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An Old American Tradition

It’s not just Donald Trump. The United States has a long record of negotiating international agreements and then running away from them. The rest of the world has an equally long record of heaving a sigh of regret, telling the Americans it will be happy to have them back when they get over it, and carrying on without them. It will do it again over the Paris accord on climate change.

We have had many expressions of synthetic shock since Trump finally announced that he was abandoning the climate accord last Thursday, after wringing every last drop of drama out of his totally predictable decision. Then we had the equally predictable affirmations from everybody else that they would carry on regardless. It’s all as stylised and traditional as a Noh play.

The tradition actually dates back to the early 20th century, when the United States was the prime mover in creating a new international institution to prevent war, the League of Nations, at the end of the First World War – and then refused to join it. The League could probably not have avoided the Second World War even if the US had been a member, but its absence certainly didn’t help.

Then came a longish period, from the foundation of the United Nations in 1945 to the arms control agreements of the 1960s and 70s, when American leadership actually did make the world a safer place. But by thirty years ago it was back to the bad old ways, with the United States not signing (or signing and then “unsigning”) the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Criminal Court, and the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change.

In each case, the rest of the world just went ahead and put the treaty into effect anyway – and in no case did the American defection destroy the deal. It’s already clear that Trump’s decision will not sabotage this deal either. The other major powers will all stick with the commitments they made in Paris eighteen months ago, because they are all really frightened by what will happen if they don’t.

“We need the Paris agreement to protect all of creation,” said Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Then she, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy issued a joint statement saying “We firmly believe that the Paris agreement cannot be renegotiated since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies.”

“As far as the Paris accord is concerned… our government is committed, irrespective of the stand of anyone, anywhere in the world,” said Japan’s Finance Minister, Taro Aso. “I’m not just disappointed, but also feel anger.” And China’s President Xi Jinping modestly explained that his country has only become the world’s leader on climate change by default. “It’s because the original front-runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front.”

The absence of the US government will not derail the project. The commitments of American states, cities, organisations and individuals on reducing US greenhouse gas emissions will continue to provide at least half of the cuts promised by ex-president Barack Obama. Since those promised cuts were to be spread over ten years, the damage may be even less if Trump turns out to be a one-term president.

The commitments made at Paris in 2015 were voluntary national promises. There were no negotiations about how big the contributions of various countries should actually be: Trump only talks about “renegotiating” the deal because he never actually read it.

The sad fact is that all the cuts promised by all the countries at the Paris conference were not enough to keep global warming from going past the never-exceed level of plus 2 degrees C. When the United Nations added the numbers up, the world was still heading for plus 2.7 degrees.

Take all the promised American cuts out of the equation and the world will be heading for around plus 3.0 degrees instead, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. Either way, we cross the threshold and tumble into runaway, irreversible warming.

However, the world still has twenty years or so before we pass through plus 2 degrees. Everybody at the Paris talks understood that they would have to hold another conference in around five years’ time and come up with bigger cuts then. It’s salami tactics, which is bad science but good politics, and it could still deliver the goods.

By five years from now, Trump may no longer be a problem. Even if he’s not impeached or dead, he might lose the 2020 election. He might even choose not to run again; he’s already complaining about how hard the job is.

So the US might rejoin the rest of the world in 2020 – or it might not, but the rest of the world still has to go on trying to save itself even if the United States chooses to be a free rider.

The other hundred and ninety-odd governments of the planet understand how very bad it will for everybody if we break through the two-degree boundary. They are obliged to act with or without the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“We need…front”)

Why Are the Islamists Still Attacking the West?

Because most people think of Islamic State, al-Qaeda and their ilk as being crazies motivated solely by hatred, they are not puzzled by recent terrorist attacks on the West like those in Paris, Brussels and Los Angeles. Like the villains in comic books, the terrorists are simply evil, and no further explanation is needed. But in the real world, being violent and fanatical does not make you stupid.

The small group of Arab Islamists who started fighting the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 were by 2014 the rulers of a new country of some five million people that they call Islamic State, which suggests that they are clever people who pursue rational strategies. And yet they go on backing terrorist attacks in the West, which no longer seems like a rational strategy.

It was a perfectly sensible strategy once. By the year 2000 the Islamist revolutionaries of the Arab world were close to despair. They had been trying to overthrow the dictators and kings who ruled the Arab countries for a quarter-century, and there was blood all over the walls – around 300,000 Arabs were killed in the struggles between the Islamists and the regimes in 1975-2000 – but they had not managed to overthrow a single regime.

Their main strategy was always terrorism, simply because they lacked the resources for anything more ambitious. In theory their terrorist attacks should have driven the regimes into extreme repression, which (again in theory) should have alienated the population and driven them into the arms of the revolutionaries. Then the people, led by the Islamists and united in their wrath, would rise up and drive the oppressors from power.

The Islamists had a few early successes – the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 – but their strategy did not work. The Arab regimes did indeed become more oppressive, but the revolutionaries did not get mass support. Their doctrines were too weird, and their behaviour too extreme. So by the late 1990s the Islamists were looking for a different strategy.

It was Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, who came up with a new strategy: attack the West. The ultimate goal was still to come to power in the Arab world, but rather than revolution in the streets the Islamists would now win power by leading a successful guerilla resistance movement against an invasion by infidel foreigners.

Bin Laden had hit on this strategy because he had fought in Afghanistan as a volunteer, and that was exactly how the game played out there. The Russians invaded in 1979; Islamist extremists took over the resistance movement; after a long and bloody war the Russians went home in 1989; and the Afghan Islamists (the Taliban) then took power because they were the heroes who had driven the infidel foreigners out.

To relive this triumph required getting some other infidel army to invade a Muslim country, and the obvious choice was the United States. Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001 gave Americans the necessary motivation, and two US invasions followed in rapid succession, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The mass-casualty terrorist attacks against Western targets continued for a long time (Madrid, Bali, London, etc.), presumably in order to give Western countries a reason to keep their troops in the Middle East. But the attacks gradually diminished as Al-Qaeda’s fighters in Iraq came closer to their goal of creating their own state: that would clearly be easier to do if most of the Western troops had already gone home.

The creation of Islamic State and the proclamation of the “Caliphate” in 2014 was the culmination of this long struggle, and it should have ended Islamist terror attacks on the West. Now they have a real state, they are seeking to expand in Syria and Iraq by military force, and the last thing they need is Western troops around to make matters more difficult. So why didn’t the attacks on Western countries stop?

The only plausible explanation is the great split in the Islamist movement in 2014, when Islamic State broke away from Al-Qaeda. Since then there has been a ferocious competition between them both for recruits, and for the loyalty of Islamist organisations across the Muslim world. (The main Islamist organisations in both Egypt and Nigeria have switched their allegiance from Al-Qaeda to Islamic State in the past two years).

In this competition, the best and cheapest way of showing that your organisation is tougher, more dedicated, more efficient than the other lot is to kill Westerners in spectacular terrorist attacks. So, for example, Al-Qaeda sponsored the “Charlie Hebdo” attack in Paris in February, 2015, and Islamic State replied with the much bigger attack in Paris last November.

There is no strategic cost in these attacks, since Western and Russian forces are already bombing both Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise in Syria, the Nusra Front. The material cost of the attacks is negligible: neither organisation is devoting even one percent of its resources to them. So they will continue for a while, and the West will just have to deal with them as they occur.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Their main…strategy”)

Brussels Bombs

Belgium may be a boring country, but it still seems extreme for a Belgian politician to say that the country is now living through its darkest days since the end of the Second World War. Can any country really be so lucky that the worst thing that has happened to it in the past seventy years is a couple of bombs that killed 34 people?

That may sound a bit uncharitable, but respect for the innocent people killed by terrorists does not require us to take leave of our senses. What is happening now is the media feeding frenzy that has become almost a statutory requirement after every terrorist attack in the West.

And people do let themselves get wound up by the media-generated panic. Last night at dinner a young man, staying with us overnight in London before taking a morning flight to the United States, openly debated with himself about whether he should cancel his (non-refundable) ticket or not. It was a ticket from London to Chicago that went nowhere near mainland Europe at all.

The airlines are just as prone to panic, cancelling flights into Belgium as if the country had suddenly become a seriously dangerous place. This story will dominate the Belgian media for weeks, and the rest of the Western media for the remainder of this week. Even non-Western media will play it for a day or two. Almost nothing new or useful will be said, and then the frenzy will die down – until next time.

This is a very stupid way of behaving, but you will notice that I am a part of it. No matter what I say about the bombs in Brussels, the fact that I am writing at length about them in a column that appears all over the world contributes to the delusion that they are not only a nasty event but also an important one.

It is the sheer volume of coverage that determines an event’s perceived importance, not what is actually said about it. But if we in the media are compelled to write about an event like the Belgian bombs anyway, what can we truthfully say about it that will not feed the panic?

The first thing, after every terrorist attack, is to stress that the media coverage of the attack is its primary purpose – indeed, almost its only purpose. It’s obvious and it’s trite, but if you don’t actually say it people forget it. Like the health warning on cigarette packets, it should be part of every story on terrorism.

Secondly, we have to put the alleged “threat” of such terrorist attacks into perspective. People rarely do this for themselves, because once events are beyond the range of their daily experience most people cannot distinguish between what is truly dangerous and what is only dramatic and frightening.

It really does help to remind people that terrorism is a statistically insignificant risk – that they are in much greater danger of dying from a fall in the bath than of dying in a terrorist attack – even if that approach conflicts with the journalists’ natural urge to emphasise the importance of whatever they are writing about.

And finally, a little dispassionate analysis quickly deflates the notion that terrorism is “an existential threat” (as British prime minister David Cameron once said). For example, the recent terrorist attacks in Europe have been largely confined to French-speaking countries.

Muslim immigrants in France and Belgium mostly come from Arab countries, and especially from North Africa, where French is the second language. Radical Islamism is much weaker in the rest of the Muslim world, so Germany (whose Muslims are mostly Turkish) and Britain (where they are mostly of South Asian origin) generate fewer Islamist extremists than the francophone countries, and face fewer terrorist attacks.

France’s and Belgium’s Muslim citizens are also less integrated into the wider community. French housing policy has dumped most of the immigrants in high-rise, low-income developments at the edge of the cities, often beyond the end of the metro lines. Unemployed, poorly educated and culturally isolated, their young men are more easily recruited into extremist groups.

The point of this sort of analysis is to cut the problem down to size. There is no terrorist army in Belgium, just a bunch of young men making it up as they go along. For example, the Brussells attacks happened four days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the gang who carried out the attacks on the Bataclan arena and the Stade de France in Paris last November.

Back in Brussels after failing to use his suicide vest in the Paris attack, Abdeslam was a psychological wreck, and his Islamist colleagues undoubtedly expected that once in police custody he would sing like a canary. So they decided to launch another attack and go to glory before the police kicked in their doors.

Prime Minister Charles Michel issued the usual ritual incantation about Belgians being “determined to defend our freedom,” but Belgium’s freedom is not at risk. Terrorists are not an existential threat. They are a lethal nuisance, but no more than a nuisance.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“And people…time”)

COP21: Cheering and Fearing

The climate deal that almost 200 countries agreed to in Paris on Saturday was far better than most insiders dared to hope even one month ago.

The biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the United States, are finally on board. There is real money on the table to help poor countries cut their emissions and cope with warming. They have even adopted a target of holding the warming to only +1.5 degrees C, instead of the limit of +2 degrees that was the goal when the conference opened.

So the thousands of delegates who spent two weeks dickering over the details of the deal in a drafty exhibition hall north of Paris felt fully justified in cheering and congratulating one another on a job well done. Given all that, it’s a pity that the deal won’t actually stop the warming.

The plus-two limit was always too high. It began as a scientific estimate of when natural feedbacks, triggered by the warming that human beings had caused, take over and started driving the temperature much, much higher. It was actually quite a fuzzy number: at somewhere between +1.75 C and +2.25 C, the feedbacks will kick in and it will be Game
Over.

So +2.0 C, for political purposes, became the limit. Beyond that, governments told us, we would have “dangerous warming”. Nonsense. We are having dangerous warming now – bigger storms, worse floods, longer droughts – and we are only at +1.0 C.

At plus-two or thereabouts, what we get is catastrophe: runaway warming that can no longer be halted just by stopping human emissions of carbon dioxide. Nature will take over, and we will be trapped on a one-way escalator that is taking us up to +3, +4, +5, even +6 degrees. Hundreds of millions or even billions of people would die as large parts of the planet ceased to be habitable by human beings.

If you don’t want to risk unleashing that, then you don’t want to go anywhere near +2, so the official adoption by the world’s governments of +1.5 degrees as the never-exceed limit is a major step forward. But note that they have only pledged “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C,” not to succeed. The hard-and-fast promise is still not to go past +2 – and there is not even any guarantee that that will be achieved.

In order to avoid a debacle like the one at the last climate summit in Copenhagen six years ago, nobody even tried to put enforceable limits on national carbon dioxide emissions this time. Each country was just invited to submit the emission cuts that it is willing to make. The sum of all those promised cuts (if the promises are kept) is what we will get by way of global emission cuts in the next five years.

United Nations experts did the math, and concluded that these emission cuts fall far short of what is needed. If this is all that is done, then we are headed for at least +2.7 degrees C – or rather, for a lot more, because of the feedbacks.

None of the negotiations at the Paris conference changed those numbers, or even tried to. So are we doomed to runaway warming? Not necessarily.

Most of the negotiators know that the cuts which are politically impossible now may become quite possible in five or ten years if the cost of renewable energy goes on dropping, if techniques like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) become economically viable – and if people are sufficiently frightened by a climate that is getting wilder and less predictable by the year.

So there is a review process built into the treaty. Every five years, starting in 2018, there will be a “stock-taking” exercise in which everybody’s progress in cutting their emissions will be reviewed, and everybody will be encouraged to increase their commitments and speed up their cuts.

Whether they will actually do that depends on political, economic and technological factors that cannot yet be calculated, but fear is a great incentive, and there is no government on the planet that is not frightened by the prospect of major climate change. In fact, most of them would have gone a lot further in Paris if they were not nervous about getting too far ahead of public opinion at home.

Public opinion will eventually change, because there is going to be a very large amount of damage and suffering in the world as we move past +1.0 and head up towards +1.5. Will it change fast enough to allow governments to act decisively and in time? Nobody knows.

Will new green technologies simply sweep the field, making fossil fuels uneconomic and government intervention unnecessary? Nobody knows that either, although many people pin their hopes on it.

We are not out of the woods yet, but we are probably heading in the right direction – and it would be right at this point to put in a good word for that much maligned organisation, the United Nations. It is the only arena in which global negotiations like this can be conducted, and its skills, traditions and people were indispensable in leading them to a more or less successful conclusion.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13, 14 and 15. (“Whether…it”)