Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"We're an Empire now"

Chris Hedges is extremely pessimistic in his view of the future of the US in Religion of Despair and Chalmers Johnson in Empire v Democracy: why nemisis is at our door is no less so.

The work of both writers is usually worth scrutiny ("War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning" is a must read in my view), but are they misguided in the extent of their concern about the direction of the United States?

Observations published in the last few days by two other writers -- different from each other in important respects but both perhaps more dispassionate than Hedges and Johnson -- suggest not.

At ease Mr President by Gary Wills is exhibit one. William Pfaff's Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America is exhibit two.

Drawing on Kennan, Schumpeter and others, Pfaff goes very deep indeed to reach disturbing conclusions. Essential reading.

This may sign of the times: the BBC reports that Germany has issued CIA arrest orders. "The US government", notes the BBC reporter, "is not assisting the German authorities with the case".

James Bamford takes comfort (Bush Is Not Above the Law) from Judge Anna Diggs Taylor's observation: “There are no hereditary kings in America.”

Critiques of Stern

An edition of The Investigation broadcast on Radio 4 on 25 Jan (and archived here) raises what sound like some useful questions about the Stern Review on the economics of climate change. Why, for example, did Stern use the IPCC A2 scenario rather than A1B (as William Connolly of BAAS and points out)?

I still need to think about this more carefully; but my impression is that notwithstanding the fact that many of the criticisms have been regarding economic methodology and the uses to which it has been put by Stern, a if not the most important difference of opinion is not actually about economics but a meta-economic question concerning ethics -- especially what Stern and some others take to be a non-negligible chance that the costs of climate change on business as usual will be literally uncontainable: a 5% chance, say, of virtually infinite costs within a two or so human generations.

It would be great to hear a clearer view on this.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sharing the joy

This message has gone to Channel 4 and WAG TV, broadcaster and production company behind "The Great Global Warming Swindle":
It is fantastic news that Channel Four and WAG TV are collaborating to tell the British public about the fraud that is the so-called scientific case for anthropogenic climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the national science academies of Canada, China, Brazil, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, India, Japan, Russia and the United States can finally be consigned to the dustbin of history -- along with those who claim that millions of Jews and other human vermin were exterminated by the Nazis and those who say that smoking is addictive and bad for your health.

Please do confirm that Channel 4 is going ahead with this broadcast, and will not be daunted by any controversy.

May I suggest that Channel 4, whose chief executive was the genius behind the "I can't believe it's not butter" campaign, continue to demonstrate signal courage and foresight by broadcasting O J Simpson's interview in which he talks about "If I did it"?

The hard question

Paul Krugman identifies the key issue here:
Can anything be done to promote good [US] energy policy? Public education is a necessary first step, which is why Al Gore deserves all the praise he’s getting. It would also help to have a president who gets scientific advice from scientists, not oil company executives and novelists.

But there’s still a huge gap between what obviously should be done and what seems politically possible. And I don’t know how to close that gap.
By "good energy policy" Krugman means, correctly, one that focuses on incentivising efficiency first -- rather than, for example, delivering additional subsidies for the farm lobby (see comment at bottom this post for the full article). For context see also my recent post No polar bear left behind.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Remembering Ryszard

First I learned of Kapuściński's death was this from Ethan Zuckerman. Victoria Brittan remembers him here.

No polar bear left behind

openDemocracy asked me to write something about the President's address to Congress focussing on his energy and environment policy, and it was published yesterday here.

One of the most useful "go read" pieces when assessing Bush's "twenty in ten" initiative (linked in the oD piece) is The Ethanol Illusion by Michael McElroy (and the best image I have seen is this from Steve Bell).

As John Elkington reminded on BBC Radio 4 this morning, already by 2008 around half the US corn crop will go to ethanol (and as Ken Silverstein noted in The Birth of a Washington Machine, Archer Daniels Midland has been a substantial supporter of Barack Obama - whose other enthusiasm is for so-called clean coal).

[The New York Times reporters quote Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, noting that Bush was “completely silent” on energy efficiency and reduction of carbon dioxide from electric power plants, which contribute 40 percent emissions, and Philip Clapp of the National Environmental Trust estimating that the proposals would contribute a 1.5 percent cut in carbon emissions a decade hence, and that “they will still go up by 14 percent over the next decade.”]

It should also be noted that It should also be noted that changing the Renewable Fuel Standard to the Alternative Fuel Standard, opens the door for coal-to-liquid fuels, which are extremely likely to *increase* carbon emissions.

Written quickly, my article leaves open the question of what measures will work to deliver the emissions reductions that are likely to be necessary.

It would of course take a whole other article to begin to address that. In my view, the ideal course would be close to the kinds of actions advocated by Amory Lovins (See Elizabeth Kolbert's 22 Jan New Yorker profile for a reminder of what that involves), obviating the need to increase power energy production from nuclear and coal which even some terming themselves environmentalists have supported.

But Amory Lovins will most likely continue to be largely ignored on the grounds that what he recommends is a bit impractical, actually.

It remains to be seen how much cap-and-trade systems can deliver (see, for example, Matthew Lockwood's A rough guide to carbon trading). The game is not over for other signals and incentives.  Taxes may have a role to play (a radical proposal like Oliver Tickell's Kyoto2 auction is, I think, essentially a tax).  But in the US even a moderate tax on gasoline looks unlikely.

Indeed, climate change may be at least as great a challenge to the foundations of the republic as slavery.  Both slavery and current energy use are based on exploitation and injustice -- in the case of slavery the abuse of people right in front of you, in the case of energy use the abuse of an earth system on which future generations depend.

At its founding, the writers of the US constitution made an uneasy peace with slavery under the three fifths compromise.  It took more than 80 years to work through the problem, and then, of course, at the price of enormous bloodshed with an ambiguous conclusion.  And it took the moral vision of the civil rights generation another hundred years later, including Bobby Kennedy (perhaps one of the greatest presidents the US never had), to develop and understand the links to respect for the earth itself.  It would be nice if we could learn from this history.

Reading back through previous SOUs in preparation for the oD article was an interesting experience.  Leave aside its civil war heroics, Lincoln's 1862 oration also contains a passage that is very cruel to modern ears about the "insurgents" -- that is, those we would now call Native Americans fighting desperately to protect the last vestiges of their way of life.

But it was words from an earlier George W that particularly struck home because of the gap between the political culture they express, or at least aspire to, and the world of Inhofe, Rove, Fox News, Guantanamo and The Decider, which manufactures ignorance, hate and fear.

George Washington (who was no angel: you can make a case (see William Hogeland) that his support for US independence in the first place was as a cover for a vast grab of Indian land West of the Appalachians that he had illegally squated) told members of Congress in the first State of Union:

"there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness...To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways - by convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people, and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful
authority; [and] between [burdens] proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society."

To tackle climate change we need to distinguish between burdens proceeding from a disregard to our convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of avoiding planetary meltdown.

A charmer

"[Vojislav] Seselj has the unusual distinction of being accused of unacceptable brutality by one Slobodan Milosevic, who said he was 'the personification of violence and primitivism.' " -- from Mark Mardell's Europe Diary.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Do not keep a-hold of nurse

Timothy Garton-Ash outlines the key arguments as to why a blanket ban on holocaust denial would be a serious mistake. There are dangers from allowing hate speech, but Garton-Ash catches identifies dangers, including this:

"The approach advocated by the German justice minister [Brigitte Zypries] ... reeks of the nanny state. It speaks in the name of freedom but does not trust people to exercise freedom responsibly. Citizens are to be treated as children, guided and guarded at every turn. Indeed, the more I look at what Zypries does and says, the more she seems to me the personification of the contemporary European nanny state. It's no accident that she has also been closely involved in extending German law to allow more bugging of private homes. Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser (trust is good, control is better). Isn't that another mistake Germany made in the past?"

This issue is vital to any debate on a vision for Europe's future. In a section of "Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century" titled "Towards a Robust and Connected Moral Identity", Jonathan Glover writes:

"The evidence suggests that those who rescued victims of the Nazis had not been given a rigidly disciplined upbringing. When they were children, parents had shown them respect, giving them reasons rather than orders. Respect may create a climate where moral identity can grow. Evidence from Nazi-occupied countries suggests that cultures may have climates which vary in their support for the growth of moral identity".

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Glass houses

It's unkind and tasteless, but that might not stop the use of the death of Richard Heard as an icon of climate change come home to roost. The managing director of Birmingham airport was killed by a branch crashing through the window of his giant four by four. The branch fell in the exceptionally heavy winds that have hit NW Europe.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"quite a degree of conjecture"

I shouldn't be writing this. I have little time for anything but real work this month, and should put the intellecutal crack cocaine of blogging to one side, especially when it is little more than an exercise in venting spleen and dismay.

But two things I read propel me on a day when 65 people are reported killed by bombs in Baghdad and the UN estimates that 34,452 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2006 (last week the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced an emergency appeal for what it said were an estimated 3.7 million Iraqis displaced internally or fled abroad as a result of the fighting. The agency said that about 1 in 8 Iraqis had left their homes, in what it called "the largest population movement in the Middle East since Palestinians were displaced following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948".)

First, what looks like further confirmation in a Guardian report that Tony Blair and his government lied, yet again, in support of the claim that the rule of law should be "balanced" by concerns of national security. It would be nice to be funny like Al Franken in Lies and the Lying Liers Who Tell Them, but somehow the joke just doesn't come. Does Blair already have directorships with BAE and the Carlyle Group lined up for when he steps down?

Second, Paul Rogers's December briefing for the Oxford Research Group. This digs deeper than the significance of the dispatching of Saddam Hussein on which it focuses at first, and is worth reading in its entirety. But it is unpleasant, and timely, to be reminded that if Saddam's role in the Anfal campaign had been tried in open court, "there is little doubt that much evidence would have been presented on the nature of the relationship of the regime to western states, especially the United States". The guy just had to go. [Rogers is scrupulous, reminding readers that France and the Soviet Union were key arms suppliers to Saddam]

Monday, January 01, 2007