Friday, March 23, 2007

What right-wing Dems are guilty of

This line pretty much captures exactly the problem I have with Tom Friedman and all the other Dems who tried to make nice-nice with Bush in his first term:
Centrist pundits'... past wrongness is partly responsible for our current state of affairs, [in] that they successfully marginalized early liberal anti-Bush voices as extreme while simultaneously blinding themselves to the genuine extremism of the party running the entire Federal government, thus helping land us in the current mess.
The point is that these centrists have shown incredibly poor judgment, both in the domestic politics of trying to compromise with the Bushies, who played them like fiddles, and in the policy arena, where they have played the role of enablers in the worst policy debacles of the past forty years. These are the people Carville and Begala are referring to when they say that the problem with the Democrats "is not ideological, it's anatomical. We lack a backbone."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

State GDPs in transnational perspective

A map of each U.S. state's economic output equated to another country's GDP:I don't know whether the data is accurate, but it looks about right.

Hat tip: NF, via Big Picture, via Carl Størmer.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Israel's sincere desire for peace

Joseph Massad provides food for thought on Israel's desire for peace with its Arab neighbors:
Israel's struggle for peace is a sincere one. In fact, Israel desires to live at peace not only with its neighbours, but also and especially with its own Palestinian population, and with Palestinians whose lands its military occupies by force. Israel's desire for peace is not only rhetorical but also substantive and deeply psychological. With few exceptions, prominent Zionist leaders since the inception of colonial Zionism have desired to establish peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs whose lands they slated for colonisation and settlement. The only thing Israel has asked for, and continues to ask for in order to end the state of war with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours, is that all recognise its right to be a racist state that discriminates by law against Palestinians and other Arabs and grants differential legal rights and privileges to its own Jewish citizens and to all other Jews anywhere. The resistance that the Palestinian people and other Arabs have launched against Israel's right to be a racist state is what continues to stand between Israel and the peace for which it has struggled and to which it has been committed for decades. Indeed, this resistance is nothing less than the "New anti- Semitism".
Actually, what Israel practices is not racism, but religion-ism. It's as if the United States were defined as a Protestant country, and had laws and practices that dictated that anyone who is not a Protestant could not be a full citizen of the country.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The sound of the Right in collapse

The National Association of Evangelicals, representing roughly 45,000 churches across the U.S., condemns the Bush regime's torture policy:
As American Christians, we are above all motivated by a desire that our nation's actions would be consistent with foundational Christian moral norms. We believe that a scrupulous commitment to human rights, among which is the right not to be tortured, is one of these Christian moral convictions.
About time. As predicted on this site years ago, the Iraq War is doing to American conservatism what Vietnam did to American liberalism.

Climate Change Certainty = Waiting for Godot

One of the key themes of our recent climate change report is that one must act even in the face of inevitable uncertainty. Part of the reason for the impasse over climate change is that climate change is among the most fiendishly complex scientific subjects, and one that for that very reason is very difficult to make statements about with "scientific certainty." But the standard for policy-makers cannot be the same as the standard for scientists; policy-makers need to act on the basis of the best evidence available, weighing the possible consequences of action against the risks of inaction. Decision-making of this sort is by nature an art, not a science -- hence the tendency of scientists and policy-makers to talk past each other on climate change.

Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, makes exactly this point, referencing our report:

Uncertainty about the details of global warming shouldn't make us feel less alarmed -- the more uncertainty there is about our climactic future the more alarmed we should become.... The less we understand the precise consequences of messing with the concentrations of greenhouse gasses, the more careful we should be to minimize such changes. If we knew exactly what the weather would be like in 50 years, maybe we could get ready for it -- but not knowing anything except that the weather will be less predictable is what's really scary.

Peter Schwartz of the Global Business Network makes exactly this point in his new study for the military, "Impacts of Climate Change." Schwartz points out that it is the unpredictable and non-linear impact of climate change that will "push systems everywhere towards their tipping point." Schwartz's piece is one of the very best I've seen at explaining how policy makers and the public need to respond to the scientific reality. Every public official should have to read it.

Climate scientists might not understand this because they study the climate, not human societies.... We should be ferociously intent on changing our course before we hit the tipping point, precisely because it is hidden in a fog of uncertainty.

Hat tip: DB.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


In another entry for our Wonkette imitation day, apparently they had a little mishap down at the NBC affiliate in Phoenix:

A cable news program was temporarily replaced with hard-core pornography, shocking viewers who had been watching a health show featuring former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw.

The incident on KPPX-TV was "an act of human sabotage" at the Phoenix-area station, said Ion Television, which operates the station.

"We have launched a rigorous investigation, and any implicated employees will face strict disciplinary action and termination," spokeswoman Leslie Monreal said.

Hat tip: MR.

You Can't Make This Up, Dept.

From the Washington Post:
Tsuriel Raphael, Israel's ambassador to El Salvador, was yanked after local police found him in the embassy yard "naked, bound and drunk." According to reports, a number of sexual toys and devices surrounded the "longtime" envoy who informed police of his identity after they removed a ball-gag from his mouth.
Update: More from the UK Guardian, which says the incident raises issues of "transparency in recruitment and promotion procedures" for the Israeli foreign ministry:

As an Israeli ambassador, Tsuriel Raphael was accomplished at putting a gloss on delicate subjects, be it Tel Aviv's nuclear programme, the treatment of Palestinians or the invasion of Lebanon. When San Salvador police discovered him in his official embassy residence yard in the capital San Salvador, however, smooth talk was not really an option. For starters there was the gag and the rubber ball in his mouth. There was also the matter of being drunk. And naked. And bound. And surrounded by sex toys. Once he was untied and the gag and ball were removed Mr Raphael identified himself as the ambassador but for perhaps the first time in his diplomatic career, this was a crisis he could not explain away.

The ambassador did not break any law so for the Salvadorean police the case is closed.

What went wrong in Iraq

What about our strategy in Iraq was problematic? Matthew Parris has the answer:

The strategy failed because of one big, bad idea at its very root. [Namely, the neocons'] idea that we kick the door in. Everything has flowed from that.

We were not invited. We had no mandate. There were no "good" Iraqis to hand over to. We had nothing to latch on to, no legitimacy. It wasn't a question of being tactful, respectful, munificent, or handing sweets to children. We were impostors, and that is all.

Read the whole thing, which goes on to eviscerate all the excuses the neocons now make.

Some wars you're just going to lose, regardless of the brilliance of your strategy. Postcolonial wars of occupation, without an exception I can think of, all fall into that category.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The right way to think about climate impacts

My last post mentioned the problems with The Atlantic's approach to climate change, which started from a set of (simplified) predictions about the future of the weather, and thus reached startlingly wrong-headed conclusions about the likely winners and losers from those changes. By contrast, the current issue of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization offers a much more useful approach, rooted in this case in an examination of climate-vulnerable public health systems, and then trying to reason as to how those systems might react (or fail to do so) to the challenge of climate change. Note in particular the way that the interaction effects between different vital systems are linked together (highlighted):

Some essential principles are already clear. A global problem requires a strategy of international dimensions that can translate into regional and local actions. Just as climate change's underlying causes are global, its health implications do not respect national boundaries. Impacts in one location, such as infectious disease epidemics or population displacements caused by droughts or rising sea levels, quickly spread across national borders. Coordinated investments in preventive measures therefore contribute to the "global public good" of reducing the risk of health emergencies. The challenge is simplified somewhat by the fact that climate change is expected to lead mainly to changes in existing health issues rather than to the emergence of new and unfamiliar diseases....

One emerging environmental health threat is the decline in global freshwater resources, caused mainly by increasing rates of water extraction and contamination. Climate change is expected to worsen this decline in water quality and quantity, particularly in already dry regions such as the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa. Scaling up water and sanitation services and providing point-of-use disinfection would reduce the current burden of disease and ameliorate the health impacts of decreasing water supplies. Such interventions already have a very high cost–benefit ratio; the threat of climate change makes these preventive health measures an even wiser investment. As water stresses intensify, governments could protect health by strengthening and enforcing their regulatory frameworks to ensure the safe use of new water sources that will become increasingly important: wastewater, excreta and greywater in agriculture and aquaculture....

Many climatic risks to health lie at least partly outside the health sector’s normal sphere of action. Perhaps most critically, climate change has the capacity to suppress agricultural yields, with the greatest risks in Africa, where malnutrition is already the largest single contributor to disease burdens. Some of the most effective actions by health professionals may therefore involve supporting other sectors’ efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

It's all about the vital systems, all of which are interconnected in a series of overdetermined feedback loops.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The wrong way to think about climate change impact

An excellent example of the wrong way to think about the future of climate change appears on the cover of this month's Atlantic. Gregg Easterbrook addresses the important topic of who will be the winners and losers in climate change. But his approach to answering that question goes dramatically astray because of a basic methodological flaw: he starts his impact analysis by looking at the change to the weather (which he reduces to "warmer everywhere," ignoring regional variations and the perhaps even more important hydrological shifts that climate change will produce), thereby ignoring the crucial question of which places are in the best position to adapt to the changes in the weather. He simply assumes that all places are equally well positioned to respond to increases in temperature, concluding that places that are already really hot are going to be in trouble, whereas places that are currently cold are going to be better off.

The point is clearest in his discussion of how climate change may impact the price of Russian real estate:

Russia! For generations poets have bemoaned this realm as cursed by enormous, foreboding, harsh Siberia. What if the region in question were instead enormous, temperate, inviting Siberia? Climate change could place Russia in possession of the largest new region of pristine, exploitable land since the sailing ships of Europe first spied the shores of what would be called North America. The snows of Siberia cover soils that have never been depleted by controlled agriculture. What’s more, beneath Siberia’s snow may lie geologic formations that hold vast deposits of fossil fuels, as well as mineral resources. When considering ratification of the Kyoto Protocol to regulate greenhouse gases, the Moscow government dragged its feet, though the treaty was worded to offer the Russians extensive favors. Why might this have happened? Perhaps because Russia might be much better off in a warming world: Warming’s benefits to Russia could exceed those to all other nations combined.

This is a classic statement of linear reasoning about the impact of climate change: Russia's problem is that it's too cold; ergo, in a hotter world, Russia becomes a nicer place. It's also a dramatically wrong conclusion.

The main determinant of the price of real estate is whether the property is located in a place that is nice to live, to vacation, to extract resources, or to farm. A huge determining factor for that "niceness" is whether the place has effective and reliable vital systems -- e.g., energy generation and distribution; telecommunications; water supply; food production and distribution; public health; transportation systems (fuel supply, railway network, airports); and security services (police, military). All of these vital systems are liable to be put under severe stress by climate change. To determine which places are likely to win or lose as the climate changes, you need to start by figuring out the places that have the most resilient vital systems.

Although Russian elites may find it convenient, given their grand strategy of wielding influence by controlling global hydrocarbon supply, to tell themselves that a warmer Russia is a better Russia, the sad truth is that climate change is likely to be disastrous for the country, given the awful state of many of its vital systems. Food production and distribution is tenuous, public security is awful, and the health care system has already cratered. Do you really think a place like that is likely to be the site of a great property boom? Is a Siberian steppe which is again a malarial swamp going to be a good place to buy real estate? Is a place where the rich can't walk down the street without a bodyguard really going to replace St.Tropez as a destination of choice? Is a place where the aquifers have been destroyed likely to be the world's next great breadbasket?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

British may bring climate change to Security Council

A spot of good news that people are waking up to the real seriousness of the climate change problem:

The British government is considering putting climate change on to the agenda of the UN security council for the first time to underline the urgency of the issue.... Global warming has thus far been considered outside the remit of the council, which is mandated under the UN charter to maintain "international peace and security".

The British government - led by key figures including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Miliband - has come to the view that it is a matter of international security as it will cause mass migrations and aggravate disputes over borders, water and other resources.

The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, raised what she called climate security in her speech to the UN general assembly in September. "Our climate presents us with an ever-growing threat to international security. Dealing with climate change is no longer a choice, it is an imperative," she said.

A report commissioned by the US government warned at the weekend that the US must prepare to intervene in a growing number of major crises across the world brought on by climate change, such as water shortages, collapses in civil order and "the implosion of one or more major cities".

Unrestrained greenhouse gas emissions and the expected temperature rise over the coming decades could provoke social unrest in vulnerable places from Delhi and Mexico City to Lima, said the report by Global Business Network (GBN), a consultancy group in San Francisco.

It said action may be needed soon to "forestall the worst effects of collapsing ecosystems, water systems, or radical restructuring of the global insurance industry" and warned that US policies on global warming could threaten its strategic interests abroad and weaken its bargaining power on key issues such as trade and security.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Systems vulnerability

The central argument of the climate change paper we released today is that the right place to start an analysis of where climate change is going to hit hardest is by looking not at the places where climate will change most or fastest, but rather by looking at the places where vital systems are already stressed. These are the places where even a small amount climate change can potentially precipitate a collapse of the economy, the public health system, civil order, or all of the above. By contrast, places with resilient vital systems are likely to be able to accommodate mild change and even quite drastic change.

Consider the contrast between the Netherlands and Bangladesh. Here are two countries that, on the face of the climate evidence alone, would seem equally vulnerable to climate change: both are densely populated countries, at or below sea level, and at risk of violent storms. Yet Bangladesh is far more vulnerable to climate change, and the results of climate change, as they unfold, are likely to be much more dramatic there than in the Netherlands. How do we know that? We know not because the climate science has improved dramatically in its ability to forecast regional impacts of climate change in South Asia versus Northwest Europe. Rather, we know this because we know that the Netherlands's various vital systems -- communications infrastructure, public health system, water delivery system, food supply system, transportation infrastructure, public security, and so on -- are in much better shape than Bangladesh's. Although an acute, climate-change-driven weather event may impact any one of those systems in either country (and you can't predict exactly when or how that will happen), Bangladesh with its many stressed vital systems, is far more likely than the Netherlands to experience not only the failure of a single vital system, but also a cascading series of failures across vital systems. And we know this not by looking at the climate science, but by looking at the social science.

When Peter says that 60 to 100 million people may be displaced in the Bangladesh, he's not kidding. Check out this image from the LA Times:And the line on that map represents merely the place where the new permanent shoreline will be. Keep in mind that the water level will be far further inland during a big storm surge. When some Katrina-style typhoon roars in from the Bay of Bengal, the amount of land under water will be vastly greater. This is why Peter's estimation is not only not exaggerated, it's almost inevitably going to happen.

The next step is to imagine what a displacement of 60m people looks like. What kind of a humanitarian mission gets mounted? Where do the refugees go? Do the Indians let them in? Do they stay? How does the worldwide Muslim community react to the crisis? This is why a publication as sober as The Economist labels climate change one of the three greatest security challenges of the 21st century, alongside terrorism and failed states.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Climate Change

I try to avoid self-promotion on this site (inasmuch as blogging ever avoids such). But I am nonetheless proud to announce that the results of a project I led last fall on how to think more clearly about the impact of climate change are finally seeing the light of day, and in the Washington Post, no less:

The scientific debate about whether there is a global warming problem is pretty much over. A leading international group of climate scientists reported last month that the evidence for global warming is "unequivocal" and that the likelihood it is caused by humans is more than 90 percent. Skeptical researchers will continue to question the data, but this isn't a "call both sides for comment" issue anymore. For mainstream science, it's settled.

The question now is what to do about global warming. This is a political problem more than a scientific one. The solutions (if we can agree on any) will require political will and imagination -- and also pain. That was my only reservation about the Oscar night celebration of Al Gore's leadership on this issue. The gowns and black ties and the celebrity back-slapping made it look like dealing with global warming will be fun, a walk down the red carpet. But it's more likely to be about catastrophe and how to share the pain.

These issues come into focus in a startling new report by futurist Peter Schwartz. He turns the usual discussions upside down: Rather than starting with detailed estimates of climate change (how much temperatures will increase; how much sea levels will rise; what new diseases will be spawned), he looks instead at systems that already are vulnerable to such stresses.

What Schwartz discovers with his stress-testing makes climate change even scarier: The world already is precarious; the networks that maintain political and social order already are fragile, especially in urban areas; the dividing line between civilized life and anarchy is frighteningly easy to breach, as the daily news from Iraq reminds us. We look at the behaviors of butterflies and migratory birds as harbingers of climate change. But what about early effects on human beings? "The steady escalation of climate pressure will stretch the resiliency of natural and human systems," writes Schwartz. "In short, climate change pushes systems everywhere toward their tipping point."

Schwartz's report, "Impacts of Climate Change," was prepared by his consulting group, Global Business Network, for a U.S. government intelligence agency he doesn't identify. The text of the report is available at the online discussion forum PostGlobal ( Here's a brief trek through the ravaged landscape Schwartz describes.

A first set of disasters waiting to happen involves stressed ecosystems. Human actions -- deforestation, overfarming, rapid urbanization -- have created special vulnerabilities to catastrophic natural events that are likely as the climate changes globally. In an interview, Schwartz cited the example of Haiti, which because of deforestation and loss of topsoil is "an ecosystem at the edge." A prolonged drought or a devastating hurricane could tip Haiti over that threshold -- and produce a refugee crisis of tens of thousands of boat people fleeing a devastated country.

Or take the problem of rising sea levels: Climate scientists are uncertain how fast the icecaps will melt and the seas will rise. But in Bangladesh, where millions of people live at or near sea level, even a small increase could produce a catastrophe. In a severe monsoon, 60 million to 100 million people could be forced to flee inundated areas, Schwartz warns, producing "the single greatest humanitarian crisis we have ever seen."

Lack of water may be as big a problem as flooding. Schwartz notes that more than 700 million people now live in arid or semi-arid areas. Climate change could tip this balance, too, producing severe water shortages and even "water wars." Tens of millions of people may become water migrants. The world's feeble political systems can't cope with existing migration patterns, let alone this human tide.

And finally, there is the problem of maintaining social order in a stressed world. You don't have to go to Baghdad to see how quickly the social fabric can be shredded; just look at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The stresses come in part from rapid urbanization. Schwartz notes that in 1900, one in 20 people lived in cities; today it's about half, and the percentage is rising fast. Without strong and supple governments, this could become a world of vigilantes and militias, desperate to control scarce resources.

The big problems in life aren't the ones that hit you by surprise but the ones you can see coming. That's surely the case with climate change: We can measure it, we can imagine its catastrophic effects. But can we do anything to stop it? If we let ourselves visualize how bad it could get, as Schwartz does in this report, will we make changes that might reduce the disaster? That's the real stress test: It's coming at us. What are we doing about it?

Thank you Peter, Stewart, Doug, Derek, Rebecca, Nancy, and above all, the many brilliant people we interviewed on this project.