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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”)

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.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Truman…lives”; and “Truman…obvious”)

A War in Korea

1 April 2013

A War in Korea?

By Gwynne Dyer

The US-South Korean military exercises will continue until the end of this month, and the North Korean threats to do something terrible if they do not stop grow more hysterical by the day. Last week the Great Successor, Kim Jong-un, was shown signing a decree that ordered North Korea’s long-range missile forces to be ready to launch against the United States, while senior military officers looked on approvingly.

On the wall behind Kim was a map, helpfully labelled “US Mainland Strike Plan”, that showed the missile trajectories from North Korea to Hawaii, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Austin, Texas. (Why Austin? Doesn’t he like indie rock?) It was a scene straight out of the villain’s lair in an early James Bond movie, except that they’d forgotten to set it in a cave.

These threats are so palpably empty that the instinct of both the Pentagon and the US State Department is just to ignore them. North Korea has no operational missile that can reach even western Alaska, no miniaturised nuclear warhead to put on such a missile, and no long-range targeting capability. But the politics of the situation demands that the US government respond seriously to every threat, however foolish.

So next year the US government will spend another billion dollars or so to place fourteen more anti-ballistic missile sites in Alaska, presumably to protect the Alaskan west coast and the Aleutian Islands from a North Korean nuclear strike. And last Friday it sent two B-2 bombers all the way from Missouri non-stop to drop bombs on some uninhabited islands near North Korea, just to remind Pyongyang that it can.

It’s all still just a charade, a spring display of military capacities by two rival armed forces that could as well be rutting deer. The United States would not even play this game if the logic of both international and domestic politics did not oblige it to respond to the increasingly rabid North Korean threats. But it is playing nevertheless, and the risk of miscalculation is quite serious.

Anybody who tells you he KNOWS what is going on inside the North Korean regime is a liar, but there are a few safe assumptions. Real decision-making power on war and peace almost certainly lies with the senior ranks of the North Korean army, not with young Mr Kim or the Communist Party. It’s also clear that Kim, new to power and insecure, feels the need to look tough, just as his father did when he inherited the leadership from Kim’s grandfather.

 

And nobody in the North Korean regime knows how things work in the rest of the world. They may even be genuinely afraid that the US-South Korean military exercises, although they have been held annually for decades, are this time only a cover for a plan to attack North Korea. After all, the regime’s founder, Kim Il-sung, concentrated his forces under cover of military exercises in just that way when he invaded South Korea in 1950.

 

The North Korean military doubtless understand that they must not get into a nuclear war with the United States, but they may believe that their dozen or so nuclear weapons make it safe for them to use conventional force without facing American nuclear retaliation. And they do have rather a lot of conventional military force at their disposal.

Kim Jong-un’s threats are being exposed as bluffs almost daily – the US-South Korean military exercises go on as though he had said nothing – and he may ultimately feel obliged to DO something to restore his credibility. It would probably be just a limited local attack somewhere, but in the current atmosphere, with both Seoul and Washington determined not to submit to psychological blackmail, that could escalate rapidly to full-scale conventional war.

It would be a major war, for although North Korea’s weapons are mostly last-generation, that is not such a big handicap in ground warfare as it is in the air or at sea. North Korean troops are well-trained, and there are over a million of them. Moreover, South Korea is compelled to defend well forward because holding on to Seoul, only 50 km (30 miles) from the frontier, is a political imperative. That makes it quite vulnerable to breakthroughs.

The North Koreans would attack south in a three-pronged thrust, accompanied by Special Forces operations deep in South Korean territory, just as they did in 1950. The geography gives them few alternatives.

US-South Korean strategy would also echo 1950-51: contain the North Korean attack as close to the border as possible, and then counter-attack up the west coast on an axis heading north through Kaesong to Pyongyang. That would once again be accompanied by a big amphibious landing well behind the North Korean front, this time probably at Wonsan on North Korea’s east coast.

Even if the North Korean air force were effectively destroyed in the first couple of days, as it probably would be, this would be a highly mobile, hard-fought land war in densely populated territory involving high casualties and massive destruction. The world has not seen such a war for more than fifty years now.

We really don’t need to see it again.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Anybody…1950”)

 

 

Varieties of Nepotism: Korea

18 July 2012

Varieties of Nepotism: Korea

By Gwynne Dyer

What has been happening in North Korea recently is straight out of the “Hereditary Dictatorship for Dummies” handbook. Kim Jong-un, the pudgy young heir to the leadership of one of the world’s last Communist states, is removing powerful people who were loyal to his father and replacing them with men (it’s always men) who owe their advancement only to him.

Vice-Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the chief of the North Korean army until late last week, was not disloyal to the new boss. On the contrary, Ri’s support was vital in ensuring a smooth transition after the death of Kim Jong-Il, the old boss, and he gave it unstintingly. But in the end the vice-marshal didn’t owe everything to Kim Jong-un, so he had to go.

In his place, Kim Jong-un has promoted a man nobody had ever heard of before. His name is Hyon Yong-chol, but you don’t have to remember it unless you really want to. The point is that Hyon will have annoyed a lot of other generals in the army because he has been promoted over their heads, and so he is absolutely dependent on the good will of the young master.

Meanwhile, the propaganda that is intended to promote Kim Jong-un to the rank of god-king pours forth. When he visited an air force training unit, the North Korean news agency reported, he “guided the flight training of pilots.” At a concert, he “gave precious teachings for the performing activities of the Korean People’s Army Military Band.” It turns out that he is an expert in pretty well everything.

And just to be sure, Kim Jong-un had himself promoted to Marshal this week, so now he outranks everybody else in the armed forces. At least he hasn’t had all his brothers and half-brothers killed in order to rule out any challenges from within the family, like the Ottoman sultans used to do after they ascended the throne. So there IS progress, you see.

Things are done very differently in South Korea. There the presidents are chosen by the free vote of all the people (or at least all the ones who bother to vote). But the candidate most likely to win the presidential elections this December is the daughter of the dictator who ruled the country with an iron hand for two decades, until he was finally assassinated in 1979.

There are, to be sure, some striking differences between Ms Park Geun-hye, who will probably be South Korea’s first female president, and the callow youth who is scrambling to put his stamp on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea up north.

Park has earned her candidacy by a lifetime of public service, including a decade at the head of Yeungnam University and fourteen years in politics, during which she earned the nickname “Queen of Elections” for her skill in delivering the vote to her party even in the most adverse circumstances. At 60, she is more than twice Kim Jong-un’s age, and she has seen and done a lot.

On the other hand, it is very unlikely that she would have had this stellar career if she had grown up as the daughter of an army sergeant on a succession of bleak army posts. Growing up in the presidential palace, and serving as South Korea’s first lady for five years while still in her early 20s, after her mother was assassinated in 1974, was bound to produce a different outcome. It also helps with the name recognition that every politician needs.

If elected, Park Geun-hye may be a very successful president. She may have the determination and the clout to take on the big industries that dominate South Korean society and deliver more security and social justice to those at the bottom. She may even manage to create an opening with North Korea if she finds a willing partner in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-un is a completely closed book. Nobody beyond his own family has the slightest idea what he thinks and intends, and maybe even they don’t. Maybe he doesn’t even know himself yet. But unlike his father and grandfather, he has seen something of the world (he was educated partly in Switzerland), and it may have given him ideas.

The point is not that either of these people is necessarily a bad choice as president. It’s that both countries (but especially the North) are fishing in a very shallow pool. There are probably thousands of people in each country who would make better leaders, but they lack the connections and they will never be considered for the job. In fact, the same thing is true everywhere.

Would Hillary Clinton be the US Secretary of State if her husband had not been the president? Would George W Bush ever have been considered as a possible president if his dad had not been a moderately successful one? For that matter, would Aung San Suu Kyi, runner-up to Nelson Mandela in the Global Sainthood Stakes, ever have become the voice of Burmese democracy if her father had not been the (autocratic) hero of the independence movement?

Can anything be done about this? Probably not, but it is a pity.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“Meanwhile…everything”; and “If elected…Pyongyang”)