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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”)

The Arab Spring Three Years On

27 January 2014

The Arab Spring Three Years On

By Gwynne Dyer

It has taken a little longer than it did after the 1848 revolutions in Europe, but on the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution we can definitely say that the “Arab Spring” is finished. The popular, mostly non-violent revolutions that tried to overthrow the single-party dictatorships and absolute monarchies of the Arab world had their moments of glory, but the party is over and the bosses are back.

People in the Middle East hate having their triumphs and tragedies treated as a second-hand version of European history, but the parallels with Europe in 1848 are hard to resist. The Arab tyrants had been in power for just as long, the revolutions were fuelled by the same mixture of democratic idealism and frustrated nationalism, and once again the trigger for the revolutions (if you had to highlight just one factor) was soaring food prices.

In many places the Arab revolutionaries had startlingly quick successes at first – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen – just like the French, German, and Italian revolutionaries did in Europe’s “Springtime of the Peoples”. For a time it looked like everything would change. Then came the counter-revolutions and it all fell apart, leaving only a few countries permanently changed for the better – like Denmark then, or Tunisia in today’s Arab world.

The disheartening parallels are particularly strong between Egypt, by far the biggest country in the Arab world, and France, which was Europe’s most important and populous country in 1848. In both cases, the revolutions at first brought free media, civil rights and free elections, but also a great deal of social turmoil and disorientation.

In both France and Egypt the newly enfranchised masses then elected presidents whose background alarmed much of the population: a nephew of Napoleon in one case, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the other. And here the stories diverge for a time – but the ending, alas, does not.

In France, President Louis Napoleon launched a coup against his own presidency, and re-emerged in 1852 as Emperor Napoleon III. It had been a turbulent few years, and by then a large majority of the French were willing to vote for him because he represented authority, stability and tradition. They threw away their own democracy.

In Egypt last year, the army allied itself with former revolutionaries to overthrow the elected president, Mohamed Morsi – and within a few months, after an election which will genuinely represent the wish of most Egyptians to trade their new democracy for authority, stability and tradition, Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will duly assume the presidency. The counter-revolution is as popular in Egypt now as it was in France then.

And if you fear that this analogy is really relevant, then here’s the worst of it. After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, there were no further democratic revolutions in Europe for twenty years. If that timetable were also to apply to the Arab world, then the next round of democratic revolutions would only be due around 2035. But it probably doesn’t apply.

There is one key difference between the European revolutions of 1848 and the Arab revolutions of 2011. The 1848 revolutions were violent explosions of popular anger that succeeded in hours or days, while those of 2010-11 were largely non-violent, more calculated struggles that took much longer to win. Non-violent revolutions give millions of people time to think about why they are taking these risks and what they hope to get out of it.

They may still lose focus, take wrong turns, even throw all their gains away. Mistakes are human, and so is failure. But once people have participated in a non-violent revolution they are permanently politicised, and in the long run they are quite likely to remember what they came for.

The most promising candidate to succeed Gene Sharp as the world authority on non-violent revolutions is Erica Chernoweth, a young American academic who co-wrote the study “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict” with diplomat Maria Stephan. A lot of their book is about why non-violent revolution succeeds or fails, but most interesting of all are their statistics about HOW OFTEN it succeeds.

Their headline statistic is that violent revolutionary struggles succeed in overthrowing an oppressive regime only 30 percent of the time, whereas non-violent campaigns succeed almost 60 percent of the time. By that standard, the Arab world is certainly under-performing.

There have been only two relative successes among the Arab countries, Tunisia and Morocco (where the change came so quickly that hardly anybody noticed). There were two no-score draws: Yemen and Jordan. And there were three abject failures: Bahrain, Egypt and Syria, the latter ending up in a full-scale civil war. (Libya doesn’t count, as it was a violent revolution with large foreign participation right from the start.) So far, not so good.

But the most relevant statistic from Chernoweth and Stephan’s work for the future of the Arab world is this: “Holding all other variables constant, the average country with a failed non-violent campaign has over a 35 percent chance of becoming a democracy five years after a conflict’s end.” Failure may be only temporary. The game isn’t over yet.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 13. (“People…prices”; and “There have…good”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

 

 

The Decline of the West?

18 February 2013

The Decline of the West?

By Gwynne Dyer

You know the story-line by now. There are one million US-dollar millionaires in China. (“To get rich is glorious,” said former leader Deng Xiao-ping.) Seventy percent of the homes in China are bought for cash. China’s total trade – the sum of imports and exports – is now bigger than that of the United States. “They’re going to eat our lunch,” whimper the faint-hearted in the West.

It’s not just the Chinese who are coming. The Indians and the Brazilians are coming too, with economic growth rates far higher than in the old industrialised countries, but it doesn’t even stop there. There’s also Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia and half a dozen other big countries in what used to be called the Third World that have discovered the secret of high-speed growth. The power shift is happening even faster than the pundits predicted.

As recently as 2009, the “Brics” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) accounted for less than one-tenth of total global consumption. The European Union consumed twice as much, and so did the United States. But by 2020, the Brics will be producing and consuming just as much as either of the older economic zones, and by 2025 considerably more than either of them.

In fact, if you include not just the four Brics but all the other fast-growing economies of the ex-Third World, in just a dozen years’ time they will account for around 40 percent of world consumption. As a rule, with wealth comes power, so they will increasingly be calling the tune that the West must dance to. Or at least that is the Doomsday scenario that haunts the strategists and economists of the West. It’s nonsense, for at least three reasons.

First of all, a shift in the world’s centre of economic gravity does not necessarily spell doom for those whose relative influence has dwindled. The last time the centre shifted, when the United States overtook the nations of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it did not dent Europe’s prosperity at all.

It’s true that by the latter half of the 20th century there were American troops all over Western Europe, but that would not have happened if Europe had not come close to destroying itself in the two world wars (which can be seen as a European civil war in two parts). In any case, the US troops have mostly gone home now, and Europeans live at least as well as Americans.

Secondly, the new centre of gravity this time, while mostly located in Asia, is not a single country with a coherent foreign policy like the United States. The four Brics will never become a strategic or economic bloc. They are more likely to split into rival blocs, although one hopes not. And the Mexicos and Turkeys and Indonesias of this new world will have their own fish to fry.

So it will be a more complicated world with many major players, and the centre of economic gravity will be in Asia, but there’s nothing particularly strange about this. More than half of the human race lives in Asia, so where else should the centre of gravity be? Asia is very far from monolithic, and there is no logical reason to suppose that its economic rise spells economic decline for the West.

Thirdly, descriptions of the future that are simply extrapolations of the present, like the ones at the start of this article, are almost always wrong. If the widely believed forecasts of the 1980s had been right, Japan would now bestride the world like an economic Colossus. The one certain thing about the future is surprises – but some surprises are a little less surprising than others.

Take climate change, for example. The scientific evidence strongly suggests that the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world, home to almost all of the emerging economic powers, will be much harder hit by global warming than the temperate parts of the globe, farther away from the equator, where the older industrialised countries all live.

There is already much anger about this in the new economic powers. Eighty percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin in the atmosphere were put there by the old-rich countries, who got rich by burning fossil fuels for the past two centuries, and yet they get off lightly while the (relatively) innocent suffer. But even if the newly rich wanted revenge, they are too disunited – and will be too busy coping with the warming – to do much about it.

The centre of gravity of the world economy is undoubtedly leaving the old “Atlantic” world of Europe and North America and moving towards Asia, but how far and how fast this process goes remains to be seen. And there is no reason to believe that it will leave the countries of the West poor or helpless.

True, economists in the West often ask the question: “what will we sell the emerging countries in the future that they cannot produce for themselves?” In the runaway global warming scenario, the answer would be “food”, but the real answer is sure to be more complex than that. Never mind. They’ll think of something, because they’ll have to.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“It’s true…Americans”; and “There is…about it”)

 

 

2012 Year-Ender

22 December 2012

2012 Year-Ender

By Gwynne Dyer

To begin on a happy note, the world didn’t end this year. December 21st came and went without a sign of the Four Horsemen, leaving the Mayans (or rather their ancestors) with egg all over their faces. It just goes to show the perils of prediction – but why would we let that deter us? Nobody is keeping score.

So, instead of the usual trek through the events of the past year, why don’t we use this year-ender to examine the entrails of recent events for portents of the future? Like, for example, the vicissitudes of the Arab revolutions in the past twelve months.

On one hand, there were the first truly free elections in modern Egyptian history. On the other hand, judges inherited from the old regime dismissed the lower house of parliament on a flimsy pretext, and then the Islamist president retaliated by ramming through a new constitution that entrenched conservative “Islamic” values against the will of more than a third of the population. Is this glass half full or half empty?

On one hand, Libyans managed to hold a free election even though the country is still overrun by various militias, and Yemen finally bid farewell to its dictator of thirty-odd years. On the other hand, Syria has fallen into a full-scale civil war, with government planes bombing city centres and 40,000 dead. Did the “Arab spring” succeed, or did it fail?

Well, both, of course. How could it have been otherwise, in a world of fallible human beings? But the mould has been broken, and already half of the world’s Arabs live in countries that are basically democratic.

The political game is being played pretty roughly in some Arab countries, but that’s quite normal in new democracies – and in some older ones, too. In the years to come the transformation will deepen, amidst much further turbulence, and most Arab countries will emerge from it as normal, highly imperfect democracies. Just like most of the world’s other countries.

The European Union staggered through a year during which the common currency of the majority of its members, the euro, tottered permanently on the brink of collapse. The financial markets have been talking all year about “Grexit”, the expected, almost inevitable withdrawal of Greece from the eurozone, and speculating on which country would leave next.

They thought it would be Spain for most of the year, but Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to run for office again – “The Return of the Undead”, one European paper called it – switched the spotlight to Italy in November. The possibility that the common currency might simply fall apart, and take the political unity of the European Union with it, could no longer be dismissed.

Meanwhile, secessionist movements flourished in major EU states. In Spain, both Catalonia and the Basque region elected provincial governments committed to holding referendums on independence. The United Kingdom and the recently devolved Scottish government agreed on the terms of a referendum to be held on Scottish independence in 2014. And in Belgium, Flemish threats to secede seemed more plausible than usual.

It’s a mess, in other words, and Europe certainly faces years of very low economic growth. But the EU was always mainly a political project, intended to end centuries of devastating wars in Europe, and the euro was invented to reinforce that political union.

That project still has the firm support of the political elites in almost all EU countries, and they will pay whatever price is necessary to save it. Even in the regions considering secession from their current countries, there is no appetite for leaving the EU. Indeed, the strongest argument of the anti-secessionists is to say that those regions would have to re-apply for EU membership if they got their independence, rather than just inheriting it automatically.

So the European Union will survive, and will even recover its financial stability eventually. It will also remain a major economic player in the world, athough the centre of gravity of the global economy will continue to shift towards Asia. There is even reason to think that Asia’s triumph will arrive somewhat later, and in a rather more muted fashion, than the enthusiasts have been predicting in recent years.

In the last months of 2012 China went through the ten-yearly ritual in which power is handed on to a new generation of leaders, and both Japan and South Korea elected new right-wing governments. North Korea, the nuclear-armed rogue state that lies between them, put its first satellite into orbit, thus demonstrating its ability to build long-range ballistic missiles. And China was almost continuously embroiled in border disputes with its neighbours (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia) in the South China Sea.

The cloud on the horizon is still “no bigger than a man’s hand,” but it is definitely there. We can hope that the world works differently nowadays, and in some ways it really does, but the fears, the nationalist passions, and even the strategic relationships in Asia are coming to resemble those in Europe a century ago, on the eve of the First World War.

Even if an equivalent war never actually happens in Asia, a growing share of the region’s resources may be wasted on military spending. And if there ever were a real war, the destruction would be so great, given current weapons technologies, that the region could lose several decades’ worth of growth. But it will be some years yet before we know if the region is really drifting in that direction.

The world’s drift towards global catastrophe due to climate change is becoming impossible to deny. This northern summer saw prolonged droughts and heat waves ravage crops from the US Midwest to the plains of Russia, and soaring food prices as the markets responded to shortages in food supply.

This September saw Arctic sea ice cover fall to its lowest ever level: only half of the total area covered by ice in September ten years ago. And October saw Hurricane Sandy devastate much of the US east coast, causing a hundred deaths and over $30 billion in damage. It was the second-costliest tropical storm in American history (after Katrina, in New Orleans, seven years ago).

Yet the global response is as feeble as ever. The annual round of global negotiations on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, held this December in Qatar, merely agreed that they would try to get some sort of deal by 2015. Even if they do, however, it won’t go into effect until 2020.

So for the next eight years the only legal constraint on warming will be the modest cuts in emissions agreed at Kyoto fifteen years ago. Moreover, those limits only apply to the old industrial powers. There are no limits whatever on the rise of emissions by the fast-growing economies of the emerging industrial powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Even lemmings usually act more wisely than this.

November brought a week of massive Israeli air and missile strikes against the Gaza Strip, allegedly in retaliation for Palestinian missile attacks against Israel, but the tit-for-tat has been going on for so long that it’s pointless to discuss who started it. And nothing Israel does can stop the growing support for a Palestinian state: in late November the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-voting observer state status by a vote of 138-9.

More worrisome was the threat of Israeli air strikes on Iran, supposedly to stop it from getting nuclear weapons. That would be a very big war if it started: the United States would almost inevitably get dragged in, the flow of oil from the Gulf states would stop, and the world economy would do a nosedive.

But there is no proof that Iran is currently working on nuclear weapons (the US and Israeli intelligence services both say no), and mere air strikes would not cripple Iran’s nuclear industry for long. So the whole issue is probably an Israeli bluff.

A bluff to what end? To get the rest of the world to impose severe economic sanctions against Iran, in the hope that they will cause enough pain to get Iranians to overthrow the present regime. The damage is certainly being done – the value of the Iranian rial collapsed this year – but the power of the ayatollahs is unshaken. They will not be overthrown, and there will not be a war. I think.

And then there’s the United States, where Barack Obama, having accomplished little except health care reform in his first presidential term, was re-elected anyway. The Republican candidate concentrated his campaign on Obama’s slow progress in overcoming the deepest recession in seventy years (which had been caused by the previous Republican administration), but just in time the numbers started to turn upward for Obama.

The economic recovery will probably strengthen in the coming year (unless the United States falls off the “fiscal cliff” in the next week or so), and strong growth will give Obama enough political capital to undertake on at least one big reform project. The highest priority is obviously global warming, but there is a danger that he will fritter his resources away on hot-button issues like gun control.

So much for the big themes of the year. There was also the usual scatter of promising changes like Burma’s gradual return to democracy, the start of peace talks that may bring an end to the 60-year-old war between government and guerillas in Colombia, and the return to the rule of law in growing areas of anarchic Somalia.

Similarly, there was a steady drizzle of bad news: the revolt by Islamist extremists that tore the African state of Mali in half in April, the pogrom against Burmese Muslims in July, and the police massacre of striking miners in South Africa in August.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez is probably dying of cancer, and the rules for choosing his successor are in dispute. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin faced unprecedented public protests after the elections last March, but his power still seems secure. The Mars rover landed successfully in August, and is now busily trundling across the Martian landscape. The existence of the Higgs boson was confirmed (or at least tentatively confirmed).

Business as usual, in other words. 2012 wasn’t a particularly bad year; if you think it was, you’ve been reading too many newspapers and watching too much CNN. Their stock-in-trade is crisis and tragedy, so you can always count on them to give you the worst news possible. It wasn’t all that great a year either, but never mind. There’ll be another one along shortly.

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This article is 1750 words. To shorten it, you can omit any of the main themes except the first one (on events in the Arab world) — that is, paragraphs 7-12 (“The European…years”); paragraphs 13-15 (“In the last…direction”); paragraphs 16-19 (“The world’s…than this”); or paragraphs 21-23 (“More worrisome…I think”).

Various single paragraphs can also be dropped: nos. 4, 6, 8, and 28.