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It’s Abrupt Climate Change, Stupid

16 February 2014

It’s Abrupt Climate Change, Stupid

This is not how it was supposed to happen. The standard climate change predictions said that people in the tropics and the sub-tropics would be badly hurt by global warming long before the people living in the temperate zones, farther away from the equator, were feeling much pain at all.

That was unfair, because it was the people of the rich countries in the temperate zone – North America, Europe and Japan, mainly – who industrialised early and started burning large amounts of fossil fuel as long as two centuries ago. That’s how they got rich. Their emissions of carbon dioxide over the years account for 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin that are now in the atmosphere, causing the warming, yet they get hurt least and last.

Well, what did you expect? The gods of climate are almost certainly sky gods, and sky gods are never fair. But they have always liked jokes, especially cruel ones, and they have come up with a great one this time. The people of the temperate zones are going to get hurt early after all, but not by gradual warming. Their weather is just going to get more and more extreme: heat waves, blizzards and flooding on an unprecedented scale.

“In 2012 we had the second wettest winter on record and this winter is a one-in-250-years event,” British opposition leader Ed Milliband told The Observer newspaper last Friday. “If you keep throwing the dice and you keep getting sixes then the dice are loaded. Something is going on.”

The “something” is abrupt climate change. In Britain, it’s an unprecedented series of great storms blowing in off the North Atlantic, dropping enormous amounts of rain and causing disastrous floods. In the United States and Canada, it’s huge blizzards, ice-storms and record low temperatures that last much longer and reach much further south than normal. Welcome to the “temperate” zone of the northern hemisphere.

There have been extremes in the “temperate” parts of the southern hemisphere, too. Australia has just had the hottest year ever, with record-breaking heat waves and severe bush-fires. Argentina had one of its worst-ever heat waves in December, and parts of Brazil had record rainfall, floods and landslides. But that is probably just the result of gradual, relentless warming. The abrupt changes seem to be mainly in the northern hemisphere.

Geography may explain the differences. There isn’t all that much land in the southern temperate zone, and the vast expanses of ocean that surround it moderate the land temperatures. Moreover, the polar jet stream in the southern hemisphere simply circles the Antarctic continent, and does not operate over land – whereas the northern polar jet stream flows right across North America and Europe. And it’s the jet stream that matters.

The extreme weather trend in North America and Europe is less than five years old, so the science that might explain exactly what is happening is still quite tentative. The first hypothesis that sounded plausible, published in 2012 in Geophysical Letters, blamed a slowing of the northern hemisphere’s polar jet stream.

The paper, entitled “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes,” was written by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors’ methodology has been challenged by other climate scientists, but I think that in the end Francis and Vavrus will turn out to be largely right. That is not good news.

They start with the fact that the Arctic has been warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, so the difference in temperature between the Arctic air mass and the air over the temperate zone has been shrinking. Since that difference in temperature is what drives the jet stream that flows along the boundary between the two air masses, a lower difference means a slower jet stream.

Now, a fast jet stream travels in a pretty straight line around the planet from west to east, just like a mountain stream goes pretty straight downhill. A slower jet stream, however, meanders like a river crossing a flood plain – and the big loops it makes extend much further south and north than when it was moving fast.

In a big southerly loop, you will have Arctic air much further south than usual, while there will be relatively warm air from the temperate air mass in a northerly loop that extends up into the Arctic. Moreover, the slower-moving jet stream tends to get “stuck”, so that a given kind of weather – snow, or rain, or heat – will stay longer over the same area.

Hence the “polar-vortex” winter in North America this year, the record snowfalls in Japan in 2012 and again this winter, the lethal heat waves in the eastern US in 2012 – and the floods in Britain this winter.

“They’ve been pummelled by storm after storm this winter (in Britain),” said Jennifer Francis at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago last week. “It’s been amazing what’s going on, and it’s because the pattern this winter has been stuck in one place ever since early December.” There’s no particular reason to think that it will move on soon, either.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7.  (“There have…matters”)

Australia and East Timor

10 December 2013

Australia and East Timor

By Gwynne Dyer

And now for something completely different: a spy story that isn’t about Edward Snowden’s disclosures and the US National Security Agency’s surveillance of everything and everybody. This one could come straight out of a 1950s spy thriller: a microphone buried in a wall, a listening post manned by people with headphones, and transcripts of secret conversations delivered to negotiators.

Now it’s true that Australia is a member of the Gang of Five, more formally known as the “Five Eyes” (the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand), which share most of the information that they acquire through hi-tech mass surveillance. That’s the kind of spying that Snowden’s leaks are about, and whatever Australia picks up through this process it presumably shares with its co-conspirators.

It was in this context that Australia listened to the phone conversations of Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, and eight potential successors. When Indonesia recalled its ambassador from Canberra and protested, Prime Minister Tony Abbott swatted the protest away with the line they are all using now: “All governments gather information and all governments know that every other government gathers information.”

The Indonesian reply was a classic. “I have news for you,” said Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. “We don’t do it. We certainly should not be doing it among friends.” He was, he said, deeply unhappy about the “dismissive answer being provided” by the Australian government. So Australia has managed to alienate its biggest neighbour, probably for no advantage to itself, just as the United States has alienated Brazil with the same tactics.

But the kind of spying under discussion here was too shameful to share even with the other Four Eyes of the “Anglosphere”. It was an Australian-only operation mounted in 2004 to gather information about the negotiating position of a very poor neighbouring country, East Timor, so that Australia could rip its neighbour off in a treaty that divided a rich gas field on the seabed between them.

The treaty in question, “Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea”, always seemed a bit peculiar. The CMATS treaty gave Australia a half share in the massive Greater Sunrise field, which is said to be worth $40 billion. But that field lies just 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of East Timor, and 400 kilometres (20 miles) from Australia.

The normal rule on international seabed rights would put the boundary equidistant between the two countries, but that would have given East Timor sovereignty over the entire gas field. Instead, CMATS postponed a final settlement of the seabed boundary for fifty years, and in the meantime gave Australia 50 percent of the revenue from the Greater Sunrise field.

The existing gas field off East Timor’s coast has only about ten years’ life left, and the the East Timor government depends on gas revenues for 95 percent of its incomet, so it was very vulnerable in those negotiations. The Australian negotiators could exploit that vulnerability because they had daily updates on how desperate their Timorese opposite numbers were: the Australian Secret Intelligence Service had bugged the prime minister’s and the cabinet offices.

Four ASIS operatives did the job, pretending to be part of a team of Australian aid workers that was renovating East Timor’s government offices. The man who gave the order was Australia’s foreign minister at the time, Alex Downer – who now runs a public relations firm that represents Woodside Petroleum, a major Australian company that was the main beneficiary of the treaty. Funny how things work out.

The operation would never have come to light if the former director of technical operations at ASIS, who led the bugging operation, had not had an attack of conscience on learning of Downer’s link to Woodside. He told East Timor about it, and the Timorese government then brought an action before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague demanding that the CMATS treaty be cancelled.

The Australian government’s response was to arrest the whistle-blower and cancel his passport last week so that he could not travel to The Hague to testify, and to raid the Sydney offices of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer who is representing East Timor before the Court.

The documents seized include an affidavit summarising the whistle-blower’s testimony at the Court and correspondence between Collaery and his client, Timorese president Xanana Gusmao. It’s more of the same sort of behaviour: the Australian government has decided to brazen it out.

Can Australia get away with this? Not legally. As Collaery says, “It was a carefully premeditated, involved, very lengthy operation with premeditated breaches of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and premeditated breaches of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This is a criminal conspiracy, a break-in on sovereign territory and a breach of Australian law.” And he has three more whistle-blowers lined up to testify too.

But the case may still be settled out of court, because East Timor is still desperate. Woodside has not yet started developing the Greater Sunrise field, and it will never do so if there isn’t a deal. Offer East Timor another 10 percent and a promise to go ahead, and it will probably drop the case. The poor cannot afford justice.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 13. (“It was…tactics”; and “Can…too”)

 

Australia: Race to the Bottom

14 August 2013

Australia: Race to the Bottom

By Gwynne Dyer

The Australian boat people are getting to be a problem. The first few million just got off the boats from Britain, pushed the Aborigines off the good land, and declared themselves the real Australians. This latest lot of boat people, though… they don’t even stay in Australia. They’re settling in Papua New Guinea.

It’s not exactly their own idea, to be fair. The descendants of the earlier boat people, now numbering some 20-odd million, have decided that Australia is full up, so any more boat people have to be sent elsewhere. But where? Well, how about somewhere poor and violent, to deter them from trying to get into Australia in the first place? Besides, if it’s a really poor country, then it can be bribed to accept them. Right, then. PNG it is.

The Australians have convinced themselves that they are drowning in refugees, but they aren’t. Just go to the OECD’s 2011 online statistics, and check out the top four lines for “Inflows of Asylum Seekers”.

First by alphabetical order is Australia (population 23 million), which got 11,505 asylum seekers. Then comes Austria (pop. 8 million), which got 14,406. Then Belgium (pop. 10 million), which took in a whopping 26,003 refugees. And finally Canada (pop. 35 million), which received 24,985. If the Australians are drowning, they are drowning in very shallow water.

Moreover, 70 percent of the boat people seeking asylum in Australia are Sri Lankans, Afghans and Iranians, most of whom we may assume are genuine refugees. So why did Australian governments start detaining asylum seekers, including children, as long ago as 1992, even though that is illegal under the 1951 Refugee Convention of which Australia is a signatory?

At that time refugee flows were high everywhere, though that’s hardly an excuse. No other country did that, and at no time have asylum seekers amounted to even 10 percent of Australian immigration.

Keeping them in prison in Australia while sorting out their claims eventually got too embarrassing, so in 2001 the government signed a deal with Papua New Guinea to send them to mosquito-infested Manus Island, 300 km off PNG’s northern coast, for “processing”. But their claims for asylum were still treated seriously, and the genuine claimants were eventually settled in Australia.

Asylum seekers to Australia were at a peak of almost 13,000 in 2001, but over the next few years they dropped steeply. By 2004 they were down to 3,200, so Australia closed the Manus camp.

Labour prime minister Julia Gillard reopened the Manus Island prison last year, presumably because the number of asylum seekers had gone back up to 11,500. (Why? The defeat of the Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, a possible Taliban take-over in Afghanistan, and the crushing of the Green protests in Iran). But horrible though it was, the Manus camp was still a “processing” centre, and (some) genuine refugees got resettled in Australia in the end.

Then Kevin Rudd took over the Labour Party leadership last June in an inner-party coup, and almost his first act as prime minister was to declare that no person arriving by boat would ever be allowed to settle in Australia. They would be settled in Papua New Guinea instead. He was facing an imminent election that Labour seemed bound to lose, so he needed to rouse the rabble. It worked: Labour’s poll numbers have already improved considerably.

Papua New Guinea is an utterly impoverished country with one of the highest crime rates in the world. 85 percent of its 7 million people survive by subsistence agriculture, and the cities largely consist of gang-ridden slums swept by tribal violence. It is a completely unacceptable place to “resettle” refugees, but Rudd has persuaded the PNG government to take them in return for a very large (but secret) amount of money.

Why does Australia behave like this? Racism, obviously. ompared to any other English-speaking people, Australians (or a great many of them) are openly, astoundingly racist. You’d have to go somewhere like Russia or China to find people expressing their racial prejudices in such an unselfconscious, almost naive way. And here’s a clue: New Zealanders, similar to Australians in so many other ways, don’t talk like that at all.

Racism is mostly about fear, and the Australians are very afraid of something. You may mock, but I have a theory about that. Every time Australians look at a map, they see the entire continent of Asia looming above their country like an avalanche waiting to happen. I suspect they are afraid that one day it will fall on them and crush them

But that’s only because conventional maps are drawn with north at the top. You can already get joke world maps in Australia that put south at the top, so that Australia floats serenely above that huge Asian mess below. Just make those maps standard in Australian schools and on Australian TV news, and in a few months you’ll see the change.

Then, if the occasional boat-load of refugees bubbles up from below, who cares? Australia’s above it all, and we can deal with it.

Problem solved. My bill is in the mail.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 9. (“At that…immigration”; and “Asylum…end”)

Prisoner X

19 February 2013

Prisoner X and the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight

By Gwynne Dyer

Ben Alon, Ben Allen and Benjamin Burroughs are dead. So is Benjamin Zygier, an Australian Zionist who moved to Israel in the 1990s and became an Israeli citizen. He then adopted the curious custom of flying back to Australia at fairly frequent intervals to change his name (Australia lets its citizens change their names once every twelve months). And every time, Zygier would take out an Australian passport in his new name.

The reason, it turns out, was that he had been recruited by Mossad, the Israeli external intelligence agency, to supply it with Australian passports for use in its foreign operations. So far, nothing new. Israel has been compelled at various times to apologise to the British, Canadian and Australian governments, among others, for using the passports of Israelis with dual citizenship in its various clandestine operations abroad.

But then the Israeli government arrested Zygier, and held him in solitary confinement until he committed suicide in his cell in late 2010. It has taken until now for the story to get out because Zygier’s imprisonment without trial was treated as a state secret.

Even his jailers were not allowed to know the name of “Prisoner X” or the reason he was being held – and after his death the Israeli government went to extreme lengths to keep the whole affair secret, even threatening Israeli editors with fines or jail if they reported on it. What could he have known or done to merit such treatment?

Maybe he had stumbled across some apocalyptic secret that would change everything if it got out. Maybe Israel doesn’t really have hundreds of nuclear weapons, or even any. Maybe all the Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are just Potemkin villages. But it seems improbable, doesn’t it?

The likely answer is that the Mossad hit team that murdered Palestinian leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January, 2010 used one or more of Zygier’s passports, and he started to get cold feet. Especially since around the same time the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation woke up and had a little chat with him about his multiple name changes.

So did Zygier just lose his nerve and confess the passport scam to the ASIO? That would annoy his Israeli employers, but not so much that they would turn him into “Prisoner X”. The Australian government would complain through diplomatic channels, the Israeli government would solemnly promise not to do it again, and Mossad would just carry on as if nothing had happened.

Israel regularly spies on the United States, its greatest ally, and then shamelessly lobbies Congress to get its convicted spies released, so it’s obviously not going to worry about offending the Australians. But what if the ASIO turned Zygier into a double agent, and pumped him for information on Israeli “black” operations?

If he had real information about those operations and started passing it to the Australians, that would explain the great anger of the Israeli authorities and the extreme secrecy that surrounded his case.

Whatever. The point is not Zygier’s personal tragedy, or even Israel’s misuse of the passports of its friends and allies in its black ops. It is rather that all this Boy’s Own cloak-and-dagger stuff is profoundly foolish. Or at least the dagger part is.

When Mossad occupies itself in gathering intelligence and doing strategic analysis, it does good work. For example, it has been successful so far in its attempts to talk Binyamin Netanyahu’s government out of launching an extremely ill-advised attack on Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions. But Mossad’s assassination programme is a long-running disaster.

Sometimes it kills the wrong person, as when it murdered an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway whom it mistook for one of those responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But what enemy of Israel was deterred, what further attack on Israel was prevented, by Mossad’s success in hunting down and killing more than a dozen other people whom it suspected of being involved in that atrocity?

When five Mossad agents, travelling on Canadian passports, poisoned Khaled Meshaal, then head of Hamas’s political bureau, in Amman in 1997, it nearly wrecked Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, and in the end Israel had to come up with an antidote for the poison. Canada even withdrew its ambassador from Israel for a time.

And when it murdered Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai three years ago, just three days after the first-ever visit by an Israeli cabinet minister to the United Arab Emirates, it put a promising detente between the two countries into the deep freeze indefinitely.

The whole wig-and-fake-passport nonsense is worse than a distraction from Mossad’s real job. It is self-indulgent and counter-productive. And often, when innocent bystanders are killed in these operations, it is criminal. You know, like those US drone strikes that kill innocent bystanders every month.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Maybe…doesn’t it?); and (“If he…case”)