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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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“Indeed…year-round”)

What North Korea Wants

What does Kim Jon-un want? One thing: security.

He doesn’t want to conquer the world. It’s impractical: only one out of every 300 people in the world is North Korean. He doesn’t even want to conquer South Korea. It’s twice as populous as North Korea and ten times richer: eliminate the border and Kim’s regime would crumble in months. And he certainly doesn’t want to attack the United States.

King Kim III (as we would have called him a couple of centuries ago) declared last week that North Korea has now completed the task of building a nuclear deterrent to ward off a possible American attack. It will return to the task of building its economy and prosperity instead. Indeed, it will “ stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” and even shut down a nuclear weapons test site.

He’s obviously laying out his negotiating position for the summit meetings that are planned for this month with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and for next month with US President Donald Trump. He clearly wants a deal, but he has long been afraid of an American attack. There could be a deal, but only if Washington and Seoul acknowledge that his fear is real.

A little story from the Cold War. I only realised how deeply I had been affected by the propaganda I had heard all my young life when I attended my first NATO military exercise in Europe as a journalist. It was the same exercise scenario as always, with Russian tanks surging forward to overrun Western Europe and outnumbered NATO troops struggling to halt the attack.

I did know that NATO wasn’t really outnumbered. It had almost twice as many people as the Soviet Union and its allies, and at least four times the wealth. It just chose to have smaller armies because soldiers are very expensive to maintain, and relied instead on the early use of nuclear weapons. But I had never questioned the threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Nobody did.

Then one day, I was interviewing a senior British army officer and for some reason I asked the obvious question I had never bothered to ask before. What scenario did the Russians use when they ran their military exercises?

Oh, he said airily, their scenarios imagine that we have invaded East Germany, but after a few days they manage to turn it around and start pushing us back west. When their tanks are breaking through the Fulda Gap we use nukes to stop them, and the whole thing rapidly escalates into a general nuclear exchange.

Well, of course. Would the Russians tell their troops that they were launching a deliberate attack on the West that would end in a full-scale nuclear war? No. As the weaker side in the long confrontation, would they ever even consider doing that? Probably not. But I had never considered the fact that the Russians were afraid of us.

It had simply not occurred to me before that a country that had been invaded by everybody from Napoleon to Hitler, and had lost at least 20 million killed in the Second World War, might be obsessed about the threat of being attacked by us. We were the good guys: surely they must realise that we would never do that. But OF COURSE they didn’t.

Maybe we were ‘the good guys’ in that confrontation, in the sense that our countries were democracies and their countries were dictatorships, but in terms of threat perception and over-reaction the two sides were identical. The situation in the Korean peninsula is the same story in microcosm.

The Kim dynasty inherited a devastated country at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Its cities were levelled and at least a million people had been killed. The Chinese troops who had helped North Korea went home after the war, but the American troops stayed in South Korea. Moreover, the Americans had nuclear weapons and would not promise not to use them – and there was no peace treaty, just an armistice.

The Kims built a very big army as a partial and unsatisfactory counter-threat to US nuclear weapons, and started working on their own nukes as soon as the economy had been rebuilt to the required level. However, that big army created a threat perception in the US and South Korea as real and acute as North Korea’s own fears.

So how might you negotiate your way out of this futile and dangerous confrontation? Pyongyang won’t give up the nuclear deterrent it has worked so long and hard to build: there’s not enough trust for that. But Kim is saying that he is willing to leave it at its current small and technologically primitive level. It’s no real threat to the US in its present form.

Concentrate instead on a peace treaty that gives North Korea a sense of security at last. Demand as a quid pro quo that Pyongyang reduces its ridiculously large army to the same size as South Korea’s. And promise that once those cuts have been made, the US troops in South Korea will go home.

It might work. It’s certainly worth a try.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“I did…did”; and “It had…didn’t”)

Congo: Drifting into Dangerous Waters

You have to admire Joseph Kabila’s cheek, if nothing else. On Saturday, at his first press conference in seven years, the long-serving president of the Democratic Republic of Congo said: “We have to have elections as scheduled.” But they were scheduled for December of 2016.

Kabila had been in office for fourteen years by then, but somehow he had forgotten that you need an up-to-date voters’ list before you can hold an election. So he generously offered to stay in office as president for another year while this was done, even though he was not allowed to run for a third term as president.

The various opposition parties and the Catholic Church, which has immense influence in the DRC, were not greatly pleased by that. However, they reluctantly agreed to go along with it and the election was rescheduled for December 2017 – last month.

As it became clear that the deadline would not be met the demonstrations and protests multiplied, and the ‘security forces’ grew more repressive: a recent UN report found that state agents had carried out 1,176 killings in 2017. And late last year Kabila declared that the elections would have to be postponed again, to December 2018.

“Kabila does not have any intention to leave power,” said Felix Tshisekedi, a prominent opposition leader, after the latest postponement. “His strategy is to spread chaos across the country and then delay elections because he’ll claim there is too much violence.” The violence is certainly increasing, and there is a serious risk that Congo is sliding back towards civil war, but it’s too simple to blame it all on Kabila.

Joseph Kabila came to power when his father Laurent-Desire Kabila, a warlord who had emerged victorious in the first civil war in 1997, was assassinated in 2001. He was only 29 at the time (although his father had already made him army chief of staff), and he had no political following of his own.

He has subsequently become very rich, but he is still not a powerful figure in his own right. He was put in office by the security forces, now dominated by the men who led his father’s rebel army, and he remains largely a figurehead while they make the real decisions. The problem is that they can’t decide who should replace him.

Kabila didn’t actually forget to change the law that restricted him to two terms of office. Doing that would have been simple enough if the men who really run things had all wanted him to stay in office. (Three other African leaders have changed the rules on term limits so they could stay in office in just the past year.)

Nor is there much doubt that Kabila would have won if there had been an election last year or the year before. It’s the regime’s own people who are slowly compiling the voters’ lists, and the choices they make will doubtless guarantee a victory for the regime. The situation is drifting towards chaos because the various factions within the security forces cannot agree whether to keep Kabila in power or switch to another figurehead.

It’s all about who has access to resources (for which read money) within the regime, but meanwhile 81 million Congolese are being dragged towards another civil war. The last one, in 1998-2003, killed at least 5 million Congolese, mostly from hunger and disease. They do not need another.

There is already heavy fighting between militia groups and the army in the east and south-east, with the majority of the casualties, as usual, being civilians. It would be comforting to believe that an election could stop all this, but it can’t. What is required is a strong and reasonably honest government that can reassert control over this huge country, the poorest in the world.

It is sheer fantasy to imagine that a country bigger than all of western Europe, but with less in the way of all-weather roads than tiny Luxembourg and a per capita income of about a dollar a day, can be saved by a free election. Communications are so poor that there is no genuine ‘public opinion’, and beyond Kinshasa, the capital, almost all political loyalties are tribal.

Democracy is important, and for most African countries – for most countries anywhere – it is the best solution. But the Congo is too big, too poor and too ethnically fragmented for that to work yet. Elections are symbolically important because they embody the principles of popular sovereignty and the rule of law, but everybody who might actually get elected belongs to a small privileged elite.

A relatively small part of that group, the ‘security elite’, have actually been running everything since the turn of the century, and the first order of business must be for them to make a deal on who their candidate will be at the next election. Whoever that is will certainly win, and it hardly matters whether it is Kabila or somebody else. Those behind the scenes will still pull the strings.

But until they reach an agreement about the regime’s candidate, the country will continue to drift, and it is drifting into dangerous waters.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Kabila…figurehead”)

Russia: Cuckoo in the Nest

26 June 2006

Russia: Cuckoo in the Nest

 By Gwynne Dyer

On Sunday, July 1st, the Russian rouble will become a fully convertible currency, traded under the same rules as dollars, euros, pounds and yen. The date was obviously chosen by President Vladimir Putin to impress his guests at the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg in mid-July with Russia’s economic progress, and there really has been quite a lot of progress on that front since he took over. But the Group of Seven, “the world’s most exclusive club,” was originally meant to be an annual gathering of the leaders of the biggest industrialised democracies.

It would be stretching the term to say that the new member of the Group of Eight, as it became in 1996, is a democracy any more. While sections of the Russian press still conduct raucous political debates, the all-important medium of television has been brought under direct or indirect state control, and more and more power has been concentrated in Putin’s hands. He talks openly of a “managed democracy,” and his chief economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, resigned last December saying that Russia was no longer free or democratic.

It’s equally questionable whether Russia is really an industrialised power any more. The Russian economy resembles Nigeria’s or Iran’s more than those of its fellow G8 members: oil and gas account for 70 export earnings and 30 percent of its entire economy. Even after six years of Putin’s rule, Russian oil production has not risen back up to the level of the early 90s, and only the high price of oil worldwide gives Russia some prosperity at home and some clout abroad.

Then there is Moscow’s ruthless exploitation of its role as the supplier of a quarter of central and western Europe’s gas to extort a better price for its gas exports. Last January’s crisis over Russian gas supplies to Ukraine, which led to cuts in deliveries to countries further west as well, has made western European countries nervous about increasing their dependence on Russian gas exports. (And the crisis may reignite next week, when newly confirmed Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko faces a Russian demand for a further huge price increase.)

Since the whole purpose of inviting Russia to join the G8 was to encourage the growth of democracy and a modern free-market economy in the ex-Communist giant, Russia’s fellow G8 members are filled with consternation at the way things have turned out. However, they are at a loss for how to deal with the cuckoo in their nest. Quiet persuasion doesn’t seem to work, but neither does noisy outrage.

When US Vice-President Dick Cheney criticised Moscow’s democratic deficit and its bullying energy policies during a visit to Lithuania on Russia’s own border last month, Putin counter-attacked by condemning the US invasion of Iraq: “Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat. He eats without listening and he is clearly not going to listen to anyone.” But Putin doesn’t feel the need to listen either — and neither do Russians in general.

The remarkable thing about Putin’s rule is that after six year in office he continues to have the approval, according to reasonably reliable opinion polls, of 77 percent of his fellow-citizens. Indeed, though Putin has sworn to obey the constitutional ban on a third consecutive presidential term and leave power after the March, 2008 election, there is massive popular support for changing the constitution to allow him to stay on for another four years (59 percent yes, 29 percent no). What’s the matter with the Russians? Doesn’t everybody want democracy?

No, not everybody wants democracy. According to Leonid Sedov, a senior analyst at the VtsIOM-A polling agency, about 80 percent of Russians say that they dislike democracy, although they are less clear on what they do like. Only three percent want the return of the tsars, some 16 percent want a tough authoritarian ruler like Stalin, and the rest are scattered all over the political map. But they know they like Putin, because he has given them back stability, prosperity and self-respect.

It’s a reaction to the chaotic process of de-Communisation under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, which was misleadingly called “democratisation,” and it doesn’t necessarily mean thatRussians would dislike real democracy. (They were keen enough on it in 1989-91, before “democratisation” impoverished most of them.) Russians are still among the best-educated populations on the planet, and once the middle class feels prosperous and secure enough, the demand for democracy is likely to re-emerge. But that may be years away, and what are the democratic majority in the G8 to do with this authoritarian cuckoo in their nest in the meantime?

Put up with it, and pretend not to notice that it doesn’t really fit in. Nag it about its more severe human rights abuses, and demand that it give at least lip service to its democratic principles, but don’t drive the regime out into the cold. When the tide finally turns in Russian society, the survival of formal democratic structures and the rule of law in the country, however much abused in practice, will make the task of building a genuine democracy a lot easier.

In effect, that is what the other seven members of the G8 have decided, and they are probably right. Of course, the fact that Russia has all that oil and gas to sell may have influenced their decision too.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Then…increase”; and “When…general”)