Wednesday, June 27, 2007

In the country of the blind a politician before he is an intellectual. He does not want to speak truth to power, he wants to identify those truths that will give him power
-- Anthony Barnett's view of Gordon Brown.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

It was climate change wot made me do it

Analysis and discussion of the impacts of climate change on human security (featured as a key note issue in this piece by John Ashton and Tom Burke in the spring 2005 openDemocracy-British Council debate on the politics of climate change) grows and grows. See, for example, a small sample of the news reports across the last few months here, here and here.

Work by military, academic and allied institutions may turn up all kinds of things, some more useful than others. See, for example Culture, Conflict...and Climate?, which notes a provision for the U.S. FY08 intelligence authorization bill to explicitly direct the U.S. intelligence community to consider climate impacts when preparing future National Intelligence Estimates, or How climate change is pushing the boundaries of security and foreign policy, a paper for a conference this week at Chatham House, 'Step-change' needed on climate change.

But there may be at least two 'reality checks' to some of this thinking.

One, climate change is not an excuse for some current behaviour. Responding to Rainfall records could warn of war (New Scientist, 30 May), the International Crisis Group said:
we find the suggestion of a "link between climate change and conflict" overly simplistic. The humanitarian disaster in Darfur results primarily from the Sudanese government's extremely brutal counter-insurgency campaign...resulting in over 200,000 deaths and 2.5 million displaced. Look not to the cloudless skies but to Khartoum.
Two, climate-related insecurity that is a reality today should not be neglected because of concern about the medium to long term future. Responding to an exchange noted here, one correspondent writes:
There is a tendency in some of the debate on climate change to [focus on] an apocalyptic future. While I accept that this future is plausible, what about the human development catastrophes that are emerging less dramatically today in the form of small but rising increments to risks associated with drought, extreme weather, floods etc.? In rich countries, people deal with increased risk through government protection...and private insurance. Having recently spent time talking with farmers in drought prone areas of South Gonder, Ethiopia and Kenya, I can confirm the blindingly obvious insight that social risk insurance is not widely available. As a recent Oxfam report has argued, isn't it time that we addressed head-on how we mobilize support for a campaign for climate justice that includes rich countries paying now for the damage their citizens and governments have chosen to inflict on poor people in poor countries?
P.S. 2pm - the Chatham House meeting also featured Transforming our energy within a generation by the redoubtable Walt Patterson, who puts it (almost) all in a nutshell, partly summarised as:
• Energy is not about commodities but about infrastructure.
• Climate is an energy issue; energy is an infrastructure issue; therefore climate too is an infrastructure issue, demanding policies to match.
• Transforming our energy starts with transforming how we think about it, and can start immediately.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A ‘Painful Way to Die’

Of the many people I’ve met here [in Congo], one I can’t get out of my mind is Cecilie Nyirahabinana, a young woman with a shrinking family. A few years ago, fighting led to famine and her two oldest children died. Her youngest, Anita, was still a baby and survived on Cecilie’s breast milk. Then a couple of months ago, soldiers shot her husband dead. Since then, Cecilie has had nothing to feed Anita but green leaves. So Anita is now skeletal and barely able to move, having slowly starved for months. Aya Schneerson, who runs the World Food Program office in the area, explained what Anita is going through: “These kids are in constant pain,” she said. “It’s a very painful way to die.” And the way things are going, hundreds of thousands more will die that way.
-- Nicholas Kristof

City limits

Last week quite a few people were circulating a story from that very great publication The Onion titled: Addressing Climate Crisis, Bush Calls For Development Of National Air Conditioner. I half joked to one correspondent that, from Timothy Egan's account (The First Domed City), Phoenix was already on the way.

Deeper observations on the future exclusive urban environments came in A tale of two towns, an account by Paul Rogers of Heritage Park, Baladia and other 'communities' that seek exclude the planet of slums.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fun fun fun

This fun game is easy to learn but difficult to master...Players take turns aiming and firing at each other with over 85 weapons of mass destruction including nuclear bombs...You can blast your enemy with a vast array of weapons...The landscape you battle on...can be destroyed in real time for real scorched earth. Features include over 85 of the biggest weapons, and beautiful scenery with 25 realistic landscapes.
-- promo for Atomic Canon. The weapons include:
A-Bomb, Acid Rocket, Anthrax, Artillery, Ashes, Avenger, Barrage, Big Wheel, Black Brat, Black Rain, Blow Fish, Blue Beam, Bomb, Breakout, Burial Mound, Cannon, Cannon Ball, Cleaner, Cluster Bomb, Contra, Cowinator, Cremation, Defiled Pig, Digger, Dirt Cloud, Dirt Destroy, Dirtox, Dirty Boy, Dirty Duo, Earth Destroy, Escaper, Excavator, Gas Rocket, Gatlun Gun, Grate Beam, Grave Digger, Ground Hog, Heavy Armor, Heavy Shield, Hellfire, Hercules, Hex Bomb, Hydrogen Nuke, Isotope 244, Land Fill, Light Armor, Light Shield, Machine Gun, Magma Beam, Medical Supply, Medkit, Mountain, Move Far, Move Mid, Move Near, Penetrator, Pig Blaster, Plasma, Plasma Bomb, Plower, Plutonium Nuke, Porcupine, Rail Gun, Rail Slice, Rebounder, Retro Rocket, Rocket, Roller, Runway Bomb, RX2, Sabot, Seeker, Shell, Shotgun, Six Under, Spreader, Stingers, Strikers, Tallboy, Tomcat, Toxic Cow, Toxic Grave, Tracer 3, Tracer 5, Trojan, Uranium Nuke, and the Wave Beam.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The line on CCS

In the Today programme this morning following reports that China's greenhouse gas emissions have overtaken those of the United States, John Ashton said:
"We need to do a very fast track programme to make [Carbon Capture and Storage] the universal technology standard for burning coal, if we want to carry on burning coal... We are accelerating [work in this field] and European leaders in March at their summit took a momentous decision to try and make Europe the world's fist low carbon economy with CCS as the universal standard for coal and gas by 2020. Now that really is a fast track. At the moment that's an aspiration. We need to deliver it. We are beginning to see how with a plan to build a dozen demonstration plants over the next few years including one in the UK...Gordon Brown mentioned this in the budget and it's in the White Paper [on Energy]. We are still not going fast enough. But we need to do it in collaboration with China, the United States and others because we are all in this together."
[This is my rough transcript; the actual interview can be found here, about 23 minutes in]

This post was updated at 19.00 or 7pm BST

Hungry ghosts and positional goods

An unnamed buyer at the Paris air show has placed an order for an Airbus A380 superjumbo to use as a private jet. Airbus said the individual, "not from Europe or the US", would use the plane for "personal use for him and his entourage"
-- from Airbus superjumbo for private use.
Our profligate consumption is no longer aimed at meeting material needs but at reproducing ourselves psychologically. In modern consumer capitalism, consumption activity is the primary means by which we create an identity and sustain a fragile sense of self. If, in order to solve climate change, we are asked to change the way we consume, then we are being asked to change who we are—to experience a sort of death. So desperately do we cling to our manufactured selves that we fear relinquishing them more than we fear the consequences of climate change.
-- from Clive Hamilton, blogged here on 18 June.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Serious climate politics?

Given the psychological grip of capitalist consumption patterns, and the forces blocking attempts to tackle climate change—fossil fuel lobby, heavy industry, airlines—what is the best strategy for environmental action? Can ambitious targets and moral exhortations bring any improvement on existing treaties?
-- from Building on Kyoto by Clive Hamilton.

A response here from George Monbiot.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Most revolutions have two phases. First comes a struggle for freedom, then a struggle for power. The first makes the human spirit soar and brings out the best in people. Th second unleashes the worst: envy, intrigue, greed, suspicion, and the urge for revenge.
--from The Polish Witch-Hunt by Adam Michnik.

Tax not trade

...the biggest problem, at least politically, is that carbon taxes are transparent and simple, whereas cap-and-trade systems are complicated and conveniently opaque. Under a cap-and-trade scheme, governments can pay off politically powerful polluters (such as the coal industry) by giving them permits...
-- this (from Doffing the cap) catches a key point. I've been reminded however (!) that it's far from the first time the point has been made (see, for example, Emission Impossible).

So we know well now that the case for a carbon tax is strong. How broad should it be? I recall visiting six or seven years ago John Flemming (a man of excellent qualities) and listening to him outline the advantages of making it global (acknowledging, however, that politically this was a long way from being a realistic prospect).

The political obstacles -- for proper carbon taxes (or indeed something like the auction proposed in Kyoto2 which, I have argued, shares some features of a tax) -- remain the "real story".

[P.S. A much fuller exploration of the issues now appears on Baconbutty: To cap or to tax?]

Saturday, June 16, 2007


The remit of the committee, to include Sir David Walker, a former chair of investment bank, Morgan Stanley International, and Philippa Foster Back, director of the Institute of Business Ethics [sic], will be confined to the firm's present and future conduct.
-- Woolf denies BAE review is knee jerk reaction to US investigation. Who wouldn't for £6,000 a day?

The Economist notes that the British defence sector employs 65,000 people, or 0.23% of those working in Britain, and accounts for 2.2% of all exports: "Leave aside for the moment Mr Blair's implication, no doubt cruelly unfair, that the Saudis take kickbacks and would be miffed if it were laid in the open".

The ulimate renewable resource fear. According to Naomi Klein,
the chaos in Gaza and the rest of the region doesn't threaten the bottom line in Tel Aviv, and may actually boost it. Israel has learned to turn endless war into a brand asset, pitching its uprooting, occupation and containment of the Palestinian people as a half-century head start in the "global war on terror".

Thought crime

Mobster hid secret life as philosopher

Friday, June 15, 2007


The answer to this question may be quite simple, but can somebody please tell me why the Bancroft family is (said to be) so concerned to protect the editorial independence of the Wall Street Journal as and when it sells to Rupert Murdoch?

I would have thought the editorial stance of News Corp. and Journal Opinion are a natural match.

When to walk

In The Upside of Down, Thomas Homer-Dixon writes that 11 September 2001 "won't be the last the last time we walk out of our cities".

But a hot tip from William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter and Michael M. May (After the Bomb) is:
...for those downwind and more than a few miles from ground zero, the best move would be to shelter in a basement for three days or so and only then leave the area.

This is a hard truth to absorb, since we all would have a strong instinct to flee. But walking toward the suburbs or sitting in long traffic jams would directly expose people to radiation, which would be the most intense on the day after the bomb went off. After that, the amount would drop off day by day (one-third as strong after three days, one-fifth as strong after five days, and so on), because of the natural decay of the radioactive components of the fallout.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Sleeping one time in Burgate Wood on the moated island of the old hall, I put my cheek against the loam and the cool ground ivy. When I closed my eyes I saw the iceberg depths of the root-world.
-- from Roger Deakin's Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees.


Research is often like a quest. You start with a question that sounds impossible to answer: how much aid leaks into military spending, or how much of Africa's wealth has fled the continent. How would you go about answering those questions? Ask each third-world army where it got its money? Knock on the doors of the Swiss banks and ask them to report their African accounts? There is a different way of getting to the answers, and it is statistical. This stands in contrast to the crude images that often provide us with what we think we know about the world. For rebellion, as an example, the image is often that of Che Guevara, ubiqitous in my generation on student walls. The poster did our thinking for us. Our notions about the problems of the poorest countries are saturated with such images: not just of noble rebels but of starving children, heartless businesses, crooked politicians. You are held prisoner by these images. While you are held prisoner, so are our politicians, because they do what you want. I am going to take you beyond images. Sometimes I am going to smash them And my image smasher is statistical evidence.
-- Paul Collier, in his introduction to The Bottom Billion

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Walking down the carpeted aisle of Sodertalje’s low-slung St. John’s Church on a recent morning, Anders Lago’s broad, blond features looked out of place among the crowd of hundreds of black-clad Iraqi mourners at a memorial service.

Mr. Lago is the mayor of this scenic Swedish town of 60,000 people, which last year took in twice as many Iraqi refugees as the entire United States.
-- Far From War, a Town With a Well-Used Welcome Mat (New York Times, 13 June).

Would Emma Goldman have written "Send your huddling masses to Sweden"? I guess in this case there is fear of a liability issue.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Far out

Gigantic ocean waves, spanning hundreds of kilometres from crest to crest, have been speeding up thanks to global warming, a new model suggests...The model also shows that by the end of the 21st century, the waves will be a further 20 to 40 per cent faster compared with pre-industrial speeds.
-- from a report in New Scientist on a paper by John Fyfe and Oleg Saenko published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Politicide achieved

Lama Hourani, coordinator of the Palestinian Working Women’s Society for Development, speaking on the phone from Gaza to The World Tonight on 11 June described the violence as the worst she has ever seen - worse even than Beirut in the early eighties.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Last Words from Richard Rorty

...When I was told that another figure much discussed in Tehran was Habermas, I concluded that the best explanation for interest in my work was that I share Habermas’s vision of a social democratic utopia. In this utopia, many of the functions presently served by membership in a religious community would be taken over by what Habermas calls “constitutional patriotism.” Some form of patriotism — of solidarity with fellow-citizens, and of shared hopes for the country’s future — is necessary if one is to take politics seriously. In a theocratic country, a leftist political opposition must be prepared to counter the clergy’s claim that the nation’s identity is defined by its religious tradition. So the left needs a specifically secularist form of moral fervor, one which centers around citizens’ respect for one another rather than on the nation’s relation to God.

My own views on these matters derive from Habermas and John Dewey. In the early decades of the twentieth century Dewey helped bring a culture into being in which it became possible for Americans to replace Christian religiosity with fervent attachment to democratic institutions (and equally fervent hope for the improvement of those institutions). In recent decades, Habermas has been commending that culture to the Europeans. In opposition to religious leaders such as Benedict XVI and the ayatollahs, Habermas argues that the alternative to religious faith is not “relativism” or “rootlessness” but the new forms of solidarity made possible by the Enlightenment....
-- (some) Last Words from Richard Rorty

Sunday, June 10, 2007

From vision to reality...

in the eyes of the U.S. DoD:
whereas [Isaac] Asimov's [Three Laws of Robotics drawn up in the 1950s] were intended to prevent robots from harming people in any circumstances, [Ronald] Arkin's are supposed to ensure only that they are not unethically killed.
-- Robot Wars, The Economist, 7 June.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Climate change communication

"The IPCC gets an A+ for scientific assessment, but a gentleman's C for communication." says climate modeler Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California.
-- from Pushing the scary side of global warming (Richard A. Kerr in Science, 8 June 2007).

Britannia's derin devlet

A photograph on the front page of the UK print edition of today's Financial Times shows the bow of the first of the Astute class submarines about to launch, with the Union flag and the BAE corporate logo displayed with equal billing. It is almost a charicature of the idea that the military-industrial complex lies at the heart of Britain's "deep state" (see Who's in charge?).

Carne Ross is right to say that we should not regard the story of possible corruption between BAE and the Saudi government episode as an aberration. And the story goes beyond BAE, Saudi Arabia and few other countries. For a little more substance see Michael Hopkins on Business, BAe, and politics, but the whole story goes far beyond BAE, of course.

One relatively minor and dated anecdote about Iron Britannia is that annual reports for the ECGD up to about 1999 were still showing on their books substantial credits (hundreds of millions of pounds) that had been extended to Saddam Hussein some years before (if I recall correctly from my research for an internal report that was a basis for Exporting Pollution from Greenpeace back in 2001).

Mistaking liberties

Pretending things are worse than they are does no one any favours, from wherever the pretence comes.
-- Martin Kettle: No, Labour has not turned Britain into a police state

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Has Hoder lost it?

I'm proud to be Iranian, not because of Cyrus, but because of Khomeini, a true anti-colonial leader who created the only true post-colonial state in the world, Islamic Republic of Iran.
-- Hossein Darakshan.

Planetary taboos, part two

John Sterman of MIT (and author of many fascinating papers including All Models are Wrong: Reflections on Becoming a Systems Scientist) took a moment to send a strong rebuttal of my earlier post Thinkable: why geotherapy should not be taboo. With his kind permission I am publishing it here, together with a response:
Hi Caspar,

Interesting argument. The more people confront the necessity of large reductions in GHG emissions the more they grab at the straws of a technical deus ex machina to save the day without requiring any change in lifestyle or any wealth redistribution. Hence the attraction of nuclear power, geoengineering, Branson's prize, etc.

Crutzen's aerosol injection scheme is foolish. It won't stop the acidification of the ocean. It's much much cheaper, faster, doable, and safer for ecosystems to retrofit every building in the developed world to first-rate energy efficiency standards, using a WPA-style "army" of volunteers, or to do so through a national service program like the Peace Corp. Quite frankly I'm astounded that such otherwise sensible scientists would consider aerosol injection a serious proposal.

Most other geoengineering schemes are similar -- large, centralized, exotic, not yet available, and with unknown risks of harmful side effects [the argument #2 in your earlier post).

As to the moral hazard argument, you don't have to be a political conservative to recognize that the phenomenon is real. People move into flood plains when levees are raised; they move into fire hazard zones when the forest service builds firebreaks; they build luxury beachfront homes when there is federally subsidized flood insurance (note the feedback: once people live in such zones they form a powerful constituency to increase protections). And one doesn't have to be a liberal to see that corporations argue that regulations should be relaxed once they start to work: witness the pressure to remove creatures from the endangered species list once their numbers stop declining, to relax standards for lead, water pollution, and other toxics once the regulations start to work. Promise the world that geoengineering will sequester CO2 and there will be immediate calls from business and developing nations to let them keep emitting because the sequestration technology will have "solved" the problem.

I fear that the technological optimism of the would-be geoengineers is the way they resolve the cognitive dissonance caused by their profound pessimism about the possibility of collective action for the long-term benefit of all. We can cut emissions enough to bring CO2 concentrations down. It won't be through geoengineering, but through the application of technologies we mostly already have. It will be by putting carbon prices up high enough to create opportunities for firms to profit by helping retrofit and replace existing stocks of buildings, vehicles, and infrastructure, for millions of people to innovate and for our behavior to change. Sure, it's going to be hard work,but it's more likely to succeed than so-called "geotherapy." If we are in the emergency room, if it's a planetary crisis, if we are on the threshold of tipping irreversibly into "dangerous interference" then let's recognize it and make the short-run sacrifices needed to preserve the world. Our parents and grandparents did so in the second world war; if we are now too soft and comfortable to make similar economic sacrifices (unlike the war, no one needs to die for this cause) then we are truly lost.

No more delay. No more blame. If not us, who? If not now, when?
I replied:

Dear John,

You argue powerfully. I particularly like your vision of retrofitting every building in the developed world to first-rate energy efficiency standards, using a WPA-style "army" of volunteers or a national service program like the Peace Corp. And I would agree that massively increased efficiency in energy use, supported by regulations that provide incentives, should be a top priority. (Indeed, I put this kind of thing at the centre of a special supplement for New Statesman magazine that I edited last year, relying on the work of first-rate thinker-doers in the UK like Roger Levett).

A paper titled A cost curve for greenhouse gas reduction, published by McKinsey in January, reinforced what has become an increasingly mainstream message – that a lot of energy efficiency and carbon reduction can be achieved in the developed world for negative cost (i.e., profit). Campaigns like C40 Cities seem to have ‘got’ this (drawing in the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg thanks to that, er, old black magic called Bill Clinton, who seems to have learned something from his earlier attempts at climate politics), and are seeking to put it into practice.

But whatever happens with the C40 and programmes like it (and imagine the likes of Barack Obama pushing for vastly more ambitious versions thereof rather than, say, big subsidies for big coal!), will even the very best of such efforts get us close to stabilization at 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent, let alone 400?

The McKinsey paper suggests not. (The paper can be wrong of course: maybe there are a lot of innovative and credible Amory Lovins-style soft energy policies they didn’t think to include, but I’ll use it as a yardstick here until I learn of better data and analysis). It includes a graph showing a various technologies and policies approaches all needed to get towards 450ppm, with estimated maringal abatement costs of about 40 Euros (€) per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent to get you to 450, and about €50 to get you to 400ppm. [see also footnote 1]

Accepting – absolutely – that the solution is not all about technologies (and that there are big question marks over the practicability and social and environmental side-effects of some technologies such as CCS, many biofuels, etc), one still comes up against the question: how much will people be willing to pay?

Let us be highly optimistic be about the possibility of collective action for the long-term (and not so long-term) benefit of all, and say yes people will ‘get’ the scale of the crisis very soon and they will be willing to pay up to a marginal cost of €50 a tonne. Further, let’s assume that abatement down to 400ppm comes in cheaper than expected - maybe only €40. Hooray, we get €10 per tonne to not spend on not consuming!

But even then, with atmospheric concentrations at around 400ppm, we may *still* not be out of the woods because (if I understand correctly – and please someone correct me if this is wrong) atmospheric concentrations will stay close to that level for a while (several decades at least), with a lag until we see the effect of those concentrations on the global climate (albeit that effect may progressively diminish if the earlier forcing signal has not triggered siginificant positive feedbacks). The effect could be not good. There could, as discussed earlier, be a chance of up to about 1 in 4 of it being not good at all at all (and, again, any corrections or criticisms of this understanding are most welcome).

And it’s having got to this point, I think, that a discussion of geo-engineering may need to start.

You describe Paul Crutzen’s idea as foolish. He has certainly been pilloried for it, and the downsides have been extensively described. The point about ocean acidification is well made. (On a lighter note, Alan Robock at Rutgers University says that 100 Hiroshima sized bombs over major cities – roughly equivalent to an all out nuclear war between India and Pakistan – would lower global average temperatures by 1.4 C for a few years).

The reason I hesitate to join this chorus is that, whether this idea is a good one or not, Crutzen is no fool. (I read his original paper and he's aware of the downsides). He, and other distinguished scientists such James Hansen warn that we may have already in doodoo stepped in so far that, should we wade no more, returning may no longer be an option. That one in four chance of more than 2 C is something to do with it, and we may have to consider doing something pretty serious about it.

As David Wolman wrote in Wired,“Advocating the study of geoengineering does not mean campaigning for the deployment of every ludicrous notion that comes along”.

My favoured list of more or less ludicrous notions would probably be limited to approaches that accelerate the reduction of atmospheric concentrations back towards pre-industrial levels. (It sounds a bit mad, doesn't it?). Such approaches would also be low-tech and empower local communities (to be cuddly, call it geotherapy rather than geoengineering). It may just be that biochar and other techniques that draw down more carbon than they consume in operation could fit the bill (assuming they actually work!).


Footnote 1: A more recent study from McKinsey, Curbing Global Energy Demand (May 2007), says that 'by capturing the potential available from existing technologies with an internal rate of return of 10 percent or more, we could cut global energy demand growth by half or more over the next 15 years'.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Geldof, baby killers and power's bitch

I have been more tolerant of the likes of Bob Geldof than, for example, my good friend and co-orchardeer Paul Kingsnorth, but something snapped when I saw this photo. Does Saint Sir Bling Bob find himself a winking bubble in the froth topping the champagne (1) that intoxicates the powerful?

Diving beneath the surface, George Monbiot skillfully cuts and pastes some press releases and other material from Baby Milk Action and ibfan to recount the pushing of unsafe formula milk down the throats of babes while the fine words flow at Heiligendamm. (The example is the Philippines, but this is the third report in as many weeks in The Guardian, following Johanna Moorhead's first hand investigation into goings on by Nestlé and other companies in Bangladesh, and Marie McGrath on the deadly effects of formula in disaster zones).

Mark Danner (Words in a time of war) might respond "Well, D'oh!":
[The attitude of the Bush administration] is brilliantly encapsulated in a single sentence drawn from the National Security Strategy of the United States of 2003: "Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism." Let me repeat that little troika of "weapons of the weak": international fora (meaning the United Nations and like institutions), judicial processes (meaning courts, domestic and international), and.... terrorism. This strange gathering, put forward by the government of the United States, stems from the idea that power is, in fact, everything.

[ (1) I first typed "champagne" as "champaign", which RB suggests be defined as "a cause that celebrities get involved in".]

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Twin disasters for Britain

The Iraq debacle (see comments by Michael Rose and Paddy Ashdown reported in The War is Lost. Now what?) and the fact that a quarter of British Muslims believe the government and security services were involved in the July 7 suicide bombings in London.

One of the factors behind this mess is the cover-up dissected by Chris Ames.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Thinkable: why geotherapy should not be taboo

When European Union governments agreed in 1996 that avoiding 'dangerous climate change' meant keeping global average temperature rise during the 21st century to less than 2°Celsius, it was widely said that this could be achieved by allowing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to rise to about twice the pre-industrial level -- that is, about 550ppm CO2(e). (At present Angela Merkel and other European politicians remain adamant about the 2°C target, and it looks as if the European position will be buoyed by the Brazilian government, among others.)

But at least since a conference organised by the UK government in February 2005 (and Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, an edited version of the conference papers published as a book early in 2006), it has been increasingly held as credible that stabilisation at 450ppm or less will be necessary to have a fair chance of avoiding a rise of more than 2°C.

Accepting this position for the sake of argument [as does a background paper I wrote earlier this year for a UN report that appears later this year], I'd like to highlight what I think could be a matter that is not as well or widely discussed as it should be: some forms of geo-engineering or geotherapy should not be dismissed at the start of serious discussion about how to manage climate change.

Consider a point made by Paul Baer and Michael Mastandrea in High Stakes (IPPR November 2006), and restated in Two Degrees, One Chance, a paper from 4 UK development NGOs published for this week's G8 conference. They note that the most stringent pathway for GHG reductions still carries a 9 - 26% [i.e., up to about 1 in 4] risk of exceeding 2°C. "This pathway requires emissions globally to peak in 2010 and then contract by 5% each year thereafter, reducing concentrations to below 400ppm by the end of the century" (page 7 of the latter document).

I have never met someone I would consider sane who believes that global emissions can be made to peak in 2010. So if Baer and Mastandrea's reasoning and the modelling on which it is based are correct, then (I think) this follows: to be reasonably confident of a greater than 3 in 4 chance of avoiding 'dangerous climate change' we need to find out what possibilites, if any, there may be to actively reduce GHG atmospheric *concentrations* (and not just emissions) within the next few (say, one to five) decades. Hence the likes of Richard Branson's CO2 prize.

Amongst the arguments against this case are:

1) it can *never* work;

2) the cure may be worse than the disease; and

3) it will encourage people to think they can continue to pollute now because someone else will bail them out later -- a version of 'moral hazard'.

I have not seen a convincing rationale for 1), but would be glad to read or hear one.

As for 2), well yes there will always be some truly terrible ideas out there; but it is not clear that one that has had some air play -- Paul Crutzen's thought experiment on injection of aerosols into the stratosphere -- will necessarily be worse than the full range of effects of 'dangerous climate change'. And put that to one side, there *may* be (I am not saying *are*) other ideas which could deliver actual benefits such as large scale but community-based and controlled creation of biochar (Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University says biochar in combination with biofuels could store up to 9.5 billion tonnes of carbon a year. He may or may not be right, and he is one of the first to call for more R&D. See: Which biofuels? 2)

And regarding 3), of course there are plenty of people looking for excuses to keep polluting and who may latch on to geo-engineering but I think this misses an important point about where we actually are. 'Moral hazard' is most often used in argument by people on the right of politics -- to argue, for example, that healthcare should not be free because this only leads to abuse of the system. That risk exists of course, but the reality can be rather different, as Malcolm Gladwell has shown. With regard to climate change we are already in the emergency room. The science seems to be making it pretty clear that we need to take all possible measures to reduce emissions, but even if we do there may still a high level of risk (i.e. up to 1 in 4) of dangerous climate change. It may therefore be prudent to look at the possibilities, if there are any, for accelerated reduction in atmospheric concentrations back down below 400 and even to pre-industrial levels within a few decades (something alluded to by Tom Goreau at least 15 years ago).

Whatever the truths of these matters, future argument will benefit from more thought and less emotion, moralising and opprobrium. On this point, though on little else, I partly agree with Josie Appleton who criticised Six Degrees for not talking 'the language of environmental management'. As I wrote in my own review Six Caveats about Six Degrees, '...The fifth caveat is that Six Degrees makes only a brief contribution on perhaps the biggest of all questions: what humanity needs to *do* to get its act together...'

Having got so many people excited about climate change maybe we need to work hard on making this issue a little more boring. But even agendas as ambitious as that outlined in Heat may be inadequate to the challenge.

(see also A 21st century greenhouse gas budget?)

Sunday, June 03, 2007

'The Making of a Terrorist'

...Families that allow children to marry for love are considered to have lost their izzat, or honour. In most circumstances, the only way for the family to regain it is to kill the offending boy or girl. Pakistan has the highest number of honour killings in the world...

...many British Muslim youths who had drifted towards fundamentalist or Islamist organisations were susceptible to the violent global jihadism that emerged in the mid-1990s. This is plain from the anti-traditionalist rhetoric of Sidique Khan's al Qaeda-produced video suicide note. The video is 27 minutes and 29 seconds long. Most of it is filled up by a speech from senior al Qaeda member Ayman al-Zawahiri, but the central feature is Khan's address, which runs to six minutes and 11 seconds. It has two parts, but it is only the first—about British foreign policy—that ever gets played in the mainstream media. Part two, which makes up three quarters of Khan's speech, is addressed to Muslims in Britain. Here is an excerpt: "Our so-called scholars today are content with their Toyotas and semi-detached houses. They seem to think that their responsibilities lie in pleasing the kufr instead of Allah. So they tell us ludicrous things, like you must obey the law of the land. Praise be God! How did we ever conquer lands in the past if we were to obey this law?… By Allah these scholars will be brought to account, and if they fear the British government more than they fear Allah then they must desist in giving talks, lectures and passing fatwas, and they need to sit at home and leave the job to the real men, the true inheritors of the prophets."

...For some reason, I translated my usual question of whether [Gultasab Kahn] thought what his brother [Sidique Khan] had done was "good" or "bad"—he had said that it was a terrible thing several times—and instead asked him whether he thought 7/7 was halal (permitted) or haram (forbidden) in Islam. Only when a look of stunned surprise come over Gultasab's face did I realise that I must have been asking him an entirely different question. After a brief pause, he replied. "No comment."

Here, it seemed, was the perfect example of the division between two worldviews—secular ethics and an embattled Islamic faith. How long had Gultasab managed to function with these two conflicting positions fighting within him? Everyday morality told him that his brother had committed a cold-blooded act of terror, while his own Islamic theology told him that there was no clear answer and maybe his brother was a hero. How many thousands of young British Muslims are similarly conflicted?...

...At the heart of this tragedy is a conflict between the first and subsequent generations of British Pakistanis—with many young people using Islamism as a kind of liberation theology to assert their right to choose how to live. It is a conflict between tradition and individuality, culture and religion, tribalism and universalism, passivity and action.
-- from My brother the bomber by Shiv Malik

Friday, June 01, 2007

Just getting started

Avaaz announces that nearly 270,000 people have signed a petition calling for binding global targets for emission reductions.

My feeling (as a signatory who also recommended it to friends) is well great, but actually a quarter million signatures is not really so many. As people have pointed out for years (I wrote about it ten years ago and I am seldom original), when the Chartists petitioned for universal suffrage in Britain in the early 19th century they got more than a million of signatures (out of a population of something like 20 million) using pen and ink, no telephones and horse-drawn transport. A comparable achievement today would probably mean a petition with many tens of millions of signatures (or even more: a twentieth of the global population would be more than 300 million people).

The (much abused example) of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in the early 19th century is also instructive. It probably cost Britain 1.8% of national income over the next six decades (says Adam Hochschild in a review of Philip Anschutz's movie, citing Chaim Kaufman and Robert Pape: "Explaining costly international moral action"). Contrast that with projected costs of a start on reducing emissions in the direction of acceptable (i.e. towards concentrations below 450, although they may need to be lower to be 'safe'): global annual GDP reduction of 0.12% (IPCC 2007 WGIII) - although in practice the actual cost could prove negative (i.e. a benefit).

[P.S. Solana Larsen says 'Al Gore's petition got more signatures'.]

Old man of the forests

It's a proposition I will defend: 'the future of humanity depends on how we value the rest of life and on our learning to be more humane. An important dimension will be whether we can protect our closest relatives, the great apes, in the habitats of which they are a part'.

There are few better advocates for this position than Richard Leakey, who spoke for GRASP, the Orangutan Foundation and Wildlife Direct and others at the RGS last night. His key points (including a sharp dig at eco-tourism) are well summarised in this article from David Adam. But one of the things I most enjoyed in his presentation was as a humorous aside regarding the origin of orangs.

The evidence suggested orangs migrated from East Africa all the way to South East Asia something like 12 to 8 million (?) years ago. Orangs do not walk on the ground (although as an aside see this) so that means, said Leakey, that there was once gallery forest all the way from Africa to Indonesia. The thought of orangs gradually crossing it keeps him 'endlessly amused', he said, as he sometimes lies awake late at night

It is indeed a very pleasant thought, though of course informed by pain given what we know of current rates of destruction, with hundreds (out about 50,000 remaining individuals said Leakey; I think I've read fewer than 30,000) burning to death every year.

And it is an imaginative thought, capable of informing humanity grounded in the reality of this world (as distinct from metaphysical musings), where -- for example -- wildlife rangers protecting mountain gorillas in the Congo have seen some 150 of their colleagues murdered by poachers and in some cases have not been paid in three or four years: a situation that Leakey described as 'really quite demoralising, you know'.

Above: young man of the forest

Iran and the future

The day that a crackdown on Iranian academics was reported was as a good time as any for a discussion featuring Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mary Kaldor and Danny Postel of what is at stake.

Ziba Mir-Hosseini has described Iran as 'a state at war with itself', with the tension inherent in the junction of the two words 'Islamic' and 'Republic'. She said the economic situation in Iran is deteriorating, that Ahmadinejad's project is running into trouble as (according to Mir-Hosseini) he loses the support of the supreme leader and many of the senior clerics, and that Iranian extremists like him share with U.S. extremists such as the neo-cons an enthusiasm for military action from which they believe they would be the beneficiaries.

Mary Kaldor, who reminded us she had never been to Iran, said that the fate of, and the importance of dissidents in Iran reminded her very much of the East European intellectuals who she met in the 1980s when she was as co-chair of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly: people who were really serious about philosophical and political thought, going back to Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek, and who helped develop ideas about civil society that are now so influential. Encounters by Kaldor and her Western colleagues with East European dissidents came about following their realisation that not talking to dissidents behind the Iron curtain was tantamount to apology for the Soviet Union and was actually embedding the Cold War.

Danny Postel highlighted some key points from his new-ish (Autumn 2006) book 'Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran' (not, alas, available as a download from Prickly Paradigm Press, but this interview gives a jist).

The paramount issue, perhaps, is the future of progressive thought itself, (and the epigraph in Danny's book is from Edward Said: '...even in the midst of a battle in which one side is unmistakably against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critcal consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for...').

Among some highlights from the introduction (not new to many of us, but worth repeating for some who may be less familiar with the issue):

- the neoconservatives, who claim to be concerned about liberty and democracy in Iran, ardently support a 'Stalinist-Islamist cult group once funded by Saddam Hussein and officially deemed a terrorist organisation by the State Department, called the Mujahedin-e Khalg [MEK]'.

- Iranian democrats will not take a cent of funds made available by the US government for 'democracy' in Iran.

- to his 'great credit', Noam Chomsky ignored admonitions from self-styled radicals not to meet with Akbar Ganji, an eminent Iranian dissident who spent half a decade in the Evin prison. Instead Chomsky engaged in what Fred Halliday calls 'critical solidarity', asking what western supporters of the democratic struggle in Iran could do to help.

- Shirin Ebadi reprimanded a western antiwar activist who told her that she should not denounce Iran's human rights record. She made plain that any antiwar movement that advocates silence in the face of tyranny, for whatever reason, could count her out.

My own thoughts, such as they are, include two:

Obviously Iran, a theocratic police state (albeit with elements of real democracy and challenge to authoritarian rule), is very different from the USSR. The Iranian state may or may not be fragile as some say. Perhaps high oil and gas prices (assuming they endure) put it in a different position from the crumbling USSR in the 1980s - so long as Iran receives (among other things) sufficient capital investment for exploitation of its massive resources. In such a scenario (and maybe with or without a war with US-Israel), the Islamic Republic could well endure, albeit with a swing to more moderate conservatism - unless the weaknesses of a crony-rentier petro-state become insupportable.

Habermass's 'Legitimation crisis' has been translated in English as 'what happens when the organising principle of a society does not permit the resolution of problems that are critical for its continued existence'. It may be trite coming from self-described evironmentalists like me, but it looks as if as the global political economic system may face this crisis with regard to ecological constraints (such as how much greenhouse gas the atmosphere can 'safely' take), with attempts to resolve the problems fundamentally threatened by powerful interests.

Big coal

Among the proposed inducements winding through House and Senate committees: loan guarantees for six to 10 major coal-to-liquid plants, each likely to cost at least $3 billion; a tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon of coal-based fuel sold through 2020; automatic subsidies if oil prices drop below $40 a barrel; and permission for the Air Force to sign 25-year contracts for almost a billion gallons a year of coal-based jet fuel.

...In the Senate, champions of coal-to-liquid fuels include Barack Obama...

...At best, you’re going to tread water on the carbon issue, and you’re probably going to do worse,” said Howard Herzog, a principal research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author of The Future of Coal.
-- from Lawmakers Push for Big Subsidies for Coal Process