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Climate Creep and American Frogs

At least a decade ago, a retired general at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies said to me that the rich countries will never take climate change seriously until some very big and apparently climate-related disaster happens in a first-world country. Hurricane Harvey was not that disaster.

At least twenty people have died in the Houston floods in the past few days, and the number will undoubtedly go up. In Bangladesh, at least 134 have died in monsoon flooding that has submerged at least a third of the country. But the latter fact will have no impact on opinion in the developed countries – “it’s just the monsoon again” – and the Texas disaster is not big enough to change minds in the United States. Nor should it.

Hurricanes are an annual event in the Gulf of Mexico, and their causes are well uderstood. Global warming has raised the amount of rain that this storm dumped on east Texas by 3-5 percent. (Higher sea surface temperature = more evaporation.) It also probably caused the changed wind patterns that kept Harvey loitering off the coast for so long.
But it did not cause Harvey.

The Houston floods are causing so much disruption and misery mainly because of human decisions: putting such a large population on a flood plain subject to frequent hurricanes, and then taking inadequate measures to protect those people from the inevitable consequences.

It’s the same story as Hurricane Katrina – and if more than a thousand dead in New Orleans twelve years ago didn’t change the way Americans deal with these threats, the current
pain in Houston is certainly not going to do so either. Indeed, just a couple of weeks ago President Trump scrapped Obama-era flood standards requiring infrastructure projects to take account of predicted global warming. There was no outcry.

Immerse a frog in boiling water, and it will immediately hop out. Put it in cold water and then slowly heat it, and the frog will not notice that it’s being boiled. The evidence is there, but it’s coming in too slowly to get its attention. Climate change is creeping in quietly, making normal weather a bit more extreme each year, and Americans haven’t noticed yet.

They get lots of help in maintaining their ignorance, of course.. Right-wing “think tanks” like the Institute of Energy Research, the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, financed by the likes of Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers, have already mobilised to deny any links between the Houston disaster and climate change.

“Instead of wasting colossal sums of money on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, much smaller amounts should be spent on improving the infrastructure that protects the Gulf and Atlantic coasts,” said Myron Ebell, director of environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (and formerly the head of Trump’s transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, tasked with crippling it).

But do not despair: this is largely an American phenomenon, and the United States does not bulk as large in the climate equation as it used to. Almost all the other developed countries are taking the threat of large-scale climate change seriously, although they have left it a bit late and they’re still not doing enough.

Consider, for example, the Netherlands, which is almost as vulnerable to flooding as Bangladesh: a quarter of the country is below sea level. There is a sentence in the introduction to the annual report of the Delta Programme, which deals with the rising sea levels and other water-related issues that concern the Dutch, that would be quite unthinkable in a US government document even in Barack Obama’s administration.

It reads: “The Delta Programme is tasked with ensuring that flood risk management and the freshwater supply will be sustainable and robust by 2050, and that our country will be designed in a manner that enables it to continue to cope resiliently with the greater extremes of climate.” If the United States had started taking the Dutch approach twenty years ago, far less of Houston would be underwater today, but “designing our country”? It’s un-American.

The United States will get there eventually, but it will take a far greater disaster than the Houston floods – the loss of Miami, perhaps? – before it ends the ideological wars and starts dealing with the realities of its situation. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will have to cope with climate change without American help.

It can probably manage. The Paris climate summit of December, 2015 produced an agreement that was a good start in coping with emissions, and none of the other countries took advantage of Trump’s defection from the deal to break their own promises. New technologies offer more promising routes for cutting emissions, and the world still has a chance of avoid runaway global warming (+3-6 degrees C).

Even if we can stop the warming before +2 degrees C, however, it’s too late already to prevent major climate change. There will be bigger floods and longer droughts, food shortages and floods of refugees, and countries will have to work hard to limit the damage. Including, eventually, the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Consider…un-American”)

Angola: All Change?

There is momentous change in Angola. The oil-rich country of 28 million people on Africa’s southwestern coast has just elected J-Lo as president.

There is also very little change in Angola. The new president is not Jennifer Lopez, the American J.Lo (which would definitely mean big change). It is João Lourenço, a member of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) since the 1970s, a general since the 1980s, and most recently the Minister of Defence. He can’t sing, either.

J-Lo replaces 75-year-old José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been president for the past 38 years (the second longest-ruling president in the world). But it’s questionable how much power he will really inherit from the outgoing president, who passed a new law prohibiting his successor from changing the heads of the army, the police or the intelligence service for eight years. Dos Santos wants no surprises after his retirement.

In fact, it’s hard to say that Dos Santos is retiring at all. He will remain the head of the ruling MPLA party, his daughter Isabel (Africa’s richest woman) runs the state oil company, and one of his sons controls the $5 billion state investment fund. Other allies and cronies dominate the rest of the economy.

J-Lo, by contrast, holds no positions that provide opportunities to steal massive amounts from state funds, and is widely believed to be non-corruptible or nearly so, a rare quality in the MPLA’s senior leadershiip. That may be why he was forced on Dos Santos by the party as a successor.

The MPLA has a little problem. After a devastating 27-year civil war between rival liberation movements ended with the death in battle in 2002 of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), rapidly growing oil production and high world oil prices created a huge boom in the Angolan economy. In several years since then it has been the fastest-growing economy in the world.

A great deal of the new wealth went to senior MLA members and their allies, but enough trickled down to keep the impoverished masses quiet and obedient. But the collapse in oil prices since 2014 has halved the Angolan government’s income and killed the private economy, such as it was. In the sprawling capital, Luanda, half-finished, abandoned apartment towers line the shore.

The poor are getting poorer, and they may eventually get angry. This is a relatively rich country where 20 percent of children die before their fifth birthday and a quarter of the adult population is officially unemployed (unofficially, much more). There is a lot of dry political tinder lying around waiting for a match.

The opposition Unita party won 27 percent of the votes in last week’s election, ten percent more than ever before, despite what was probably large-scale vote-rigging. The rank-and-file of the ruling party is getting worried, and despite having made the transition from hard-line communist to free-market capitalist over the years the MPLA remains a disciplined organisation.

Dos Santos was invulnerable until he got ill, but for more than a year he has been receiving treatment for cancer. He had his cousin, Vicente Manuel, made vice-president in 2012 with the intention of making him the designated successor, but the party chose João Lourenço instead in 2015. And though nobody is admitting it publicly, it probably pressured Dos Santos not to run again in the 2017 election.

So change is probably on the way in Angola after all, despite Dos Santos’s strenuous efforts to protect his family’s own wealth and power and hamstring his successor. What kind of change it’s hard to say, because like all prominent MPLA members J-Lo has had to hide any contrary opinions he may have held during the long reign of Dos Santos.

One clue, however, is Lourenço’s reputation for honesty. Long-ruling parties faced with collapsing popular support often try to win it back by choosing somebody known to be clean and competent as leader: think of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union picking Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary in 1985.

But remember also what happened to the CPSU in 1991. It was already too late to “reform” the Communist Party in the Soviet Union by 1985. It may already be too late to reform the MPLA now. And Angola’s civil war is only fifteen years in the past: a transition to a less corrupt, more open, less repressive regime would be a tricky thing to manage.

Lourenço has fought for and served the MPLA all his adult life, and he certainly has no intention of removing it from power. But he could be seduced by the idea of making it really popular again, and thereby holding onto power by genuinely democratic means.

In which case we must wish him luck, while knowing that he is likely to fail.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12-13. (“One clue…manage”)

Afghanistan: Endless War

In 2010, Barack Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden, vowed that the United States would be “totally out” of Afghanistan “come hell or high water, by 2014.” In 2014 Obama said that he would leave about 8,000 US troops there after all, and made an agreement with the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, that extended their stay “until the end of 2024 and beyond.”

Donald Trump wasn’t having any of that. Back in 2013 he tweeted “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” But it looks like the generals have now got to him with what passes for military wisdom.

On Monday Trump announced that he would be sending more US troops to Afghanistan – probably around 4,000 – and that they would stay as long as necessary. He has a clever new strategy, too: “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” (I bet George W. Bush and Barack Obama wish they had thought of that.)

There is a strong temptation at this point to haul out the hoary old line: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Trump is, indeed, proposing to do the same old things again, ostensibly in the hope of achieving different results.

Peak US troop strength in Afghanistan was 100,000 in 2010-11. If that did not deliver victory then, how likely is it that boosting US troop numbers from 8,500 to 12,500 will do it now?

Neither the Soviet Union nor the British empire at the height of its power were able to overcome Afghan resistance to a foreign military presence, and we now have sixteen years of evidence that the United States cannot do it either.

Both the British and the Russians were able to maintain a military presence in the country as long as they were willing to take the casualties that involved, but in neither case did the regimes they installed long survive their departure. Whatever their merits, those regimes were fatally tainted by their foreign sponsorship.

The United States now finds itself in precisely the same situation. Ashraf Ghani’s government is certainly not the worst that Afghanistan has had to endure, but it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of Afghan nationalists because it depends on foreign troops and foreign money.

Since those foreign troops dwindled from 140,000 in 2011 (including non-American troops from a dozen other Western countries) to only 13,400 now, the Afghan government has lost control of about 40 percent of the country. And the process is accelerating: one-third of that territory was lost in just the past year.

Helmand province, which Western troops took from from the Taliban in 2006-2010 at the cost of almost 600 deaths, is almost entirely back under Taliban control, and Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces are next. Even the capital, Kabul, for so long a bubble of safety, is now regularly targeted by suicide bombers: at least 150 killed in a massive blast in May, 20 more at a funeral in June, 35 more in a bus bombing in July.

So what would happen if the foreign troops all left and the Taliban became the government again, as they were in 1996-2001? Would the country become a breeding ground for terrorism? Would more plots like the 9/11 attacks be hatched there? Probably not.

The Taliban are essentially a nationalist group. Their extremely conservative take on Islam was not seen as a problem by Washington when they were fighting the Russians, and most rural Afghan males do not see it as a problem now. (Nobody asks the women.)

Most urban, educated Afghans are terrified of the Taliban’s return, of course, but they are a small fraction of the population. And many foreigners see the Taliban as the least bad alternative to the US-backed regime. As Zamir Kabulov, the Russian special envoy to Afghanistan, said in early 2016: “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.”

What he meant was that the Taliban aren’t interested in foreign affairs at all. They do not dream of a world Islamic empire; they just want to run Afghanistan. Indeed, they are the main military rivals to the jihadis of Islamic State and al-Qaeda who are currently trying to establish a foothold in the country – and by and large they are winning those little private wars.

But what about 9/11? There is good reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden and his mostly Arab companions of al-Qaeda, then guests of the Taliban, did not warn their hosts before they carried out that atrocity, since it would clearly lead to a US invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

Obviously, few of these considerations will have occurred to Donald Trump, but does that mean he really thinks he can win in Afghanistan? Not necessarily.

Maybe, like Obama, Trump has simply decided that he doesn’t want the inevitable collapse of the Western-backed regime in Afghanistan to happen on his watch. He’s just committing enough American troops to the country to kick it down the road a bit.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“Helmand…July”; and “The Taliban…women”)

Terrorism – A Sense of Proportion

London in March: five dead. Stockholm in April: another five dead. Manchester in May: 22 dead. London again in June, this time on London Bridge: eight dead. Barcelona in August: fourteen dead. Five mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Europe in six months, and all but one (Manchester) carried out using rental trucks. Is it safe to go to Europe any more?

No, of course not. It isn’t safe to live anywhere. You can get killed by a vehicle driven by a non-terrorist, or by falling down the stairs, or even by drowning in the bath. Indeed, you are far likelier to die from any of those causes than from terrorist attacks no matter where you live in the world. But in those other cases your death will not be “news”.

The only part of the world where Islamist terrorism really is a serious threat to people’s lives is the greater Middle East (including Pakistan). There is a kind of civil war between modernisers and cultural conservatives going on in many Muslim-majority countries, and the terrorist threat to ordinary citizens’ lives is ten or twenty times higher than it is in the West. But even there it is far smaller than it looks.

What makes the “terrorist threat” look big in the West is the natural human tendency to be fascinated by violence. The mass media know their audience, and they cannot resist catering to this appetite: that’s why thousands of fictional characters die violently on television and in movies every week.

Violence in real life is even more interesting – especially if there is some possibility, however remote, that it might affect the viewer. So the media reflexively, instinctively inflate the threat, and to people who don’t understand statistics (i.e. almost everybody), terrorism starts to look like a very big deal.

There is no way to avoid this without imposing official controls on media coverage, and it’s not worth paying that price, so we’ll just have to live with the media’s hype. We will also have to live with the terrorism itself, even though it’s generally considered to be political suicide to say this in public.

That’s why Donald Trump thought he could discredit London’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, after the London Bridge attack by tweeting “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’”

Trump was deliberately distorting the mayor’s message: Sadiq Khan had actually told Londoners not to be alarmed by “an increased police presence.” But Khan wouldn’t have been wrong if he had told them not get their knickers in a twist because of the occasional terrorist attack. Like most Londoners, he really knows that the attacks will continue for quite a while, and that they are not going to do a lot of damage.

After all, it’s obvious that we’re not going to run out of Islamist extremists any time soon, and that the security services cannot prevent wannabe terrorists from getting their hands on trucks or vans (or knives). So there will probably be lots more low-tech terrorist attacks over the next decade.

Don’t panic. The entire European Union has lost just 62 killed in terrorist attacks so far this year, which is about one person in every eight million. The loss ratio is even lower in the United States: eleven killed in four terrorist attacks so far this year. Four times as many Americans are killed every day in ordinary murders.

So the right response to low-tech terrorism in every Western country is to keep calm and carry on, even knowing that the attacks will probably continue until the present generation of jihadis ages out. (Generational turn-over is what really ends most ideological fashions.)

In the meantime, the priority is not to turn against Muslim communities in the West – because it’s wrong to blame millions of people for the actions of a few hundred gullible, attention-seeking young men, but also because that’s exactly what the Islamic State propagandists want people in the West to do.

Ten or fifteen years ago, Islamist attacks on Western countries had a specific strategic goal: to lure the West into invading Muslim countries, thereby radicalising the local populations and driving them into the arms of the Islamist revolutionaries. The ultimate goal of those revolutionaries was to gain power in their own countries, not to “bring the West to its knees” or some such drivel.

That game is pretty much played out now: the Islamists cannot hope to sucker the West into doing any more large-scale invasions. So why carry on encouraging terrorist attacks in the West?

Because it’s dirt cheap, it promotes the brand, and it might, if they get lucky, cause huge internal conflicts in Western countries with large Muslim populations. So far, to the immense credit of both the majority communities and the Muslim minorities themselves, this has not come to pass.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“That’s…damage”)