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Winston Churchill

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Copenhagen: Let the Failure Be Clear

4 December 2009

Copenhagen: Let the Failure Be Clear

By Gwynne Dyer

Sometimes the best is the enemy of the good – and sometimes“good enough” is the enemy of all mankind. That is why Jim Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s leading climate scientists, wants the global summit on climate change in Copenhagen to fail.

The summit is supposed to work out a successor to the Kyoto accord, which expires in 2012. In theory, the follow-on treaty would mandate deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and find some way of bringing the developing countries into the process as well. But for Hansen, the methodology is so flawed that the new treaty is not worth having.

“I would rather it not happen,” he told The Guardian recently. “The whole approach is so fundamentally wrong that it is better to reassess the situation.” In diplomacy, “good enough” solutions predominate because of the need for compromise, but in this case, Hansen argues, it is better to have no deal than the wrong deal.

“This is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill,” he said. “On those kind of issues you cannot compromise. You can’t say let’s reduce slavery, let’s find a compromise and reduce it 50 percent or 40 percent.”

He’s right – and most of the negotiators at Copenhagen know it. It’s surprisingly common in international negotiations. Almost everybody involved knows what the one really fair and effective deal would look like, although they feel doomed to settle for something much worse. In this case, the fair and effective deal would take full account of the history, and it would look like this.

It would require the rich, industrialised countries to take really deep cuts in their emissions: 40 percent by 2020, say, and another 40 percent by 2035. The developing countries would cap the growth in their emissions at a level not much higher than where they are now – but they must be allowed to go on growing their economies, which means that they will need more energy.

All that extra energy has to be clean, or else they will break through the cap. They will therefore have to get their new energy from wind farms or solar arrays or nuclear plants, all of which are more expensive than the cheap coal-fired power plants they rely on now. Who pays the difference in the cost? The rich countries do, by technology transfers and direct subsidies.

What makes this lopsided deal fair is the history behind it. Emissions in the developed countries have stabilised or declined slightly (except for Canada, where they continue to soar), but they are still at a very high level. Indeed, what has made these countries rich is burning fossil fuels for the past 150-200 years – and in doing so, they have taken up almost all the available space.

In the early 19th century, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air was 280 parts per million. It is now 390 ppm, and four-fifths of that extra CO2 was put there by the ancestors of the one billion people who live in the developed countries. The point of no return, after which we risk runaway warming, is a rise in average global temperature of two degrees Celsius. That is equivalent to 450 ppm of carbon dioxide.

All we have left to play with is the distance between 390 ppm and 450 ppm, and on a business-as-usual basis we’ll cover it in less than thirty years. All the economic growth of rapidly developing countries like China, India and Brazil – 3-4 billion people – has to fit into that narrow band of 60 ppm that the developed countries left for them.

That is why the post-Kyoto deal must be lopsided – but it is still politically impossible to sell that deal to people in the developed countries, most of whom are (wilfully) ignorant of that history. What we have on the table instead at Copenhagen is a bastard version of the deal in which the rich countries buy the right to go on emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases by subsidising clean power and other emissions reductions in the poor countries.

“This is analogous to the indulgences that the Catholic church sold in the Middle Ages,” said Hansen. “The bishops collected lots of money and the sinners got redemption. Both parties liked that arrangement despite its absurdity.” And everybody goes to Hell together.

The Copenhagen summit will certainly fail to deliver the right deal. The danger is that it will lock us into the wrong deal, and leave no political space for countries to go back and try to get it right later. Public opinion is climbing a steep learning curve, and the assymetrical deal that cannot be sold politically today might be quite saleable in as little as a year or two.

So the best outcome at Copenhagen would be a ringing declaration of principles, and an agreement to get back round the table and do the hard negotiations over the next 12-18 months. Since the US Congress has still not mandated any reduction in American emissions and Canada will do its best to subvert the proceedings, that is also a quite likely outcome.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 4 and 12. (“The summit…having”; “This is…percent”; and “This is…together”)

The Munich Analogy

29 August 2002

The Munich Analogy

By Gwynne Dyer

If you really want to attack somebody and you can’t come up with any convincing reasons, your best tactic is to accuse your opponents of being appeasers who are planning another Munich. Which is why US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has taken to comparing himself to Winston Churchill.

He was at it again in a speech last Tuesday in California, telling 3,000 Marines that “it wasn’t until each country got attacked that they said: ‘Maybe Winston Churchill was right. Maybe that lone voice expressing concern about what was happening was right’.”

The Lone Defence Secretary’s message was clear. Saddam Hussein is another Adolf Hitler, and if he is not stopped now, he and his weapons of mass destruction will gobble up one country after another. Next thing you know, the Iraqi hordes will be casting lascivious eyes on the United States itself.

Rumsfeld couldn’t be that far off his trolley? Try this gem, from the previous week: “Think of all the countries that said, well, we don’t have enough evidence. ‘Mein Kampf’ had been written. Hitler had indicated what he intended to do. Maybe he won’t attack us. Maybe he won’t do this or that. Well, there were millions dead because of the miscalculations.” As there presumably will be again if America doesn’t destroy Saddam now.

So let’s explore this analogy a bit. Hitler’s Germany in 1933 was the second-biggest industrial country in the world: a scientific and technological leader in the heart of Europe with a fairly homogeneous population of about 80 million people. In only six years Hitler gobbled up all or bits of three countries, and was starting in on Poland when Britain and France finally went to war to stop him. (The United States remained neutral for over two more years.)

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, by contrast, is only the fourth-biggest country in the Middle East. Industrially and scientifically, it ranks about fortieth in the world, and its population of just over 20 million people is deeply divided into mutually hostile Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs. Saddam Hussein has been running the place for decades, and in that time he has conquered nobody.

True, he did launch an aggressive war against Iran in 1980, but Mr Rumsfeld doesn’t dwell on that episode much because Saddam launched that attack with tacit US backing. Even when Saddam used poison gas on his own rebellious Kurdish population during that war — not to mention using it regularly against Iranian soldiers — Washington made no criticism of his methods, because he was a de facto ally at the time.

Saddam was lucky to escape from the war with a no-score draw after eight years. It left him desperately deep in debt, a problem he attempted to solve by invading Kuwait in 1990. He would never have done it if he had realised that the United States and its allies would respond militarily, but he doesn’t know much about the way the rest of the world works. So he got thoroughly whipped, and has spent the past ten years just trying to hang on to power. Not only is he not a Hitler; he barely qualifies as a mini-Mussolini.

The choice is not between ‘appeasing’ Saddam and launching a pre-emptive attack against him (as Vice-President Dick Cheney advocated in a speech to US war veterans on 26 August), because he isn’t trying to expand. Nor is he likely to pass on any ‘weapons of mass destruction’ he may have to al-Qaeda and its various emulators, because he and they are profoundly hostile ideological enemies.

As Saddam’s domestic insecurity has grown, he has begun to make a great public show of his devotion to Islam (though a thoroughly mainstream, non-radical brand of Islam). However, as a lifelong member of the Ba’ath Party, a pan-Arab and radical socialist movement with no time at all for religion, his whole intellectual and political background is secular and even anti-clerical. Saddam may or may not be a believer in private, but Osama bin Laden would certainly regard him as an infidel.

If an appeal to patriotism, as Sam Johnson said, is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then analogies with Munich and appeasement are the last resort of a bankrupt foreign policy. But there is one aspect of the long political career of Winston Churchill (whose bust is prominently displayed in the Oval Office) that the Bush administration would do well to study: his views on what should be done about Iraq.

Iraq was a British colony in the 1920s, and a very fractious one where the tribes were forever rising in revolt: a permanent nuisance to Britain but not a grave threat, rather as Saddam’s Iraq is to the region and the world today. Churchill was Colonial Secretary, and did not want to waste a lot of British soldiers’ lives dealing with the revolts — so he advocated using the new Royal Air Force to bomb the rebel villages instead. Local administration by fighter-bomber, you might call it.

That is very similar to what the United States and Britain have been doing, with a fair measure of success, since Saddam threw out the United Nations arms inspectors three years ago. It’s the kind of low-key, low-cost containment policy that radicals hate, but until last September 11th neither Washington nor anywhere else showed an interest in a more aggressive policy. Absolutely nothing has changed since then except the psychology in the White House, which is a poor reason for a war.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 10. (“Rumsfeld…now”; and “The choice…infidel”)