Friday, November 30, 2007

Climate Change & Human Development

The United Nations has just issued its annual Human Development Report. This one deals with the impact of climate change on human development (answer: somewhere between "really bad" and "utterly catastrophic").

I haven't read the report in detail, but the key takeaway seems to be that the authors insist that the technological and economic capacity to head off the worst of climate change's negative human impacts already exists, but that deploying this capacity will only take place if people in rich countries reflect more on "social justice and human rights across countries and generations," and commit themselves to "collective action based on shared values and a shared vision."

If that's what it's going to take to prevent the worst from happening, then I'm afraid the worst is bound to happen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Seeing Bangladesh's future in Sidr's aftermath

The New York Times has a revealing piece today about the impact of Supercyclone Sidr on Bangladesh. The death toll currently stands at 3500, and is likely to rise to perhaps 10,000 -- worse than 9/11, but relative progress compared to the impact of past storms of this size in Bangladesh, such as the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, which killed upwards of half a million people, or Cyclone Gorky, which in 1991 claimed some 140,000 lives.

The fact that the immediate death toll from Sidr is an order of magnitude less than similar typhoons from the past is a testament to the effectiveness of an early warning system that has been installed, and the improved communications infrastructure throughout Bangladesh. (For example, mass text messages over cell phones warned seaside villagers to flee days in advance of the storm.)

As much as this improved warning system is to be appreciated, it does nothing to alter the calamitous underlying trend facing Bangladesh; that is: an exploding population in dire poverty in one of the most storm-vulnerable places on earth. While people are not dying in immediate droves, the economic catastrophe of the storm is worse than ever. Global warming is eroding the massive Gangeatic delta that Bangladesh straddles, and is increasing the force and perhaps likelihood of storms.

Here, in other words, is Bangladesh's future: it will receive better early warnings about threats that it can do nothing to avoid. People will pile into shelters, but how do they pick up the pieces? By 2040, the 200,000,000 Bangladeshis may become the object of a more or less continuous relief operation. The concept of "development" under these circumstances becomes something of a joke in poor taste.

Monday, November 19, 2007

No End in Sight

Last night I watched "No End in Sight," the infuriating documentary about the catastrophe in Iraq. It's an infuriating movie at two levels, one intentional, the other not.

The intentionally infuriating aspect of the movie has to do with the central narrative, which focuses in particular on the Bush regime's complete lack of planning for the postwar situation in Iraq, and on the decisions that were made, especially by Paul Bremer and his cronies, in the early days after the fall of Baghdad. What comes across quite clearly is that the planning of the postwar was non-existent, beginning with the fateful decision not to use nearly enough troops. General Eric Shinseki, who had extensive experience from the Balkans in dealing with occupation and reconstruction efforts, was fired by Donald Rumsfeld for suggesting that it would take "several hundred thousand" troops to secure the country. With not enough troops in the country, the United States did nothing to stop the complete collapse of order in the wake of Saddam's ouster, immediately destroying US credibility as a liberator. Worst of all, the decisions to engage in radical de-baathification, which destroyed Iraq's civil service at a stroke, and to disband the Iraqi army, which immediately ended the employment of half a million armed and angry men, were made by unilaterally by Bremer (perhaps in consultation with Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, though apparently not with Bush), without any consultation with local Iraqis, with Americans in Iraq, or with anyone who knew anything at all about occupation and reconstruction efforts. The movie argues, in effect, that these decisions precipitated the catastrophe that Iraq has become. What's most galling is not the moral anguish of those who tried to avoid these mistakes, but rather the complete insouciance of those who did make the decisions, who apparently feel not an ounce of remorse.

The unintentionally infuriating part of "No End in Sight," however, is that it subtly perpetuates the dominant narrative of what we might call the McCain-Clinton consensus on Iraq. This consensus holds that the problems the United States faces in Iraq are entirely the result of execution errors by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. This is the narrative that Hillary Clinton in particular has promoted (as did Kerry in 2004), since it is the only one that can justify her war authorization vote in 2002 on substantive grounds. "Yes Iraq is a catastrophe," she and others who participate in this consensus argue, "but it didn't need to have turned out that way!" While such a rationalization may be politically convenient for presidential candidates who seek the nomination of a party that has turned against this war, it is catastrophically wrong. In fact, as David Halberstam observed posthumously in the August issue of Vanity Fair:
It is hard for me to believe that anyone who knew anything about Vietnam, or for that matter the Algerian war, which directly followed Indochina for the French, couldn't see that going into Iraq was, in effect, punching our fist into the largest hornet's nest in the world. As in Vietnam, our military superiority is neutralized by political vulnerabilities. The borders are wide open. We operate quite predictably on marginal military intelligence. The adversary knows exactly where we are at all times, as we do not know where he is. Their weaponry fits an asymmetrical war, and they have the capacity to blend into the daily flow of Iraqi life, as we cannot. Our allies—the good Iraqi people the president likes to talk about—appear to be more and more ambivalent about the idea of a Christian, Caucasian liberation, and they do not seem to share many of our geopolitical goals.
As Small Precautions has argued for years, in fact the real miracle is that things didn’t turn out worse in Iraq than they have (though they may).

Something close to the reverse of the argument put forth by the movie is in fact the case. There were many experts who knew full well that “punching the hornet’s nest” was likely to turn out catastrophically. The war would have been impossible to sell to the American people, Bush and Cheney knew, if an honest reckoning was made of what the postwar situation was likely to be like. The American people would most likely never have accepted the war if the President had told them what reconstruction experts were saying, namely that (at best) the war would cost a trillion dollars and require a ten year occupation of half a million troops. Those who began to suggest such things, like Shinseki, were fired.

Wolfowitz went to Congress on February 27, 2003 and told them with a straight face, "There has been a good deal of comment—some of it quite outlandish—about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq. Some of the higher end predictions we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand US troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark. It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army—hard to imagine." A month later, Wolfowitz declared, "We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon." These were things that had to be said in order to make the war acceptable to the American public.

Serious planning for the postwar would have revealed the absurdity and fatuity of such claims. In fact, the most charitable possible interpretation of Wolfowitz's statements (and similar ones by Rice, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush and countless pundits) is that they were not so much lying as intentionally trying to avoid facing the truth about the hornet's next they had already decided to punch. Serious planning for the postwar would have created such a shock as to the real expected costs, that it would have precluded the ability to wage it in the first place. What's more, who needed planning, since Saddam was just a Stalinist thug whose removal would free the Iraqi economy and society to organize and finance its own reconstruction. All of this, which is the crucial political lesson the American people need to draw from the war, "No End in Sight" does nothing to illuminate.

The real lessons that this country must learn from Iraq (for if we fail to do so, it will mean the end of American power) are realism about the limits of American power, the limitations of military force, and the need to be willing to make deals with unsavory characters if you’re going to deal with difficult parts of the world. The United States must (re)learn how to assess its geopolitical options rationally--not instinctually or ideologically. "No End in Sight" does nothing to advance these insights, and indeed perpetuates the American post-Cold War myth that the the United States can achieve imperial hegemony. Halberstam gets to the nub of the issue in understanding that behind the poor decisions of the Bush administration lies a fundamental misapprehension of recent history, and in particular, the meaning of the end of the Cold War:
What went wrong in the current administration, not just in the immediate miscalculation of Iraq but in the larger sense of misreading the historical moment we now live in. It is that the president and the men around him—most particularly the vice president—simply misunderstood what the collapse of the Soviet empire meant for America in national-security terms. Rumsfeld and Cheney are genuine triumphalists. Steeped in the culture of the Cold War and the benefits it always presented to their side in domestic political terms, they genuinely believed that we were infinitely more powerful as a nation throughout the world once the Soviet empire collapsed.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Break Through

I had the pleasure last week of attending a talk by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, the authors of what may be the most significant book on environmentalism of the last several years, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that American environmentalism's main mode of discourse, namely catastrophism, is fundamentally counterproductive since it causes people to despair and turn inward, and that therefore if we want to actually galvanize people to take action on environmental matters, we need to stop talking as if there is an unbreakable choice between environmental catastrophe and limited growth.

Their views on this have been shaped by years of polling research in many countries, and above all in North America, which has convinced them that the way the American environmental movement has gone about its business since the 1970s has been worse that ineffective. As a simple matter of political rhetoric, I think their argument is not only profound, but virtually unimpeachable. Americans never have and never will respond politically to be being told they are sinners who must repent, in this case, from the sin of consumerism. Even more, the Chinese will never accept that they too should restrain their growth, as if freezing the current wealth levels of different countries is remotely fair.

I chatted briefly with Michael after the talk, and handed him my paper, which he had some kind words about on his blog yesterday:
Gilman, Doug Randall, and Peter Schwartz come to very similar conclusions about how the political reactions to climate change might divide the environmental community, just as immigration reform and Cape Wind divided the Sierra Club.
[C]limate change may form the basis for a new set of political coalitions and oppositions that do not fit within the [traditional left-right] political paradigm. One possibility is that political coalitions and parties may be reformed around different attitudes to social risk-sharing, with one faction opting for having the state take an activist approach to mitigating a variety of "big" security risks (military, terrorist, environmental) and another coalition forming around allowing people to fend for themselves, with a less intrusive but also less protective state. The recent debate in the Sierra Club over the organization's stance on immigration presages such a formation, as does the current debate in Europe about "repatriation" of immigrants.
The initial reaction from some people to Break Through was that we constructed a straw man, as though to say, Come on, there's hardly any environmentalists any more who are anti-growth, limits-based, NIMBY, or anti-immigrant.

These claims were often followed, without any apparent sense of irony, by the insistence that technology can't solve our problems, there are natural limits to economic growth, and there's not enough room on lifeboat Earth for everyone to live the way we live in the developed world.

Having spent the last month traveling around the country on book tour, Ted and I have been struck that the biggest objection audiences have to our book is our contention that there's room for all 7 billion of us Earthlings to live prosperous, free and fulfilled lives. We point out that this won't be the case if we continue on the current fossil fuel trajectory -- hence the need for a politics that gets us off it -- but if we move to a clean energy economy, live mostly in cities, and begin to restore the nonhuman ecosystems we depend on, there's no reason to believe the levels of prosperity we enjoy shouldn't be achieved by everyone.

Ever since Malthus in the early 19th Century (and likely well before that) people have been predicting that we're going to run out of food. Their calculations are always impeccable. The problem is that they're based on existing technologies. And technological innovation is what our species excels at.

The new political fault line we see shaping up is between a large politics (what we call "greatness") characterized by a vision for growth, development, globalization, and non-zero sum thinking (i.e., "win-win") -- and a small politics characterized by NIMBYism, anti-immigrant attitudes, the resistance to what GBN calls "social risk-sharing," and the sense that there's only so much planet Earth to go around.

Which side will prevail? GBN says it's uncertain. "While ecosystems have always been dynamic and changing (and subject to collapse), the scientific ability to track such collapses, and the media visibility of such collapses, is far greater than it has ever been. How the global public will react to such collapses is largely unknown."

GBN makes the very good point that as human systems collapse, humans "rely upon primary loyalties (families, neighborhoods, religious organizations, gangs) for daily survival.... Those unwilling or unable to profit from the chaos will radiate outward through refugee flows, exporting social conflicts to adjacent locales."

What I thought was missing from the GBN analysis was an acknowledgment of the fairly extensive research of how discourses of collapse and apocalypse feed the small, authoritarian, and NIMBY political reaction -- not the expansive, democratic, and ecological one.
I think that critique of our work from last year is fair. We could have sharpened the analysis by suggesting that political discourses themselves are semi-independent variables that help determine political outcomes. One thing I learned from Nordhaus and Schellenberger is that an important indicator to watch for is the optimism or pessimism of the political narrative about climate. (People have been ignoring jeremiads since, well, Jeremiah.)

If I have a criticism of Nordhaus and Schellenberger, it is not on the substantive matter of how the politics of environmentalism should be framed. I agree strongly with them that environmentalism is most likely to succeed as a political matter if it is not positioned as a matter of restriction, but rather as an opportunity. Nor do I disagree in the slightest that from a policy perspective, it would be fantastic for the US federal government to initiate a major push to create infrastructure that can provide a "platform for green innovation" (modeled after, for example, the federal investment in the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s-40s, the Interstate system in the 1950s-60s, or the Internet in the 1970s-1980s) -- which would provide enormous business opportunities. Finally, I also agree that any viable solution to the global warming challenge must include a calculus for how we can get the rest of the world rich, too. If the solution requires keeping the Indians and Chinese down, it won't work.

Rather, what I disagree with them about is whether what they propose, even if seized upon by a visionary politician who sells it to the American and global public, can happen fast enough to save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Embedded in their work is a faith in the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), that is, the idea that environmental values begin to appear as people hit a certain level of income. They seem to argue that with better framing of the political discourse, we may be able to bring down the price point at which people begin to value more environmentally-friendly policies and consumer habits. There are three main criticisms of the EKC idea. First, it's not clear that people actually do value environmentally-friendly policies as they get richer -- it's just clear that they start to insist that these polluting industries get moved overseas. Yes, the Taiwanese cleaned up as they got wealthier, but they did so by shipping their nastiest facotires across the Straits to China. The Chinese really have no such option, and in any event, even if they did, it wouldn't reduce the global pollutant load for them to do so as they got richer. Second, it seems that the income-threshold at which people start to care about greenhouse gas emissions may be somewhere around $75K per family. Needless to say, China's nowhere close to that, and the amount of pollution it will emit before it gets there is staggering, and likely catastrophic at a planetary level. Third, and most profoundly, the theory of the EKC rests on a general theory of modernization, and specifically on the notion that modernization spells convergence in terms of political values. Readers of this blog probably don't need to be told how skeptical I am of such theories, in particular the idea that people's social and political values are somehow a dependent variable in relation to their economic status, or that political liberalism is the foreordained outcome of the modernization process.

With that said, I think the Nordhaus and Schellenberger have written a great book, one that points the right way forward, even if it may not be enough to save us.