Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Resolutions

I usually don't make'em because I so rarely keep'em when I make'em. By the way, if you're looking for some gently used "quit smoking" resolutions, I'm accepting offers. They're a bit old (I quit about 12-years ago) but I'm sure they'll do just fine once they're cleaned up a bit. They're also great for the vintage collector. Still available: Quit Smoking, 1978, 1980-84 (complete), 1986 and 87, 1990 through 1995, and Quit Smoking, 1999. Free shipping with bulk orders.

This year's resolution is to devote less time to this blog until I get through my backlog of reading. It's huge and I've had no choice but to cull the herd. Some are re-reads, some are recently acquired, a couple are gifts. Here goes:

The Collapse of Globalism, John Ralston Saul (2005) - a re-read. It was all so prophetic in 2005. Ten years later it's much worse.

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste, Phil Mirowski (2013) - a slog but "a powerful critique of neoclassical economics."

The End of Normal, James K. Galbraith (2014) - son of Canadian John K. - exploring the 'end of normal' through the rising costs of real resources, the futility of military power, the labour-saving consequences of the digital revolution, and the breakdown of law and ethics in the financial sector.

A Diary of My Sixty-First Year, Ian Brown (2015) - how much life can you live in the fourth quarter, not knowing when the game might end? Got this from a friend. I guess it's a gift.

History's People, Personalities and the Past, Margaret MacMillan (2015) - leadership through Bismarck and the unification of Germany; MacKenzie King and the preservation of the Canadian federation; Franklin Delano Roosevelt and WWII. Also how leaders can make huge and destructive mistakes from Hitler, Stalin to Nixon and Thatcher. Again, a gift.

Finally, The Predator State, How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and why Liberals Should Too, James K. Galbraith (2008). Apparently knocks free market fundamentalism off the altar of the high priests of neoliberalism.

There was a time I could knock these out in a week but that was before I developed the attention span of a fruitfly. We'll see...

Oh Yeah, They're Just Wonderful - Until Some Dickhead Decides to Smoke in Bed

It's not the tallest building in Dubai. That, the world's tallest skyscaper, the Burj Khalifa, is nearby. However the fire raging along 20-stories of the neighbouring tower is still pretty impressive.

Authorities say that, so far, the fire is on the outside and crews are trying to keep it from getting inside. I'm figuring they've got their work cut out for them.

A Better Life - by Default

An interesting study finds we can change people's behaviour by default. Let's say a power utility gives its customers a choice. The default option is to subscribe for green energy. The other option, which requires them to select it, is for conventionally generated electricity at a marginally lower rate. What they found is that most people just go with the default option.

Due to the energy pricing specifics in Germany, the supplier sold renewable energy at a slightly higher price (0.3 cents per kilowatt hour, about €10 (around $15 at the time) annually based on an average household) making it only minimally more expensive. Purchasing green, however, assures that the supplier changes its energy mix to reflect the consumer’s preference for sustainable energy. For instance, if a consumer uses 5,000 kilowatt hours per year, the supplier will purchase this exact amount of green energy and add it to the overall energy mix.

This is where our experiment kicked in: Half of our households were guided through decision screens in which they actively had to opt into green energy. Besides their choice about the service intensity, household decision makers could click a button that said: “I would like that 100% of my energy is sustainable”. Clicking and unclicking that button dynamically updated the prices. The other half of our households was guided through identical decision screens, but we had pre-selected the same button as above. The difference between the experimental conditions is minimal. Households had to actively “opt-in” in half of the cases or actively “opt-out” in the other half, simply by (un-)clicking the button.

The results were striking. Using the opt-in rule, merely 7% of households purchased a green energy contract. Using the “opt-out” rule, however, increased participation tenfold to roughly 70%. Choices were largely anonymous and cost of switching to a conventional vs. green contract is negligible. Yet, we observe drastic changes in preference suggesting that a simple change in the decision architecture is enough to boost demand of green energy.

A New Year's Eve Blast From the Past

Well who's scrubbing the bidet now, Tommy?

Sorry, too soon?

A Severe Weather Event That Reaches from Texas to the North Pole

The original predictions were alarming and they were also wrong. A few days ago it was predicted that the severe winter storm that swept through eastern Canada out of Texas would cross the Atlantic, picking up warmth and moisture, bring more floods to Britain and then barrel on into the Arctic where it could finally warm the North Pole to nearly 0 degrees Celsius.

Temperatures at the North Pole normally fluctuate at this time of year between -13C to -43C.

The updated predictions now call for high temperatures at the North Pole of almost  +4C. In Fahrenheit that's almost 40 degrees, pretty balmy for the top of the world in January.

The next question is what happens to all that newfound polar heat? Remember that first law of thermodynamics that holds that energy cannot be created or destroyed? That's a law, not a theory. And, when you boost the temperature from as low as -43C to a record busting +4C, you've introduced a massive amount of heat energy to the high Arctic.

There probably won't be much to see, given that the Pole is in total blackout now waiting for the dawn to return in March.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Globe Just Doesn't Get It

The title for the Globe video is, "Winter finally hits Toronto, but don't worry it's not expected to last."

The 5 watt bulbs at the Globe don't get it. They don't understand that when winter arrives late with a violent start and then disappears as abruptly as it showed up just a few days later that of itself is something to worry about - a lot.

When cold fronts slam into Toronto coming out of Texas, that's something to worry about. When the same storm that hammered Toronto is headed out to the Atlantic enroute to flood the already deluged UK before blasting its way, propelled by a jet stream clocking around 260 mph, to the Arctic where it's expected to warm the north pole by 50 degrees Fahrenheit, possibly up to 70F, that's something to worry about and not just a little bit either.

There it is. The Globe & Mail officially transforms itself into the magazine I used to read when I was a kid.

It's Bad Enough Our Dogs Can Do It. Do We Really Want Machines That Can Do It?

A lot of it is said to have evolved over the tens of thousands of years since wolves decided to share our campfires. Modern dogs have developed an amazing ability to read our emotions and, as often as not, they've figured out some way to turn it to some immediate advantage (if you doubt that, you've never owned a beagle).

It's the canine ability to play us that stuck in my mind when I read that 2016 could be the year for the introduction of emotion-sensing facial recognition software.

Once the robots - your smartphone or any of the other intelligent devices - can read us well enough to decode our emotional states what will they - or, more aptly, the wizards who design and programme them - be able to do with that little treasure trove of information?

Forget Hal, do you want a pocket circuit board bonding with you?  First, a confession. Some months ago my daughter got me a device known as the Amazon Echo. It's a black, cylindrical thingee. You speak to it, calling it Alexa, giving it commands or enquiries. "Alexa, give me the news" or "Alexa, how many teaspoons in a tablespoon?" or "Alexa, play blues music." Alexa then goes to the Cloud and tries to fetch whatever you've requested. "Alexa, set a timer for X-minutes" is a common sort of thing. Alexa responds with a pleasantly non-robotic voice, very human. Here's the thing - I often respond, in turn, with "thank you." Then I realize I just politely thanked a robot - and I meant it. People, that's not good. Imagine what would happen, over time, if the damned thing could read my emotions and engage me accordingly.

This is not a good thing. We know these smart devices already rat us out. They keep tabs on our activities, the time of day we engage with them, the requests we make, what interests us, what we buy online and so much more. They monitor our movements and location by onboard GPS. All that metadata allows the outfits that get us using this stuff to develop sophisticated profiles of us. Your dog may be able to read you like a book but he can't build a profile of your shopping habits, your entertainment preferences or your political leanings.

Users already worry that Alexa can eavesdrop on their conversations. Amazon says they don't listen in. Amazon hasn't said that they can't eavesdrop or that they never will, cross my heart and hope to die.

Stop the world, I want to get off.

One Argument for Bringing Back "la Terreur"

I never used to have fond thoughts of the Reign of Terror, those days in 1784 when radical revolutionaries escorted more than 16,000 of their French betters to the 'National Razor', the guillotine. I'm still sure that was awful only not quite so sure as I used to be.

A piece in today's New York Times explores what it describes as a "private tax system" that saves America's richest of the rich billions on their tax bills every year.

The article points out that the tax burden on the wealthiest has fallen from 27% during the Clinton years to 17% during Obama's tenure and, if Congressional Republicans have their way, it may soon be whittled down to just 10%.

So much for democracy.

In "Holy Crap" News

I just strolled through my morning Google Alerts and they're almost enough to make you jump in a bunker and slam the hatch shut over your head. And so, we begin.

You know that storm that has brought devastating floods and killer tornadoes to the southern US before driving into Canada yesterday? It's not done. In fact, it's headed for the already flooded UK and will bring a "weather bomb" to Iceland later this week.

The vigorous low pressure system that helped spawn devastating tornadoes in the Dallas area on Saturday is forecast to explode into a monstrous storm over Iceland by Wednesday.
And the storm will batter the United Kingdom, reeling from recent flooding, with another round of rain and wind.

Computer model simulations show the storm, sweeping across the north central Atlantic today, rapidly intensifying along a jet stream ripping above the ocean at 230 mph.

Ahead of the storm, the surge of warm air making a beeline towards the North Pole is astonishing. In the animation below, watch the warm temperature departures from normal, portrayed by red shades, explode towards the Pole between Monday and Wednesday.

The North Pole is expected to reach 32F on Wednesday, about 50F warmer than normal. Some experts put the difference at 70F.

Okay, so much for that. Nunatsiaq Online reports that new studies show that a lot more methane is being released in the Arctic than previously believed.

The amount of methane gas emitted from the ground in the Arctic during the long cold period each year is likely much higher than estimated by current climate change models, says a new study carried out in Alaska by a team of researchers led San Diego State University.

Their study, published Dec. 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found methane, a potent greenhouse gas that intensifies atmospheric warming, is being released from the Arctic permafrost even during the winter.

In California, research has found some 888 million trees are suffering from the ongoing drought of which 58-million may already be beyond recovery. The state, meanwhile, is looking at having to spend billions of dollars to replace infrastructure being destroyed by land subsidence, mainly resulting from heavy pumping of groundwater resources. 

Four years of drought and heavy reliance on pumping of groundwater have made the land sink faster than ever up and down the Central Valley, requiring repairs to infrastructure that experts say are costing billions of dollars.

This slow-motion land subsidence — more than one foot a year in some places — is not expected to stop anytime soon, experts say, nor will the expensive repairs.

The Guardian offers a scathing indictment of Britain's political caste for ignoring all the warning signs of the climate devastation now hitting the UK.

Ministers cannot plead ignorance. Four years before the NAO report, around the time of the 2010 general election, a lengthy study from the Government Office for Science, Foresight Land Use Futures, warned that 57% of our best (grade 1) land and 13% of grade 2 occupied flood plains. Not for nothing did it describe these golden acres as “an important asset in terms of national food security”.

Today we produce 62% of our own food, down since our 1984 peak of 78%. Alarmed by government complacency, the National Farmers’ Union calculated earlier this year that the country has the potential to reach 85% self-sufficiency, with higher productivity, more investment in research and development and, of course, greater emphasis on flood defences to withstand future tidal surges and rising sea levels. Do nothing, says the NFU, and domestic food production will assuredly fall below 50%.

What we have lacked is an informed debate on the pressures facing our land – increasing demand for food, energy, water and housing – when we should be adapting to and mitigating the impact of climate change. But that means planning ahead, prioritising resources and, yes, borrowing as a nation to invest in and safeguard our future – unlikely at a time when the very concept of planning, still less long-term investment, has become a pejorative term. (Sound familiar?)

The USCentre of the London School of Economics has an interesting analysis of how rightwing politics has the sea level rise threatening Virginia in a deathgrip of inaction in the State legislature.

Bad as the situation may be in Virginia, reports it's worse, much worse, in Florida where it says the GOP is killing off the state.

Florida is disappearing. For those who think of the state only as a swampy backwater populated by alligators and meth heads, this may seem like a good thing. But it’s not a joke: Florida is disappearing.

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about visiting Miami Beach in a recent issue of The New Yorker. What she saw there was frightening: city streets that regularly flood with the high tide, with residents marooned on stoops and porches watching their trash cans bob in the street. “For the past several years,” Kolbert wrote, “the daily high-water mark in the Miami area has been racing up at the rate of almost an inch a year, nearly ten times the rate of average global sea-level rise ….

Now the state has fallen to a governor, Rick Scott, who not only denies the reality of climate change but has forbidden state officials from mentioning it and a GOP senator/climate change denier, Marc Rubio. Good luck with that, Florida.

Let's wrap it up with the latest on heatwaves - in Buenos Aires, Australia and, of course, Florida.  The Argentine capital is being hammered by a prolonged heatwave that has predictably led to power outages. When temperatures soar and the air conditioning goes out, it's the formula for a lot of deaths.

South Australia, meanwhile, is bracing for a week of above 35C temperatures. Even northeast Florida, which usually experiences cooler conditions in the winter is enduring a heatwave that's causing an infestation of bugs, especially mosquitoes.

That's it, I'm done. I could go on about other problems such as biodiversity but I'm already in climate change overload. If you've read down this far I expect you are too. Here's the thing. I posted all these summaries and links to try to drive home the point that this isn't going away. We're in a mess right now - not some time in the future, not tomorrow, it's here today - and we're going to have to dig our way out as best we can. Looking the other way is not an option. We have to realize what is happening and begin figuring out how best we can respond if only to safeguard ourselves and prepare the Canada we want to leave to our grandkids.

As citizens, this has to be at the top of our agenda if we want it to be at the top of our political caste's agenda.

You'll Know They're Serious When It Hurts

Think of it this way. When the bank manager calls to tell you that he's giving you until Friday to clear off your overdraft, the next day or two could be a bit uncomfortable. Or if your doctor tells you it's lights out for you unless you lose 40 pounds in the next six months you're going to miss Tim Horton's for a good while.

It's a bit the same when it comes to climate change. It's going to be tough both slashing our carbon emissions (mitigation) and preparing ourselves for the unavoidable impacts of global warming (adaptation) both of which have become critical to our future.

A few extra pennies a litre at the gas pump won't do it and promises that carbon taxes will be revenue neutral are bollocks.

Governments - federal, provincial, regional and municipal - are going to need hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade, where possible, and in many cases replace essential infrastructure that is becoming incapable of supporting our society. By essential, I mean to the continuation of our economy, our public safety and the functioning of our society.

That's a lot of money that has to come out of somebody's pocket and that's going to be painful. You may begrudge having to cough up your share but know this, it'll be far more painful if we don't secure those funds. Without that infrastructure you'll find your future somewhat more akin to Third World conditions.

On infrastructure, we're deeply in overdraft. The stuff we still rely on is old and, worse, we've been more than a bit slovenly when it comes to maintaining it. A lot of it is already decrepit. Ask the folks of Montreal or Toronto. Drive the 401 across the prairie. Check out the state of many municipal water and sewer systems. Take a look at your electrical grid. Even without climate change, we're behind the 8 ball, right where we chose to be.

Climate change only makes our predicament worse. When the electrical and the mechanical and the structural engineers got out their slide rules (remember those days?) they designed essential infrastructure to meet the environmental demands of their day. They could not foresee radical environmental change within the span of just one or two lifetimes. They did not design for a world of regular extreme weather events. You may have already forgotten but the 60s and 70s were a far different world than we confront today, much less what's coming in another 20 or 30 years.

So now we need our engineers back to the drawing tables to design not for today but for 20 or 30 years from now and beyond. They've got to design for heavy and regular floods and droughts, extremes of heat and cold. They're going to need to rely on stronger and more resilient materials and tougher standards. Put it this way - your grandpa's bridge will not be the bridge your grandkids will need. That won't do at all.

If we're going to make this work, we need to get ahead of the problem. If we don't, we risk being overtaken by events and forfeiting the costly benefit of half-measures. There is only great risk by languishing behind the power curve.

We need to begin having a serious discussion about this and the ramifications of our options. This may require a significant degree of societal change. It's no exaggeration that we're looking at a problem in the hundreds of billions of dollars. That could be an ever greater problem when the impacts of globalization are factored in. We may find it unaffordable unless we can keep that economic activity and the wealth and debt associated with it to ourselves, in-house. These are aspects we have to explore and open for discussion.

The thing to keep in mind is that time is not on our side.

In 'Silly Bugger' News

10,000 Aussies swarmed a botanical garden outside Adelaide to experience a rare plant that can replicate the stench of a rotting corpse. The Titan arum, also called the 'corpse flower,' comes from the Sumatran rainforest. It takes a decade to grow to a height of about three metres before it flowers and releases its nauseating bouquet whereupon it collapses into a heap of rotting vegetation.

Good on ya, silly buggahs down undah.

Here's to the Qatari royal family who loaded aboard nine jets for the emergency medical evacuation to Switzerland of one prince with a broken leg. Nine jets, one of them an Airbus - one busted leg. Way to go, you silly Sunni buggers.

And then there's the silly rubber robber of Schoppingen, Germany, who laid himself to waste on Christmas Day in an aborted explosive robbery of a condom machine. The 29-year old and his two accomplices thought they might get a few Euros from a roadside condom dispenser by blowing it all to hell. The blast caught one of them in the head - no, the one atop his shoulders. End of story for the silly rubber robber bugger.

Kinda makes you feel a little more normal, eh?


Make room for Arkansas country-western singer, Craig Strickland. Authorities have been searching for Strickland who disappeared after he and a buddy and his dog, Sam, went duck hunting on a lake in northern Oklahoma in the midst of severe storm conditions blamed for at least 5 deaths and 100 injuries in that State. The body of Strickland's hunting partner has been recovered and Sam was found alive.

I'm sorry, I know it's sad. But who in his right mind goes out onto a lake in a duck boat in the midst of a massive windstorm? Another silly bugger gone to an untimely passing.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Will the Party "That Never Expects to Win" Let Mulcair Stay On?

The Tyee's parliamentary reporter, Jeremy Nuttall, thinks Tom Mulcair will survive a leadership review at the party's convention in April. Why? According to Nuttall, it's because the NDP is the party "that never expects to win."

Some argue, convincingly, that Mulcair is just Tony Blair only with a maple leaf and that he has to go:

University of Manitoba political science professor Radhika Desai said the New Democrats made a move to the right over the last few years, much like former United Kingdom Labour Party leader and prime minister Tony Blair with his party in the 1990s.

Desai said it didn't work. "The chief reason for Mulcair to go is that this is not his game," she said. "His game was the Blairite, right wing, game. He played it in the election and it failed dismally."

Now, said Desai, the party is looking inward and must decide if it thinks such a strategy is wise to pursue again.

Ethan Cox, a former NDP director in Quebec and an editor at the digital media outlet Ricochet, said he quit the party in 2012 over concerns about Mulcair being elected as leader.

Cox said the party lost the number of seats it did in October because it didn't offer any vision to the electorate and was more concerned with not appearing too far to the left on the political spectrum to protect its lead. He blames that squarely on Mulcair and his team.

"What we saw in 2015 was exactly the kind of campaign Tom Mulcair wants to run," he said. "I don't think we have any indication that he's going to do anything differently next election."

Cox also pointed to what he calls a "disconnect" with the grassroots NDP base on issues of social democracy, citing the removal of two candidates this year that had criticized Israel in the past and say they were forced out because of their views.

The NDP has traditionally had some members openly sympathetic towards or pro-Palestinian on the issue, but Mulcair has tilted the party more toward one that staunchly supports Israel, Cox said.

"It's one thing for Tom Mulcair to be very pro-Israel; it's one thing for him to move the party's position on it," he said. But the forcing out of candidates with a differing opinion, where their positions are more in line with the traditional position of the party, he said, "I think that really affected the base and the goodwill of the base."

Others contend that most New Dems are content to languish in the centre/centre-right spectrum preferred by Mulcair even at the sacrifice of traditional progressivism because they're a forgiving lot accustomed to dwelling in the basement.

But history is not on the side of those opposed to Mulcair's continued leadership, according to one watcher of Canadian politics.

University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman said the chances of Mulcair leaving or being pushed out are virtually non-existent.

Wiseman said while the Liberals and Conservatives tend to oust leaders who lose, that's only because they are in contention for government every election. It's a different reality among New Democrats.

"The NDP does not have the tradition of ever getting rid of a leader," Wiseman said. "The NDP never expects to win; this was the first election in which they thought they had a chance. It didn't happen."

Nothing Like a Bit of Perspective to Make You Go "Wow"

A few days ago Elon Musk's SpaceX successfully landed a rocket booster after it had lifted a payload into space. Hmm, yawn. Sure, neat - I suppose. Here's what really happened.

So this is what SpaceX did: They took a 12 story rocket weighing 20,000 kilograms moving at 6000 kph, slowed it, stopped it, turned it around, let it fall nearly 200 km to the ground, reignited the engines, had it follow a descent path, automatically correcting its orientation and attitude, until it landed within a few meters of the pre-chosen spot.

This is what the final seconds of that looked like:

That little orange thing slightly to the left of the booster in the bottom photo? That's a man. Think he wasn't impressed?

This Is Getting Nasty. Brazil Rejects Israeli Ambassador from Occupied Territories

Israel wants Dani Dayan to be its next ambassador to Brazil. Brazil has said, "no can do."

Dayan is unwelcome in Brazil because he's not from Israel. He's from the Palestinian's Occupied Territories. Dayan is an illegal settler. Brazil, like almost all nations in the world, doesn't care for Israel's endless occupation, usurpation and exploitation of the Palestinian's homeland. Netanyahu's response, to paraphrase, is 'fuck you, take him or else.'

"The State of Israel will leave the level of diplomatic relations with Brazil at the secondary level if the appointment of Dani Dayan is not confirmed," Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely - herself a supporter of the settler movement - told Israel's Channel 10 TV, saying Mr Dayan would remain the sole nominee.

She said Israel would lobby Brasilia through the Brazilian Jewish community, confidants of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and direct appeals from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Brazilian government officials declined to comment on whether Ms Rousseff would accept the nomination of the Argentine-born Mr Dayan. But one senior Foreign Ministry official told Reuters: "I do not see that happening".

Brazilian MP Carlos Marun earlier said Mr Dayan's appointment was comparable to "Germany sending a Nazi prison guard as an ambassador to Brazil, or South Africa sending a former apartheid torturer". He said the appointment was "an insult".

The Brazilian government official, who asked not to be named, said Israel would have to choose a different envoy because the choice of Mr Dayan has further worsened relations that turned sour in 2010 when Brazil decided to recognise Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and settled.

Seriously, WTF? Blizzard Warnings for Texas, New Mexico.

The old jaw dropped to the floor when I read, "A weather system from Texas is expected to bring snow, ice and rain to Ontario and Quebec today." Double take - a weather system from Texas - bringing snow, ice and rain? That's Texas as in the north side of the Rio Grande, right there beside Mexico.

Then I read that the US National Weather Service has issued a blizzard warning for Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. That, my friends, must be the Mother of all Jet Streams.

No Referendum on Voting Reform?

Not sure this is quite what we had in mind when it comes to deciding how Canadians will elect their political representatives in the future. According to The Globe & Mail, the Trudeau Libs have decided we, the people - you and me (but especially me) - won't have a say in what our ballot will be like when next we trek to the polls.

Parliament will make that call which is another way of saying Justin and his false majority. They're going to figure out our next system of voting. I'm just guessing but I expect it won't be the one, proportional voting, that's considered most favourable to the New Dems. I'd put my money on the preferential ballot option, the one most favourable to the permanent installation of a Liberal dynasty.

Dominic LeBlanc, the Liberal House Leader, told CTV’s Question Periodon Sunday that “our plan is not to have a national referendum. Our plan is to use Parliament to consult Canadians. That has always been our plan and I don’t have any reason to think that’s been changed.”

Mr. LeBlanc, who has previously said that one party with a majority should not be able to rewrite the rules for everybody else, said the government sees “Parliament taking it responsibility and having a committee travel across the country and then having a debate in Parliament.”

What to Do When the Climate Comes Calling and Your Government's Asleep

It's not a rhetorical question. It's also a question that's going to come up more and more as our planet's climate worsens. Consider this year's El Nino a glimpse into tomorrow's "normal."

At the moment the question could be posed to a number of governments, Australia's and Britain's come to mind. They're charter members in good standing of the Anglosphere which means they've had their fair share of neoliberal government, disciples of free market fundamentalism.

Australia's governing party staged a coup to rid the country of its Harper clone, Tony Abbott, but beyond now more or less admitting climate change is real, sort of, the country is still immersed in the old ways. Did I mention it's also ablaze? Well the parts that aren't flooded are afire. At least the Brits don't have to contend with saltwater crocs swimming down their lanes. Call it Karma Down Under where the supposedly climate-conscious government just approved a massive new coal operation.

Fire isn't the problem on the other side of the world in merry olde England. That country is ruled by market fundamentalist Tory, David Cameron, a man who walks the stained path of Margaret Thatcher, who packs austerity in both holsters.

Cameron's problem is that he hasn't figured out that what Britons used to know as winter has now become flood season. Apparently he was so busy cutting benefits to the vulnerable that he didn't read the memo about this year's raunchy El Nino.

Three cities; Leeds, Manchester and York; have now been inundated with feet of flood waters, the result of torrential rains. Just as their floodwaters seem to have crested, Britain's Met Office is warning of another bout of heavy rains and gale-force winds by mid-week.

David Cameron, ever the market-fundamentalist technocrat, sees the problem as a question of spending.

"I think with any of these events we have to look at what we are planning to spend and think: ‘Do we need to do more?’ " C'mon, Dave. Do you need to do more? Do you really need to ask? Of course - austerity - sorry.

Meanwhile an official of the Environment Agency suggests that Britons henceforth 'waterproof' their houses. David Rooke says those in flood affected areas will need solid floors, waterproof plaster and their household wiring relocated higher up the walls.

Dave, get back on your meds. It's the water behind the walls that's the problem whether the wiring is above it or not. It's the water in the basement that's weakening the foundation that's the problem. It's the mold that's the problem. It's being in the path of next year's flood and the one after that and all the floods that follow that's the problem. It's being stuck with a house that was built centuries ago atop what's now a severe flood plain that's the problem. Waterproofing half-measures are no more effective than sticking your thumb up your arse, Dave.

That, friends, is what you get when the new climate comes calling and your government's asleep. Here's what you need to ask yourself. Is your government any better than Cameron's or Australia's or America's?

Neoliberals may think they can ignore climate change or that, somehow, they can outwait it. They can't.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

What If Trump Isn't a Fluke But a Symptom of a Growing Global Disorder?

Imagine a huge international conference and every other seat around the enormous oval table occupied by a Donald Trump, each of them incessantly demanding the floor. How would you ever be heard?

Unfortunately that may be where we're headed, at least according to BBC Defence and Diplomatic Editor, Mark Urban.

Beset by insecurity (economic and physical), voters in many democracies have moved towards parties rejecting traditional policies or models of co-operation.

The Irish prime minister, addressing a conference of Europe's centre-right parties, warned against "the dangers of populism", referring to the rise of left-wing parties in Spain and Portugal. Meanwhile, similar phrases about the populist spectre have been used in relation to the march of the right in Poland and France.

"Populism" in this context is simply democracy revealing growing electoral extremism or polarisation, and it extends far wider than Europe.

Pat Buchanan, an "outsider" candidate in three US presidential elections, notes: "Nationalism and tribalism and faith - these are the driving forces now, and they are tearing apart transnational institutions all over the world."

In Europe, mass migration has brought matters to a head. Unilateral actions, such as the decision this summer by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to erect a border fence, have raised the pressure on other European countries and challenged the European Union.

...Reflecting on these dilemmas, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote: "We definitely live in interesting times." He suggests the world may be approaching "a new era of apartheid", in which wealthier countries try to seal themselves off from war-torn, poverty-stricken ones.

Are a Trump or a Marine Le Pen really electable? Regardless of the answer, if the centre is shrinking, sapped by political insurgencies on the left and right, it becomes harder to rally support for unpopular international policies - whether they relate to trade, immigration or military action.
Ambitious strongmen

One has to look no further for the effect of this on any collective action than to see how some European countries have refused to accept supposedly mandatory refugee quotas, while others that ostensibly signed up to them dragged their heels.

Try to force the issue, as the European Commission's plans for a new border force could do, by inserting frontier enforcement units on to Europe's periphery - even against the will of the country concerned - and you risk a different kind of crisis.

With their national leaders beset by doubt and political polarisation, quite a few of Europe's political insurgents, from left and right, express their admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
(Ditto, for Donnie Trump)

At least, their argument goes, he gets things done - for example in Syria. While many, including Barack Obama, compared Mr Putin's actions in Ukraine to the 1930s, the ideological cleavage of those times no longer exists, and the Russian leader has won the admiration of assertive Western nationalists such as Trump and Le Pen.

Russia's recent troubles with Turkey show though that nations guided by ambitious strongmen are also making world politics less predictable as well as less harmonious. The Kremlin has unleashed economic sanctions on Turkey, after the shooting down of a Russian military aircraft, just as its actions in Syria led some to hope that Mr Putin might be about to patch up his relations with the EU.

As for the Middle East, a more assertive Saudi monarchy has waded into Yemen, Syria's President Bashar Assad is saying he won't stand down despite the gathering international peace effort, Israel's leaders are in no mood to restart a peace process with the Palestinians, and Iranian hardliners are promising to stand fast in defence of the oppressed Shia across the region.

In 2016 then, there will be big challenges to the international system - from the possibility of the UK leaving the EU, to the strains within the organisation caused by the ongoing migration crisis, sectarian violence in the Middle East, and increasingly ill-tempered trade disputes.

As nationalistic or left-wing rejection of the international system grows, pity the diplomats struggling for consensus.

Another aspect of this breakdown in international cooperation is that it may undermine any already slim hope of a collaborative effort to slash carbon emissions as needed to prevent runaway global warming. Those whom the gods would destroy....

Think of It as a Matter of Life or Something Other Than Life

By now there aren't many who remain unaware of the dangerous levels of carbon in our atmosphere, the greenhouse gas CO2. Most of us have climbed the mountain of research and understand the role played by CO2 in heating our atmosphere, our oceans and our continents.

We're less likely to grasp the other critical roles carbon plays in our lives. Start with the fact that all life on Earth is carbon-based, you too. There wouldn't be any food on the table without carbon, even if you're vegan. Plants grow through photosynthesis, combining solar energy and carbon drawn from the air, returning the oxygen to the atmosphere. It's this exchange that has led some to call the Amazon rainforest the "lungs of the planet."

Over the past five or six years I've been reading whatever I can find on another role played by carbon - in our soil. Cut to the chase: it is an essential component to soil health. Without it, soil can become sterile, incapable of supporting plant life. Look at it this way - carbon in soil good/carbon in the atmosphere not so good.

The Green Revolution, industrial agriculture (fueled by heavy applications of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides and by the rapacious use of already limited groundwater for irrigation) has allowed our numbers to more than double since the early 70s. However, like all things done to excess for too long, the consequences are beginning to show up.

One form of blowback is seen in places such as India where soil was turned into viable farmland through agricultural chemicals. In these places decades of intensive agriculture has turned the soil thin, less fertile, requiring twice the original application of ag-chemicals to yield a crop.

What happens is the nitrogen fertilizers over time destroy the soil carbon. The nitrogen affects the soil microbes, puts them on steroids if you will, and they then go after the soil carbon which they in turn transform into CO2. Without the soil carbon, plant matter doesn't properly decompose, humus isn't formed, the soil goes dry and lifeless.

Research suggests that there is more stored carbon in the first foot of soil than we currently have in our atmosphere. Chemical fertilizers are starting to release that carbon skyward but now there may be a second, carbon-releasing feedback kicking in - droughts resulting from climate change.

There's a new book out from Canadian water expert, Robert Sanford, and former BC deputy minister of sustainable resource development, Jon O'Riordan, "The Climate Nexus, Water, Food, Energy and Biodiversity in a Changing World."

'The Climate Nexus' includes some ominous information about the effect of higher temperatures and droughts on the capacity of soil to store carbon dioxide. That’s because research has suggested that when alpine soil becomes 2° C warmer over a period of time, it can release a quarter of its stored carbon. In fact, the book states that humanity has “just a half metre of soil standing between prosperity and desolation”.

There are approximately 400 parts per million of carbon-dioxide equivalent gases in the atmosphere. The international community has set the “maximum allowable concentration” of carbon-dioxide equivalent gases at 450 parts per million, according toThe Climate Nexus.

The book notes that John Harte at the University of California at Berkeley maintains there is four times more carbon in the first foot of soil around the world than there is in the entire atmosphere.

“Harte calculated that if you release a quarter of that into the atmosphere, the amount would be equal to the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels,” O’Riordan and Sandford write. “In other words, if we warm the world’s soils by 2°C, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could double from its present 400 parts per million to 800 ppm.

800 ppm. is, by even the most optimistic interpretations, a world mankind has never known. Some claim plant life will thrive but they base that on photosynthesis and ignore what that much carbon will also do to soil biology and our already broken hydrological cycle. 

I wish we had three or four centuries to come to grips with this environmental nest of vipers but we don't even have three or four decades. Our governmental focus is on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, an attempt to slow the rate of global warming. That's a nice gesture, if the community of nations follows through with their promises, but it's best not to dwell on their historic track record on these things.

We have to concentrate on reducing atmospheric carbon levels, not just slowing their rate of growth. At the same time we also have to focus on getting more carbon back into our soils. There are ways we might do that but they're beyond the scope of a blog post. That is what I've been working on.

For those of you who don't grasp the urgency of this effort, consider this. The UN Food & Agriculture Organization last year issued a warning, based on a great deal of research and analysis, that at the rate we're degrading our planet's stock of viable farmland, what we have will be gone in 60-years. That's gone as in over, lights out.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Bernie, the Trump Slayer

Here's your Christmas gift. Overall, the American people are not lunatics. Yes, some of them joyfully support Donald Trump's bid for his party's presidential nomination but still more of them find the loose cannon loudmouth a huge embarrassment to the good old U.S. of A.

Here's a little something for your stocking. A new poll finds that Hillary Clinton would beat Trump by a full 7 percentage points in a runoff.

But wait, there's more.

The same poll found Bernie Sanders would trounce the Big Orange by a 13 per cent margin - and - a Sanders led Democratic Party would reclaim the House and probably the Senate to boot.

Go Bernie, go.

It's That Time of Year Again

Once again, as so often in Yuletimes past, here is Garrison Keillor's timeless Christmas Letter, 2015:

I love reading Christmas newsletters in which the writer bursts the bonds of modesty and comes forth with one gilt-edged paragraph after another: "Tara was top scorer on the Lady Cougars soccer team and won the lead role in the college production of 'Antigone,' which, by the way, they are performing in the original Greek. Her essay on chaos theory as an investment strategy will be in the next issue of Fortune magazine, the same week she'll appear as a model in Vogue. How she does what she does and still makes Phi Beta Kappa is a wonderment to us all. And, yes, she is still volunteering at the homeless shelter."
I get a couple dozen Christmas letters a year, and I sit and read them in my old bathrobe as I chow down on Hostess Twinkies. Everyone in the letters is busy as beavers, piling up honors hand over fist, volunteering up a storm, traveling to Beijing, Abu Dhabi and Antarctica; nobody is in treatment or depressed or flunking out of school, though occasionally there is a child who gets shorter shrift.
"Chad is adjusting well to his new school and making friends. He especially enjoys the handicrafts." How sad for Chad. There he is in reform school learning to get along with other little felons and making belts and birdhouses, but he can't possibly measure up to the goddess Tara. Or Lindsay or Meghan or Madison, each of whom is also stupendous.
This is rough on us whose children are not paragons. Most children aren't. A great many teenage children go through periods when they loathe you and go around slamming doors and playing psychotic music and saying things like "I wish I had never been born," which is a red-hot needle stuck under your fingernail. One must be very selective, writing about them for the annual newsletter. "Sean is becoming very much his own person and is unafraid to express himself. He is a lively presence in our family and his love of music is a thing to behold."
I come from Minnesota, where it's considered shameful to be shameless, where modesty is always in fashion, where self-promotion is looked at askance. Give us a gold trophy and we will have it bronzed so you won't think that we think we're special. There are no Donald Trumps in Minnesota: We strangled them all in their cribs. A football player who likes to do his special dance after scoring a touchdown is something of a freak.
The basis of modesty is winter. When it's 10 below zero and the wind is whipping across the tundra, there is no such thing as stylish and smart, and everybody's nose runs. And the irony is, if you're smart and stylish, nobody will tell you about your nose. You look in the rearview mirror and you see a gob of green snot hanging from your left nostril and you wonder, "How long have I been walking around like that? Is that why all those people were smiling at me?"
Yes, it is.
So we don't toot our own horns. We can be rather ostentatious in our modesty and can deprecate faster than you can compliment us. We are averse to flattery. We just try to focus on keeping our noses clean.

So here is my Christmas letter:
Dear friends. We are getting older but are in fairly good shape and moving forward insofar as we can tell. We still drink strong coffee and read the paper and drive the same old cars. We plan to go to Norway next summer. We think that this war is an unmitigated disaster that will wind up costing a trillion dollars and we worry for our country. Our child enjoys her new school and is making friends. She was a horsie in the church Christmas pageant and hunkered down beside the manger and seemed to be singing when she was supposed to. We go on working and hope to be adequate to the challenges of the coming year but are by no means confident. It's winter. God is around here somewhere but does not appear to be guiding our government at the moment. Nonetheless we persist. We see kindness all around us and bravery and we are cheered by the good humor of young people. The crabapple tree over the driveway is bare, but we have a memory of pink blossoms and expect them to return. God bless you all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

He's Got His Flaws, Plenty of Them, But Still This is Amazing

On a wind swept golf course in Hawaii, Barack Obama sinks a beautiful 40-foot chip shot.

The Crushing Reality of Climate Change

Imagine, these creatures once roamed the frozen plains with the great woolly mammoths. Will they be the next great creature we wipe from the face of the Earth? From Vimeo.

Oh, You Know - Same Old, Same Old

And how was your day, dear?

Merry, Merry

Is the Political Forum Too Small For the Fight Against Climate Change?

Two things happened during the Harper Decade of Darkness. The first was an absolute deluge of multi-disciplinary research into climate change and all its impacts. The second was essentially nothing.

Harper came into office dismissing climate change as a hoax, a socialist plot, and, despite his claims to the contrary, he left office in pretty much the same state of mind.

Out with the old, in with the new. The latest federal government says it gets the reality of climate change. It's real, it's bad, we must do something but not everything. Plenty of wiggle room there. Now if your party had its ass handed to it in the last election you'll probably want to rise up in righteous indignation at this point but spare us. Angry Beard wouldn't have done any better. That's because he would have been much too busy checking which way the wind was blowing to concentrate on climate change.

Getting back to my point, Canada remains a petro-state. What's holding it back - for now - is the collapse in fossil fuel energy prices (Odin, we pray, may they never rebound). Canada remains committed to the extraction, transportation and export of the highest-carbon, most hazardous unconventional petroleum of them all, bitumen.

With the unduly lax, 2 degree Celsius warming target in mind, we know the planet's carbon budget. If we're to have a "reasonable chance" of staying within 2C there is a finite amount of CO2 we may still release to the atmosphere. In order to have any prospect of achieving that "reasonable chance" we know that it means leaving 80% of known fossil fuel reserves untouched, safely sequestered deep underground.  That means shutting down collieries around the world and, for Canada, doing the same for the Athabasca and Saskatchewan's Tar Sands. Is there any reasonable chance that the political will at both federal and provincial levels will somehow manifest? No, not really. Our three western provinces won't hear of it and neither will the Petro-Pols of Parliament Hill.

What then must we do? Britain's former Labour leader, Ed Miliband, might have a worthwhile solution. He envisions a broad coalition comprising elected representatives, business leaders, religious leaders and members of 'civic society' all banding together to compel government to take the hard but essential decisions and implement the appropriate measures. A non-partisan coalition constantly dogging government, snapping at its heels, exposing inaction for what it is and for what it means both today and in the future. Out of many, one very loud and powerful voice.

We have entrusted our political caste with the powers and resources to act, to defend our country and ensure the future for our grandchildren and theirs. If, having accepted those resources and powers, they abrogate their fundamental responsibility to the country and its people then what choice is there but to organize and tackle them head-on?

That Bastard Grinch, Monbiot

Trust George Monbiot to give us a thorough scolding just in time for the festive season.

His latest op-ed is all about food, or at least the sort we really like to eat, and greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation, animal cruelty and the road to a certain superbug pandemic.

Read it here, if you like, or not if you would prefer to leave it until after Christmas. Pssst - you might prefer Option B.

As for you, Monbiot, a Merry Christmas - you rat.

The Grinch Who Stole Tom Mulcair's Christmas

The Liberals have already done it and it paid off handsomely but if any party is in need of a generational facelift surely it's the New Democrats who are languishing badly under 'Mulcair Heir of Layton.'

In a year-end interview with Maclean's, Mulcair's message to the party faithful is that "I'm not going anywhere without a push." With the party's mid-election collapse and worsening poll numbers since the Liberal government came to power, Mulcair might find that push waiting for him underneath the tree on Christmas morning.

According to CBC News:

Surveys conducted since the election peg the party to have between 12 and 16 per cent support. That puts the NDP back about a decade. Jack Layton's worst electoral performance was 15.7 per cent of the vote — in 2004.

And after leading both Trudeau and Stephen Harper, who held the job at the time, Tom Mulcair is now the choice as the best person to be prime minister of just 12 to 13 per cent of Canadians, the lowest the NDP leader has scored in Nanos Research's leadership polling since taking over the party in early 2012.

Support for the New Democrats has fallen in every part of the country, including Quebec. The polls put the New Democrats at between 11 and 19 per cent in that province, and only in British Columbia has any poll put the NDP above 20 per cent support. Some polls have even put the party in single digits in some parts of the country.

In calamity there often is opportunity if the beset are wise enough to reach for it. Last week I argued that it's time for generational change across the spectrum of Canadian politics. If there was ever a party in need of an evening of its political keel, in this case a return to the Left, it's the NDP and what better way to usher that in but generational renewal.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Do We Get a Say?

It's not hard to figure out how parties willing an election thereafter claim the legitimacy of a "public mandate." It's one thing in a two-party system but quite another in a multi-party milieu which allows a party to win a powerful majority of seats with considerably less than a majority of voter support.

And then there are matters of party platforms, strategic voting and such. If I vote for Party A instead of my preferred choice, Party B, but only because I think A has the best chance of defeating Party C, I do it knowing that Party A will add my vote to its supposed mandate.  And even if I stick to my guns and vote for Party B, that hardly means I endorse that party's entire platform. There might be positions I like and dislike in each party's platform. I might not trust a party to meet its promises. I might distrust them all to varying degrees.

Unless you voted Conservative in the last runoff your party of choice was committed to some sort of electoral reform. Various types of voting are said to favour particular parties. Preferential ballots, it is claimed, are particularly advantageous to the Liberals. Proportional voting is said to favour the NDP. Each system is said to have several variations. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Both, we're told, will ensure there'll never be another tyranny such as we endured with the Harper regime.

Now there are some camps that want a new system imposed without further consulting the voting public. You made your bed in the last election, they seem to suggest, now lay in it. In that case I guess it would have to be the preferential ballot option. The Liberals, after all, did lay waste to the Mulcair New Democrats by any measure.  The problem is, I don't like that idea.

I want a referendum. That said, I know that a referendum is a horribly flawed process to decide this issue. It's an issue that is exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation aimed at, well, confusing the issue. Voters don't like confusion, having to weigh this versus that over and over again.

As a result the voting public may not like FPTP, 'first past the post,' but they may be wary about the options and reluctant to change direction.  Previous referenda show this to be the case.

Perhaps the only way to break this deadlock is to put the principles behind the options to the public, not the specific options. Test the public will and, from those responses, craft the system. One way or the other we have to do something.

A White Christmas? It's Possible, Just Barely

Coastal Vancouver Island, at least the bottom half, is not a place where you expect to be greeted with a blanket of snow on Christmas morning. Oh there's usually snow on the mountains inland but it's different near the water.

This year? This year we're looking at the possibility of snow on the 24th with an overnight low of -1 and a high on Christmas Day of just 1C.

Either way there'll be no need for the snow shovel with rain returning on the 26th and continuing straight through to May.

Inside the Curious Mind of America's Conservative Voter - Sort of Like Pavlov Only Without the Dogs

A lot of us are flummoxed at how Donald Trump remains at the top of a heap of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.

From a psychological perspective, though, the people backing Trump are perfectly normal. Interviews with psychologists and other experts suggest one explanation for the candidate's success -- and for the collective failure to anticipate it: The political elite hasn't confronted a few fundamental, universal and uncomfortable facts about the human mind. From The Washington Post:

We like people who talk big.

We like people who tell us that our problems are simple and easy to solve, even when they aren't.

And we don't like people who don't look like us.

Most people share these characteristics to some degree, but they seem to be especially prevalent among Trump's base. Trump's appeal certainly has other sources, too, such as the nostalgia he so skillfully evokes, his financial independence from special interests, and the crucial fact that he had his own reality TV show. Some Republicans like Trump's anti-establishment approach. And many support Trump because of his substantive positions -- his views on immigration, his antipathy toward China, his defense of Social Security, or his opposition to tax deductions for wealthy bankers.

Trump doesn't give the kinds of speeches that political consultants are used to hearing. He certainly doesn't deliver lines that are carefully formulated for applause and for prime-time sound bites. His style has been called a "word salad."

Still, he is an effective speaker, psychologists say. In fact, decades of research show that charisma has more to do with a person's demeanor than what he or she is saying, says Stanford University's Jeffrey Pfeffer.

In one series of well-known experiments conducted by the psychologists Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, subjects were able to predict how students in a college classroom would evaluate their teachers at the end of the term, based on 30 seconds or less of soundless footage of the instructor. The subjects in the study couldn't hear the words coming out of the instructor's mouth, but what mattered for the students was gesture and affect, not substance.

Voters listening to politicians on television are just like the students in those classrooms, says Pfeffer, a psychologist who studies leadership.

"Most of the electorate would not pass a test on what anybody's positions are on anything," he said. "Nobody cares." Conservative voters, for instance, seem not to mind Trump's favorable comments on national health insurance andeminent domain.

What can win over voters is what Pfeffer called "narcissism."

"They're responding to dynamism, to force, to movement, to smiling, to facial expressions that convey authority," he said. Trump "does it with more force. He does it with more energy. Energy is contagious."

Both conservative and liberal voters can be susceptible to this kind of thinking. In other ways, though, psychologists believe that conservative and liberal minds work differently, which could help explain Trump's success with Republicans.

The world can feel like a complicated place. There may be no good answers to the problems we confront individually and as a society. It is hard to know whom or what to believe. Things are changing, and the future might be different in unpredictable ways. For many people, this uncertainty is deeply unpleasant.

"People are just inclined to say, 'Okay, to hell with it. I'm not going to figure it out,' " Kruglanski said.

That desire is especially strong among social conservatives, research shows. They want answers, more so than other people.

Over the years, conservative commentators have objected to this characterization of their beliefs. They argue that conservatism isn't a psychological condition, but a set of ideas with a rich intellectual history, developed across generations through rational deliberation.

For their part, psychologists have responded that they aren't dismissing conservativism as irrational. After all, just because people are predisposed to believe something doesn't make them wrong. Saying someone is more likely to find an argument persuasive because of their psychology doesn't invalidate the argument. As psychologists see it, the desire for simplicity is just a fact about the way people think — one that several decades of research has now confirmed.

Hibbing of the University of Nebraska says this need for clarity is important to understanding Trump's support.

"People like the idea that deep down, the world is simple; that they can grasp it and that politicians can't," Hibbing said. "That's certainly a message that I think Trump is radiating."

At Hibbing's laboratory, he and his colleagues study how conservative and liberal subjects react to unpleasant images, such as insects and injuries. They use cameras to track the motion of their subjects' eyes and place electrodes on their skin. Other researchers study the contractions of facial muscles and electrical activity in the brain.

These experiments show that conservative subjects react differently from liberal ones. They sweat more heavily when shown a picture of a dangerous animal. Their pupils focus on disgusting images, and they don't look away.
It's evidence that we don't develop political affiliations just by rationally evaluating competing philosophies and ideologies. Our opinions also have origins beneath the level of conscious thought, in our bodies and our brains.

Seymour Hersh Rides Again - the Pentagon Quietly Goes Rogue

Seymour Hersh is back with another blockbuster. The guy who pried open the US military's cover-up of the My Lai massacre in 1969 now reports that America's Joint Chiefs of Staff did a behind the scenes end run on Barack Obama intended to keep Bashar Assad in power. Like Putin and others the generals feared a takeover by radical Islamists if Assad was toppled.

From the London Review of Books:

Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. Their criticism has focused on what they see as the administration’s fixation on Assad’s primary ally, Vladimir Putin.

The military’s resistance dates back to the summer of 2013, when a highly classified assessment, put together by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then led by General Martin Dempsey, forecast that the fall of the Assad regime would lead to chaos and, potentially, to Syria’s takeover by jihadi extremists, much as was then happening in Libya. ...The new intelligence estimate singled out Turkey as a major impediment to Obama’s Syria policy. The document showed, the adviser said, ‘that what was started as a covert US programme to arm and support the moderate rebels fighting Assad had been co-opted by Turkey, and had morphed into an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State. The so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey.’ The assessment was bleak: there was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the US was arming extremists.

Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the DIA between 2012 and 2014, confirmed that his agency had sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the civilian leadership about the dire consequences of toppling Assad. The jihadists, he said, were in control of the opposition. Turkey wasn’t doing enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border. ‘If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic,’ Flynn told me. ‘We understood Isis’s long-term strategy and its campaign plans, and we also discussed the fact that Turkey was looking the other way when it came to the growth of the Islamic State inside Syria.’ The DIA’s reporting, he said, ‘got enormous pushback’ from the Obama administration. ‘I felt that they did not want to hear the truth.

...It’s the “anybody else is better” issue that the JCS had with Obama’s policy.’ The Joint Chiefs felt that a direct challenge to Obama’s policy would have ‘had a zero chance of success’. So in the autumn of 2013 they decided to take steps against the extremists without going through political channels, by providing US intelligence to the militaries of other nations, on the understanding that it would be passed on to the Syrian army and used against the common enemy, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.

...It was clear that Assad needed better tactical intelligence and operational advice. The JCS concluded that if those needs were met, the overall fight against Islamist terrorism would be enhanced. Obama didn’t know, but Obama doesn’t know what the JCS does in every circumstance and that’s true of all presidents.’

...We were saying to the Germans and the others: “Here’s some information that’s pretty interesting and our interest is mutual.” End of conversation. The JCS could conclude that something beneficial would arise from it – but it was a military to military thing, and not some sort of a sinister Joint Chiefs’ plot to go around Obama and support Assad. It was a lot cleverer than that. If Assad remains in power, it will not be because we did it. It’s because he was smart enough to use the intelligence and sound tactical advice we provided to others.’

...‘There was no way to stop the arms shipments [to the anti-Assad rebels] that had been authorised by the president,’ the JCS adviser said. ‘The solution involved an appeal to the pocketbook. The CIA was approached by a representative from the Joint Chiefs with a suggestion: there were far less costly weapons available in Turkish arsenals that could reach the Syrian rebels within days, and without a boat ride.’ But it wasn’t only the CIA that benefited. ‘We worked with Turks we trusted who were not loyal to Erdoğan,’ the adviser said, ‘and got them to ship the jihadists in Syria all the obsolete weapons in the arsenal, including M1 carbines that hadn’t been seen since the Korean War and lots of Soviet arms. It was a message Assad could understand: “We have the power to diminish a presidential policy in its tracks.”’

But as [Assad's] army gained in strength with the Joint Chiefs’ support, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey escalated their financing and arming of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, which by the end of 2013 had made enormous gains on both sides of the Syria/Iraq border. The remaining non-fundamentalist rebels found themselves fighting – and losing – pitched battles against the extremists. In January 2014, IS took complete control of Raqqa and the tribal areas around it from al-Nusra and established the city as its base. Assad still controlled 80 per cent of the Syrian population, but he had lost a vast amount of territory.

In January 2014, despairing at the lack of progress, John Brennan, the director of the CIA, summoned American and Sunni Arab intelligence chiefs from throughout the Middle East to a secret meeting in Washington, with the aim of persuading Saudi Arabia to stop supporting extremist fighters in Syria. ‘The Saudis told us they were happy to listen,’ the JCS adviser said, ‘so everyone sat around in Washington to hear Brennan tell them that they had to get on board with the so-called moderates. [The CIA director's] message was that if everyone in the region stopped supporting al-Nusra and Isis their ammunition and weapons would dry up, and the moderates would win out.’ Brennan’s message was ignored by the Saudis, the adviser said, who ‘went back home and increased their efforts with the extremists and asked us for more technical support. And we say OK, and so it turns out that we end up reinforcing the extremists.’

But the Saudis were far from the only problem: American intelligence had accumulated intercept and human intelligence demonstrating that the Erdoğan government had been supporting Jabhat al-Nusra for years, and was now doing the same for Islamic State. ‘We can handle the Saudis,’ the adviser said. ‘We can handle the Muslim Brotherhood. You can argue that the whole balance in the Middle East is based on a form of mutually assured destruction between Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and Turkey can disrupt the balance – which is Erdoğan’s dream. We told him we wanted him to shut down the pipeline of foreign jihadists flowing into Turkey. But he is dreaming big – of restoring the Ottoman Empire – and he did not realise the extent to which he could be successful in this.’

...A former White House adviser on Russian affairs told me that before 9/11 Putin ‘used to say to us: “We have the same nightmares about different places.” He was referring to his problems with the caliphate in Chechnya and our early issues with al-Qaida. These days, after the Metrojet bombing over Sinai and the massacres in Paris and elsewhere, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we actually have the same nightmares about the same places.’

Yet the Obama administration continues to condemn Russia for its support of Assad. A retired senior diplomat who served at the US embassy in Moscow expressed sympathy for Obama’s dilemma as the leader of the Western coalition opposed to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine: ‘Ukraine is a serious issue and Obama has been handling it firmly with sanctions. But our policy vis-à-vis Russia is too often unfocused. But it’s not about us in Syria. It’s about making sure Bashar does not lose. The reality is that Putin does not want to see the chaos in Syria spread to Jordan or Lebanon, as it has to Iraq, and he does not want to see Syria end up in the hands of Isis. The most counterproductive thing Obama has done, and it has hurt our efforts to end the fighting a lot, was to say: “Assad must go as a premise for negotiation.”’

...The Kremlin adviser on the Middle East, like the Joint Chiefs and the DIA, dismisses the ‘moderates’ who have Obama’s support, seeing them as extremist Islamist groups that fight alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and IS (‘There’s no need to play with words and split terrorists into moderate and not moderate,’ Putin said in a speech on 22 October). The American generals see them as exhausted militias that have been forced to make an accommodation with Jabhat al-Nusra or IS in order to survive. At the end of 2014, Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German journalist who was allowed to spend ten days touring IS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, told CNN that the IS leadership ‘are all laughing about the Free Syrian Army. They don’t take them for serious. They say: “The best arms sellers we have are the FSA. If they get a good weapon, they sell it to us.” They didn’t take them for serious. They take for serious Assad. They take for serious, of course, the bombs. But they fear nothing, and FSA doesn’t play a role.’

Erdogan - Again and Again

[Imad Moustapha, Syrian ambassador to China] told me that for Assad to surrender power would mean capitulating to ‘armed terrorist groups’ and that ministers in a national unity government – such as was being proposed by the Europeans – would be seen to be beholden to the foreign powers that appointed them. These powers could remind the new president ‘that they could easily replace him as they did before to the predecessor … Assad owes it to his people: he could not leave because the historic enemies of Syria are demanding his departure.’

Moustapha also brought up China, an ally of Assad that has allegedly committed more than $30 billion to postwar reconstruction in Syria. China, too, is worried about Islamic State. ‘China regards the Syrian crisis from three perspectives,’ he said: international law and legitimacy; global strategic positioning; and the activities of jihadist Uighurs, from Xinjiang province in China’s far west. Xinjiang borders eight nations – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – and, in China’s view, serves as a funnel for terrorism around the world and within China. Many Uighur fighters now in Syria are known to be members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – an often violent separatist organisation that seeks to establish an Islamist Uighur state in Xinjiang. ‘The fact that they have been aided by Turkish intelligence to move from China into Syria through Turkey has caused a tremendous amount of tension between the Chinese and Turkish intelligence,’ Moustapha said. ‘China is concerned that the Turkish role of supporting the Uighur fighters in Syria may be extended in the future to support Turkey’s agenda in Xinjiang. We are already providing the Chinese intelligence service with information regarding these terrorists and the routes they crossed from on travelling into Syria.’

Moustapha’s concerns were echoed by a Washington foreign affairs analyst who has closely followed the passage of jihadists through Turkey and into Syria. The analyst, whose views are routinely sought by senior government officials, told me that ‘Erdoğan has been bringing Uighurs into Syria by special transport while his government has been agitating in favour of their struggle in China. Uighur and Burmese Muslim terrorists who escape into Thailand somehow get Turkish passports and are then flown to Turkey for transit into Syria.’

...Obama now has a more compliant Pentagon. There will be no more indirect challenges from the military leadership to his policy of disdain for Assad and support for Erdoğan. Dempsey and his associates remain mystified by Obama’s continued public defence of Erdoğan, given the American intelligence community’s strong case against him – and the evidence that Obama, in private, accepts that case. ‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria,’ the president told Erdoğan’s intelligence chief at a tense meeting at the White House (as I reported in the LRB of 17 April 2014). The Joint Chiefs and the DIA were constantly telling Washington’s leadership of the jihadist threat in Syria, and of Turkey’s support for it. The message was never listened to. Why not?