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What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Climate Change

Human beings respond well to a crisis that is familiar, especially if it is also imminent. They don’t do nearly as well when the threat is unfamiliar and still apparently quite distant. Consider our response to the current coronavirus threat.

Countries in East Asia with recent experience of similar viruses (SARS, etc.) immediately responded with ‘test, track and isolate’ drills, plus instant lock-downs if the virus had already gained a foothold in the population.

Other countries, just as rich and well-educated, had the same information, but they still waited several months before taking emergency measures that upset the comfortable routine of their lives. So the United States, Britain and France all ended up with death rates per million more than fifty times higher than China, Korea and Japan.

The same applies to global heating, except that in this case we are all Americans. None of us has prior experience of a genuine climate crisis, and although we have known enough about what’s going to happen to justify urgent action for thirty years now, we have done nothing decisive about it.

We have lots of ‘clean’ technology, but total demand for energy has grown so fast that we are still getting a steady 80% of our energy from fossil fuels. Realistically, this is not going to change much. We are who we are, shaped by millions of years of evolution, and our ancestors didn’t do long-term planning; they had to concentrate on acute short-term problems.

A truly serious response to the climate threat will therefore come only when it is actually starting to hurt. Unfortunately, by then it will probably be too late.

The Earth system – biosphere, atmosphere, the oceans, the rocks, all the components that govern the climate – plays by its own rules. It will absorb new inputs like warming for a long time while changing as little as possible: it’s a ‘homeostatic’ system.

We are still benefiting from this feature now: a full degree Celsius of warming already, and not much to show for it except hotter summers, shorter winters and bigger storms. But when the pressure on the climate system gets too great – reaches a ‘tipping point’ – it is liable to charge off in unpredictable directions at high speed.

‘Non-linear change’, they call it, and we won’t like it a bit. Hundreds of millions, maybe billions, will start to die.

THEN we’ll be ready to make great changes to save ourselves, but it will be too late. Human systems will be collapsing under the impact of famines, wars and endless waves of refugees, and besides once the climate hits non-linear change it’s almost impossible to bring it back. We’re stuck with wherever it ends up, whether that new state will support a large human civilisation or not.

How far ahead is this calamity? We probably have at least a decade or two. Will we end all our greenhouse gas emissions in that time? Probably not.

‘Cutting’ our emissions isn’t enough. We actually have to stop all of our emissions before we push the climate system over the edge, and we don’t even know precisely where the edge is.

Every bit of emissions we can cut now gives us a little more time before we reach the edge, but the global population will still be going up and people in the poorer countries will still be increasing their energy use. (It’s their turn; you can’t deny them that.)

So the crisis almost certainly will arrive, and then we will finally be willing to make radical changes. What we will desperately need at that point is more time. That’s why we will need geoengineering.

Geoengineering is not a cure; it is a way of temporarily counteracting the warming caused by our emissions of greenhouse gases, by reflecting a small part of the incoming sunlight in one way or another.

In fact, you could say that it is ‘positive’ geoengineering, as opposed to the large-scale ‘negative’ geoengineering we have been doing for the past two centuries by dumping huge amounts of warming gases into the atmosphere.

When we are finally ready to act decisively on global warming, we will need a window of time to make the changes that are required to preserve this global civilisation and the biosphere it now dominates. Only geoengineering can create that window.

We don’t need to start geoengineering now. It would be wonderful if we never have to do it, but that would take a miracle. We cannot know how long we would have to go on doing it, either: long enough to get the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back down to a safe level, certainly, which would be at least a matter of decades.

But even without knowing the answers to these questions, we clearly need to speed up research and testing of the various potential techniques for geoengineering now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Cutting…that”)

Nobody Mention UBI

When you lock the people down (to save their lives), you inevitably close down a lot of the economy as well. And the lockdown will definitely have to last in most countries until May or June: Donald Trump’s promise of a ‘beautiful timeline’ to reopening the US economy just two weeks hence is delusional. So where’s the money coming from in the meantime?

The majority of people still have jobs they get paid for: people in essential services who have to go to work, people who can do their work from home, and quite a few others as well.

However, between a third and quarter of the employed population has been left idle as their employers, from airlines to retail businesses, downsize or shut temporarily. If you leave these people without income, then you are reproducing the conditions of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment peaked at 24% in the United States and the country’s GDP shrank by almost half.

Adolf Hitler came to power when German unemployment reached 30%: misery and desperation can lead to violence. Nobody wanted to see that movie again, so after the Second World War every developed country created a welfare state to shelter its population from the worst effects of the ‘business cycle’.

The welfare state has served us well for most of a century (including in the United States, whose rudimentary welfare state was first in the field with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s). But it is not enough to keep the wheels turning when a huge chunk of the workforce had dropped out for reasons that are not economic but health-related.

That’s why governments, including deeply orthodox right-wing ones like the Conservatives in Britain and the Republicans in the United States, are turning to what economist Milton Friedman first named ‘helicopter money’ half a century ago.

The idea is that a government can reboot an economy in which spending power has collapsed (because so many are out of work) by simply giving the penniless consumers free money – as if throwing it out of a helicopter. After all, it’s free money for the government too: they just ask the central banks to print it for them.

At this point traditionalists will begin to mutter about inflation, and the risk of undermining the work ethic, and various other shibboleths, but the governments in all the bigger Western economies – the US, the UK, Germany, France – are in conservative hands at the moment, and they are all doing it.

As Robert Chote, director of Britain’s comically named Office for Budget Responsibility, said last week: “When the fire is large enough you just spray the water and worry about it later.” So get in the chopper and start dropping the money.

Sweden has guaranteed laid-off workers 90% of their incomes until the health crisis is past, France is offering ‘partial unemployment benefits’ equal to 84% of the workers’ incomes, and Britain is offering 80%. In every case the employers (who are also getting government aid) are expected to hold their employees’ jobs open for them when normal service is restored.

Even the self-employed, including the ‘gig’ workers who now make up around 10% of the workforce, are not being left out. Norway is giving them 80% of their income based on their last three years of tax returns (tough luck if they understated it), and most other European countries will follow suit.

The United States government is less generous, of course, and would be even under a Democratic administration: the free-market ideology is the real national religion. President Trump is talking about $1,200 per person (the same as Hong Kong is giving its citizens), but only for one month or at the most two. And the proposal is still stuck in Congress.

Nevertheless, what all these governments (and others elsewhere in the world) are really playing with is the idea of a guaranteed national income that nobody can fall below. Only temporarily, you understand. Once the Covid-19 virus is tamed, we’ll go back to the dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost economy we all know and love.

Really? You think that after six months or a year of this we will just go back tamely to the old economic rules? I rather doubt it.

The political and economic rules do not evolve gradually in modern societies; they shift in sudden great lurches. The First World War drew millions of women into the factories and kick-started women’s emancipation.

The rise of fascism and the Second World War required the creation of the full welfare state (which was previously restricted to meagre old age pensions) to avoid a replay the next time the economy tanked.

The current emergency may be fostering the rise of ideas previously seen as too radical to contemplate, but nobody say ‘Universal Basic Income’ yet. You’ll frighten the horses.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“At this…doing it”; and “Even…suit”)

Germany, Japan and the War on Rationality

Germany and Japan are finally winning a war together. Unfortunately, it is the War on Rationality.

Coal, as everybody knows, is by far the most damaging source of energy we use, in terms of both the harm to human beings and the impact on the climate. It’s twice as bad as natural gas, and dozens of times worse than solar or nuclear or wind power. Yet both Germany and Japan have been building lots of new coal-fired power stations. Why?

Would it upset you if I said it’s because they are, despite their apparent sophistication, superstitious peasants at heart? Well, go ahead and get upset.

Germany still gets more than a third of its energy from burning coal, and most of it is ultra-polluting lignite or ‘brown’ coal. If most of Germany’s seventeen nuclear power had not been shut down after 2012 (the last are scheduled to close within two years), then at least half that coal would not have been needed.

There had been an active anti-nuclear power movement in Germany for some time, but what triggered the 2012 decision to shut the entire sector down was the Fukushima incident of the previous year.

I am deliberately avoiding the words ‘calamity’, ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe’, because while the Fukushima tsunami killed 19,000 people, the subsequent problem with the four nuclear reactors on the coast killed nobody. Yet the German people, or at least a large number of German anti-nuclear activists, insisted that any nuclear reactor anywhere was a mortal danger, and the government agreed to shut all the German nuclear plants down.

The same thing happened in Japan. The Japanese planners were foolish to put four reactors on the coast in a region where earthquakes and consequent tsunamis were to be expected from time to time, but what needs to be condemned is Japanese planners, not nuclear power. Nevertheless, all fifty Japanese nuclear reactors, which supplied 30% of the country’s electrical power, were immediately shut down.

The Japanese are not as blindly dogmatic as the Germans: two of those nuclear plants reopened in 2015, and seven more reopened recently. A further seventeen are in the lengthy process of restart approval, so by 2030 the Japanese government hopes to be getting 20% of its electricity from nuclear power again.

But that’s only half the amount of nuclear power that Japan originally planned to have available by 2030, and the gap between 20% and the planned 40% of the country’s energy needs will be made up by burning coal. Japan recently announced that it plans to build 22 new coal-burning power plants in the next five years.

This is deeply irresponsible behaviour, and the worst thing is that the decision-makers know it. They are just deferring to public opinion, which in this instance is entirely wrong. The ‘superstitious peasants’ should really be frightened of global warming, for which coal-burning is a major driver, not of relatively harmless nuclear power.

That’s not to say that nuclear power is the solution to all our problems, or even most of them. It is generally the most expensive option because it is costs so much to build the reactors and the associated controls and safety devices. Indeed, nuclear is no longer cost-competitive with other ‘clean’ sources of power like wind and solar.

So there is a case for not building any more nuclear power stations, at least in regions and countries that have ample resources in terms of sun and wind. But there is no case for shutting down existing nuclear stations and burning more coal to make up the difference. That is so stupid it verges on the criminal.

Other countries can be idiotic too. Due to an administrative glitch, Chinese provinces are currently building hundreds of unnecessary coal-fired power stations that may never be used, since the central government expects the country’s coal use to peak this year – and most existing Chinese coal plants already sit idle more than half of the time.

At least China is also building nuclear plants as fast as it can, and last year accounted for more than half the world’s output of solar panels. (On the other hand, it is providing work for the Chinese construction industry by building a planned 300 coal-fired power stations in other countries, presumably on the unspoken assumption that carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere won’t affect China’s climate.)

But nobody is as crazy as the Germans and the Japanese, who have been shutting down nuclear plants and replacing them with coal-fired plants. France will close its last coal-fired station in 2022, and Britain will do the same in 2025, but Germany says 2038 and Japan just says ‘eventually’. That’s far too late: by then the die will be cast, and the world will be committed to more than 2 degrees C of warming.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“This is…power”; and “At least…climate”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Erdogan vs. The World

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not an ‘Islamist’, in the extreme sense of the word. He doesn’t wear a suicide vest, he doesn’t behead people, he doesn’t even go around holding one finger up in the air to signify his hatred of those who fail to acknowledge the One True God. But he certainly does like the Islamists a lot.

In the heyday of the ‘Islamic State’ in northern Syria and Iraq, it was Erdogan who kept the Turkish border open so that thousands of foreign fighters and their families could go to join that terrorist proto-state, which was a descendant of Osama bin Laden’s original Al-Qaeda organisation.

More recently, he has stationed Turkish troops in Syria’s Idlib province, the one remaining rebel-held part of the country, where Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, another offshoot of Al-Qaeda, subjugated all the other rebel organisations last year and now rules unchallenged.

Unchallenged, that is, except by Syrian army troops backed by Russian airpower who are gradually winning back control on the province in a slow, grinding offensive that last week captured Idlib’s second-biggest city, Maarat an-Numan. So it’s no surprise that the Turkish army in Idlib is now firing directly on Syrian forces.

The story is a bit muddy, with Turkey claiming that four of its soldiers in Idlib were killed by Syrian shellfire on Sunday. But the Turkish government said it had killed 35 Syrian troops in retaliatory fire, and Erdogan added: “Those who question our determination will soon understand they made a mistake.”

He also warned Russia, Syria’s ally, “not to stand in our way.” The Russians will take this seriously, since Erdogan deliberately set up an ambush in 2015 and shot down a Russian plane that strayed into Turkish airspace for only 17 seconds. But Moscow won’t back down, so Erdogan is now playing with the prospect of a shooting war with Syria and Russia.

That would be enough on his plate, you might think, but he is also intervening in the civil war in Libya. He backs the Islamist-dominated government in the capital, Tripoli, against the rebel army led by General Khalifa Haftar that controls most of the country, and he has just sent troops to support it.

The troops are Syrian Arabs, part of the same Islamist puppet army that Erdogan used recently to invade the Kurdish part of Syria. His intervention in Libya puts Turkey into a potential confrontation with France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, all of which back Haftar. So does Russia.

Nothing daunted, Erdogan is spouting the same tough-guy rhetoric over Libya: “We will not hesitate to teach a deserved lesson to the putschist Haftar if he continues the attacks on the country’s legitimate administration and our brothers in Libya.” So there’s a few more potential enemies for Turkey. His plate is getting rather full.

But Erdogan’s not finished yet. He has also militarised a dispute with Greece and Cyprus over seabed oil and gas reserves, to the extent that Turkish fighter planes are now violating Greek airspace almost daily. And he has demanded that Athens demilitarises sixteen Greek islands that are close to the Turkish west coast (making them permanent hostages, totally vulnerable to Turkish invasion).

France has now sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean, and President Emmanuel Macron has explained that “Greece and France are pursuing a new framework of strategic defence.” ‘Defence’ against whom? Turkey, obviously. Who else could it be?

Turkey is still formally a member of NATO, so technically France and Greece are its allies, but Erdogan doesn’t seem bothered by that. Neither was he bothered by the fact that the United States is also a NATO member when he invaded northeastern Syria last October to drive the Kurds, America’s key allies in the war against Islamic State, from their homes in the border region.

He got away with that: the Kurds had served their purpose and Trump just abandoned them to their fate. But is he really wise to take on almost everybody else at once?

Like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Erdogan is a strongman ruler who has to win an election every four years. Putin is perennially popular in Russia and wins easily – but Erdogan usually scrapes through with just over half the vote. The country is divided down the middle, and the other half loathes him and his Islamist policies.

One reasonably small and successful war might actually benefit Erdogan by mobilising Turkish nationalism, but three at once? Against Russian and Syria on one front, France and Egypt on another, and Greece plus France and perhaps other NATO and European Union members on a third.

He used to be a fairly competent strategist, but he has been in power too long (17 years) and he has finally lost the plot. This is megalomania.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 14. (“Nothing…full”; and “Like…policies”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.