Friday, February 28, 2014

Carbon Emissions Costing Americans $37 Per Tonne

Don't kid yourself, they're costing you plenty too.

The U.S. government has run the numbers on the social costs of carbon emissions to Americans.

Climate change impacts - from more extreme droughts and floods to effects like crop losses and sea-level rise - are costing Americans $37 per tonne of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, according to an updated estimate by the U.S. government.

The costs come in the form of higher food prices, rising insurance bills, greater spending on healthcare and more taxpayer dollars spent on things like federal emergency relief, economists say.

But the “social cost” of climate-changing emissions, updated from $21 a tonne back in 2010, probably still substantially underestimates the true costs associated with climate change, argues Laurie Johnson, chief economist with the Natural Resources Defense Fund, a New York-based environmental advocacy group.

Gernot Wagner, a senior economist with the Environmental Defense Fund, another green advocacy group, said such omissions mean the cost “can only be seen as a conservative or lower-bound estimate”.

It's hard to know quite what to make of this methodology.  CO2, of course, is released into the atmosphere so it will have impacts not just in the United States but in every country to some degree.

How Long Does It Take to Get Over Something Like the Exxon Valdez Disaster? If You're a Sea Otter, 25-Years.

It's almost a quarter-century since the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound spilling 42-million leaders of crude oil into the cold, clean waters.  That oil did a lot of damage, killed a lot of wildlife including sea birds, fish and marine mammals.

25-years later the impacts of the Valdez disaster are still being felt.  It's said some victims are still waiting to be compensated. 

Now there's some good news.  The population of sea otters, devastated by the oil spill, has finally recovered to pre-spill numbers.  Fortunately the otters in Prince William Sound only had to contend with conventional crude oil.  If the spill had been dilbit - diluted bitumen - it might have been a much different situation.

The Most Powerful Advocate for Gay Rights in America - The Fortune 500

Big Business had its boot firmly on Arizona governor Jan Brewer's leathered neck this week when she vetoed a bill that would have allowed business owners to discriminate against gays.

...a letter arrived at her office early this week with a stern warning from some of the biggest names in the local business community.

Signed by the heads of four Arizona business consortiums, with board members including officers of Bank of America, Intel and the Arizona Cardinals football franchise, the letter urged Brewer to strike down the measure known as S.B. 1062. The letter raised the prospect that the legislation could stain Arizona’s national reputation and touch off a wave of unpredictable litigation thanks to the bill’s broad, vague wording.

"We are troubled by any legislation that could be interpreted to permit discrimination against a particular group of people in the marketplace,” the missive read. “We all have a fervent desire for Arizona to be a welcoming, attractive destination for the top talent that will be the cornerstone of our continued economic growth.”

It was a sharp admonition from some of the groups — including the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry — that represent the tent poles of the state’s economy. And over the next 48 hours, the private-sector pressure on Brewer just kept growing.

What Arizona proved, as much as any other in recent American politics, is that there’s currently no more powerful constituency for gay rights than the Fortune 500 list.

The corporate community’s engagement in the fight over S.B. 1062 was overpowering: American Express wrote to Brewer on Tuesday asking her to veto the law, according to a spokesman for the credit card company, which has a large presence in the state. JPMorgan, with its 11,000-odd employees in Arizona, said on Wednesday that the legislation “does not reflect the values of our country or the State of Arizona and should be vetoed.” The national bank Wells Fargo also opposed it, along with Apple, Marriott and other big corporations with significant Arizona-based investments.

If the U.S. Was in Russia's Position, How Would It React to Russian Meddling in Canada or Mexico that Threatened America's Security?

The Ukraine sits right on Russia's doorstep.  It is the land route to Russia's Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol by which the Russian navy can access the Mediterranean.  Severing Russia's naval access to the Med is thought to be why the U.S. has been meddling in Ukrainian affairs, funding the pro-western group that topped the country's pro-Russian president, leaving the country bloodied, badly divided and at risk of separation or worse. 

Quite predictably we're awfully quick to turn all sanctimonious in our admonitions to Putin in Moscow.   How would we react if the shoe was on the other foot?

What if Russia saw an opportunity to meddle in Mexico's affairs to topple the pro-U.S. government and put in a friendly regime that would welcome a Russian military presence south of the Rio Grande?  A few Russian air force bases, a naval facility or two, maybe an armoured training range in the Sonoran desert and possibly a few medium-range missile batteries, for self-defence only of course.

I think it's safe to say the U.S. would create some pretext to militarily intervene before the first runway was constructed.  Remember Grenada?  The Gringos have a short fuse at the suggestion of anyone else, especially Russia, meddling in their backyard.  Yet they have it in their heads that it's okay when they do just that to the Russians.

The Russians are a heavily armed yet nervous people with a long memory of foreign aggression.  If the Americans want to reinstate the Cold War their manipulations in Ukraine are an ideal way to start.  Washington is already playing a clumsy yet dangerous containment game against China with the Asia Pivot.  This is a real good time to drive Moscow and Beijing even deeper into each other's arms - and armouries.

Look Whose Flag is Flying Over Southern Ukraine

The Russian flag waves over the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol.  It's beginning to look as though Moscow is not going to let Crimea fall to the interim Ukranian government in Kiev.

The Crimea is historically Russian.   It was transferred to the Ukraine in 1954 by Kruschev but it retains an ethnic Russian majority.   Forces in unbadged uniforms but believed to be Russian Navy marines have taken control of the Crimean parliament and two airports.   Russian helicopters are reported to have been seen overhead.

Crimea's Tatar Muslims, who only returned after the fall of the Soviet Union, are pro-Kiev, pro-E.U. but remain a minority.

Justin, Did You Think This One Through?

Congratulations to Justin Trudeau on the birth of his third child, a son who'll be named Hadrian.

Hadrian, really?

When we hear "Hadrian" we probably think of the Roman emperor Hadrian for whom the Hadrian Wall in Britain is named.  That Hadrian is considered one of Rome's 'Five Good Emperors.'   Good, that is, unless you're Jewish.

You see, it was on Hadrian's watch that the Jews in Judea revolted.  Hadrian flew into a tizzy, amassed a huge army, crushed the rebellion and drove the Jews from their homeland.   Hadrian is credited with creating the Jewish diaspora.

According to Cassius Dio, 580,000 Jews were killed, and 50 fortified towns and 985 villages razed.[2][18] Cassius Dio claimed that "Many Romans, moreover, perished in this war. Therefore, Hadrian, in writing to the Senate, did not employ the opening phrase commonly affected by the emperors: 'If you and your children are in health, it is well; I and the army are in health.'"[10]

According to a Rabbinic midrash (the Ten Martyrs), in addition to Bar Kokhba himself the Romans executed ten leading members of the Sanhedrin: the high priest, R. Ishmael; the president of the Sanhedrin, R. Shimon ben Gamaliel; R. Akiba; R. Hanania ben Teradion; the interpreter of the Sanhedrin, R. Huspith; R. Eliezer ben Shamua; R. Hanina ben Hakinai; the secretary of the Sanhedrin, R. Yeshevav; R. Yehuda ben Dama; and R. Yehuda ben Baba. The Rabbinic account describes agonizing tortures: R. Akiba was flayed, R. Ishmael had the skin of his head pulled off slowly, and R. Hanania was burned at a stake, with wet wool held by a Torah scroll wrapped around his body to prolong his death.[19]

Hadrian attempted to root out Judaism, which he saw as the cause of continuous rebellions. He prohibited the Torah law and the Hebrew calendar, and executed Judaic scholars. The sacred scroll was ceremonially burned on the Temple Mount. At the former Temple sanctuary, he installed two statues, one of Jupiter, another of himself. In an attempt to erase any memory of Judea or Ancient Israel, he wiped the name off the map and replaced it with Syria Palaestina.[20][21][22] By destroying association of Jews to Judea and forbidding the practice of Jewish faith, Hadrian aimed to root out a nation that engaged heavy casualties on the Empire. Similarly, he re-established Jerusalem but now as the Roman pagan polis of Aelia Capitolina, and Jews were forbidden from entering it, except on the day of Tisha B'Av.[23]

Yet, Hadrian's death in 138 CE marked a significant relief to the surviving Jewish communities. Rabbinic Judaism had already become a portable religion, centered around synagogues, and the Jews themselves kept books and dispersed throughout the Roman world and beyond.

Justin, it's probably not too late.  Just think this over.

Sure enough, just as I expected, the National Post twitched to the Emperor Hadrian/Jewish pogrom angle.  Kinsella is raging with indignation. 

Brits Throw In the Towel in Helmand

Like Canada, Britain maintained a military contingent in Afghanistan for more than a decade.   Like Canada, the Brits set lofty goals of their Afghan War.  Like Canada, the Brits are leaving Afghanistan with precious little to show for their sacrifice in lives and treasure.

Like Canada in Kandahr, the Brits used a carrot and stick approach in their mission to Helmand province.  This consisted of taking the fight to the Taliban, the warfighting, and construction of schools, roads and other infrastructure to win over the hearts and minds of the local Afghans.  According to The Guardian, even the civil assistance mission failed.

The UK has said a quiet goodbye to its political ambitions in Helmand, the corner of Afghanistan it once dreamt of remaking, handing over its former headquarters in the provincial capital.

The dusty offices of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), which once channelled hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to build everything from roads to rule of law, now belong to an Afghan government public health team.

The departure this week was agreed years ago by Nato and President Hamid Karzai, who railed against the reconstruction teams as militarised outsiders undermining the government by providing services that should be the work of his ministers.

Still, they are leaving behind a province that last year harvested a record opium crop and where violence in northern Sangin got so bad that government forces reportedly struck a deal with the Taliban.

Unemployment is rampant, electricity is scarce and malnutrition is common. "People are worried," said Ghulam Sarwar Ghafari, 65, a school teacher in Lashkar Gah who said security was getting worse. "People had jobs working for the British. They were building roads, clinics and bridges, but a lot of things are unfinished."

The British government has retreated into the vast Camp Bastion military base, and in less than a month will shut what remains of the PRT. The mission in Kabul will still include the province in its aid plans, but the days of intense focus on an area that is home to fewer than a million people are over.

These nebulous, little wars rarely, it seems, turn out well.  We take a half-assed approach going in and the same approach when we pry ourselves out.  Canada's mission, for all the pompous boasts of our political and military leadership, was farcical.  To think that Canada could dominate the Taliban in a province of the size and population of Kandahar with a fighting force that rarely reached 1,000-troops was laughable or might have been but for the dead and wounded we sustained.

Harper was in on the gag too.   Remember he proclaimed that Canadian troops would crush the insurgents, render Kandahar free of the Taliban, make it safe for democracy.  Stephen Harper set the bar by which the outcome of our Afghan War would be judged victory or defeat.  Given that, like the Brits, we failed to achieve our leader's stated objectives, we were defeated.  At least in Korea we fought to a tie.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Our Giant Prosperity I.O.U.

Never in our 50,000 year history have humans been so prosperous, so advanced, so wealthy.  We owe a good deal of that to our mastery of cheap fossil fuel energy over the past two centuries.  We discovered how to extract fossil carbon energy that had been laid down and amassed over many hundreds of millions of years and put it into our service in such a tiny fraction of the time it took to create.  We used it to build the wealth we have achieved today.

Yet burning fossil fuels is just one component, albeit a major one, to our wealth.  Indeed our prosperity has also depended on our willingness to rapaciously exploit natural capital and freely abuse our environment.  Today's climate and the early-onset climate change impacts we're seeing constitute one giant, atmospheric I.O.U. that will very soon be called.

A new article from Scientific American says our burgeoning prosperity is the result of burning the candle from both ends:

...what can be expected if the world increases the wellbeing of an ever increasing proportion of people? In short: even more CO2.

That's the finding of a
study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Economists and policy analysts held out hope that global wealth could continue to rise without also
raising CO2 emissions. But a look back at life expectancy at birth compared with per capita pollution around the world from 1970 to 2009 suggests otherwise.

Economic development in the poorest countries starts off by reducing CO2 pollution in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps because fossil fuel burning replaces even more
polluting fires in individual homes. But in more recent years that benefit has leveled off. And developed countries like the U.S. or China seem to increase emissions whenever the economy grows.

CO2 emissions are one unresolved cost of our prosperity but only one.  As we grow in wealth our demands on natural capital of all forms increases.  We need more water to grow the better food we want at our table and even more water yet for industry to produce the consumer goods we wish to enjoy.  We generate more waste and use more fertilizers and chemicals that, in due course, work their way back to the environment for natural processes to cleanse. 

The net result is that we're moving into environmental overshoot at an accelerating pace.  We're already consuming better than 1.5 planet Earth's supply of renewable resources.  We're achieving that remarkable feat in a variety of ways, none of them good.  We're exhausting our groundwater reserves.  We're wiping out one global fishery after another.  We're steadily accumulating pollution in our soil, our fresh water and our atmosphere because we're exceeding nature's ability to absorb and cleanse our waste products. 

Yet we in the developed world show no inclination to sacrifice some of what we have so that others, less advantaged, can have more.  To the contrary, we're now land-grabbing the best agricultural land in countries that can already barely feed their own people and often fall back on us for famine relief.  What kind of mentality condones that?  So, as the emerging economies struggle to climb the prosperity ladder, they'll take from us what they can and follow our example of environmental overshoot wherever they must.  And the flame burning at both ends of that candle is about to get a lot hotter.

It's Funny What You Can Pick Up from Watching TV

Last evening I stumbled across a documentary on America's B-2 stealth bomber on the Smithsonian Channel.  At one point there was an interview with an American engineering expert.   She mentioned that at the heart of stealth technology, it's all math.  Angles that will reflect radar waves back to the transmitter and give you away.   Angles that will deflect radar waves in helpful directions so they don't return to the transmitter and you remain radar invisible, that sort of thing.  Then she dropped what was, for me, a bombshell.

Guess where the Americans got all that genius-grade math?  It turns out the science originated in Russia.  The Americans managed to get their hands on a translated paper and - voila - they were away to the races.  Their first, primitive attempt was the angular F-117 lifted straight off the pages of the Russian paper.

Now, of course, the Americans have learned that you can make a stealth warplane that's more rounded and yet still meets the Russian specs for angles; airplanes like the F-35.

The F-35 embodies the Russian formulae plus advancements in radar-absorbing coatings and supporting electronics.  Some of those secrets have already been hacked out of contractor and defense department computers, allegedly by the Chinese.  The Chinese also got their hands on samples of America's coatings and electronics when they were allowed to filch whatever they liked from the RQ-170 Lockheed stealth drone that fell into Iranian hands, virtually intact.

So just how 'secret' is America's stealth technology advantage.  It's actually sounding less and less stealthy with each passing day.   Yet that's the key technology that's supposed to make up for every performance deficiency in the F-35.  Wowser.

While we're on the subject of this controversial warplane, The Ottawa Citizen ran a three-part opinion piece on why the F-35 is not the plane for Canada.  Here are the links.

These are a good read and well worth the time.  The author, Kyle Meema, has left out a couple of points but, overall, it's a solid indictment of the warplane that is the 'wrong choice for Canada.'

Another Climate Change Calamity. This One is Personal.

Island Scallops is on the ropes.  The company, which produces an astonishingly-good hybrid scallop, has just lost three years' production to ocean acidification. 

As we've pumped ever more CO2 into the atmosphere, our oceans have absorbed increasing amounts of it, in turn acidifying.  The more acidic water attacks the calcium in corals, mollusc shells and so on.  It's been doing a job on Island  Scallops' production.

The disaster, which cost the company $10 million and could lead to its closure, is the latest vicious reminder of the submarine impacts of our fossil fuel–heavy energy appetites. As carbon dioxide is soaked up by the oceans, it reacts with water to produce bicarbonate and carbonic acid, increasing ocean acidity. 

The deep and nutrient-rich waters off the Pacific Northwest are among those that are especially vulnerable to ocean acidification, and oyster farms in the region have already lost billions of their mollusks since 2005, threatening the entire industry.

So get your shellfish gluttony on now. Our acid reflux is only going to get worse as rising acidity claims more victims.

Here's the write up from our local paper, The Parksville Qualicum Beach News:

High acid levels in the waters around Parksville Qualicum Beach have killed 10 million scallops and forced a local shellfish producer to scale operations back considerably.

Island Scallops CEO Rob Saunders said the company has lost three years worth of scallops and $10 million.

"I'm not sure we are going to stay alive and I'm not sure the oyster industry is going to stay alive," Saunders told The NEWS. "It's that dramatic."

Saunders said the carbon dioxide levels have increased dramatically in the waters of the Georgia Strait, forcing the PH levels to 7.3 from their norm of 8.1 or 8.2. Island Scallops seeds its animals at its hatchery in Qualicum Bay and they are reared in the ocean in small net cages attached to horizontal "longlines," according to the company's website. The longlines are submerged about 10 metres  below the surface in water about 30 metres deep. From hatchery to harvest takes about three years.

Saunders said the company has lost all the scallops put in the ocean in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

"(The high acidity level means the scallops) can't make their shells and they are less robust and they are suseptible to infection," said Saunders, who also said this level of PH in the water is not something he's seen in his 35 years of shellfish farming.

Not only has the company had to lay off its employees but now the local oyster companies that employ hundreds of people along the coast are endangered.  As for me, one of the great joys of living here was hopping on my motorcycle and going up to Island Scallops where they used to sell a 5-pound bag of fresh, live oysters straight out of the ocean for 15-bucks.  Unlike an oyster, you could open a scallop with a table knife, easy as pie.  And delicious.  Oh my they were delicious. 


These Days It's All a Giant Crap Shoot

Who's got the wheel?  These days the answer is all too often, no one.  And with that comes a decline in predictability and a frightening rise in the volatility of chaos.  There's a feeling today that we're more likely to unwittingly back into a war than to consciously start one.

The Ukraine is an example of unpredictable change.  What begins as a protest morphs into an outright rebellion that topples an unpopular regime.  We saw that in Tahrir Square.  We saw that in Kiev.  The Chinese moved quickly and in force to ensure it didn't happen in Tianamen Square.  Chris Hedges, who foresees eventual revolt sweeping his own United States, has written that these uprisings are unpredictable, they follow no one's timetable.  They occur chaotically.

Ukraine's crisis, which went from a simple protest to the weekend's regime change and perhaps a full-blown civil war in months to come, once again highlights humans' inability to assess the potential evolution of events from the ordinary to revolutionary sea-changes.

No one would have predicted that a fruit-seller's self-immolation in Tunisia would eventually send Egypt to the brink of economic and political disaster, but that is exactly what happened.

The most recent example is Ukraine, where what became a full political crisis started as a student protest against the rejection of a free-trade pact with the European Union in favor of an opaque and vague agreement with Russia. When the government treated students savagely, a broader protest ensued - albeit still a peaceful one. Perhaps the biggest mistake made by the protesters was to copy the Egyptian example of Tahrir Square, by occupying the main square in Kiev, the Independence Square.

Failing to remove the protesters from the square and deeply aware of the most recent history of events leading up to the dismissal of the Mubarak government in Egypt, the government of Ukraine then went on an offensive with changes of laws and a refusal to negotiate. These excuses in hand, the government was then able to use the army to brutally quell dissent, leading to the deaths of scores of people. This was, in effect, a recurrence of the 1989 June 4 "incident" in Beijing.

The two sides thus both had history on their side - the protesters dreaming of the Tahrir Square revolt that brought a regime change in Egypt and the government imagining the events of 25 years ago in Beijing as a guide to survival. Both sides basically failed - many protesters lost lives unexpectedly as instead of an army refusing to shoot civilians they confronted something different; and the government after having murdered its own citizens ended up failing anyway.

A subject that seems to pop up quite a bit in recent months for some reason is the prospect of a nuclear confrontation.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was the subject of a special edition of Aviation Week published, ironically, on 11 November last.  Forget Iran.  The focus was on the nuclear brinksmanship underway between the United States and Russia as their old pacts begin to crumble in the wake of rearmament.  The conclusion from reading these articles was that we're probably not more than a few miscalculations away from re-igniting the Cold War.

Writing in Asia Times, Peter Weiss considers how the major nuclear powers, particularly the U.S. and Russia, seem to be simultaneously pursuing and withdrawing from solutions in a fashion that defeats both predictability and coherence.

If psychosis is a loss of contact with reality, the current status of nuclear disarmament can best be described as psychotic. On the one hand, the nuclear issue is beginning to creep out from under the rug where it has lain dormant for several decades. On the other hand, the commitment of the nuclear weapon states to a nuclear weapons-free world is honored more in the breach than in the observance.

Psychotic?  Perhaps.  Schizophrenic?  More likely. It's not that either side is doing anything truly alarming at the moment.  It's that they could either of their own actions or in their perception of what's going on with the other side.

History has shown that it's always a dangerous time when countries transition through a realignment of global hegemony.   Britain, thanks to a benevolent America, continued to display the swagger associated with a major world power long after it had declined to the second rank.  Look at the roster of permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the countries that each hold a veto over pretty much anything the community of nations might see fit to do.  You're looking at a snapshot of the world as it stood after Berlin had been reduced to rubble and Europe had been cleaved by an Iron Curtain.  That alignment isn't really valid any more and plenty of nations are speaking out.

The agents of change tend to have a hard time overcoming the inertia of the status quo and, like tectonic plates, that can allow violent, seismic tensions to build to dangerous levels.  It's sort of like living on Vancouver Island.  We know the big one's coming and we know it's going to be massive.  We also know it'll show up sometime between my next cup of coffee and a hundred years from now.

No one can control an earthquake.  No one can stop it.  We can, however, save the world from a geopolitical seismic event and a global tsunami of military mayhem.  To do that we need to purge our psychotic ways and put our world and community of nations on a rational, cooperative path.  We have an awful lot of work to do.

Cognitive Dissonance is a Lousy Political Platform, Even for the Liberals.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when an entity embraces two or more contradictory beliefs or values at the same time.  As social psychologist Leon Festinger showed, cognitive dissonance in an individual leads to psychological distress.  To cope, that individual or entity may simply block out information that contributes to the stress of dissonance.

Case in point.  Justin Trudeau is an avowed supporter of bitumen trafficking.  It would seem he draws the line of environmental consciousness somewhere between bitumen and asbestos even though high-carbon fossil fuels, not asbestos, could well destroy our civilization and ruin Canada for future generations.

It's not that Trudeau rejects the theory of anthropogenic global warming (or at least he hasn't said as much) but he seems to compartmentalize his dissonance, clearly choosing to block out information about CO2's contribution to global warming when he proclaims his fealty to bitumen. 

It's not just the pipelines that are the problem, Justin.  It's the energy consumption, GHG emissions and environmental devastation in the production of dilbit and the energy consumption, GHG emissions and environment-wrecking impact of refining, distributing and burning that dirty, synthetic crude.

It's not that Justin is going to come right out and say that he wants Canada to punch above its weight in contributing to the rapid growth in atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions that are already wreaking havoc around the world, especially in our far north.  He would never say such a thing but you can infer that intention from his platform. You can't divorce consequences from the policies that trigger them.  Can't be done.

The Liberal leader objects to bitumen pipelines strung across northern B.C. that may endanger the livelihoods of tens of thousands and against the wishes of the residents and their communities.  He does favour bitumen pipelines crossing central and southern B.C. that may endanger the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands and against the fierce objection of the residents and municipalities representing far more than a million Canadians.  Of course that's not so much cognitive dissonance as it is raw, opportunistic hypocrisy.

Justin likes to convey the impression that he's all about values, quite ready to make the tough, moral decisions.  I'd like to believe him, you know, but it turns out cognitive dissonance is like a virus and can be highly contagious.  If you suspect you've already been infected, go see your doctor.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

An Eye-Opening Video on Keystone XL

Justin Trudeau is onside with TransCanada, the Keystone XL pipeline  and the massively enlarged Kinder-Morgan bitumen pipelines to cross British Columbia.  What he's asking us to do is to trust companies that have a record of chronic lying.  I guess that's because he doesn't live anywhere that might be devastated.  Like Enbridge, they keep demanding that we trust them no matter that they just keep lying into our faces.

Keystone">">Keystone PipeLIES Exposed
from Center">">Center for Media and Democracy on Vimeo.">Vimeo.>

A lot of us recoiled at the Harper government's support for asbestos exports.  Why are so many of us supporting political parties that back bitumen trafficking?

Do You Want to Peer Into Your Own Mortality?

We all get there - unless we don't.  By "there" I mean that particular age where friends, loved ones and acquaintances begin to drop off so much faster than they did just ten or twenty years ago.  It seems to come on suddenly, like a cascade.  Maybe that's just perception, you don't notice it or try not to notice until you do, until you can no longer ignore it.  Either way it comes as a real kick in the pants and gets you thinking about your own mortality.

According to a survey in The Guardian, we can now peer into our own mortality.  Finnish researchers have released a testing protocol, a "death test", to assess your chances of pegging out, departing this mortal coil, joining the choir invisible over the next five years.  It involves analyzing an individual's blood sample for a variety of mortality markers.  The Finns aren't morbidly motivated.  They hope that taking the test will encourage people to give up unhealthy habits.

So, punk, do you feel lucky?  Do you?

A Blast From the Past, London - Then & Now

I was lucky enough to live in London in the 60s before the tsunami of Arab money hit the place and transformed it forever.  The London I got to know hadn't changed all that much since the war.  In my Georgian/Edwardian row house there was no central heat.  There wasn't even an indoor loo and if I wanted to know what the weather was like when I awoke I could look through a crack in the wall.  Yet, despite the absence of so many North American mod-cons, there was an amazing atmosphere to the place.

The BBC has published a fascinating series of photos, "London, Then and Now", that capture how the place has changed.   Here are the three that I like best.

Gloucester Rd. Tube Station

Tower Bridge

Covent Garden Tube Station


California Dreamin', er Praying for Rain

Two pictures that pretty much tell the tale of the California drought, courtesy of The Guardian.

The first is a sign on the front fence of a California almond farm.

The second is of the Folsom Lake reservoir, showing it in 2011 and today.  Can you guess which is which?   The reservoir provides water to the town, to the federal prison and to area farmers.  Somebody is going to be doing without.

Climate Change Comes Roaring into 2014. Brace Yourself.

We're just two months into 2014 and already the world is being tossed by severe weather events of almost every description in almost every corner of the planet.

According to the UN's World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), which monitors global weather, the first six weeks of 2014 have seen an unusual number of extremes of heat, cold and rain – not just in a few regions as might be expected in any winter, but right the way around the world at the same time, with costly disruptions to transport, power systems and food production.

"Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra have all had record heatwaves, while temperatures in Moscow were 11C above normal. Germany and Spain were 2C above normal for January and this month has seen so far six major depressions develop over the Atlantic," said the WMO in its latest assessment of world weather.

"Both equatorial and polar regions have experienced extremes. There has been unusually heavy snowfall; in the southern Alps, monthly temperatures were extremely high; from eastern Mongolia to eastern China and in the southern hemisphere, Australia, Argentina and Brazil have experienced extended heatwaves. The unusually cold weather in the eastern US coincided with severe storms in Europe," it says.

Omar Baddour, chief of the WMO data division, says the recent phenomena are almost certainly interlinked, with new computer models suggesting increased evidence of climate change.

"We need more time to assess whether this is unusual [on a global level] but if you look at the events in individual regions, like the heatwave in Australia or the cold in the US, it looks very unusual indeed. Next month we will publish a major report showing the likelihood of extreme heatwaves is increased 500% [with climate change]."

There is no connection between northern and southern hemisphere phenomenon, says Baddour, but the intense cold and heatwaves in the northern hemisphere appear to be linked by "planetary waves", or giant meanders in high-altitude winds like jet streams.

The IMF Wades In on Inequality

The hard Right have transitioned seamlessly from the fight to thwart action on climate change to their even more desperate rear guard effort to defend inequality from nasty, money-grubbing reformers.

Well, Movement Conservatives, have just lost a potential ally, the International Monetary Fund.  The IMF has just released a report that undermines every Rightwing Shibboleth on the perils of reversing inequality. what is likely to be viewed as its most controversial conclusion, the IMF said analysis of various efforts to redistribute incomes showed they had a neutral effect on GDP growth. This last point is expected to dismay rightwing politicians who argue that overcoming inequality robs the rich of incentives to invest and the poor of incentives to work and is counter-productive.

The paper, written by Jonathan Ostry, the deputy head of the IMF's research department, and the economists Andrew Berg and Charalambos Tsangarides, comes after several years of heated debate over the path that developed and developing countries' economies have taken since the financial crash and whether their recoveries are sustainable.

Anti-poverty charity Oxfam welcomed the report, saying it shows "extreme inequality is damaging not only because it is morally unacceptable, but it's bad economics".

It added: "The IMF has debunked the old myth that redistribution is bad for growth and demolished the case for austerity. That redistribution efforts -essential to fight inequality- are good for growth is a welcome finding. Low tax and low public spending are clearly not the route to prosperity."

Troy Thomas - a First Nations' Voice on Climate Change and Geoengineering and Change

Troy Thomas, who occasionally leaves comments on this blog, is a brilliant observer and a fine writer.  He's of a British Columbia First Nations' band up near Salmon Arm.   Yesterday Troy left an exceptional comment to a post I put up concerning the perils and pitfalls of geoengineering.  I'd like to share it:

When the white people first appeared, the elders of my people recognized in a few of the white people a frightening mental illness: greed. It drove those people to want more and more and more.

Far more than they needed. Far more than any person would ever need in their entire lives.
And now, this illness has driven all of the earth's population to this point.

The elders had no cure for those people afflicted with this illness. Or rather, the afflicted white man already had good cures available, but these people did not avail themselves of them.

We all need less in this world. We need less luxury. We need less sprawl. We need less pollution. We need less of the shit they dig out of the earth, and more trees and plants planted back into it. We need less of this civilization and we need more nature. We need far less of what we don't need, and probably we could do with a little less of what we do need, too.

We need to learn to make do with less, because in the harsh future I see coming headed straight at us, we'll have to do so, regardless of what we want.

Obama, Time to Wash Your Hands of Afghanistan

If the United States cannot come up with one scenario in which it would return American troops to Afghanistan in large numbers, it should fold its tent and leave by the end of the year.  Put another way, what does the U.S. think it can achieve in Afghanistan with a meagre force of 3,000 soldiers when it accomplished next to nothing over more than a decade with 112,000 ISAF troops and another 60,000 American soldiers?

Karzai, even though he's on his way out, isn't playing ball with the Americans, refusing to conclude a new bilateral security agreement (BSA).  Perhaps Karzai's successor will be more agreeable but that still doesn't leave the Americans much time if they're to keep the option of a complete departure by the end of 2014. 

Maybe this is all a matter of optics.  Nobody in Washington, either on Capital Hill or the Pentagon, wants to be tagged with another "last chopper out of Saigon" moment.  Yet that's the very scenario they might be creating if they leave behind a face-saving, token contingent that could be run out of the country in the ensuing civil war.

Obama should bear in mind the warning of a British general a century ago:

“When planning a military expedition into Pashtun tribal areas, the first thing you must plan is your retreat. All expeditions into this area sooner or later end in retreat under fire.”
So wrote British general, Andrew Skeen, in the early 1900s in his guide to military operations in the Pashtun tribal belt. 

Putin Mobilizes His Troops. Is He Bluffing?

It's just the thing that pro-Western Ukrainians have been fearing - but also anticipating.  Russian president Vlad Putin has ordered combat units to mobilize, supposedly for a snap exercise.  It appears the Russian force might include airborne troops.

With Kiev in control of the pro-West faction, the pro-Russian side is consolidating in Sebastopol, the traditional Soviet/Russian navy Black Sea base.  They may give Putin all the justification he thinks he needs to send motorized units rolling into Ukraine.

The new mayor of Sebastopol has announced the formation of vigilante “self defence” units in an attempt to protect the ethnic Russian city of 340,000 from the perceived threat of “fascist” revolutionaries in Kiev.

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred outside the Black Sea port’s town hall Tuesday night, Alexei Chaliy called for volunteers for the vigilante groups, intended to counter those formed by the pro-European protesters who overthrew Viktor Yanukovych.

Separatist passions have been running high in Sebastopol, the most fiercely pro-Russian city in the majority-Russian peninsular. Many describe Mr Yanukovych’s eviction as an armed coup by far-right, anti-Russian and anti-Semitic groups, including the nationalist Svoboda party, led by Oleh Tyahnybok, and the Pravy Sektor paramilitary group.

People here say their worst fears were confirmed when the post-revolutionary Rada passed a law stripping Russia of its shared official status.

“A year ago Tyahnybok talked about the genocide of Russians. We must form civil defence units now,” said a 41-year-old linguistics professor who gave his name as Dmitry.

Stephen Harper is doing his bit to help the pro-European side, sending John Baird to Ukraine, resplendent in camo fatigues, a headband and an AK, to man the barricades and stare down Vlad Putin.  No word yet on whether Steve remembered to buy Baird a return ticket.

Radio Free Europe, meanwhile, offers some useful insights into why Putin will take big risks to keep Ukraine in Russia's fold.

Russia, understanding that without Ukraine it would not be able to take its place in the wider arena of Europe and create a new, powerful structure that could counterbalance the United States and others (and this is Russia's goal), made the strategic decision to keep Ukraine in its embrace,' Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first post-Soviet president, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Kyiv Steven Pifer speaks in similar terms: 'The Russian have very strong motivations. I think this is a big deal for Vladimir Putin. He wants to build a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. A big part of that would be the customs union. If Ukraine is moving towards the European Union, there's a big hole in that sphere. And I think it's also important for Vladimir Putin, for his domestic political constituency. Pulling Ukraine back is popular at home. Losing Ukraine would not be popular.'
But Ukraine's importance for Russia is much more than merely one of popularity. Writing in 'The Independent' on February 23, Andrew Wilson, author of 'Ukraine's Orange Revolution,' argues that 'a real democracy in Ukraine is an existential threat to the entire system that Vladimir Putin has built since 2000.'

Not only is authoritarian Russia unlikely to welcome an example of an overthrown kleptocracy in the post-Soviet space, Moscow also sees vital economic and security interests in Ukraine. Its Black Sea Fleet is based at Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea; much of its natural-gas flows to Europe still pass through Ukrainian pipelines; and Russia's oligarchs have extensive and lucrative interests in the country, especially its eastern reaches.

Harper's Problem, Living Up to Our Expectations of Him. He's Succeeding. That's His Problem.

The Canadian people have finally forged a clear mindset of Stephen Harper and, sadly for the prime minister, he's living up to our expectations.

Harper's former campaign manager and BFF, Tom Flanagan, says the public have finally clued in to Harper's devious ways and it's making it tough for Beelzebub to slime Justin Trudeau.

“It’s difficult to attack somebody who is held in higher esteem than you are. Often, the attacks just fall harmlessly.”
Flanagan said Harper’s sagging reputation with voters is due, in part, to his own actions — including how he has handled “in a secretive way” the recent Senate spending scandal.

“It just reinforced this image that he was interested only in control and engaged in ruthless tactics. It was so damaging because it fit in with an image that was already there.”

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Climate Change Quick Fixes - The Cure Can Be Deadlier Than The Disease

There's a growing body of opinion supporting geoengineering as humanity's last-resort salvation from catastrophic climate change.  To many it's not a matter of it but when we go the geoengineering route and which of several options we'll choose.  Given the near total shift in focus from mitigation - large scale greenhouse gas emissions reductions - to adaptation strategies, geoengineering would seem a logical path.

Except that like many untested notions, geoengineering is premised on the assumption it can work.  What if it not only won't work but could in fact make the problem immeasurably worse?

Researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany have explored the five recognized geoengineering options and contend that, at best they won't make much of a dent in global warming  and, at worst, they may trigger runaway side effects that we will be unable to control.

The potential side effects would be potentially disastrous, say the scientists, writing in Nature Communications. Ocean upwelling, or the bringing up of deep cold waters, would cool surface water temperatures and reduce sea ice melting, but would unbalance the global heat budget, while adding iron filings or lime would affect the oxygen levels in the oceans. Reflecting the sun's rays into space would alter rainfall patterns and reforesting the deserts could change wind patterns and could even reduce tree growth in other regions.

In addition, say the scientists, two of the five methods considered could not be safely stopped. "We find that, if solar radiation management or ocean upwelling is discontinued then rapid warming occurs. If the other methods are discontinued, less dramatic changes occur. Essentially all of the CO2 that was taken up remains in the ocean."

Even the foresting of deserts on a massive scale could prove disastrous if the irrigation needed to grow the trees were stopped, they say. "The desert regions would eventually return to desert and the carbon that was stored in the plant biomass and soil would slowly be returned to the atmosphere through decay and respiration," says the paper.

The researchers conclude that some geoengineering technologies could help as an aid to mitigation but none offers any silver bullet solution.

"The paper sounds a timely warning about the abject stupidity of relying upon climate engineering solutions when reducing our reliance on carbon-based energy systems is the only sensible option," said Dr Matt Watson, a lecturer in geophysical natural hazards at Bristol University.

If Plants Can't Grow, What Fate Awaits a Hungry People?

Smog in China has become so severe that it's interfering with photosynthesis.

Chinese scientists report that China's smog-clogged atmosphere has taken on aspects of "nuclear winter" and could wreak havoc on the country's already stressed food supply.

Beijing and broad swaths of six northern provinces have spent the past week blanketed in a dense pea-soup smog that is not expected to abate until Thursday. Beijing's concentration of PM 2.5 particles – those small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream – hit 505 micrograms per cubic metre on Tuesday night. The World Health Organisation recommends a safe level of 25.

The worsening air pollution has already exacted a significant economic toll, grounding flights, closing highways and keeping tourists at home. On Monday 11,200 people visited Beijing's Forbidden City, about a quarter of the site's average daily draw.

He Dongxian, an associate professor at China Agricultural University's College of Water Resources and Civil Engineering, said new research suggested that if the smog persists, Chinese agriculture will suffer conditions "somewhat similar to a nuclear winter".

China still hasn't seen the public health blowback that is inescapable from having so many people so heavily exposed to PM 2.5 particulate air pollution.  There is some suggestion the country is looking at a public health disaster.

Early this month the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences claimed in a report that Beijing's pollution made the city almost "uninhabitable for human beings".

The Chinese government has repeatedly promised to address the problem, but enforcement remains patchy. In October, Beijing introduced a system of emergency measures if pollution levels remained hazardous for three days in a row, including closing schools, shutting some factories, and restricting the use of government cars.

China's leadership want to decarbonize their country's economy but that's a massive undertaking which will require plenty of time, resources and economic dislocation.  Unfortunately there's no good precedent for the challenge that China faces, its consequences and how it can ever be rectified.


A Must Read - Why America Is Not in Decline, Except at Home.

America hasn't really declined.  America simply went global and, in the process, turned its back on working-class Americans, blue and white collar.  A globalized America is an America of the 1%.  The rest who still believe are suckers.

That's the premise of a fine essay in Politico by Sean Starrs, a PhD student at York University.

The author argues that Americans see decline when they're in fact witnessing the impacts engineered into globalism.  America, or at least one segment of it, is actually doing very well indeed.  He contends we're getting deceived by now obsolete metrics.

The traditional way of conceptualizing national power is to look at so-called national accounts — most of all gross domestic product, but also balance of trade, national debt, world share of manufacturing, etc. — relative to other nations or the world. So when Japanese GDP was rising rapidly from the 1960s to the 1980s, people equated this with the rise of Japanese economic power. This made sense in the era before globalization, when production was largely contained within national borders and firms would export their goods and services to compete abroad. So when made-in-Japan radios began flooding the American market in the 1960s, this was reflected not only in increasing Japanese GDP and exports but also in the increasing capacity of Japanese firms like Sony to outcompete American firms like RCA.
 But in the age of globalization, as the world’s largest transnational corporations now have vast operations across the globe, this equation between national accounts and national power begins to break down. China, for example, has been the world’s largest electronics exporter since 2004, and yet this does not at all mean that Chinese firms are world leaders in electronics. Even though China has a virtual monopoly on the export of iPhones, for instance, it is Apple that reaps the majority of profits from iPhone sales. More broadly, more than three-quarters of the top 200 exporting firms from China are actually foreign, not Chinese. This is totally different from the prior rise of Japan, propelled by Japanese firms producing in Japan and exporting abroad.
In the age of globalization, then, the rise of Chinese national accounts could actually reflect the power of foreign transnational corporations, and we cannot know simply by looking at national accounts. Another example is the Chinese auto market, which has exploded to become the largest national auto market in the world since 2009. But again, in the age of globalization, this does not at all mean that Chinese firms are world leaders in automobiles. In fact, Chinese firms can’t even compete within China, let alone abroad. There are more than 100 Chinese auto firms, and despite decades of state subsidies and protection, their combined market share in China is less than 30 percent. Foreign firms, dominated by General Motors and Volkswagen, make up the rest
So we can no longer rely on national accounts to determine national power. Rather, we have to investigate these corporations themselves to encompass their transnational operations — for which national accounts (conceived in the 1920s) are wholly inadequate. Once we analyze the world’s top transnationals, a startling picture of economic power emerges. For one thing, national accounts seriously underestimate American power, and seriously overestimate Chinese power.
So this is what I do in my research, some of which is published in International Studies Quarterly. I analyze the world’s top 2,000 corporations as ranked by the Forbes Global 2000, organize them into 25 broad sectors and then calculate the combined profit shares of each nationality represented. The extent of American dominance is stunning. Of the 25 sectors, American firms have the leading profit share in 18, and dominate (with a profit share of 38 percent or more) in an astounding 13 of these sectors — more than half. No other country even begins to approach this American dominance across such a vast swath of global capitalism. Only one other country, Japan, dominates a single other sector (trading companies), which happens to be one of the smallest of the 25. By contrast, American firms particularly dominate the technological frontier, including a whopping 84 percent of the profit share in computer hardware and software (despite China becoming the largest PC market in the world in 2011), 89 percent of the health care equipment and services sector and 53 percent of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. Perhaps most surprisingly, American dominance of financial services has actually increased since the 2008 Wall Street crash, from 47 percent in 2007 to an incredible 66 percent profit share in 2013. In short, despite almost seven decades of increasing global competition and the rise of vast regions of the world (most of all East Asia), American transnational corporations continue to dominate the pinnacle of global capitalism, a phenomenon that national accounts miss.
But if we now live in the age of globalization and these companies operate all over, then can we really count them as American power? Yes, because they are still ultimately owned by American citizens — of the top 100 U.S. transnational companies, on average more than 85 percent of their shares are owned by Americans. Thus, an incredible 42 percent of the world’s millionaires are American (as opposed to 4 percent Chinese), and more than 40 percent of the world’s household net worth is based in America. That the global share of U.S. GDP has declined to less than a quarter since the 2008 crash simply reveals how global American corporate power has become.
But this also drives increasing inequality in the United States, one of the defining issues of our age, from Occupy Wall Street to “The Hunger Games” to President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address. This is because the top 1 percent own 42 percent of Big Business, and as the latter increases its global power, so too does the wealth of American asset-owners — and thus inequality. But we cannot understand this fact without rethinking national power in the age of globalization, and understanding that U.S. power hasn’t declined — it has globalized.

At reader Richard's suggestion, here is a link to a complimentary post, "The Deep State", an essay that explores how power in America has transitioned to a new order, a merger of corporate and political power that circumvents most of Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill to direct the affairs of the United States.

Ralph Nader Looks to VW in Tennessee and Sees the Ravenous Beasts of Corporatism Running Wild.

Ralph Nader warns there's a critical message we all need to take from the UAW's failure to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee last week.

Like ravenous beasts of prey attacking a weakened antelope, the forces of subsidized capital and their mercenaries sunk their fangs into the United Auto Workers (UAW) and its organizing drive at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The UAW narrowly lost – 712 to 626 – and the baying pack of plutocrats exalted, as if they had just saved western civilization in the anti-union, lower-wage South.

The days preceding the vote were a corporatist frenzy with corporatist predators bellowing ‘the sky is falling.’ VW, which sensibly stayed neutral, but privately supported the UAW’s efforts and its collateral “works councils” (an arrangement that had stabilized and made their unionized, higher-paid workers in Germany more productive), must have wondered on what planet they had landed.

Business associations warned of a UAW invasion of other southern states if the union organized the VW plant.

Nevertheless, the big lie the corporatists tell is that it was all the UAW’s fault for getting decent wages for its workers, who face more than a few occupational hazards.

Then something strange happened. In jumped anti-tax leader, Grover Norquist, with a new group, having the Orwellian name of Center for Worker Freedom (CWF), to put up 13 billboards in Chattanooga accusing the UAW of supporting Obama and “liberal politicians.” Perhaps Mr. Norquist thought this would influence a majority of the factory’s workers who are Republicans.

The CWF’s website also put up ludicrous postings such as “UAW wants your guns.” Was all this anti-unionist Grover Norquist’s bizarre way of promoting the idea of cutting tax revenues by keeping wages down?

It gets stranger. Powerful Republican state legislators joined with the local State Senator Bo Watson who said that if workers vote to join the UAW, “I believe any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.” He was referring to a continuation of the $577 million already granted (in state and local subsidies) to the existing VW plant to locate there, with an additional bonanza of 700 million more taxpayer dollars should VW open up a new line of SUVs.

Galbraith Was Right. In America, Socialism Is For the Rich.

Whether it's from sea level rise, storm surge or heavy rainstorm inundation, Americans are getting a crash course in the reality of severe flooding.   That's a problem because the well off like nothing better than to live as close as they can get to the waterfront be that a river, a lake, or, best of all, the seaside.

Waterfront properties are expensive and, when floodwater reaches those properties, so are the repair bills.  America's private insurers figured that out some time ago and stopped offering flood insurance.  At that point, Congress came to the rescue and introduced federal flood insurance at reasonable rates.

Flooding associated with climate change has left the federal flood insurance programme seriously in the red.  That's what happens when you have artificially low insurance premiums and lots of really high insurance payouts.  So it was decided that flood insurance premiums would have to be raised to reflect the loss payouts.  Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act.  And that's when the rich folks began howling like scalded cats.

The mandated increases under Biggert-Waters started hitting at the same time when FEMA issued new flood maps. This is a periodic process, but the latest version reflected recent experience with more frequent and severe storms. As a result, people whose homes had never been in floodplains (and hence required to buy insurance) were newly included,. Those already in a flood area saw their premiums increase, at a minimum due to Biggert-Waters, plus many were hit by having their home moved into a higher risk category. The result was many faced increases of tens of thousands of dollars in annual premiums. For instance, a Bloomberg headline wailed about seven-fold increases; a NOLA story about St. Tammany Parish listed several cases of more than ten times premium increases.

Biggert-Waters is in the process of being cut down into something that causes homeowners less pain, meaning taxpayers will now as a matter of policy (as opposed to by accident) be subsidizing coastal homes. The Senate passed a bill that would delay rate hikes (those to cover the $24 billion shortfall) by four years. Ooh, but the bill expires in four years! House members want some modifications in the Senate bill, but odds are high that some form of relief or de facto termination of the bill will take place.

Even FEMA came to the rescue of the rich and beautiful.

As homeowners around the nation protest skyrocketing premiums for federal flood insurance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has quietly moved the lines on its flood maps to benefit hundreds of oceanfront condo buildings and million-dollar homes, according to an analysis of federal records by NBC News.

The changes shift the financial burden for the next destructive hurricane, tsunami or tropical storm onto the neighbors of these wealthy beach-dwellers — and ultimately onto all American taxpayers.
In more than 500 instances from the Gulf of Alaska to Bar Harbor, Maine, FEMA has remapped waterfront properties from the highest-risk flood zone, saving the owners as much as 97 percent on the premiums they pay into the financially strained National Flood Insurance Program.

As for those without any economic or political clout?  Well, let them eat cake.