Where are we with Geo-Engineering in 2014?

Geo-engineering is increasingly looking like the only politically viable way of averting temperature rises above 2 degrees in the coming century. This is for three interlocking reasons: i) Any mayor country can try geo-engineering on its own without permission from anyone else, meaning one does not need a world coalition sustained for centuries to have an effect; ii) It holds the promise of immediate relief because ‘natural Solar Radiation Management’, ie volcanic eruptions that add lots of light-reflecting particles into the atmosphere, were found to cause immediate worldwide temperature drops, which compares favourably with the lags of decades and centuries that hold for CO2 emission reduction plans; and iii) It might be exceedingly cheap compared to any policy involving emission markets. For instance, according to a 2012 piece by McClellan and co-authors, we could keep the planet at current temperature levels at a cost of merely 10 billion dollars a year by having a fleet of planes deliver reflective particles high in the earth’s atmosphere.[1]

Given that continued global warming is predicted to happen in the next century no matter what emission policies are adopted, geo-engineering by some impatient large country is starting to look nigh inevitable. I reported in 2012 on the research efforts funded by the Royal Society, the Gates Foundation, and others. You now have dedicated institutes on this issue (eg. http://iagp.ac.uk ), and lots of new proposed experiments. With a large glut of published studies in recent years, it is time for an update: how far are we now in the world of geo-engineering?

The honest answer is that the scientific community is pussyfooting around when it comes to geo-engineering. Field experiments are largely stalled as scientists are awaiting regulatory frameworks that will protect them from criticisms of other scientists and environmental groups. Proposed regulatory frameworks designed to deliver this, such as by Nordhaus and colleagues, find it hard to get much political traction because politicians seen to support regulatory frameworks themselves become targets for criticism, both by those who pretend there is no climate change and by those who insist there is climate change but who also insist on emission reductions as the only way to return to our current climate some 300 years from now. Voters who agree the world is getting too hot and who would like it cooled down in their own lifetime rather than that of their great-great-great-great-grandchildren are still too rare to bother with for politicians.

This does not mean there is a lack of bright ideas. The engineers looking into this really are a very creative bunch, talking about whitening clouds, aerosol sprays, reflective shields, and artificial trees. One new idea that I hadn’t heard before is to genetically alter our crops so that they reflect sunlight better than the current crops. I don’t know whether this has any chance of getting serious traction, but one has to admire the ingenuity of the idea. Still, ominously, almost no field tests or large scale long-term testing is underway as scientists are waiting for societal approval to go ahead. Continue reading

Fact check: The Iran Air Flight 655 non-apology

There are reports today (12 November 2014) from Fairfax and News Ltd that Prime Minister Abbott is urging Vladimir Putin to follow the example of the US government after the Iran Air Flight 655 shootdown — and that he has said the US both paid compensation and apologised. In particular a spokeswoman for the prime minister is quoted thus:

“The Prime Minister observed that when the United States had inadvertently shot down a civilian aircraft it had duly apologised and made appropriate restitution …”

I am hoping the spokeswoman erred on this point. Because I cannot find any reliable reports that the US ever formally apologised or made any payment which it was willing to describe as compensation.

Indeed, based on the reports I can find and my own faulty memory of the time, the US very pointedly avoided apologising or paying compensation.

All I can find in reports is that the US “expressed regret” over the shootdown and made an ex gratia payment. These are the words you use when you are not admitting anything. And this all happened as part of a settlement at the International Court of Justice in 1996, eight years after the shootdown took place – a shootdown unequivocally, albeit mistakenly, launched by the US military.

The PM is said to have “commended the precedent” of the US Flight 655 actions to Putin. It’s a lousy precedent. George H. W. Bush (i.e. Bush the elder), vice-president and campaigning for the presidency at the time, was moved by the shootdown to say in August 1988:

“I will never apologize for the United States – I don’t care what the facts are … I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”

We are holding Russia to a higher standard than that to which the US was held in 1988. That’s entirely appropriate.

It would be preferable, though, to end the pretence that the US behaved impeccably over Iran Air 655 or that it set an example Russia should follow. On the available facts, the US behaved shamefully.

Twisting the truth is one of the things that has gotten Putin regarded as a thug. Australia and its leaders should be able to adopt a higher standard.

The West’s Ukrainian amnesia

russia_bear-vs-usa_eagle-war1Monica Attard reports in The Hoopla on a very recent speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he forcefully puts his country’s side of the current conflict with Ukraine.  I was especially struck by this observation:

The US, [Putin] said, had instigated a “coup d’etat” in February to oust Ukraine’s pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich when he reversed his decision to sign up to a trade deal with Europe rather than Russia.

The stance echoes a fundamental point of a long post I wrote a few months ago on the Ukraine situation.  More generally, Attard puts the broad situation in its Great Power context:

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Scottish independence: a good idea or a bad idea?

Today the people residing in Scotland can decide whether they want to see an independent Scotland or to have Scotland remain in the UK. The betting markets concur with the opinion polls and favour the status quo: the markets give roughly 20% chance that the ‘yes’ vote will win and that Scotland will become independent.

The majority of economists talking about the referendum have focused on whether or not the Scots would be financially better off with their own country, debating things like North Sea oil revenues and currency unions. I think that is a distraction: looking at small and large countries in Europe, you would have to say there is no noticeable advantage or disadvantage to being a small country and that the Scots are hence unlikely to be materially affected in the long run by independence.
Independence is more about self-image and identity than it is about money. Even though the push for independence might well come from politicians and bureaucracies that gain prestige and income if they ruled an independent country, the population deciding on the vote will probably vote on emotional grounds, not economic. Young male Scots appear overwhelmingly in favour of independence; females and old people prefer to keep things the way they are. The latter groups are bigger and are expected to sway the day.

Personally, I have two related reasons to oppose the breaking up of larger countries in Europe into smaller ethnically defined states, not just Scotland, but also Catalonia, the Basque region, the Frisian province, Bavaria, and all the other regions of Europe:

  1. These independence movements are ethnic and hence by definition exclusionary. This is a big concern: large nation states have slowly moved away from the story that they exist for people of the ‘right’ bloodlines and with ancestors who lived in the ‘right’ place. The UK, the US, France, Australia, and even Germany and Spain have moved towards an identity based on stories about what it means to be British, American, French, Australian, etc., rather than a ‘blood and earth’ ethnic nation state story. Speaking tongue-in-cheek, the Brits have an upper lip story, the Americans have an exceptionalism story, the French have been convinced they like reading Proust, the new Australians are told in their citizenship exams that they believe in a fair go, etc. These stories contain treasured national stereotypes, complete with imagined histories. The key thing is that are inclusive, ie any newcomer from another place can participate in such stories. The Australian national anthem is a beautiful example of this super-inclusive attitude as it, almost uniquely, mentions neither ethnicity nor religion as a basis for being Australian. The ethnic stories of the independence movements are, in contrast, exclusionary and hence harmful to the self-image of any migrant. It is a move to a past that we have little reason to be proud of, as it marginalises current and future migrants. The story surrounding Scottish independence is thus not that the Scots are people who like to wear kilts and enjoy haggis, but that they make up the people who have suffered 700 years of oppression by the English. What is a recent newcomer from, say, Poland to do with such a self-image but conclude that they do not really belong there? Continue reading

Iraq: 10 things that seem to be true

As we head back to Iraq, I’m struck by the way in which those making the case both for and against are avoiding certain ideas which seem to me to be true:

This is not 2003 all over again. At least on a moral level, and at least as far as action in Iraq goes. We have been invited in by the Iraqi government, giving the military campaign a legal and moral basis for action that the 2003 war lacked, and IS is thoroughly dominated by murderous zealots. Tony Abbott has been careful to say that attacking IS in Syria would be very different to what we’ve signed up for so far, which it would, and he deserves credit for that.

IS is not an existential threat to Australia. No kudos to George Brandis, who claimed this week that IS “represents or seeks to be an existential threat to us”. Brandis’s statement avoids outright lying only by his addition of the phrase “or seeks to be”. This has strong echoes of the 2003 b.s. about how Saddam could threaten the world with nuclear weapons, It is not quite as stupid now as it was then, but that’s not saying much. Lots of loony zealots seek to be an existential threat to the Australian state. There’s a world of difference between the wish and the capability. IS currently appears weak on capability, though that could change. There’s more chance of Australia being seriously damaged by a mutated Ebola virus, and we react to that threat with a few million dollars every so often.

We have some responsibility to help make Iraqis’ lives better. In 2003 we invaded their country and failed to do what we said we’d do. The military did its best, but we needed other tools in the kit, didn’t have them, and like some blundering amateur, didn’t even know we needed them. We helped make their country vulnerable to the violent zealots. Those violent zealots are now trying to impose upon millions of Iraqis a particularly nasty brand of theocracy. We seem to have alarmingly little national shame about this, and remarkably little sense that by creating the mess, we created a lasting responsibility to fix it. This is what Colin Powell once explained to George W. Bush as the “Pottery Barn principle” – you broke it, you own it.

We will run into unintended consequences. The idea of unintended consequences is hard enough to keep in people’s minds in the economic debate. But in the foreign policy debate people seem ready to discard it at a moment’s notice. And when things go wrong, instead of reassessing, they defend the purity of their motivations. Chris Berg of the IPA has dubbed this the “it’s the thought that counts” school of humanitarian intervention. It is probably too much to expect, but we ought to conduct this debate with an honest acknowledgement that things are not likely to go to plan. To use Donald Rumsfeld’s admirable observation, we face both known and unknown unknowns.

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Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? | Jesse McCarthy at The Point

In this marvellous essay, Jesse McCarthy puzzles over why there is “a bloody knot in the social fabric that is as vivid in Ferguson, Missouri today as it was in Baldwin’s Harlem half a century ago.”

He starts with “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: a Letter from Harlem”, James Baldwin’s essay from 1960.

It is hard on the other hand to blame the policeman… he too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed… He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is. … He can retreat from his unease in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.

“Want to be treated like men.” That wish, together with all its many ramifications, is in McCarthy’s view ground zero. Continue reading

Iran Air Flight 655: How did Australia react?

A question for Troppodillians: does anyone have a record of the Australian Government’s response to 1988′s accidental US shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655?

I ask because the parallels with the MH17 shootdown are so clear.

At a political level the government’s response has so far been well-judged. There are few negatives in getting upset about the deaths of Australians overseas, particularly at the hands of a group aligned with a nation whose policies we rightly dislike, whose statements we quite sensibly distrust, and with whom we have few important links.

But at a moral level, it seems to me difficult to judge this episode more reprehensible than the Flight 655 shootdown. MH17 was shot down by untrained yahoos informally but closely connected to the Russsian government, probably by mistake. Flight 655 was shot down by the USS Vincennes on the orders of a formally trained US warship commander, fairly certainly by mistake.

The US, remarkably, never apologised to Iran or anyone else over the shootdown.

And my dim recollection is that the Australian Government responded that it was all a regrettable accident. Hansard’s online search doesn’t return anything from 1988. Does anyone have more detail?

A reminder of the response to Flight 655, from the careful-with-the-facts for Age journo Tim Colebatch (who was a foreign correspondent in Washington at the time): Continue reading

Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers

The noise and drama surrounding Putin, Russia and the Ukraine obscure crucial foreign policy principles. In “Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers”, Robert Merry takes a closer look at what they might be.

First, avoid promiscuous jingoism of the kind that Salisbury despised—and that suffuses so much American commentary and political discourse today. This kind of talk, particularly coming from national leaders, ultimately undermines any nation’s global authority.

Once embarked upon, this pernicious habit is hard to turn off. Combative political and media constituencies thrive on such melodrama and prudent voices find it ever more difficult to be heard, much less listened to.

Second, avoid geopolitical controversies and crises that don’t affect directly the nation’s true strategic interests. A corollary principle is to avoid moralistic posturing, which only breeds national hypocrisy and leads inevitably to geopolitical overextension.

As Merry points out, “any hegemonic power inevitably will encounter multiple challenges at any given time, and hence it must assess carefully, in terms of its fundamental interests, the clashes it wishes to pursue.” To do otherwise is to court eventual exhaustion and ridicule. Continue reading