// archives

Archive for July, 2018

Where Will It All End?

This is Armageddon Summer in the northern hemisphere: out-of-control wildfires all around the Arctic Circle (not to mention California and Greece), weeks-long heatwaves with unprecedented high temperatures, torrential downpours and Biblical floods. And yes, it’s climate change.

It’s quite appropriate to be frightened, because the summers will be much worse ten years from now, and much worse again ten years after that. Prompt and drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions now might stop the summers of the 2040s from being even worse, but they wouldn’t do much to lessen the mounting misery of the next 20 years. Those emissions are mostly in the atmosphere already.

Besides, we’re not going to see ‘prompt and drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions’ any time soon. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better – if it ever does get better. And so it is probably time to ask the obvious question: where will it all end?

The worst case isn’t the only case, or even the most likely case, but there may be some value in understanding how bad it could get if we miss all the exits on the highway to Hell. And here I’m going to quote from an interview I did ten years ago with Dr Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center. It’s all still true today.

He had been talking about the ‘feedbacks’ (melting permafrost, warming oceans, huge releases of methane and carbon dioxide). Because they cannot yet be fully incorporated into the computer models of climate, they lead to systematic underestimates of future warming. And then he cut to the chase.

“If you take all these feedbacks into account, the estimates are that by 2100, instead of two to six degrees Celsius rise (in average global temperature), it looks like a possibility of six to twelve degrees….

These temperature changes would change the ocean circulation patterns and end up with much of the oceans going anoxic – very low oxygen content – which would then promote bacteria which produce hydrogen sulphates. These would rise and take out the ozone layer, and also make it somewhat difficult to breathe. This is by 2100.”

What Dennis Bushnell was referring to was ‘Canfield oceans’, now strongly suspected of being the cause of four out of the big five mass extinctions. Everybody knows about the huge asteroid that struck the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years and wiped out the dinosaurs. Fewer people know that there is no trace of an asteroid strike associated with the other four ‘great dyings’, 444 million, 360 million, 251 million and 200 million years ago. So what happened then?

One common factor was that the planet was unusually hot at the time, but the real clue was that the deep oceans were anoxic. There was no oxygen down there, and therefore no life that used oxygen. When the oceans are very warm, the ‘overturning circulation’ (like the Gulf Stream) that carries vast amounts of oxygen -rich surface water down into the depths simply stops, and the oceans stratify into an oxygenated surface layer and an anoxic deeper layer.

But there was still life down there: sulphate bacteria that normally hide in the silt, away from the oxygen that would destroy them. In an anoxic ocean, they come out and multiply – and eventually, if the conditions are right, they rise all the way to the surface and kill all the oxygen-based life in the sea.

Not only that, but hydrogen sulphide gas, a waste product of their metabolism, rises into the atmosphere, destroys the ozone layer, and drifts over the land where it also wipes out most life. This has happened not once but at least four times in the past.

In theory, by warming the planet we would be creating the right conditions for another go-round, but in practice it’s not all that likely. There hasn’t been a ‘Canfield’ event in the past 200 million years, and when those earlier mass extinctions happened the planet was a good deal hotter to begin with.

Even if we avoid that fate, we may be heading for a mass die-back, including of human beings. Food is the key issue: as warming depresses productivity and turns whole regions into desert, mass starvation is imaginable, although actual extinction seems improbable.

It’s also still possible that we will react fast enough to stop well short of mass death. When dealing with the future, you can only deal in probabilities, and even those are very slippery.

The situation is already quite grim. Bad news, of course, but when you find yourself in a high-stakes game you should know what the stakes are.
______________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 14. (“In theory…begin with”, and “It’s…slippery”)

Zimbabwe Election

“I am as soft as wool. I am a very soft person in life,” Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa told the BBC in a recent interview, but his nickname is ‘The Crocodile’. There is probably no more ruthless person active in Zimbabwe’s politics, and three months ago he looked like a shoo-in to win the presidential election due to be held on 30 July.

It was ‘ED’ (as he is understandably known for short) whose dismissal as Vice-President last year triggered the military coup that finally forced the resignation of Robert Mugabe, the elderly and authoritarian president whose 37-year rule had ruined the country economically. Mnangagwa emerged from that as the interim president of Zimbabwe, and this election was supposed to put the seal of legitimacy on his rule.

It seemed an easy win because the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, is an alliance of seven smaller parties, and the MDC’s founder and leader for almost two decades died in February. But it isn’t turning out like that at all. Three months ago Mnangagwa led the new MDC leader, Nelson Chamisa, by 11 points in the opinion polls, but by last week his lead had shrunk to only 3 percent.

Many people are still afraid to reveal their true voting intentions due to their ingrained fear of the ruling Zanu-PF Party’s frequent use of deadly violence against opposition supporters in the past, so Chamisa could even come in ahead of Mnangagwa in next Monday’s vote. But there are 23 presidential candidates in this round, and unless Chamisa gets more than half the votes that would mean a second, run-off election between the two.

The ruling Zanu-PF party has largely abstained from violence this time, but if it knew it was likely to lose the presidency in the second round the gloves might come off. The army’s senior officers, all Zanu-PF members, count on Mnangagwa to maintain their privileged status in a relatively poor country, and his past record contains a great deal of violence.

A veteran of Zimbabwe’s independence war, he gained a fearsome reputation as national security minister during Zanu-PF’s war against a rival independence movement in the 1980s, during which thousands were killed and tens of thousands tortured.

He also orchestrated the violence in the early 2000s when Zimbabwe’s white farmers were driven from their land (much of which was taken by senior Zanu-PF people). He did it again after the first round of the 2008 presidential election, when the MDC leader got more votes than Mugabe. Mnangagwa directed the violence that killed hundreds of opposition supporters and forced the MDC to drop out of the second round.

So he’s probably not afraid to use force again, and neither are his generals. But the army’s junior officers might not follow them, since they are not getting rich out of the current arrangement. It could get very messy, and many Zimbabweans hope for a coalition government after the first round in which Mnangagwa narrowly wins the presidency but gives experienced MDC leaders most of the powerful ministries.

That might work well, since Mnangagwa could be a good president so long as his power and wealth were safe. His campaign focuses firmly on fixing the economy, which is in desperate need of repair, and he argues, quite plausibly, that if only the country could show that it was stable then foreign investment would flood in.

Mugabe ruined the economy – at one point the GDP was down by half – and even now Zimbabweans are 15% poorer than they were in 1980. Millions have left the country seeking work elsewhere (mostly in South Africa). But it is rich in resources, and it has one of Africa’s best-educated populations: more than two-thirds of Zimbabweans aged 15-49 have attended secondary school.

So it really could attract the investment if it emerged from all this as a stable, democratic country – but the paradox is that it might be less stable under a genuinely democratic government led by Nelson Chamisa. The threat of military intervention would be ever-present. Yet it is actually possible that Chamisa could win over 50 percent of the votes and become president in the first round.

The unknown factor is the youth vote. Zimbabwe is a young country, with almost half the registered voters under 35, and they have never voted in a free and fair election before. Almost all of them, even the poorest, have mobile phones. They also have a reasonably good education, and they face a staggeringly high unemployment rate.

So are these ambitious, frustrated young men and women more likely vote for dour, 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, who bears the stains of almost every crime committed in Mugabe’s long rule, or for a quick-witted, humorous, 40-year-old newcomer called Nelson Chamisa? Stay tuned.
____________________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“A veteran…round”)

Pakistan Election

“Look, we have no other choice,” Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said last May. “These games have gone on too long. Something has to change.” Then he left to be with his wife Kulsoom, who is on life support while receiving treatment for cancer in England. But last week he and his daughter Maryam returned to Pakistan to begin serving the jail sentences imposed on them by a Pakistani court.

Why did he do that? He may never see Kulsoom again, and the Pakistani military would not have tried to get him back if he stayed in exile. The family has plenty of money (including four luxury apartments on Park Lane, one of London’s grandest streets), and he could have enjoyed a comfortable retirement far from Pakistan’s brutal politics.

He went home, and Maryam went with him, to serve jail sentences of ten and seven years respectively, because his party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), could still win the national election on Wednesday. Or at least it could win enough seats to form a coalition government with the other anti-military party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

The PPP is led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 29-year-old son and grandson of former prime ministers. His mother, Benazir Bhutto, was killed in a terrorist attack that may have been orchestrated by elements in Pakistan’s all-powerful military, and his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by one of Pakistan’s military dictators. He does not love the army.

The PPP will come third in the election, behind both Nawaz Sharif’s party and the pro-military party led by former star international cricket player Imran Khan, because its support is largely confined to the province of Sindh and the rural poor. But if the PML-N and the PPP together win more seats in parliament than Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), they might be able to form a coalition government that could face down the army.

Nawaz Sharif cannot run for parliament from jail, but his brother Shahbaz Sharif, currently leading the PML-N, certainly would become prime minister–and Nawaz Sharif’s conviction would probably then be overturned on appeal. To lodge an appeal, however, he must first show up and go to jail, so there he sits (at least for the moment).

He would stand a good chance of winning an appeal if the military didn’t intervene, because the case against him is weak. It is preposterous and shameful that around a thousand rich Pakistani families, most of them in effect semi-feudal land-owners, dominate the politics of a country of nearly 200 million people at both national and local levels, but it is not illegal.

Most of those families keep much of their wealth abroad, and as many as half own an expensive house or apartment in London. Nawaz Sharif’s family used a company in Panama to manage their overseas properties, and all the details were disclosed with the publication of the Panama Papers.

The case against Nawaz Sharif and his children, probably constructed by the military, charged him with owning assets beyond his income. An anti-corruption court that was probably under heavy military pressure removed him from the prime ministership last year and another court then sentenced him to prison. But it’s not a safe conviction.

When a reporter from Pakistan’s biggest TV news channel, Geo, dug up information in March that suggested the grounds on which Nawaz had been removed as prime minister were “extremely weak”, its cable distributors cut it off, almost certainly under military pressure.

In May, the country’s oldest and most influential newspaper, Dawn, published an interview with Nawaz in which he questioned the army’s wisdom in “allowing” Pakistani militants to go to India and kill 150 people in Mumbai in 2008. Dawn’s distribution was immediately suspended across large parts of urban Pakistan that are controlled by the army’s real estate giant, the Defence Housing Authority.

The rest of Pakistan’s media, once lively, are now thoroughly cowed: they did not even report on these events. Some 17,000 activists of the PML-N are facing criminal cases for breaking unspecified election rules. But unless the army directly interferes with the vote-counting – which would certainly trigger mass protests – Nawaz Sharif may still end up back in power.

As Nawaz remarked, “There was a time when we used to say (the army is) a state within a state. Now it’s a state above the state.” This election is really about whether the army keeps that power over civilian politicians, and also holds on to the vast business empire that guarantees its senior officers a prosperous retirement.

To justify its privileged position the army needs a big military threat, so it supports various militant groups to maintain a guerilla war in Afghanistan and a permanent military confrontation with India. Whereas every civilian politician who has gained a firm hold on power has tried to normalise Pakistan’s relationship with India – and several (including Nawaz himself in 1999) have been overthrown by the army for daring to try.

Nothing less is at stake in this election than peace in the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan’s release from the burden of an over-powerful military (which might at last allow it to match India’s high economic growth rate). And it is even possible that the anti-military parties could win.
__________________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 8. (“The PPP…dictators”; and “He would…Papers”)

It’s Not (Quite) As Bad As It Seems

In a particularly bad week for wrecking behaviour, Donald Trump trashed the NATO summit, declared the European Union a “foe”, undermined Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts to get a ‘soft’ Brexit for Britain, sucked up to the Russians and betrayed his own intelligence services. But his actions made it clear that the NATO alliance is of limited relevance and that a new military confrontation with the Russians would be pointless folly.

He didn’t actually say either of those things last week (although he has said them both in the past). But despite the usual blizzard of off-the-cuff, contradictory Trumpian statements, a couple of truths did become obvious.

One is that Trump is Russia’s man in the White House. It is not clear what kind of hold Moscow has on him, but it clearly has one. The other is that there is almost no military dimension to the ‘Russian threat’ in Europe, so NATO does not need to spend more money.

Trump likes to sound tough. “Get ready, Russia, because (American missiles) will be coming, nice and new and smart!” he tweeted over a transient crisis in Syria three months ago. After last week’s NATO summit he claimed to have bullied the Europeans into spending much more on defence (against the Russian threat, of course).

But he never fired those missiles although the Russians didn’t back down. He didn’t really get any new promises from the Europeans last week to spend more money on NATO. And when he went to Moscow on Sunday, he declared that America was to blame for the poor state of US-Russian relations.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump tweeted. Three hours later the Russian Foreign Ministry replied: “We agree.” And it’s true, apart from the bit about the ‘witch hunt’.

After a two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin with only translators present, Trump announced that he accepted Putin’s denials about Russian attempts to use social media to influence the 2016 US election. “They (the US intelligence services) think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “President Putin just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Well, Putin himself mentioned one plausible reason for Russia to interfere in the US election at the very same press conference: he wanted Trump to win the election. But there was a great outcry in every part of the United States about how Trump had “thrown America under the bus,” as one Fox News reporter put it.

Now, let’s pick this all apart and try to make sense of it. Trump’s betrayal of the American intelligence services was a natural and necessary part of his campaign to discredit them, because he fears that they have or will discover evidence that links him to the Russian intervention in the US election.

There was a huge backlash in the US because even Trump’s own supporters were dismayed to see him value the Russian dictator’s words more highly than those of American intelligence professionals. Within a day he had been forced to admit, for the first time, that there had indeed been Russian meddling in the US election process in 2016.

He also had to backtrack on his claim that the United States was to blame for the heightened tension with Russia, tweeting that “We’re all to blame” and that he held “both countries responsible.” But actually, he was right about that the first time.

If the United States had treated the badly wounded post-Soviet Russia less brutally in the 1990s, nurturing the fragile new Russian democracy instead of taking all the Eastern European countries into NATO and pushing the alliance’s military frontier right up to the former Soviet border, there might never have been support in Russia for an aggrieved nationalist like Putin.

It’s too late to fix that now, but Russia is still not a major military threat. It has lots of modern tanks and missiles, because that’s what nationalist leaders do, but its economy is only the size of Italy’s and it could not sustain a prolonged military confrontation with NATO. That’s why Putin concentrates on non-military initiatives like his interference in the 2016 US election (and apparently in Britain’s 2017 Brexit referendum as well).

So it makes perfectly good sense for NATO’s European members to spend 2% or less of their resources on defence. NATO is really about defending Europe, and Europe doesn’t need much defending.

It’s true, as Trump regularly points out, that the United States spends 4% of its GDP on defence, but that’s because it has military commitments all over the world. In fact, it’s unlikely that even 2% of US resources is spent on forces, weapons and tasks that are specifically related to NATO.

The good news is that though the populists and ultra-nationalists are on the rise in the West (including Russia), raw military power still plays a minor role in the relations of the great powers. Hacking and the other digital dark arts are playing a much bigger role, and it is proving hard to get them under control. But which would you prefer?
________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 15. (“Our…hunt”; “Well…it”; and “It’s…NATO”)