Thursday, June 28, 2007

Global weirding

Bizarre tales of climate change:
A good example of what Amory Lovins refers to as "global weirding."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bush: Blair's no poodle

From The Sun, George Bush explains his relationship with Tony Blair:
As for the pressure he's been under at home over Iraq, I ask him about it, try to buck him up as a friend . . . "Are you doing OK?" But the truth of the matter is each person carries their own burden.

I've heard he’s been called Bush’s poodle. He's bigger than that. This is just background noise, a distraction from big things.
The impact of Bush's denial reminds me of the following apocryphal story about Lyndon Johnson:
When Lyndon Johnson ran for Congress, legend says, he wanted to spread the rumor that his opponent was a pig-fucker. Johnson's campaign manager said, "Lyndon, you know he doesn't do that!" Johnson replied, "I know. I just want to make him deny it."
Sometimes the denial is worser than the accusation.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Rains in Pakistan kill 228, spark protests

Mass death in Karachi yesterday in the face of torrential rains. We can't know whether this storm was the result of global warming, but the key element of this story is in the details of how the deaths occur, and of the political conditions under which this takes place.

KARACHI, Pakistan - Collapsed houses and severed electrical cables killed at least 228 people after heavy rains and thunderstorms lashed Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi, an official said Sunday....

The country's economic hub, a dynamic but chaotic city with fragile infrastructure, frequently seethes with tension and street protests, some sparked by massive power outages. The atmosphere has been particularly tense since May 12, when political unrest left more than 40 people dead....

Most of the deaths were caused by collapsing homes but snapped power lines electrocuted at least 20 people people, Ahmed said.

Electricity was still disrupted in some neighborhoods Sunday. Residents angry after a night without power to run fans or air conditioners in the sweltering summer heat staged street protests, Karachi Mayor Mustafa Kamal said....

Reading the details of the story, we can see the way multiple systems under stress -- antinomian political movements, a wretched electrical grid, and generally awful urban infrastructure (and, we might add, massive political corruption) -- can be brought across a tipping point by an extreme weather event. Global warming will make these extreme weather events more common, precipitating political crisis in already-vulnerable places like Karachi.

Again, the takeaway is simple: the key headline impacts of climate change will not be weather events, but rather will be more general political crises.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Impact of climate change on Bangladesh

Good article on the incipient impact of climate change on Bangladesh. The article rightly underscores the open political anger expressed by Bangladeshi politicians about the fact that tens of millions of his countryfolk are likely to be displaced by climate change induced geographic changes, on account of polluting behavior by the rich on the far side of the earth.

What the article doesn't attempt to do is to think through what the second- and third-order effects of such a refugee crisis may be in a country that is already desperately poor, politically unstable, increasingly prone to Islamism, and all but completely bereft of any potentially palliative social services. Thinking through those second- and third-order impacts is what will really make your hair stand on end.

Oh, and did you know that there are more than 300,000 Bangladeshis living in the UK,
and that they "experience disproportionately high rates of unemployment, overcrowding, and certain types of health problems," making them increasingly susceptible to the appeal of Islamism?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Direct to Video: Al Qaeda's message to America

Azzam al-Amriki (an American-born Al Qaeda member) has risen to become the #3 spokesman for Al Qaeda when addressing Americans. He's just released a new video, which bears watching:

Also worth checking out is Michael Scheuer's trenchant analysis of what the video tells us about the scary savviness of Al Qaeda's media strategy.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Climate change as IR version of "passive aggressive"?

In the aftermath of the just-signed G8 agreement on restricting greenhouse gases -- a watered-down and ineffective-by-design agreement that Al Gore immediately labeled "a disgrace" -- Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Friday made a speech in which he described global warming as
a form of external aggression against Africa as the impact of the phenomenon is felt more acutely on the continent than elsewhere. "Africa used to suffer outside aggression in the past, the latest form of aggression is climate change," Museveni said after talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Our climate is very warm so if it becomes warmer we will suffer more, yet the people emitting these greenhouse gases are not ourselves, it is others," the long-standing Ugandan leader added.
In what sense is this a fair charge? Certainly it seems well accepted that if a company pours toxins into a river that it knows will poison those who live downstream, then that company is legally liable for the damage it does. The challenge with the climate change parallel is that even though the general effects of increasing greenhouse gases is well understood -- it leads to global warming and often radical changes in precipitation patterns -- its effects are both very long-term and very hard to disaggregate, at a local level, from stochastically natural variation in the weather. Over time, however, I believe that these charges will be made to stick. In the medium term, I believe the possibility for international class action cases (toxic torts) based on greenhouse gas emissions is hardly out of the range of conception.

I wonder, however, whether Museveni is wise to push this security angle. If in fact it is a matter of security, then it seems that the lesson of the Melian Dialogue is likely to apply: namely, that the strong will do what they can, while the weak will suffer what they must. The U.S. would be wise to adopt a security lens for understanding the threat of climate change, but for the likes of Uganda, building a legal strategy may make more sense.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

What we're reading: A Savage War of Peace

An amazing book, with some stunning insights in particular how the use of torture informs a struggle against an insurgency. Money:
From a purely intelligence point of view, experience teaches that more often than not the collating services are overwhelmed by a mountain of false information extorted from victims desperate to save themselves further agony. Also, it is bound to drive into the enemy camp the innocents who have wrongly been submitted to torture. As Camus declared: "torture has perhaps saved some at the expense of honour, by uncovering thirty bombs, but at the same time it has created fifty new terrorists who, operating in some other way in in another place, would cause the death of even more innocent people." Torture, one feels, is never warranted; one should never fight for a good cause with evil weapons. Again, says Camus, "it is better to suffer certain injustices than to commit them...."
And more:
One of the worst aspects of the admission of torture as an instrument is the wide train of corruption that invariably follows in its wake. In a submission to the "Safeguard Committee" of September 1957, [Paul] Teitgen [head of the Algiers police and himself a Dachau survivor] wrote words that would apply equally to any latter-day authoritarian regime, whether it be Greece, Chile, Spain or the Soviet Union:
Even a legitimate action... can nevertheless lead to improvisations and excesses. Very rapidly, if this is not remedied, efficacity becomes the sole justification. In default of a legal basis, it seeks to justify itself at any price, and, with a certain bad conscience, it demands the privilege of exceptional legitimacy. In the name of efficacity, illegality has become justified.
In a civilised society, torture has no more counter-productive and insidious long-term effect than the way it tends to demoralise the inflicter even more than his victim.
From Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace, Algeria 1954-1962, p. 205, 206.

Supposedly Bush has read this book. I wonder what he thought when he read that passage.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

DHS tells NYC to prepare for major hurricane

New York, get ready:
Weather experts have said the nation's largest city is about due for a major hurricane with 130 mph winds and a 30-foot storm surge that could cause the Hudson and East Rivers to overflow.

The storm threatens to inflict more than $100 billion in economic losses while forcing the evacuation of 3 million people — more than six times the population of pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Whale caught in May hunted in 1890

From the Associated Press:
BOSTON — A 50-ton bowhead whale caught off the Alaskan coast last month had a weapon fragment embedded in its neck that showed it survived a similar hunt — more than a century ago.

Embedded deep under its blubber was a 3 1/2 -inch arrow-shaped projectile that has given researchers insight into the whale's age, estimated at 115 to 130 years old.

"No other finding has been this precise," said John Bockstoce, an adjunct curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Calculating a whale's age can be difficult and is usually gauged by amino acids in the eye lenses. It's rare to find one that has lived more than a century, but experts say the oldest were close to 200 years old.

The bomb lance fragment, lodged in a bone between the whale's neck and shoulder blade, was probably manufactured in New Bedford, on the southeast coast of Massachusetts, a major whaling center at that time, Bockstoce said.

It was probably shot at the whale from a heavy shoulder gun around 1890. The small metal cylinder was filled with explosives fitted with a time-delay fuse so it would explode seconds after it was shot into the whale. The bomb lance was meant to kill the whale immediately and prevent it from escaping.

The device exploded and probably injured the whale, Bockstoce said.

"It probably hurt the whale, or annoyed him, but it hit him in a nonlethal place," he said. "He couldn't have been that bothered if he lived for another 100 years."

The whale hearkens to a far different era. If 130 years old, it would have been born in 1877, the year Rutherford B. Hayes was sworn in as president, when federal Reconstruction troops withdrew from the South and when Thomas Edison unveiled his newest invention, the phonograph.

The 49-foot male whale died when it was shot with a similar projectile last month, and the older device was found as hunters carved it with a chain saw for harvesting.

"It's unusual to find old things like that in whales, and I knew immediately that it was quite old by its shape," said Craig George, a biologist for the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, who was called to the site after it was found.

Bockstoce said he was impressed by notches carved into the head of the arrow used in the 19th century hunt, a traditional way for Alaskan hunters to indicate ownership of the whale.

Whaling has always been a prominent source of food for Alaskans and is monitored by the International Whaling Commission.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island

Vulcan point in Crater Lake on Vulcano Island in Lake Taal on Luzon (PHI)


Quote of the day: Burke

"A great empire and little minds go ill together."
- Edmund Burke, On Conciliation with America, 1775

Monday, June 11, 2007

Carbon trading market may collapse

One reason why it is imperative to start planning for how to deal with the worst possible effects of global warming is that there is a very significant possibility that no greenhouse gas mitigation will take place, and we will end up in an extremely high GHG world. One reason we should start planning for this outcome is that the current leading global abatement mechanisms, rooted in the Kyoto Accord, seem on the verge of a catastrophic implosion.

The devil is in the details, but the short version of the story is that the "carbon trading market," which currently involves corporations trading "carbon offsets" to the tune of over $50B a year, is beset by suspicions that many of the carbon reductions that these corporations are supposedly paying for are not taking place, because of fraud, mismanagement, and lack of oversight. An investigation by the Financial Times a couple of months ago revealed:
  • Widespread instances of people and organisations buying worthless credits that do not yield any reductions in carbon emissions.
  • Industrial companies profiting from doing very little – or from gaining carbon credits on the basis of efficiency gains from which they have already benefited substantially.
  • Brokers providing services of questionable or no value.
  • A shortage of verification, making it difficult for buyers to assess the true value of carbon credits.
  • Companies and individuals being charged over the odds for the private purchase of European Union carbon permits that have plummeted in value because they do not result in emissions cuts.
In theory, the idea behind the carbon market is that it is more cost effective and economically rational shut down the most polluting sources first. In principle, a liquid market in carbon credits will allow the world to shut down GHG polluters in order of inefficiency, which generally means that gross polluters in third world countries are often selling their "offsets" to first world corporations. To put it schematically, the market is designed to allow a company like HSBC or Google, say, to pay some Chinese coal-fired power plant to shut down in exchange they can continue to pollute. The reasoning is that it costs the global economy less to shut down a superannuated Chinese power plant than it does to shut down a major Western bank.

All of this works only if there is a legitimate, liquid, and nonfraudulent global market. But these conditions, alas, do not hold. To put the matter graphically, what seems to be happening is that the companies that are selling the offset are simply pocketing the money from the market and then continuing to pollute along their merry way. This in essence amounts to a giant defrauding of the environmental goodwill of generally first world (especially European) companies by generally third world companies, with a willfully blind eye being turned by the governments in these latter countries.

What this means is that not only is GHG abatement not being effectuated by the market, but also, concomitantly, that the credibility of the carbon market itself may well soon collapse. Just imagine the political fallout as it emerges that European companies have paid billions to Chinese and Indian companies, which have simply pocketed the money without abating a thing. The bottom line is that, absent an effective apparatus for global governance and enforcement -- something ideologically opposed by the libertarian right in the United States, and by nationalists in most countries -- the chances for an effective market in emissions abatement seems vanishingly unlikely to emerge.

(It's worth noting that it's not clear that the central government of China, which appears to be the guiltiest country, actually has the authority to prevent the fraudulent behavior of the companies that are selling the credits. Local party bosses in the provinces are largely masters of their domain, and if they are tolerating this kind of fraudulent behavior on the part of their region factories -- many of which they have personal stakes in -- it's not clear that Beijing has either the appetite or the capacity to force them to change. Another reason why planning for the worst is the safest thing to do.)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Stunning report on prewar intelligence

One of the great myths of the Iraq war is that responsibility for the catastrophe is somehow attributable to the failures of the intelligence community. Some of this is fair: the war was sold to the American public largely on the back of CIA Director George "Slamdunk" Tenet's willingness to allow the Bush regime to publicly misrepresent the community's assessment of the likelihood that Saddam has WMDs. And without that sales job, there might have been no war.

But the real story about intelligence and the war is how much the intelligence community has gotten things right. That elemental rightness explains why there has been a running war between the White House and Langley for much of the past four years. On the one hand, the White House has waged an overt and public campaign to pin the political blame for the Iraq catastrophe on the intelligence community. The White House has been able to largely get away with this political misrepresentation because the classified status of the intelligence reports has made it hard for reporters or anyone else to challenge the White House's claims about the content of these reports. On the other hand, the intelligence community and some (presumably Democratic) members of Congress have fired back by leaking the intelligence reports showing that they did tell the President that there was scant evidence that Saddam had WMDs, that there was no evidence that he had operational connections to Al Qaeda, and that any attempt at replacing the Iraqi dictatorship would be fraught with difficulties, and likely to create enormous new problems.

The latest sortie in this battle has just taken place, and it takes the form of a devastating new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee which gives the lie to to the oft-heard claims that the Iraq catastrophe was either (1) unanticipated and unanticipatable and/or (b) simply the result of poor execution by the Bush administration. The Senate report summarizes the pre-war intelligence reports issued by the intelligence agencies -- notably two still-classified reports by National Intelligence Council, which is the umbrella organization responsible for synthesizing intelligence estimates from across the Intelligence Community -- concerning what the intelligence community believed would be the likely consequences of invading Iraq. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee report, the major prewar conclusions of the community (and I quote):
  • Democracy: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that establishing a stable democratic government in Iraq would be a long, difficult and probably turbulent challenge.
  • Terrorism: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that al Qaida would probably see an opportunity to accelerate its operational tempo and increase terrorist attacks during and after a US-Iraq War
  • Terrorism: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that a heightened terrorist threat resulting from a war with Iraq, after an initial spike, would probably decline slowly over the subsequent 3-5 years.
  • Domestic instability: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that Iraq was a deeply divided society that would likely engage in violent conflict unless the occupying power prevented it.
  • Political Islam: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that the United States' defeat and occupation of Iraq would result in a surge of Political Islam and funding for terrorist groups.
  • The influence of Saddam's neighbors: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that Iraq's neighbors would jockey for influence in Iraq, with activities ranging from humanitarian reconstruction assistance to fomenting strife among Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups.
  • The influence of Saddam's neighbors: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that Iranian leaders would try to influence the shape of post-Saddam Iraq to preserve Iranian security and to demonstrate that Iran is an important regional actor.
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that military action to eliminate Iraqi WMD would not cause other regional states to abandon their WMD programs, or their desire to develop such programs.
  • Security: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that the Iraqi government would have to walk a fine line between dismantling the worst aspects of Saddam's police, security, and intelligence forces and retaining the capacity to enforce nationwide peace.
  • Oil: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that Iraq's large petroleum resources would make reconstruction a less difficult challenge than political transformation, but that postwar Iraq would nonetheless face significant economic challenges
  • Humanitarian Issues: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that major outside assistance would be needed to meet humanitarian needs.
  • Infrastructure: The Intelligence Community assessed prior to the war that major outside assistance would be needed to rebuild Iraq's water and sanitation infrastructure.
Every one of those claims is detailed at copious length, with lots of footnotes. Moreover, with the partial exception of the comment on oil (which did not anticipate the insurgency's ability to be able to indefinitely cripple oil production capabilities), every one of these assessments was spot-on.

There was an intelligence failure, all right. But it took place in the Oval Office, not in the three-letter agencies.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Andrew Bacevich, reflecting on his son's death in Iraq

Andrew Bacevich, the esteemed military theorist, recently has endured the death of his son, a U.S. soldier in Iraq. He writes movingly of what this means, politically:

Money buys access and influence. Money greases the process that will yield us a new president in 2008. When it comes to Iraq, money ensures that the concerns of big business, big oil, bellicose evangelicals and Middle East allies gain a hearing. By comparison, the lives of U.S. soldiers figure as an afterthought.

Memorial Day orators will say that a G.I.'s life is priceless. Don't believe it. I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a soldier's life: I've been handed the check. It's roughly what the Yankees will pay Roger Clemens per inning once he starts pitching next month.

Money maintains the Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized politics. It confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn channels. It preserves intact the cliches of 1933-45 about isolationism, appeasement and the nation's call to "global leadership." It inhibits any serious accounting of exactly how much our misadventure in Iraq is costing. It ignores completely the question of who actually pays. It negates democracy, rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent.

This is not some great conspiracy. It's the way our system works.