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Is the ‘Devil Virus’ a ‘Black Swan’?

China officially went back to work on Monday, after an extended two-week Lunar New Year holiday, while the authorities struggled to get the spread of the new coronavirus under control. But a lot of Chinese are not going back to work yet, and the spread of the ‘devil virus’ (as President Xi Jingping called it) is manifestly not under control.

This virus has already killed over 800 people – more fatalities in two months than the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2002-03 caused in seven months– and it’s accelerating. The last few days have seen more than 80 deaths a day, and the death rate in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, the point of origin of the disease and still its epicentre, is now 4% of those infected.

The death rate is still only 2% nationally, but infections elsewhere are generally more recent than those in Hubei province and may not reflect the final death rate. And it’s still spreading fast within China: four large cities in Zhejiang province on the coast are now also locked down.

Significantly, President Xi is no longer claiming that he is “personally commanding” the anti-virus fight. If this is going to be a complete disaster, somebody else should take the blame, and the man in charge of the national campaign against the virus is now vice-premier Sun Chunlun.

Well aware that he is now the designated fall guy, Sun immediately visited Wuhan and declared that the city and country now face ‘wartime conditions’. Waxing full-on hysterical, he warned: “There must be no deserters, or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever.” But mere rhetoric won’t save him if the epidemic goes nationwide.

It probably will: the two or three weeks that were wasted after the virus was first detected cannot be recovered. But the enforced holidays, travel curbs and lockdowns, belated though they are, may still limit the spread of the virus beyond China.

Or maybe not, but even if the virus is largely contained within China the risk of financial infection is high. High enough, in fact, to qualify as a potential ‘black swan’.

A ‘black swan’ is an unforeseen event that has a huge impact on the normal course of events. The SARS epidemic in 2002-03 was a black swan: it knocked about two percentage points off China’s economic growth that year. However, that epidemic did not cause a global recession, because back in those days China was only a small part of the global economy.

Now the Chinese economy is the world’s second-biggest. It takes up four times the space in the global economy that it occupied in 2002, so a 2% fall in Chinese economic growth translates into at least a half-percent hit to the entire global economy. Which would not be a big deal if the global economy was in good shape, but it isn’t.

Indeed, twelve years after the 2008 sub-prime financial crisis the global economy is still in the intensive care ward. There has been no return to the pre-crisis high growth rates, and interest rates, except in the United States, are still at rock-bottom. That means the banks have no room to cut the cost of borrowing and stimulate demand if the economy is starting to tank.

This applies in particular to China itself, where the banks have been forced by the government to finance huge amounts of unproductive investment as the regime continuously ‘primed the pump’ in order to ward off a recession.

It worked, in the sense that the loans financed a further orgy of construction that has now equipped the country with 100,000 km of under-used expressways and four half-empty 60-storey apartment towers at all four corners of every major intersection in each of the country’s hundred biggest cities. China was the only major country to avoid a recession after 2008 – but it left the banks staggering under a mountain of bad debts.

By now China has a Potemkin economy where the official economic growth rate is 6% a year but the true number, as measured by electricity use or megatons of freight carried by the railways, is between 2% and 3%. Knock 2 percentage points off that and you have no growth at all – and a crisis of survival for the regime.

That would be the biggest black swan you ever saw, but remember that the lies and official incompetence that surrounded the Chernobyl disaster played a big part in making the Soviet public ripe for regime change a few years later. Could the coronavirus have a similar effect? It’s not likely, but it is conceivable.

The immediate and short-term deaths from the Chernobyl melt-down amounted to sixty people. The Wuhan coronavirus has killed a dozen times as many Chinese citizens already.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“The death…down”; and “It worked…debts”)

Soleimani Killing

If the Iranians played the game the same way that Donald Trump does, then their revenge for the American assassination of Iran’s leading general, Qassem Soleimani, would be a simple tit-for-tat. Just kill US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the man who actually organised the hit and then boasted about it.

If Pompeo was too hard to get at, the Iranians could get even by murdering any one or two of a hundred other senior US officials. Probably two, because the US drone that hit Soleimani’s car coming out of Baghdad airport also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, the most powerful pro-Iranian militia in Iraq. An eye for an eye, and so forth.

Tit-for-tat is clearly the game Trump thought he was playing. That’s why he warned late on Saturday on Twitter that the US has identified 52 Iranian sites, some “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture”, and warned they would be “HIT VERY FAST AND HARD” if Tehran retaliates for Soleimani’s murder.

But that’s not the game the Iranians are playing at all. It’s a much longer game than tit-for-tat, and their targets are political, not personal.

Tehran’s first response has been to announce that it will no longer respect any of the limits placed on its nuclear programmes by the 2015 nuclear treaty, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Donald Trump pulled the United States out of that treaty in 2018, and Iran has given up hope that the other signatories (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany) would defy the United States and go on trading with Iran. It signed the deal in order to end the sanctions, but all the sanctions are effectively still in place

Tehran didn’t say that it is now going to start working on nuclear weapons, but it will resume producing enriched nuclear fuels in quantities that would make that possible. Iran knew that it was going to have to pull the plug on the JCPOA eventually, but Trump’s assassination of Soleimani lets it do so with the open or unspoken sympathy of almost every other country in the world

And there’s a second, less visible benefit for Iran from Soleimani’s murder. It greatly strengthens Iran’s political influence in Iraq, which has been deteriorating quite fast in recent months.

Ever since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has been the scene for intense competition for influence between the United States, which dominated the country militarily, and Iran, whose state religion, the Shia version of Islam, is also the faith of the majority of Iraqis.

There are still about 5,000 American troops in Iraq, but they are now vastly outnumbered by local pro-Iran Shia militias, who did the heavy lifting during the 2014-17 military campaign to crush Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. Lately, however, the pro-Iran faction has been losing ground.

When popular protests broke out in September against the huge corruption of Iraqi politicians and the impoverishment of the general population, the pro-Iran militias started killing the protesters. That was General Soleimani’s idea, and a very serious mistake on his part: the street protests began to target Iranian influence as well.

But Soleimani’s murder has largely erased that resentment: he is now yet another Shia martyr to the cause. The prime minister of Iraq showed up at his huge funeral procession in Baghdad on Saturday, and an extraordinary session of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday passed a resolution demanding the expulsion of US troops from Iraq.

The Iraqi political elite may or may not carry through on that policy, but there is genuine outrage that the United States, technically an ally, would make an airstrike just outside Baghdad airport without telling Iraq. All the worse when it kills an invited guest of the Iraq government who is the second most important person in Iraq’s other main ally, Iran. This is what contempt looks like, and it rankles.

In just one weekend Iran has had two big diplomatic wins thanks to Soleimani’s assassination. The Iranians will certainly go on making deniable, pin-prick attacks on US assets and allies in the Gulf in retaliation for the US sanctions that are strangling the country’s economy, but they may feel that they have already had their revenge for Soleimani.

Iran doesn’t want an all-out war with the United States. The US could not win that war (unless it just nuked the whole country), but neither could Iran, and it would suffer huge damage if there were a flat-out American bombing campaign using only conventional bombs and warheads.

Apocalyptic outcomes to this confrontation are possible, but they’re not very likely. The Iranians will probably just chug along as before, staying within the letter of the law most of the time, cultivating their allies in the Arab world, and waiting for Trump to make his next mistake in their favour. He’s reliable in that, if in nothing else.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“If Pompeo…murder”)

Deadlock at Madrid, Firestorms in Australia

“The point of no return is no longer over the horizon,” warned UN secretary general António Guterres as the 25th climate summit (COP25) opened in Madrid two weeks ago, and the multitude of delegates from more than a hundred countries presumably understood what he meant. But they ignored it anyway.

The ‘point of no return’ arrives in the mid-2030s, when the rising emissions of greenhouse gases (they are still rising, not falling) pushes the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere up past 450 parts per million. 450 ppm of CO2 drives the average global temperature up past +2̊C (2 degrees higher than the pre-industrial average) and into runaway.

In diplomatic-speak, what happens then is ‘dangerous climate change’, but that is actually happening already, with carbon dioxide at 405 ppm and average global temperature ‘only ‘ 1.1̊C higher. We are seeing firestorms in Australia, rising sea levels, catastrophic storms and melting glaciers.

What happens at 450 ppm is that the two degrees of warming caused by human beings trigger natural processes (‘feedbacks’ or ‘tipping points’) that also cause warming – and once they start, human beings cannot stop them. The Big Three feedbacks are the loss of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice cover, the melting of the permafrost zone, and the release of vast amounts of CO2 by the warming world oceans.

Guterres called it ‘the point of no return’ because after that we lose control. The warming will then continue even if human beings eventually stop all of their own emissions. We will be trapped on an ‘up’ escalator that delivers us into a world three, four, even five degrees hotter than the pre-industrial average.

That is exactly where the World Meteorological Organisation predicts we will be by the end of this century if current promises on emissions cuts are kept, but no more is done. Long before the end of the century that would mean the collapse of food production in the tropics and the sub-tropics, famines and huge refugee flows, mass death.

They never spell these things out at the climate summits, but almost everybody there knows them. And yet, once again, they failed to produce a deal that moves the process forward. The best that can be said is that they stopped a concerted attempt by the biggest emitters, led by Brazil and Australia, to gut the proposed rules for a global carbon market.

How can they be so blind to their own long-term interest in survival? The answer, alas, is that our evolutionary past of human beings has not made human societies good at long-term thinking. Moreover, human politics is dominated by those whose interests will be advanced or damaged by what the government does right now, not in fifteen years’ time. Take Australia, for example.

Australia is the driest continent, and as the heat mounts (much of the country is expecting temperatures in the low to mid-40s C this week) the number and scale of bushfires has exploded. The biggest blaze, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, has already burned over 400,000 hectares and is still growing.

But Australia is also the world’s biggest exporter of coal, mostly to China and Japan. Coal-mining only employs 38,000 Australians, but it brings in a lot of money, some of which inevitably ends up as political contributions that link the industry with all the Australian political parties.

That’s why, two years ago, Liberal (i.e. conservative) politician Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament. It was ‘clean’ coal, in the sense that it had been lacquered so that it wouldn’t dirty people’s hands. Morrison passed it around to his parliamentary colleagues saying “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal.”

ScoMo (as the Australian media have nicknamed Morrison, presumably because it sounds a bit like ‘scum’), is now prime minister, and as the country burns he continues to deny any link between burning coal and global heating. He offers his “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the fires, but insists that climate change is only one of “many other factors” in fuelling the bushfires.

Deputy Prime Minister Deputy PM Michael McCormack takes an even more robust line, dismissing climate change as a concern of “raving inner-city lefties”. That will not endear him to the hundreds of families who have been burnt out, but there are millions of families who have not yet lost their homes, so this may still be a viable political position.

Of all the major emitters, only the European Union is taking its responsibilities seriously. The rest range from deeply conflicted countries like China and Canada, both aware that climate change is an existential threat but both hugely dependent on fossil fuels, to the outright deniers like Australia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

So one by one, we are missing all the exits on the Highway to Hell.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“In diplomatic…glaciers”; and “Deputy…position”)

Climate Denial: A New Strategy

What a surprise! The annual emissions report by the United Nations is now out, and greenhouse gas emissions are still going up thirty years after we first realised there was a problem with the climate. In fact, they have gone up 15% in the past ten years. So much for the promises of ‘early and deep cuts’ in emissions to avoid catastrophic heating.

Governments have been making these promises since the early 1990s, and they are never kept because the political pressures are far stronger from those who profit in the present – the fossil fuel industries and the automobile, shipping and aviation industries – than from those who are merely frightened for their childrens’ future.

The industries are well organised, have lots of money to spend, and focus tightly on stopping changes that threaten their business model. Private citizens are less organised, have far fewer resources, and have many competing demands on their attention. Inevitably, the industries succeed in sabotaging most attempts to cut emissions.

For a long time, the main strategy of the industries was denial. At first they denied outright that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions were changing the climate. Never mind the science: just listen to this other guy in a white coat who says that it isn’t happening.

That worked for a while, and the initial rapid response to the climate change threat lost speed through the later 90s. Flat denial became increasingly untenable in the early 21st century, however, and the emphasis of the deniers shifted to spreading doubt. The climate is always changing; lots of scientists don’t believe that the warming is caused by human activities; the jury is still out.

Those lies worked for another fifteen years, but gradually the real scientists realised that they had to organise too. There is now no government in the world (except the United States) that still goes along with the denialism. Every major international body has accepted the evidence that climate change is actually happening and that we are the cause.

Time for another change of strategy by the fossil fuel industries and their allies, then. If they can no longer hope to discredit the science or confuse the public about the evidence, maybe they can at least deflect and divert the pressure for effective action on climate change on to targets that do not directly threaten the sales of their products.

That’s where we are now, and it was Dr. Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University and director of the Earth System Science Center, who first spotted the new strategy of the fossil fuel industry’s shills.

“There is an attempt being made by them to deflect attention away from finding policy solutions for global warming towards promoting individual behaviour changes that affect people’s diets, travel choices and other personal behaviour,” he told The Observer newspaper early this month. “This is a deflection campaign, and a lot of well-meaning people have been taken in by it.”

What gives the deflectors credibility is that they seem to be on the side of the angels. They’re not denying that climate change is real; they just want you to use your bike more, eat less meat, and recycle your waste. What could be wrong with that?

Nothing, of course. You should be doing all those things: it’s a necessary part of the solution. But they want you to do that INSTEAD of campaigning (or at least voting) for action that directly targets fossil fuel use. If you feel that you’re already doing your bit in the climate emergency by changing your personal behaviour, then the pressure is off them.

They also encourage ‘doomism’: the notion that it’s too late in the game to do anything useful about climate change. “This leads people down a path of despair and hopelessness and finally inaction, which actually leads us to the same place as outright climate-change denialism,” said Mann.

It really is quite late in the game. We would have to cut global emissions by 7% a year (instead of increasing them by 1.5% annually) to avoid breaching the never-exceed limit of two degrees C higher average global temperature. That’s far beyond what we have ever done before, so there is considerable justification for pessimism.

However, pessimism is a luxury we cannot afford. We have to keep working away at the task, because every cut we make in emissions, however inadequate, gives us a little more time to deal with the rest of the problem.

The ‘deflect, divert, distract’ campaign is often hard to distinguish from genuine attempts to change people’s lifestyles in positive ways, and frankly there’s no point in trying. Just do what they’re advocating (bikes, meat, recycling, etc.) and remember to do the hard political and legal work of eliminating fossil fuel use too.

Simple to say, hard to do.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (“It really…problem”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.