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20 November 2022   1 comment

The United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) finished its last session in Egypt on measures to address climate change. In many important respects, it was a miserable failure: no agreements were reached on effective limitations on greenhouse gas emissions other than a weak resolution that reiterated the language of last year’s conference in Glasgow to a “phase-down of unabated coal power.” Without any agreement on limitations on fossil fuel emissions, the world has accepted that the 1.5° C target for global temperature increases will not be met. Global temperatures have already increased 1.1°C over pre-industrial levels and emissions continue to rise.

Even with an increase of less than 1.5°C the world is experiencing serious climate events such as wildfires, droughts, loss of biodiversity, floods, and intolerable nighttime elevated temperatures. For example, the floods in Pakistan earlier this year covered almost 30% of the country’s territory, leading to an estimated $40 billion economic loss and deaths in the 1500s.

Economic and political conditions make 2022 an inauspicious year to combat fossil fuel emissions. The war in Ukraine has led to dramatic shifts in energy consumption and some states, like India and China, have gone back to burning coal which is more accessible and cheaper than less destructive emissions from sources such as natural gas. And the economic losses associated with the COVID pandemic have amplified demands for economic growth even at the expense of the environment. It is impossible to predict when these pressures will abate.

The cruelest irony of the climate crisis is that some of its most damaging effects will be felt in areas and in countries that have poor populations that emit a small fraction of the emissions emitted by richer countries. This disparity has stymied previous COPs because poorer countries think that richer countries should pay higher costs to avert climate change. There was a symbolic victory on that issue in COP27. After a marathon session of 40 hours, the delegates finally agreed to create a “loss and damage” fund to subsidize the efforts of poorer countries to adapt to the effects of climate change. Reuters notes:

“The deal for a loss and damage fund marked a diplomatic coup for small islands and other vulnerable nations in winning over the 27-nation European Union and the United States, which had long resisted the idea for fear that such a fund could open them to legal liability for historic emissions.

“Those concerns were assuaged with language in the agreement calling for the funds to come from a variety of existing sources, including financial institutions, rather than relying on rich nations to pay in.

“But it likely will be several years before the fund exists, with the agreement setting out only a roadmap for resolving lingering questions including who would oversee the fun, how the money would be dispersed – and to whom.”

The world doesn’t have much time to take action to forestall serious disruptions. Apparently, some believe that we have more time than is actually the case.

Posted November 20, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

16 November 2022   2 comments

A missile landed in the town of Przewodow in Poland which is near the Ukrainian border. The evidence seems to indicate that the missile was a S-300 which is used by both the Russians and the Ukrainians. The blast killed two Poles and it caused concern because Poland is a member of NATO, and, if the Russians indeed fired the missile, would activate Article 5 of the NATO Treaty which reads that “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.”

All sides are treading very carefully because of the enormous implications of a Russian attack. Polish President Duda was reported to have said “We have no evidence at the moment that it was a rocket launched by Russian forces…..However, there are many indications that it was a missile that was used by Ukraine’s antimissile defense.” US President Biden was similarly cautious. According to The New York Times:

Asked by a reporter whether the missile “was fired from Russia,” Mr. Biden replied, “There is preliminary information that contests that.”

“I don’t want to say that until we completely investigate,” he said. But “the trajectory” of the missile made it unlikely “that it was fired from Russia,” he added.

Interestingly, the Russians complimented the US for its restraint:

A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, reiterated Moscow’s rejection of responsibility for the blast and complained that some had been all too ready to blame Russia — noting that the U.S. response had been a welcome exception.

“One should never rush to pronounce judgments and statements that can escalate the situation, still more so at such crucial moments,” he said.

“In this case,” he added, “it makes sense to pay attention to the restrained and far more professional response of the American side and the American president.”

Ukrainian President Zelensky insisted that the missile was not Ukrainian, but the investigation at this point is inconclusive.

The incident raises concerns that have been omnipresent since the war began last February. There are events in war that trigger unanticipated responses and the one that has been of most concern was the possibility that the war in Ukraine could escalate into a war between Russia and NATO. What happens next will be critically important, even if the evidence conclusively proves that Ukraine fired the missile in self-defense. Hardliners in Ukraine, Russia, and the US might exploit the ambiguities of this incident to justify escalation of the conflict.

Posted November 16, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

15 November 2022   1 comment

Posted November 15, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

9 July 2022   2 comments

The Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago conducted a poll between 19-23 May 2022 on the state of American democracy. The results of the poll are highly disturbing and shed a window on the debate over gun control in the US. By and large, ardent defenders of the 2nd Amendment often refer to the need for guns for self-defense or for hunting. But left unspoken is the belief on the part of many that the guns are necessary to overthrow the US government if it takes actions that threaten a very expansive definition of personal freedom.

The poll quantifies the very strong divisions in the US political landscape:

About three-quarters (73 percent) of voters who identify themselves as Republican agree that ‘Democrats are generally bullies who want to impose their political beliefs on those who disagree.’ An almost identical percentage of Democrats (74 percent) express that view of Republicans. A similarly lopsided majority of each party holds that members of the other are ‘generally untruthful and are pushing disinformation.'”

The poll asked a specific question: “Generally speaking, if two people with different political views were given the same facts about a policy or a political issue, do you think they would…”

Come to the same conclusion11%10%10%11%12%12%11%
See things differently78%79%71%79%80%73%81%
Not sure11%11%18%9%9%15%8%

It is troubling that the results of this question indicate that “facts” are not regarded as dispositive but rather as ideologically mutable. Under such conditions, productive debate or discussions are impossible.

The most troubling finding of the poll has to do with the need for violence to force political change:

“….28 percent of voters, including 37 percent who have guns in their homes, agree that ‘it may be necessary at some point soon for citizens to take up arms against the government.’ That view is held by one in three Republicans, including 45 percent of self-identified strong Republicans. Roughly one in three (35 percent) Independent voters and one in five Democrats agreed.”

The insurrection of 6 January 2022 may be a harbinger of things to come unless the American people decide that changing a government can be done peacefully. Right now, that outcome seems unlikely.

Posted July 9, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

20 June 2022   Leave a comment

Posted June 20, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

2 June 2022   Leave a comment

The Pew Research Center regularly conducts a poll among US citizens on their knowledge of international affairs. The survey this year polled 3,581 adults from March 21 to 27, 2022 and asked 12 questions (4 of which were used last year). If you wish to take the quiz yourself before I outline the results, just click here.

The results this year were close to those of last year. The summary of the results is as follows:

“On average, Americans give more correct than incorrect answers to the 12 questions in the study. The mean number of correct answers is 6.3, while the median is 7. But the survey finds that levels of international knowledge vary based on who is answering. Americans with more education tend to score higher, for example, than those with less formal education. Men also tend to get more questions correct than women. Older Americans and those who are more interested in foreign policy also tend to perform better.

“Political party groups are roughly similar in their overall levels of international knowledge, although conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats tend to score higher on the scale than do their more moderate counterparts.”

Conservative Republicans had strong scores but liberal Democrats scored slightly higher. Not surprisingly, knowledge correlated strongly with intensity of the issue to specific political affiliations (the question about the siting of the US Embassy to Israel, for example, earned conservative Republicans the highest scores).

The Pew Research Center does a very good job of describing the methodology of the poll. I think the Center’s polls are very reliable.

Posted June 2, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

28 May 2022   1 comment

Posted May 28, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

25 May 2022   2 comments

Like many who live in the US, I am unable to comprehend fully the lack of effective response to the most recent mass shooting in Texas. The Onion was the only media outlet to portray accurately the pathetic reaction to what apparently is now a fact of life in America: every article in the current issue reads “‘No Way to Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”.

What I find especially infuriating is how the defenders of the 2nd Amendment like to shoot down every possible remedy to this epidemic of violence. Background checks, limits on the capacity of magazines, or limits on the length of the barrel are all derided as inadequate. Apparently, the only acceptable solution to the slaughter of innocents to the 2nd Amendment defenders is one that solves every possibility of evasion. I am not aware of any other policy debate that is subject to such a high threshold of effectiveness.

But I am also perplexed why the burden of proof shifts to those who would like to prevent future massacres. An absolutist position on the 2nd Amendment is flawed in two ways. First, all the rights protected by the Constitution are justified in terms of advancing common interests. The 2nd Amendment is even explicit about the public interest served by the right to bear arms: the need to have people trained in the handling of weapons in order to have a well-regulated militia. I cannot see the public interest in assuring that anyone who wishes to own a military-grade assault rifle can have one. Nor do the defenders of the 2nd Amendment articulate the public interest is guaranteeing that “right”. I think it is pass time to demand that that public interest be part of the debate and not to simply dwell on the vapid assertion that a right is a right.

The second flaw is more significant. An absolutist position on the 2nd Amendment asserts that the right to bear arms is more important than the right to life (oddly, this position is confirmed by Charlton Heston’s defiant claim at the NRA Convention in 200 that anyone who wanted to take away his flintlock rifle would have to pry it out of his “cold, dead hands”.) That position is profoundly untenable and it reveals the strange situation in which we find ourselves: those who wish to more tightly regulate the sale of military-grade assault weapons do not need to defend that moral position since the evidence that those weapons have killed far more civilians that they have protected is overwhelming. The real burden of proof rests on those who believe that the right to possess those weapons provides a tangible benefit to society.

Any defense of the 2nd Amendment that does not carry this burden of proof is bullshit.

Posted May 25, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

1 May 2022   Leave a comment

Posted May 1, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

28 April 2022   Leave a comment

One of the more unsettling aspects of the Russian war on Ukraine is the extent to which Russian authorities, including President Putin, have referred to nuclear weapons. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has produced a timeline of such statements and there were several statements that I missed when they were made. References to nuclear weapons is gratuitous: no state forgets that another has nuclear weapons when a conflict occurs. The question is why the Russians are making sure that no one forgets that there are Russian nuclear weapons.

The Russians introduced a new strategic doctrine in June 2020 entitled “On the Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence“. That document made reference to circumstances in which Russia may choose to use nuclear weapons in a conventional war. That reference is generally referred to as an “escalate to de-escalate” option. Both the US and Russia have developed tactical (or “battlefield”) nuclear weapons with explosive capabilities that can be lower than some conventional bombs. The BBC describes these weapons:

“Tactical nuclear weapons vary enormously in size and power.

“The smallest can be one kiloton or less (equivalent to a thousand tonnes of the explosive TNT) – the larger ones perhaps as big as 100 kilotons.

“The effects would depend on the size of the warhead, how far above the ground it detonates and the local environment.

“But as a comparison, the atomic bomb that killed around 146,000 people in Hiroshima, Japan, during World War Two, was 15 kilotons.”

The BBC article goes on:

“US intelligence say Russia has a theory called “escalate to de-escalate” if it is in a conflict with Nato.

“This involves doing something dramatic – such as using a tactical weapon on the battlefield, or as a demonstration somewhere – or threatening to do so.

“The idea is to frighten the other side into backing down.

“The concern is that if Putin feels cornered and that his strategy in Ukraine is failing, he could use tactical nuclear weapons as a ‘game changer’, to break a stalemate or avoid defeat.

“But the situation would likely have to get worse in Ukraine – or back in Russia – for him to consider this.

“James Acton, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Pace in Washington DC, says: ‘I am legitimately worried that in that circumstance Putin might use a nuclear weapon, most likely on the ground in Ukraine to terrify everyone and get his way. We are not at that point yet.'”

“Dr Heather Williams, nuclear expert at Kings College London, says one problem is that it is unclear what ‘winning’ in Ukraine would look like for Putin – and thus what might drive Russia to use a nuclear weapon.”

This doctrine treats nuclear weapons almost like they are similar to conventional weapons. The exception rests in the eyes of the rest of the world–the Russians rely on shock and fear to accomplish their aims and are less interested in the actual damage done by a nuclear blast. I think that the Russians are completely mistaken in their projected reactions. It may be the case that conventional weapons can cause more damage than some tactical nuclear weapons, but that disregards the profound psychological and political reactions, not only on the part of the rest of the world but also within the Russian domestic population.

There is, however, another aspect to this strategy which troubles me a great deal. The Russians are making these nuclear threats in order to prevent substantial help to Ukraine from other powers. What is unknown is the level of help that would trigger the use of tactical nuclear weapons. This ambiguity has two effects. The first is to introduce a high level of restraint on the allies of any attacked state. This outcome could be the intended effect of the threat, depending on how risk adverse the allies are and how high the stakes to the allies actually are. But there are very few objectives that warrant the risk of a nuclear attack so the level of restraint is probably high. This condition gives the attacking state a veto over alliance cohesion and compensates for any disadvantage the attacking state may have in conventional power.

The second consequence of the ambiguity is is increases the risk of miscalculation. Does a tank tip the balance? A jet fighter? Even the leaders of the attacking power do not have a clear idea of what the tipping point may be. Introducing the prospect of a fuzzy “red line” only makes the situation more unstable.

Posted April 28, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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