Monday, February 28, 2022

3569. U.S. Foreign Policy Think-Tank Discusses War with Russia and China

By Matthew Kroenig, Foreign Policy, February 18, 2022

Atomic The view across Hiroshima after the bombing

Editor's note: The following article by Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, goes to the heart of what is happening in Ukraine now: the confrontation between Western imperialism headed by the United States with Russia and China.  Russia is a formidable military power and China has already surpassed the U.S. as the manufacturing workshop of the world.  The relative decline of the United States is what is behind its deepening political crisis on how to stop China's and RussiaRussia's expanding spheres of influence.  The last time something like this happened was when the U.S. and Germany surpassed England as the dominant industrial capitalist power by 1913. That led to two World Wars centered in Europe with the U.S. emerging as the dominant industrial capitalist power leading to what has been called the American Century. The American Century has come to an end and the U.S. rulers will not step back without resorting to war. However, the Third World war would be a nuclear annihilation of humanity.  The only way to stop that from happening is for billions of working people to disarm all nuclear states, transcending the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization to embark on the road to an Ecocentric Socialist world. KN

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As Russia threatens the largest land invasion in Europe since World War II, the most consequential strategic question of the 21st century is becoming clear: How can the United States manage two revisionist, autocratic, nuclear-armed great powers (Russia and China) simultaneously? The answer, according to many politicians and defense experts, is that Washington must moderate its response to Russia in Europe to focus on the greater threat posed by China in the Indo-Pacific.

This would be a mistake.

The United States remains the world’s leading power with global interests, and it cannot afford to choose between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Instead, Washington and its allies should develop a defense strategy capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating Russia and China at the same time.

In recent weeks, Biden has sent several thousand U.S. troops to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank—and for good reason. A major war in Ukraine could spill across international boundaries and threaten the seven NATO allies that border Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Moreover, if Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, why would he stop there?

Putin has shown a clear interest in resurrecting the former Russian Empire, and other vulnerable Eastern European countries—Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states—might be next. A successful Russian incursion into a NATO ally’s territory could mean the end of the Western alliance and the credibility of U.S. security commitments globally.

The threat posed by China is also serious. Adm. Philip Davidson, former commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, predicted China could invade Taiwan within the next six years. This is a war the United States might lose. If China succeeds in taking Taiwan, it would be well on its way to disrupting the U.S.-led order in Asia, with an eye to doing the same globally.

Moreover, Russia and China are increasingly working together. As this month’s summit between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shows, Moscow and Beijing are forging a closer strategic partnership, including on military matters. These dictators could coordinate dual attacks on the U.S. alliance structure or opportunistically seize on the distraction provided by the other’s aggression. In other words, there is a serious risk of simultaneous major-power wars in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

To address this problem, many have proposed answers that simply will not work. The Biden administration initially hoped to put relations with Russia on a “stable and predictable” footing to focus on China, but Putin had other ideas, as the world is now seeing in Ukraine. Unfortunately, Washington does not get to decide how its adversaries sequence their aggression.

Others have expressed hope that Washington can peel these powers apart or even align with Russia against China, but these are not realistic solutions.

The misguided view gaining the most recent acceptance, however, is that Washington should simply choose the Indo-Pacific over Europe. Politicians and experts argue that the United States lacks the resources to take on both Russia and China. They point to China’s power and Asia’s wealth and argue that Asia should be the priority. While Washington pivots to Asia, wealthy European countries, such as Germany, should step up to provide for NATO’s defense. Indeed, the Biden administration’s National Defense Strategy, which has been delayed due to the Ukraine crisis, is expected to focus on China without offering a clear solution to the two-front-war problem.

A good strategy, however, starts with clear goals, and Washington’s objectives are to maintain peace and stability in both Europe and Asia. U.S. interests in Europe are too significant to let them be worked out solely between Putin and the United States’ European allies. Indeed, the European Union, not Asia, is the United States’ largest trade and investment partner, and this imbalance is much starker when China (which the United States seeks greater economic decoupling from), is removed from the equation.

Furthermore, China has conducted military exercises in Europe and the Middle East. Competing with China militarily means competing globally, not just in Asia. In addition, Xi is gauging U.S. resolve, and a weak response in Ukraine might make a Chinese move on Taiwan more likely.

Moreover, the United States is not France; it is not compelled to make gut-wrenching strategic choices about its national security due to constrained resources. In short, publishing a defense strategy that can only handle one of the United States’ great-power rivals (which is what is expected from the forthcoming national defense strategy) is planning to fail.

Instead, the United States and its allies must design a defense strategy capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating both Russia and China in overlapping time frames. The pause in releasing Biden’s defense strategy provides an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and get this right.

3568. Climate Change Is Harming the Planet Faster Than We Can Adapt, U.N. Warns

Brad Plumer and 

The climate crisis is one of the four existential threats to humanity. The nuclear holocaust is often
the neglected one. The crisis in Ukraine that is essentially U.S. and NATO standoff
with Russia has brought that to the fore. The map shows nuclear reactors in
Ukraine which could be damaged in the war creating an immediate world crisis. 

The dangers of climate change are mounting so rapidly that they could soon overwhelm the ability of both nature and humanity to adapt unless greenhouse gas emissions are quickly reduced, according to a major new scientific report released on Monday.

The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts convened by the United Nations, is the most detailed look yet at the threats posed by global warming. It concludes that nations aren’t doing nearly enough to protect cities, farms and coastlines from the hazards that climate change has unleashed so far, such as record droughts and rising seas, let alone from the even greater disasters in store as the planet continues to warm.

Written by 270 researchers from 67 countries, the report is “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general. “With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.”

The perils are already visible across the globe, the report said. In 2019, storms, floods and other extreme weather events displaced more than 13 million people across Asia and Africa. Rising heat and drought are killing crops and trees, putting millions worldwide at increased risk of hunger and malnutrition, while mosquitoes carrying diseases like malaria and dengue are spreading into new areas. Roughly half the world’s population currently faces severe water scarcity at least part of the year.

Few nations are escaping unscathed. Blistering heat waves made worse by global warming have killed hundreds of people in the United States and Canada, ferocious floods have devastated Germany and China, and wildfires have raged out of control in Australia and Siberia.

“One of the most striking conclusions in our report is that we’re seeing adverse impacts that are much more widespread and much more negative than expected,” said Camille Parmesan, an ecologist at the University of Texas, Austin, and one of the researchers who prepared the report.

To date, many nations have been able to partly limit the damage by spending billions of dollars each year on adaptation measures like flood barriers, air-conditioning or early-warning systems for tropical cyclones.

But those efforts are too often “incremental,” the report said. Preparing for future threats, like dwindling freshwater supplies or irreversible ecosystem damage, will require “transformational” changes that involve rethinking how people build homes, grow food, produce energy and protect nature.

The report also carries a stark warning: If temperatures keep rising, many parts of the world could soon face limits in how much they can adapt to a changing environment. If nations don’t act quickly to slash fossil fuel emissions and halt global warming, more and more people will suffer unavoidable loss or be forced to flee their homes, creating dislocation on a global scale.

“There has been the assumption that, ‘Well, if we cannot control climate change, we’ll just let it go and adapt to it,’” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a marine biologist in Germany who helped coordinate the report. But given the expected risks as the planet keeps warming, he said, “this is certainly a very illusionary approach.”

Global temperatures have already increased by an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit, since the 19th century, as humans have pumped heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere by burning coal, oil and gas for energy, and cutting down forests.

Many leaders, including President Biden, have vowed to limit total global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say the likelihood of catastrophic climate impacts increases significantly.

But achieving that goal would require nations to all but eliminate their fossil-fuel emissions by 2050, and most are far off-track. The world is currently on pace to warm somewhere between 2 degrees and 3 degrees Celsius this century, experts have estimated.

“Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction — now,” Mr. Guterres said. “This abdication of leadership is criminal.”

If average warming passes 1.5 degrees Celsius, even humanity’s best efforts to adapt could falter, the report warns. The cost of defending coastal communities against rising seas could exceed what many nations can afford. In some regions, including parts of North America, livestock and outdoor workers could face rising levels of heat stress that make farming increasingly difficult, said Rachel Bezner Kerr, an agricultural expert at Cornell University who contributed to the report.

“Beyond 1.5, we’re not going to manage on a lot of fronts,” said Maarten van Aalst, the director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center and another author of the report. “If we don’t implement changes now in terms of how we deal with physical infrastructure, but also how we organize our societies, it’s going to be bad.”

Poor nations are far more exposed to climate risks than rich countries. Between 2010 and 2020, droughts, floods and storms killed 15 times as many people in highly vulnerable countries, including those in Africa and Asia, as in the wealthiest countries, the report said.

That disparity has fueled a contentious debate: what the industrialized nations most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions owe developing countries. Low-income nations want financial help, both to defend against future threats and to compensate for damages they can’t avoid. The issue will be a focus when governments meet for the next United Nations climate summit in Egypt in November.

“Climate change is the ultimate injustice,” said Ani Dasgupta, the president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental group. “People with the fewest resources, those least responsible for the climate crisis, bear the brunt of climate impacts.” He added, “If you don’t live in a hot spot, imagine instead a roof blown away, a village well overwhelmed by salt water, a failed crop, a job lost, a meal skipped — all at once, again and again.”

The report, which was approved by 195 governments, makes clear that risks to humans and nature accelerate with every additional fraction of a degree of warming.

At current levels of warming, for example, humanity’s ability to feed itself is already coming under strain. While the world is still producing more food each year, thanks to improvements in farming and crop technology, climate change has begun slowing the rate of growth, the report said, an ominous trend that puts future food supplies at risk as the world’s population soars past 8 billion people.

If global warming reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius — as is now likely within the next few decades — roughly 8 percent of the world’s farmland could become unsuitable for growing food, the authors wrote. Coral reefs, which buffer coastlines against storms and sustain fisheries for millions of people, will face more frequent bleaching from ocean heat waves and decline by 70 to 90 percent. The number of people around the world exposed to severe coastal flooding could increase by more than one-fifth without new protections.

At 2 degrees Celsius of warming, between 800 million and 3 billion people globally could face chronic water scarcity because of drought, including more than one-third of the population in southern Europe. Crop yields and fish harvests in many places could start declining. An additional 1.4 million children in Africa could face severe malnutrition, stunting their growth.

At 3 degrees of warming, the risk of extreme weather events could increase fivefold by century’s end. Flooding from sea-level rise and heavier rainstorms could cause four times as much economic damage worldwide as they do today. As many as 29 percent of known plant and animal species on land could face a high risk of extinction.

The report lays out strategies that nations can pursue to protect themselves, such as elevating homes above rising floodwaters or developing new crop varieties that can better tolerate heat and drought.

Humanity has already managed to reduce some of the harms from climate dangers. Over the past half-century, the number of deaths worldwide from storms, floods and other extreme weather events has fallen by more than half because of improved early warning systems and disaster management, the World Meteorological Organization has found. Investments in public health have meant fewer people are succumbing to diseases like cholera, even as rising temperatures and heavier rainfall have facilitated their spread.

But if global temperatures keep rising, adapting to climate change will become increasingly difficult, especially for poorer countries, the report said.

“If we are able to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, then the likelihood of large areas or specific islands becoming uninhabitable will be relatively low,” although they will remain vulnerable to storms and sea-level rise, said Adelle Thomas, an adaptation researcher at the University of the Bahamas and a report author. But higher levels of warming “could lead to those areas becoming uninhabitable,” she said.

A decade ago, wealthy nations pledged to deliver $100 billion per year to the developing world by 2020 to shift to cleaner sources of energy and adapt to climate change. But they have fallen short by tens of billions of dollars, with only a fraction of the funds spent on adaptation.

Meanwhile, many communities are acting in ways that increase their vulnerability, the report said. One reason flood risk is growing along the coasts, for instance, is that millions of people are moving to low-lying areas that are endangered by sea level rise. And some adaptation measures have unintended consequences. For instance, sea walls protect certain places but can also redirect flooding into populated areas elsewhere. Irrigation can help protect crops against drought but can also deplete groundwater resources“Despite the fact that we have been talking about climate change for a long period of time,” many regions are still developing in ways that make their people and ecosystems more exposed to the hazards, not less, said Ibidun O. Adelekan, a professor of geography at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria who worked on the reportInstead, the report recommends that leaders pursue more farsighted strategies. As oceans rise, coastal communities could relocate inland while additional development along vulnerable shorelines could be discouraged. Improvements in basic services like health, roads, electricity and water could help make poor and rural communities more resilient against climate shocks.

“The choice is not between if we transform or not anymore,” said Edward R. Carr, a professor of international development at Clark University and an author of the report. “The choice is, do we choose transformations we like? Or do we get transformed by the world in which we live because of what we’ve done to it?”

The report is part of the sixth major assessment of climate science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was created in 1988. The first report in the series, released last August, examined the science behind how human activity is heating the planet. A separate report, expected this spring, will explore strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and halt warming.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

3567. How Russian and Western Counterparts Work Together to Enrich Themselves

 By Paul Krugman, The New York Times, February 24, 2022

The United States and its allies aren’t going to intervene with their own forces against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I’ll leave it to others with relevant expertise to speculate about whether we’ll send more arms to the Ukrainian government or if the Russian attack achieves quick success, help arm the Ukrainian resistance.

For the most part, however, the West’s response to Putin’s naked aggression will involve financial and economic sanctions. How effective can such sanctions be?

The answer is that they can be very effective, if the West shows the will — and is willing to take on its own corruption.

By conventional measures the Putin regime doesn’t look very vulnerable, at least in the short run.

True, Russia will eventually pay a heavy price. There won’t be any more pipeline deals; there will be hardly any foreign direct investment. After all, who will want to make long-term commitments to a country whose autocratic leadership has shown such reckless contempt for the rule of law? But these consequences of Putin’s aggression will take years to become visible.

And there seems to be only limited room for trade sanctions. For that, we can and should blame Europe, which does far more trade with Russia than America does.

The Europeans, unfortunately, have fecklessly allowed themselves to become highly dependent on imports of Russian natural gas. This means that if they were to attempt a full-scale cutoff of Russian exports they would impose soaring prices and shortages on themselves. Given sufficient provocation, they could still do it: Modern advanced economies can be incredibly resilient in times of need.

But even the invasion of Ukraine probably won’t be enough to persuade Europe to make those sorts of sacrifices. It’s telling, and not in a good way, that Italy wants luxury goods — a favorite purchase of the Russian elite — excluded from any sanctions package.

Financial sanctions, reducing Russia’s ability to raise and move money overseas, are more easily doable — indeed, on Thursday President Biden announced plans to crack down on Russian banks. But the effects will be limited unless Russia is excluded from SWIFT, the Belgium-based system for payments between banks. And a SWIFT exclusion might in practice mean a stop to Russian gas supplies, which brings us back to the problem of Europe’s self-inflicted vulnerability.

Yet the world’s advanced democracis have another powerful financial weapon against the Putin regime, if they’re willing to use it: They can go after the vast overseas wealth of the oligarchs who surround Putin and help him stay in power.

Everyone has heard about giant oligarch-owned yachts, sports franchises and incredibly expensive homes in multiple countries; there’s so much highly visible Russian money in Britain that some people talk about “Londongrad.” Well, these aren’t just isolated stories.

Filip Novokmet, Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman have pointed out that Russia has run huge trade surpluses every year since the early 1990s, which should have led to a large accumulation of overseas assets. Yet official statistics show Russia with only moderately more assets than liabilities abroad. How is that possible? The obvious explanation is that wealthy Russians have been skimming off large sums and parking them abroad.

The sums involved are mind-boggling. Novokmet et al. estimate that in 2015 the hidden foreign wealth of rich Russians amounted to around 85 percent of Russia’s G.D.P. To give you some perspective, this is as if a U.S. president’s cronies had managed to hide $20 trillion in overseas accounts. Another paper co-written by Zucman found that in Russia, “the vast majority of wealth at the top is held offshore.” As far as I can tell, the overseas exposure of Russia’s elite has no precedent in history — and it creates a huge vulnerability that the West can exploit.

But can democratic governments go after these assets? Yes. As I read it, the legal basis is already there, for example in the Countering America’s Enemies Through Sanctions Act, and so is the technical ability. Indeed, Britain froze the assets of three prominent Putin cronies earlier this week, and it could give many others the same treatment.

So we have the means to put enormous financial pressure on the Putin regime (as opposed to the Russian economy). But do we have the will? That’s the trillion-ruble question.

There are two uncomfortable facts here. First, a number of influential people, both in business and in politics, are deeply financially enmeshed with Russian kleptocrats. This is especially true in Britain. Second, it will be hard to go after laundered Russian money without making life harder for all money launderers, wherever they come from — and while Russian plutocrats may be the world champions in that sport, they’re hardly unique: Ultrawealthy people all over the world have money hidden in offshore accounts.

What this means is that taking effective action against Putin’s greatest vulnerability will require facing up to and overcoming the West’s own corruption.

Can the democratic world rise to this challenge? We’ll find out over the next few months.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

3566. Scientists Fear Soaring Methane Levels Show Climate Feedback Loop Has Arrived

By Jake Johnson, Common Dreams, Febraury 9, 2022

Fresh U.S. government data spotlighting the rapid growth of atmospheric methane concentrations in recent years has scientists increasingly concerned that the human-caused climate crisis has triggered a vicious feedback loop, potentially resulting in unstoppable planetary warming.

Research published in January by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showed that atmospheric concentrations of methane—a greenhouse gas that's 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period—soared past 1,900 parts per billion in 2021, which ranked as the fourth-warmest year on record.

As Nature reported Tuesday, "The growth of methane emissions slowed around the turn of the millennium, but began a rapid and mysterious uptick around 2007."

"The spike has caused many researchers to worry that global warming is creating a feedback mechanism that will cause ever more methane to be released, making it even harder to rein in rising temperatures," the outlet noted. "Potential explanations [for the methane surge] range from the expanding exploitation of oil and natural gas and rising emissions from landfill to growing livestock herds and increasing activity by microbes in wetlands."

Euan Nisbet, an Earth scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London, told Nature that "methane levels are growing dangerously fast" as powerful countries around the world refuse to end the extraction of coal, natural gas, and other sources of the pollutant.

"Is warming feeding the warming? It's an incredibly important question," said Nisbet. "As yet, no answer, but it very much looks that way."

Scientists have long feared that the continued burning of fossil fuels risks setting in motion a chain reaction whose consequences—particularly ever-more global warming—are irreversible.

While researchers are still working to discern the extent to which human activity is responsible for the alarming spike in atmospheric methane levels in recent years, scientists have previously warned against categorizing certain causes of methane emissions—such as thawing permafrost—as "natural," given that they are typically a result of human-driven warming.

"Regardless of how this mystery plays out, humans are not off the hook," Nature stressed Tuesday. "Based on their latest analysis of the isotopic trends, [NOAA scientist Xin Lan's] team estimates that anthropogenic sources such as livestock, agricultural waste, landfill, and fossil-fuel extraction accounted for about 62% of total methane emissions since from 2007 to 2016."

NOAA's latest figures were released months after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in its 2021 landmark report that atmospheric methane levels are currently higher than at any point in the last 800,000 years.

Despite such a dire finding, global policymakers took few steps to substantively address methane emissions at the COP26 climate summit in November. While dozens of additional countries signed on to a pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by the end of the decade, climate groups argued that "pledges are just words on a page without concrete action to make them real."

Amid the COP26 talks, the Biden administration unveiled rules aimed at cutting U.S. methane emissions, but critics said they do not go nearly far enough. The U.S. is the second-largest emitter of methane in the world.

"For too long, we've known the damaging impacts of this potent heat-trapping pollutant, known that oil and gas operations continue to be a major source of it, and known that solutions to drive rapid reductions across the sector already exist—yet still, oil and gas operations continue to release untenably high and entirely preventable methane emissions," Julie McNamara, deputy policy director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement at the time.

"Swiftly reducing methane emissions," said McNamara, "will result in significant and much-needed near-term climate progress."