an international agreement in order to act.

 

 

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.

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