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Angela Merkel

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Hothouse Earth

It would be churlish to ask what took them so long. Let us be grateful, instead, that the climate scientists are finally saying out loud what they all knew privately at least ten years ago.

What sixteen of them are now saying, in an article in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, is that if we don’t soon get off the highway we are currently travelling on, we will be irrevocably committed to a ‘Hothouse Earth’. How soon is ‘soon’? Probably no more than ten to twenty years away. That’s the last exit.

The article has the usual low-key scientific title: ‘Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene’. The authors never raise their voices, but they do point out that the likeliest of those trajectories – the one we will stay on even if all the promises in the 2015 Paris Accord on climate change are kept – runs right off a cliff.

‘Hothouse Earth’ is not very hospitable to human life. Hundreds of millions or even a billion or two would probably survive, but the damage to agricultural systems would be so extreme that billions more would die. (The authors don’t say this, of course. Putting it into words is too ‘alarmist’ – but the people who actually have to think about these contingencies, like the military in the developed countries, know it very well.)

What the authors ARE saying is that ‘global warming’ driven directly by human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is only part of the problem. In fact, it’s the smaller part. The real threat is the unstoppable natural ‘feedbacks’, triggered by the warming that we have caused, that will take us up to the killing temperatures of Hothouse Earth.

They list ten of them, the biggest being the loss of Arctic sea-ice, the melting of the permafrost zone, dieback in both the boreal and the Amazon forests, and changes driven by warming in the ocean circulation system. Just triggering one or two of these feedbacks could cause enough additional warming to set off others, like a row of toppling dominoes, and take us up to those lethal temperatures within this century.

Now, this is not really news to climate scientists. When I was writing a book about climate change ten years ago, I interviewed scores of them in half a dozen countries, including Dr. Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, one of the lead authors of this paper and then the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany (and Angela Merkel’s climate advisor).

He already knew all this stuff then. Everybody did, at Potsdam, at the Hadley Centre for Climate Change in England, at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and in universities that had a serious climate research programme. It was the point of departure, the underlying assumption of every conversation I had.

Yet the role of these feedbacks in the system was not discussed in the scientific journals, not included in the predictions of future warming issued every four or five years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and definitely not part of the public debate. Why not?

If you spot smoke billowing out of a house, you don’t wait to see actual flames, check what substances are burning, and calculate the heat of the fire. You call the Fire Department immediately. But that’s not how science works.

When you make a statement in science, you have to be able to prove it, generally with hard numbers and testable predictions. The hard numbers simply weren’t available yet – and
if you go public without that evidence, you will be torn to pieces by your scientific colleagues (who are also your rivals, of course).

So the climate scientists didn’t make grand assertions – but they did manage to get the threshold of two degrees Celsius higher global temperature adopted as the never-exceed target for the IPCC’s efforts to get the warming under control. (Nobody said publicly how they arrived at that number, but it was because the scientists thought that +2 degrees C was about where the feedbacks would start kicking in.)

The scale and trigger-points of the feedbacks have finally been calculated, more or less, and the news is just as bad as the scientists feared. We have already passed the point where a return to the stable climate of the past 14,000 years is possible, and we are on course for Hothouse Earth.

The best we can do is try to stabilise the warming at or just below +2 C, and that will not be possible without major human interventions in the climate system. The ‘Stabilized Earth’ is not a natural stopping place: staying there would require “deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, protection and enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, (and) possibly solar radiation management….”

You will notice that geo-engineering (“solar radiation management”) is already part of the package, and that it will be down to human beings to manage the entire ecosystem to keep it ‘stable’. As Jim Lovelock, the creator of Earth System Science (‘Gaia’), wrote 39 years ago, we may “wake up one day to find that (we have) the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer.”

I haven’t bothered to ask Jim if we are there yet. Of course we are.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 10. (“Now…had”; and “If…works”)

Refugees, Sexual Harassment and Angela Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to a million refugees and migrants last year – three times as many as the rest of the European Union put together. Critics in Germany predicted a popular backlash, and warned that even her own Christian Democratic Party (CDU) would turn against her.

In the case of the CDU, at least, they were dead wrong. At the party’s annual congress on 15 December, Merkel’s speech – in which she did not retreat one inch from her frequent assertion that “we can do it” (accept and integrate the refugees) – got a ten-minute standing ovation that brought tears to her eyes.

Despite a dip in the opinion polls, she also still enjoys widespread popular support – or at least she did until the ugly events in the city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve.

In the crowds that gathered in front of Cologne’s railway station to celebrate the New Year, hundreds of young men in gangs began harassing and robbing German women. “All of a sudden these men around us began groping us,” one victim told German television.

“They touched our behinds and grabbed between our legs. They touched us everywhere, so my girlfriend wanted to get out of the crowd. When I turned around one guy grabbed my bag and ripped it off my body.” There were 379 complaints to the police, 40 percent of which involved sexual assault, and two accusations of rape.

Only thirty-one men were arrested in connection with these offences, a police failure that caused popular outrage. But the incendiary fact – which the police at first declined to reveal – was that 18 of the 31 men arrested were asylum-seekers, and all but five were Muslims. So there was a firestorm of popular protest about the Cologne attacks (which also happened on a smaller scale in Stuttgart and Hamburg).

The German authorities did their best to contain the damage. The Cologne police chief,
Wolfgang Albers, was suspended for holding back information about the attacks, and in particular about the origin of the suspects.

Chancellor Merkel felt obliged to promise that she will change the law which says that asylum seekers can only be forcibly sent home if they have been sentenced to at least three years in prison, and if their lives are not at risk in their home country.

The new law will say that migrants sentenced to any jail-time, or even put on probation, can be sent home no matter where they come from. It’s the least she could do politically, as the extreme anti-immigrant parties are already making a meal out of the Cologne events.

But what on earth made those young Muslim men, the beneficiaries of Germany’s generosity, think they could sexually attack young German women in public (and rob them while they were doing it)?

They were not professional thieves, and I very much doubt that they would sexually attack young Muslim women in public if they were back home. I suspect that they were mostly village boys who still believe the popular Middle Eastern stereotypes about good Muslim girls whom you must not harass, and “loose” Western women who are fair game for sexual assault.

I once lived in Istanbul for a while with my wife and two little boys, and we had the same experience as most other Westerners: when my wife was out with me or with the children, she was treated with respect. When she was out alone, she was the target of constant sexual harassment.

At least once a day, as young men passed her in the crowded streets, she would suddenly experience the full frontal grab – and if she protested, they would simply laugh at her. So I taught her what a Turkish woman would say if the same thing happened, and it did help. She still got molested, but when she rebuked the attackers in Turkish they were overwhelmed with shame and panic, and disappeared into the crowd as fast as possible.

This was back when Istanbul only had three million people (it now has 14 million), but already my Turkish friends were moaning about how their city was being “villager-ised” by people migrating from the countryside. Even Turkish women who looked too “Western” were being harassed, and they blamed the ex-villagers.

When you take in a million refugees, more than half of them from the Middle East, you may expect them to include a few religious fanatics who may be or become terrorists. They will also include a considerably larger number of ignorant hicks who think that it is not a crime or a disgrace to attack non-Muslim girls sexually.

No good deed goes entirely unpunished, and this is part of the price Germany will pay for its generosity. It’s not an unbearable price, even if it involves one or two more Islamist terrorist attacks than would otherwise have occurred – and in a couple of years most of the young Muslim men who attacked women in Cologne will have figured out that being free, as German women are, does not mean being immoral or freely available.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 9. (“The German…events”)

The Downfall of the NSA

26 October 2013

The Downfall of the NSA

By Gwynne Dyer

Politicians and government officials rarely tell outright lies; the cost of being caught out in a lie is too high. Instead, they make carefully worded statements that seem to address the issue, but avoid the truth. Like, for example, Caitlin Hayden, the White House spokesperson who replied on 24 October to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s angry protest at the tapping of her mobile phone by the US National Security Agency.

“The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel,” she said. Yes, Caitlin, but has the US been listening to Merkel’s mobile phone calls from 2002 until the day before yesterday? “Beyond that, I’m not in a position to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity.”

By 27 October, the argument had moved on. The question now was: did President Barack Obama know the Chancellor’s phone was bugged? (The German tabloid Bild am Sonntag reported that General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, told Obama about it in 2010. Obama allegedly said that the surveillance should continue, as “he did not trust her.”)

Now it was the turn of the NSA spokesperson, Vanee Vines, to deny the truth. “(General) Alexander did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel,” she said. But she carefully avoided saying that Obama had not been told at all.

The ridiculous thing about these meticulously crafted pseudo-denials is that they leave a truth-shaped hole for everyone to see. Of course the United States has been listening to Angela Merkel’s phone calls since 2002, and of course Obama knew about it. It would have been quite easy to deny those facts if they were not true.

The NSA is completely out of control. Its German outpost was brazenly located on the fourth floor of the US embassy in Berlin, and leaked documents published by Der Spiegel say that the NSA maintains similar operations in 80 other US embassies and consulates around the world.

The Guardian, also relying on documents provided by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, reported recently that a total of 35 national leaders have been targeted by the NSA. We know that the German, Brazilian and Mexican leaders were bugged, but it’s almost certain that the leaders of France, Spain and Italy, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Japan, India and Indonesia were also targeted. Not to mention Russia and China.

The only one of the NSA’s high-level victims to speak out yet, apart from Angela Merkel, is President Dilma Roussef of Brazil. Last month she told the UN General Assembly: “Personal data of (Brazilian) citizens was intercepted indiscriminately. Corporate information – often of high economic and even strategic value – was at the centre of espionage activity….The office of the president itself had its communications intercepted.”

“Friendly governments and societies that seek to build a true strategic partnership… cannot allow recurring illegal actions to take place as if they were normal,” Roussef concluded. “They are unacceptable.” And you wonder how the brilliant, power-drunk fools at the NSA could possibly have believed they could get away with this kind of behaviour indefinitely.

The 4.9 million (!) Americans with access to classified information include 480,000 civilian contractors with the same “top secret” security clearance as Snowden. Even if all the military and public servants could be trusted to keep the NSA’s guilty secret forever (unlikely) and only one in a hundred of the contractors was outraged by it, then there were still 4,800 potential whistle-blowers waiting to blow. If Snowden hadn’t, somebody else would have.

When the astounding scale and scope of the agency’s operations finally came out, it was bound to create intense pressure on Washington to rein in the NSA. The agency can deflect the domestic pressure, to some extent, by insisting that it’s all being done to keep Americans safe from terrorism, but it can’t persuade the president of South Korea or the prime minister of Bangladesh that she was being bugged because she was a terrorist suspect.

The NSA’s worst abuse has been its violation of the privacy of hundreds of millions of private citizens at home and abroad, but it’s the pressure from furious foreign leaders that will finally force the US government to act. “Trust in our ally the USA has been shattered,” said German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich on Sunday. “If the Americans have tapped mobile phones in Germany, then they have broken German law on German soil.”

This will end up in the German courts, and probably in those of many other countries as well (and Snowden may well end up being granted asylum in Germany). To rebuild its relations with its key allies, the White House is going to have to radically curb the NSA’s powers. Good.

We don’t have to listen to the spooks and their allies telling us that since the new communications technologies make total surveillance possible, it is therefore inevitable. “If it can be done, it will be done” is a counsel of despair. Most of the NSA’s ever-expanding activities over the past ten years have served no legitimate purpose, and it’s high time that it was forced to obey both the letter and the spirit of the law.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“The only…have”)

 

Angie and the Flat Tax

2 September 2005

Angie and the Flat Tax

By Gwynne Dyer

No political campaign in the West is now complete without a signature rock song to capture the baby-boomer demographic. If Margaret Thatcher were running for office in Britain today, they’d be playing Rod

Stewart’s “Maggie May” at every rally. Never mind that the actual words are a bit of a problem: “The morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age…Maggie, I wish I’d never seen your face.” Never mind, either, that nobody ever dared call Margaret Thatcher “Maggie” in her whole life.

Nobody has ever dared call Angela Merkel “Angie” to her face either, but they’re playing the old Rolling Stones song of that name at every rally as the leader of Germany’s Christian Democrat Union (CDU) cruises smoothly towards victory in the national election on 18 September.

There is, again, a certain difficulty with the lyrics — “All the dreams we held so close seemed to all go up in smoke…You can’t say we’re satisfied” — but most of the words get lost in the distortion from the amps, and they had to do SOMETHING about the woman’s image.

The 50-year-old “Ossi” (former East German) who is almost certain to become Germany’s first woman leader denies any aspirations to be another Margaret Thatcher — “She was a chemist, I am a physicist” — and her earnest, almost dour manner makes even Thatcher seem in retrospect like the life of the party. But many suspect that Angela Merkel intends a revolution of Thatcherite proportions.

She certainly isn’t saying that, because her election victory depends upon not being too specific about her plans. The German electorate is fed up with a decade of economic stagnation and high unemployment, and equally fed up with the Social Democrats (SPD), who have been in power for the past seven years without managing to fix the economy. But they don’t want any pain or disruption in their lives.

Almost everybody agrees in principle that “reform” is needed to get the German economy moving again: less rigidity in the labour market, a simpler tax system, and less generous pensions, unemployment pay and other social welfare spending. They agree, that is, until somebody suggests changes that would hit their own interests — and then they resist with fury.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has been treated as a class traitor for his “Agenda 2000” reform programme that tried to revive the German economy by freezing pensions, cutting social spending and making it easier to hire and fire employees. His own party’s left wing broke away and merged with the former East German Communists as the Party of the Left, opposed to all the reforms. Other SPD voters have turned in despair to Merkel’s conservatives — but they still don’t want any pain, so Merkel must not mention any painful economic measures she may have in mind.

The only specific promise Merkel has made is to raise the value-added (sales) tax from 16 to 18 percent, which will no doubt help to balance the budget but won’t do anything to simulate the economy. As long as she doesn’t get into her real plans, she is almost bound to win — but what are her real plans for the world’s third-largest economy?

The most intriguing clue was Merkel’s recent choice of Paul Kirchhof, famous for his advocacy of a “flat tax”, as shadow finance minister. Of course, she then denied that she was planning to bring in a flat tax, but it did feel like a hint to the insiders about what is coming.

The flat tax was pioneered by the Estonians in 1994. Instead of the usual complicated system with graduated rates of personal tax for different income levels, different rates of corporate tax, and hundreds of exemptions and deductions, Estonia simply imposed a flat tax of 26 percent on all personal and corporate income.

No tax is paid on the first few thousand dollars of personal income, in order to keep the really poor people out of the tax net, but that’s it. No big tax-collection bureaucracies, no tax lawyers and tax shelters, and even the very rich have to pay. Generally people and companies DO pay, too, because it’s easy, it keeps you out of trouble, and you have a lot left. Since Estonia brought in the flat tax, its economy has grown at 6 percent a year.

The collapse of the old Communist systems left Eastern European countries with a clean slate, so Latvia and Lithuania followed Estonia almost at once. The trend really took off in 2001, when Russia switched to a flat tax of 13 percent on personal income and a rather higher flat rate (24 percent last year) on corporate profits.

Moscow’s tax revenues rose by a quarter in the first year of the flat tax, and in the past two years Ukraine, Serbia, Slovakia, Georgia and Romania have all shifted to flat taxes as well. In March, Poland announced that it would introduce a flat tax of 18 percent by 2008 — and now, perhaps, the revolution is about to arrive in the first big, fully developed economy: Germany.

It’s the obvious place to start, because Germany’s decade of economic stagnation is due largely to the cost of absorbing 17 million former East Germans. And who would be more likely to adopt these radical

Eastern European ideas than Angela Merkel, who comes from the formerly Communist part of the country? It promises to be an interesting four years in Germany.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Almost…mind”)