Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Animal magic

"Animals were the first things that human beings drew. Not plants. Not landscapes. Not even themselves. But animals. Why?"

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

not "exclude any particular interaction"

This looks significant. In reaction, speaking to BBC radio a few minutes ago Frank Gaffney expressed horror at Rice's sway being unchecked. Presumably Gates has played a role too.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Sharing the broccoli

Attempts to stitch up Iraq's oil in production-sharing agreements that favour western corporations, as documented by intrepid campaigners (and reported in articles like Iraq Labor vs. ExxonMobil, BP and Shell), may be real enough. But in the present context I wonder if this is missing the point.

Firstly, much of the oil in southern Iraq is reportedly beyond central government control, and funding local players instead.

Secondly, for deals favouring big foreign corporations to prevail, the American coalition would have to win the war. This looks unlikley. In Foreign Policy (Who wins in Iraq?), contributors argue with varying degrees of plausibility that one or more of Iran, Moqtada al Sadr, Al Qaeda, China, Arab Dictators, United Nations, Old Europe or Israel is/are the winners. (David Frum washes his hands of democracy promotion and retreats into Manichaeism that presumably will justify more bombing in his mind. Bill Emmott argues that the price of oil won - but for him this appears to mean principally the Gulf States and other big producers, not the Western multinationals)

Of course the show ain't over yet. In his most recent article, Seymour Hersch reports Martin Indyk as saying “The White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq. It’s doubling the bet across the region. This could get very complicated.”

It could get a little more lumpy, then, before Exxon & co can get their oil from what Sir Arthur Harris used to call "Mespot".

"24", Fox and democracy

Many prominent conservatives speak of “24” [the popular counterterrorism drama on Fox] as if it were real. John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who helped frame the Bush Administration’s “torture memo”—which, in 2002, authorized the abusive treatment of detainees—invokes the show in his book “War by Other Means.” He asks, “What if, as the popular Fox television program ‘24’ recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon?” Laura Ingraham, the talk-radio host, has cited the show’s popularity as proof that Americans favor brutality. “They love Jack Bauer,” she noted on Fox News. “In my mind, that’s as close to a national referendum that it’s O.K. to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we’re going to get.” [Joel] Surnow [the co-creator and executive producer of “24,” once appeared as a guest on Ingraham’s show; she told him that, while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, “it was soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists, and I felt better.” Surnow joked, “We love to torture terrorists—it’s good for you!”
-- from Whatever it takes by Jane Meyer

Friday, February 23, 2007

Through a glass, darkly

Mental life [is] something we [know] very little about, and when something [is] imprefectly understood it [is] quite likely we [will] define its structure imperfectly too. It [is] only rarely that, in science, you [start] with a perfectly delimited thing and set out to investigate it; more often, your definition of what it [is] you are looking for [changes] as you [discover] more about. "Consider the medieval physicists who wondered what fire could be...They identified a range of things they thought were instances of fire: burning wood, the sun, comets, lightning, fireflies, the northern lights. They couldn't give a definition, but they could give examples that they agreed upon. [But] the category fire, as defined by what seemed to be intuitively obvious members of the category, has come completely unstuck. Turns out that burning wood is actually oxidation; what happens in the sun has nothing to do with that, it's nuclear fusion; lightning is thermal emission; fireflies are biophosphorescence; northern lights are spectral emission".
-- from Patricia Churchland quoted in "Two Heads - a marriage devoted to the mind-body problem", by Larissa MacFarquhar.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Dances with Dubya

Writing about George W. Bush's State of the Union address a few weeks ago (No polar bear left behind), I noted in passing that in 1862 Abraham Lincoln used the same word -- "insurgents" -- to describe the uncooperative locals that has often been used in Iraq by the US-led coalition since 2003 to describe...whoever. I didn't think much further about it, considering the differences. But Sam Hurst makes a case that the two situations are more alike than one might think (The New Iraq sounds an awful lot like the Old Pine Ridge, Rapid City Journal).

Friday, February 16, 2007

Say yes to road pricing

"Much has been made of the fact that one million people signed a petition on the Downing St website calling for road-pricing plans to be scrapped. Now, a rival petition is calling for people to sign their names under a motion requesting road-pricing, and calling for the Government to 'channel the money into improving public transport and conditions for walking and cycling.' Sign up now by visiting"

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Left behind

[The] lie is up. What is now blindingly clear to the naked eye, for anyone who cares to look, is that the neocon agenda vis-a-vis Iran has never been about democracy or human rights. What the neocons want in Tehran is a pro-U.S. and pro-Israeli regime; whether it’s a democratic one or not is an entirely secondary matter to them. And Iranian dissidents know this, which is why they want nothing to do with the neocons. Note that the funds the State Department earmarked last year for democracy promotion in Iran met with a resounding thud among dissidents, who see right through the neocons and their agenda.

This is not only a critique of the neocons, though; it’s also a challenge to those on the Left who have bought into the neocons’ Big Lie about being the bosom buddies of Iran’s dissidents. Due to intellectual laziness, a preference for moral simplicity, existential bad faith, or some combination thereof, lots of leftists have opted out of even expressing moral support, let alone standing in active solidarity with, Iranian dissidents, often on the specious grounds that the latter are on the CIA’s payroll or are cozy with the neocons. Utter and complete tripe.
-- Danny Postel, talking about Reading "Legitimation Crisis" in Tehran

How to destroy a planet

From the drainage of its peatlands alone Indonesia is producing 632 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. But from its annual forest fires, it produces another 1,400 million tonnes. That's a total of 2,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. The Netherlands emits 80 million.
-- Marcel Silvius, a senior programme manager for Wetlands International, speaking to Lucy Williamson (Smoking out the world's lungs).

If these figures are accurate it means that per capita emissions for Indonesia (220 million people), not including combustion of fossil fuels, are nearly twice those of the Netherlands (15 million), including fossil fuels and all other sources.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A road already taken

With two US battle groups in position, another (or even two) possibly on the way, plus one expeditionary strike group standing ready and another getting ready, the US and Israel are increasing the pressure on Iran (see Paul Rogers, 8 February). It looks like a case of never mind the veracity or otherwise allegations regarding Iranian weapons and training in Iraq (see The New York Times returns to pre-war "journalism" - a contrast to that paper's thumping editorial The Build-a-war workshop); the struggle for strategic dominance across the whole region is edging into a new phase, with the rest of us, apparently, helpless bystanders.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A 21st century greenhouse gas budget?

How much greenhouse gas can the world safely emit? Is this a useful question to ask?

One working assumption for some (footnote 1) is that a global average temperature rise of more than 2 Centigrade during the 21st century may be “dangerous” – i.e. have severe adverse impacts on human development and the ecosystems on which it depends. (It is noted, however, that even if the rise is less than 2C there may still be adverse impacts.)

It is uncertain how much greenhouse gas may be emitted consistent with a politically acceptable risk of a temperature rise of no more than 2C. One line of reasoning might appear to suggest stabilisation of atmospheric concentrations at no more than 450 ppmvCO2e (or is it 475?) by 2030 to 2050 followed by a reduction, fits the bill (2).

First question: to what extent is this line of reasoning on the right track? What caveats should be attached? If you think this is the wrong track what would you recommend instead?

Second question: if this line of reasoning is on the right track (and even if it's not), what if anything can one glean from the IPPC Fourth Assessment Report summary (AR4), published on 2 Feb 07, regarding a 21st century greenhouse gas budget?

AR4 indicates that the only emissions scenario which, by best estimate, results in a rise of less than 2C is B1 (although it should be noted that “if radiative forcing were to be stabilised in 2100 at B1...levels, a further increase in global mean temperature of about 0.5C would still be expected, mostly by 2200”).

So how many gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) are emitted under B1? The Special Report on Emissions Scenarios prepared in relation to the Third Assessment Report (see here and here -- B1 is bottom left hand box) show emissions peaking at something over 10GtC per year between about 2015 and 2055 or 2060 (black line), declining to approx half present levels by end of this century.

The AR4 notes : “The climate-carbon cycle is expected to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as the climate system warms, but the magnitude of this feedback is uncertain. This increases the uncertainty in the trajectory of carbon dioxide emissions required to achieve a particular stabilisation level of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Based on current understanding of climate carbon cycle feedback, models suggest that to stabilise at 450ppm CO2 could require that cumulative emissions over the 21st be reduced from approximately 607 [630 to 710] GtC to approx 490 [375 to 600] GtC” (3).

490 GtC is at the bottom end of the cumulative emissions range envisaged under B1 in SRES (see here). An emission trajectory consistent with this bottom end would – I assume – be one in the area shaded green below the black line for B1 indicated here. That is, emissions peaking at no more than about 10GtC/yr by about 2020 (growing more slowly between now and that date than on the black line trajectory) and beginning to fall quite soon after 2030 to well under half (perhaps under a third) of current levels by the end of the century (4).

Third question: Is the best working assumption we can make for now that total global emissions of 490GtC are likely to be consistent with a probable temperature rise of less than a 2C? And can we characterise the range of this probability with any confidence? (5) Should we be looking at another approach altogether, and if so why? (6) If so, what is or are the best alternatives?


(1) 2C has been the EU target. Mastrandrea and Schneider identify 2.85C as their median threshold for dangerous anthropogenic influence (Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, chapter 27).
(2) at least, according to one reading of Meinhausen (Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, chapter 28)
(3) apparently this is CO2 only, not CO2e, and it’s not clear to me when AR4 is suggesting stabilisation at this level would occur.
(4) obviously [?] they could rise more quickly so long as they then fell more quickly, consistent with total 21st century emissions of 490GtC
(5) This question has political and operational implications. For example, Doniger et al suggest a total carbon budget for the United States of 84GtC on reasoning which I take to be along these lines. (An ambitious, centrist approach to global warming, Science, 3 November 2006)
(6) For example, that it is unrealistic. The Stern review on the economics of climate change says: 'To stabilize at 450 ppm Co2e without overshooting, global emissions would need to peak in the next ten years and then fall at more than 5% per year, reaching 70% below current levels by 2050. This is likely to be unachievable with current and foreseeable technologies.' (p 218). Writing in The Observer today, the UK government's chief scientific adviser does not indicate what a "realistic" stabilisation level might be.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Jimbo lives the "be good" ethic, it seems

Q. Will Wikipedia ever be sold to big media?

A. Two years after founding Wikipedia, I donated it to the WikiMedia foundation. I think this is both the dumbest and the smartest thing I ever did. The dumbest because it's probably worth $3 billion - and I don't have $3 billion! It's also the smartest thing I did because it wouldn't have been anywhere near so successful had I not built it this way. So the chances of it being bought are quite low.

Q. What happened with Wikipedia and China?

A. My understanding is that we are completely blocked there. We have no idea why. We can guess, but we don't know. Our position is that censorship is fundamentally at odds with everything our mission is about. Access to all knowledge is a human right, period. We won't ever compromise on censorship with filtered versions. It became all the more impossible for us once Google compromised last year, with its Chinese service weeding out pages critical of the government. I felt it incumbent on me to say: "No, we will not compromise on this issue." The deeper question we can't answer is: did they block us because they objected to our pages on politically sensitive issues, such as Falun Gong, or is there something fundamental about the idea of consumer-generated, open knowledge that is threatening to the Chinese system?

...Q. What else do you want Wikipedia to develop?

A. I read that one company is importing all of Wikipedia into its artificial intelligence projects. This means when the killer robots come, you'll have me to thank. At least they'll have a fine knowledge of Elizabethan poetry.

-- Jimmy Wales, creator of Wikipedia, responding to questions from Paul Marks in New Scientist ( Knowledge to the people)


"The reality on the ground [in Iraq] is, we’ve made major progress.” -- US Vice President Dick Cheney, late January 2007.

“The intelligence community judges that the term ‘civil war’ does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent attacks on coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence" -- US National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a consensus document of the 16 agencies that make up the intelligence community, published 2 February 2007.

Two amazing, angry people

Molly Ivins, unbowdlerised here, remembered by another notable Texan here. And Henry Grouès (“Abbé Pierre”): "His anger surprised even himself; it did not seem in character. But it made him a giant."

Friday, February 02, 2007

The long run

Another perspective on the end that may or may not be nigh was provided by Jürgen Moltmann, an octogenarian theologian from Tübingen, Germany, who sat in a wing chair in the rector’s parlor, glass of wine in hand, and dismissed current anxieties about environmental apocalypse—widely held among secularists who dismiss the Rapture as nothing more than a song by Blondie—as misplaced. 'One should not speak about the end of the world if what one means is the end of our culture,' Professor Moltmann said, pointing out that the dinosaurs may have been extinguished but life on earth went on. 'If you are mankind-centered, it’s a catastrophe; but if you are life-centered it is that while one life ends, another begins.'
-- from Apocalypse Not by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker

It's all good

This [IPCC 4th Assessment] report is a comprehensive and accurate reflection of the current state of climate change science. [President George W. Bush] has put in place a comprehensive set of policies to address what he has called the "serious challenge" of climate change... the current set of policies are working.
-- Sharon Hayes of the White House office of Science and Technology Policy.

See also Richard Black on The semantics of climate change

Kyoto 2

Oliver Tickell outlines Kyoto 2 today on BBC online. He puts the case well. Early last month he asked me for a soundbite view. I had not given one to date, having had a number of questions. But here it is now:
Kyoto2 is the boldest idea I have seen for a new international approach to meet the challenge of climate change. If properly implemented -- and the political and operational obstacles are likely to be formidable -- it could be a radical improvement on the current approach. This proposal is worth everyone's serious attention.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

7 billion shoes

Good to hear that chinadialogue has achieved some its highest readership figures so far. This seems to be partly down to this article in Salon. Well done the team who do the *real* work! A high point also marked with this excelllent piece from Ma Jun.

(I did a little to help get chinadialogue going, having suggested environment as the focus, and continue to contribute a little).

Wolf, wolf!

Since the inception of this blog, a US-Israel attack on Iran has seemed close (noted, for example, here, here and here), and this blog has been among those reporting speculation about likely actual dates for an attack (e.g. here), which so far have proved wrong of course. Now comes another warning, claiming to have evidence from voices inside the Pentagon that an attack could come as early as this month.