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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.”
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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.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“For…jobless”)

The Other Shoe

They STILL haven’t dropped the other shoe. The ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C’ contains terrifying forecasts about what will happen when we reach an average global temperature one-and-a-half degrees C higher than the pre-industrial average. (We are now at +1C.) But it still shies away from talking about the feedbacks, the refugees, and mass death.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ordered this special report in 2015, after the Paris climate agreement effectively admitted that the traditional target – stopping the warming before it reaches two degrees C higher – had been set too high. By then, really bad things would already be happening.

So all the countries that want to stop the warming before it goes runaway (everybody except the United States) formally kept the ‘never exceed’ target of +2C, but said that governments should ‘aspire’ to stop the warming earlier, at +1.5C. And they asked the IPCC to figure out how hard that would be.

The answer, revealed at a meeting in South Korea on Sunday, is: very hard. We have effectively wasted the past thirty years, since the climate change threat first became known, and there is now very little time left. In order to skid to a halt, brakes on hard, before we hit +1.5C, we will have to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by almost half (45%) in the next twelve years.

To cut emissions that fast by 2030, we would have to decide to close down all the remaining coal-fired power plants within the next two years. It would take the next decade to get that done and get the same energy from expanded renewable sources (water, wind and solar), leaving us just on track to reach zero emissions by 2050.

Climate scientist John Skea, who worked on the report, summed it up: “Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes.” Changes of a scale that people would readily accept if they faced an imminent invasion by Nazis or Martians – but that they are less willing to make when their whole environment is at risk. Humans are funny that way.

The report is a bracing dose of realism in many ways. It effectively says that we can’t afford to go anywhere near +2C. It talks bluntly about the need to end all fossil fuel use, reforest vast tracts of marginal land, and cut down on meat-eating. It even admits that we will probably have to resort to geo-engineering – ‘solar radiation management’, in the jargon.

“If mitigation efforts do not keep global mean temperature below 1.5C,” says the report, “solar radiation modification can potentially reduce the climate impacts of a temporary temperature overshoot, in particular extreme temperatures, rate of sea-level rise, and intensity of tropical cyclones.” Pumping sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere is scary stuff, but so is runaway warming.

So far, so good. At least it’s being honest about the problem – but only up to a point. ‘Not in front of the children’ is still the rule for governments when it comes to talking about the mass movements of refugees and the civil and international wars that will erupt when the warming cuts into the food supply. And they still don’t want to talk openly about the feedbacks.

People forget that this is a governmental project run through the United Nations – the InterGOVERNMENTAL Panel on Climate Change – not just a scientific one. Scientists write the body of the report, but the executive summary (the only part that most policy-makers and journalists will ever read), is negotiated between the scientists and the governments.

The governments take climate change very seriously these days, but they worry that too much frankness about the cost in lives of going past 1.5C will create irresistible pressure on them to take radical action now. In the ensuing struggle between the scientists and the politicians, the executive summary always gets toned down.

What got removed from the summary this time was any mention of “significant population displacement concentrated in the tropics” at +2C (i.e. mass migrations away from stricken regions, smashing up against borders elsewhere that are slammed shut against the refugees).

Even worse, ‘tipping points’ are barely mentioned in the report. These are the dreaded feedbacks – loss of Arctic sea ice, melting of the permafrost, carbon dioxide and methane release from the oceans – that would trigger unstoppable, runaway warming.

They are called ‘feedbacks’ because they are self-reinforcing processes that are unleashed by the warming we have already caused, and which we cannot shut off even if we end all of our own emissions.

If you don’t go into the feedbacks, then you can’t talk about runaway warming, and going to 4, 5 or 6 degrees C higher average global temperature, and hundreds of millions or billions of deaths. And if you don’t acknowledge that, then you will not treat this as the emergency it really is.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“If mitigation…warming”; and “People…governments”)