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I just remembered I’d made some in 2012. It’s time to see how they went, plus make predictions for the coming year.

Of course I failed to predict the biggest thing of them all: The hacking that made me throw in the towel on Sublime Oblivion (remember that?), but with the silver lining that I could now split my blog between my interest in Russia and my interest in many other things. After all tying my criticism of the Western media on Russia with topics like climate change and futurism and HBD was never a very good fit. Overall I am very satisfied with the new arrangement.

Predictions For 2013

(1) Russia will see slight positive natural population growth (about 50,000) as well as significant overall population growth (about 400,000). Do bear in mind that this prediction was first made back in 2008 when a Kremlinologist who did the same would have been forced into a mental asylum.

(2) The life expectancy will reach 71.5 years, the total fertility rate will rise to 1.8. The birth rate will reach a local maximum at about 13.3-13.5 (it will then remain steady for a couple of years, and then begin to slowly decline) while the death rate will go down to about 13.0-13.2). Net immigration should remain at about 300,000.

(3) Putin will not be overthrown in a glorious democratic revolution. In fact, things will remain depressingly stable on the political front. As they should!

(4) Currently Russia is one of Europe’s most corrupt countries. While it’s certainly not at the level of Zimbabwe, as claimed in the Corruption Perceptions Index, it’s not like having the Philippines, Romania, or Greece for neighbors on an objective assessment is anything to write home about. I believe that Russia missed a great opportunity to undermine the rotten culture of official impunity that exists there by refraining from prosecuting former Moscow Mayor Luzhkov with his Montenegrin villa, billionaire wife, and his VP Mayor Resin who wore a $500,000 watch following his dismissal in 2010. Today a similar opportunity presents itself with blatant evidence of large-scale corruption on the part of former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his female hangers-on (see the comments threads here, here at the Kremlin Stooge for details). There are conflicting signals as to whether charges will extend to the very top, i.e. Serdyukov himself. Having incorrectly anticipated a Luzhkov prosecution, I am now once bitten, twice shy. So I’ll take the lame way out and call it a 50/50.

(5) Needless to say, the economy remains as uncertain as ever, and contingent upon what happens in the EU and the world. In the PIGS the economic contraction is finally starting to slow down, but Greece is something of a disaster zone, and Spain is raiding its pension fund to keep afloat. If this becomes unsustainable this year then the EU member states will have to make some fundamental choices: Fiscal union? Or its division into a “Hanseatic” core and Mediterranean periphery? Which of these three things will happen I find impossible to even begin to foretell… As applied to Russia, under the first two scenarios, it will continue plodding along at a stolid but unremarkable pace of 3-4% or so GDP growth; if things come to a head (as they eventually must) and Germany decides to toss the Latins overboard, then the divorce I assume is going to be very, very messy, and we can expect Russia’s economy to fall into recession.

(6) No special insights on foreign policy. Ukraine may join the Customs Union; however, I suspect that’s more likely to happen in 2014 or 2015, as Yanukovych faces re-election and has to make a choice between continued prevarication between it and the EU, and encouraging his Russophone base. The creeping influence of the Eurasian Union will likely keep US-Russian relations cold; whatever the current disagreement that’s talked about (Magnitsky Act; Dima Yakovlev Law; Syria; Libya…) I lean to the “Stratfor”-like position that at heart the US just does not want what it sees as a “re-Sovietization” of the region – which the Eurasian Union is, in geopolitical terms, if under conditions much softer than was previously the case – and will thus be driven, almost by force of instinct, to oppose this trend.

How did I do for 2012?

Here is the link again. In short, this wasn’t the best year for my predictions.

1. “So that’s my prediction for March: Putin wins in the first round with 60%, followed by perennially second-place Zyuganov at 15%-20%, Zhirinovsky with 10%, and Sergey Mironov, Mikhail Prokhorov and Grigory Yavlinsky with a combined 10% or so.I later ended up refining this, and running a contest. My predictions for the five candidates were off by an aggregate error of 14%. The heroic winner was Andras Toth-Czifra (who has yet to get his T-Shirt – my profound apologies dude, it will be done…) Half a point.

2. “I will also go ahead and say that I do not expect the Meetings For Fair Elections to make headway.” Correct, although this was self-evident to anyone not afflicted with Putin Derangement Syndrome (which admittedly doesn’t include 90% of Western Russia journalists). Full point.

3. Here I made general points that I still think fully apply. That said, my own specific prediction turned out to be false. “But specifically for 2012, I expect Greece to drop out of the Eurozone (either voluntarily, or kicked out if it starts printing Euros independently, as the former Soviet republics did with rubles as Moscow’s central control dissipated).” Wrong! I am perhaps foolhardy to do so, but I repeat this prediction for this year. I really don’t know why the Greeks masochistically agree to keep on paying tribute to French and German banks when they know full well they have no hope of ever significantly bringing down their debt-to-GDP ratio without major concessions on the parts of their creditors. Zero points.

4. Last year I made no major predictions about the Russian economy; basically, unexciting but stable if things stay normal – a downswing if the EU goes down, albeit not on as big a scale as in 2008-2009. I was basically correct. One point.

5. “I expect 2012 will be the year in which Ukraine joins the Eurasian common economic space.” Nope. To activate their Russophone base, they decided to go with the language law. Zero points.

6. “Russia’s demography. I expect births to remain steady or fall slightly… Deaths will continue to fall quite rapidly, as excise taxes on vodka – the main contributor to Russia’s high mortality rates – are slated to rise sharply after the Presidential elections.” Too pessimistic on births, albeit understandably so because Russia’s cohort of women in their child-bearing age has now begun to decline rapidly (the echo effect). Although ironically enough however I am one of the most optimistic serious Russia demographers. In reality, as of the first 10 months of 2012, births have soared by a further 6.5% (which translates to a c.8% increase in the TFR, bringing it up from 1.61 in 2011 to about 1.74 this year – that’s about the level of Canada and the Netherlands – while deaths have fallen by 1.5%, implying a rise in life expectancy from 70.3 years in 2011 to about 71 years in 2012 (which is a record). Most remarkably the rate of natural population growth is now basically break-even, with birth rates and death rates both at about 13.3/1000; the so-called “Russian cross” has become a rhombus. Still, considering that my predictions were basically more optimistic than anyone else’s (even Mark Adomanis’), I still feel justified in calling this n my favor. One point.

So, that’s 3.5/6 for the Russia predictions. I will be very brief on the non-Russia related ones, as this is a Russia blog.

7. Wrong, Romney did not win LOL. Although later I did improve greatly, coming 12th out of 66 in a competition to predict the results of the US popular vote. I now owe a few bottles of whiskey to various people.

8. US did not attack Iran, but I gave it a 50% chance anyway. So, half point?

9. “But I will more or less confidently predict that global oil production in 2012 will be a definite decrease on this year.” Too early to tell.

10. “China will not see a hard landing.” Correct.

11. “Record low sea ice extent and volume. And perhaps 100 vessels will sail the Northern Sea Route this year.More like 46 vessels, and completely correct on extreme new sea ice lows.

12. “Tunisia is the only country of the “Arab Spring” that I expect to form a more or less moderate and secular government.” I think that’s basically correct.

13. Protests will not lead to any major changes outside the Arab world – yes.

14. “The world will, of course, end on December 21, 2012.” Correct, we’re now living in a simulation, the real world having ended as I predicted.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Editorial note: This article was first published at Arctic Progress in February 2011. In the next few weeks I will be reposting the best material from there.

The Arctic to become a pole of global economic growth? Image credit – Scenic Reflections.

Behold! Far north along the shores of the Arctic a quiver of upspringing settlements fringes the coast. Boats swarm around canning factories, smoke flutters above smelters, herds of reindeer dot the prairies… And here or there, on every street-corner, glimmer out the lights of theaters where moving-pictures entertain white people through the sunless weeks of the midwinter dancing-time, the singing-time, the laughing-time of Eskimo Land.

- Northward ho!: An account of the far North and its people.

In 2003, Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill wrote the now famous paper Dreaming with BRIC’s, predicting that Brazil, Russia, India and China would overtake the developed G8 nations within a few decades and make astounding returns for faithful investors. The BRIC’s concept entered the conventional wisdom, spawning a host of related acronyms (BASIC, BRICSA, etc) – and if anything, realizing its promise well ahead of schedule. Last year, China’s real GDP possibly overtook America’s, and Russia’s approached Germany’s.

Yet for all their successes, the BRIC’s may not fulfill their expected roles as the stars of the global economy in the 21st century. The level of education is horrid in Brazil and atrocious in India; without the requisite human capital, these two countries will find it difficult to rapidly “converge” to developed world standards. China is much better off in this respect, but its high growth trajectory may in turn be disturbed by energy shortages and environmental degradation. China produces half the world’s coal, which is patently unsustainable given its limited reserves. But since coal accounts for 75% of China’s primary energy consumption and fuels the factories that keep its workforce employed, there is little it can do to mitigate this dependence. Meanwhile, China’s overpopulation, pollution and climate change predicament is so well known as to not require elaboration. Many other countries flirting around the edges of BRIC status – Indonesia, South Africa, Vietnam, etc. – face serious challenges in the form of low human capital, uncertain energy and food supplies and a rising incidence of AGW-induced droughts, floods and heatwaves.

There is one global region that may hold the key to resolving these intertwined problems – and even to become a major pole of global growth in its own right. For the most part, it is now an empty wilderness, but climate change is opening it up as potential living space. Its exploitation has the potential to halve the length of global freight transport routes while increasing their security, uncover sizable to gigantic new sources of hydrocarbons and minerals, and stabilize global food prices through the expansion of arable land. Its experience of management and conflict resolution may inspire a global model of cooperation – or it may degenerate into an economic, legal, or even military battlefield over shipping routes and sub-sea resources.

This global region is the Arctic Rim, and its adjoining ARCS: Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia. The ARCS of Progress in the 21st century.

Arctic sea ice extent on September 1, 2010 – both the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage are clearly open. Image credit – The University of Illinois Cryosphere Today.

From North Pole to Growth Pole

The core reasons behind the Arctic Rim’s bright prospects are global macro-trends: climate change; peak oil and resource nationalism; overpopulation in the South. These “push” and “pull” factors will induce a decades-long Arctic boom, starting with shipping, energy and mining, and culminating in a fundamental northwards shift of the center of the world economy. Let’s examine each of these in turn.

Breaking Ice For Shipping

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a northwest passage to the sea.

- Northwest Passage song, Stan Rogers, 1981.

Typically, the cryosphere – the frozen part of the world – remains stable, because its snow and ice reflect much of the Sun’s heat, thus cooling itself. This process is called the ice-albedo feedback.

However, when the high-albedo ice melts, it leaves behind darker-hued earth, flora or sea that absorb far more heat. Local air temperatures soar and inhibit the reformation of the ice during cold seasons. From working to keep the system stable, beyond a critical threshold the ice-albedo feedback begins to reinforce a runaway dynamic of melting and warming.

The ice-albedo feedback largely explains why the Arctic is warming about twice faster than in the world as a whole.

In summer 2007, Arctic sea ice extent fell 38% below average since records began – an area the size of six Californias. The next year saw both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route clear of ice for a short period in late summer. As of December 2010, sea ice extent was the lowest for the month on satellite record, even surpassing the 2007 melt.

While the relentless fall in sea ice extent over the past three decades is remarkable enough, what’s stunning is the 55% decline in summer sea ice volume. Once the thick, multi-year ice is gone, then it’s really gone – the low albedo of the ocean water will raise local temperatures, preventing all but a thin film of sea ice from reforming during the cold winters. It is thus a near certainty that Arctic sea ice is already deep in its death spiral.

Inland, earlier snowmelts enable the ground to absorb more heat, while dark-hued shrubs and boreal forests encroach on the tundra.

Many of the effects will be negative. The polar bears will probably go extinct, either drowning for lack of sea ice, or starving, or migrating south and merging with their grizzly cousins. Invasive species from the south will drive out Arctic flora and fauna off the top of the world. Global ocean and air currents will be interrupted as the temperature differential between the Arctic and the tropics shrinks.

But the new Arctic merchants will be making a killing.

Shipping routes during ice-free Arctic summer . Image credit – Laurence C. Smith.

In 2010, the Baltica became the first high-tonnage tanker to sail with petroleum products by the Northern Sea Route, steaming from Murmansk to China. This was followed by the voyage of the MV Nordic Barents, the the first vessel to sail from one non-Russian port to another through the Arctic, cutting 5,000km off the traditional Suez route. It carried 41,000 tons of iron ore from Kirkenes, Norway to feed the steel mills of China. One upping them all, the year ended with the first round-trip voyage without icebreaker assistance via the Northern Sea Route. The Norilsk Nickel-owned ship Monchegorsk carried the metal from the north Siberian port of Dudinka to Shanghai, taking just 41 days of steaming (the Suez route would have lasted as long as four months).

The opening of the Northern Sea Route and rising demand for metals and petroleum products from China and other emerging markets is set to continue spurring the development of Arctic shipping. In January 2011, a Sovcomflot executive said the Russian shipping company has already received 15 requests for icebreaker assistance in the Arctic for this year, compared to just four in 2010*. The governor of Murmansk, Dmitry Dmitriyenko, predicts that cargo transport through the Northern Sea Route will increase tenfold by 2020. This expansion will be sustained with private investment funding: both Sovcomflot and the Port of Murmansk are to be partially privatized in the coming years.

Similar trends are in play with the opening of the Northwest Passage across Canada. It has been conquered by cruise ship in 2006 and the commercial ship MV Camilla Desgagnés in 2008. Exploitation of the Northwest Passage will likely go slower than of its north Eurasian counterpart, because of lower demand and the (relative) underdevelopment of Canada’s icebreaker fleet. But there is still a wealth of opportunities there.

Black Gold or Fool’s Gold at the Top of the World?

Use it or lose it is the first principle of Arctic sovereignty.

- Speech by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 2007.

Our first and main task is to turn the Arctic into a resource base for Russia in the 21st century.

- Speech by Russian President Medvedev in September 2008.

Global oil production has now either peaked or is close to peaking, and will now either continue on its present “undulating plateau” – or begin to decline at an accelerating pace. The specifics are intensely argued over and the debate is far too extensive to detail here. But suffice to say, the “cornucopian” position that technological ingenuity and market forces will always conjure more and more resources out of a finite planet is untenable.

Any number of factors – global production exceeding new discoveries since the mid-1980′s; the world’s inability to significantly ramp up oil production despite soaring prices for the commodity; the rising costs of oil production due to the falling EROEI of the remaining oil sources; massively inflated reserves numbers from OPEC members; growing resource nationalism – militate against a business-as-usual future of increasing production in the oil industry.

These mounting challenges are the reason the big oil majors are pushing into the deepwater drilling that produced the Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and partnering with Russian state oil companies to develop offshore gas deposits in the Kara Sea, and sinking millions of US dollars on prospecting off Greenland despite no returns to date. They need to maintain their reserves numbers to prevent their stocks from tanking – but to do so, the oil majors are forced into taking escalating financial, environmental and political risks.

The Arctic’s natural resources. Image credit – Global Research.

In 2008, the US Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic may hold as much as 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil (90 billion barrels) and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas. Unsurprisingly, the Arctic is rapidly becoming central to oil exploration. That said, capitalizing on these resources – even assuming they are as big as estimated above – will be exceptionally difficult. For a start, some 84% of these sources are likely to be offshore. Second, according to more recent USGS calculations, developing them will be prohibitively expensive: “Assuming production costs of up to $100 per barrel, only 2.5 billion barrels of oil could be lifted… and only with a 50% probability.” For perspective, an average oil price of $92 per barrel broke the world economy in 2008.

Talk of the Arctic becoming the next Saudi Arabia is unrealistic. Its oil reserves are smaller, more dispersed, more remote, of worse quality, and far more challenging to exploit. But this isn’t to say that its black gold is fool’s gold. Technological progress on Arctic drilling, as well as a lack of better options elsewhere, will draw Western oil majors and National Oil Companies north.

The Arctic isn’t only of interest to shippers and oilmen. Confronted with inexorable rises in demand from China, the global mining industry is rushing to add metals and minerals production capacity wherever they can. Just to take a few Arctic examples, there are plans to start or expand iron ore production on Canada’s Baffin Island, Norway’s Kirkenes and the Kola Peninsula. Coal production is resuming at Svalbard. Just in case the whole oil thing doesn’t work out, Greenland is looking to exploit its potentially vast mineral resources. The Coeur d`Alene Mines Corporation recently opened a gold mine near Juneau, Alaska ahead of schedule. Though volumes remain small, this will change as depletion becomes as evident for minerals as it is now for oil.

Towards an Arctic Civilization?

… Before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.

- James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia hypothesis.

Beginning with the shipping and energy industries, the influence of the Arctic will eventually come to encompass the entire world. Assuming that efforts to quickly cut greenhouse gas emissions are unsuccessful, and that geoengineering is either not attempted or doesn’t work, then many of the middle regions will become too hot and dry for sustained agriculture (and maybe human survival), and masses of climate refugees will try to migrate north. The center of global economic growth, politics, and perhaps – in the far future – population, will come to rest within the Arctic Circle.

The North Pole may become the spatial center of the world. Image source – Trausti Valsson.

This process will likely be accompanied by mass upheavals, societal collapses, famines, border conflicts, maybe even bigger wars. But as usual misery contains the seeds of opportunity. It is not impossible that the farsighted individuals who are now buying up Hudson Bay territories or Siberian riverside lands are positioning themselves or their heirs for lordships and kingdoms in 2200.

But let’s focus on just the next three decades. The opening of the Arctic by various “push” factors (overpopulation, global warming) and “pull” factors (shipping routes, resources) will create demand for infrastructure, housing, associated services, etc. Buying up strategic lands, routes and infrastructure in the Arctic region offers one of the best, and most overlooked, rates of return in the world today. Take inspiration from OmniTRAX, a Colorado-based company that bought the derelict Port of Churchill and its railway from the Manitoba government for a bargain basement price of $10 in 1998. Now that Hudson Bay has become clear of sea ice during the summer, these assets are receiving tens of millions of dollars of investment from the Canadian government.

How can you benefit from the coming Arctic boom? In the coming years, Russia is going to partially privatize lucrative state assets, such as shipping company Sovcomflot and the Port of Murmansk (which handles 60% of shipping across the Northern Sea Route). New ports, roads, railways, pipelines, mines, dams, oil and gas fields, aluminium smelters, LNG plants, etc. are springing up over the entire region.

Enter the ARCS of Progress: Why Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia are Positioned to Dominate the Polar-Centric World

Идут на Север срока огромные,
Кого ни спросишь – у всех указ…
Взгляни, взгляни
В глаза мои суровые,
Взгляни, быть может, в последний раз.

- Soviet GULAG song, 1947.

O Canada!

Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!

- National Anthem of Canada.

Watching the economic news these days is a sure path route to depression. Anywhere you seem to look in the developed world there are awning budget deficits, soaring debts, depressed output, and stagnation. We’ve established that putting your money into the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) isn’t such a good idea. But the US is the “safe haven,” right? Unfortunately, its fiscal sustainability indicators are actually worse than the PIGS average. In 2009, the US got $0.6 in tax revenue for every $1 of outlays, or a receipt-to-outlay ratio of 0.6; the equivalent ratio for the PIGS was 0.78. Maybe Japan? With a 0.52 receipt-to-outlay ratio, it makes the US look like a paragon of fiscal discipline.

But within all that mess there’s a few, sparkling gems. Not only are they at the heart of the opening Arctic, but they are all excellent investment destinations on their own merits. They are the ARCS countries: Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia.

Alaska

In contrast to the rest of the US, Alaska was barely dented by the economic crisis, its GDP declining by just 0.3% in 2009 and recovering 0.6% in 2010. Employment is lower than the US average. While states like California and Illinois flirt with state bankruptcy, Alaska has accumulated $40 billion in its Permanent Fund. Finally, it is – along with Greenland – the most demographically vigorous of the Arctic states, with a total fertility rate of 2.32 children per woman in 2006. It won’t be afflicted by the First World’s looming aging crises any time soon. Alaska is well set to fulfill its motto: “North to the Future!”

Russia

Though the poorest of the ARCS, Russia is also its fastest growing one, with 5% annual GDP growth during 2001-2010. Its high level of human capital (around 70% of Russians continue to higher education, a First World rate), vast resource wealth and decent macroeconomic management set it on a promising path to convergence with developed countries.

Additionally, Russia has a predominant population, economic and military presence in the Arctic. The Murmansk region by itself has more people than all of Alaska, while the Russian Northern Fleet is by far the strongest Arctic force. State policy is to transform the Arctic into Russia’s “strategic resource base” within the next decade.

Criticisms of Russia’s prospects typically center on allusions to its “Zaire with permafrost”-like corruption levels, plummeting population, crumbling infrastructure, “legal nihilism” and Putinist authoritarianism. While each of these has a grain of truth, taking them as gospel fundamentally misrepresents the country. For a start, if Russia really was more corrupt than Nigeria or Zimbabwe – as implied by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – then it would still be deep in debt as in the late 1990′s, and its $480 billion foreign currency reserves would be in Cayman Islands accounts instead of the Central Bank’s vaults.

What about Russia’s demographic “death spiral”? A quick glance at Rosstat will show that its population grew in 2009, and that its total fertility rate, at 1.6 children per woman, is now higher than the European average.

One can spend pages upon pages unraveling the double standards, misrepresentations and outright lies which the Western media and political class use to attack Russia. But if you’re unconvinced, and refuse to buy into Russia’s undervalued market on principle, it’s your loss.

As t he professional Russia investor Eric Kraus wrote in Business Week in July 2010, “Russian markets are fashion victims, and are currently both unfashionable and cheap. You can own them now, or wait and buy the next time they surge back into vogue. And I will be selling out just about then.” I’d trust him – that’s exactly what he did in 2008!

Canada

Canada combines the American spirit of free enterprise, with a greater safety net and social mobility. It is also on far better fiscal footing. In 2010, its cyclically adjusted primary budget deficit was -2.7% of GDP (US: -7.0%), and its net debt was 32.7% of GDP (US: 65.2%; Japan: 104.6%). Possessing huge energy, mineral and freshwater reserves, as well as a well-educated and growing population, it is surely one of the better investment bets in the developed world.

Scandinavia (and Nordic)

The Nordic region is one of the richest, most educated and socially cohesive on Earth, frequently coming at or near the top in any global index of freedom, social mobility, environmental sustainability, and technological modernity.

In 2010, Sweden’s GDP grew the fastest in Europe at a blistering 5.2%, while maintaining a balanced budget throughout the crisis. Norway’s fortunes are far more directly tied to its oil industry, but peak oil, excellent state management of reserves and a low population make for bright prospects. Norway is the second richest European country after the banking center of Luxembourg.

Even apparent basketcases like Iceland may be a good investment to buy up on the cheap. While its international banking career might be over, it still has massive freshwater and geothermal energy reserves, that make it an attractive center for energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelters.

Finally, contrary to right-wing depictions of social democracies as retirement homes full of effete, aging liberals, all the Nordic states have fertility rates that preclude major aging crises (they range from 1.8 children per woman in Finland to 2.2 in Greenland).

The Arctic when all the ice melts.

From an Ultimate Dim Thule…

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named Night,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule —
From a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime,
Out of Space — out of Time.

- Dreamland by Edgar Allen Poe.

Even in our day, science suspects beyond the Polar seas, at the very circle of the Arctic Pole, the existence of a sea which never freezes and a continent which is ever green.

- The mystic H. P. Blavatsky.

Before the rise of the world economy, spatial perspectives were local, at most extending to the boundaries of their cultural sphere or world-empire: The Ecumene for the Ancient Greeks and Romans; Dar al-Islam for the Muslims; Christendom for the Franks; the Great Wall for the Chinese. Medieval European geographers referred to any lands beyond the borders of the known world as Ultima Thule.

Globalization from the 19th century bound the entire world together, for the first time in history, but its flows and links of labor, capital and commodities passed the Arctic by. Unattractive to sustained private investment, the region’s development was always fitful and unbalanced, from the Yukon Gold Rush that petered out almost as suddenly as it flared up; to the penal camps, subsidized settlements and military bases of the Soviet Arctic, now decaying away except where hydrocarbons extraction has thrown them a lifeline.

But now the world is changing. No longer will opening the Arctic have to be a hubristic project, as with the chiliastic visions of Soviet planners; or a costly and unprofitable strategic necessity, as with the Cold War submarine patrols beneath the Arctic sea ice or the bomber flights over it. Today, it is global macro-trends such as global warming, resource depletion and overpopulation that will ensure the rapid but organic development of the Arctic.

With the growing human presence, the Arctic will inevitably begin to lose its luster of mysticism, foreboding and darkness. As the years turn into decades, and 2050 approaches, the polar-centric view of the world will become increasingly central to human spatial consciousness. The world’s trade, energy and capital flows will have been largely rerouted north.

The ARCS of Progress, their numbers swelled by climate refugees, and their economies bolstered by a flood of capital investment, will be amongst the leading Powers in the world. This assumes they retain their present political configurations. For instance, could an independent Greenland, with just 56,000 people today, retain its own national identity? Facing resource shortages and droughts in the south, would China encroach on the Russian Far East? Would the US try to assimilate Canada?

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing is near certain. The vision of a northern Ultima Thule is dissipating, and will soon dissolve altogether (thought teh concept may be resurrected to describe a desolate, uninhabitable South many hundreds of years into an extreme AGW future). In its place there will emerge a polar world-economy of open seas, farms and growing cities by 2050.

There will arise an Arctic ecumene.

* According to more recent data, there were 34 transits of the Northern Sea Route in 2011, up from just 4 in 2010; with 820,000 tons of goods transported relative to 111,000 tons in 2010. Volumes are predicted to double again this year. This goes in tandem with record breaking sea ice melt in 2012.

Edit Jan 28, 2013: There were a record-breaking 46 vessels making the transit through the NSR this year.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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I am an idiosyncratic person. I support HBD, but oppose white (or any other) imperialism. My attitudes towards mainstream liberalism and conservatism is to wish a plague on both their houses. I think we’re in for a world of hurt with Limits to Growth but also buy into “cornucopian” ideas like technological singularity and transhumanism. In personal life, I like to have my guns and hit the bong too. Etc.

I recently drove to the beach with a hipster chick who majored in something involving the environment (nothing technical) and recently found a marketing job with a clean energy start-up in SF. She went on and on about how important it is to buy local, observe Earth Hour, the fucking works. Only problem? She drove a four wheel drive. In one of the very few places in the US where you can get by without a car. It reminds me of an old Guardian story about a Swedish feminist police chief (“Captain Skirt”) who ran prostitution rings on the side… But on second thought all this is entirely normal. After all hypocrisy is the grease that smooths society’s wheels.

The greenies at least don’t force people into these ritualistic observances of Earth Hour, as if there’s some deity that could wave a wand and restore CO2 levels back to 1800. The conservatives tend to simply deny reality, deny AGW, as doing otherwise would make them willing accomplices in an impending global catastrophe. Not only is it dishonest but what’s worse many of them savagely smear and attack AGW’ers for the sin of pointing out the stark truth. They would have felt at home within the ranks of the NKVD.

Only very drastic interventions now stand a chance of averting tipping points that will likely send the Earth into an extreme greenhouse state by the end of the century… interventions that can only be implemented at this late stage of the game by some kind of global dictatorship. Desirable or not, justified or not, is irrelevant… it’s not going to happen, the system isn’t going to change. Furthermore, even individual interventions and lifestyle changes are irrelevant, as the Parable of the Beer Yeast demonstrates.

In an article for Forbes, Roger Kay analogizes our global sustainability predicament to that of a beer yeast in a sugar solution. You gobble up the delicious sugars, giving you the energy to reproduce. The only downside is that in the process you shit out alcohol, and so do billions of your fellows. Eventually you will all perish in a booze-drenched bed of your own making… So being morally upright, you refrain from eating the sugars. You live a horrid life, become impotent, and shrivel away and die. Unfortunately, your fellows don’t get the memo, and things turn out just the same as they otherwise would have.

So while I respect genuine back to the earth, sustainable types, I realize that they are not going to make a difference. The oil, coal, metals, etc. that they don’t consume will just lower their price, and ironically make them even cheaper for the majority of beer yeast, who’d rather live life to the full than toil away on permaculture gardens. While greenie life does have its charms it’s simply too inconvenient for most…

In the past year, I took a class on the Economics of Climate Change. While I took many interesting things from it the foremost was that reversing human emissions is simply unfeasible for the next generation at the very least. China is becoming a consumer society and their factories and dwellings will be powered with coal, and they will be transported by automobile. This year I also experienced if for a very short time the lifestyle of the very rich, having been invited to a party in the mansion of the son of a mini-tycoon… While I didn’t consciously dwell on it at the time, in retrospect the energy gobbled up in that place in a single night was surely equivalent to even a legitimate greenie’s yearlong energy savings. Reading statistics on energy use or polemics about wastage is one thing, seeing it for oneself – the large swimming pool accidentally heated to Jacuzzi temperature (which would be a huge bill, but shrugged off as inconsequential), the gourmet food having traveled God knows how many air megamiles, casual talk about first-class flights to the East Coast or abroad seemingly every other week… was visceral – and enticing. After all jealousy and envy even of ostentatious wealth are – unless you’re a bona fide revolutionary like Lenin or Castro – self-defeating and ultimately for losers.

So is angry ideological rhetoric and moralistic posturing, be it of the conservative AGW denier or faux-environmentalist variety.

The end consequences of catastrophic AGW may well lead to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions or even billions of people by the end of the century. Some countries like Botswana and Bangladesh may vanish from the face of the earth, inundated by sand and water. That is not my problem. It is society’s and government’s and they don’t give a fuck so why should ordinary citizens? Besides, evil as it sounds, but AGW will have the hidden bonus of benefiting the country I’m originally from – not only in relative, but also quite possibly absolute terms. Why should I care more about faceless Third Worlders? There’s of course no logical reason to do that. At least by NOT denying AGW realities I am already far more compassionate towards them than at least half of Americans. (Not that the hypocrites liberal and conservative will see it that way…)

A line from a fantasy baddie comes to mind: “There is no path to victory. The only path to follow is the Great Lord and rule for a time before all things end. The others are fools. They look for grand rewards in the eternities, but there will be no eternities. Only the now, the last days.”

A good motto for the lifestyle artist, the reactionary jackass, the rootless cosmopolitan, the manly man and aspiring sociopath to live by. Put the pedal to the metal!!!

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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The river of time flows on, and empires crumble, leaving behind only legend that becomes myth, while new polities arise to take their place. This process of decay and creation is going to receive a boost from “peak energy” and, above all, climate change – which will redraw the maps of power to an extent unprecedented since the end of the last Ice Age. Throughout recorded history, the centers of advanced civilization have seesawed east and west, but remained constrained within a “band of habitability” that did not extend much further north than Oslo, St.-Petersburg, or Harbin. If the pessimistic scenarios of AGW come true, this band will become inverted: the tropics and mid-latitudes will become increasingly drought-stricken, desolate wastelands, perhaps even uninhabitable by 2300, while the Arctic regions, and a thawing Greenland and Antarctica, will become new centers of global civilization.

In this post, with the help of many maps, I will explore what this will mean in more detail than I believe has been done anywhere else on the Web. Needless to say, I am making the assumption that there will be no technological singularity, or other technological breakthrough, that will enable the continuation of modern high-energy civilization. But not will these be any all-out apocalypse. That part of the technological base that does not rely on high levels of energy inputs for its maintenance will survive, that is, railways, electricity generated by hydropower, radios, even elementary computing. So let us venture forth into the brave new world of 3000 AD!

The Rise of the Poles

The first major transformation that I want to emphasize is that people will stop thinking of the world as they currently do.

world-map

This would make no sense when population levels in the equators and mid-latitudes plummet due to constant drought and heat stress that actually makes mammalian life unviable during the summer months. Let’s start with basics: temperatures under full humidity cannot exceed the body’s if you want to survive.

real-world-heat-stress-map

Today, the entire world fulfills this basic requirement. The same cannot be said of a world that is 11-12C warmer; at that point, a “belt of uninhabitability” will encircle the world.

simulated-world-heat-stress-map

As you can see above, life will become impossible within the interiors of the Eastern US, much of the interior of South America, northern Africa, large swathes of the Middle East, India, eastern China, and Australia. It will also get a great deal more uncomfortable almost everywhere else. Note how Siberia becomes as oppressively hot as the Ganges river plain today.

Furthermore, you need a constant source of water to sustain large-scale agriculture. Where this is impossible, as in the US Great Plains or much of the Middle East, there is a reliance on runoff from mountain snow-packs (the Himalayas, for instance, feed the great Chinese and Indian rivers) or fossil aquifers (as in the US Great Plains, or large parts of the Middle East and India today).

drought-map-2000

The world’s water situation will become a lot worse under extreme AGW, at least until plant life adapts and re-greens the southern regions (but this will take many tens of millennia at the very least).

drought-map-2100

As you can see from the map above, agriculture will become impossible in most of the world’s current breadbaskets. India will be too hot to survive in, despite its plentiful rainfall. Agriculture will largely be confined to what is now Alaska, northern Canada, Scandinavia, Siberia, northern China, and East Africa (as well as newly deglaciated Greenland and Antarctica).

But what’s more, quite a lot of the newly opened up areas will be flooded due to sea level rise. Below is a map of the effects of all the ice melting.

world-ice-free

This shows that two major regions that may have become (or remained) suitable for intensive agriculture will become flooded, such as much of what is now northern Argentina and the West Siberian Lowlands. On the other hand, they may go Dutch and salvage quite a lot of these territories by land reclamation. Also, the Caspian Sea and Aral Sea are obviously not going to expand as shown above, because they are internal and none of the extra water from melted icecaps is going to find its way into them; to the contrary, they will more likely vanish, leaving behind salted, desert wastelands.

But this is not all. A much warmer world will have much stronger storms, such as hypercanes. Originating from locally warmed ocean waters, they feature 800km/h (F9) winds and can traverse the globe several times leaving behind a trail of destruction. This will make civilization in Argentina difficult to achieve, as any dykes the agriculturalists build will be overwhelmed by the 18m storm surges generated by these hypercanes. Same goes for South-Eastern China, Borneo, and Papua New Guinea. On the other hand, the Arctic region will be much safer, because there will not be enough heat energy to sustain the hypercanes that far north; likewise, regions blocked off by mountains, such as East Africa, may also prosper, relatively speaking.

Finally, enclosed sea regions such as the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the Caribbean Sea may become anoxic dead zones due to the shut-off of ocean circulation. But presumably any coastal dwellers will have long since left anyway.

All that said, it will be logical that – with the exception of whatever civilization happens to occupy East Africa, Antarctica, and perhaps Patagonia – the peoples of the world will cluster around the Arctic and will come to think of their world as one that is centered at the North Pole.

arctic-transformation

Indeed, people may no longer even think of world in terms of traditional concepts such as east, west, north or south. They may instead think horizontally (“Let’s go left, to Alaska,” says a traveler in Labrador) and vertically (“I think I want to either go down to see the ruins of Delhi this summer, then go up to the beaches of Novaya Zemlya,” says a rich aristocrat living in a city on the Yenisei flood plain).

Polar Civilizations

What will these post-high exergy, post-AGW civilizations look like? Much will depend on the geographic and climatic peculiarities of the entities in question. Let’s start off by listing the possible centers of powerful civilizations.

  • Scandinavia
  • Ob-Yenisei (West Siberian Lowlands between the Purana and the Urals)
  • Lena (Central Siberian Plain up to the river Lena)
  • Kolyma (maybe includes Anadyr; Kamchatka)
  • Amur (plus Heilongjiang, Sakhalin, North Korea)
  • Lake Baikal; Lake Balkash; Tian Shan statelets
  • Vorkuta (north-east of European Russia)
  • Alaska
  • Greenland
  • Canadian Archipelago
  • Labrador (along with Nova Scotia, Newfoundland)
  • Hudson Bay
  • The Eastern Rockies (to the far north)
  • East Africa
  • Patagonia
  • Antarctica
  • Though they remain cool enough, the regions of North California and the Himalayas will be unlikely to maintain high-level civilizations because they will be in permanent drought.

Below is a map of the Arctic region around 3000 AD, showing risen sea levels and a deglaciated Greenland.

arctic-far-future

The nature of the states and empires that will come to occupy this Arctic world will depend heavily on specific geographies and the patterns that have traditionally been associated with them. For instance:

  1. Massive flood plains and land reclamation, as may be expected in West Siberia, are typically pushed through by bureaucratic, authoritarian states (called “hydraulic despotisms” by Wittfogel). They tend to be populated by many peasants living near the edge of subsistence, feeding a religious, administrative, and military class that works to consolidate the country from internal rebellions and outside invasions.
  2. Bay regions, such as that of the Hudson Bay, and islands, as in the Canadian Archipelago, tend to be more diverse and disunited. Probably no single empire will consolidate them all under its control.
  3. There is a constant historical theme of conflict between lowlanders and highlanders. This may be resumed, though for different reasons. Historically, nomads frequently invaded and enslaved riverine peasant populations thanks to their craving of their material goods, emphasis on martial values, and protein-rich diets. In the far future, the highland nations in places like Kolyma or Alaska will be far more energy rich than in West Siberia or around the Hudson Bay, because they will have an abundance of the major remaining source of electric power: hydropower. Their populations will also be healthier, having access to more calories and being farther away from the diseases flitting across the tropical lowlands. If they can unite, their power will far outclass those of lowland empires, despite their lower populations.
  4. The other major historical enmity relevant to this world is that between sedentary people and desert nomads. Unlike the highlanders, the desert nomads will pose only a minimal threat. Nomads do not have manufacturing bases, and in a world in which guns and heavy weapons continue to be used in warfare, they cannot do anything more than harass border settlements.

Bearing these issues in mind, this is what I expect the geopolitical configuration of the world in 3000 AD to look like.

arctic-map

The West Siberian Lowlands between the Ob and the Yenisei, and the regions around the Lena River, will be an empire with resemblances to that of Egypt: heavily dependent on rivers and irrigation for agriculture in a region that would otherwise be desert, and obliged to support a big elite caste to manage said waterworks. These two river basins may well be united under one mega-empire, for the Central Siberian Plateau does not represent a serious impediment to communications between the West Siberian Lowlands and the Lena valley.

Kolyma will be able to sustain another major hydraulic civilization, and likely a more productive one because its hydropower potential relative to the population its river basin can sustain is greater than is the case in Siberia; and because Kolyma’s mineral base will be exhausted later than Siberia’s because it won’t be exploited as soon due to its remoteness. Kolyma will probably have hostile relations with the empire(s) to its west because of its logical desire to secure the Lena River. Separated from them by mountain ranges, Kolyma is probably unlikely to be united with smaller mountain states such as the ones that will appear in and around current-day Anadyr, Kamchatka, and Magadan.

eurasia

Most states to the south of Kolyma will be poor, being landlocked deep within Eurasia. The major exception is the the Amur region stretching to the origins of the Lena river, and including Sakhalin and modern-day Heilongjiang, which I expect to form the foundations of a respectable Great Power.

We may expect smaller entities to form around Lake Baikal, and the Altai Region, and what are now the countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They have adequate rainfall, and can raid Siberia’s underbelly for food and slaves. A major Power is unlikely to appear in the Himalayas. It is predicted to be a drought-stricken area, and under catastrophic AGW the mountains will lose all their snow, so irrigation agriculture will also be impossible. Crops may find it hard to grow at such high altitudes.

Already being somewhat settled, any resources in Scandinavia will have long since been depleted in Scandinavia by 3000 AD – with the possible exception of the Kola Peninsula, which has one of the world’s greatest concentrations of Rare Earth Metals. What is North-East Russia will also be similarly exhausted, and in addition will be buffeted by hypercanes coming up from the Atlantic and racing over a flooded northern Europe: not shielded by mountains, as are the West Siberian Lowlands and much of Scandinavia, they will bear the brunt of these fearsome tempests.

greenland

Once it thaws, Greenland will have a geography to die for. Multiple awesome harbors? Check. Internal lake massively lowering internal transport costs, allowing for ease of capital accumulation? Check. Secure from external threats? Check. Many mountains that will provide hydroelectric power (and block hypercanes)? Check. Full of minerals that will take a long time to start exploiting? Check.

I fully expect whoever gets Greenland to develop the Arctic world’s most developed economy and navy, and perhaps even become its predominant superpower.

canada-map

Alaska will presumably go much the way of Kolyma – a set of states, possible competing, possible confederating, all of them rich in relative terms because of the plentiful rainfall, mountains, and resources that will only start getting exploited late in the world’s history. There may be naval skirmishes between Alaskans and whoever wants to challenge them for control of the Bering Strait from the Kolyma side.

Canada will be a relatively poor set of competing entities, divided primarily into four groups: (1) the Rockies states centered around the great Canadian lakes, which try to eke out an existence by whatever they can dredge from any mines still bearing lodes (their north will be buffeted by the remnants of hypercanes billowing through Vorkuta and across the Arctic, and their south will be harassed by nomadic raiders from the desertified Great Plains); (2) the disparate collection of sultanates, slave plantations, foreign naval bases, and pirate strongholds that will claim control over the Canadian Archipelago; (3) the competing lowland states clustering around what is today the Hudson Bay, with no resources or sources of energy, their trade strangled by pirates from the Archipelago and their border settlements attacked by southern raiders; and (4) the state that will appear in Labrador. This state, which may or may not also include what is now Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, will have rolling hill-lands and will likely be the only respectable Power on the American continent apart from Alaska.

antarctica-map-no-ice

Elsewhere, the only region I expect to have a chance of becoming powerful is what is now Antarctica once it melts; however, contacts with the Arctic region will be difficult, passing through a world of desert wasteland on land and sea, so it may technologically regress to a greater extent than is the case in the northern hemisphere. Regardless, despite its formidable extent and industrial potential, it is hard to imagine Antarctica playing power politics in the Arctic from the other side of a long-deglobalized world.

The only two other regions outside the polar regions that may continue to support advanced civilizations are East Africa and, perhaps, Patagonia. However, they are both isolated, and unlike Antarctica, do not have the territorial extent to constitute their own world empires. They will fall far behind, and most of their energies will be preoccupied by the single imperative of arresting civilizational collapse.

Conclusion

In a very real sense, catastrophic AGW truly will create a new world. And it will not necessarily be uniformly apocalyptic in the style of Mad Max and Waterworld (though there’ll be plenty of that). Some regions may prosper, like Kolyma or Alaska, and a few, like Greenland, may even offer their citizens a quality of life comparable to 20th century standards. Others will be populated by peasants eking out a subsistence existence, as in West Siberia and much of Canada. As one goes further south, civilization fades away, and as one ventures into what is now modern Afghanistan or Spain or south of the Great Lakes, even survival becomes impossible during the summer months. Away from the Arctic, civilization will live on live on in isolated pockets if that.

Whereas it is possible to make some informed deductions as to the geopolitics and political economies of certain regions in a warmed world, this becomes an almost purely speculative affair once we move onto national specifics, such as culture, language, ethnicities, or religion. Presumably, the descents of today’s Americans, Europeans (especially Anglo-Saxons and Germanics), Russians, Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese will be relatively well-represented. The same cannot be said of peoples now living in the Middle East, India, or Africa. Even if the northern Powers let in their climate refugees, it is hard to believe they will give them an equal footing with the indigenous inhabitants; more plausibly, today’s ethnic Russians and Canadians will become the aristocrats or military and priestly castes of countries transforming into hydraulic despotisms on the backbones of southern immigrants exchanging survival for serfdom.

It is at this point that futurism ends, and fantasy begins.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Or at least that’s what seems to be going around in the mind of Condoleezza Rice, if this cable (Cable 1) from September 2008 is anything to go by. After successfully persuading countries like Brazil to let the American scientist Christopher Field run unopposed for an important position in a Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), US diplomats began behind the scenes lobbying to block the appointment of an Iranian scientist as its co-chair, since that would be “potentially at odds with overall US policy towards Iran.” Though Mostafa Jafari is admittedly a “highly-qualified scientist”, he is also “a senior Iranian government employee”, and so “close collaboration and often travel to or extended residencies in each others’ countries” between Field and him simply wouldn’t do. Disgracefully, if true*, Pachauri “agreed to work on this issue.” In the event, an Argentinian candidate was appointed co-chair, while Jafari was relegated to a far more junior position.

That said, it’s not of course the case that the US is uniquely responsible for climate fiasco after fiasco. Obviously, these cables don’t paint the US in a good light, what with its underhanded tactics to force countries into signing up to the Copenhagen Accords (a grossly inadequate treaty because of its soft targets and lack of enforcement mechanisms). But thanks to China’s sabotage** in the closed-door negotiations in Copenhagen – even cajoling developed countries against setting their own targets, while manipulating them into taking the fall in public – this is what we got. And while I understand the position of poor countries like the Maldives or Bolivia that it’s nowhere near enough to prevent devastating AGW, or Addis Ababa’s complaints about the absence of formal US guarantees of financial aid in exchange for their support (Cable 2), nonetheless there is a logic to the US strong-arming poor countries into the Accords since this at least gets “the international community moving in the right direction.” (A bonus in that cable is seeing Ethiopians arguing, just like Russians, for restricting foreign funding of NGO’s on the grounds that it undermines indigenous civil society).

* It likely is true, as the author explicitly warns the reader to protect Pachauri’s name.

** This is also the root reason why the ongoing Cancun summit will fail, as everyone seems to recognize. China’s position remains unchanged, sacrificing the global climate for a little greater period of fast economic growth. The US won’t do anything given the political ascendancy of the Republican climate dinosaurs. While hammering out an effective climate policy between 180 growth-centered countries and a dozen major emitters is hard enough, without China and the US it is completely impossible.

Cable 1

Tuesday, 02 September 2008, 23:30
C O N F I D E N T I A L STATE 093970
SIPDIS
EO 12958 DECL: 09/02/2018
TAGS SENV, PREL, UNEP, WMO, KGHG, IR, ML, AR, MA, MO
SUBJECT: LIFELINES FOR IPCC WORKING GROUP ELECTION
Classified By: Classified by IO“>IO“>IO/DAS Gerald Anderson for reasons 1.4(b) and (d)

1. (U) This is an action message. Please see paragraph 3.

2. (C) Summary. Missions should be prepared to assist the U.S. Delegation to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its efforts to secure a positive outcome to elections for working group co-chair positions at the IPCC Plenary being held in Geneva, August 31-September 4. USDEL is working actively to prevent the election of an Iranian scientist to the developing-nation co-chairmanship of Working Group Two, a position which would pair him with a U.S. scientist running unopposed for developed-nation co-chair of the same group. The focus of USG efforts is to support an alternate candidacy for the position, although the full slate of active candidates and their potential for election will not be known until the later stages of the plenary sessions. Curricula vitae of some of the leading candidates are at paras 6-10. End Summary.

3. (C) Action Request. Missions should assign a Point-of-Contact for this issue and provide phone and e-mail information to the US Mission to the UN in Geneva. USUN should appoint its own POC and relay contact information for all POCs to USDEL IPCC. In the event that USDEL requires assistance in working with counterpart delegations (e.g., coming to a consensus on a single strong alternate candidate to support), USDEL may contact Mission POCs directly, or via US Mission Geneva, to ask that Missions apprise host governments of the situation, with a view to arranging for instructions from capitals. Missions should do everything possible to assist USDEL if they receive such a request. Until such a call is received, however, Missions should take no action on this issue; USDEL will be interacting directly with host-country expert delegations in Geneva, and premature contacts/demarches with host country government officials in capitals, even to preview the background of the situation, could be highly counter-productive. Point of Contact for USDEL is OES/EGC,s Donna Lee XXXXXXXXXXXX.

4. (C) Background. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (http://www.ipcc.ch) is a highly influential body established by the World Meteological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to assess scientific issues related to climate change. This year, the U.S. has nominated Stanford Professor Christopher Field to the developed-country chair of IPCC Working Group Two, which assesses the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change and the options for adaptation. His nomination is unopposed. Iran, however, has nominated Dr. Mostafa Jafari to be the developing-country co-chair of the same working group. Jafari is a highly-qualified scientist with research ties to the UK and Japan, but he is also a senior Iranian government employee who has represented Iran in international negotiations. Co-chair appointments are for a minimum of four years, and require close collaboration and often travel to or extended residencies in each others, countries. Having U.S. and Iranian co-chairs would be problematic and potentially at odds with overall U.S. policy towards Iran, and would significantly complicate the U.S. commitment to funding the Working Group Two secretariat. U.S. withdrawal of its nominee, however, would effectively give Iran a veto over future U.S. nominees in UN bodies. Moreover, having a U.S. co-chair at the IPCC significantly bolsters U.S. interests on climate change, a key foreign policy issue.

5. (C) Background continued. Prior to arrival in Geneva, USDEL contacted IPCC Chairman Dr. Rajendra Pachauri (please protect), who agreed to work on this issue to avoid the potential for disruption to one the organization’s three core working groups XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. Next, USDEL contacted the Austrian delegate serving as EU representative on the nominating committee that manages the election process, who showed an understanding of U.S. equities. USDEL contacted the Malian and Argentinean delegations, who have nominated highly-qualified co-chair candidates (see below), and the German delegation, who have been interested in advancing the Malian for co-chair of Working Group Three, for which Germany has nominated an unopposed candidate as developed-country co-chair. The Malians subsequently told USDEL that their candidate, Dr. Yauba Sokona, prefers Working Group Two to Working Group Three. Also prior to arrival in Geneva, USDEL contacted the UK and Netherlands delegations, both of which we have worked closely with in the past. Based on experience at prior IPCC plenaries, events related to the Working Group elections will likely unfold unpredictably and rapidly, necessitating a rapid and flexible USG response.

[AK: There follow lengthy biographies of Iranian candidate Mostafa Jafari, Malian candidate Youba Sokona, Argentinean candidate Vicente Ricardo Barros, Moroccan candidate Abdalah Mokssit and Maldivan candidate Amjad Abdulla. Jafari is not any less qualified than the rest in this group.]

RICE

Cable 2

Tuesday, 02 February 2010, 05:38
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 ADDIS ABABA 000163
SIPDIS
EO 12958 DECL: 02/01/2020
TAGS PREL, PGOV, KDEM, MOPS, ECON, KE, ET
SUBJECT: UNDER SECRETARY OTERO’S MEETING WITH ETHIOPIAN
PRIME MINISTER MELES ZENAWI – JANUARY 31, 2010
Classified By: Under Secretary Maria Otero for reasons 1.4 (B) and (D).

1. (SBU) January 31, 2010; 4:15 p.m.; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

2. (SBU) Participants:

U.S. Under Secretary Otero Assistant Secretary Carson NSC Senior Director for African Affairs Michelle Gavin PolOff Skye Justice (notetaker)

Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Special Assistant Gebretensae Gebremichael

[AK: Cut.]

4. (C) Meles said the GoE is not enthusiastic about Kenya’s Jubaland initiative, but is sharing intelligence with Kenya and hoping for success. In the event the initiative is not successful, the GoE has plans in place to limit the destabilizing impacts on Ethiopia. On climate change, Meles said the GoE fully supports the Copenhagen accord, but is disappointed with signs the U.S. may not support his proposed panel to monitor international financial contributions under the accord. Meles made no substantive comment on inquiries regarding the liberalization of banking and telecommunications in Ethiopia. End summary.

Foreign Funding of CSOs Antithetical to Democratization

5. (C) Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told U/S Otero the development of a strong democracy and civil society is the only way Ethiopia can ensure peace and unity among an ethnically and religiously divided population. He noted that the Government of Ethiopia’s (GoE) commitment to democracy is directly related to stability, adding that for Ethiopia, “democratization is a matter of survival.” Responding to U/S Otero’s concern that Ethiopia’s recently-enacted CSO law threatened the role of civil society, Meles said while the GoE welcomes foreign funding of charities, those Ethiopians who want to engage in political activity should organize and fund themselves. The leaders of CSOs that receive foreign funding are not accountable to their organizations, he said, but rather to the sources of their funding, turning the concept of democratic accountability on its head. Meles asserted that Ethiopians were not too poor to organize themselves and establish their own democratic traditions, recalling that within his lifetime illiterate peasants and poor students had overthrown an ancient imperial dynasty.

6. (C) Meles said his country’s inability to develop a strong democracy was not due to insufficient understanding of democratic principles, but rather because Ethiopians had not internalized those principles. Ethiopia should follow the example of the U.S. and European countries, he said, where democracy developed organically and citizens had a stake in its establishment. When people are committed to democracy and forced to make sacrifices for it, Meles said, “they won’t let any leader take it away from them.” But “when they are spoon-fed democracy, they will give it up when their source of funding and encouragement is removed.” Referencing his own struggle against the Derg regime, Meles said he and his compatriots received no foreign funding, but were willing to sacrifice and die for their cause, and Ethiopians today must take ownership of their democratic development, be willing to sacrifice for it, and defend their own rights.

7. (C) Meles drew a clear distinction between Ethiopians’ democratic and civil rights on the one hand, and the right of foreign entities to fund those rights on the other. There is no restriction on Ethiopians’ rights, he asserted, merely on foreign funding, adding that the U.S. has similar laws. U/S Otero countered that while the U.S. does not allow foreign funding of political campaigns, there is no restriction on foreign funding of NGOs. Ms. Gavin noted the examples of foreign support for the abolitionist movement in the U.S. and for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa as positive examples of foreign engagement of civil society, and expressed that aside from the issue of foreign funding, the ability of local organizations to legally register, operate, and contribute to democratic discourse was of tantamount importance.

[AK: Cut.]

GoE Prepared to Move Forward from Copenhagen

13. (C) U/S Otero urged Meles to sign the Copenhagen accord on climate change and explained that it is a point of departure for further discussion and movement forward on the topic. She noted that while the agreement has its limitations, it has the international community moving in the right direction. Meles responded that the GoE supported the accord in Copenhagen and would support it at the AU Summit. However, he expressed his disappointment that despite President Obama’s personal assurance to him that finances committed in Copenhagen would be made available, he had received word from contacts at the UN that the U.S. was not supportive of Ethiopia’s proposal for a panel to monitor financial pledges regarding climate change. Ms. Gavin assured the Prime Minister that she would look into his concerns.

[AK: Cut.]

YATES

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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I founded the Collapse Party one year ago after coming to the hard realization that industrial civilization is unsustainable and that – barring revolutionary socio-political (e.g. “ecotechnic dictatorship“) or technological (e.g. geoengineering) transformation – it’s catastrophic unraveling by the middle of this century is almost inevitable. As neither of development seems to be in the pipelines, I decided it was time to explicitly thinking about the political dimensions of adapting to a re-localized world, in which resource depletion and climate change make impossible the huge economies of scale and their supporting technologies that we know take for granted.

collapse-party-end

The immediate inspiration was Dmitry Orlov’s essay The Collapse Party platform, which argued for setting up a mechanism to clean up the mess left behind industrialism and preparing society for the collapse. Orlov was personally pessimistic about the chances of political organizations achieving this, since to some extent the very notion of a “collapse party” is a contradiction in terms. After a year, it turns out that he was right – at least in the short term. I have neither the time nor the means to push this project, nor have I been able to do anything substantial about it apart from the (soon to disappear) site and a Facebook group. Furthermore, on further examination it never would have any good prospects anyway – even apart from the fact that few comprehend the sheer scope of our predicament, such a “pessimistic” view is politically unappealing to the vast majority of people.

This post will archive the Party’s Manifesto, which I do think contains some useful pointers to future action. The longer its recommendations remain the laughing stock of “polite society”, the more violent will be the long-term outcomes as the industrial engine splutters and screeches to a stop – and the more brutal and dictatorial the means that will be required to mitigate and adopt to the new conditions. But as a political project the Collapse Party is quixotic, and in any case there’s no point worrying about things you can’t change. Instead, I would recommend focusing on the great new opportunities of an opening Arctic: getting in early on its coming investment boom, snapping up prime Far North real estate and establishing your family as the future landed aristocracy. For true prophets are despised, but Tsars are feared and respected!

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The Collapse Party Manifesto

Anatoly Karlin

The world is finite, and so the resource stocks and pollution sinks that sustain industrial civilization (“the System”) are limited. We have been in a state of “overshoot”, beyond the “carrying capacity” of the Earth, since the 1980′s (The Limits to Growth, 2004). Limited resources have been drawn down much faster than they could be replenished, and the Earth’s pollution sinks have been overfilled much faster than they could be regenerated.

Elements of this overshoot can already be seen in phenomena as diverse as plateauing crop yields, topsoil loss, accelerating climate change, peak oil, collapsing fisheries, the depletion of higher-EROEI energy sources, dying rivers, global dimming, the proliferation of “failed states”, neo-colonial exploitation, and rising antibiotic resistance. But things are yet going to get much worse…

Based on paleoclimate reconstructions of CO2 levels, an eventual global warming of above 2C is already inevitable. This will set off a cascade of climatic disasters that will speed up the rate of warming, leading to the desertification of much of the world’s land and oceans, the drying of the great Asian rivers, and massive inundations of the low-lying coasts and deltas that harbor humanity’s heartlands. States will collapse into anarchy, spawning Biblical-scale famines and floods of climate refugees.

Meanwhile, the energetic resources that power the System will be coming under severe strain. Oil production has already peaked, and natural gas and coal will follow in a few more decades. The remaining resources are much harder to extract, since the easiest pickings have already been exploited. We will have to divert ever more energy, labor, and capital towards mitigating the effects of both energy depletion (renewables, remote hydrocarbons) and runaway climate change (adaptation, geoengineering).

This will starve agriculture and the consumer sector, ushering in disillusionment, social discontent, and a longing for a strong hand at the helm of power. This will undermine liberal democracy’s political legitimacy, leading either to anarchy (“failed states”) or increasing coercion (authoritarianism). Geopolitical rivalries over the remaining energy resources will intensify, extinguishing the already dim prospects for international cooperation. Long-term thinking will recede into irrelevance, for political leaders will have their hands full with much more pressing issues – building sea walls, feeding the military, and placating (or dispersing) angry mobs.

Our only way to escape this trap is to rapidly effect a global transition towards “sustainable development”. The imperative of such a transition was recognized as early as the 1970′s, but we have yet to see any truly meaningful action. Nor are we likely to, since the defining feature of industrial-capitalist civilization is indefinite growth, based around the taking of loans against (higher) future returns. There’s a reason why Malthusian societies suppressed usury – and should we continue business-as-usual, we will soon rediscover why.

Though the System is very effective in some ways, it cannot foresee its own demise; nor can its servants even ask questions that hint at the unpalatable answer. However, the casual, detached, and informed observer can. Yes, in a purely technical sense, disaster can still be averted if one could convince people to make, or more likely force through, drastic reductions in First World overconsumption, a full-scale retooling of the industrial system towards renewables and recycling, and a global system of “contraction and convergence” on CO2 emissions.

Achieving this, however, is unlikely in the extreme; any transition to sustainability is going to be stymied by social myopia and geopolitical anarchy, as well as innate human psychological features such as the conservative bias, the denial complex, hedonism, and susceptibility to “creeping normalcy” and “landscape amnesia”. Unless we overcome these failings, or discover a technological silver bullet, we will collide with planetary limits to growth sometime around 2030 to 2050.

In that scenario, the System as a whole will become increasingly fragile, such that a large enough perturbation – say, a major war or global climatic disaster – will send it into a self-reinforcing spiral down into chaos. The electrical-industrial infrastructure supporting modern technology, especially the massive repositories of information entombed within cyberspace, will crumble away into oblivion.
After a short period of unprecedented violence, famine, pestilence, and death known as “the Collapse”, the world will get larger once more, and society will retreat back into the comforting blackness of a new Dark Age.

Faced with these grim prospects, we see it fitting to launch a multi-pronged initiative to if not avert a Collapse (as is the purpose of the global Green movement), then at least to attempt to mitigate, as best we can, its catastrophic humanitarian consequences. We do not wish on the demise of technological civilization, for we recognize that for all its ecological obliviousness and social injustices, it has enabled tremendous progress in science and many aspects of culture and human welfare. That said, we recognize that sometimes, the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the tendency for all closed, complex systems to decay – cannot be sidestepped.

We are “kollapsniks”, and our initiative is the Collapse Party.

We are an individual state of mind, for being mentally prepared for collapse is of the utmost importance. We are profoundly local, for each community will have to weather collapse on its own. We are a global project, for our predicament is global. We welcome everyone regardless of race, sex, creed, or political affiliation.

We propose a program of “sustainable retreat”, emphasizing the following three main principles:

  • Reinforce resilience in the face of collapse.
  • Inform the people that business-as-usual will lead to collapse.
  • Prepare for collapse by focusing on “sustainable retreat” and targeted technological development mitigate the severity of any ultimate collapse.

The Collapse Party Platform

These principles are to be pursued through and beyond the following set of policies.

  • Use the remaining high-EROEI fossil fuel stocks in a crash program to build as large a nuclear and renewable energy infrastructure as possible.
  • Clean up radioactive and toxic installations while we still have the technologies and resources to do so.
  • Work on fostering global unity and a common human identity to encourage cooperation and discourage competition and resource wars.
  • Preserve as much as possible of the world’s stock of technologies, bioresources, and knowledge in dispersed repositories (“lifeboats”) in durable, physical format.
  • Retool the education system to disseminate practical skills and democratize it using the power of the Internet (as long as it continues to exist).
  • Liberalize copyright laws.
  • Promote communal-agrarian values (“green communism”), while ditching the individualist and accumulative mentality that is spelling our doom.
  • Unite all social groups under different wings of the Party – conventional Greens, as well as socialists, feminists, right-wing survivalists, etc – that are amenable to the kollapsnik message.
  • Eschew militarism, dismantle overseas military bases, and repatriate the troops; but maintain a minimal nuclear deterrent.
  • Nationalization and / or regulation of the commanding heights of the economy to optimize resource conservation and pollution control.
  • Establish a network of self-contained “resiliencies” across the nation and the world, modeled on the Kibbutzim, that will provide physical, mental, and spiritual nourishment to those who need it.
  • Allow mostly-unimpeded free enterprise for small, non-strategic, and low-material throughput businesses, for it will still be necessary to keep the consumerist urgings satiated.
  • The Party is to be aim to operate on a horizontal and democratic basis, in which promotion and honors are to be based on the judgments of peers on one’s competence and commitment to the cause.
  • The winding-down of the prison-industrial complex in a controlled manner; the nature of law and order to be determined in further internal debate.
  • General debt amnesty to wipe the slate clean and start from Year Zero in our quest for sustainability.
  • Expand resources into research on areas such as sustainable energy, geoengineering, and artificial intelligence to increase the chances of achieving a technological “silver bullet”.

Recommended LINKS from the site: The Archdruid Report; Arctic Progress; The Cost of Energy; Dmitry Orlov; Energy Bulletin; Energy Watch Group; George Monbiot; Green Party USA; Grist Environment; James Kunstler; Jay Hanson; Kurzweil AI; Mark Lynas; Matt Savinar; The Oil Drum; Paul Chefurka; Peak Oil News; Real Climate; Sharon Astyk; Stratfor; World Changing.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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In a recent post at Streetwise Professor, in reply to a Russophobe commentator, democracy activist* and net-buddy Mark Sleboda compiled a damning indictment of the real state of Western freedom. Newsflash: for the world’s (self-appointed) moral arbitrators, it’s nothing to write home about! It’s well worth reading, which is why I’m reprinting it here with his permission.

… Andrew you cherry-picked the one single example of Western pre-emptive arrests of protesters out of those that I have previously provided where the police in the UK have at least gone to the trouble of making false accusations and spread misinformation in order to provide justification for their crackdowns on peaceful protesters (UK, EU, USA 1, 2).

Here is an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, discussing such manufactured police false-flag operations against peaceful climate change protests (1). The police harassment and false statements about peaceful climate protesters in the UK has been well documented. Here is the “equipment” that the police confiscated and were using as false justification for harassment and arrests of climate protesters at the Kingsnorth protest previously mentioned (2, 3). And here is the damages the police were eventually forced to pay for their harassment a in a rare victory in the courts (4).

However, even where police violence against protesters has resulted in deaths, like Ian Tomlinson, the police have routinely used internal tribunals to “investigate themselves” and thereby gotten away without any punishment or cost. The system and society look the other way

This unfortunately has become standard practice in the UK where the police system has redefined all protesters as “domestic extremists”, as the political consensus over climate change caused by consumer capitalism is starting to collapse. This follows a discernable trend in the West where protests involving the Western conception of liberal rights is usually tolerated, but any protests that challenge the dominant socio-economic paradigm (such as climate change protests) or question capitalism and its externalities (such as the G-8/G-20/WTO protests) is often harassed or brutally suppressed (5, 6).

Police have even established units for routine police spying and infiltration of environmental protest groups. Britain has become an Orwellian police state with Big Brother video surveillance on every corner, and where all political dissent against the socio-economic status quo is suppressed. Much like the US that has established a police state that spies on peace groups that dare to protest against America’s aggressive imperialist wars (7, 8, 9).

Police brutality towards peaceful climate and ant-capitalist protesters has become the standard in the UK. You can watch for yourself (10, 11). The same is evident in the US (12). In Canada police have even been repeatedly caught infiltrating peaceful protest groups with agents acting as provocateurs to start violence and riots in order to provide justification for cracking down on protests (13). Even during protests against the Olympics! But even when official ethics investigations are conducted nothing is done and the mainstream media largely ignores it.

That is because in the West we have constructed a false and comforting narrative about “freedom” and “democracy” in our societies. We have come to believe this myth at all levels of our society from the government to the media and the general public, so that even in the face of direct contradiction the totalitarianism becomes self-propagating.

*** If you watch one piece of evidence I have provided here to justify my accusations about rhetorical hypocrisy of the West towards the orchestrated Strategy 31 protests in Russia – watch this one. This video shows the true face of protests and “freedom of assembly” in the West – at the Copenhagen Climate Conference of which all of the world’s leaders attended. I can attest because I was there – as an official delegate inside the conference, and then when it became obvious that the world’s leaders would do nothing except presenting a desperate face-saving measure instead of taking any substantive action to change our unsustainable consumption-based capitalist economies that are destroying our planet in a hurry – I and many other delegates walked out and joined the protesters on the street. This is what we saw – and as cynical as I am, I was shocked and mortified at the level of stormtrooper-like violence used by Western police against peacefully protesting youth in order to enforce the existing political and economic consensus. ***

This is a personal concern for me as I have been an occasional protester in the US, UK, EU, Canada, and Russia, mostly concerning climate change issues and I can tell you that the country with the most civil treatment towards legal and peaceful protesters is, surprisingly, Russia. The police in Russia are doing nothing of this sort of sustained and systematic brutality against peaceful protesters. If they were – it would be all over the world’s press in an instant. But when it happens in our own Western countries – the mainstream media looks the other way and ignores it. It is a double standard in a Self/Other dialectic defining Russians as the Other for the purposes of continuing our self-deception about the nature of our societies and governments.

The police violence and harassment at the protests that I have shown – including the last one at Copenhagen was at legally sanctioned and registered protests. The Strategy 31 protests were civilly broken up by police because they were protesting illegally without permit. They were issued permits to protest at other locations in downtown Moscow every time – but they refuse them. Why? It is because protesting is not their aim. Provocation is. Their acts are not directed at Russian society where they have no support (The Russian liberals have an ill-disguised loathing for the Russian people as a whole because they are not “Western” enough for them) but at the Western press.

That is why the protests draw a hundred or two hundred protests at most – and twice as many foreign journalists and camera’s to cover it and observe the Russian police arresting the liberal celebrity ringleaders. There is no “torture” involved against protesters in Russia. This is an utterly false accusation without any evidence to back it up. The liberals would be crying all over the Western press in a second if it were so. The Strategy 31 protests in Russia are a staged spectacle – and those that they have detained have been released every time after only a couple of hours and been home safe in bed in time for milk and cookies.

There is also the fact that the handful of perennial liberals in Russia, now rebranded as Strategy 31, are protesting for some senseless reason alongside Eduard Limonov – presumably because the National Bolsheviks are capable of drawing more support and protesters (no matter how miniscule that is) onto the streets than themselves. The National Bolsheviks are a very real violent terrorist and anarchist group; Limonov having done prison time for admittedly trying to start a Nationalist Russian military insurrection in Kazakhstan. The National Bolshevik anarchists have been responsible for repeated violent and destructive actions. So in Russia, the police actually have reason to be cautious with Strategy 31 as long as the National Bolsheviks are involved.

* EDIT: An accidental misrepresentation on my part: see Mark’s comment on his political convictions.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The Arctic is one of the most ignored regions in commentary about global trends. This is unsurprising. The vastnesses of Hyperborea, a semi-mythical world of curdled seas, boreal lights and eternal sunshine, have always been “outside” history. But the fast pace of global warming in recent years is kick-starting Arctic history, bringing with it the promise and peril of industrial civilization: first energy extraction and shipping, then military bases, and eventually farms and cities.

Identifying the opportunities and risks in these exciting new developments will be the main aim of my new blog project Arctic Progress* (which you can also follow on Facebook).

Don’t worry – I’ll continue posting at S/O on “Eurasia, geopolitics and peak oil” (if not as frequently as before). Furthermore, most of the Russian translations and analytical “core articles” on Arctic Progress will be reprinted here, the first one of which follows below.

Introduction – Why Arctic Progress?

1. The Arctic will become much more important in the near future as the melting of Arctic ice opens up circumpolar shipping routes. They are shorter than the constricted passages through Suez, Panama and Malacca, and far less vulnerable to bottlenecks, piracy and terrorism.

2. The Arctic is a once in a century investment opportunity. As the ice and permafrost retreat, the physical infrastructure of industrial civilization will begin to overspread the region: ports, roads, railways, pipelines, mines, oil rigs, housing, farms, schools, shops and military bases. The four major populated regions encircling the Arctic Ocean – Alaska, Russia, Canada, Scandinavia (ARCS) – are all set for massive economic expansion in the decades ahead.

3. Nowhere else is global warming so intrinsically tied to the prospects of a region as the Arctic; it is the force awakening it from its long, cold hibernation into the strange lights and thrumming noises of the modern world. But the Arctic is not passive – how it reacts to higher temperatures will drastically affect the future course and magnitude of further global warming. Global ocean and air currents will be interrupted as the temperature differential between the Arctic and the tropics shrinks. One disturbing possibility is that the melting of the Siberian permafrost will release vast amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than CO2, into the atmosphere, and tip the world into runaway climate change.

4. Many regions of the world are overpopulated and facing resource depletion (e.g. “peak oil”) and rising pollution. The Arctic defies these general trends. As good hydrocarbon and mineral sources deplete, the economics of Arctic resource extraction will become more and more attractive. As the global south sinks deeper into water crises, heat stress and energy shortages, the polar regions will be changing into habitable and rather agreeable places. Exploitation of the region’s plentiful resources – coal in Alaska; minerals in the Russian Far East; hydrocarbons in the oceanic basin off Siberia; etc. – can sustain billions of people for at least a few more decades. That’s enough time to make use of the Arctic region’s plentiful wind and water fluxes to rebuild industrialism on a sustainable basis.

5. The Arctic melt is the kick-start to its own history. Both Russia and Canada are are accelerating their Arctic military buildups. NATO has held yearly military exercises in northern Norway from 2006, in which the (“fictional”) enemy team has a rather uncanny resemblance to Russia. No doubt China and European coalitions will soon take an interest too. The father of geopolitics, Halford Mackiner, claimed that control of Eastern Europe was the key to world power. In the 21st century, the prime strategic asset will become the Arctic Ocean.

6. James Lovelock, the inventor of the Gaia theory, believes that “before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”. If you think climate-pessimists and doomers like him are correct, more or less, then it might do you good to start planning a “doomstead” in the Far North. The Norwegians already made a start with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and one day perhaps cities will follow.

7. That few blogs (yet) exist on the Arctic is a good enough reason to start one, no? Besides, I think I can do a decent job of it. First, I know Russian – the other main language of the Arctic apart from English. This blog is about the Arctic, as opposed to just the North American Arctic. Second, my areas of blogging interest, centered around Russia, geopolitics, energy, and futurism, are well suited for an Arctic theme. One can even say that the Arctic brings them all together. …

* Why am I writing about the Arctic on another site? (1) I reckon this blog is crowded and chaotic enough as it is, mixing Russia, geopolitics, futurism, and heck knows what else, (2) I don’t want to drown this blog with short postings about specific Arctic developments which will not be of major interest to many S/O readers, and (3) I want Arctic Progress to develop as a stand-alone hub for Arctic commentary on the interwebs.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The next installment of our Watching the Russia Watchers series at S/O features an interview with Peter Lavelle, the main political analyst at the Russia Today TV network, host of its CrossTalk debate show and Untimely Thoughts blogger. (He also has a Wikipedia page!) Peter is opposed to Western media hegemony, considering it neither fair nor useful, and firmly believes that global media should feature a diversity of voices from all cultural traditions; as such, the rise of alternate forums such as Al Jazeera and Russia Today are a boon for media consumers everywhere. Peter Lavelle actualizes this philosophy in his own CrossTalk program, in which controversial topics from France’s burqa ban to the collapse of Soviet Amerika are discussed: agree with him or not, one can certainly never get bored listening. The serious Russia watcher is recommended to join his “Untimely Thoughts” – Expert Discussion Group on Russia.

Peter Lavelle: In His Own Words…

What first sparked your interest in journalism and Russia, and how did the twain meet?

The reason I started to write about Russia – circa 1999 – came about for two reasons. First, having an education in Eastern European and Russian history gave me a reason to write about where I lived. I didn’t like much of what the commentariat was writing on contemporary Russia. The second reason was to earn some money, which later led to needing to make a living.

I came to Russia to live in late 1997. I was employed as an equity analyst at what was then called Alfa Capital. I was lured to Russia by my former boss (an American) I worked with in Poland. I never wanted to move to Russia – actually I must say I was rather adverse to Russia, having lived in eastern Europe for about 12 years. As a result of the financial crisis of 1998, I was given a generous severance package. This allowed me to stay in Russia for a while without worrying too much about money. In spring of 2000 I started to work for a small Russian bank. The money wasn’t great, but at least the bank organized and paid for my visa. Plus, I had time to write now and then. It was at this time I discovered the JRL – Johnson’s Russia List. I have been hooked on (even an addict to) Russia watching ever since.

So you ask “how did the twain meet?” I was furious with what some journalists passed off as serious analysis and commentary on Russia and I was given opportunities to express myself as a corrective to what I thought was awful journalism. The synthesis is me today (and not just regarding Russia).

My first stop was the Russia Journal. It wasn’t much of a newspaper, but I sure did write a lot for it and really enjoyed it. Then UPI’s former Moscow bureau chief asked me to come on board as a stringer – I was thrilled. That was the first time I called myself a journalist.

Later, I wrote for Asia Times Online and – yes! – for Radio FreeEurope/Radio Liberty. Being published in “Current History” was also a special benchmark for me as a journalist.

This was also the first time I started butting heads with the commentariat. I would like to point out that this is way before I had anything to do with Russian state (funded) media. Please remember my Untimely Thoughts newsletter was going full blast during all of this.

And for all those interested: I started to work at RIAN (2005) becauseI was tired of the “slave wages” UPI was paying and for problems associated with getting a new visa. Thus, I had very practical reasons to make this move.

It is simply not true I went to RIAN (later RT) due to “ideological” motivations. I had already settled in Russia and wanted to stay settled. My journalism in front of a camera today differs little from the journalism I practiced in print years before RT came into existence.

What were your best and worst experiences as a Russia journalist?

The highlight of my career to date in journalism, in which I include television, was covering Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia in August 2008. I was in the news studio hour after hour, day in and day out. I lived on cigarettes and coffee, and with very little sleep. Watching such a story from the start and unfold was exhilarating. I am proud to say RT did an excellent job and that we at RT got the story right from the beginning when other news outlets either got it wrong or played catch-up (following RT’s lead of course!).

Having my own television program (aired three times a week) remains a great highlight. I dreamed (or day dreamed) of having such an opportunity at a very early age watching the Sunday political chat shows in the US. So dreams can come true, I suppose.

What is my worst experience? This will surprise you: not getting paid for my work. I have lost count of the number of articles I wrote without being compensated when I was still in print journalism. Today I can write for media outlets without asking for compensation – a wonderful position to be in.

I would like to also mention that while not directly under the category of “worst experience” I can say an on-going “unpleasant experience” is being called “Putin’s mouth piece” or the “Kremlin’s tool.” I speak my mind, I have always done this. Anyone acquainted with my long lost friend – my Untimely Thoughts newsletter – knows I have changed very little over the years. Television has not changed me; it has only allowed me to amplify my worldview.

Who are the best Russia commentators? Who are the worst?

Who are the best? There are some really great ones – ones that come to mind immediately: Patrick Armstrong, Vlad Sobell, Thomas Graham, Eugene Ivanov, Dale Herspring, Stephen Cohen, Paul Sauders, Dmitry Sims, Anatol Lieven, Mary Dejevsky, and Chris Weafer (and of course you Anatoly!).

Who are the worst? I think it is pointless to answer this question. Among the commentariat there is a small cottage industry that regularly condemns me – everyone reading this interview knows who I am referring to. To this day not one aspersion said or written about me warrants my reply. These are small minded people and most of them are journalists because they lack the ability and talent to do anything else. These are the worst kind of people – they get along by going along. When it comes to writing about Russia, the majority of them don’t have the guts to stand alone and speak up.

What is your favourite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?

I love and hate Moscow! Moscow is my home so I make the best of it. Because of my CrossTalk program, I very rarely travel anymore. In fact, I have seen very little of this vast country. I have visited various cities between Moscow and St Petersburg and down south as far as Chechnya. By my own admission, I should be better travelled after so many years. I am still hoping to make it to Vladivostok.

If you could recommend one book about Russia, what would it be?

Martin Malia’s “Russia under Western Eyes” [AK: Click to buy] – I can’t remember how many times I have read this great tome, but each time I do I learn something new to reflect upon.

Do you think today’s Russian media environment is better than in 1999? The late 1980′s? Are Russian journalists freer or safer than they were before?

Comparing Russian media of the 80’s to the 90s to the 00s is not very constructive. The ending of Soviet era censorship was a great moment for Russians and Russian society. Some embraced honest and professional journalism; others practiced this trade with regrettable irresponsibility.

The way I look at Russia’s media transition – and the journey is long from over – is through the prism of business models. In the 80s the state’s monopoly had to be broken and eventually was. In the 90s the oligarchs divided up among themselves huge media empires – none ofwhich had any interest in real journalism or the social good. These media empires were political tools that terribly damaged journalism as a trade, profession, the political environment and even the world of business.

Since about 2000 (circa Putin), media in Russia is very much a business and a very profitable one at that! Today media caters more to audience interests and tastes – mostly entertainment (particularly when it comes to television). Is this good? Does this make a better society? Are people well enough informed? On the whole I don’t see Russian media being all that different from other media markets in the world. Russians – like their global counterparts – are well enough informed about their environment to make rational decisions about their lives. There is plenty of diversity, though one has to make an effort to satisfy interests beyond Russia’s mainstream.

As for the safety of journalists in Russia: this is a very painful and even shameful state of affairs. The police and judiciary need to do much more for journalists. Their inability to prosecute those behind high profile murders hurts journalism as a profession and public trust in state authorities.

Also, I want to point out that journalists are killed more likely because of “kompromat” being investigated or written about someone else’s money – not politics in its normative sense. In Russia money is everything – politics is a sideshow that amuses Russia’s hopelessly retarded liberal intelligentsia.

On balance, do you think Putinism was good or bad for Russia? (Try not to sit on the fence here).

I don’t like the term “Putinism.” There is no such “ism.” Russia is going through what I call the “post-soviet purgatory” – and doing well at that by my estimation, considering the other post-soviet states.

Vladimir Putin is the best thing to happen to Russia in its modern history – he is a rational person and a true patriot. Because of Putin, Russians are freer and richer now than any time since the Russian state came into existence centuries ago. Putin saved the Russian state from thieving oligarchs and their highly paid western advisors. Putin reconstructed the Russian state, was behind the creation of a middle class, and Russia’s dignified turn to the world stage. And he rightfully fought terrorism in the Caucasus when the West hoped for the slow and painful collapse of the Russian state in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

Putin is also the indirect creation of western hubris and the gross irresponsibility of Russia’s self-hating cappuccino-drinking liberals. Russia doesn’t need to be lectured by an outrageously hypocritical West, especially American posturing. Putin is the antithesis of Western hypocrisy and history will be very kind to him. Russians give him a lot of credit and he deserves it.

How will Russia-West relations be affected by Obama’s “reset” policy and Medvedev’s new emphasis on modernization? Which was the main party responsible for their deterioration in the first place?

The so-called “re-set” is a media strategy and in a sense a fraud – it has nothing to do with reality or political facts on the ground. Washington caved to reality – the American empire is collapsing. To slow the inevitable, Washington needs Moscow’s help. Out of self-interest Russia is willing to engage Obama. Pragmatic Russia today is helping Soviet Amerika out of a mess of its own making.

Most of the world’s problems can’t be resolved without Russia’s involvement – Washington now acknowledges this. Moscow does not give a hoot about Obama or the US. What Moscow does care about is how the world will evolve as the US deals with its own and much needed, but rarely spoken about, perestroika. The US is in decline and Russia (along with the emerging world) is readying itself for the inevitable paradigm shift.

Lastly, Russia and the US are not enemies, but they are competitors at times. Competition is good for both countries – even when dealing with common problems facing the world.

If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing it isn’t already doing, what would it be?

The Russian government claims it is fighting corruption (and there are signs of this), but it is not doing nearly enough. If Russia is to modernize itself to be competitive in the global marketplace, then it must to do more to fight this cancer. If this is not done, then history will pass Russia by.

HARD Talk* with Peter Lavelle

ANATOLY KARLIN: You are a fierce critic of US policy towards the Muslim world, and its enabling of Israeli expansionism and sidelining of dissenters like Robert Fisk and Norman Finkelstein. First, could you please expound on the similarities between Russophobia and Islamophobia? Second, why are Israeli policies towards the Palestinians / Hamas worse than Russia’s towards the Chechens / Caucasus Emirate?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUz14bvK4A8&w=480&h=385]

PETER LAVELLE: First of all, I don’t like the terms Russophobia and Islamophobia – both terms are emotive and lack precision. That said, it is obvious that Russia and Islam today serve as the West’s “other” – meaning both are feared because they are different and will not submit. It is the highest form of hubris on the part of the West to believe (even demand) that everyone in the world should be like the West. The fact is many in the world simply don’t want this. They want good education, health care, prosperity, etc., but not necessarily Western values and certainly not Western (read: American) militarism. This really annoys the West, particularly poorly educated and poorly informed Americans.

Russia sees itself as its own unique civilization. This may or may not be true, but many Russians seem to think so. Islam is obviously a civilization different from the West. Islam is experiencing a resurgence and a great deal of this resurgence is the rejection that Muslims must become more like American, Europeans, etc. I blame Western mainstream media for misleading Western audiences about Islam and the Muslim world. Tragically this is part of the grossly one-sided reporting when it comes to Israel and Greater Middle East politics.

Russia is terribly misinterpreted and misunderstood in the West. Russia is presented as the loser in the Cold War and thus should act as a defeated power. Russia refuses to do this. This infuriates many in the West. The fact is Russia and Russians liberated themselves from communism! According to the Western discourse regarding history, Russia is not repenting for the past, thus it still must be the enemy. The good news is Russia is a political fact on the ground and the West has no choice but to do business with it.

You ask: why are Israeli policies towards the Palestinians / Hamas worse than Russia’s towards the Chechens / Caucasus Emirate? You are asking me to compare apples with cement bricks!

The Israelis threw the Palestinians off their land and deny them their own state. Chechens have their republic within the Russian Federation, which is generously supported by the federal government.

Palestinians are less than second class citizens in Palestine, Chechens have the same rights as any other Russian citizen. Israel is a zionist state; Russia is a secular state protecting the religious rights of all citizens. Hamas was democratically elected; the Caucasus Emirate was not elected by anyone.

I could easily go on. As you can see I don’t see there is much of a comparison.

ANATOLY KARLIN: In my question to you about Russia-US relations, you claim the “American empire is collapsing” and allude to “Soviet Amerika” (that’s even the title of one your Crosstalk programs). Now it’s no secret that the United States has its share of problems: an overstretched military, awning budget deficits, etc. Nonetheless, we need some perspective. The US economy is still much larger than that of its nearest competitor, China (which has lots of bad loans and will be devastated if it were to pull the plug on its prime export market). The Eurozone may already be on the verge of unraveling. As for Russia, its GDP is an order of magnitude smaller than America’s.

So is it then reasonable to speculate about the collapse of Pax Americana, considering its current strength and the problems afflicting potential rivals? If it does collapse, which country or bloc will take its place, if any? Finally, have you heard of Dmitry Orlov’s idea of “the Collapse Gap” between the USSR and America today?

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PETER LAVELLE: Yes, I have come across Orlov’s work and remain skeptical – he simply wants to the US to collapse. Everything you point out in your question is correct about the US. But you left out one important issue – the current weakness of America’s democracy. There is no political will in America to live within the country’s means. No one wants to sacrifice – and so many want too much without paying for it. This cannot last much longer – a couple of decades at best. America simply cannot maintain a global empire and prosperity at home. The only card up America’s sleeve is the dollar at the moment, but there is every indication that it will be replaced by a basket of currencies by mid-century.

Who will lead in the wake of America’s inevitable retreat? Hopefully the world will truly become multi-polar. Such a world is better for all of humanity. Multipolarity is better suited to dealing with issues such as climate change, food and energy security, non-proliferation, dealing with HIV/AIDs, etc. Today the world has to wait on all these issues because the US is very often the greatest barrier to positive change in world.

ANATOLY KARLIN: You say that you’re not a paid shill because you are quite sincere in your beliefs: you’re not “the man who $old his homeland”, as alleged by Russia Today’s (RT) former Tbilisi correspondant William Dunbar**. That may be so.

Nonetheless, many observers believe you and RT are hardly free of the same biases that you claim pervade the Western MSM. Though accusing you of being a “latter-day Lord Haw Haw” is surely extreme (as well as a reductio ad hitlerum), the perception definitely exists that what you call “challenging the Western media hegemony” is really just a euphemism for pushing Kremlin spin on unwitting Westerners.

First, do you think this is a valid argument? (If you use the “whataboutism” response, e.g. but the Western media is controlled too!, explain why you think that justifies Russia doing the same.) Second, if you still insist that you’re not beholden to the Kremlin, could you make three criticisms of the Medvedev-Putin tandem?

PETER LAVELLE: I knew William Dunbar and know a few of the details connected to his departure from RT. He is entitled to his opinion, though they are not opinions I agree with. Indeed, he does claim I am “the man who $old his homeland.” This only informs me that he knows little about me and my opinions.

So I will answer my critics on the compensation issue. Yes, I live a comfortable life in Moscow as far as a journalist is concerned, but that is not saying much these days! I am compensated because my work is hard, presenting truly alternative viewpoints, and promoting the station – no different from other television professionals around the world.

What does it mean to sell out one’s homeland? I am American and proud of it. Being American allows me to dissent – and I dissent all the time! RT allows me to do this when most western media outlets could never dream of giving a journalist so much free space. My program CrossTalk is my creation and I am very thankful RT management supports me. I decide the program’s topics and approve guests. I inform my boss what I am doing; I don’t ask for permission.

I don’t care what some disgruntled RT employee has to say about me. The same applies to others in the commentariat because their lack of talent or success. How often these days do I openly attack my critics? The answer is that I don’t. I am attacked and vilified because of my employer, but not my message. That is cheap.

I do not speak for RT – I can only speak for myself and my work at the television station. And let me make it clear – I don’t alway like every story RT broadcasts. At the same time I will defend the station’s commitment to being different. Again being honest – some RT reports are a bit over the top. But this is a good thing in the end – we ask our audience one basic thing: Question More. We may not always get it right, but our intention is spot on.

As far as Kremlin spin-doctoring is concerned, all I can say that this assumption is laughable. I come across this accusation all the time, but after working at RT for almost 5 years I still don’t see the evidence. Does RT present the government’s point of view? Yes, of course it does (and many other viewpoints as well). But is this “Kremlin spin-doctoring”? Obviously Russia’s political elite views the world differently from let’s say the US. Why should anyone be surprised by this? Also, anyone who has watched RT will tell you that the station is not only about politics. How can non-political stories be “Kremlin spin-doctoring”? RT wants to be and is competitive. This is because it is consciously different from its competitors.

RT doesn’t do the same. It is part of my job to watch the competition. I watch CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera. CNN and BBC are wildly one-sided on most global issues compared to RT. Where I work you can come across opinions never heard by RT’s competitors. I give Al Jazeera very high points for its coverage of the Greater Middle East (though not its Russia coverage). Thus, I have no need to use the “whataboutism” argument.

You want me to prove that I am not the Kremlin’s slave and live to talk about it! I welcome this opportunity. You asked for 3 examples, well I will give you 10. Over the past 10 years Russia’s leading politicians haven’t done enough regarding:

  1. Corruption at all levels.
  2. Support of the older generation (pensions).
  3. Repair of and construction of new infrastructure.
  4. Support of small and medium size businesses.
  5. Development of political parties.
  6. Promotion of civil society’s role in solving social problems.
  7. Over reliance on the oil and natural gas sectors.
  8. Introduction of a volunteer-only military and military reform in general.
  9. Finding justice in so-called high-profile murders.
  10. The lack of competition in the marketplace.

I could easily go on. Russia has a lot of problems, no different from ALL OTHER countries in the world.

ANATOLY KARLIN: Global warming [deniers / skeptics] (delete as needed) like Alex Jones, Piers Corbyn and Chris Monckton – all with fairly minimal scientific credentials – get prominent coverage at RT. The entire topic of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is treated as a debate in which either side has yet to prove its case.

However, in the real world, there is a consensus: in a 2004 study, Naomi Oreskes concluded that 75% of papers backed the AGW view, while none directly dissented from it. (And the latest studies are almost always more pessimistic about the magnitude of future warming than “previously expected”.) Given the sheer amount of evidence in favor of AGW, it seems strange to put a hereditary aristocrat who calls his opponents “Hitler Youth” and organizes witch hunts on the same pedestal as climate scientists. Even though more Americans believe in creationism than in evolution, news channels don’t normally give equal weight to both sides in that “debate”, do they?

So I’m at a loss how to explain this. Does RT want to get the scoop on the Western media, even at the cost of its own credibility? Or were you guys told to spin up Climategate because global warming is expected to benefit Russia? Or do you really believe that the AGW “debate” is still far from “settled”?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAvpH-dOP5A&w=480&h=385]

PETER LAVELLE: Again you are asking me to speak for RT – I am not RT’s spokesperson. And to be frank, I find your “Or were you guys told to spin up Climategate…” insulting. The fact is many of our viewers are interested in climate change. RT follows its viewers.

Nonetheless, I am glad you ask about AGW. I have done two programs on the subject – a topic I want to learn more about. I have no problem having Piers Corbryn and Chris Monckton on my program. Could you debate them? My other guests were actually quite keen to debate them. Let me be clear about something: RT gets credibility because it gives air time to different voices. And you are right, there really is no debate on American television. That can’t be said about my CrossTalk program and RT. Speaking about different voices: I may be one of the most prominent backers of dissent in the world of television today! I am proud of that.

ANATOLY KARLIN: Thank you for answering four very HARD questions. I’ll go easy on the last one. As you told us earlier in the interview, you dreamed of having your own TV program from an early age. Your wish came true. There are many who share your dream. Some of them might even be reading this interview! What advice would you give them on becoming a made man or woman in journalism? (The mafia reference isn’t entirely whimsical: from a distance, the profession does appear distinctly cliquish.)

PETER LAVELLE: This is the hardest question of all. All I can say is if you really want to be a journalist (including a TV journalist) you have to make a huge commitment. The competition is enormous and at times talented. Be different because you really are – not because being different might sell. Start blogging and pitching your material. Be prepared for rejection – many times over before things start to happen. Stay away from attacking individuals – staying with your convictions will be enough. Don’t try to become famous, that will come with hard work and honest and fair beliefs. Be willing to learn from others. And lastly stay away from journalists – a caste of people who, for the most part, aren’t worth even having a cup of coffee with.

Back to the Future

Many Russia watchers don’t like to put their money where they mouth is. Though I’m sure you’re not the type, feel free to confirm it by making a few falsifiable predictions about Russia’s future. After a few years, we’ll see if you were worth listening to.

Ok, Peter Lavelle’s predictions:

  • The current tandem will rule for the foreseable future – which is a good thing.
  • The next election cycle will go smoothly – parliamentary and presidential. Fingers crossed Russia’s political parties will mature some.
  • Russia will continue to recover and grow during the on-going global slump. If the US and Europe experience another turn-down, Russia will be spared.
  • Over the next few years, Russia and its eastern European neighbors will continue a robust process of reconciliation.
  • Russia will have to step in to play a greater role in the Greater Middle East as Washington is anything but a fair broker.
  • Russia will not continue down the path of pressuring Iran regarding Tehran’s nuclear program – Russia-US relations again will be strained (though nothing like during the Bush years).
  • Russia will continue to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere, though not as a direct competitor to the US.
  • NATO will start to seriously listen to Russia (as most European capitals will pretend they have never heard of Saak!).
  • Mainstream western media will continue to get Russia wrong — that is an easy preduction!
  • Eventually, Putin will be blamed for the oil spill in the Gulf and creating the HIV/AIDS virus.

Do you plan to revive your Untimely Thoughts blog? Could you throw us a bone about any other projects you may have in the works?

What about the future? I am having a new website created to mirror my CrossTalk program. There, I intend to return to blogging in a big way in September.

Anatoly, thanks for the interview!

And thank you too, Peter, for a brilliant interview that gives fans and critics alike a lot to chew on!

If you wish me to interview you or another Russia watcher, feel free to contact me.

* A note on HARD Talk: My job as an interviewer is be a contrarian and even a “devil’s advocate” of sorts; to air common, common-sense or germane criticisms of the interviewee’s arguments and worldview, REGARDLESS of what my opinions might or might not be. (For instance, though I criticized Peter Lavelle’s views on the collapse of “Soviet Amerika”, I’ve made the same arguments on this very site: e.g. see here, here). I hope this clarifies things for the angry person who wrote me the email accusing me of Russophobia (LOL) in my HARD Talk with A Good Treaty.

** UPDATE August 14, 2010: William Dunbar has since deleted his only comment at that Facebook Group, which is reproduced below:

William Dunbar: hi, i just resigned from RT because i was being censored about georgia, i was the tbilisi correspondent. i have to say this is among the best groups i have ever seen on facebook. peter used to have a profile, i guess he left because it was another example of the double standards of the biased western media… or maybe putin prefers myspace

After I contacted him, Dunbar said that 1) he never alleged that Peter Lavelle is ““the man who $old his homeland” and that he left the Facebook group after reading this interview, 2) the last sentence is an inside joke between Dunbar and Lavelle that is “light hearted and not had absolutely nothing to do with how much Peter may or may not be paid”, and 3) he thinks that Peter Lavelle “is a true believer”, albeit his “commentary is objectionable, prejudiced and misleading.”

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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This post is a meta-commentary on media coverage of Russia’s drought and wildfires. Now make no mistake, I admire the yeoman work of some journalists in covering Russia burning: no doubt a few will even make their way into the classical cannon such as The Saga of the Burned Foot (Miriam Elder) or The Tale of How Aleksandr Pochkov Quarreled with Vladimir Vladimirovich (A Good Treaty). :) But in my opinion, they almost all fail to consider the key facts that render their Kremlin criticism moot and fail to grasp the “big picture”: the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010 as a mere herald of things to come.

In summary: 1) There is nothing the Russian government could have done to contain a natural disaster of such magnitude, 2) many of the lectures about how Russia could have done better to prepare itself would have been counter-productive had they actually been implemented, 3) the hysteria about Moscow turning into a giant morgue from heat stress and smog or radioactive ash clouds is overblown, and 4) the real problem, or rather predicament, is global warming, the effects of which are expected to transform Russia’s heartlands into Central Asia within the next few decades.

Unprecedented Drought, Reductio ad Putinum

I’m going to be using Julia Ioffe as a foil in this section (not because I hate her but because I’ve actually read her articles). In her August 5th shock piece, Russia on Fire, she writes:

A strong argument could be made for calling this disaster Putin’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, then-President Putin, in consultation with the Russian timber industry, “reformed” forestry regulations, eliminating positions for rangers, making each of the remaining ones responsible for more territory, increasing paperwork so they spent hardly any time outdoors monitoring the forests—and, on the off chance that they did spot a small fire while on patrol, making it a punishable offense (a misuse of state funds) to put it out.

So assume that the Kremlin had listened to forestry expert Ioffe, and restarted the Soviet practice of forest fire suppression whenever they sprang up. That would have solved the problem, right? No. It would have made it a lot worse.

Left alone, forests experience small, contained fires every few years, which clear out excess undergrowth, replenish the soil and maintain the resilience of the forest ecosystem. But as soon as you start playing Canute to the woodlands, layers of dead biomass accumulate on the forest bed. Eventually, it reaches such a critical mass that the next heatwave is bound to create a conflagration, made catastrophic of the interventionist’s own hubris.

But that too would inevitable have been the Kremlin’s fault, according to the Gospel of Julia. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. In her discourse, the main things are personalities, Tsar-Batyushka, the Tatar-Mongol yoke… As Mark Chapman remarked on AGT’s blog:

If Russia’s leaders stay remote and aloof from their subjects, they’re cold and indifferent. If they make any attempt, even one that looks suspiciously scripted, to connect, they’re Janus-faced Tsars.

Now I’m not denying the possibility that the current fire suppression efforts have been riddled with corruption and incompetence. Time will tell. But consider this from another angle. This drought is unprecedented in its severity for at least the last 140 years, if not the last 500! Some much needed facts and figures (as opposed to anecdotes) from Jeff Masters:

At 3:30 pm local time today, the mercury hit 39°C (102.2°F) at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. Moscow had never recorded a temperature exceeding 100°F prior to this year, and today marks the second time the city has beaten the 100°F mark. The first time was on July 29, when the Moscow observatory recorded 100.8°C and Baltschug, another official downtown Moscow weather site, hit an astonishing 102.2°F (39.0°C). Prior to this year, the hottest temperature in Moscow’s history was 37.2°C (99°F), set in August 1920. The Moscow Observatory has now matched or exceeded this 1920 all-time record five times in the past eleven days, including today. The 2010 average July temperature in Moscow was 7.8°C (14°F) above normal, smashing the previous record for hottest July, set in 1938 (5.3°C above normal.) J uly 2010 also set the record for most July days in excess of 30°C–twenty-two. The previous record was 13 such days, set in July 1972. The past 24 days in a row have exceeded 30°C in Moscow, and there is no relief in sight–the latest forecast for Moscow calls for high temperatures near 100°F (37.8°C) for the next seven days. …

Dr. Rob Carver has done a detailed analysis of the remarkable Russian heat wave in his latest post, The Great Russian Heat Wave of July 2010. A persistent jet stream pattern has set up over Europe, thanks to a phenomena known as blocking. A ridge of high pressure has remained anchored over Russia, and the hot and dry conditions have created helped intensify this ridge in a positive feedback loop. As a result, soil moisture in some portions of European Russia has dropped to levels one would expect only once every 500 years.

Furthermore, consider the vast territorial extent of Eurasia’s drought.

[Russia blanketed by forest fire smoke. Source: NASA.]

In retrospect, the current death toll from the fires, at 50, might well be remarkably low, considering the extreme circumstances (compare with 173 deaths in the Black Saturday bushfires last year in Australia, a country Russia’s critics would all consider “civilized” and developed).

But what do I know? According to Julia Ioffe and Foreign Policy, forest fires only happen in countries with non-liberal Presidents.

Moscow Morgues & Radioactive Ash Clouds

Two rather hysterical stories doing the rounds. Make no mistake: premature deaths from heat stress are tragic. Moscow’s mortality rate rose by 29.7% in July 2009, relative to the same period last year. August might be even worse if the searing temperatures continue into next week. The morgues are overflowing, with the numbers of daily deaths multiplying by 2-7x over normal in recent days (the sources differ).

But this does happen when record-breaking heat waves strike, anywhere. I was unfortunate enough to be in Paris during the 2003 heatwave, when temperates hit 40C and more. It was a torrid hell of heat and concrete: I remember taking several cold showers per day and avoiding sun-drenched spaces like a vampire. But I had it good. People with pre-existing medical conditions were dying early. The French capital observed a 142% mortality increase in August 2003, with deaths spiking to 2-8x their normal levels during the week of the heat wave.

[Number of deaths in Paris during August 2003 heatwave.]

But at least Parisians are more used to hot summers and didn’t have to contend with the smoke. Neither can be said for Muscovites. So a high number of excess deaths – estimated to reach 40,000 by Jeff Masters – is regrettable, but to be expected.

[The 2003 European Heatwave and the Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 compared.]

What about the fires releasing radioactive ashclouds from the areas around Chernobyl? Pure hysteria. Even if the inferno spread there, the radioactive particles released in 1986 have long since become diluted in the environment. Rinse and repeat if taken on an airborne ride by the fires a second time.

The Real Meaning of the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010

Most commentators prefer to spend their time discussing Putin’s ownage of the Sovok citizen blogger or the destruction of the naval aviation storage base that spawned a firestorm of blame and recriminations. It certainly doesn’t shed a good light into the nefarious workings of the Russian bureaucracy (few things do), but guys, this is largely irrelevant. What’s really significant is that this once-in-a-century (or is now once-in-a-millennium?) drought is a symptom of global warming, a few more degrees of which will transform the Russian heartlands into Central Asia.

So here are the really important things:

1. The collapse of Russia’s grain production, estimated to fall from 100mn tons in 2009 to just 65mn tons this year. This is huge. It reverses practically all the agricultural revival (in volume output) achieved in the past few years, bringing Russia back (maybe even below) its post-Soviet agricultural nadir. Furthermore, the depression may continue for another two years, if the earth is baked too hard for sowing the winter crop: a nation accounting for 25% of the world’s wheat exports will be out of business for two years. Coupled with agricultural decline in other countries (e.g. floods in China to reduce its rice crop by 5-7% this year) and rising food protectionism, social welfare in poor food importers like Egypt and Pakistan will plummet. The conditions aren’t in place for a repeat of the 2008 food crisis, but this does confirm that our age is now one of increasing scarcity.

2. This year is unprecedented everywhere: it is the hottest July on record (and the hottest year on record). Thermometers have been snapping left, right and center as new temperature records are set from Belarus to Sudan. The Arctic has given up the ghost, with sea ice volume plummeting into oblivion.

["Daily Sea Ice volume anomalies for each day are computed relative to the 1979 to 2009 average for that day. The trend for the 1979- present period is shown in blue. Shaded areas show one and two standard deviations from the trend."]

This is despite the fact that we are at a periodic, deep minimum in solar irradiance. One can only imagine the kind of havoc we’ll see in 2012-15 as it bounces back to its maximum.

And that’s not all the bad news. The Russian fires will have burned an unholy amount of biomass, which is even now making its way into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Historically, heatwave years are associated with above-average increases in atmospheric CO2 as the carbon cycle reverses direction. It is not impossible that 2010 will be the first year in which atmospheric CO2 increases by more than 3ppm (the previous record was 2.93ppm in 1998, a scorcher year that saw massive peat bog fires in Borneo).

The general agricultural and climate crisis is the context in which Russia’s wildfires must be framed.

3. The extent to which Russia benefits from global warming surely ought to be reassessed. Most climate models predicted a moderate increase in agricultural output on the cold Eurasian steppes with up to 2C of warming, making up for declining yields in the mid-latitudes and tropics. These assumptions might have to be reassessed if Russia’s Black Earth metamorphoses into a Dust Bowl. Though mass migration to the Arctic is a possible (and probably inevitable in the long-term) adaptation, it needs generations to be effected.

The preparations have to begin now. The sooner Putin and Medvedev realize this, the more favorably history will judge them; minor things will be forgotten. (I intend to write a post on Russia’s future as an Arctic civilization sometime in the next few weeks).

Russia is unlikely to ever have problems feeding itself, as long as its agricultural policies remain more or less sane. Nonetheless, its massive drought (which may become the norm rather than the exception sooner rather later) and grain export ban indicate it’s unwise to rely on it to bring big food surpluses to the global dinner table in the next few decades.

UPDATE, August 10: So it really is not just a one in a hundred years but a once in a thousand years event: Russian Meteorological Center: There was nothing similar to this on the territory of Russia during the last one thousand years in regard to the heat.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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When denier ideologues make the transition to accepting the reality of anthropogenic global warming, one of the arguments they start to use tends to go something along the following lines: “Sure, the polar bears might get screwed over, but otherwise things will be just great. Crop yields will increase and northerners will get to have their own sun-drenched beaches”. You wish. New research* indicates that beyond temperature rises of 7C, “zones of uninhabitability” will begin to overspread much of the world (“An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress” by Sherwood & Huber 2010). Not a Mediterranean world, more like Mad Max in Waterworld.

Of late climate models have been leaning to the upper range of the IPCC’s projections for global warming, e.g. the median forecast from a recent MIT study gives a rise of 5C by 2100 (with a 10% chance it will exceed 7C). According to the Sherwood paper, “peak heat stress” (quantified by the wet-bulb temperature) never climbs above 31C across today’s climes, which is safely below the body’s normal temperature of 37C. But with a global temperature rise of 7C possible by as early as the late 21st century – even without accounting for predictable tripwires such as accelerated release of Siberian and Arctic methane – some regions of the world will be subjected to peak wet-bulb temperatures of 35C, inducing “hyperthermia in humans and other mammals, as dissipation of metabolic heat becomes impossible“. With a global temperature rise of 11-12C, a belt of uninhabitability will come to encompass the bulk of today’s densely populated areas.

Let that sink in. Forget the rainforest collapses, the icecap disintegrations, the plummeting crop yields as the increased CO2 fertilization effect is cancelled out by heat stress… during the long summers, the bulk of continental interiors below the Arctic Circle will become PHYSICALLY UNINHABITABLE for humans. Cities from Atlanta to Madrid to New Delhi will become ghost towns in the desert, crumbling relics to the long-dead gods of the industrial age.

“Periods of net heat storage can be endured, though only for a few hours… and with ample time needed for recovery”, but since “adjacent night time minima of [wet-bulb temperatures] are typically within 2-3C of the daytime peak, and adjacent daily maxima are typically within 1C”, conditions would prove intolerable “if the peak wet-bulb temperature exceeded, by more than 1-2C, the highest value that could be sustained for at least a full day”. Thus, e ven healthy individuals cannot sustain heat stress levels of above 35C for prolonged periods, because the skin must be at least 2-3C cooler than the body temperature, whose normal level is 37C. If the wet-bulb temperature rises to 38C, for instance, then the result will be a rise in body temperature to above 40C and death from hyperthermia.

Which areas will be effected? Just look at the maps below (click to enlarge, source).

real-world-heat-stress-map

[Map of max rates of global heat stress during 1999-2008. Graph represents incidences of various temperatures during this period at 60S-60N - Black is average temperature, Blue is max temperature, Red is max wet-bulb temperature. Note how maximum wet-bulb temperature takes a nose-dive after 30C, such that there are practically no instances of this measure exceeding 32C (in practice this means that today no areas are blocked off to human habitation because of excessive heat stress levels).]

simulated-world-heat-stress-map

[Same as above, except this time it's a high-CO2 world model in which global average temperatures are 12C higher than today. The white and purple areas are completely uninhabitable, while the yellow areas are only marginally habitable at best. Note how much of Siberia experiences a higher max wet-bulb temperature than today's tropics!]

For a preview of things to come, look no further than the 20,000 Parisians who died in the 2003 European heatwave**. True, most most were elderly folks with no air conditioning or climate control. But these things require a lot of energy. With dammed reservoirs drying up throughout Europe and hydrocarbon supplies peaking by 2030-50, a reliable electricity supply should not be expected (least of all during heatwaves). As the authors put it, “the power requirements of air conditioning would soar; it would surely remain unaffordable for billions in the third world and for protection of most livestock; it would not help the biosphere or protect outside workers; it would regularly imprison people in their homes; and power failures would become life threatening”. Not only people will begin to die away. So will plants and animals – indeed, the main catalyst for migration may become failed harvests and famine. Entire nations will have to pack up their bags and move north towards the peoples-teeming Mediterranean shores of the Arctic Ocean.

Finally, the authors point out that even these dark conclusions may be too optimistic, since “our limit applies to a person out of the sun, in gale-force winds, doused with water, wearing no clothing, and not working” (i.e. quite a lot of leeway for enhancing chances of survival!). In other words, it is quite possible that only polar, sub-polar, and mountainous areas will remain comfortably habitable (at least by the new standards).

One more thing I’d like to note is that the map seems to indicate that at least along coastlines, the moderating effects of the oceans will keep those areas livable. That is highly significant… even with the loss of continental interiors, some tropical and mid-latitude nations may continue eking out a bare bones sustenance existence by intensive use of permaculture, organic farming, and hydroponics (the oceans will be too acidic to support fisheries). But don’t forget about sea level rise and the ocean anoxic event.

Waves slowly lap on the quiet shore, slow-motion waves with the consistency of gelatin. Most of the shoreline is encrusted with rotting organic matter, silk-like swathes of bacterial slick now putrefying under the blazing sun… [W]e look out on the surface of the great sea itself, and as far as the eye can see there is a mirrored flatness, an ocean without whitecaps. Yet that is not the biggest surprise. From shore to the horizon, there is but an unending purple color — a vast, flat, oily purple. No fish break its surface, no birds or any other kind of flying creatures dip down looking for food. The purple color comes from vast concentrations of floating bacteria, for the oceans of Earth have all become covered with a hundred-foot thick veneer of purple and green bacterial soup. …There is one final surprise. We look upward, to the sky. … We are under a pale green sky, and it has the smell of death and poison. We have gone to Nevada of 200 million years ago only to arrive under the transparent atmospheric glass of a greenhouse extinction event, and it is poison, heat and mass death that are found in this greenhouse.

* Back in November 2009, the article abstract was put online. Published in March 2010 (access from scribd) and made its way into MSM this May (e.g. see Telegraph story).

** Incidentally, I happened to be in Paris during the 2003 heatwave. Overall, it was a pleasant visit, though the heat and multiple cold showers every day stand out in my memory.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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As a follow-up to my article on the historical necessity of Green Communism, I would like to 1) refute some common myths and misconceptions about limits to growth-induced collapse, 2) clarify the concept of Green Communism, and 3) elucidate why the only realistic way to prevent collapse now is to force through a “sustainable retreat” by an “ecotechnic dictatorship”.

Let’s take as a starting point our current situation. From the late 1970′s or early 1980′s, calculations indicate that humanity exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth. Fossil fuel resources are being used up at an unsustainable rate, producing an increase in what William Catton called the “phantom carrying capacity“, which now supports many of the Earth’s surplus billions. However, should the energy base becomes too weak to sustain this phantom carrying capacity, there will be a catastrophic fall of the human population as the Earth system snaps back into equilibrium, producing a massive Malthusian dieoff. The recent peaking of world oil production and accelerated Arctic methane release are but the early portents of hard limits to growth on our finite planet.

We are in a predicament, dependent on an industrial Machine whose insatiable appetite for ever higher levels of material throughput will eventually doom us all. A Machine and its brother, Mammon, with whom we have made a Faustian bargain. We have to somehow wriggle out of this physical and spiritual dependency on our industrial Mephistopheles to avert a collapse of industrial civilization by 2050, but continued dithering and denial makes the changes required ever more drastic year by year. Had the world begun the transition to sustainability in the 1970′s, a great deal of personal freedom and private affluence could have been preserved; as of today, it looks ever likelier than only a Leviathan invested with total power over society can haul us back from the brink of the Olduvai Gorge.

The Necessity of Green Communism, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the State

The world’s industrial infrastructure and services run on cheap fossil fuels and electricity (much of which is derived from hydrocarbons). Past global energy transitions, such as the one from biomass to coal, took 50 years to accomplish. It is not unreasonable to expect a similar timescale for the hydrocarbons to renewables transition, especially since unlike in the past we will be shifting towards energy sources with lower EROEI’s and lower energy and power densities. At the same time, we will have to deal with the problem of anthropogenic climate change, which seems to exhibit more signs of veering out of control with every passing year.

In the face of these challenges to industrial civilization, the world system may continue on one of the following three paths: 1) business as usual, 2) limits to growth, and 3) sustainable retreat. The rough shape of humanity’s ecological footprint trajectories are summarized for each scenario in the graph below, where 100 is a rough estimate for the carrying capacity of the Earth in 1960.

My vision of three possible future overshoot scenarios.


Business as Usual, or “Fantasy”

The miraculous discovery of a new energy source, embodied in the element unobtainium, enabled an uninterrupted continuation of economic progress. Energy researchers all over the world slapped their balding heads in frustration in 2012 for not discovering this energy source earlier, an energy source that was non-polluting, present throughout the world’s oceans, and very easy to extract and exploit. Just a few years later world governments embarked on a geoengineering scheme to create a cloud of self-assembling nanobots, designed to cleanse up the surplus atmospheric CO2 back to its pre-industrial levels, and hopefully not turn the world’s biosphere into “grey goo” in the process.

By the time they got ready to get going with this in 2025, to their happiness they discovered it wasn’t even necessary. Just a few days before the nanobots were due to be unleashed, the theory of anthropogenic global warming was finally exposed as a massive hoax invented by Al Gore to further his megalomaniac plans for global totalitarian socialism. In an interview, the UN climate panel’s chairman admitted, “I am deeply ashamed for having perpetuated such a massive fraud on the governments of the world”. Al Gore himself couldn’t be found for comment, the conman having been raptured into the technological singularity hours before the scandal broke.

Limits to Growth, or “Reality”

Though business-as-usual cornucopia sounds like a good plot for a literary homage to Michael Crichton, few informed people can seriously believe that technology and markets by themselves will enable us to extend our Faustian bargain with the Machine long enough to cheat Gaia when she comes to collect. The likeliest outcome of business-as-usual hubris is a flattening plateau, following by a global, cliff-like collapse in human numbers, technology, and socio-political complexity. There are four major sources of evidence for holding this theoretical viewpoint.

1) Limits to Growth. According to the findings of the widely-publicized 1972 study by the Club of Rome, exponential growth is unsustainable on a finite planet, even when markets and technological growth are accounted for. The results of the “standard run” of their World3 model contained in the 2004 updated version of the study are reproduced below. Crushed between the Scylla of resource depletion and the Charybdis of pollution overload, collapse occurs within the first half of the 21st century.

The Limits to Growth standard run leads to collapse early in the 21st century.

A recent report by Graham Turner of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality, showed that world system dynamics in the post-1972 era closely tracked the forecasts of the Limits to Growth standard run. Not good.

2) Resource Depletion. In support of the theory that the world will experience severe problems with energy are depletion studies of the three major fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, and coal. Let’s summarize each one.

Peak oil was most likely reached in 2008, and from 2011 depletion will decisively overtake new fields coming offline – most of which will be located in remote locations like deep offshore or the Arctic, and will require huge investments for exploitation to begin. Natural gas will peak by 2030, but its decline profile will be much steeper than for oil; however, there are hopes of prolonging the gas age by exploiting shale gas and coal seam gas. Finally, although on paper coal reserves should last centuries, the bulk of the deposits are very low EROEI and may even require more energy to extract than they will ever produce through combustion. It should be noted that even though US coal extraction by volume has seen continued increasing uninterrupted in recent years, when measured by total energy it peaked in 1998, and has since been on a slow downslope. Finally, tar sands, oil shale, and other unconventional sources of oil require a phenomenal amount of fresh water and natural gas to extract, they are extremely polluting, and have a very low EROEI; it is completely unfeasible that they will make good the gap.

Paul Cherfurka’s projections of future global energy usage by source.

Could renewables save us? Solar PV is improving rapidly, but it starts from an extremely low base. Wind power is already well established, but there are serious questions over its real EROEI level – can industrial civilization be run on wind, or is its real inefficiency masked over by the prior cheap oil subsidies used in the making of wind turbines? Yet the crucial problem facing wind and solar are their low energy and power densities, which makes them unsuitable for providing the base load that a stable electricity supply demands. The only real hope is to massively expand next-generation nuclear reactor construction, in conjunction with other renewables. However, this will take a intense effort spread over decades, and it is not clear that this effort will be sustained as the system comes under assault from ever fiercer energy and climate shocks – and that’s assuming uranium extraction remains profitable in net energy terms.

In conclusion, the evidence indicates that from 2030, the net energy available to industrial civilization will begin to decline; furthermore, due to diminishing marginal returns, by that time there will be little scope for more efficiency improvements. This lends support to the Limits to Growth standard run model that industrialism will decline by the first half of the 21st century due to resource shortages.

3) Tainter on diminishing returns to complexity. In his celebrated work on The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter posits that societies increase their complexity in order to solve certain problems. For instance, one of the major reasons behind the formation of the Chinese state was its provision of a bureaucratic-administrative mechanism for implementing irrigation and flood control works, which increased the carrying capacity of the land. Unfortunately, the flip side is that societies need to expend ever more organizational and physical energy to maintain a certain level of complexity, a complexity which is subject to diminishing marginal returns. Eventually, this expenditure undermines the society’s economic base and opens up a large potential gap where said society could reap the same benefits but at a lower level of complexity (and cost). At that point, there arises the risk of collapse.

Tainter’s collapse model: at C3-B1, there appears a risk of collapse back down to C1-B1, at which point “hypertrophied states” tend to use coercive tools to try to prevent this from happening.

Civilization reaches its absolute peak of power, health, well-being, etc, at C2-B2. When it begins to run up against problems, the typical reaction is to continue increasing complexity, even though marginal costs now exceed marginal benefits. At C3-B1, there appears an appreciable risk of catastrophic collapse back down to C1-B1, because at that point people would retain the same benefits but at a much lower cost. Furthermore, by this point a civilization’s natural legitimization mechanism, economic growth, will have long since failed; more artificial forms of legitimization have to be found (e.g. the idea that the Empire is sanctioned by God), as well as ever higher levels of physical coercion (e.g. the security forces, authoritarianism) – for instance, the Western Roman Empire adopted Christianity and experienced its highest levels of militarization just a century or so before its final collapse in 476 AD.

In addition to society’s tendencies to try solving its predicaments with the failing tools of the past (ever more complexity), in systems characterized by competitive peer polities, such as our own anarchic international system, there is a further reason for maintaining complexity – anyone who doesn’t can’t support an army, and those who don’t have armies get conquered for their resources. In these systems, organizational complexity is maintained absolutely regardless of costs, and the extractions necessary to sustain it are legitimized by the fact that every other state within this system is doing the same thing. Only when every unit of the system reaches economic exhaustion does the resulting power vacuum finally allow for a rapid, global collapse. A collapse more reminiscent of the relatively rapid fall of Mayan civilization, than of the Roman Empire’s slow decline over the centuries.

The Limits to Growth model has to be updated to reflect these political and geopolitical feedback loops. The likely result is that the increasingly authoritarian, “hypertrophied states” of future decades, locked in deadly competition over each for resources, will stretch out the smooth peaks shown in the Limits to Growth standard run into decades long plateaus, as shown in my graph of “World Overshoot Scenarios”. However, when collapse does finally come, it will be far, far steeper than it would have in a world without politics. The artificial prolongation of industrial civilization will result in an explosive closing of the awning “potential gap” on the complexity graph, plunging the world into famine, anarchy, and dieoff.

4) Cliodynamics. Another valuable analytical tool is the recently-developed science of “cliodynamics“, which attempts to mathematize “big history” by modeling the systems dynamics of the rise and fall of civilizations. In particular, its insights can teach us a great deal about the nature of Malthusian stress and political-demographic collapse.

Here is the basic story. Over millennial timescales, technological growth produced a secular rise in the carrying capacity of the land, which allowed the human population to grow to its current seven billions. However, over shorter timescales the Malthusian tendency for populations to grow faster than technology or the increase in carrying capacity typically resulted in diminishing per capita surpluses and a plateauing of the population. The system became fragile, as surplus stocks accumulated during the “Golden Ages” of plenty were drawn down, and climatic, political, and geopolitical perturbations during the stagnation resulted in sharp dips into dearth. During these times of dearth, peasants began to turn to banditry, producing rising internal violence in the countryside, which forced other peasants into the cities and further decreases food production. Faced with their own shortages, elite predation also grew, further squeezing the peasantry.

Eventually, a “tipping point” was reached, in which elite predation, internal violence, and depreciation of carrying-capacity improvements (e.g. roads, canals, grain silos, redistribution mechanisms, irrigation works, etc) became self-sustaining and spiraled out of control. In the ensuing “cascading collapse”, the central state withered away into a patchwork quilt of warring fiefdoms, and the drastic reduction in the carrying capacity of the land resulted biblical-scale Malthusian dieoffs. However, as soon as the violence died down, the population was found to be far below the carrying capacity of the land, and there was a new “Golden Age” of growth until it once again bumped up against the plateau of carrying capacity. This explains the basic mechanism of pre-industrial Malthusian political-demographic cycles.

Flow chart representation of the collapse dynamics in a typical Chinese political-demographic cycle.

Flow chart representation of the collapse dynamics in a typical Chinese political-demographic cycle.

Now Korotayev et al (the cliodynamicians) believe that ever since the industrial revolution, technological growth has reached such great velocities that the increases in carrying capacity accruing from it now far surpass any Malthusian pressures. According to them, the era of cyclical collapses is now at an end. However, a closer examination shows that 1) their models of technological growth are flawed – they do not account for the diminishing returns seen for technological progress in recent decades, nor 2) do they note that in most cases post-industrial technology has not been in the form of low-maintenance knowledge, but embodied in the (fossil fuel-dependent) machines of industrial civilization. But their greatest omission is that much of the post-1900 increase in carrying capacity has come not from technological growth, but from the technologically-enabled exploitation of the high-EROEI hydrocarbon “resource windfall” – oil, coal, and natural gas. Once these resources become scarce again, the technology used to exploit them will become as chimerical as the fossil fuel-powered machines and phantom carrying capacity they once supported.

The end result will be similar to the same Malthusian-era collapses analyzed by the cliodynamicians. An era in which surplus per capita draws to the level necessary for mere subsistence, characterized by dearth and famine in the bad years, and limited recoveries in the good years; a plateau that increasingly slopes down, until a series of severe perturbations (climatic disasters, resource wars, etc) so disturbs the world system that negative feedback loops take over and the entire system collapses into a prolonged Dark Age.

In conclusion, drawing on the theoretical works of systems modelers (Limits to Growth), energy modelers, collapse theorists (Tainter), and modern cliodynamicians (Korotayev, Turchin, Nefedov, Khaltourina, etc), we can paint a general outline of the next 50 years. Ever more human effort will be mobilized or requisitioned by ever more coercive “hypertrophied states” to compensate for the effects of declining emergy availability (peak oil, exploitation of lower-EROEI energy sources, diminishing returns to energy efficiency, and the effects of credit collapse, resource nationalism, and geopolitics), falling agricultural productivity (fertilizer shortages, heatwaves, rivers and fossil aquifers running dry, rising sea levels inundating coastal farmlands, etc), and other costs accruing from exponentially rising climate chaos.

Those regions which collapse first, nowadays called “failed states”, will be taken over by neo-colonial industrial powers to contain the chaos and acquire resources to buy just a little more time for their industrial civilization. Physical output will plateau and stagnate, while real living standards begin to degrade at an accelerating rate. Eventually, a series of shocks – climate catastrophes like the conflagration of the Amazon or a “hydroxyl collapse”, poor harvests resulting in global famine and pestilence, perhaps even a final, total war of late global industrialism – will finally make the Machine give up the ghost. The collapse of fossil fuel availability will render usless most modern technology, everything from microchips to electric cars and photovoltaic panels. This will result in a political-demographic collapse of unparalleled severity that reduces the human population to below one billion souls within a few decades, ushering in a post-industrial “Rust Age” on a polluted, desertifying, and drowning planet.

The "Rust Age", or "age of salvage" (M. J. Greer).

The “Rust Age”, or “age of salvage” (M. J. Greer).


Sustainable Retreat, or “Green Communism”

As shown above, business-as-usual will be anything but usual, and will almost certainly lead to impoverishment, oppression, totalitarianism, wars, and eventual global dieoff. There is still however a path out, should we choose to take it – a global “sustainable retreat” to below the limits, which if accomplished within the next generation could still stave off collapse and allow us to continue with the development of a truly sustainable civilization, one based not on growth of physical output and consumerism, but on intellectual, cultural, and spiritual self-actualization. This ideal or utopia I shall call Green Communism, a scientific fantasy in which man reaches reconciliation with Gaia, socio-economic classes disappear, and the coercive state itself withers away into oblivion.

However, Green Communism cannot be attained while human psychology remains myopic, short-sighted, competitive, and individualistic; nor is any such transition possible while the world is in overshoot and increasingly hemmed in by limits to growth. As such, a transitory period is required – an “ecotechnic dictatorship” that would concentrate onto itself the political legitimacy and coercive tools to force the world back onto a sustainable path. But first, to forestall the inevitable criticisms and condemnations, I must point out why alternative roads to the sustainable transition are no longer viable, even if they ever were in the first place.

1) The Anarchist Delusion. Disillusioned with the “System” – states, corporations, etc – many “peakists”, “doomers”, survivalists, etc, advocate community-based retreat on a spectrum ranging from weed-smoking “hippies” teaching themselves organic permaculture to “frugal patriots” holing up in their Idaho “doomsteads” with prodigious quantities of canned food and firearms. However, very few of them have truly broken off the ties that bind to industrial civilization; learning to survive on sustenance agriculture in true pre-industrial fashion is very, very hard work, and almost no-one has the will and perseverance to follow through.

Furthermore, they will receive a rude awakening in the coming era of limits to growth-induced authoritarianism and collapse. Governments don’t like anarchists, especially nasty ones. Period. One of my critics tried to prove an anarchic lifestyle works by posting a Wikipedia link to a “list of anarchist communities“. But on closer examination, practically all their modern manifestations collapsed within just a few years, either from internal causes or due to state suppression.

Perhaps the anarchists will “band together” to protect themselves, he went on to suggest? Will there be enough of them to keep the warlords away? That would certainly be a good idea as the government’s writ collapses and rural violence soars. However, one very important thing is that “bandits” are so-called violence-specialists; it is what they do, their profession. For a settled anarchist community, it will be difficult in the extreme to muster the economic, administrative, and military capabilities to successfully accomplish all three of the following necessary tasks for surviving in an anarchic environment: 1) producing enough food and goods for community subsistence, 2) managing internal conflicts, and 3) defending themselves from the bandits, psychos, and warlords. Drawing resources from one task will undermine the likelihood of fulfilling another. In practice, what will almost certainly happen is that either the anarchist communities begin paying tribute / protection money to the warlords (thus creating a dependency through which they can later be brought to heel), or they find it more profitable to become warlords themselves. After all, the first kings and nobles were all essentially just the most successful racketeers!

Yet the most essential feature of the anarchist delusion isn’t even their belief that they can make it on their own, but that the state is dispensable, unnecessary, and even harmful to the human enterprise. From the same poster: “What problems has the state solved that weren’t caused by the existence of states?”

The fundamental predicament (not problem) of most biological life-forms is their tendency to overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. One of the most powerful theories for the rise of the state was its capacity to raise the carrying capacity of the land, which postponed overshoot and collapse, and in general made state-centered societies far more powerful than the hunter-gatherer tribes that they displaced.

Now let’s turn to today’s reality. If all states were to magically vanish right now, so would the administrative and coercive tools to sustain global industrialism. Soon afterwards, the underlying carrying capacity-enhancing infrastructure such as the global oil industry, fertilizer production, cybernetics, etc, would depreciate into irrelevance from lack of maintenance. Anarchy will reign and the global population will plummet back down to the few millions of people that primitive technology and band-like social organization could support. You may dismiss or despise the hand of the state that feeds you, but you will likely sing a different tune when it withers away into your anarchic paradise.

2) Why Individual and Community Retreats are no Real Solution. Another strand of the anarchist delusion is that since collapse is unavoidable, it is best to retreat from the System while you can, pay off your debts, cut the ties that bind, etc. But quite apart from the implicit resignation to the inevitability of the untimely deaths of billions of people, it cannot be stressed enough that any collapse today will be global (see Tainter above), and the chaotic fluxes it produces will be so violent than any community, no matter how prepared or resilient, could be casually swept away by the tidal waves it would generate.

I do not deny that it pays to get personally and psychologically prepared for collapse, but this must be part and parcel of a multi-pronged political effort to avert collapse if possible, and dampen its severity should avoidance prove impossible. The idea that you can hole up in a doomstead and survive against the imminent zombie hordes is particularly inane (read the War Nerd‘s entertaining essay Apocalypse Never to find out why). Finally, defeatist notions of the inevitability of collapse – such as those advanced by Dmitry Orlov, who is strongly opposed to all forms of political activism – are in many ways as counter-productive as the mindless business-as-usual mentality of modern society.

The traditional American focus on individualism and self-reliance only worked in the age of abundance which characterized their entire history (the US GDP has been higher at the end of every decade than at the beginning since its founding). This era is at end and will never return. This will be a major shock for Americans, more so than for most people whose memories of cyclical and Malthusian dynamics are more recent, but they will all have to get used to it.

3) The Gramscian Road to Green Communism will take too long. Say what you will about them, but at least the Green Party has a political plan for a sustainable future. This plan involves changing society’s core values to embrace concepts such as “ecological wisdom” and “community-based economics”, through means of grassroots political action and infiltration of key political and economic institutions. Hopefully this will displace the pro-growth bipartisan consensus and enable the democratic enactment of policies that will steer the world back towards sustainability.

As I argued in Roads to Green Communism, however, this “soft” approach to the sustainability transition is doomed to failure. Guilt-ridden liberals may be moved to make $10 donations to Greenpeace or boycott electricity consumption for a grand total of one hour per year (on the so-called “Earth Hour”), but this will not be enough to persuade them to make real sacrifices. It gives me no joy to say this, but the hard truth is that left to themselves, free from coercion either by their peers or by the Leviathan of the state, even enlightened individuals will not take anything more than symbolic steps to reduce their ecological footprint.

Why? All humans are prone to a psychological blindsight called “creeping normalcy”, or what Jared Diamond in his book Collapse calls “landscape amnesia”. This describes a process in which slow, detrimental changes to the environment go unnoticed by the general population because of their slowness and gradualism, but whose eventual accumulated impact becomes devastating. One tragic example would be the Easter Islanders who chopped down all their trees, accelerating the tempo in the last decades of their pre-collapse civilization in order to construct ever bigger moai (statues) to honor the gods that legitimized the tribal chieftains who ruled over them. Human psychology reacts well to immediate threats, but when they are far-off and abstract – such as the declining EROEI of energy sources of climate change – mobilization is much more difficult. As the biggest McMansions and tallest skyscrapers have been erected in the present era of peak oil, there is nothing to suggest that modern civilization is any wiser than the Easter Islanders.

As of now, changing this psychology quickly will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. In the Soviet Union, it took around two generations to transform the bulk of society from having a traditionalist-peasant worldview, to an urban-secular one – and this despite uninterrupted state propaganda and coercion. Today, even most educated people see the green movement as a bit weird and extremist, if not as evil socialists planning to enslave the world. And we certainly don’t have even a single generation to wait, let alone two. Gradualism is not a solution, it is suicide.

4) Our current System is blinded by Institutional Myopia. Could the current System bail us all out, like it did the politically connected Wall Street oligarchs? Almost certainly not.

Modern society is run by experts and technocrats, if indirectly (their recommendations have to be balanced against corporate interests and the popular will, which is what politicians are there for). However, those same experts are either part of, or suborned by, the System – the sum total of the texts and power relations that make up a society’s set of beliefs. The former category, which includes government policy-makers and corporate strategists, suffers from an “institutional myopia” which gives answers in advance and precludes all questions questioning the legitimacy of their own institutions.

For instance, what can a rational, capitalist state – interested in self-preservation, predicated on unlimited economic growth, and confronted with irrefutable evidence of the dire consequences of business-as-usual greenhouse emissions on the world’s climate – do to resolve these contradictions? The answers are meaningless buzzwords and Orwellian oxymorons like “green growth”, “skeptical environmentalism”, and “clean coal”; the forbidden question relates to the efficacy of industrial capitalism as a system to confront the imminent challenges of man-made climate change.

The latter category, encompassing private think tanks and academia, have a greater degree of freedom in asking inconvenient questions. However, it is ultimately the state that pays academics their salaries. Biting the hand that feeds is always dangerous, especially if their fangs contain the poison of the forbidden question. Anathema unto them. Therefore, academia’s answers also tend to conform to the reigning paradigm.

Incidentally, this very omnipresence of this System will doom the Gramscian and anarchist approaches. For when systems come under strain, they tend to rigidify, to revert to authoritarian conservatism, and free thinkers – the only people who have any chance of averting socio-political collapse by “scanning” an innovative solution to the problem – are scapegoated as a divisive enemy by the angry, confused masses, and repressed by the coercive “hypertrophied state”, which for all its authoritarianism is a fragile, populist creature that appeases society on the easiest matters (such as repressing the powerless). From Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

At this point, decomposition rapidly becomes inevitable as “scanning” ceases, for the system no longer has the surpluses to do it. In most cases rigid behavioral controls are imposed, innovation and positive change is stymied and corruption, authoritarianism and feudalism begin to dominate … for society is enslaved to its own myths of superiority and delusions of grandeur.

… Censuses and historical detail thin, as literacy and science declined during this period to be replaced by an “increase in mysticism, and knowledge by revelation”, as well as by “increased propaganda about patriotism, ancient Roman values, and superiority over the barbarians”.

Yet this is only a stopgap measure, for by now eventual demise is inevitable:

Increasingly radical attempts to save the system, even cardinally change it, cannot permanently reserve the trend towards further complexity and disequilibrium; eventually, everyone loses faith in the system and there is a severe collapse. …

… According to RM Adams, “By the fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes”. In 476, after being denied payment or settlement in Italy, the Roman barbarian army mutinied, sacked Rome and deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor.

Even the intensified legitimization of the “hypertrophied state” vanishes, as do the coercive tools that kept it together well past the point when it should have naturally collapsed. Science and rationalism retreat, and its former agents – intellectuals, priests, tax collectors, etc – are liquidated, as the Sun dawns over a new Dark Age.

5) Technological Singularity as a Road to Green Communism? As Good wrote in 1965:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Hence, as soon as humanity and its technologies become obsolete, the biosphere’s limits to growth will become equally irrelevant to the future of intelligent life on Earth. If we manage to hold on long enough to unleash this technological singularity – and avoid its various perils and pitfalls – then the super-abundance produced by self-assembling nanotechnology will eliminate scarcity, the “dematerialization of production” will make classes obsolete, and the borders between reality and virtual reality will fade into oblivion as the Earth metamorphoses into Tlön. Fully freed from material constraints, humanity will be able to build the purest forms of Green Communism… should it wish to.

There is one problem, however – industrial civilization may not survive long enough to catapult itself out of overshoot. For the projections suggest that a singularity-driven transition to sustainability may elude us, for both “singularitarians” and the Limits to Growth proponents tend to place their respective events – Singularity and civilizational collapse – in the 2030-50 timeframe.

So which trend will win out? Will we “transcend” just as industrial civilization begins to finally collapse? Or will the world’s last research lab be burned down by starving rioters just as the world’s first, and last, strong AI pops into super-consciousness inside?

This may be the last answer industrial civilization will find out.

The Necessity of Ecotechnic Dictatorship to Force a Retreat from Collapse

In his excellent book “Our Ecotechnic Future“, Michael John Greer outlined his thoughts on the future of our civilization, which he saw as going through the following four stages: 1) “abundance industrialism” (1950-2010), 2) “scarcity industrialism” (2010-2050?), or the plateau on my “World Overshoot Scenarios” graph characterized by rising coercion, impoverishment, and resource wars, 3) the “age of salvage” (2050?-2250?), in which civilization scavenges the detritus of late industrialism to sustain a very low-level, primitive industrial system, and 4) the “ecotechnic future”, in which post-industrial technologies in spheres like renewable energy or biotechnology, scarcely-conceivable today, may reset the world on a path of truly sustainable development in harmony with Gaia. Such an ecotechnic age will be close to the Green Communist ideal.

Perhaps the humans of the ecotechnic age would even resemble the Na'vi people from the film Avatar, in which an ostensibly primitive society has managed to "network" itself into Mother Nature on an incredibly intimate level, allowing its members to lead what appear to be very fun and fulfilling lives.

Perhaps the humans of the ecotechnic age would even resemble the Na’vi people from the film Avatar, in which an ostensibly primitive society has managed to “network” itself into Mother Nature on an incredibly intimate level, allowing its members to lead what appear to be very fun and fulfilling lives.

However, is it really necessary to endure a catastrophic human dieoff and a centuries-long wait for the sustainable transition to Green Communism that may not even come about? Or perhaps there is still a chance, however slight, of effecting such a transition through a sustainable retreat starting from today, as shown under “Green Communism” in my graph of “World Overshoot Scenarios”?

I think that given the will, there’s a way – an ecotechnic dictatorship leading the people towards Green Communism.

This system will be based on three pillars – reinforcing resilience, educating the people, and preparing for collapse. These pillars will be supported by the full power of the modern state and technology.

A) Reinforcing Resilience. Technocratic central planning using the latest tools of operations research and networking to minimize waste while maximizing real living standards. The legitimacy of the state is not based on creating prosperity or opportunity, so it will be ideologically resilient in the face of the economic decline that is necessary to reduce physical throughput to levels consistent with a retreat to global sustainability. Resources will be funneled into 1) intensive, targeted research in computer science, cybernetics, sustainable energy generation and food production, geoengineering, systems dynamics, and cliodynamics, 2) the provision of social goods such as education, preventative healthcare services, high culture, and social support to the indigent, and 3) internal security and military forces necessary to defend the fledgling ecotechnic republic from hostile forces within and without.

The ecotechnic dictatorship is a democratic society. The state will make strategic decisions by balancing their decisions between opinion polls and expert panels – much like modern China’s experiment with “deliberative dictatorship“. Since corruption and economic sabotage will be immensely harmful in a world suffering from resource shortages, it will have to be stamped out without mercy. One workable method is to institute a system of universal 2-way sousveillance to detect corruption and free-riders; since this mechanism is “horizontal”, in contrast to the “vertical” nature of traditional surveillance, it will reinforce ecotechnic democracy. The people will be able to observe trials and electronically vote on criminals’ punishments.

How to maintain enthusiasm and prevent the ideological ossification of the regime’s elites? Through a dedication to meritocracy and the power of modern electronic technology to enforce transparency. Promotions will be based on technical competence and devotion to the cause as judged by one’s peers; greater power will gain one greater material perks and privileges.

One might object, how is this different from the current System that needs to be overthrown? Realistically, some level of hierarchy is necessary and inevitable. Once society acquires a certain level of size and technological development (like our own), it needs a corresponding level of socio-political complexity to sustain itself, and that in turn requires a hierarchy. You need people at the top to set certain the limits and restrictions by which the world is to be dragged back from overshoot. Unless we return to primitivism (impossible with the size of today’s populations) or manage to achieve a technological singularity (then we’ll talk about it), all hierarchy cannot be abolished without a large fall in carrying capacity. That said, under the ecotechnic dictatorship, there will be nothing on the scale of the awning inequality chasms of today. Furthermore, thanks to the power of modern networking technologies, power can be distributed horizontally to an unprecedented degree. The ecotechnic elites will be subject to greater scrutiny than those below them.

Though this all sounds restrictive of individual freedom, even dystopian, it is nonetheless a valid and probably morally superior alternative to anarchy, collapse, and dieoff. (Nonetheless, it should be borne in mind that a reversion to authoritarianism – furthermore, a socially unjust authoritarianism – is in any case virtually guaranteed in the last throes of the business-as-usual scenario). For we can only achieve a rapid enough sustainable retreat back to within the limits if the transition is backed by a powerful, global, and universal coercive force, or in other words, Leviathan.

B) Informing the People. The second pillar of the ecotechnic dictatorship is its focus on reforming human psychology from its accumulative-materialist basis to progressive, transcendental values of ecotechnic sustainability. This is the fundamental and necessary legitimization behind the ecotechnic dictatorship and its march towards Green Communism. The end goal is to coax a real “gift economy” into being (as opposed to a centrally planned one), perhaps with the help of social engineering and widespread psychosomatic therapy.

As soon as these ecotechnic values percolate throughout society, the necessity for the powerful state will vanish, and the ecotechnic dictatorship can be allowed to wither away as a new spirit of universal kindness and spiritual oneness, a state of complete sobornost, bathes humanity in the ether of Green Communism.

C) Preparing for Collapse. Though it would be great if the ecotechnic dictatorship managed “sustainable retreat” successfully, as a regime orientated towards the future it must always keep in mind the possibility of its own failure and demise, a demise that would inevitably lead to global collapse.

Hence, it will devote a black budget into making secret preparations to “buffer” human civilization against the possibility of collapse by creating Arctic “lifeboats” or repositories containing seed stocks, banks of knowledge, etc, whose locations will be entrusted to a society of dedicated Guardians. The goal of these Gaian priests and priestesses would be to function as the “bookleggers” and “memorizers” of Miller’s post-apocalyptic A Canticle for Leibowitz, preserving knowledge and culture into the post-collapse Dark Ages.

What is to be Done?

1) Is collapse under the business-as-usual scenario truly inevitable? Or am I underestimating the capability of markets and technology to overcome the restrictions posed by finite resources and the laws of thermodynamics?

2) What are the chances of effecting a “sustainable retreat” before it is too late and energy shortages and climate chaos destroy industrial civilization? Can such a transition really be carried out from the grassroots level and gradual culture change, or is the capitalist-industrial System too entrenched for that to work?

3) If an “ecotechnic dictatorship” as described above or something similar is necessary to prevent collapse, how should we go about implementing it? Through Gramscian infiltration and subversion of the current System, or a decisive revolutionary break that, in Zizek’s words, “does not occur within the coordinates of some underlying global matrix, since what it achieves is precisely the “reshuffling” of this very global matrix”?

4) How should the “ecotechnic dictatorship” legitimize itself, and how should it defend itself from its numerous enemies within and without – preferably without degenerating into all-out tyranny? Indeed, how much liberalism can we afford?

5) And how can we “globalize” the Revolution so as to prevent our ecotechnic enclave from being smothered in its cradle by outside capitalist-industrial Powers?

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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It is very likely that efforts to prevent CO2 levels from soaring to 450ppm – the level we need to stop at to have any hope of limiting temperature rise to 2C or less – will fail. This will lead to a series of climatic “tipping points”, as Gaia’s stabilizing systems fail to check runaway warming and the Earth veers into a new hothouse steady state in which the Arctic remains unfrozen year round and “zones of uninhabitability” – places where it becomes physiologically impossible for humans to survive during summer days – spread out from the equator. The basic argument is as follows:

  • The current atmosphere CO2 concentration (384ppm) correlates to the Pliocene 3mn years ago, when temperatures were 3C higher and the sea level was 25m higher. [No "hockey stick", no models even, involved; just paleoclimate].
  • This degree of warming is now inevitable; if all emissions were to stop today, as a rule of thumb, it would take around 30 years for half of that projected warming to occur as the Earth system moves towards the new equilibrium. [Consequences of heat diffusion / laws of thermodynamics].
  • Emissions aren’t stopping, but accelerating, and this will continue with the industrialization of China and India. [Economic growth as linchpin of the System].
  • Global dimming, which had hitherto partially shielded us from the rising temperatures, will start playing a much lesser role. The effects of CO2 are cumulative, soot and SO2 particulates are washed out of the atmosphere within months.
  • Beyond 2C of warming, the Earth will reach tipping points in which GW becomes self-sustaining. Such tipping points include the melting of the Arctic (reduces albedo), release of Siberian methane from melting permafrost, forests around the world turning from carbon sinks to carbon sources due to accelerated decomposition, the possible death of the Amazon rainforest, etc.
  • Though geoengineering may work, as you point out, there are also many arguments against it. It will probably be tried in the end, but only as a last-ditch throw of the dice that cannot be guaranteed to succeed.
  • Furthermore, innate human psychological features such as conservatism, denial, hedonism, and susceptibility to creeping normalcy and “landscape amnesia”, as well as the anarchic nature of the international system, means that the chances of any effective global action being taken in time is near zero.

The Copenhagen Summit, which failed to agree on anything substantial largely thanks to Chinese intransigence, is a good demonstration of the last point. The principle of state sovereignty is a prime value amongst the Chinese ruling elite, translating in practice into a zero-sum, mercantile view of global economic and political affairs, which will make compromise very difficult at a time when the country’s sights are set on breaking through into 21st century advanced industrialism (in which green technologies and geoengineering will probably play a major role). But it will not be able to achieve this breakthrough without its status as the “workshop of the world” (reliant on coal for most of its energy needs), which brings in the foreign currency needed to acquire the advanced technologies it needs to become a true superpower. Other factors to consider are 1) China’s need to maintain fast growth to soak up its growing, restless urban labor force, which requires the high economic growth that is driven by prodigious increases in fossil-fuel dependent energy usage, and 2) the risk of social and political instability if it really committed to firmer mitigation goals, with their implication of lesser growth rates.

And so on. Eventually, it will come to pass that the waning global industrial System, being increasingly overwhelmed by limits to growth, will embark on a “final gambit” in a search of a silver bullet to its energy-and-pollution predicament. Very soon geoengineering research will become a extremely important area – the process is already beginning – and within a few more decades, perhaps as soon as the 2030′s, actual physical construction will begin, probably by a coalition of countries like the US and China, etc.

For a variety of reasons, this is unlikely to work – one of my replies from a fascinating discussion on this topic at Sublime Oblivion Forums.

  1. The science is poorly understood, and despite the research I doubt this will change cardinally – the Earth is an extremely complex system. Solutions may need to be far more extensive, and hence costly, by an order of magnitude. Or alternatively we might overcompensate – “Oops we released too many sulphate particles, we have an Ice Age, sorry Russia & Canada!”
  2. Which brings me to another point – the potential for international conflict (i.e. your “unilateralism” point can be negative as easily as positive). Anything to do with blocking or diluting the Sun’s rays will have very big effect on regional climes, having the potential to cancel the El Nino system, stall the monsoons, induce desertification, drastically reduce photosynthetic potential, etc. It won’t matter if the aggrieved nations are small and weak, but if they are Great Powers they can lash out at the system. Weaponizing the climate becomes an accepted form of warfare (it kind of already is, but even more so).
  3. Another important thing is that climate change is only one part of emerging limits to growth (LtG). Linearly projecting from today, substantial geoengineering projects *might* be inexpensive enough to be implemented without significant cuts in security / military, other investments, or the consumption needed to keep people satiated. In a world facing many other pressures, key amongst them the declining EROEI of energy and an uncertain food outlook, diverting resources for geoengineering may prove to be a significant, if necessary, further strain on the entire system. Everywhere citizens will be growing tired of the ever heavier burden of the state, which will be further reinforced by their perceived arrogance in trying to take control over the weather like some kind of god.
  4. Furthermore, geoengineering can exacerbate some of the LtG stresses. If you follow thru on the releasing sulphate aerosols idea, this will reinforce global dimming and lead to reduced crop yields – a similar effect, ultimately, on food production that you would have had from the heat stress of global warming left unchecked. As I asked in The Dilemmas, would you prefer “Fire or darkness?”
  5. Finally, there’s the fact that all these solution are fragile and vulnerable to disruption. Aggrieved states who suffer from its effects. Even terrorists. For instance, one of the things I think may be done is to combine a solar sunshade with space-based solar power (which is in principle 3x as efficient as ground-based, if you exclude the costs of getting the material into space). Combining them will make a powerful synthesis that could kill two birds with one stone. However, such a huge structure, whose location is always known (“L1″), will be very vulnerable to damage and destruction from Earth for any nation with advanced rocket and/or laser capabilities.

From commentator Martin:

So in particular space mirrors are firmly in SF domain and will remain so, sulfur/sulfate particles might work and lower temperatures by fraction of centigrade as long as we are going to load to stratosphere every year as much as Mt Pinatubo eruption did.
That is because sulfur is quickly washed down on earth (effects of Mt. Pinatubo eruption didn’t last more than a year and a bit).
On the other hand, if we are going to lower temperature by even 1.5*C, then our annual global production of sulfur will not do (for linear drop of temperature you need exponentially growing sulfur load).
So really sulfur based adventure have no prospect of success.
Another approach was based on ocean fertilization with iron with hope that it will deliver a lot of CO2 gobbling algi.
However experiments have shown that it is not the case because algal bloom is swiftly followed by other organisms which are eating algi and so it quickly fizzles out.
Ideas like artificial trees are good, if one want some research funds to waste and live comfortably meantime but above that they are completely useless.

So we are left with about only one hopeful project – “cloud ships” and this may or may not work and if it does, some unexpected and undesirable problems may easily emerge.

It is not even worth to discuss geoengineering from an angle of unilateral action.
We can easily end up with one nation deliberately cooling climate and another one deliberately warming it up.
Outcome would be unpredictable and most likely very unpleasant.
Without a political agreement of major global powers geoengineering is a no go area.

Another perspective from T. Greer:

Both Anatoly (in points #1 and #4) and Martin point out that the science of geoengineering is rather shaky – it is not as if we have a laboratory to practice terraforming experiments with, right?

I do not dispute this point. Nor do I dispute that geoenginnering will have unforeseeable consequences. It is also true that there are very few technologically viable geoengineering options at this moment in time.

None of this detracts from my over all point, however. Humanity has a history of dealing with problems of today without thought of the problems of tomorrow. (An idea at the center of Mr. Tainter’s studies, to choose a work popular here.) There is no reason to expect this to change in the future. If one country is one the brink of an existential climate-inspire subsistence crisis, I doubt that they will slow down to consider the possible unforeseen consequences their actions may have — there simply will not be enough time for such.

Likewise, I do not think India is going to give a wit for how Russia will fare in an ice age.

The possibility of conflict is thus very high. If the Russians think that the Indians are about to trigger an ice age then they will doubtlessly do all they can to stop the Indians from moving forward. If this involves the utilization of military force, then it shall be utilized.

The really frightening scenario, however, is one in which many countries are attempting to manipulate the climate at the same time. We both have mentioned this in our respective posts, but I think it merits further discussion. Retaliatory climate degradation might be the future of warfare; it may very well prove to be one of the more dangerous threats to face humanity. If multiple actors are playing with the climate, the chances of any one of them messing up on a grand and irreversible scale skyrockets.

Yet even if the technology appears, costs become realistic, and the geoengineering works, the results may well be like a “dystopic world out of a science fiction story” (Ken Caldeira):

If we keep emitting greenhouse gases with the intent of offsetting the global warming with ever increasing loadings of particles in the stratosphere, we will be heading to a planet with extremely high greenhouse gases and a thick stratospheric haze that we would need to main more-or-less indefinitely. This seems to be a dystopic world out of a science fiction story. First, we can assume the oceans have been heavily acidified with shellfish and corals largely a thing of the past. We can assume that ecosystems will be greatly affected by the high CO2 / low sunlight conditions — similar to what Earth experienced hundreds of millions years ago. The sunlight would likely be very diffuse — maybe good for portrait photography, but with unknown consequences for ecosystems.

We know also that CO2 and sunlight affect Earth’s climate system in different ways. For the same amount of change in rainfall, CO2 affects temperature more than sunlight, so if we are to try to correct for changes in precipitation patterns, we will be left with some residual warming that would grow with time.

And what will this increasing loading of particles in the stratosphere do to the ozone layer and the other parts of Earth’s climate system that we depend on?

On top of all of these environmental considerations, there are socio-political considerations: We we have a cooperative world government deciding exactly how much geoengineering to deploy where? What if China were to go into decades of drought? Would they sit idly by as the Climate Intervention Bureau apparently ignores their plight? And what if political instability where to mean that for a few years, the intervention system were not maintained … all of that accumulated pent-up climate change would be unleashed upon the Earth … and perhaps make “The Day After” movie look less silly than it does.

Long-term risk reduction depends on greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Nevertheless, there is a chance that some of these options might be able to diminish short-term risk in the event of a climate crisis.

Caldeira does the sci-fi angle. I’ll do the fantasy angle, if I may.

[The heroine of the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, in front of the despotic Lord Ruler's capital of Luthadel and one of the ashmounts that cool the world enough so as to allow human survival. Art by Mike King].

I recently read the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, an original fantasy series in which all the major tropes of the genre are inverted – it is a world in which the Dark Lord has won, in which the heroine’s own altruism is a tragic flaw, and in which the final apocalypse leads to utopia.

In this world, Scadriel, the landscape is dominated by the ashmounts – volcanoes streaming a never-ending sea of ash across a brown, desolate landscape. The so-called Final Empire, presided over by the tyrannical Lord Ruler, dominates the world through a brutal political system of bureaucratic surveillance, military coercion, and feudalistic obligation. The peasant slaves are hard-pressed to eke out a subsistence existing, let alone provide the surplus to maintain the Empire with its extensive socio-political complexity; yet provide they do, under the brutal knout of their noble masters.

Yet one of its most fascinating features is that it may well be an allegory for our future artificial, controlled world, in which nature’s formerly free ecological services would have to be provided by human effort. Far from being a reflection of the Lord Ruler’s evil, the ashmounts are, in fact, intended to cool the Earth, so as to prevent it from burning up. One thousand years ago, the Lord Ruler had used a source of near boundless power, the “Well of Ascension” (the fossil fuels that enabled the rise of industrialism) to protect the world from another evil force, the Deepness (our Malthusian past) – mists that crept out in the daylight and killed the crops by depriving them of sunlight. But in using this power, he rashly moved the Earth closer to the Sun in order to burn off those mists (geoengineering); he overestimated the shift, and to prevent a fiery cataclysm, had to hurriedly create the ashmounts, and re-engineer human physiology to be able to withstand the ash (bioengineering).

From this perspective, the Lord Ruler’s conservative totalitarianism, with its Asiatic mode of production-type economic system, becomes explainable and even justifiable. To maintain the Lord Ruler’s Empire, which held evil forces at bay and created massive underground retreats and food stockpiles, there needed to be 1) extensive exploitation to squeeze our the necessary surplus from a barren land, 2) the suppression of dangerous liberalism and innovation (see past experience), and 3) there needed to be extensive legitimization of his rule (the benefits of Empire, the religion of the Steel Ministry, etc) as well as coercion (the koloss armies). Like Stalin, the Lord Ruler was a despotic Messiah, who leads his people like the God of the Old Testament.

It is not too difficult to think of futurist parallels for our own world. Like Faustus and his pet demon Mephistopheles, humanity is recklessly using its overabundance of energy to transform the world in all ways, depleting its fossil fuels (just as the Lord Ruler depleted the Well of Ascension and had to wait for it to recharge for a millennium), while the resultant pollution spells doom for many of the stabilizing mechanisms and ecological services that make the world a Goldilocks planet perfect for human habitation. (This pollution, btw, could be analogous to the force “Ruin”, the primal antithesis to the force of “Preservation”. that is unleashed when the heroine Vin lets out the power in the Well of Ascension, instead of taking it for herself like the Lord Ruler did a thousand years ago). The ashmounts could be ashboats, or “cloud boats”, to spray seawater into the atmosphere to increase cloud albedo, or fertilize the world’s oceans with iron filaments; they keep the planet cool enough for human survival, at the cost of a global dimming that depresses crop yields.

Few people understand the real necessity of the Lord Ruler’s system for human survival (“You know not what I do for mankind!”, – his dying words before being killed by the heroine), and so too the common people will curse the NWO / “world government”, with its armies of bureaucrats (obligators / Inquisitors) and transnational elites (nobles), for their resource-intensive, aesthetically-ugly geoengineering projects. (Speaking of which, it will have to be a world government of some sort to build the consensus for and concentrate the requisite resources for massive geoengineering projects). Due to popular antagonism, even more resources will have to be devoted to legitimization of the regime (propaganda about the renewable, innovative society, drawing energy from wind mills and protecting the Earth from the scorching Sun), and to coercion (no doubt involving an extensive surveillance and militarized police apparatus – much of the framework already happens to be in place, anyway, and who knows, perhaps even bioconstruct armies like the koloss to crush any rebellious provinces). Any rebels will not believe the legitimizing arguments of the NWO, seeing them as self-serving; just as Vin and her rebel comrades did not see the Lord Ruler as the indispensable God that his religion proclaimed Him to be.

Collapse is not an option, despite the massive costs accruing to maintaining this high level of complexity. Quite simply, once the extensive industrial infrastructure of the System / NWO is no longer maintained, the land will go to chaos and population dieoff will begin. This will be made worse by our unleashed forces of Ruin – global warming, which will jumpstart with earnest once the power of Preservation (the geoengineering installations) ground to a halt. Perhaps, just as in the last minutes of the Mistborn trilogy, the world will experience truly runaway warming, as civilization falls apart, the oceans begin to boil away, and the Earth turns into Venus. What then? In Mistborn, Ruin lost the atium supplies that were the fundamental source of its ruinous power; the real-life equivalent could be a cloud of self-replicating nanobots designed to cleanse the atmosphere of CO2, a cache of which was build under the NWO to release should the worse come to pass (breakdown of the geoengineering system that keeps the world habitable). But that would present its own problems, such as overshoot (clearing away so much of the CO2 that we revert to Snowball Earth). An even more apocalyptic possibility is that the nanobots mutate into a “grey goo” that spreads uncontrollably, devouring all organic matter until the surface of the Earth is entirely covered by a film of dead, grey dust, the red Sun gleaming balefully through the roiling sea of inverted ashen waves hiding the star-spangled heavens above.

Eventually, Ruin will win over Preservation in our solar system, and eventually the universe. Second Law of Thermodynamics and all that. All order has a tendency to degenerate into chaos, though some interesting patterns and complex patterns like human civilization can appear in between. If you consider our current civilization to have some kind of positive worth or value, then it follows that it is worthwhile trying to minimize its chances of coming to a sticky, premature end. The most effective way of doing that is to embark on the road to Green Communism.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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As someone who has stuck his neck out for the imminent reality of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in both his real and online life, it would be fitting for me to comment on the Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident (and as per usual, what was originally meant as a “comment” has blossomed into a long post). Anyhow, at least to me, the Climategate sage illustrates three things.

  1. Part of the “hockey stick” hypothesis – that pre-20th century global temperatures were essentially horizontal – is seriously challenged, perhaps sunk. However, contrary to denier rhetoric, the emails do not discredit AGW theory itself, nor do they lessen the magnitude of our current predicament, nor do they contain any hint of an overarching global conspiracy to enslave us under a green socialist NWO.
  2. Some academics form mafia-like cliques to promote themselves. Having many relatives and acquaintances who work in academia and have, at times, suffered from these cliques, these “revelations” are nothing new to me. Science stopped being purely about science ever since it evolved beyond the preserve of moneyed men with time to kill.
  3. It sheds far less light on the theory of AGW per se, than on some unsavory researchers and the AGW deniers (or “climate skeptics”) themselves. In particular, the ferocity with which the latter have latched on to the stolen emails as “proof” that AGW is a giant scam only testifies to their own paranoid desperation, but one that is disturbingly successful at swaying the public opinion. To the casual observer, this is further evidence for the intractability of our Limits to Growth dilemma; even “social capital”, i.e. the public’s tolerance for necessary but painful decisions, is growing short.

Why AGW is Real

Read my Top 10 AGW Denial Myths again. How often was the hockey stick graph mentioned? Just once – and furthermore, as half an answer. Based on this rough, but nonetheless fairly typical, example of pro-AGW arguments, the work of Mann at al was thus only responsible for, at best, 2.5% of the entire theory (remember that the late 20th-century temperature spike is still undisputed, it’s their suppression of the Medieval Warm Period that is discredited). There’s more on the matter from Real Climate here and here which gives a needed wider perspective, or see George Monbiot’s The Knights Carbonic for an easier and funnier read.

Contrary to the AGW denier position, amongst the “AGW consensus” that they love to deride, no-one is disputing that natural variability, usually accruing from fluctuations in solar irradiation, can account for spikes and troughs in the global climate well before the age of mass industrialism. That does not mean that humanity’s huge buildup of atmospheric CO2 is inconsequential; both theory and the current physical evidence indicate that the extra CO2, left to business-as-usual, will force the global climatic system into a hotter, more dynamic state (portents are already seen in the melting Arctic and crumbling infrastructure of the High North). As I wrote on another blog:

There are many models from respected scientific establishments indicating that a doubling of CO2 levels will lead to 5-6C global temperature rise (which as I understand it, are essentially based on solving a massive grid of heat equations in 3D – i.e., just physics, albeit with a large degree of uncertainty when applied to RL because we don’t know the coefficients with a high enough degree of precision). However, paleoclimate evidence concurs with the higher end predictions (5-6C) – our current atmospheric CO2 level of 384+ppm was last observed during the Pliocene 3mn years ago, when global temperatures soared by 3C. Since solar radiation was not substantially different from today then, this means that the kinds of projections made in the higher-end IPCC forecasts (or Arrhenius, for that matter) are likely valid.

Secondly, you point out that there may be powerful negative feedbacks and moderating factors, which are left out of the models due to their complexity. Yes, no-one disputes that. But the same holds for the opposite, e.g. a melting Arctic will reduce ice albedo and accelerate warming in the High North, which will in turn release more methane from the defrosting permafrost. Why do you think the negative feedbacks will be stronger than the positive ones? And what about the problem of global dimming which suggests that the real magnitude of global warming has been underestimated in the past decades because of the artificial cooling effect of increased aerosol emissions like soot and SO2 particulates?

Academia is a Mafia

Like in any bureaucracy where people compete for higher status and salary, there will form cliques dedicated to furthering the causes of their members. As bitter and vindictive scientific disputes throughout history prove, academia is far from the idyllic ivory tower paradise of popular imagination. I agree that the conduct of the researchers in question here is quite reprehensible, and sullies the reputation of the entire climate science community in the public eye. To show I’m honest, here’s a link to a skeptic (yes, a real skeptic, not a denier) sent me by a reader – Climategate and Scientific Conduct.

That said, academia remains a vital pillar of industrial civilization. It is a major driver of technological growth (which is at the root of almost all the secular increase in global carrying capacity) – and the institution which, because of its relative independence compared to most think-tanks, government agencies, or corporations, can provide the most effective “scanning” for possible solutions to our overshooting of the Earth’s carrying capacity.

However, nothing truly radical can be expected of academics, because they are part of the capitalist-industrialist System, its high priests, and cannot be expected to seriously challenge any of its core tenets. Quoting from this site’s introduction to my forthcoming book:

The latter category, encompassing private think tanks and academia, have a greater degree of freedom in asking questions. However, it is ultimately the state that pays academics their salaries. Biting the hand that feeds is always dangerous, especially if their fangs contain the poison of the forbidden question. Anathema unto them. Therefore, academia’s answers also tend to conform to the reigning paradigm – or even reinforce it further with elaborate universal theories such as Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” eschatology, which alleges that Western liberal democracy is the final phase of mankind’s ideological evolution.

Academia are an essentially conservative body. The IPCC relies on consensus and generally excludes the most controversial and “pessimistic” research from its reports, of which there are more and more of, mostly focusing on the positive feedback loops that could “tip” the world over into a runaway global warming of 5C+, a degree of warming (no pun intended) that will make widening swathes of the Earth simply physically uninhabitable and will almost certainly spell the end for industrial civilization.

The Real Problem

Since geoengineering is unlikely to work, what is needed now is truly drastic action, sustainable retreat instead of business-as-usual development, something like a transition to green socialism:

  • World unity – to prevent the climate and resource wars which will otherwise become inevitable, and to prevent nations from free-riding on others’ sacrifices.
  • Social leveling – forcefully stymieing growth under capitalism amounts to an extremely regressive tax, which the people won’t stand for – at least in liberal democracies*.
  • Bigger state – to promote anti-industrial values in favor of older, communal values; to enforce social leveling / economic coercion; and to co-opt or destroy alternate sources of political power (be they multi-national corporations, terrorists, religious leaders, etc) that could challenge the worldwide green agenda.

And yes, I realize that this all sounds pretty creepy and Orwellian. This is one respect in which the deniers really do have a point, so if they suspect that the “elites” have this objective in mind, no wonder they are so fervent in opposing AGW theory with such a blatant disregard for logic and facts. But what the deniers haven’t noticed that no-one in government or even mainstream journalism is calling for the above measures, which I by now believe are the only way to possibly avert catastrophe a few decades down the road. Some policy-makers may well be aware of humanity’s predicament, but are simply too imprisoned by public opinion to ever dare voice it out aloud.

* Pursuing carbon emissions reduction mechanisms under the capitalist-industrial System, as currently proposed, is not going to work at any level. In particular, the idea of doing carbon rationing by introducing a virtual parallel currency inter-changeable with real money is unrealizable – it is extremely regressive, and unlikely to pass in democracies (and if does will breed social instability – if you make the cost of carbon high enough to have any substantial impact). Furthermore, nation-states are not going to risk implementing such drastic measures within their borders unless most other states are doing it – otherwise, it would be too hard to convince their electorates that the effort, which is in the end futile (due to non-compliance and free-riding), is worth it. Note that cooperation in a multi-player game like this is exceedingly hard, and no state will want to be the first to take the plunge. These psychological factors spell doom for any attempt at national cap-and-trade or international contraction-and-convergence.

Climategate: The Death of Social Capital

Perhaps at a subconscious level people really do realize our predicament, and after all, denial is the first phase of recovery (though in all fairness, some have moved on to bargaining – “geoengineering, markets, technology, aliens!”, while others have even advanced onto the depressive state – “it’s so bad it’s too late to do anything anyway”). But mostly, it’s still anger and denial. Around 59% of Britons, to be precise, to whom populist blowhards like James Delingpole cater to (together with the stunningly ignorant and Russophobic Tim Collard; I think Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is the Telegraph‘s only good columnist).

Speaking of Russia, Russia Today has latched onto this story, seeing a good market for those Anglo-Saxons frustrated with their “globalist”, “NWOish” media (in some ways, a funny fit, though on second thought quite logical). Furthermore, it’s also well known that Russia is one of the few countries, along with Canada, to benefit from global warming, as I pointed out in Towards a New Russian Century? So perhaps the Kremlin has given signals to its media to downplay AGW? To be honest, I doubt it – frankly, I doubt the Russian government’s strategic vision is that good. But it’s food for thought.

Below is an interview with a frothing Alex Jones.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdTYxis6UZ0&w=425&h=344]

And another one featuring a debate between Aleksey Kokorin (pro-AGW), the WWF’s Climate Program Coordination in Russia, and Piers Corbyn (anti-AGW), a maverick British weather forecaster. Watch it, it gets quite heated in the end. ;)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anHuOAXIl0M&w=425&h=344]

[Kokorin is incorrect that there was no malaria in Russia prior to the period of accelerated global warming - it was a major scourge, during summer when even Siberia became very warm due to its continental landmass, prior to eradication efforts in the 1930's. However, both the scope and duration of the region of malarial danger has increased substantially since the 1990's in Russia, and almost all GW forecasts project an increase in malarial infestation. Unfortunately, Kokorin has a very poor interview technique and spends most of his time appealing to authority, which just happens to be under question after Climategate. Corbyn comes across as a loon. But I suspect more people will believe him regardless.]

Anyhow, why am I showcasing this denier propaganda? To illustrate how individuals acting for their own individual, corporate, or national gain, are free to pander to the fears and sensibilities of electorates to forestall the necessary changes and to tar those pushing for them, even just by association (as pointed out, the damage to the public’s perception of the pro-AGW will be far out of proportion to the actual damage on its internal consistency / validity, which is pretty minimal). This is not an indictment of democracy, except perhaps by implication; just an observation.

5. Climategate: A Turning Point in the Malthusian Loop?

Furthermore, this illustrates another facet of our Limits to Growth predicament. At least in their modeling, the authors stuck to quantitative aspects such as the resource base, the production base, the agricultural base, pollution, services, etc. One of the major things they neglect, however, is the socio-political side of things – the “social capital” that sustains political legitimacy, especially important for liberal democracies that only have limited coercive tools at their disposal.

Real living standards have grown slowly, for some income groups even stagnated, since the 1970′s. Some attribute this to the pernicious influence of neoliberalism; I see it as one of the earliest expressions of approaching limits, of which the 2008 economic crisis is part and parcel (global energy production stopped growing exponentially from the 1970′s). At this point of the “Malthusian Loop” (see my article The Belief Matrix), the hoi polloi are becoming disillusioned, even restless.

Before the industrial era, all societies were subject to Malthusian dynamics in which population growth saturated the carrying capacity of the land and leveled off at an unstable plateau. The period of high growth was typically regarded as a Golden Age of bucolic virtue (e.g. republican Rome), which I’ve labeled The Rise of Empire. Because of limits to growth, this could not last. Subsistence stress resulted in the growth of cities and large standing armies to soak up the landless poor, and literate bureaucrats to manage the new problems. Paradoxically, even as problems loomed on the horizons many aspects of culture like literacy, inventiveness, etc, flourished. This is because society encouraged its thinkers to “scan” for solutions to these problems. [Society moves towards down on the Belief Matrix, towards "Rationalism" / "The Idea of the West"].

However, these same cities and intelligentsia fuel feelings of resentment on the part of peasants on account of a) their perceived decadence and lasciviousness and b) the fact that said degenerates are supported by their taxes. To accommodate the rising reaction and diminishing surpluses, politicians and kings are forced to go back to the future. Way back. [There is a reaction against "Rationalism", and society moves up along the Belief Matrix towards "Mysticism"]. Quoting from my notes on Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

At this point, decomposition rapidly becomes inevitable as “scanning” ceases, for the system no longer has the surpluses to do it. In most cases rigid behavioral controls are imposed, innovation and positive change is stymied and corruption, authoritarianism and feudalism begin to dominate … for society is enslaved to its own myths of superiority and delusions of grandeur.

… Censuses and historical detail thin, as literacy and science declined during this period to be replaced by an “increase in mysticism, and knowledge by revelation”, as well as by “increased propaganda about patriotism, ancient Roman values, and superiority over the barbarians”.

Yet this is only a stopgap measure, for by now eventual demise is inevitable:

Increasingly radical attempts to save the system, even cardinally change it, cannot permanently reserve the trend towards further complexity and disequilibrium; eventually, everyone loses faith in the system and there is a severe collapse. …

… According to RM Adams, “By the fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes”. In 476, after being denied payment or settlement in Italy, the Roman barbarian army mutinied, sacked Rome and deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor.

In other words, society begins by rejecting the “Idea of the West” (in Roman times, proxied by “rule of law” and Greek scientific-rationalism), and the state intensifies efforts to both legitimize itself and coerce people into believing in it. But nonetheless, a breaking point is eventually reached and society loses faith in the state (hitherto, tradition), culminating in the collapse of civilization, a prolonged period of anarchy and reversion to older forms of social existence focused on family, clan and community (denoted as The Collapse of Civilization).

Mark Lynas bewails the war on science in Leaked emails mark dangerous shift in climate denial strategy.

And the strategy is simple. Given that scientists are one of society’s most trusted groups (unlike journalists or politicians), the climate denial movement has begun a battle to undermine public trust in climate scientists themselves. No more will the legions of anonymous researchers who collect and interpret data from meteorological stations, satellites and ice cores be considered above the fray – they now run the risk of personal attacks, exposure of their private lives and vilification.

It is important to understand the significance of this. Scientists are not politicians. They are not used to communicating publicly. They trust in their objectivity, the objectivity of their peers, and the rigour of only citing work published in learned journals. They will have private views, but are very used to keeping these out of their work – indeed the entire scientific method is based on conducting research which can be replicated by peers in order to check its accuracy and objectivity.

Like the 9/11 conspiracy theories before it, the global warming conspiracy is palpably absurd. The idea that scientists have teamed up with governments and the United Nations to foist some kind of social control project on an unwary public is laughable – it would need conspiratorial activities involving thousands of people, for a start..

None of this would matter if the public weren’t fooled. But they are. Polls show climate “scepticism” is rising, perhaps even to a majority position, on both sides of the Atlantic. Presumably public trust in climate change scientists is falling commensurately. This will in turn undermine consensus in mitigating climate change – which is of course the very intention of the deniers in the first place.

I expect an intensification of the war on science in the decades ahead. Climategate proves just how shallow “social capital” really is. Is there an economic crisis? Too bad, let’s stimulate the economy with even more debt-driven spending and forget those pesky greens (too bad we’ll see more and more peak oil-driven economic crises in the future, the next one probably in 2011-12). Is there at least one group of ethically-challenged climate researchers? Too bad, let’s dismiss all of them. With attitudes like this, it is impossible to surmount our Limits to Growth predicament.

The strongmen who will replace internationalist liberal democracy before the final demise of industrial civilization will have little interest in people even asking the wrong questions, let alone venturing the correct answers. Those that don’t toe the party line, be they high priests or peasant grunts, will be strung up, the old order purged and overthrown. “Scanning” will end. The show may be fun to watch, though increasingly dangerous.

What is to be Done?

Lynas ends his piece with this limp-wristed plea:

We have to start accentuating the positive, rather than constantly invoking apocalypse. Getting off fossil fuels is a necessity, but that does not mean that people’s lives must be made harder or more austere. Forget all the “war economy” analogies, locally grown jam and appeals to save old clothes. Our message needs to be a forward-looking one of hope, prosperity and technological progress.

Unfortunately, I am almost 100% certain this will not work. The AGW movement thrives on (justified) alarmism. Forsaking this, especially at this late stage of the game, will only serve to relegate the issues to the backburner (until it burns us all). If it hadn’t been for their depictions of fiery Hell, the high priests of any civilization wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective at preventing sin, or legitimizing the state that made both sins and high priests possible. (In a collapsed anarchy, there is neither).

Revolutions aren’t made by sissies, not when the people themselves are against the revolutionaries anyway. We must press on and attack, undermine the capitalist-industrial System in every way possible. (Necessary disclaimer: legally, of course). The time for waiting, for pointless Earth Days and meaningless street solicitations for Greenpeace, or for green Gramscian subversion to show results, is past. The hour is late. Green socialism must be pursued with Bolshevik fervor.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Not only is global warming a real and present threat that may yet in conjunction with impending energy shortages doom industrial civilization, it may have even been dangerously underestimated. “What have you been smoking!?,” you might say to me. Get off the doom train and enjoy the Sun. Unfortunately, we might not have much of it during the next decades – at least metaphorically speaking. To see why, I recommend you watch this video on global dimming or read its transcript.

So here’s the plot-line. After 9/11, the US air fleet was grounded for three days in the name of national security. Though presumably a major inconvenience for travelers, it was a boon for climatologist David Travis who was studying the effects of contrails, or vapor trails, left behind by high-flying aircraft on the world’s climate.

He predicted that removing contrails would have a significant impact on global temperatures, but was shocked to discover that the daily temperature range – the difference between the hottest and coldest temperature measures in a day – shifted up by an unprecedented 1.1C during those three days!

The Beginning

This story begins with Gerald Stanhill, who was tasked to measuring solar radiation over Israel as part of its plans to develop an irrigation system in the 1950′s. Repeating these experiments in the 1980′s, he found that there had been a whopping 22% drop in solar radiation over Israel!

The results were dismissed by mainstream researchers, who could not believe that the Earth’s atmosphere was darkening because there had begun a clear warming trend from the 1970′s. But then Beate Liepert combed through meteorological records in Germany and discovered the same thing. Working independently, Stanhill and Liepert discovered that from the 1950′s to the early 1990′s, the level of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface had dropped 9% in Antarctica, 10% in the USA, 16% in parts of the British Isles and almost 30% in Russia. They christened the phenomenon global dimming.

Global Dimming

Scientists still ignored these results, since they could not square global dimming with global warming.

In Australia, two researchers, Michael Roderick and Graham Farquhar, were investigating the factors influencing the so-called “pan evaporation rate”. Basically this is a really boring set of repeated experiments in which you fill up a pan of water, leave it out in the Sun for constant intervals of time and plot a time series of how much water vanishes during those periods. Really sad. But very useful in agricultural science.

Their research indicated that the key things determining evaporation rates are wind levels, humidity and the brightness of sunlight, with the latter dominant (the photons kick the water molecules out of the pan into the atmosphere). Temperatures actually play only a relatively minor role. So they reasoned that the number of photons hitting the Earth’s surface was going down…but why?

Mike Roderick happened across a paper called “Evaporation Losing Its Strength” in the magazine Nature, which reported a global decline in pan evaporation rates across the US, Europe and Russia. Putting two and two together, they compared it with the decline in observed sunlight from Stanhill’s and Liepert’s work. The trends towards decline matched perfectly.

The global dimming theory now had a bright future.

Reflecting Away the Asian Monsoon?

During the mid-1990′s climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan noticed a decline in sunlight over large parts of the Indian Ocean. He reasoned this was due to atmospheric pollution. Industrial civilization emits soot and sulfate particulates into the atmosphere, creating the hazes which shroud its major cities.

This effect is especially pronounced over the plains of northern India, where the fires from hundreds of millions of primitive peasant cook-stoves and the exhaust from the millions of rickshaws that ply its gridlocked cities play a major part in forming the “Asian Brown Cloud”, the dusky haze that envelops much of South Asia.

A multinational experiment was conducted to study this in more detail in the Maldives. In the north, air is polluted by aerosols from the Indian subcontinent; in the southernmost islands, it is cleared away by clean Antarctic winds. This fortunate conjunction lent itself well to comparative study.

When water vapor attaches itself onto naturally occurring particles, they eventually become too heavy to remain airborne and fall to the ground as rain. There are far more particles suspended in polluted air – ash, soot, sulfur dioxide, etc – than in normal air. By a factor of 10, to be precise. Thus the man-made particles provide ten times as many sites for water droplets to attach themselves to. Therefore, polluted clouds contain many more water droplets than naturally occurring clouds – each one far smaller than it would be naturally.

Many small water droplets reflect more sunlight than a few larger ones, so polluted clouds reflect far more light back into space, preventing the Sun’s heat from getting through. This is the mechanism by which global dimming works – not only are the particles themselves reflecting more sunlight, but most importantly they form brighter clouds over polluted areas.

(I think this is also a feedback mechanism. During Ice Ages, you have a lot of dust-laden winds which would reflect back sunlight, dim the Earth and reduce evaporation rates, which in turn would lead to dessication and more dust. When the Earth warms, more vegetation appears and deserts eventually contract once the system reaches an equilibrium, so more sunlight reaches through, increasing the power of the Earth’s hydrological engine.)

Satellite images revealed this global dimming effect was not just limited to India, but also encompassed China extending to the Pacific, Western Europe extending into Africa, the British Isles, etc.

These clouds could alter the world’s rainfall patterns. This may have already led to the first global dimming Holocaust.

There was a major famine in 1984 in Ethiopia, partly caused by a decades-long drought across the Sahel. The area is crucially reliant on a short wet season created by the summer monsoon.

This monsoon depends on the Sun heating the Atlantic north of the Equator, drawing the tropical rain belt northward and bringing rain to the Sahel. This mechanism failed frequently during the 1970′s and 1980′s.

Leon Rotstayn was puzzled by this phenomenon because his climate models indicated that pollution blowing in from Europe and the US over the Atlantic should have little effect on the Sahel’s rainfall patterns. But taking the new Maldives findings into account, he found that the resultant brighter clouds would reflect more sunlight in space, cooling the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently the equatorial rain bands would fail to move as far north, spelling doom for the benighted denizens of the Sahel.

From the 1990′s, there were serious moves towards regulating aerosol emissions in Europe and the US. Scrubbers were installed on factory chimneys, fuel was cleansed of sulfur and cars acquired catalytic converters. The rains returned to the Sahel and the droughts have receded in recent years.

However, the “Asian Brown Cloud” is still growing and as noted earlier the Asian monsoons that sustain 3bn people are crucially dependent on the temperature gradient between land and oceans. These gradients will diminish in the presence of major dimming. Furthermore, could it be that the reason El Nino has increased in recent years (in contrast to the historical record, in which it usually flares up only when the world is colder, i.e. when less sunlight reached the Earth) is due to diminished solar intensity over the west Pacific “fire-stove” off the Indonesian coast that drives this cycle?

From the Frying Pan into the Fire – Accelerated Global Warming

So the world decides to clean up its act. Quite literally. Global dimming eases, the monsoons return to stability and everything will be nice and dandy, right?

Unfortunately not. For global dimming has been masking us from an even greater threat – very fast global warming.

As shown in this satellite photo of the Western US, though contrails are individually small when there are many of them they can blanket the whole sky. Now if according to Travis’ calculations just a three day interruption in air travel can raise the daily temperature range by more than 1.1C – a unprecedentedly sharp jump, then what would happen to global temperatures if all industrial activity were to collapse tomorrow?

The slight global cooling from the 1950′s to the 1970′s may have been due to rapidly rising pollution whose immediate cooling effects overwhelmed the as yet modest effects of global warming (whose impact is not immediate, but stretched over decades with a “half-life” – when the climate system moves half the way to its new equilibrium – of around 30 years). However, since then pollution control in the industrialized world coupled with the end of exponential growth in world hydrocarbons extraction allowed the warming trend to regain the initiative.

The effects are already observable in Europe. During the 1980′s, east-central Europe was an environmental hellhole of hanging smogs, acid rain and wilted forests. The central focus was at the so-called “Black Triangle”, on the borders of Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The collapse of Communism cleaned away the blight, but nature doesn’t provide free lunches. Europe cutting its pollution may have saved millions of Sahelians and added a few years to the life expectancy of the denizens of Dresden, but temperatures too started rising rapidly – culminating in the ferocious summer heatwave of 2003, which produced 35,000 excess deaths. Within a few decades, this will be the norm; within a few decades more, much of the Mediterranean may become desert.

If global dimming has such a big and immediate impact on temperatures, then this means that global warming is in fact a far stronger beast than previously thought. Furthermore, most aerosol pollutants are washed out of the atmosphere or broken down by hydroxyl within days; CO2 accumulates and stays up there for centuries. In the long run, and absent conscious human intervention, CO2 and global warming will win out.

The Dilemmas of Global Dimming

Once clean air regulations and/or depleting hydrocarbon stocks force a stop to or reversal of “dirty” pollution, which produces a cooling effect, then warming will hit the Earth with full force – by then no doubt accelerated by positive feedbacks like the decreasing ice-albedo effect, ocean acidification, vegetation dieoff and Siberian methane releases.

Global warming will follow the upper end of the IPCC’s projections (6.4C rise by 2100), or even exceed them altogether. We may hit 2C as soon as 2030, initiating the melting of the polar icecaps and dooming the world’s coastal cities. A rise of 4C, perhaps as soon as 2040, will spell the death of the Amazon. The fin de siècle climate may be as much as 10C hotter than today, which implies certain doom for industrial civilization as the (electronic-cyber) map collapses from the assault of the desert of the real.

No wonder then that stratospheric sulfur particulate emissions are one of the leading contenders for geo-engineering plans to “correct” the world’s climate should global warming veer out of control, this idea being proposed by Mikhail Budyko as early as 1974. Or we could try to initiate a hydroxyl collapse so that pollution no longer gets cleansed out and accumulates like CO2, shielding us from the Sun’s wrath.

Of course, both paths – global warming or global dimming – will have catastrophic impacts on world food production. Increasing the global aerosol cover on such a large scale is a huge undertaking in political and social costs. One way to do it is to increase coal burning and to remove the scrubbers from factory chimneys and other such amenities of today’s life. In the future, clean air may become a luxury.

Doing this will be quite cheap – coal is still plentiful, even if the mined ores are constantly declining in energy density, and removing pollution controls will significantly increase its EROEI (energy return on energy invested), which will give a boost to an industrial civilization by now on the verge of collapse. However, embarking on this project will be difficult to explain to citizens already tired of the dead hand of government in their lives, for by now net returns to complexity will be decidedly negative (Tainter). Furthermore, not all nations will benefit or agree to this project, though they will no doubt be bullied into line should the Great Powers reach a common agreement.

However, quite apart from further postponing the inevitable day of reckoning and increasing its magnitude when comes, darkening the world could shut down the Asian monsoon and drastically change the world’s weather patterns.

If global warming is to go unchallenged by global dimming, however, it will be all the faster and more catastrophic. Beyond a 3C rise, the heat will wreck the world’s mid-latitudinal breadbaskets and cause staple crop yields in overpopulated nations like China and India to plummet.

Fire or darkness? That is one hell of a predicament.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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I’ve long viewed the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denial movement with a certain sense of bemusement. The causal links are rock-solid – could it really be a coincidence that atmospheric CO2 levels started rising at the very same moment as industrial civilization got into swing, within decades reaching magnitudes big enough to decisively interrupt the glacial-interglacial cycle that previously held steady for hundreds of thousands of years? Is it really surprising that given the heat-absorbing properties of CO2 (known to science since the 18th century), global temperatures entered into a period of steep ascent since the 1970s, rising by around 0.9C from the 1900-1910 period to the last decade? Occam’s Razor anyone? And considering that only 6C or so separate us from the Ice Ages, when ice sheets descended into central Europe, southern England was a polar wasteland scoured by icy, dust-laden winds and dessication affected even the tropics, should not even the possibility of seeing the world warm by up to 6.4C during this century – corresponding to the high end of the IPCC’s forecasts in 2007 – invoke a certain level of concern?

I plan to write more on climate change, since it is going to be one of the key trends of this century (along with resource depletion and growth in computing power). But for now – and to forestall any future objections – I would like to take a moment to expose the top myths and misconceptions of AGW deniers.

10

It’s all a conspiracy – scientists want research funding and environmentalists want to impose socialism on us.

Frankly the idea that tens of thousands are colluding in a massive conspiracy is risible. If anything it is the denier camp which has economic incentives to promote their views, given the funding they receive from the fossil-fuel industry. The Bush administration scientists pursued a campaign of disinformation and outright censorship regarding AGW. So who are the real conspirators?

9

In past warmings temperatures in Antarctica began rising some 800 years prior to rising CO2.

The warmings took 5000 years to complete, so CO2 can’t account for just 1/6 of it. The initial warming is likely related to the Earth’s orbital cycles around the Sun. After a certain critical level of temperature rise is passed, more CO2 is released into the atmosphere – perhaps from its deep ocean sinks, since it takes around a millennium to diffuse heat to the ocean depths. This further amplifies warming in a positive feedback loop. Read more here and here.

8

There is no scientific consensus on AGW. And even if there is, it doesn’t mean it’s right.

Yes there is. In a January 2009 poll, 97% of climatologists active in research today said they believed that “human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures”. A 2004 study by Naomi Oreskes of close to a thousand papers related to global climate change found that not one rejected the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.

Though consensuses are sometimes wrong, they are right in the vast majority of cases. Though Patrick Michaels may claim there is a “paradigm problem” (borrowing from T. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions) with the conservative IPCC which serves to suppress mavericks, it goes the other way too – the IPCC generally neglects to mention new, outlying research which suggests that climate may change at a much more sudden and violent pace because of previously-unknown positive feedbacks and underestimated climate sensitivity.

7

Satellite sensors and equipment on weather balloons show evidence of cooling, thus disproving that eight of the hottest years have been since 1998 and other sensationalist claims.

Satellites don’t just measure the troposphere (the lowest level of the atmosphere) – which is what matters – in isolation, but also the higher stratosphere. The latter is expected to cool during global warming, because more heat is absorbed by the Earth and less is re-radiated into space. Furthermore, satellites are dependent on weekly recalibration by weather balloons so they cannot even be said to be independent.

As for the weather balloons, the problem is that during the 1960′s and 1970′s their on-board thermometers were not shielded from the Sun’s glare – thus inflating temperatures for that time period. Since this (obvious) oversight was fixed in the past couple of decades, the juxtaposed records appear to invalidate global warming…appear being the operative word. For when the analysis is restricted to just night-time measurements, surely enough the data shows a clear warming trend.

6

With “friends” like Al Gore, the global warming lobby needs no enemies!

Al Gore is a popularizer who happens to make good money from his activities. He has an admirable spirit of capitalist enterprise. Good for him. For the record, I haven’t even watched An Inconvenient Truth in full (and don’t plan to any time soon – it is nothing more than a basic and long-winded intro to the subject). The pilot fishes who drone on about AGW-supporters being “Gore’s dupes” are (US-centric) idiots.

And though Jurassic Park was brilliant and Prey was very good, with “friends” like Michael Crichton the AWG denial lobby needs no enemies!

5

Surface measurements indicating warming are flawed because increasing urbanization over the past few decades skewed the global data upwards, since cities hang on to heat better than the natural landscape.

Intuitively unlikely, because the greatest warming took place over Arctic regions well away from big population centers (global warming is more severe there because retreating ice and reduces snowfall diminishes the albedo of the land, resulting in greater heat absorption). Furthermore, urban heat islands occur mainly at night and are reduced in windy conditions. A study showed that global temperatures have risen as much on windy nights as on calm nights, “indicating that the observed overall warming is not a consequence of urban development”.

4

The global warming alarmists base their theories of man-made climate change on spurious allegations of a “Hockey Stick”, and neglect the dominant role of water vapor as a greenhouse gas.

Late 20th century temperatures are indeed anomalously high relative to the past millennium, thus forming a hockey stick on a temperature over time graph for the period. Evidence for AGW is far more extensive that just this, however.

Although water vapor is indeed acknowledged to be the most important greenhouse gas, it is primarily a feedback because of its extremely short (ie measured in days) residence time in the atmosphere. This means it merely responds to forcings such as CO2 levels or solar radiation. Increased anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases will amplify the greenhouse effect, strengthen evaporation and increase the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere.

3

You can’t use computer models to predict something as complex and chaotic as the global climate.

Though the details are indeed hard to capture, it is easy to see that a thicker blanket of greenhouse gases will cause the Earth to absorb more heat and force the climate system into a new, hotter and more energetic equilibrium. It’s also clear that due to changes in albedo, some areas will warm faster than others and global water and air flows will be altered. There is nothing wrong with using computers to model them by solving lots of physical equations – it’s much quicker than doing it by hand (speaking of which, in the 1890′s the Norwegian chemist Svante Arrhenius solved the riddle of the Ice Ages, attributing it to and correctly predicting the lower CO2 levels of that time; using the same method, he forecast a temperature rise of 5-6C for a doubling of CO2 levels, thus almost mirroring the IPCC’s high-end scenarios). Finally, it’s not all computer models, of course – there’s also paleoclimatic studies, which if anything hint at an even more pessimistic state of affairs. Our current atmospheric CO2 level of 384+ ppm was last observed during the Pliocene 3mn years ago, when global temperatures soared by 3C.

2

Climate fluctuations are all down to solar cycles and cosmic rays.

This does not account for the strong warming seen since the 1970′s – as you can see in the graph below, direct measurements of solar output since 1978 show a steady rise and fall over the 11-year sunspot cycle, with no upwards or downward trend.

Though there are arguments about the relative importance of solar forcing in the distant past, it is clear that in the present day its effects have been largely swamped by the sheer amount of CO2 we’ve emitted – though it continues playing an important role as perhaps illustrated by how the 1998-2003 period of mid-latitudinal drought coincided with the peak of the most recent wave.

Similarly, cosmic rays can’t explain the recent warming either.

1

Global warming my ass! There’s a mighty blizzard where I live right now!

Weather is not climate. Using this example as “proof” of the lack of AGW is about as valid as citing a particular heatwave as “proof” for it. That is, not at all.

Furthermore, global warming does not mean absolutely every place on Earth will on warm – due to heat redistribution, some places will warm much more than others, and some might even cool. For instance, the collapse of the ocean conveyor belt in the North Atlantic could theoretically plunge Europe in a new Little Ice Age.

Other objections

Not to worry. Though warming is happening, the IPCC is unduly alarmist since there are many negative feedbacks. Past changes were slow and we will adapt easily over the coming centuries. It will get warmer, nicer and crop yields will soar. And if not, there’s always geo-engineering.

Somewhat more intellectually valid…but still probably wrong.

As mentioned in #8, the IPCC is a slow, conservative institution that has up till now relied on conventional AGW models without accounting for potential catastrophic positive feedbacks (ocean acidification and the dessication of the Amazon rainforest removing vital CO2 sinks; melting permafrost and oceanic clathrates resulting in massive methane releases). Since Greenland and West Antarctica were recently found to be inherently much more unstable than previously thought, large-scale ice sheet collapse and inundations could occur over decades rather than the centuries and millennia projected in IPCC reports. Though there may exist negative feedbacks, such as a drier troposphere or increased cloud formation (yet even here the question of whether it will constitute a positive or negative feedback is poorly understood), they seem easily outnumbered by positively positive feedbacks.

There are plenty of examples of dramatic climatic shifts in Earth history. The Younger Dryas-Holocene transition 11,000 years ago consisted of a series of sudden jumps over a few years. Sea levels can also rise at rates far exceeding those needed for smooth human adaptation. Considering that greenhouse gas levels are rising at rates probably unprecedented in Earth history and that global dimming may have suppressed as much as half of the real warming (thus indicating that the climate sensitivity to CO2 levels used in conventional climate models is dangerously under-estimated), changes in coming decades are likely to be rapid and not for the better. Ocean acidification will finish off the world’s already depleted fish stocks and droughts in today’s temperate regions will break the world’s major breadbaskets; though agriculture can in principle be moved to Siberia and the Far North, the soils there are thin and acidic, and are unlikely to compensate in net terms.

Geo-engineering is, not surprisingly, rather risky – the climate system is not well understood, and fiddling with it could further worsen the problem. And not every country is expected to have absolutely altruistic aims when it comes to tweaking the world’s climate. Yet ultimately, for once we agree – I think it very likely that humanity will be forced into gambling with geo-engineering as the century unfolds. Perhaps climate stability is doomed and geo-engineering – in essense, humanity taking control of planetary ecological services previously provided for free – is already the only realistic choice left.

The hypocrisy of “Earth Day”, and other limp-wristed measures: the one issue where I find common ground with the deniers

Considering that there are 8760 hours in a year, turning off your lights for one of them is going to do absolutely zilch and is nothing more than an empty gesture of false atonement for one’s ecological sins; it is a kind of social placebo to delude people into thinking they’re doing something good for the environment, whereas in reality it is just an escape clause for guilt-ridden liberals that allows them to avoid making the real and initially painful changes society needs to attain long-term sustainability. As such, I join AGW-denying conservatives in boycotting this farce – albeit for obviously diametrically opposite reasons.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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This April, Michael Bohm, editor at the Moscow Times, published the article New Kremlin Dreamers, which questioned Russia’s stated intention of becoming an advanced industrial nation by 2020. I wasn’t much impressed by its pessimistic assertions – for instance, regarding Russia’s hopes of becoming the world’s fifth largest economy by 2020, he falls into the frequent Kremlinologist fallacy of applying standard GDP growth rates to nominal GDP (as opposed to purchasing-power parity GDP, which corrects for exchange rate fluctuations). He similarly passes over that countries in the process of economic catch-up typically grow much faster than the leader nations, because they have greater returns to investment. Soon after Yevgeny Kiselyov wrote Dreaming of Modernization and Innovation on a similar theme.

I disagree with them on two fundamental points. First, I don’t share in their pessimism and I believe that on purely objective factors, Russia – and much of the rest of East-Central Europe for that matter – is well set to converge to Western living standards by 2020 (which will by then probably be stagnating in light of peak oil and intensifying competition for energy resources from other emerging-markets). This is a point I made a long time back in Towards a New Russian Century? and Education as the Elixir of Growth. Second, even if that were not the case there is still a lot to be said of the power and utility of positive, optimistic thinking – ambition is no sin in my eyes, and in the case of government a moral duty to their citizens. Hence this rebuttal. ;)

Two recent articles in the Moscow Times took issue with the “Kremlin dreamers” for their rose-tinted views of Russia’s destiny, alleging that the main goals of “Strategy 2020”, like becoming the world’s fifth largest economy or doubling GDP per capita, are nothing more than utopian pipe-dreams. Yet an objective look at key current trends – in educational attainment, economic growth, resource depletion and climate change – suggests that these “fairy tales” have the potential to become reality.

First, Russia’s educational profile resembles that of a First World country, unlike most of its emerging-market competitors. Around 70% of Russians go into higher education, compared with just 20-25% of Brazilians or Chinese. The quality of its primary education is substantially higher than in developing nations, as attested to by the results of international student assessments like PISA or TIMSS. For instance, in the 2006 PISA science assessment, only 15.2% of Brazilians possessed skills beyond those needed for purely linear problem-solving, compared with 47.6% of Russian and 51.3% of American students. A country needs to have sizable cadres of skilled workers to move into added-value manufacturing or complex services. Brainier nations will also assimilate technology more easily and thus their economic “rate of convergence” to developed-world status will be that much faster. In this respect, Russia and east-central Europe are in a different league from East Asia, let alone Latin America or the Middle East.

Second, while there’s no denying Russia is plagued by corruption, to suggest it is endemic like in a failed state, as suggested by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, is ludicrous – and would frankly be obvious to anyone who has visited both Russia and some of its neighbors on the list. Its problem is that it’s a survey of outsider businesspeople and their subjective perception of the situation, which differs markedly from the experiences of ordinary people. When asked, only 17% of Russians admitted to paying a bribe to obtain a service in 2007, according to TI’s Global Corruption Barometer – putting them in the same quintile as Turkey or the Czech Republics, i.e. slap bang in the middle of world corruption, not the end. The effects of corruption must also be set in context against a panoply of other, equally important growth factors. Goldman Sachs compiled an index called the Growth Environment Score, which aggregates a wide range of stats on macroeconomic, institutional, educational and technological conditions to assess a nation’s potential for economic “catch-up”. In 2007, Russia came in at 66th out of 181 countries, tied with China and ahead of Brazil and India.

Third, to fulfill one of the main goals of “Strategy 2020” – to become the world’s fifth largest economy, all Russia has to do is surpass Germany in purchasing-power parity GDP. Since according to the IMF Russia’s GDP was 2.26bn $ and Germany’s was 2.91bn $ in 2008, this can be achieved merely by maintaining an average growth rate of 2% points higher than Germany to 2020 – which seems entirely feasible considering that from 1999-2008 this difference was more than 4%. Doubling the GDP per capita over the next 11 years is trickier and requires continuing the average 1999-2008 growth rate of 6%. Though complicated by the current economic crisis, coming close is still entirely possible.

Fourth, Russia’s economy is not overly dependent on natural resource exports – they have stagnated since 2003 and the bulk of growth came from retail, construction and manufacturing. They are however crucial to replenishing government coffers, allowing the Kremlin to spend lavishly on things like military modernization, infrastructure expansion and prospective sunrise industries like nanotechnology – thus turbo-charging its plans for an “innovation economy”. (Granted, some is wasted like the 1bn $ project on the bridge to Russki Island, i.e. to nowhere). Fortunately for Russia, there’s no reason to believe oil prices will remain low. Even now, in the depth of the biggest global economic crisis since the Great Depression, prices never fell below $40 a barrel and have now rebounded to over $60. With oil production close to or already past its peak and Chinese voraciousness unquenched, a second oil price spike is only a few years away.

Finally, according to researcher Trausti Valsson, further in the future global warming will unfreeze remote energy resources in the Far North to exploitation, open up the Arctic to shipping, bolster Russian crop yields and increase the carrying capacity of Siberia and the Far North. Russia could literally end up on top of the world.

Wells may have ridiculed Lenin as a “Kremlin dreamer” in 1920, yet precisely a decade or so later the Soviet Union began to produce aircraft, tanks, trucks, machine tools and chemicals, boasting growth rates far higher than that of any other industrial nation. And though the USSR did set over-ambitious goals for the Five Year Plans, the achievements were impressive nonetheless.

By 2020, Russia will experience increasing problems due to adverse demographic trends, slowing growth due to (paradoxically) successful “catch-up”, and perhaps waning European demand for its natural gas and dissatisfaction with an increasingly atrophied and unresponsive descendant of the “Putin system”. As such, far from being a fairy tale, the “Kremlin dream” is a strategy for maintaining Russia’s geopolitical relevance well into a troubled 21st century.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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What with all the noise about the ongoing credit crunch, all around financial apocalypse and burgeoning signs that it is beginning to spill over into Main Street like a torrent of water from a collapsing dam, I thought it’s about time we take a look at this “sucker” (to use Bush’s blunt term) and it’s likely effect on Russia.

The MSM highlights the problems of Russian banks in attaining credit, which has lead to a drastic slowdown in construction, much harder access to credit and the near collapse of Russia’s major stock market, the RTS. Moscow house prices fell by around 25% from their peak, to my personal consternation.

Nonetheless, despite the torrent of sad tidings, I remain bullish on the Russian economy. Its strong fundamentals and relatively low level of integration into the world financial system mean that it will weather the storm much better than either the insolvent financial systems of the Anglo-Saxon sphere or the many catastrophically over-leveraged, deficit-wracked economies of East-Central Europe.

Other people have different opinions. La Russophobe has embarked on a bizarre series of posts purporting to show the ‘horror of life in Vladimir Putin’s Russia’ as supposedly reflected in the RTSI over the past month (but obviously not the past decade). Actually, the linkages between the real economy and financial markets are very complex and vary between countries. In the Anglo-Saxon ‘shareholder’ model, equity financing plays a key role in financing companies so stock markets are vital in assessing the overall state of the economy. In Russia, most economic sectors are weakly tied to the RTS, much of whose capitalization can even be described as ‘prestige’ listings. Even though the RTS has fallen twice as fast as the Dow Jones or FTSE, its collapse is far less damaging to the Russian economy than the latter are to the American and British economies.

(The same can be said for China, and to a lesser extend ‘stakeholder’ economies like Germany or Japan. For instance, the Shanghai SSE‘s implosion did not affect China’s GDP growth in the slightest. The contraction of the Nikkei by three-quarters from its 1990 peak resulted, or rather reflected, not a depression but merely a decade of slow absolute GDP growth).

Although the astronomical rise in the RTS from 1999 to 2006 has been correlated to Russia’s economic boom, it would never have reached such stratospheric heights without cheap global credit coupled with institutional investors chasing the best returns. The recent evaporation of credit has demoralized those investors, who have fled from risk towards ostensible safe-havens, e.g. US treasure bills.

Russia is not only an emerging market, but most of the value of the RTS is composed of energy companies. Since commodity prices have lurched sharply downwards due to weakening Western consumption and lower appetite for (risky) commodity speculation, Russia’s RTS has been hit with a ‘double wammy’, which explains why it has fallen so far down, out of all proportion to its fundamentals or most other emerging markets. Its armed intervention against Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia had little to no effect – as the Nikitsky Fund’s most recent issue of their newsletter Truth & Beauty (and Russian Finance), Hope, shows in the article Anatomy of a Crisis, the RTSI has been going down at a linear rate from April 2008, with few discernable disruptions during or soon after that war.

In short, the collapse of the RTS does not herald Russian financial apocalypse, contrary to what La Russophobe thinks (but obvious to anyone whose views on the economy and finances aren’t exclusively shaped by the quack intellectual Illarianov and others of his ilk). It seems that the ignorance of Kim Ziegfeld and her fawning sycophants is exceeded only by their sheer hatred of Russia and its people (e.g. see Frank’s comments here – is that shit allowed on Blogger??).

Now I have only a layman’s knowledge of finance, so one would expect Craig Pirrong, a “Streetwise” Professor of Finance at the University of Houston (a respectable institution, AFAIK) with a special interest in Russia, to knock me down hard with amazing arguments and financial gobledegook well in advance of any objection I could muster. Alas and alack, I suspect his populist Russophobia got the better of him, based on his articles Under Pressure and Check Out Michel’s Comments.

Still, they’re useful in that they’ve provided me with a kind of focus to put down my own take on Russia’s financial straits. So what I’ll do is selectively quote from the two articles (selectively not in the bad smearing way, but in the summarizing, getting all the salient points down way) and provide rebuttals.

[Unsupported waffle about violence specialists in warring clans]

Everyone’s attention is turning to the stability fund. In virtually all of the commentary written since the beginning of the meltdown in August, the phrase “the $570 billion dollar stability fund” has been repeated like a mantra, an incantation that will ward off a return to 1998. As commentor Michel points out, however, the government has already committed a substantial fraction of this sum in various market and bank support schemes, none of which have stemmed the bleeding.

The market apparently has its doubts too. Credit default swaps (EEEEEEEK! CDSs! Run for the hills!) on Russian government debt rose 52 basis points to 352 bp, as compared to 36 bp in May ‘07. If the stability fund makes Russia immune from default, why the bulge in CDS prices? (Part of that is due to an increase in the market price of risk in these unsettled times, but certainly part reflects a perceived increase in the probability and severity of a default.)

I think Michel has put his finger on the matter. He conjectures that “[m]any have been lusting after those billions for years, and the crisis was the perfect cover to launder piles of money from the reserves to the offshore accounts of friends of the regime.”

In brief, although the existence of the fund makes survival of the current system in Russia more likely than it would be in its absence, it is not a talisman. If the crisis–in the US, in Europe, and in Russia too–shows anything, it shows that $570 billion can evaporate in a trice. That is especially true in a country like Russia, where the formal institutional safeguards are so weak. In a highly personalized natural state, rife with corruption, where the state is essentially the cash cow for aggressive and amoral individuals who are comfortable with the use of violence, when the deluge begins, no property is safe. So, to those who repeat “the $570 billion dollar stabilization fund” to lull themselves to sleep, I say–there are monsters under the bed. And it is at times like these that they come out and play.

OK so the main argument is that CDS prices on Russian sovereign debt has soared therefore things are bad. CDS are basically bets on the country or company or whatever defaulting on their debts. It’s his first (and I think strongest argument).

On the other hand CDS have soared throughout the world. Some casual Googling has revealed that oil-rich Kazakhstan, which also doesn’t lack for petrodollars, has a spread of more than 1000 points; Ukraine is at 1700. Many other countries in east-central Europe, the Baltics and the Balkans rate in the hundreds. Iceland is at 567, so…

What!? Granted the article is from September 29th, but Iceland in the same league as Russia (a large net creditor) and below Ukraine!? Iceland, whose liabilities even then had soared well past its puny GDP, since it had taken over Glitnir, and with its other main two banks about to hurtle into the abyss!? I can only conclude that CDS are driven mostly by market sentiment and don’t provide a realistic appraisal of the risk of default relative to other countries…

Now to quote the commentator Michel…

Today, the Russian media has answered my question as to how long it will take before the funds run dry.

According to gazeta.ru: 110 business days.

“Золотовалютные резервы России сокращаются, в борьбе с кризисом, и если в таком объеме тратить их дальше, то резервов, по оценке экспертов, хватит на 110 торговых дней.” (source: http://gazeta.ru/financial/2008/10/09/2852776.shtml).

Vedomosti put it a bit more poetically as their entitled their article “Reserves Melting Right Under Our Eyes.”

They give the reserves half-a-year at the present rate of spending: “Проблемы могут начаться, если продолжать такую политику полгода-год: в ситуации снижения темпов экономического роста накачка ликвидностью может вызвать необходимость девальвации.”

Taking foreign currency reserves have lessened by 16bn$ in a week and thus arriving at the idea that they will diminish to nothing within a few months is just meaningless linear extrapolation. It’s like saying that since the US total public debt grew 573bn $ in the last month from October 9th, it would reach 17tn $ (from 10.3tn $ today) by the same period next year.

But that’s not even the main point. What I’d like to ask is why did Michel not bother pointing out that of that week’s 16bn $ fall, some 10bn $ of that was directly linked to the strengthening dollar – which was mentioned on the very same article he linked to?

Finally, the entire point of having foreign reserves is to use them to avoid crashes in times of international financial crisis. I mean, that’s what they’re for, right? A continuation of smooth growth in a period of severe Western recession would be well worth the entirety of those reserves.

Michel then links us to another article, curiously enough entitled Russia: Better placed than most to weather the crisis. Curiously, because he uses it as the basis to continue his criticism.

One final comment. In reading the Financial Times, one article notes that “Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister, said on September 16 that the federal budget would begin to run a deficit if oil fell below $70 a barrel.” However, on September 19th, the Russian government announced that it would be increasing military spending by 25%. If you put these two facts together, you realize that if the price of oil drop anywhere near $70 a barrel, the Russian government will be running a deficit. The price of oil is already in the mid 80 dollar range and the global recession has just begun. This means that the Russian state may already begin running deficit budgets by next year, just as its reserve funds start to dry up.

All well and good, except that: a) average prices for the year, which is what matters, are well higher than 70$ (remember the recent 147$ spike and all that?), b) military spending has risen at those rates for years, in line with growth in its nominal GDP, and in fact most of that 25% rise is just a restatement of already existing spending plans that have been played up by the Western media rather than anything new and c) this ignores Russia’s and OPEC’s mutual interest in keeping the oil price high, at around 90-100$ (Saudi Arabia also needs those kinds of prices to balance their budget), and their recent moves towards closer co-operation to achieve that goal.

Now unless China suffers a serious shock to its economic ascent, reduced American oil usage will be more than compensated. Otherwise, the oil price will be squeezed up, wedged as it is between the Scylla of stagnant or falling extraction and the Charybdis of soaring demand from industrializing Asia (sorry, I’ve really fallen in love with that phrase. When that happens I sometimes just start incorporating them into my writing for a few weeks, whether the situation calls for it or not). Sorry to rain on your gas-fueled party, Michel.

You are right, they are probably there already. And, the 6-months predicted as to when the reserves disappearing is based simply on what the Central Bank has been dishing out to stabilize the ruble (i.e. keep it within the 25-26 ruble to the dollar range). The 200 billion or so in new spending will have to come out of the budget, which will push it deeper into the red.

This is wrong on two counts. Firstly, the budget for 2008 is projected to be firmly in the black (+4.5% of GDP). Secondly, and more importantly, the money for propping up the domestic financial sector is not even coming from the budget. It comes from repatriating Russian reserves parked abroad in G7 sovereign debt securities. Since the problem with the credit markets in Russia is overwhelmingly one of illiquidity (rather than insolvency, as in the Anglo-Saxon economies) it’s unlikely that a large portion of these reserves will actually be lost.

And now it’s time for the Professor to take the reins again…

The country teeters on the economic brink–the world does, but Russia is arguably closer to the brink than just about anybody else–and if the deluge comes, a disappointed people that had put its faith in Putin and Putinism will turn on him (and it) in a fury.

This statement is beyond my powers to comprehend. Iceland is worse off. So are many over-leveraged (mostly central-east European) states with huge current account deficits – Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Turkey, Argentina, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, etc. So is, in all likelihood, the US and Britain, who’s financial systems increasingly appear to be generally insolvent. Do you still live on Earth, Professor?

The $5 billion loan to Iceland, another extravagance apparently driven by geopolitical calculation, is another bizarre choice under the circumstances.

5bn $ in relation to 500bn $ is nothing. And it’s still far from decided. Although, I think paying 5bn $ for Keflavik without an Operation Red Storm Rising and neutralizing the SOSUS line (not that I think Russia will achieve so much, but still…) is far more cost-effective than spending 700bn $ on, erm – how exactly did the US benefit from Iraq??

Anyway, I’m done with the Professor. Though I’d like to thank him, Michel and La Russophobe for summarizing the Russia “doomer” arguments and making it easier for me to marshal my own take on it into what I hope has been at least a semi-coherent form.

My predictions? The RTS will continue its decline, but at a slower pace for the rest of the year. Then investors will realize that everything there is insanely undervalued, like in 1999, and it will explode back into four-digit territory next year. This will roughly coincide with a rally in oil prices from December 2008.

The construction sector will decline next year, although general consumption should not be affected as much since little of that depended on credit, even as late as 2008 (that’s the advantage of having weak linkages to the global financial system). Investment will fall for one or two quarters, but will stage a resurgence after that once confidence is regained. Russia will grow at around 7.0% this year and 5.5%-6.5% in 2009, while much of the G7 goes into a severe recession.

But before we go, what of the global financial crisis itself?

Notice that all these countries which depend on oil revenues to balance their budgets, from fiscal conservatives like Russia to populist spendthrifts like Venezuela and Iran to countries that live almost exclusively from oil exports like Saudi Arabia all need at least 70$ to balance their budgets.

Now consider that since oil is a relatively competitive industry on the global level and collusion generally fails even within OPEC, prices will tend towards marginal cost by standard microeconomic theory. The unpalatable implication is that the marginal cost of oil extraction has risen dramatically in the past few years, and is today well in excess of 50$ per barrel (a few Google searches confirm this deduction).

(Hence Kudrin’s, IMO misguided, push to lower windfall taxes on Russian oil company profits – I’d rather continue taxation, invest the proceeds in building up a more sustainable energy infrastructure and reap the benefits of higher oil prices for an oil-exporting country. Taxes can be lowered to boost production in the future when oil prices become much higher relative to today).

Supply has become limited and it now takes ever more capital and energy inputs to produce another barrel, thus costs rise exponentially and an ever share of the industrial base must be devoted to energy extraction to prevent decline. Meanwhile, gradually plateauing net energy extraction makes the prospect of continuous traditional economic growth far into the future an increasingly unrealistic proposition, and recognized as such. The result? Collapse of a financial system build on the assumptions of continuous growth.

Perhaps this crisis is simply an unconscious recognition of this inconvenient truth?

In any case I suspect it is merely the first of many that will percolate through the global economy as oil supplies reach their peak, ushering in an era of oscillation between grinding deflationary recessions and tepid, inflationary recoveries. The time has come when long-term planning becomes ever more difficult. I suppose you could model it as the tipping point when political capital no longer renews itself sustainably. Lol.

Gross output, starting with oil-importers who use energy with the most inefficiency, will decline. Demand destruction will presumably start with its most inefficient users, e.g. away from SUV drivers, air conditioners, etc. Energy flows will increasingly accrue either to those who would make the most efficient use of it (perhaps in proportion to their level of human capital and the energy-efficiency of physical capital in their industrial base, which would favor countries like Germany, Japan, Korea and China, but hurt the likes of the US, Britain, the Mediterranean and Mexico), or to those who can lock them in (either via sovereignty over energy sources, e.g. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc, or through military conquest, e.g. possibly the US in Iraq).

However, overall world GDP will continue to grow until at least the point when energy production is at its maximum (and provided that it isn’t first overwhelmed by a pollution crisis). If by then a sufficiently large sustainable energy infrastructure is not yet in place, terminal decline and collapse will follow.

As I mentioned in my article on Russia and Limits to Growth, the fate of humanity will be determined by which of these exponential trends – resource and pollution limits to growth versus sustainability and universal informatization – will win out. Perhaps I should do a thesis on this or something?

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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For all the noise being made this month about Georgia, about NATO, about Tibet, etc, possibly the most portentous is that it seems Russia hit its oil peak (strictly speaking, its second – the first happened in 1987), well in line with peakist predictions. Production increases via application of new technology, as seen in the late 90′s and early 2000′s have been mostly exhausted; there are no megaprojects to bridge the gap beyond 2010. (There has been some noise about new oil field discoveries off Brazil’s coast which could contain as many as 33bn barrels, which has our dear Economist rejoicing: “the discoveries do suggest that the gloomiest pundits are wrong to predict that the world will soon run out of oil”. Just two problems. The issue is not about the world running our of oil – it’s about economically damaging declines in production which will, and are, hitting crucial sectors like transport and agriculture. Secondly, and more to the point, even the high estimate of 33bn barrels is enough for less than half a year of today’s demand of 85bn barrels.) Massive expansion in Russia has been the main reason while oil is peaking now, rather than five years ago. This, coupled with stagnant Saudi Arabia ‘refusing’ to increase oil production so as to leave more for future generations and oil prices rising to 120$, looks set to vindicate the Oil Drum predictions below.

The phenomenom of peak oil is starting to become a new conventional wisdom. Krugman penned an excellent article on this, an interesting example of mainstream economists and “doomers” getting wedded:

Nine years ago The Economist ran a big story on oil, which was then selling for $10 a barrel. The magazine warned that this might not last. Instead, it suggested, oil might well fall to $5 a barrel.

In any case, The Economist asserted, the world faced “the prospect of cheap, plentiful oil for the foreseeable future.”

Last week, oil hit $117.

It’s not just oil that has defied the complacency of a few years back. Food prices have also soared, as have the prices of basic metals. And the global surge in commodity prices is reviving a question we haven’t heard much since the 1970s: Will limited supplies of natural resources pose an obstacle to future world economic growth?

How you answer this question depends largely on what you believe is driving the rise in resource prices. Broadly speaking, there are three competing views.

The first is that it’s mainly speculation — that investors, looking for high returns at a time of low interest rates, have piled into commodity futures, driving up prices. On this view, someday soon the bubble will burst and high resource prices will go the way of Pets.com.

The second view is that soaring resource prices do, in fact, have a basis in fundamentals — especially rapidly growing demand from newly meat-eating, car-driving Chinese — but that given time we’ll drill more wells, plant more acres, and increased supply will push prices right back down again.

The third view is that the era of cheap resources is over for good — that we’re running out of oil, running out of land to expand food production and generally running out of planet to exploit. I find myself somewhere between the second and third views.

There are some very smart people — not least, George Soros — who believe that we’re in a commodities bubble (although Mr. Soros says that the bubble is still in its “growth phase”). My problem with this view, however, is this: Where are the inventories?

Normally, speculation drives up commodity prices by promoting hoarding. Yet there’s no sign of resource hoarding in the data: inventories of food and metals are at or near historic lows, while oil inventories are only normal.

The best argument for the second view, that the resource crunch is real but temporary, is the strong resemblance between what we’re seeing now and the resource crisis of the 1970s.

What Americans mostly remember about the 1970s are soaring oil prices and lines at gas stations. But there was also a severe global food crisis, which caused a lot of pain at the supermarket checkout line — I remember 1974 as the year of Hamburger Helper — and, much more important, helped cause devastating famines in poorer countries.

In retrospect, the commodity boom of 1972-75 was probably the result of rapid world economic growth that outpaced supplies, combined with the effects of bad weather and Middle Eastern conflict. Eventually, the bad luck came to an end, new land was placed under cultivation, new sources of oil were found in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea, and resources got cheap again.

But this time may be different: concerns about what happens when an ever-growing world economy pushes up against the limits of a finite planet ring truer now than they did in the 1970s.

For one thing, I don’t expect growth in China to slow sharply anytime soon. That’s a big contrast with what happened in the 1970s, when growth in Japan and Europe, the emerging economies of the time, downshifted — and thereby took a lot of pressure off the world’s resources.

Meanwhile, resources are getting harder to find. Big oil discoveries, in particular, have become few and far between, and in the last few years oil production from new sources has been barely enough to offset declining production from established sources.

And the bad weather hitting agricultural production this time is starting to look more fundamental and permanent than El Niño and La Niña, which disrupted crops 35 years ago. Australia, in particular, is now in the 10th year of a drought that looks more and more like a long-term manifestation of climate change.

Suppose that we really are running up against global limits. What does
it mean?

Even if it turns out that we’re really at or near peak world oil production, that doesn’t mean that one day we’ll say, “Oh my God! We just ran out of oil!” and watch civilization collapse into “Mad Max” anarchy.

But rich countries will face steady pressure on their economies from rising resource prices, making it harder to raise their standard of living. And some poor countries will find themselves living dangerously close to the edge — or over it.

Don’t look now, but the good times may have just stopped rolling.

No wonder survivalism is becoming respectable again.

(Not that I think the world is going to become a Mad Max abode; there’s still plenty of discretionary energy consumption that can be cut, and in the longer term future both wind and solar energy have very good prospects. Nonetheless, according to this study, “Exergy services can be equated to exergy inputs multiplied by an overall conversion efficiency. which, of course, corresponds to cumulative technological improvements over time. Based on this hypothesis economic growth from 1900 to 1975 or so is explained almost perfectly, exceptfor wartime perturbations.” Hence I suspect there will be a period of serious economic disruption in the period between 2010-20, when oil and natural gas spiral down and both coal and uranium will be hard pressed to fill the gap (economically viable reserves may well be close to peak, as described here (coal) and here (uranium), and 2030-50, when renewable energy starts to come on-line in a really big way.)

Not surprisingly, two key trends – rising energy prices and climate change – are colluding to produce a scramble for the Arctic and its lucrative hydrocarbons deposits. Russia has foresightedly been marking territory by staking claims in the UN, planting its flag at the North Pole sea floor and carrying out strategic bomber flights over the Arctic. Canada, Denmark and Norway have also been getting on in the action, while the US has been lethargic. Climate models indicate an ice-free summer by 2015, meaning northern Russia will become a major new transportation hub between Europe and East Asia (thus making the old dream of a North-East passage a reality).

While wildlife wilts, agriculture booms – “Greenland is experiencing a farming boom, as once-barren soil now yields broccoli, hay, and potatoes”, and Russia keeps getting warmer. (What with rising world grain prices and the big lands left fallow following the Soviet collapse, it is easy for Russia to cement its status as a leading grain producer (from 81mn tonnes in 2007 to 110-120mn tonnes within a decade) by expanding the agricultural sector, a trend explained in The Medvedev Economy and confirmed by state investment into agriculture.) Not only will Russia remain a major hydrocarbons exporter, but will add cereals to its portfolio (which will, besides, increase in price), thus avoiding the fatal Soviet situation where profits from oil exports were eaten up by having to buy Western grains.

But returning to the FP Arctic Meltdown article and hydrocarbons,

The largest deposits are found in the Arctic off the coast of Russia. The Russian state-controlled oil company Gazprom has approximately 113 trillion cubic feet of gas already under development in the fields it owns in the Barents Sea. The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources calculates that the territory claimed by Moscow could contain as much as 586 billion barrels of oil — although these deposits are unproven. By comparison, all of Saudi Arabia’s current proven oil reserves — which admittedly exclude unexplored and speculative resources — amount to only 260 billion barrels.

Currently, Russia has passed its second oil peak. Could the above make for a third peak? Discovery precedes recovery by around 30 years. 586bn barrels is about twice bigger than oil reserves in Russia proper before extraction ever began. Without ice, the extractive environment in the Arctic will be comparable to that of the North Sea. As such, it is plausible that Russia may even, around 2020-30, experience a third oil peak, at a time when global supply is severely constrained and prices are at 300-400 $ per barrel. What with its current (relatively low) consumption, this means that Russia may be spared from the energy crunch that will hit other energy-dependent economies in this time period.

Perhaps most significant will be the geopolitical impacts (which, btw, we have covered in Towards a New Russian Century?). Russia is going to have to fundamentally rethink its traditional conceptions of itself as a land power, strategically weak and surrounded by predatory peoples who periodically exhaust the carrying capacity of their lands and launch invasions. It is going to become surrounded by ice-free water on two sides, along whose coasts will accumulate a rapidly expanding population (especially if environmental collapse causes mass immigration from South Asia, the Middle East and the Far East). This, along with a much greater stake in coastal transportation and off-shore hydrocarbons deposits, will require a much more powerful navy. No wonder Russia has tentative plans to create the world’s second largest surface navy within the next two decades, to which purpose a 410x100x14m drydock is currently under construction at Severodvinsk.

The IMF has released its prognosis for the world economy. A slowdown is inevitable, driven by a US correction due to a housing crisis and its contagion of the world financial system.

Global growth will decelerate in 2008, led by a sharp slowdown in the United States, amid a housing correction and a financial crisis that has quickly spread from the U.S. subprime sector to core parts of the financial system, the IMF says in its latest World Economic Outlook.

Citing the unfolding financial market turmoil as the biggest downside risk to the global economy, the April 2008 report said the IMF expects world growth to slow to 3.7 percent in 2008—0.5 percentage point lower than what was forecast in the January 2008 World Economic Outlook Update.

Further, world growth would achieve little pickup in 2009, and there is a 25 percent chance that the global economy will record 3 percent or less growth in 2008 and 2009, equivalent to a global recession.

The main emerging market economies will diverge rather than decouple, with growth in China, India, Russia and CEE slowing but not catastrophically so, remaining close to their long-term trend rates.

However, the government is even more optimistic, projecting 7.6% growth for 2008. Considering that Q1 GDP growth was 8.0%, driven as in the year before by consumption and investment, they have grounds for their optimism. On the other hand, CPI (inflation) is rising worrying fast, reaching an annualized rate of 13.3% this March, although it should be noted this is a worldwide phenomenom experienced by China (8.3%), India (8.6%), Czech Republic (7.1%) and Latvia (16.8%).

The Ukraine (26%+) has been hit not only by high food and energy prices, but populist government largesse. (To take their minds off these matters, perhaps that’s why Hitler action dolls have gone on sale there, more proof if any is needed of the proclivities to fascism of certain sections of Ukrainian society. Gazprom will probably end 2008 as the company with the world’s second highest revenue (around 41.5bn $), similar to the budget of an economic basket case, say, Ukraine (43bn $). (Can’t help making these cheap shots, just ignore them if they irritate you).

The IMF has also released new estimates for GDP growth through to 2013. By the end of that period, Russia’s PPP GDP should overtake Latvia’s and be level-pegging with Poland’s. The rise in nominal GDP is projected to be more dramatic (graph lifted off this thread):

The Economist has an interesting graph breaking down GDP increase for major regions in the world by capital, labor and total factor productivity (GDP itself can be expressed as a Cobb-Douglas function of the above 3 components) from a WB report, Unleashing Prosperity.

It is a splendid vindication of the ideas I expressed in Education as the Elixir of Growth. There, I made the argument that the education/’Human Capital Index’ (HCI) of each country is matched to a ‘potential GDP level’; where there is a large gap between potential and actual GDP, economic growth is highest. This above all explains the impressive economic growth we’re seeing in well-educated but relatively poor countries like Russia (once it abandoned its socialist shackles), and explains well the unimpressive growth of countries like Brazil, an badly-educated country with a correspondingly unimpressive economy.

However, the linkages between HCI and productivity are even higher than between HCI and GDP (as GDP also depends on labor and capital inputs, which themselves depend on other demographic and social factors). From the chart, we can see that middle-income CIS countries (of whom Russia is, by far, the largest and most significant) had the largest increases in TFP, thus reflecting the huge gaps in its potential and actual productivity. While China’s absolute growth was much larger, almost half of it was down due to increases in labor and capital. However, considering China’s recent labor shortages and its unsustainably high investment rates, it is very unlikely that double-digit growth will continue in the near-to-medium future, particularly further taking into account that a) exports will be hit by US recession and b) from 2009 onwards the oil peak will start biting ever harder (as covered above). Latin American countries were the worst performers, seeing no improvement in TFP – in other words, they are about as productive as their levels of human capital allow them to be (withouta resource windfall or two).In a snapshot of other economic and related news, the housing bust has spread to the UK. Haiti’s government collapses after food riots – an ominous foreboding of things to come elsewhere? Between 2000 and 2007, median family incomes stagnated in the US, in stark contrast to the period between every other recession (the fact that the 2000′s saw a broad consumer boom becomes all the more worrying). The falling dollar has made US assets attractive, and Russia has accumulated around 10% of US steelmaking capacity – although it has not limited itself to the US, but also went on a shopping spree around Germany. Russia may allow the ruble to appreciate to rein in inflation. Moscow’s budget is now as big as New York’s. Confidence in the economy is increasing. According to the FT, Moscow could become Europe’s second financial center (after London) in ten to fifteen years. The Russian ‘brain drain’ has to a large extent ceased as funding and salaries increase in academia.


On 21st April, Georgia accused Russia of an “unprovoked act of aggression” after a Russian jet allegedly shot down an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane over Abkhazia. This came in the wake of Russia stepping up its political representation in the region, while Georgia implicitly compared Western policy towards Russia with Nazi appeasement. Meanwhile Putin urged the West not to ‘demonise’ Russia. (The IHT has a piece that criticizes US aloofness in its relations with Russia in The Missing Debate.)

Watch the cool video below, it’s now every day that you get to see a MiG-29 fire an R-60 missile at CBDR, within visual range and head on.
Presumably Russia wishes to make a statement that it is ready and willing to defend Russian citizens (i.e. the vast majority of Abkhazians, and South Ossetians). It is also Russia’s traditional foreign policy level over Georgia – it’s separatist enclaves – being exploited. When Georgia pursued a relatively neutralist line towards Russia (under Shevardnadze), Russia kept at arms length from the separatists, but established a military presence in the region. Now that Georgia has received a promise of eventual membership from NATO, however, the levers have been pulled. If Georgia received MAP at the next summit, expect formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
A German man is on trial in Germany for allegedly selling military technology to Russian intelligence. The Russian Army apparently has some serious problems with obesity. Greece agrees to host a section of Gazprom’s planned South Stream pipeline. Berlusconi held his first foreign meeting with Putin on 17th April, and Robert Amsterdam penned an acerbic yet poignant portrait of the less wholesome similarities between the two countries.
The most recent data on Russian and American strategic nuclear armaments, as declared for the START Treaty, is available here. In contrast to the late Soviet period, it is now the US that has a preponderance of platforms. The breakdowns in deployed systems, Russian and US respectively, go as follows: ICBM’s (481 to 550); SLBM’s (288 to 432); heavy bombers (79 to 243); total (848 to 1225). The breakdown by numbers of deployed warheads is: ICBM’s (2027 to 1600), SLBM’s (1488 to 3216); heavy bombers (632 to 1098); total (4147 to 5914). The breakdown by throw-weight for ICBM’s and SLBM’s is 2370MT to 1830MT. In other words, while Russia has a slightly larger overall megatonnage, it has fewer strategic platforms and its missiles are less accurate. This is not yet a critical situation, what with the current international relations paradigm; nonetheless, further investments are necessary, particularly into the submarine and bomber part of the triad as well as ABM, in anticipation of the end of MAD due to the development of effective and comprehensive missile shields – which are closer to fruition, at least in the US, than most people realize. Perhaps I’ll write more on this in the future.
An interesting article from the Times on WMD developments in Syria and North Korea.
Foreign Affairs has The Age of Nonpolarity as its kindpin article for May/June.
Summary: The United States’ unipolar moment is over. International relations in the twenty-first century will be defined by nonpolarity. Power will be diffuse rather than concentrated, and the influence of nation-states will decline as that of nonstate actors increases. But this is not all bad news for the United States; Washington can still manage the transition and make the world a safer place.
Indeed, one of the cardinal features of the contemporary international system is that nation-states have lost their monopoly on power and in some domains their preeminence as well. States are being challenged from above, by regional and global organizations; from below, by militias; and from the side, by a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and corporations. Power is now found in many hands and in many places…Today’s world is increasingly one of distributed, rather than concentrated, power.
Getting everyone to agree on everything will be increasingly difficult; instead, the United States should consider signing accords with fewer parties and narrower goals. Trade is something of a model here, in that bilateral and regional accords are filling the vacuum created by a failure to conclude a global trade round. The same approach could work for climate change, where agreement on aspects of the problem (say, deforestation) or arrangements involving only some countries (the major carbon emitters, for example) may prove feasible, whereas an accord that involves every country and tries to resolve every issue may not. Multilateralism à la carte is likely to be the order of the day.
I agree that the US is in relative decline and about the rise of multilateral pragmatism in diplomacy. Nonetheless, I question the thesis that state power is eroding. The state remains as strong as ever, and far stronger than their equivalents a hundred years ago. Several European nations take in more than 50% of their GDP in taxes. This rate in the distant past was only reached during times of total war, e.g. WW2. States are most certainly not “challenged” by either global organizations (which are simply assemblies of states where they can seek concensus), militias (which have always existed) or NGO’s (which operate under statal jurisdictions).
Putin has become leader of United Russia, in addition to being the Prime Minister. Sean’s Russia Blog already has an excellent analysis in Gensek Putin (which also features a nice little demographics discussion in which my posts on the matter were mentioned).
That of course raises the issue of whether a nothing party like United Russia will actually give Putin something. As Konstantin Sonin noted in the Moscow Times, leading United Russia wouldn’t necessarily give Putin any guarantee over controlling the government. “The party has nothing to offer Putin in his struggle for power,” says Sonin…
The chairman position gives Putin virtually unlimited power within UR. Putin will have the power to appoint party leaders and suspend their powers, and override any party decision expect for those adopted at congresses. His removal is only possible with a 2/3 congressional vote.
If Putin can be taken at his word, he has plans for United Russia. In his address to the Congress he stated that the party of Power needed to “reform itself become more open for discussion and for taking into account the opinion of the electorate, it must be de-bureaucratized completely, cleared of casual people pursuing exclusively their own material gains.” Look out, there’s a new sheriff in town.
Plans have already been set in motion for the recognition of internal factions. Three “clubs” have been created within United Russia to represent its right, center, and left. There is the Center of Social Conservative Policy, headed by Andrei Isaev, the liberal-conservative “November 4th” club led by Vladimir Pligin, and the State-patriotic club led by Irina Yarovaya. Whether these clubs will actually mean anything in terms of inter-party dialog remains to be seen.
Putin’s chief task, if he chooses to take it, will be to rid the party of what he calls “corrupt people.” A task easier said than done. Historically, attempts to clean up party corruption have horribly failed. Often the anti-bureaucratic campaigns, purges, and even arrests within the Communist Party created more corruption. And like the Communist Party of the past, United Russia seems allergic to any real cracking down on its corrupt members. Last week, the United Russia dominated Duma rejected a bill which would require deputies to declare the incomes and property of their relatives up to three years after leaving office. Hiding wealth and property in the names of family members is a common, albeit crude way, of hiding corruption.
Basically, if Putin actually decides to lead United Russia, he’s going to have his hands full. Just because he is the almighty Putin doesn’t mean he will be successful.
Michael Averko has an excellent article in American Chronicle, Ukraine and “Russophobia” Uncensored, which covers more on the Annals of Western Hypocrisy (which goes on and on, World and Time without End). I’ve quoted the first three paragraphs:
Since the Soviet breakup, Ukraine has been geo-politically spun in two ways. When Ukraine’s less Russia friendly side appears to have enhanced its stature, there is an increased yearning to drive Ukraine away from Russia as much as possible. When Ukraine’s more Russia friendly grouping seems strengthened, there is greater talk of mutual respect for the two Ukrainian ways of viewing Russia. Another Ukrainian perspective falls somewhere in between the two.
On NATO expansion, “the will of the people”, takes a back seat for the Russia unfriendly crowd. The Orange Ukrainian government’s desire to have Ukraine in NATO has consistently run contrary to the majority of its citizenry. The explanations for this unpopularity include a not so well informed Ukrainian public, caught in a Cold War time warp.
In comparison, there is little second guessing of polls showing that most Ukrainian citizens have a positive attitude on their country joining the European Union (EU). For some, Ukrainians are ignorant when stating apprehension about NATO and knowledgeable upon agreeing with the anti-Russian consensus; albeit for not always the same reason.
Sean’s Russia Blog has comprehensive coverage of the Putin / Kabaeva rumors. Also a story about the hobbies of Russia’s nanotechnologists, e.g. building marchhead-sized chess sets.
Demographic stats from Rosstat have come out for Jan/Feb 2008. While the birth rate increased by 11.3%, so did the death rate by 2.6%, reaching 15.8 / 1000 from 15.4 / 1000 in 2007. Seems that January was not an anomaly – the rapid improvements seen since 2005 have petered out, at least temporarily. But this is not totally unexpected, however. As I noted in my demographics posts, there is a very close correlation between mortality and the alcohol/food price ratio. Overall inflation in Jan-Feb was 3.5%, food price inflation was 3.6%; but the price of alcohol increased by 1.9%. The alcohol/food price ratio has fallen further, perhaps to its lowest ever historical level. In other demographic news, in 2006 there were 1.6mn abortions in Russia, hugely down from the 1990′s but still 2 to 3 times higher per capita than in the West.
Finally a few public opinion polls. In February 2008, PEW released figures that showed 6 3% of Russians preferred a strong leader over democracy, down from 70% and 21% respectively in 2002, but a lot higher than in 1991, when a majority (51%) favored a democracy over a strong leader (39%). 74% would rather have a strong economy, while only 15% would like a good democracy. Ukraine, Bulgaria and even Poland show similar figures. In another rather interesting result, half of Russians agreed with the statement that ‘most people in society are trustworthy’, which is higher than the average for Eastern Europe and about average for Western Europe.
59% of Russians (almost certainly correctly) say there is no life on Mars, while 26% disagree. 49% of them believe that there’ll be a human on Mars and 59% think there’ll be a lunar base within the next 50 years. (Russia, like the US and China, has tentative plans for both enterprises). A new ‘Space Competitiveness Index‘ (whatever that means) has been compiled, in which Russia takes third place behind the US and Europe. China is fourth.
(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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President Putin’s visit to Bulgaria to bring pipeline deal, NPP contract

A new company is being created, in which Russia will own a 51% stake, to build a pipeline to carry Russian oil via the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas and Greece’s Alexandroupolis on the Aegean, so as to bypass the congested Bosporus. It will pump 35mn metric tons a year, though capacity can eventually be increased to 50mn.

Atomstroyexport, Russia’s state nuclear equipment monopoly, has also been awarded a contract, estimated at 6bn $, to build two reactors for Bulgaria’s second nuclear power station in the town of Belene. According to Foreign Minister Lavrov, more agreements could be signed on Putin’s visit to the country, timed to coincide with celebrations of the 130th anniversary of the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule by a force led by Russia’s Tsar Alexander II.


Gazprom expands gas supplies to Turkey – because Iran stopped supplying them because of rising domestic demand due to a cold spell. Meanwhile, Turkey has stopped the transit of Azeri gas to Greece pending the resumption of the Iranian supplies.

Italy’s Alenia permitted blocking stake in Sukhoi subsidiary – Alenia Aeronautica will get a 25%+1 share blocking stake in Sukhoi Civil Aircraft, a subsidiary in Russian aircraft maker Sukhoi. They are partners in building the Sukhoi SuperJet-100, a 75-90 seat regional jet carrier expected to compete with similar aircraft from Bombardier and Embraer. The Italian firm will help with European marketing and compliance with noise and emissions standards. Nonetheless, the nativist tradition is still upheld – foreign residents should account for no more than 25% of Sukhoi Civil Aircraft executives and its chief executive should a Russian national.

Russia won’t exceed 1990 level in CO2 emissions until 2020 – which we suppose is a good thing, since that would mean totally effortless compliance on Russia’s part with the Kyoto Protocols.

Estonia trial of Russia activists

Organize peaceful demonstrations in Estonia (OK, we’ll refrain from adding a cheapshot extra S to the country’s name), despite police provocations. Have your protests interrupted by vandalism and looting on the part of apolitical opportunists (218 out of almost 300 vandals arrested during events on 26.–28. April, had a previous criminal record). Be detained for 7 months and hope you don’t get another 5 years on top of that.

Actually this calls for an Editorial: Annals of Russophobic Fascism. I’ve already gathered the material so expect this sometime in the week ahead.

Russia rebukes UK over British Council defiance – we can’t say we agree over Russia pressuring the British Council (we’re sure there are more suitable targets, which don’t benefit thousands of Russians uninvolved in all these diplomatic-political shenanigans). Nonetheless, refusing to move out is a hopeless struggle and the BC would be wise to cut its losses and turn over St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg operations to local intermediaries.

Postponed exercises with Russia to go ahead this week: NATO – for some reason this is nowhere near as well advertised as military relations between Russia and China, e.g. the SCO military exercises in 2007. The media always needs enemies.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.