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Salami Tactics and the Climate

Salami tactics are useful when dealing with problems that are too big to resolve in one go. Muster all your resources and deal with one aspect of the problem. Come back later, when your resources have grown, and hack off a different piece. Repeat as necessary, until the problem disappears.

Salami tactics are driving the make-or-break climate summit that opens in Paris on 30 November. Over the next dozen days more than 150 countries will make binding pledges to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”.

This is better than what happened last time, at the disastrous Copenhagen summit in 2009, where only the developed countries were willing to make any promises at all.

Even China, now the biggest emitter in the world, was refusing to accept any limits on its emissions on the grounds that the small group of countries that industrialised early (basically the West plus Japan) were historically responsible for 80 percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The Copenhagen summit broke up in disarray, with nothing of substance accomplished, and we had to wait six years for another kick at the can.

Now both the United States and China, the two biggest hold-outs last time, are making concrete offers to control their emissions. That’s crucial, because together they account for 40 percent of global emissions.

The conference must also come up with acceptable ways to monitor the emission cuts everybody is promising to make and to discipline the laggards and the cheats. But let’s be optimistic, and assume that the summit can even agree on a mechanism to transfer $100 billion annually from the rich countries to the poor countries to help them cut their omissions.

That still won’t save us from runaway warming and all the calamities that would entail.

Late last month the United Nations did an analysis of the 146 national plans for emissions cuts (including those of all the big countries) that had already been submitted. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t add up.

If all the promises are kept, global emissions will slow down – but the world still end up in the year 2100 with an average temperature 2.7 degrees Celsius higher than it was in the late 19th century. Yet all the governments going to Paris have acknowledged that the average global temperature must never exceed two degrees C higher.

What can they be thinking? Unlike the media and most of the lay public, the governments understand that plus 2 C is already catastrophic. If we stay there long enough, all the ice on the planet eventually melts and the sea level rises by 70 metres.

Even in the much shorter term plus 2 C means massive storms, widespread desertification, the loss of the world’s coral reefs and a crash in fish stocks due to ocean acidification. Food production worldwide will plummet, and there will be massive, unstoppable refugee flows as hunger and wars devastate the more vulnerable countries.

The governments also know that exceeding plus two or maybe even just getting near it will trigger the “feedbacks”: an ice-free Arctic Ocean absorbs the Sun’s heat rather than reflecting it, the melting of the permafrost zone releases of enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the warming of the oceans releases even more.

At that point the warming moves beyond human ability to control. The feedbacks, once started, are unstoppable. Even if human beings ultimately get their own emissions down to zero, the feedbacks will still take us up to plus four, plus five, maybe even plus six degrees eventually.

The governments know all this, and yet they have still come up with total promised cuts in emissions that deliver us to an average global temperature of plus 2.7 degrees C by the end of the century. What CAN they be thinking?

They think that they are going as far as they can safely go without committing political suicide. Every government must contend with huge vested interests at home that will be hurt by the shift away from fossils fuels and towards renewables. If governments go too far too fast, they risk being destroyed by the backlash.

Okay, so they are doing all they can politically – but what about the future of the human race? Well, you see, even inadequate cuts in emissions will increase the amount of time it takes for us to reach plus 2 C. And the governments secretly think that we can use that extra time to come back for another conference in three or five years’ time and agree to bigger emissions cuts.

Those further cuts will give us still more time before we reach plus 2, and we use that time for another round of cuts. Like Xeno’s arrow, we get closer and closer to the target (which we must never hit) but never quite reach it. Warming certainly reaches plus 1.8 C or something like that, but it never quite hits plus two.

Salami tactics. Although there is also a whiff of Russian roulette to this way of doing business.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Even…can”; and “The conference…emissions”)

War with China: The Thucydides Trap

There is a small but significant industry in the United States that predicts the “coming war” with China, and Atlantic Magazine is foremost among reputable American monthlies in giving a home to such speculation. It has just done it again, in an article that includes a hearty dose of geopolitical theory. The theory is “The Thucydides Trap”.

The author is Graham Allison of Harvard University, the man who coined that phrase. Thucydides, the historian of the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC, explained what caused the war this way: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” It lasted twenty years, and at the end of it the two great powers of the ancient Greek world were both devastated.

Yet they didn’t really go to war over anything in particular, according to Thucydides. The problem was that Athens was overtaking Sparta in power (like China is overtaking the United States now), and just that one fact was enough to send them to war. So are China and the United States doomed to go to war in the next decade?

Graham Allison knows better than to make a hard prediction, but he does point out that out of the past sixteen cases when one major power was gaining in power and its rival feared relegation to the second rank, twelve ended in war.

Such predictions and formulas have an impact in the real world. When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Seattle two weeks ago at the beginning of his US visit, he felt obliged to respond to Allison’s article: “There is no such thing as the Thucydides Trap in the world,” Xi said. “But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”

Well, he wasn’t going to say “Yeah, we’re doomed to go to war with each other,” was he? But it’s clear that Chinese (and American) leaders worry about this – and that worrying about it paradoxically makes it more likely to happen, because it places the whole question of ‘Who’s on top?’ at the centre of their thinking.

Does it really matter who’s more powerful when China and the United States have no shared border, make no territorial claims against each other, and are separated by the world’s largest ocean? Lots of people in each country would say no, but both countries have military-industrial-academic complexes that thrive on the threat of a US-Chinese military conflict.

They wouldn’t benefit from an actual war, of course. But the threat of a great war kept millions of people in the military, in defence industries and in various universities and think tanks in interesting and sometimes very profitable work during the four decades of the US-Soviet Cold War.

The threat of a US-Chinese war already provides gainful employment to a lot of people, though nothing like as many as those who made a living off the threat of World War III during the Cold War. If the perceived threat of war grows, so will the number of American and Chinese experts who make a living from it. So it’s worth examining Graham Allison’s assumptions to see if they hold water.

There are only two key assumptions. One is that China will decisively surpass the United States in national power in the coming decade. The other is that such transfers of power from one dominant nation to another are still likely to end in war. Neither is as certain as it seems.

Chinese dominance is certain if the country keeps growing economically even at its new, lower rate of seven per cent a year. That is still at least twice the US rate, and the magic of compound interest will still do its work. But the era of 10 per cent annual growth ended for Japan and South Korea, the other East Asian “miracles”, after about thirty years. Each country then fell to a normal industrialised-country growth rate or (in Japan’s case) below it.

China is at around the 30-year point now. Maybe its managers are cleverer and it can avoid the same fate, but their recently ham-fisted efforts to prop up the stock market suggest otherwise.

Most observers believe that China’s economic growth this year is already below seven per cent – maybe four per cent or even less. Neither of the other East Asian miracles ever got back onto the ultra-high growth track after they fell off it. At four per cent growth or less, China would not be overtaking the United States any time soon.

As for twelve out of sixteen changes in the great-power pecking order ending in war, that’s true. But according to Allison’s own data, three out of the four that didn’t end in war were the last three, covering the last half-century. Recent history is a great deal more encouraging than older history.

Maybe more effective international institutions have helped the great powers to avoid war. Maybe the existence of nuclear weapons has made them much more cautious. Probably both. But a US-Chinese war is not inevitable. It may not even be very likely.

The Global Economy: A Perfect Storm?

You know how it is with buses? You wait ages for one, far longer than seems reasonable – and then three arrive all at once. Financial crises are a bit like that too.

The financial crisis everybody in the business has really been waiting for is a “hard landing” of the Chinese economy, now one of the two motors of the global economy. (The other is still the United States.) Everybody thought it was bound to come eventually – well, everybody who was not too heavily invested in the Chinese market – and it now appears to be here, although the Chinese government is still denying it.

The second crisis, less widely anticipated, is a credit crunch that is sabotaging economic growth in almost all the developing countries except India. In many cases their currencies have fallen to historic lows against the dollar, making it harder for them to repay the dollars they borrowed. Moreover, it’s getting harder for them to earn dollars from their exports because commodity prices have collapsed.

And a third crisis is looming in the developed economies of Europe, North America and Japan, which can see another recession looming on the horizon before they have even fully recovered from the effects of the banking crash of 2007-08. And it’s hard to pull out of a new recession when your interest rates are still down near zero because of the last one.

These crises are all arriving at once because they are all connected. When the huge misdeeds and mistakes of American and European banks caused the Great Recession of 2008, China avoided the low growth and high unemployment that hurt Western countries by flooding its economy with cheap credit. But that only postponed the pain, and between 2007 and 2014 total debt in China increased fourfold.

The Chinese government is more terrified of mass unemployment than anything else. It believes, probably correctly, that the Communist regime’s survival depends on delivering continuously rising living standards. So the Chinese economy went on booming for another six years, but the “solution” was fraudulent and now it’s over.

The huge amount of cheap credit sloshing around the Chinese economy mostly went into building unnecessary infrastructure, and above all into housing. That did preserve employment, but property values soared and and a huge “housing bubble” was created. There was nobody to buy all those houses and apartments, and there are now brand-new “ghost towns” all over China, so property values are falling fast.

Since the crash on the Chinese stock markets began last month, the government has done everything it could to stop it. It has dropped interest rates repeatedly, it has devalued the currency, it has ordered state institutions to invest more – and nothing has worked.

Chinese exports have fallen 8 percent in the past year, and even the regime admits that the economy is growing at the lowest rate in three decades. Nobody outside the regime knows for certain, but it may scarcely be growing at all. The “hard landing” is now close to inevitable.

Now for the second crisis. While China’s artificial boom was rolling along, its appetite for commodities of every sort, from iron to soya beans, was insatiable, so commodity prices went up. The other “emerging market economies” grew fast by selling China the commodities it needed, they attracted large amounts of Western investment because of their rapid growth, and they borrowed freely because Western interest rates were at rock-bottom.

The collapse of Chinese demand ends this party too. From Brazil to Turkey to South Africa to Indonesia, exports are falling, the value of the local currencies is tumbling, and foreign investors are fleeing. Capital flight from the 19 largest emerging market economies has reached almost one trillion dollars in the past 13 months, and the outflow is still accelerating.

And the third crisis, in the West? The problems that caused the crash of 2007-08 have not really been addressed, just papered over. What limited growth there has been in Western economies is due almost entirely to absurdly low interest rates and“quantitative easing” (governments printing money).

The average time between recessions in the West is seven to ten years, so one is due around now anyway. The likeliest trigger for that is a collapse of demand in China and in the other emerging economies, which is now practically certain. And when it hits the West, neither of the traditional tools for pulling out of a recession will be available. Interest rates are already near zero, and the money supply has already been expanded massively.

It would be rash to talk about a long-lasting global depression in the style of the 1930s, because a lot has changed since then. But it is certainly safe to say that the global economy is heading into a perfect storm.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The huge…fast”)

Seventy Years Wthout a Nuclear War

We have been hearing a lot about the 70th anniversary of the first use of a nuclear weapon on human beings, in Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945. The more important anniversary, however, is 9 August, when the LAST nuclear weapon was used in war, on the city of Nagasaki.

It was predictable that atomic bombs would be used as soon as they were developed in 1945. It was the sixth year of the Second World War, and more than 60 million people had been killed already. But nobody would have believed then that nuclear weapons would not be used again in future wars.

We cannot be sure that they never will be used in war again, of course, but seventy years is already an impressive accomplishent. How did we manage that? One way to answer that question is to consider the behaviour of US President Harry S Truman, who was the man who decided to drop the first atomic bombs in 1945 – and the first man to decide NOT to drop them, in 1951.

Truman’s decision to drop the bombs in 1945 probably didn’t seem as momentous to him at the time as it looks now. Killing tens of thousands of civilians in cities by mass bombing (Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo) was practically routine by 1945, and the atomic bombs would have seemed like just a more efficient way of doing the same thing.

Besides, the fact that Japanese cities could now be destroyed by a single plane carrying a single bomb might well shock the Japanese government into surrendering. That would spare the lives of all the American soldiers (an estimated 46,000) who would die if Japan had to be invaded.

Truman had fought in the First World War (he was the only major Allied war leader who did). Although he was not generally seen as an imaginative man, he would have been vividly aware of the ordeal that awaited American soldiers if they had to invade Japan. He would also have been conscious that the US public would never forgive him if they found out that he had the bomb but didn’t use it to save those soldiers’ lives.

So he gave the orders and the bombs fell, adding a last quarter-million lives to that 60-million death toll. But five and a half years later, when US forces in Korea were fleeing south after Chinese troops intervened in the war there (“the big bug-out”), Truman behaved quite differently.

It may or may not be true that US General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the United Nations troops in Korea (including a third of a million Americans), wanted to drop atomic bombs on China’s Manchurian provinces to cut the supply lines of the Chinese troops in Korea. It is certainly true that Truman fired MacArthur, and that he did not use nuclear weapons even though thousands of American troops were being killed or captured.

Truman never explained his decision, but one possible reason is that actually seeing what nuclear weapons do to human beings (which nobody had yet seen when he made his 1945 decision) may have changed his view of them. They were not just another new weapon. They were the ultimate weapon, and they must not be used. And the other reason is obvious.

By late 1950, the United States had between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons – but the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic bomb in the previous year, and by then it already had at least half a dozen of the things. The era of mutual deterrence had arrived.

Truman didn’t know for certain that the Soviet Union would go to war if the US dropped nuclear weapons on China. He would have been fairly certain that the Russians didn’t yet have the ability to drop even one on the United States, although they could definitely hit America’s allies in Western Europe. But it didn’t matter: once both sides have nuclear weapons, they get a great deal more cautious.

In the following decades, many military theorists have worked hard to come up with strategies that would make nuclear weapons useful in war, and many scientists and engineers have worked on new techniques and technologies that would achieve the same objective. But nobody has ever had enough confidence in their promises to use even one of these weapons in a war.

The number of nuclear weapons in the world (many of them much more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs) peaked at around 50,000 in the mid-1980s, and has since fallen to about 15,000. The US and Russia still own 93 percent of them, but seven other countries now have nukes too – and still nobody has used one in war.

It is also true that no great power has fought any other great power directly for seventy years, which is certainly a first in world history. Is this because the two world wars had been so destructive that they created institutions like the UN Security Council to avoid another, or because they knew that great-power wars would probably be nuclear wars?

Probably both, but at any rate we’re making progress.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Truman…lives”; and “Truman…obvious”)