Category: International

The Real Global Warming Issues

Global warming is for real. Even the most skeptical climatologists subscribe to the basic notion that man has pumped so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the planet has and will continue to warm.  However they do not agree on how much the planet will warm as a function of atmospheric CO2 – and the range of values is as large as the chasm between best and worst case scenarios.

Some models assume the climate to be very sensitive to CO2 levels, while others assume much less sensitivity. A simple value that’s commonly used to compare sensitivities among models is the amount of warming that ensues from a doubling of atmospheric CO2. (Mankind has thus far jacked atmospheric CO2 by more than 40% over pre-industrial levels, to its highest concentration in several million years, since before our species existed. Doubling is expected to occur during the 2050s.)

At the low end are models predicting that doubling atmospheric CO2 will yield an increase in average planetary surface temperature of 1 to 1.5 C degrees. That kind of warming would be inconvenient, not disastrous – assuming, of course, that mankind succeeds only in doubling CO2, not trebling it, which is quite possible given current emissions. At the other end of the spectrum are climate models predicting a 6 to 7 C degree increase for the same doubling. This isnt merely a death sentence – it means we’re dead already: the CO2 we’ve already released will inexorably wreck our civilization-friendly biosphere no matter what we do.

How does one pick and choose among these different climate models? A clever answer to that question may win you a Nobel. While many models converge on a sensitivity of about 3 C degrees, it’s not at all clear that the true value should be near the mean or median. But lacking a better criterion for judgement (only climatologists can judge individual models on their merits), we would suggest that a sensitivity of 3 C degrees is a reasonable basis for making public policy prescriptions – leaving open the real chance that the actual value may be much higher or lower. That level of sensitivity should motivate us to act on global warming without delay. An increase in mean surface temperatures of just 2 C degrees may prove disastrous. A 3 degree increase will end life as we know it.

The catch is that cutting CO2 is not costless. Cheap energy has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in India and China, and stands to lift hundreds of millions more. The developed West has much less at stake in terms of human misery, and their economies are far less energy intensive. Thus it’s reasonable that the developed and developing worlds should approach global warming differently. Aggressively cutting back emissions is far more attractive to western countries on a simple cost-benefit analysis. The developing world, by comparison, can reasonably tolerate higher emissions in pursuit of faster growth.

This leads us to another strategy to approach global warming: do nothing, except grow the world economy with cheap energy, and hope that future generations, with their higher incomes and superior technology, will be better able to manage the mess we leave them. Consider how primitive technology from the year 1915 looks to us today. Given that the pace of innovation is increasing, 2015 will look even more primitive to the people of 2115. Problems that are incurable to us may not be so daunting to them. It may be that the best gift we can make to future generations is greater wealth, technology and productivity – not lower CO2 levels.

Of course wealth and climate change are not independent – a rapidly changing climate will impoverish future generations, as they are forced to divert resources to deal with crop failures and rising seas. Likewise, cutting emissions too aggressively will undermine economic growth, leaving millions in poverty, and robbing future generations of the means to cope with whatever problems they face.

Modeling climate is a tricky business. Guessing at what generations 50 and 100 years hence might be capable of is even harder. While global warming is a real problem, the best approach is not at all clear. We have options, and must pay careful attention as new facts arrive, to plot our best course for the future.


Editor’s note: Reluctantly, effective next week, the Field Guide is cutting back to one post weekly, to make time for other projects. Sincere thanks to the LFG faithful – we hope to return to twice or thrice weekly by the end of the year.


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Resisting Hebdomania

The salient feature of the recent terrorist attack in Paris is its target: the media. The toll was much smaller than jihadist attacks in Madrid and London, and the operation was far less complex. But by going after a popular periodical, the attack sought to chill free expression, which is at the bedrock of western democracies.

French authorities are to be commended for vociferously championing free speech, and particularly for defending the especially puerile and inflammatory style of Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo is likewise to be lauded for fighting on, publishing yet another exquisitely offensive depiction of Mohammed just days after the attack. Indeed we are all indebted to the likes of Charlie Hebdo: if the protections of free speech extend to cover them, then the rest of us can be assured of ample space for our own exchanges of ideas.

Protection of free expression takes subtly (and not-so subtly) different forms in different western countries. In France, for example, you are free to show Jesus having anal sex with God and the Holy Spirit (as Charlie Hebdo did in a 2013 cover illustration) – but you can go to jail for denying that the Holocaust happened, and you can be fined for using the word software (e.g.) or other imported words in place of a French word. Most ironically, Charlie Hebdo’s predecessor, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, was banned by the French government in 1970 for making fun of Charles de Gaulle’s death. Concerning freedom of expression, more is more. The suggestion that political commentators should tread particularly lightly on religious beliefs is misguided. It is better to counsel citizens to be tolerant of different opinions – even those that are intended to offend.

Some have taken the occasion of this attack to point out the numerous flaws in French policies toward its growing Muslim population. The Kouachi brothers, after all, are not foreign nationals – they are Parisians, born and raised. This perhaps is the most frightening aspect of the attack – that it was not perpetrated by foreigners, as was 9/11, but by disaffected citizens, as was the Oklahoma City bombing.

While France should be more liberal in its policies toward Muslims, its failings should not be held up as a proximate cause of this unfortunate attack. Many citizens within France, the US, and practically every western country, have legitimate complaints about government practices, and the actions of private groups as well. They do not justify the murder of fellow citizens. France could surely deal with its Muslim minority with greater long-sightedness and sensitivity. But this observation does not lend an iota of legitimacy to last week’s attack.

We should take comfort in the fact that attacks such as these are exceedingly rare – even though they are relatively simple to carry out. (Two teenagers killed as many people in Columbine; a mentally disturbed 20 year-old killed twice as many in Sandy Hook; one intrepid Norwegian killed five times as many.) There is little a modern nation of 3, 60 or 300 million people can do to eliminate all such attacks; invariably, the price for a small amount of additional security is a lot of lost liberty.

In the fall and winter that followed Sept 11, 2001, about 30,000 Americans died of the flu – ten times the number that died on 9/11. We should be thankful that in the greater scheme of things, even the worst terrorist attack in history doesnt amount to a whole lot. The US reaction to 9/11, particularly its ill-considered invasion of Iraq, has had far more terrible and enduring consequences. We should bury our dead and mourn, but we should not let our hunger for justice or security erode our most precious liberal institutions and values.


Editor’s note: The Liberal Field Guide has awoken from its (blissfully) long winter hibernation – we thank you for your patience, and look forward to serving all your liberal needs in the months ahead.





Swiss Sanity and Madness

American liberals might take comfort in knowing that other western countries are also beset by a conservative minority mucking up the works of government. Even Switzerland, that paragon of civility, has its very own conservative party to serve as a fount for bad old ideas. The good news is that Swiss voters were recently able to beat back two especially misguided conservative ballot initiatives.

In a country whose high living standards depend significantly on a steady supply of foreign labor, one measure sought to tightly restrict immigration. Another would have handcuffed Switzerland’s capable central bank by forcing it to dramatically increase its reserves of gold. Each initiative exemplifies the primitivism common to conservative movements worldwide: a gratuitous bias against foreigners; and a scientific illiteracy fostering debunked beliefs and practices.

To understand the failed immigration initiative, it helps to understand a bit about Swiss politics. While Switzerland is a very rich country, its conservative party, the SVP, is based in Switzerland’s poorer rural backwaters. (Sound familiar?) Though the bulk of Switzerland’s immigrants head to cities to find work, opposition to immigration is nonetheless based in less-affluent agrarian communities. (Sound eerily familiar?)

In 2009, the SVP succeeded in holding an especially disgusting referendum to illegalize the building of minarets. Horrifically, it passed – and lacking constitutional protections for freedom of expression, it is now the law of the land. Paradoxically, the Swiss government has long been a good world citizen, taking in refugees from all over the world, including predominantly Muslim countries like Iraq and Bosnia. Switzerland’s Muslim population has grown over the past 30 years, from 1% to 4.5%.

At nearly four times the US rate, immigration into Switzerland has been brisk. However the Swiss economy has had no difficulty absorbing additional workers, with unemployment under 4% for the past ten years. Beginning as an amalgam of several distinct ethnicities and four official languages, Switzerland has long been extremely diverse. The foreign-born now make up 29% of its resident population, double that of the US, and the most any major western country. Diversity has served Switzerland well: it is the wealthiest country in the West, and close to the top in per capita income and life expectancy.

There is hope that Switzerland’s economic success will temper its conservative movement – that they might be cautious about killing the golden goose. While the minaret referendum passed with 57% of the vote, the anti-immigration measure failed with just 26% in favor. And hearteningly, the gold-hoarding referendum did even worse, with the support of just 23% of voters, despite aggressive SVP campaigning.

Conservative misapprehensions of history and science notwithstanding, gold has no intrinsic value, and there are no valid reasons – geopolitical or scientific – for central banks to heavily rely on gold as a reserve asset. For good reason, virtually every country has abandoned the practice.

Conservative belief in the intrinsic value of gold is especially goofy, considering that the godfather of intrinsic-value theory is Karl Marx, who needed it to validate his notions on the value of labor. That conservatives today make the same mistake about gold that Marx made about labor does not diminish their esteem for yellow metal. Conservatism, after all, is a largely about belief in a vacuum – a hearkening back to an imaginary past, not a real world.

Swiss sanity in killing these two measures was tempered by their decision to reject a third measure that would have ended a tax regime sheltering rich foreigners, encouraging them to reside in Switzerland. Just as some countries create special tax havens to attract business, Switzerland has its own cottage industry of attracting the idle rich to live in their mountains. They buy Bentleys and chalets and negotiate an individual lump-sum tax with the canton in which they reside (for real) – passing their tax burden on to ordinary people. Several cantons have eliminated the practice, requiring everyone to pay their fair share. The measure would have forced all cantons to eliminate it, but unfortunately it only gained 41% of the vote.

While two out of three on the referenda aint bad, the SVP has unfortunately grown in popularity, and now holds a plurality of popular support and legislative representation. Its chief selling points remain xenophobia, isolationism, anti-environmentalism and opposition to government services. The latter position does not prevent them from continuing to support agricultural subsidies – farmers, after all, are the SVP’s largest constituency; and adherence to principle remains a trait unknown among conservatives.


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Plight of the Bidoon

The 14th amendment makes the US a special place. If you’re born in the US, you’re a citizen of the US – end of inquiry. The facts of your parents’ citizenship, the status of their legal (or illegal) residence, and other such minutia are irrelevant. While the US has had its share of underclasses, it has not in modern times had a stateless underclass (like Israel has with Palestinians). By operation of the 14th amendment, this generation’s undocumented immigrants engender the next generation of US citizens, solving lots of ugly problems before they form.

Many countries do not automatically confer citizenship upon the native-born. This is usually just a problem for individuals born in unusual circumstances. Rarely is it a problem for large numbers of people, simply because countries with significant immigrant populations are not generally foolish enough to create a giant mess for themselves by denying citizenship to the native-born.

There are several noteworthy cases however. The Dominican Republic has a sizable ethnically-Haitian population, including hundreds of thousands of individuals who were born in and lived all their lives in DR, but who are not recognized as citizens by either country. Japan has a small Korean population left over from colonial times, upon whom Japan refuses to confer citizenship. Israel, spectacularly, has some 2 million Arabs in the West Bank who, since 1967, have been living subject to Israeli authority without being afforded a scintilla of political representation in Israel’s government, much less citizenship.

And then there are Kuwait’s Bidoon. Also called “Stateless Arabs,” they are descendents of Arabs from other countries (such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq), who have been living in Kuwait since its 1961 founding – without being allowed to acquire citizenship. They have no legal right to reside in any country in the world, including Kuwait. Among Kuwait’s 4 million residents, they number about 100,000.

Kuwait has long been a majority-immigrant nation, with ethnic Kuwaitis comprising only one-third the resident population since as far back as 1975. And Kuwait’s economy has thrived for decades, relying on its enormous number of foreign workers, who hail primarily from Asia. After falling off for a few years, the foreign-born population has recently recovered, adding an additional one million in the past 10 years.

And Kuwaitis are not okay with it. Perhaps the most liberal and democratic state in the Middle East, Kuwait’s government has long had an uneasy relationship with the hordes of migrant workers that the ever-booming Kuwaiti economy requires. While it has recently weighed a few ill-conceived measures to remove a large number of its foreign workers, it has not gone through with any of them, because every enlightened Kuwaiti recognizes their utter dependence on foreign labor to maintain their extraordinarily high living standards. But one unfortunate side-effect of such anti-foreign sentiments is the ongoing mistreatment of the Bidoon.

Bidoon are Kuwaitis in all but name. But they arent merely denied political rights – they are denied access to the most basic public services, including health and education. Bidoon cant even get a drivers license. Kuwait’s latest move has been to secure Comoros citizenship for the Bidoon. While Kuwait is among the richest countries in the world (per capita GDP is 50% greater than the US), Comoros is among the world’s poorest (per capita GDP is 10% less than that of Haiti). Obviously no Bidoon will be eager to find a new home in Comoros. Rather, as citizens of Comoros, the Bidoon’s status will be normalized: as foreign nationals, they will have access to many basic Kuwaiti government services.

Clearly, this will be a major improvement for the lot of the Bidoon. As Comoros nationals within Kuwait, they effectively graduate from statelessness to disenfranchisement. However in the long run, justice demands that Kuwait recognize both the civil and political rights of its native-born Bidoon, who have lived and worked in Kuwait for all of their lives, descended from people who, likewise, for more than half a century, could call no other place their home. The Bidoon deserve nothing less than full Kuwaiti citizenship – to not merely live and work in peace, and be accorded basic human rights, but to participate as equals in their own governance as well.


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A Big Deal on Climate

The details are barely in, but it seems, at long, long last, that the number 1 and number 2 world economies – also the number 2 and number 1 world polluters – have finally come to an agreement on carbon emissions. This is such a big deal, and such good news, that conservatives are tripping over themselves to take a giant dump on it – as a preemptive first strike, since this deal is poised to take a giant dump on them.

That’s because conservatives for years have used China as a shield to avoid serious discussion of the issues related to climate change. Cap and trade, the subsidization of renewable energy sources, new EPA standards on greenhouse gases: name a climate-change initiative, and you can line up conservatives around the block to oppose it, with China the first and last word they utter. They’ve been telling us for years that the US would be a sucker to work toward any reduction in emissions, because the US would merely be encouraging Chinese polluters – with the logic that whatever the US doesnt pump into the atmosphere, the Chinese will pump extra to compensate, taking American jobs and profits along the way.

China, for their part, have long opposed adhering to a common set of standards with the developed West, reasonably asserting that (1) present atmospheric CO2 levels are chiefly attributable to the past activity of Western economies, not China; and (2) unfettered Chinese development has lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty, and promises to lift hundreds of millions more – just as it did in the West over the past two centuries.

The rest of the world has thus been held hostage to the intransigence of the world’s two largest economies and polluters. After all, any deal on climate change that doesnt include the US and China leaves out nearly half the world’s emissions and half the world’s economy.

But everything changed when US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that they reached agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. China has finally agreed to capping emissions, while the US has agreed to steeper reductions. And now there is every reason to be optimistic that the US, China, and the rest of the world can hash out the deal that has long eluded them, when the climate summit meets in Paris in late 2015.

Obama seems ready to do an end-run around the US Senate, which is now controlled by conservatives, and headed by Mr. Coal himself, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. Any further international deals on climate are likely to be styled as “Agreements” – as opposed to “Treaties” – further to a 1992 treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Treaties require 67 votes in the Senate, where even 50 are now impossible. In past decades, what was once the world’s preeminent deliberative body could have been relied upon to see past partisan posturing on the most critical issues of the day, to at least have an intelligent debate. No more: the cancer that is conservatism has made the US Senate so dysfunctional that it cannot even meaningfully address matters concerning the planet’s long-term ability to support life.








Who Lost North Korea

As South Korean spies ended weeks of speculation by revealing the mundane cause of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s recent absence from public view (ankle surgery), a much more ominous bit of news was simultaneously reported: North Korea has begun work on a submarine-based nuclear missile launching system. With present technology, North Korea may be able to strike Alaska, or perhaps Washington state. With sub-based missiles, they could potentially hit any city in the US. While this project will take years, the long-term prospects are chilling. And no matter how conservatives try to wriggle out from under the inescapable truth, blame for North Korea’s nuclearization falls squarely on the Bush Duh administration.

A little background info is crucial. There are just two paths to creating a nuclear fission weapon. One uses uranium, which involves a technologically complex enrichment process. The other uses plutonium, and is much quicker – if you have a ready supply of plutonium, which can be readily produced in certain kinds of nuclear reactors.

When Bill Clinton came to the White House in 1993 – fresh out of Little Rock, without a scintilla of foreign policy experience – he inherited a Korean peninsula already in nuclear crisis. Clinton competently negotiated a deal, and under the 1994 “Agreed Framework,” North Korea halted its uranium enrichment program, and also shut down its plutonium-producing nuclear plant – blocking both paths to nuclearization. In exchange, the US promised to build North Korea two new nuclear plants – of a kind that could not be harnessed to manufacture weapons – and to supply them with fuel oil in the interim. The Agreed Framework also put the US and North Korea on track for improved relations.

Fun fact: North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor – source of its weapons-grade plutonium – was constructed on Ronald Reagan’s watch, during 1980-86.

Enter Bush Duh. Late in 2002, the US accused North Korea of violating the Agreed Framework by restarting its uranium enrichment program. Whether or not that’s true, in the 21 years since the Agreed Framework was signed, North Korea has never detonated a uranium-based nuclear weapon. What is true is that the US failed to follow through on its promises to build two new reactors and deliver fuel oil. The reactors were far behind schedule, and oil shipments were often delayed – all because conservatives in Congress opposed the agreement, and sought to sabotage it by withholding funding. This makes it particularly laughable for conservatives to blame North Korean nukes on Clinton, since they did everything they could to undermine his otherwise effective policies.

And so because of congressional conservatives, North Korea had legitimate gripes about the US failing to keep up its end of the bargain. With ham-handed diplomacy, Bush Duh so thoroughly alienated North Korea that they pulled out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, restarted their Yongbyon reactor, and – while Bush Duh slept – they ran it for two years, producing enough plutonium to build several bombs. Duh dozed on as North Korea shut the reactor down, extracted the plutonium, and got to work. They successfully detonated their first nuclear weapon in late 2006 – during Duh’s 6th year in the White House.

Bush Duh followed up that 6 year snooze-a-thon with inaction in the face of North Korea’s missile tests, as the North worked on the development of a nuclear weapons delivery system to allow them to strike US allies, as well as the US mainland. He was, after all, quite busy in Iraq, confirming what UN inspectors said before the US invasion: that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Duh!

Texas Needs UN Observers

A newly released UN report expresses concern over the high number of executions being carried out in Iraq. The report found implementation of the death penalty in Iraq to be particularly problematic because “many… convictions are based on questionable evidence and systemic failures in the administration of justice.”

You must be thinking – wow, the Iraqi Government must be offing folks left and right to be the target of this kind of UN criticism. After all, conditions in Iraq are dire. There’s a civil war, headed by an armed insurgency, now ongoing across much of the country. Terrorist bombings in Baghdad have become so commonplace that they frequently go unreported. So how many people has Iraq put to death so far in 2014? Answer: 60.

Hmmm. Iraq has a population of 33 million. Assuming Iraq continues on its execution-rampage, they will have put 80 people to death by year’s end, making for an execution rate of 2.4 per million. Texas, by comparison, has a population of 26 million, and has put 39 people to death so far this year, putting them on track for about 42 by year’s end. That gives Texas an execution rate of 1.6 per million. Not sure whether congratulations are due – Texas has managed to be only two-thirds as brutal to its peacetime population compared to wartime Iraq.

Iraq may be bad now, but it’s much improved much since when Saddam Hussein was in power. However you can say the same about Texas, which has also come a long way since the dark days of Governor Bush Duh, who in 1999 oversaw 98 executions for a population of 20 million, for an execution rate of nearly 5 per million, double that of present day Iraq. Bush Duh’s Texas had no civil war and no terrorist bombings – it was just folks killin’ folks, Texas style – with nary a UN monitor in sight.

As the UN report points out, the problem in Iraq isnt just the sheer number of executions – it’s the shoddy system of justice that produces them. The Texas comparison is here, again, unavoidable, where people are put to death without competent legal representation, and where many have been found to be innocent while on death row – others, after their execution has been carried out.

All modern, civilized people should oppose the death penalty under all circumstances. In fact, the reason why it’s virtually disappeared in the West is that it is inconsistent with all modern political ideologies – except fascism. The comparison with war-torn Iraq serves to show just how backwards are certain parts of the US, where an extraordinary degree of barbarism is brought into higher relief when it occurs in a relatively affluent, peacetime population – without enough of an outcry from human rights organizations, foreign or domestic.