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Brazil

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Amazon Fires

The Amazon is not on fire. There are fires in the Amazon rainforest, as there are every year in July-September, because this is the dry season. There may be more fires than usual this year, and it may even be the fault of Jair Bonsonaro, the Trump mini-me who became the president of Brazil last January, but that is not clear.

Yet there now is a great outcry, with French president Emmanuel Macron saying that Bolsonaro lied to him about his stance on climate change. Macron is even threatening to withhold French ratification of the recently signed free trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur (of which Brazil is the biggest member).

British prime minister Bori Johnson declares that it is “an international crisis”, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel calls the fires “an acute emergency…for the whole world.” The Finnish foreign minister even suggests that the European Union should boycott Brazilian beef. Concerted international action at last!

Well, no. They might have done it at the G7 summit of the world’s richest countries last weekend in Biarritz, but they all knew it would just prompt another Donald Trump walk-out like last year’s. And some of their advisers may be warning them by now that they are not on very safe ground when they paint Bolsonaro as the sole culprit of the piece.

Bolsonaro is not a good person. He is an obtuse and obnoxious bully who doesn’t give a fig about the climate and advocates ‘developing’ the Amazon in ways that would ultimately destroy the rainforest.

When environmental activists claimed that farmers encouraged by Bolsonaro’s incendiary rhetoric were setting fires to clear Amazonian land for ranching, he blamed the activists themselves, saying that they were setting the fires to discredit him. He had no evidence, he admitted, but he had a “feeling” about it.

Of course Brazilian farmers and the agribusiness interests behind them are setting fires to destroy bits of the forest, but this is not new with Bolsonaro. The amount of forest they destroyed annually went into steady decline after the Workers’ Party (PT) took power in 2003, but the damage has been trending back up again since the last PT president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached by Congress (on spurious charges) in 2015.

Bolsonaro is definitely the icing on the cake, but it’s questionable how much impact he has had after less than eight months in power. The number of fines handed out for illegal burning has dropped by a third this year, but the great majority of illegal burns always went unpunished anyway.

When Brazil’s National Space Research Institute reported an 88% increase in deforestation in June compared with the same month a year ago, nobody except Bolsonaro questioned the data. But that was before this year’s burning season (Queimada) began, and presumably referred to losses of forest due to illegal logging and land-clearing for mining operations, not to fires.

When the same Brazilian space institute claimed more recently that satellite data showed an 83% increase this year in forest fires, mainly in the Amazon region, Bolsonaro promptly fired its director, claiming that he was manipulating the data for political reasons.

Bolsonaro’s relationship with the truth is as distant as Trump’s, but it must be pointed out that NASA’s Earth Observatory, also relying on satellite data, reported on 22 August that “total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years.”

There is, to be sure, a pall of smoke hanging over Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, at the moment. It’s as bad as Singapore six years ago or Vancouver last summer, and there’s no doubt that it comes from forest fires. They are, however, fires in the Bolivian part of the Amazon, not Brazil’s.

What the hell, you may say. Bolsonaro may not be guilty this time, but he’s guilty of lots of other things, so let’s hang him anyway. This is not a wise way of proceeding, even if you are doing it with the best of intentions.

The data about the climate crisis are always complicated and open to dispute, because the planet is a very complex system. Those who claim to understand enough about it to offer policy advice must be above suspicion, and to go along with the assertion that ‘the Amazon is on fire’ and that it’s all Bolsonaro’s fault is neither prudent or provable.

Although I must admit that it’s very tempting.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 6. (“When…it”)

Venezuela: ‘Let Trump Be Trump’

The decision to promote Juan Guaidó as a rival president to Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela was clearly made in Washington, not in Caracas. The speed with which US allies in the Americas and western Europe recognised Guaidó’s claim on 23 January to be the legitimate president of Venezuela would not have been possible without a lot of prior coordination – and a lot of pressure by the Trump administration.

It’s no surprise that right-wing governments in Latin American countries like Colombia and Brazil are going along with a US attempt to overthrow a left-wing regime. (The support of Brazil’s new neo-fascist president, Jair Bolsonaro, was a foregone conclusion.) But it’s shocking when Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain also back this sort of intervention in another country’s internal affairs.

Maduro’s government does not deserve to survive. It has run the country’s economy into the ground, its ‘re-election’ last year was the product of a ruthlessly rigged vote, and three million Venezuelans (10% of the population) have fled abroad. But this is a problem for Venezuelans to solve, not foreigners, and least of all Americans.

There is a long, bad history of American attempts to overthrow left-wing governments in Latin America. Some of them, like Cuba (1960), Nicaragua (1981) and Venezuela (2002), were against regimes born in revolutions; others, like Brazil (1964), Chile (1973) and Argentina (1976), were against democratically elected governments. It made no difference to Washington.

It used to make a difference to Washington’s allies in Europe and North America, however. They were all in favour of democracy, but not ‘democracy’ delivered by American guns. They also fretted that these US interventions were all made in defiance of international law as embodied in the charter of the United Nations. It was American exceptionalism run wild: Maduro is historically quite right to talk of the “gringo empire”.

Now the Europeans and the Canadians are willing to back an intervention of the same sort in Venezuela, which is very hard to explain. Recognising a rival president as legitimate (on very flimsy grounds) opens the way to supplying his alternative regime with money and weapons, and thence to civil war in Venezuela.

It also creates the preconditions for direct US military intervention in Venezuela, and sure enough US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was soon saying that “all options are on the table.” As everybody knows, that’s US government diplomatic-speak for “we may invade you.” So will they?

You’d think that senior American military officers and government officials would have figured out by now that this is not a great option. Overthrowing governments they disliked by military force didn’t work out so well in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, so why would they think that doing it in Venezuela would work out any better? Even invasions undertaken with good intentions generally end in tears.

But hang on. Almost all the ‘adults in the room’ in the Trump administration have quit or been fired by now, and the second-raters and nonentities who replaced them have no feel for how these things work. Would any competent and well-informed US administration be toying publicly with the notion of attacking Iran? (“Options on the table” again.)

Invading Venezuela would not be as stupid as attacking Iran, but there would certainly be an armed resistance, and even Venezuelan patriots who despise Maduro would be tempted to become part of it: foreign armies of occupation almost always end up being hated. Cuba, Russia and perhaps even China would help the resistance with money, and perhaps with arms (although there are quite enough of those in Venezuela already).

This is a dangerous game, and it is hard to believe that sensible governments like those in France, Spain and Canada really think encouraging Juan Guaidó to claim that he is president of Venezuela on the grounds that he is president of the legislature is a good idea.

Maybe they are so frightened of Donald Trump that they feel compelled to go along with his hare-brained scheme, but that seems unlikely.

Trump is not that frightening once you have worked out that he will settle for even the slightest symbolic concession and claim it as an historic victory. The Mexicans and the Canadians both exploited that fact in the NAFTA renegotiation, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is about to do it again in his second ‘summit’ with Trump, and in due course China will do it over the alleged China-US ‘trade war’ too.

The darker possibility is that America’s NATO allies are afraid that he is going to drag them into a war with Iran, and are willing to contemplate the risk that he may stumble into a war in Venezuela instead. After all, it would do less damage – except to the Venezuelans, of course.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Maybe…too”)

Climate: Some Progress in Poland

Global warming is physics and chemistry, and you can’t negotiate with science for more time to solve the problem: more emissions mean a hotter planet. Dealing with the problem, however, requires an international negotiation involving almost 200 countries. In big gatherings of that sort, the convoy always moves at the speed of the slowest ships.

That’s why the reporting on the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland that ended on Saturday, two days later than planned, has been so downbeat. It didn’t produce bold new commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It saw the usual attempts by the biggest fossil fuel producers, the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to stall the process. And in the end it just produced a ‘rulebook’.

But that’s all it was supposed to do, and it’s not ‘just’ a rulebook. The great breakthrough at the Paris conference in Paris three years ago saw every country finally agree to adopt a plan for emission reductions, but the Paris accord was a mere sketch, only 27 pages long.

Fleshing it out – what the plans should cover, how often they should be updated, how countries should measure and report their emissions, how much leeway should be given to poor countries with bad data – was left until later. Later is now, and in the end they did come up with a 256-page rulebook that fills in most of those blanks.

“We have a system of transparency, we have a system of reporting, we have rules to measure our emissions, we have a system to measure the impacts of our policies compared to what science recommends,” said the European Union’s Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete. It was an excruciating process, and it still leaves a few things out, but it settled a thousand details about how the Paris deal will really work.

Oh, and one big thing. China abandoned its claim that as a ‘developing country’ it should not be bound by the same rules as rich countries like the United States. There will only be one set of rules for both rich and poor countries, although the really poor ones will get a lot of financial and technical help in meeting their commitments.

This year’s conference dealt with the details at ministerial level. Next year UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host a summit of the biggest emitters to lay the groundwork for the key 2020 meeting. That’s when countries will report if they have kept their 2015 promises on emissions cuts, and hopefully promise much bigger cuts for the next five years.

The rise of populist nationalists like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, both climate change deniers, will make future negotiations even harder. It’s all moving far too slowly, but the human factor keeps getting in the way. For example, Bolsonaro wants Brazil to get extra carbon credits for protecting the Amazonian rain-forest, even as he plans to carve the forest up with big new roads and cut a lot of it down.

The Paris deal is important, but it has come far too late to stop the average global temperature from rising to the never-exceed target of +2 degrees Celsius that was adopted many years ago, let alone the lower target of +1.5 C that scientists now believe is necessary.

We are already at +1 C, and current promises of emission cuts will take us up past +3 C. At the moment emissions are still going up (by 3% this year). Even if countries make further major commitments to cut emissions in 2020, it’s hard to believe that we can avoid devastating heat waves, droughts, floods and sea-level rise, and a sharp fall in global food production.

So while we are cutting emissions, we also need to be working on ways to remove some of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere. Various ideas for doing that are being worked on, but they will probably become available on a large scale too late to keep the temperature rise below +2 C.

So geo-engineering – direct intervention in the atmosphere to hold the temperature down while we work on getting emissions down – will probably be needed as well. Nobody really wants to do ‘solar radiation management’, but cutting the amount of sunlight reaching the planet’s surface by just a small amount is technically feasible. It could temporarily halt the warming and give us the extra time we are probably going to need.

We are getting into very deep water here, but we may have no other options. If we had started cutting our emissions 20 years ago (when we already knew where they would eventually take us), such drastic measures would not be necessary. But that’s not the human way, and so we’ll have to take the risks or pay the price.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Oh…emissions”; and “The rise…down”)

Populism: It’s the Automation, Stupid

Five of the world’s largest democracies now have populist governments, claimed The Guardian last week, and proceeded to name four: The United States, India, Brazil and the Philippines. Which is the fifth? At various points it name-checks Turkey, Italy and the United Kingdom, but it never becomes clear which. (And by the way, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is not a populist. He’s just a nationalist.)

It’s embarrassing when a respected global newspaper launches a major investigative series and can’t really nail the subject down. Neither can the people it interviews: Hillary Clinton, for example, admits the she was “absolutely dumbfounded” by how Donald Trump ate her lunch every day during the 2016 presidential campaign. She still doesn’t get it.

“We got caught in a kind of transition period so what I had seen work in the past…was no longer as appealing or digestible to the people or the press. I was trying to be in a position where I could answer all the hard questions, but…I never got them. I was waiting for them; I never got them. Yet I was running against a guy who did not even pretend to care about policy.”

Yes, Trump is a classic populist, but why did he beat her two years ago when he wouldn’t even have got the nomination ten years ago? She doesn’t seem to have a clue about that, and neither do other recent leaders of centre-left parties interviewed by The Guardian like Britain’s Tony Blair and Italy’s Matteo Renzi. So let us try to enlighten them.

Populism is not an ideology. It’s just a political technique, equally available to right-wingers, left-wingers, and those (like Trump) with no coherent ideology at all.

In this era, populism seems to partner best with right-wing nationalist ideologies like those of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Brexiteers in England, but even now there are populist left-wing parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

How does this tool work? It claims to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’ and against a ‘corrupt elite’ that exploits and despises them. It’s light on policy and heavy on emotion, particularly the emotions of fear and hatred. It usually scapegoats minorities and/or foreigners, and it only works really well when people are angry about something.

We know that a politically significant number of people are angry now, because populism is working very well indeed, but people like Donald Trump can’t take the credit.

In politics, as in ecology, every niche is always filled. There are always dictator-in-waiting, would-be martyrs, and everything in between, but they only get a chance to shine if the political situation creates an opening for their particular kind of politics. So what is creating that opening now?

The anger is about the fact that the jobs are disappearing, and what’s killing them is automation. The assembly-line jobs went first, because they are so easy to automate. That’s what turned the old industrial heartland of the United States into the ‘Rust Belt’. What’s going fast now are the retail jobs, killed by Amazon and its rivals: computers again.

The next big chunk to go will probably be the driving jobs, just as soon as self-driving vehicles are approved for public use. And so on, one or two sectors at a time, until by 2033 (according to the famous 2013 prediction by Oxford economist Carl Benedikt Frey) 47% of US jobs will be lost to automation. And of course it won’t stop there.

Why don’t clever politicians like Hillary Clinton get that? Perhaps because they half-believe the fantasy statistics on employment put out by governments, like the official 3.7% unemployment rate in the United States. A more plausible figure is American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt’s finding in 2016 that 17.5% of American men of prime working age were not working.

That’s three-quarters of the way to peak US unemployment in the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it goes unnoticed because today’s unemployed are not starving and they are not rioting. You can thank the welfare states that were built in every developed country after the Second World War for that, but they are still very angry people – and they do vote. A lot of them vote for populists.

Populism thrives when a lot of people are angry or desperate or both. Donald Trump and people like him are not the problem. They are symptoms (and beneficiaries) of the problem – yet they dare not name it, because they have no idea what to do about automation.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“We know…now”)