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Non-Linear

Here are two interesting facts. One is that the winter temperatures in the Arctic this year were the highest ever recorded. On two days in February, it was actually warmer at the North Pole than it was in Zurich, Switzerland. At one location in Greenland, the temperature rose to 36 degrees C higher than the usual average for that time of year.

The other interesting fact, revealed last month in two articles in ‘Nature’, one of the world’s leading scientific journals, is that the Gulf Stream is slowing down. In fact, it is now moving more slowly that at any time in the past 1,600 years (which is as far back as studies have gone). This could be very bad news for Western Europe.

The difficulty comes in figuring out what these facts mean – if they mean anything at all, and are not just random variations of an unusually extreme kind. And this is the point in the discussion at which you start to hear the climate scientists use the word ‘non-linear’ all the time.

Most people think of global warming as a smooth, gradual process. It might end up doing a lot of damage, but it will sort of creep up on you, not smack you in the face. Unfortunately, that is not how climate change has proceeded in many past cases of warming or cooling.

The change can be abrupt and quite extreme – and once it has happened, it becomes the new normal, perhaps for a very long time. Like many complex systems, the climate is non-linear: it stays the same for a long time, and then suddenly some ‘tipping point’ is reached, and the whole thing flips into a different configuration.

Now, the warming in the Arctic is not non-linear. It’s a trend that has been continuous for decades, although it has accelerated greatly in recent years: the amount of sea-ice coverage at the point of maximum freeze-up, in late March, has been far lower in 2015-18 than ever before.

Indeed, we’re almost certain to see an ice-free Arctic Ocean at the end of the summer melt season at some point in the next decade. Some of the ice will reform in the following winter, but less and less of it as the years pass. Without ice cover the water will be warmed directly by sunlight, so one day the whole ocean will be mostly ice-free year-round.

The focus of concern for the moment, however, is on what the warming is doing to the Greenland ice-cap. This ice is on land, and when it melts it raises the sea-level. More importantly for the near term may be the fact that it is putting a large volume of fresh water into the northern North Atlantic Ocean.

That may be part of what is slowing the Gulf Stream down. It’s a surface current of warm water from the tropics that travels at an average speed of six km per hour, contains as much water as there is in all the world’s rivers, and moves it all the way up to the seas between Iceland and Norway. Then the water cools off, drops to the bottom, and returns southwards as a deep-water cold current.

The Gulf Stream helps keep north-western Europe warm: England is at the same latitude as Labrador, but the average temperature is more than 10 degrees C higher. Norway, with 5 million people, is about the same latitude as southern Greenland (pop. 50,000). But the Gulf Stream has stopped entirely a number of times in the distant past, sometimes for centuries.

To be more precise, it stops going so far north: it ‘overturns’, dives to the bottom and heads back south long before it reaches the latitude of European countries like Ireland, Britain and Norway. And when it has done that in the past, the average temperature in those countries dropped by up to 10 degrees C.

There is reason to suspect that what was happening in these incidents was that a global warming trend was melting a lot of cool fresh water into the northern seas and blocking the Gulf Stream from getting so far north. So is that about to happen again? Nobody knows, but according to the latest studies the Gulf Stream has already slowed by 15% in the past 50-150 years.

When it shut down in the past it was abrupt and fast: non-linear, in other words. The 15% slowdown is not necessarily an indicator that the whole northern branch of the current is on the brink of shutting down. But then again, it might be.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“Indeed…year-round”)

Shithole Countries

Poor Donald Trump. He was simply asking for information, and they’re all over him as if he were a racist thug. His choice of words was unfortunate, but the angels rejoice when an ignorant person seeks enlightenment. We should take his question seriously and answer it for him.

What Trump asked last Thursday was: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” From the context – he was meeting with congressmen and senators who were working on immigration issues – it’s clear that by ‘shithole countries’ he meant Central American and African countries. El Salvador and Haiti came in for special mention.

What marks these countries out is that many of them are very poor, and some of them are plagued by war, crime and/or massive corruption. But most of the immigrants to the US have always come from countries like that: people who are safe and prosperous generally don’t abandon the countries they grew up in.

The first wave of Irish who went to the United States in the mid-19th century were driven by famine at home. The German, Polish and Italian immigrants of the same period were fleeing both poverty and political repression; the Russian Jews were also fleeing anti-Semitic violence. They would all have been ‘shithole countries’ at the time.

They are all safer, more prosperous places now, and the sources of the migrant flows have changed – but the motives of the migrants have not. Donald Trump should already have known that, since he grew up in New York City, but maybe he was just too privileged and isolated. At any rate, I’m glad to have cleared it up for him – and now that he understands the process all he has to do is clean up his language.

No, wait a moment. Trump had another question, too. He wanted to know why the United States couldn’t bring in immigrants from non-shithole places like Norway instead. This is a little harder to answer, because it’s a question of definition: the whole concept of a shithole depends heavily on your perspective.

Fom the point of view of Mexicans or Cubans, for example, El Salvador and Haiti are indeed shitholes (although they are far too polite ever to say that out loud). And from the viewpoint of a Norwegian, the United States is….Well, let me leave that question to Dr Christian Christensen, a Norwegian-American currently living and working in Sweden, who tweeted as follows:

“Of course people from Norway would love to move to a country where people are far more likely to get shot, live in poverty, get no healthcare because they are poor, get no paid parental leave or subsidised daycare, and see fewer women in political power. Shithole.” A bit heavy on the sarcasm, but you get the point. Trump will have to make do with immigrants who are – how shall we put this? – darker in hue.

And this brings us to the heart of the matter. Trump is a racist: such a dyed-in-the-wool racist that he is virtually unconscious of it. He openly says that he prefers immigrants from nice, white countries like Norway to brown or black immigrants from ‘shithole countries’.

He was so confident that every American who had ever voted for him or ever might shared his views that he didn’t even deny what he had said right away. It was reported as soon as the meeting finished on Thursday, but the first White House statement just defended his remarks: “Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people.”

It was more than 24 hours later, with the outrage still growing both at home and abroad, that Trump finally put out the usual statement (we’ve heard it on dozens of other occasions) denying that he had said what many people – senior members of Congress, in this case – had heard him saying. It’s the kind of damage control that doesn’t really control the damage.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson told his audience that Trump’s ‘shithole’ comments were “something that almost every single person in America actually agrees with.” Wrong. What he should have said was “almost every single American who watches Fox News.”

Very few non-white Americans agree with this kind of talk, and a large number of white Americans, maybe as many as half, don’t either. That adds up to a 65-70 percent majority who don’t agree. Trump will not win this argument, and Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, knows it.

“There are, I have to say, a growing number of white Americans who are afraid of and do not want to see the browning of America. They have a picture-perfect 1950s view of mother wearing an apron as dad, in a hat, goes off to work. It looks a lot more like them than it does me, but America is starting to look more like me.”

Michael Steele is an African-American.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“He was…damage”)

Race for the Arctic

1 August 2012

Race for the Arctic

By Gwynne Dyer

Russian television contacted me last night asking me to go on a programme about the race for Arctic resources. The ice is melting fast, and it was all the usual stuff about how there will be big strategic conflicts over the seabed resources – especially oil and gas – that become accessible when it’s gone.

The media always love conflict, and now that the Cold War is long gone, there’s no other potential military confrontation between the great powers to worry about. Governments around the Arctic Ocean are beefing up their armed forces for the coming struggle, so where are the flash-points and what are the strategies? It’s great fun to speculate about possible wars.

In the end I didn’t do the interview because the Skype didn’t work, so I didn’t get the chance to rain on their parade. But here’s what I would have said to the Russians if my server hadn’t gone down at the wrong time.

First, you should never ask the barber if you need a haircut. The armed forces in every country are always looking for reasons to worry about impending conflict, because that’s the only reason that their governments will spend money on them. Sometimes they will be right to worry, and sometimes they will be wrong, but right or wrong, they will predict conflict. Like the barbers, it’s in their professional interest to say you need their services.

So you’d be better off to ask somebody who doesn’t have a stake in the game. As I don’t own a single warship, I’m practically ideal for the job. And I don’t think there will be any significant role for the armed forces in the Arctic, although there is certainly going to be a huge investment in exploiting the region’s resources.

There are three separate “resources” in the Arctic. On the surface, there are the sea lanes that are opening up to commercial traffic along the northern coasts of Russia and Canada. Under the seabed, there are potential oil and gas deposits that can be drilled once the ice retreats. And in the water in between, there is the planet’s last unfished ocean.

The sea lanes are mainly a Canadian obsession, because the government believes that the North-West Passage that weaves between Canada’s Arctic islands will become a major commercial artery when the ice is gone. Practically every summer Prime Minister Stephen Harper travels north to declare his determination to defend Canada’s Arctic sovereignty from – well, it’s not clear from exactly whom, but it’s a great photo op.

Canada is getting new Arctic patrol vessels and building a deep-water naval port and Arctic warfare training centre in the region, but it’s all much ado about nothing. The Arctic Ocean will increasingly be used as a shortcut between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, but the shipping will not go through Canadian waters. Russia’s “Northern Sea Route” will get the traffic, because it’s already open and much safer to navigate.

Then there’s the hydrocarbon deposits under the Arctic seabed, which the US Geological Survey has forecast may contain almost one-fourth of the world’s remaining oil and gas resources. But from a military point of view, there’s only a problem if there is some disagreement about the seabed boundaries.

There are only four areas where the boundaries are disputed. Two are between Canada and its eastern and western neighbours in Alaska and Greenland, but there is zero likelihood of a war between Canada and the United States or Denmark (which is responsible for Greenland’s defence).

In the Bering Strait, there is a treaty defining the seabed boundary between the United States and Russia, signed in the dying days of the Soviet Union, but the Russian Duma has refused to ratify it. However, the legal uncertainty caused by the dispute is likelier to deter future investment in drilling there than to lead to war.

And then there was the seabed boundary dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea, which led Norway to double the size of its navy over the past decade. But last year the two countries signed an agreement dividing the disputed area right down the middle and providing for joint exploitation of its resources. So no war between NATO (of which Norway is a member) and the Russian Federation.

Which leaves the fish, and it’s hard to have a war over fish. The danger is rather that the world’s fishing fleets will crowd in and clean the fish out, as they are currently doing in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

If the countries with Arctic coastlines want to preserve this resource, they can only do so by creating an international body to regulate the fishing. And they will have to let other countries fish there too, with agreed catch limits, since it is mostly international waters. They will be driven to cooperate, in their own interests.

So no war over the Arctic. All we have to worry about now is the fact that the ice IS melting, which will speed global warming (because open water absorbs far more heat from the Sun than highly reflective ice), and ultimately melt the Greenland icecap and raise sea levels worldwide by seven metres (23 ft). But that’s a problem for another day.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“First…resources”)

 

 

The Christian Threat

27 July 2011

The Christian Threat

By Gwynne Dyer

Three pieces about Muslims in the same paper on the same day (The Independent, 25 July). The first is a local colour piece about how there are a lot more Middle Eastern tourists in London this summer. Why? Because France has banned the “Islamic” veil (or the Babylonian/Roman/Byzantine/Islamic veil, if you want to be precise) that covers the face. So the high-spending female shoppers from the Gulf aren’t going to Paris any more.

So many of them are going to London instead that big London shops like Selfridges and Liberty are reporting a 40-45 percent in international visitors compared to last year. And since Middle Eastern shoppers spend about fifteen times as much as your average British shopper, they are more than welcome even if many of them look a little weird to the average British eye.

Two pages on, a story about how rickets, a bone disease that causes stunted growth and bow legs in children, is making a comeback in Britain. It’s caused by a deficiency of vitamin D, which is produced by sunlight acting on the skin. And it’s Muslims (British Muslims this time), who keep their women indoors or make them cover every bit of skin when they go out, who are the main victims of this disease.

The researcher didn’t actually say that, of course. She said: “You get women living in certain communities that perhaps don’t go out much because of religious, cultural traditions. They’re covered up when they do. They don’t get enough access to sunlight, so they get vitamin D deficient…So (their children will) be presenting with rickets at around 18 months.”

Fair comment, but it’s striking that nowhere in that story does the word “Muslim” appear. It didn’t appear in the first story either. Everybody knows that both stories are about Muslims, but the galumphing etiquette that governs this discourse means that you mustn’t actually say so. It’s a well-meaning but idiotic attempt to compensate for the vicious anti-Muslim rants that you’ll see every day in other parts of the Western media.

And finally, on the letters page, an angry complaint by a British Muslim about the way that Western media jumped to the instant conclusion that the hideous slaughter in Norway was the work of Muslim fanatics. “Now that the architect of the Norwegian massacre turns out to be a blue-eyed, blonde, white, Christian, right-wing fundamentalist,” inquired Dr Shazad Amin, “where have all the so-called experts on “Islamic terrorism” suddenly gone?”

“I look forward to now seeing an equally vigorous explanation of how Norway was “always a key target” for right-wing neo-Nazi groups, supported by a plethora of experts on “Christian terrorism” to explain the theological basis for these attacks.”

If you hold your breath until that happens in the mainstream Western media, you will turn an attractive shade of blue, but we could try to apply the principle here.

Just as Muslims living in northerly climes with weak sunlight suffer rickets because of their clothing preferences, for example, so “Christians” living in countries with strong sunshine suffer very high rates of skin cancer because of their custom of wearing as little clothing as possible.

That is not really accurate, of course, because a majority of the world’s Christians are not white. What’s actually being observed is that people of European descent (most of whom are at least “culturally” Christian) get skin cancer a lot if they live in countries like Australia, South Africa and Argentina.

The fully veiled women shoppers in London are not just generic “Muslims”, either. They are almost all women from the Arabic-speaking countries of the Gulf, home to only a quarter of the world’s Arabs and only about 3 percent of the world’s Muslims.

But this is really just quibbling. The real question is: what can be done about the obsession with “Islamic terrorism” in the Western media, to the virtual exclusion of other kinds of terrorism. It is so strong that even after Anders Behring Breivik claimed responsibility for the Norwegian horrors and explained his (right-wing, Christian fundamentalist) motives, internet posts continued to argue that he was just a tool in the hands of Muslim extremists.

It’s the “hidden hand” theory of politics, and its adherents generally proceed by the logical process that the lawyers refer to as “cui bono”: who benefits from this action? It’s hardly an infallible indicator of who is responsible, because you have to allow for the crazies, and also for those who are miscalculating where their interests really lie. Nevertheless, it’s the methodology that the conspiracy theorists prefer.

So, then, who benefited from Breivik’s actions? Obviously he believed that it would serve his own delusional ideology (which he elucidated in a 1,500-page internet post), but who was really behind it? I’m drifting towards paranoia, I know, but stay with me.

The week before the Norwegian tragedy saw a deluge of revelations of criminality and a firestorm of media criticism about the conduct of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Suddenly, all the media attention has turned to Norway and terrorism, and the Murdochs are off the agenda.

I’m not going to say anything that might get me sued, but if you like a really big conspiracy theory….

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 10 and 11. (“The researcher…months”; and “That…Muslims”)