// archives

Paris

This tag is associated with 21 posts

Lebanon Meltdown

10 August 2020

Beirut has been living with car bombs and air raids on a sporadic but continuing basis for so long that it would probably make sense to rebuild this time with shatterproof glass. The torrent of broken glass falling from a thousand shattered buildings probably accounted for half the 158 dead found so far in Beirut, and certainly for most of the 6,000 wounded.

The Beirutis were not expecting a giant exploding warehouse, of course, but Lebanon has been cursed in so many other ways that in retrospect it seems almost inevitable. Fifteen years of brutal civil war, followed by thirty years of corrupt rule by the very warlords who ruined the country, ended Beirut’s claim to be the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ a long time ago.

The sense that the country’s time was running out has taken different forms over the years, but it was always there. I even thought the end might be coming with Islamic State a few years ago, and took my wife there to see the old Lebanon (some of which still survived and was easy to love) before IS came over the mountains from Syria to destroy it all.

Another blow to my reputation as a prophet, and one I was happy to take. IS over-reached itself, and is gone. What finally did it for Lebanon was more banal: the deliberate looting of the country’s entire fragile economy, and the concealment of the proceeds in obscure foreign banks, by the few thousand people whom ordinary Lebanese contemptuously call the ‘political class’.

‘Warlords’ is the right name for them, although many are sectarian leaders whose pedigrees go back to Ottoman times. It is a country where old men and obsolete communal loyalties oppress the impoverished young. That is true of almost every country in the Arab world, of course, but in Lebanon’s case the only remaining route to a better future may lie through even greater violence.

Popular anger was great even before the 2.75-kiloton explosion last week. Garbage collection failed years ago, the only safe water comes in bottles, and there is still not reliable 24-hour electricity 30 years after the war. The currency has collapsed, most people’s savings have been wiped out, the country has defaulted on its debt, and there are no jobs for the young.

There were huge non-violent street demonstrations last October, and the multi-party coalition government was forced to resign. (The ‘parties’ are really the old militias renamed.) “All of them means all of them,” the demonstrators chanted – but all that really changed was the faces of the cabinet ministers. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

There is a lot of sympathy for the Lebanese, and foreign governments are willing to bail the country out of its troubles – but only on condition that the loans don’t just get pocketed by the same thieves in silk ties, and that there is complete transparency in banking and in government financial transactions.

Those conditions were too tough for the ‘political class’, since many of their past crimes would be exposed and future ones would become more difficult. So, incredibly, the Lebanese government refused the loans even as families went without food. Then came the explosion on the waterfront, which was clearly the result of official incompetence at the very least.

An online summit of fifteen countries hosted by French President Emanuel Macron on Sunday pledged a quarter-billion dollars for immediate humanitarian aid to Lebanon. However, Macron made it clear that a $20 billion International Monetary Fund bail-out will depend on real reforms, including an audit of the central bank and regulation of the country’s capital markets. That is unlikely to happen voluntarily.

The demonstrators came out on the streets in force on Saturday, and by Sunday the army was there as well, firing live rounds into the air. The militias are out too, but so far they have left their weapons at home. The likelihood that this confrontation will be resolved peacefully? Worse than evens, certainly.

The crisis might have been delayed another year without the explosion, but not more. Even Hezbollah, once violent but relatively honest, now also has its hand in the till, and popular outrage is huge. This time, the protesters are building mock gallows in the street.

The oligarchs have their backs to the wall, but they know that popular rage can often be drowned in blood in the Arab world. In the past decade it has been done successfully in Syria, in Egypt, and in Bahrain, so why not in Lebanon too?

Here’s why not. Even if they win in the streets, the oligarchs still lose, because there is no economy left to plunder. And if they lose in the streets, they could easily end up on real gallows.
________________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10. (“An online…voluntarily”)

Ukraine: A Cold Peace?

After Monday’s first encounter between Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Paris, there were the inevitable accusations that Putin had taken the inexperienced Zelenskiy to the cleaners. After all, what chance did an ex-television comedian have against a wily former intelligence officer?

Wrong question. It’s not about how clever the players are, it’s about what cards they hold – and not even a diplomatic team that included Talleyrand, Metternich and Henry Kissinger could have beaten Putin’s hand. Russia won the war years ago, although people continued to die every week along the front line in southeastern Ukraine.

Zelenskiy’s task, which is still very hard to accomplish, is to close the war down without losing anything more to Russia, and without giving Putin decisive influence over the future course of Ukraine’s politics.

After 68 months of fighting and 13,000 deaths, the military stalemate in eastern Ukraine seems permanent, but that is an illusion. The Ukrainian army cannot break it, clearly, or it would have done so and recovered the lost territory already. But Russia could move forward any time it wants.

What deters Russia from advancing further is the huge diplomatic price it would pay, including a dramatic reinforcement of NATO’s forces along its western border and even more severe sanctions. Besides, ruling over tens of millions of resentful and impoverished Ukrainians is deeply unattractive to Moscow, and could easily turn into an interminable anti-Russian guerilla war. So Russia doesn’t want any more of Ukraine.

Any realistic Ukrainian would want to close the war down, cut Ukraine’s losses in the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, and get on with building a better future for the other 95% of the country. A peace deal between Moscow and Kyiv is therefore possible, but it is not inevitable or even indispensable.

The real measure of Zelenskiy’s realism is his Plan B. He can’t discuss it aloud himself, because he would be condemned as a defeatist and a traitor by Ukrainian super-patriots who simply ignore the realities of the situation. However, his adviser Andriy Yermak was quite frank about it at a meeting in London last week.

Ukraine’s preferred peace deal would restore the breakaway provinces, grant them wide local autonomy, and get the Russian troops out, but would not create a federal state in which those two provinces held a veto over central government policies. But if Zelenskiy can’t persuade Russia to accept that deal, then Kyiv will just walk away from the talks.

“If we don’t see readiness from Russia to…move towards a peaceful solution with a clear-cut time frame,” said Yermak, “we’ll be building a wall, and life will continue.” What kind of wall? He didn’t go into details, but it would clearly have to be both political and physical. Ukraine would abandon the breakaway provinces, wall them off, and get on with the rest of its life.

Since most of the people who remain in the Russian-controlled parts of those two provinces would really prefer to be part of Russia (one-and-a-half million people who prefer to be Ukrainian have already left), this would not constitute a great betrayal of innocent Ukrainian citizens. And it would free Ukraine from an unwinnable and therefore pointless war.

Maybe this won’t be necessary. Maybe Putin will be willing to make a deal that restores Ukraine’s sovereignty over its lost territories in the east (although not over Crimea), and that gives those territories autonomy without granting them a veto over central government policies. But the odds are against it.

This whole conflict was Putin’s response to the ‘Meydan Revolution’ of February 2014 that overthrew a deeply corrupt and slavishly pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. To punish Ukraine, Putin seized Crimea the following month – and then in April he sponsored the breakaway revolt by pro-Russian groups in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces.

His objective was somehow to regain a dominant Russian influence over the government in Kyiv. That has not succeeded, and he is left holding the eastern half of those two provinces, a partially depopulated post-industrial wasteland. So maybe he will cut a deal that hands them back to Ukraine and restores reasonably civil relations between Moscow and Kyiv. Or maybe not.

In either case, the relationship will stay very cool, because Russian popular opinion would never allow Putin to hand back Crimea. It is historically Russian territory, and only got transferred to Ukraine in 1954 as a result of murky machinations within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The best that can be hoped for is a cold peace, and even that is not guaranteed, but Zelenskiy’s Plan B shows that he is no fool. “I don’t know who [beat] whom,” he said after the Paris meeting. “I think it would be appropriate to be diplomatic as we’ve just started talking. Let’s say for now it’s a draw.”
_______________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 14. (“Maybe…against it”; and “In either…Union”)

Climate: Some Progress in Poland

Global warming is physics and chemistry, and you can’t negotiate with science for more time to solve the problem: more emissions mean a hotter planet. Dealing with the problem, however, requires an international negotiation involving almost 200 countries. In big gatherings of that sort, the convoy always moves at the speed of the slowest ships.

That’s why the reporting on the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland that ended on Saturday, two days later than planned, has been so downbeat. It didn’t produce bold new commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It saw the usual attempts by the biggest fossil fuel producers, the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to stall the process. And in the end it just produced a ‘rulebook’.

But that’s all it was supposed to do, and it’s not ‘just’ a rulebook. The great breakthrough at the Paris conference in Paris three years ago saw every country finally agree to adopt a plan for emission reductions, but the Paris accord was a mere sketch, only 27 pages long.

Fleshing it out – what the plans should cover, how often they should be updated, how countries should measure and report their emissions, how much leeway should be given to poor countries with bad data – was left until later. Later is now, and in the end they did come up with a 256-page rulebook that fills in most of those blanks.

“We have a system of transparency, we have a system of reporting, we have rules to measure our emissions, we have a system to measure the impacts of our policies compared to what science recommends,” said the European Union’s Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete. It was an excruciating process, and it still leaves a few things out, but it settled a thousand details about how the Paris deal will really work.

Oh, and one big thing. China abandoned its claim that as a ‘developing country’ it should not be bound by the same rules as rich countries like the United States. There will only be one set of rules for both rich and poor countries, although the really poor ones will get a lot of financial and technical help in meeting their commitments.

This year’s conference dealt with the details at ministerial level. Next year UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host a summit of the biggest emitters to lay the groundwork for the key 2020 meeting. That’s when countries will report if they have kept their 2015 promises on emissions cuts, and hopefully promise much bigger cuts for the next five years.

The rise of populist nationalists like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, both climate change deniers, will make future negotiations even harder. It’s all moving far too slowly, but the human factor keeps getting in the way. For example, Bolsonaro wants Brazil to get extra carbon credits for protecting the Amazonian rain-forest, even as he plans to carve the forest up with big new roads and cut a lot of it down.

The Paris deal is important, but it has come far too late to stop the average global temperature from rising to the never-exceed target of +2 degrees Celsius that was adopted many years ago, let alone the lower target of +1.5 C that scientists now believe is necessary.

We are already at +1 C, and current promises of emission cuts will take us up past +3 C. At the moment emissions are still going up (by 3% this year). Even if countries make further major commitments to cut emissions in 2020, it’s hard to believe that we can avoid devastating heat waves, droughts, floods and sea-level rise, and a sharp fall in global food production.

So while we are cutting emissions, we also need to be working on ways to remove some of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere. Various ideas for doing that are being worked on, but they will probably become available on a large scale too late to keep the temperature rise below +2 C.

So geo-engineering – direct intervention in the atmosphere to hold the temperature down while we work on getting emissions down – will probably be needed as well. Nobody really wants to do ‘solar radiation management’, but cutting the amount of sunlight reaching the planet’s surface by just a small amount is technically feasible. It could temporarily halt the warming and give us the extra time we are probably going to need.

We are getting into very deep water here, but we may have no other options. If we had started cutting our emissions 20 years ago (when we already knew where they would eventually take us), such drastic measures would not be necessary. But that’s not the human way, and so we’ll have to take the risks or pay the price.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Oh…emissions”; and “The rise…down”)

Crooked Timber

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” wrote Immanuel Kant in 1784. It is still true.

On Sunday the 24th ‘Conference of the Parties’ – the 180 countries that signed the climate change treaty in Paris in 2015 – opened in the Polish city of Katowice. The Polish government chose the venue, and it presumably selected Katowice because it is home to Europe’s biggest coal company. It was a thinly disguised show of defiance.

It’s not just Donald Trump who loves coal. It’s by far the worst of the fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but Poland gets 75% of its electricity by burning coal and it has no intention of changing its ways. In fact, shortly before COP24 opened in Katowice, the Polish government announced that it is planning to invest in a large new coal-mine in the region of Silesia.

1,500 km to the west on the same day, in Paris, municipal workers were picking up the debris after the third and most violent weekend of protests against President Emmanuel Macron. The demos are not as big as those of the great revolt of 1968, but they are certainly the biggest for decades even in this cradle of revolutions.

And what were the protesters (known as the ‘gilets jaunes’ after the fluorescent yellow vests that French drivers must keep in their vehicles) protesting about? In Paris and in other cities, they were building barricades, torching cars, and setting banks and houses on fire because Macron’s government has raised the tax on diesel fuel by 6.5 cents per litre.

This was on top of an increase of 7.9 cents per litre earlier this year, and most French vehicles run on diesel, but the public’s reaction does look a bit excessive. The fact that Macron justified it as a ‘green’ tax intended to reduce fuel use only seemed to make the protesters angrier, and at least until the extreme violence of last Saturday the majority of French people supported them.

Poles clinging to coal despite the fact that the fog of coal smoke that envelops Polish cities in winter kills thousands every year, and ordinary people in France rioting for the right to go on burning cheap diesel in their cars despite a comparable death toll from atmospheric pollution there, suggest that the quest to cut greenhouse gas emissions before global warming goes runaway faces even greater resistance than the experts feared.

Bear in mind that Poland and France are relatively well-educated countries that belong to the European Union, the region that has led the world in terms of its commitment to emission cuts. Neither country has the kind of climate-change denial industry, lavishly funded by fossil-fuel producers, that muddies the waters and spreads doubt about the scientific evidence in the United States. Neither the Poles nor the French are in denial. And yet….

Now, it’s true that Poles have a large collective chip on their shoulder for historical reasons (their entire country was erased from the map for more than a century), so they often respond badly to being lectured by well-meaning foreigners. It’s also true that President Macron is arrogant and has a tin ear for public opinion. But neither nationalist resentment nor clumsy political leadership are in short supply worldwide.

Bear in mind also that the emission cuts promised in the 2015 agreement will not actually come into effect until 2020: we have a mountain to climb and we are not even in the foothills yet. Much bigger sacrifices than a few cents extra on the price of diesel or an end to burning coal will be required before we reach the end of this process, if we ever do.

The question therefore arises: can we really expect that the relatively large (although still inadequate) cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases promised in Paris at the 2015 summit will ever gain the public support necessary to make them happen? If not, then our current global civilisation is doomed.

For the EU, the biggest distraction from the task at hand is the very high rate of unemployment in many Western European countries: officially just under 10% in France and Italy and 15% in Spain, but the true figures are at least a couple of points higher in every case. In fairness to the French protestors, many of them have lost sight of the bigger issue because they just can’t make ends meet.

This unemployment is ‘structural’, and it will not go away. Its primary cause is automation, a process that will only spread and deepen with the passage of time. We are entering this critical period for dealing with climate change – the next five years are make-or-break – just as the world’s economy is undergoing a hugely disruptive transformation that will leave many people permanently jobless.

If you were designing a species capable of making this difficult transition, you would certainly prefer to start with one that was wiser, more cooperative, and less excitable than ourselves, the near relatives of chimpanzees. Something a little less crooked, at least. But this is the timber we have to work with. Good luck.
________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“For…jobless”)