The most important number on Earth

Sooner or later, you have to draw a line. We’ve spent the last 20 years in the opening scenes of what historians will one day call the Global Warming Era—the preamble to the biggest drama that humans have ever staged, the overture that hints at the themes that will follow for centuries to come. But none of the notes have resolved, none of the story lines yet come into clear view. And that’s largely because until recently we didn’t know quite where we were. From the moment in 1988 when a nasa scientist named James Hansen told Congress that burning coal and gas and oil was warming the earth, we’ve struggled to absorb this one truth: The central fact of our economic lives (the ubiquitous fossil fuel that developed the developed world) is wrecking the central fact of our physical lives (the stable climate and sea level on which civilization rests). For a while, and much longer in the US than elsewhere, we battled over whether this was true. But warm year succeeded warm year and that fight began to subside. Instead, the real question became, is this a future peril, the kind of thing you take out a reasonably priced insurance policy to guard against? Or is it the oh-my-lord crisis you drop everything else to deal with? Will Hitler be happy with the Sudetenland, or is the world going to spend every cent it has, not to mention tens of millions of lives, fighting him off? Trouble, or TROUBLE? These last 12 months, we’ve found out. [continued…]

“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.” Target Atmospheric CO2, James Hansen et al.

Playing power politics with Iran

In the midst of the global financial crisis, Western politicians have found a ray of light, namely that reduced oil prices will compel Iran to come to terms with the international community on its nuclear infractions. Such perceptions misread Iran’s history and the mindset of Tehran’s current rulers.

The West confronts an Iranian regime that has reconceptualized its national interests – choosing strategic gain over economic growth. Neither economic distress nor additional sanctions are likely to alter Tehran’s course. The most effective means of addressing Iran’s proliferation tendencies is to alter its strategic calculus.

On the surface, the theocracy’s challenge is daunting. The inflation rate stands at 30 percent, while approximately 14 million Iranians live below the poverty level. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s populist policies have also taken their toll, as he has mismanaged the economy and raided the oil stabilization fund designed to cushion the state from periods of price fluctuation. Still, Iran’s leaders remain more sensitive to their strategic environment than economic predicament. The displacement of Iran’s historical nemeses in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the decline of America’s influence in the Middle East have generated a recognition that it is a propitious time for the Islamic Republic to claim that mantle of regional leadership. Iran has a rare historical opportunity to emerge as the pivotal power in the Persian Gulf, a role that Iran’s monarchs and mullahs have aspired to for decades. [continued…]

Encountering peace: The emerging bi-national reality

Palestinian affairs expert and longtime journalist Danny Rubenstein came to visit me a couple of evenings ago. He was researching the issue of the transfer of cash to Gaza that Defense Minister Barak had allowed. After clarifying this issue our conversation went on to discuss what Danny called the emerging “bi-national reality” that has developed in the West Bank and has become more entrenched, perhaps beyond the point of no return. Danny is one of the real experts. He’s been covering Palestinian affairs since 1967, has written several highly respected books on Palestinians, their national movement and leaders. He has contacts in every part of Palestine, with all sectors of the society. His conclusion concerning the “bi-national reality” is drawn from observations over the past months after traveling north, south, east and west – all throughout the West Bank, spending hours listening to people and observing the reality on the ground.

I told Danny that I am not ready to give up the hope that our leaders will find the wisdom and the courage to implement the “two-state solution” before it is too late. In my heart, I had to wonder if Danny wasn’t right. Perhaps it is already too late. Perhaps the events of Hebron, of the forced removal of the settlers from the building that they claim and the riots that broke out afterwards when they went on the rampage against Palestinians in Hebron demonstrates in the most bloody terms that these two communities might be too locked into a entanglement that is already beyond the possibility to untangle. [continued…]

All Hamas demands is Israeli respect

Reasonable people would expect that Israelis and Palestinians alike prefer a cease-fire to active warfare, especially since mutual attacks have never resolved the core conflict. Hamas’ decision to extend the cease-fire is not going to be made on the basis of what makes its people more or less comfortable, or what entices Israelis into opening the gates a little bit wider to allow more consumer goods to enter Gaza. The basis on which Hamas makes such decisions reflects its wider worldview of the character and aims of Israel, and the nature of its confrontation with Israel.

Like other Islamist groups, Hamas calculates on the basis of a longer time frame than the next election, shifting public opinion, or whether or not it will be invited to tea at the White House. The single most important factor in the mind of the Islamist leaders is whether the agreement to renew the cease-fire reflects mutual respect and an acceptance of the principle of equal rights for Israel and Hamas.

If the deal proposed is seen to have forced Israel to change its position and respect the terms of the agreement, Hamas will extend. If it merely comprises vague Israeli promises in return for Hamas and other militant groups stopping their rocket attacks against Israel, the deal will collapse. Hamas’ view is that mutual requirements, rather than the unilateral requirement of Israeli security, must be assured for a cease-fire to happen. The driving force for such a posture is the Islamist sense that the battle to defend and reclaim the land will be a long one, and it will require a heavy price in lives and suffering before Israel negotiates sincerely and views the Palestinians as humans worthy of the same rights as Israelis. [continued…]

NATO supply route imperiled as Pakistani truckers refuse to carry goods

As a truck driver, Gul Mohmamad regularly ferries containers full of food and other supplies along the Khyber Pass route to Western forces in the Afghan capital.

It’s an increasingly dangerous occupation, with Taliban forces attacking trucks on the road and increasingly in the terminals.

“We don’t have any security here. When we are parked here outside the terminal we are afraid of being attacked,” Mohmamad says. “We have the same fears and problems when we are driving on the roads. That is why we cannot perform our duties properly.”

In response to the increased danger, an alliance of some 3,500 truck and fuel tanker owners announced on December 15 that it would no longer make deliveries for NATO along the alliance’s main overland supply route. [continued…]

Pakistan groups banned but not bowed

Pakistan submitted to the will of the international community and cracked down on the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure – LET), already banned as a terror outfit and linked to the Mumbai attacks last month, and the Jamaatut Dawa, last week labeled by the United Nations Security Council as a front for the LET.

One of the more sensational arrests was that of Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, the LET’s operations chief who had been characterized as a villain in dozens of Indian Bollywood movies; his picture was released for the first time ever to the media.

The Pakistani electronic media, though, were unimpressed by the international pressure, and hit back. They showed footage of the massacre of Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002; of atrocities committed by Indian forces against Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir and called the Mumbai attack a reaction from within Indian society. [continued…]

Pirates outmaneuver warships off Somalia

Rear Adm. Giovanni Gumiero is going on a pirate hunt.

From the deck of an Italian destroyer cruising the pirate-infested waters off Somalia’s coast, he has all the modern tools at his fingertips — radar, sonar, infrared cameras, helicopters, a cannon that can sink a ship 10 miles away — to take on a centuries-old problem that harks back to the days of schooners and eye patches.

“Our presence will deter them,” the admiral said confidently.

But the wily buccaneers of Somalia’s seas do not seem especially deterred — instead, they seem to be getting only wilier. More than a dozen warships from Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Britain, Malaysia and the United States have joined the hunt.

And yet, in the past two months alone, the pirates have attacked more than 30 vessels, eluding the naval patrols, going farther out to sea and seeking bigger, more lucrative game, including an American cruise ship and a 1,000-foot Saudi oil tanker.

The pirates are recalibrating their tactics, attacking ships in beelike swarms of 20 to 30 skiffs, and threatening to choke off one of the busiest shipping arteries in the world, at the mouth of the Red Sea. [continued…]

Welcome to the Blagosphere

The schemes Blago allegedly invented to “monetize” his public authority, while never rising to the sophistication of, say, a credit default swap, still showed a cunning that would command the respect of any Wall Street Ponzi master. The governor allegedly speculated about trading the Senate seat for the job of energy secretary because, as “Deputy Governor A” helpfully informed him, that was the cabinet position “that makes the most money” — by which he almost certainly did not mean that it carried the greatest salary. Blago also apparently cooked up a plan in which a labor organization would create a highly paid position for him in exchange for the seat.

The governor’s fondest idea was allegedly to trade the Senate seat for a 501(c)4 organization that he believed the country’s best-known billionaires would graciously fund and that he would get to lead. And why not? Washington is filled with advocacy groups funded by the very wealthy that sometimes appear to be little more than retirement homes for political favorites.

The right has been gloating about the alleged Blagojevich villainy because it interrupts, in spectacular fashion, a long stretch in which most of the Beltway scandal-makers had an “R” after their names. Besides, this would-be mega-grafter comes from the same city and the same party as the hated Mr. Obama; it’s just a matter of time until the right blurs the two into one.

What outsiders seldom grasp about Illinois politics, though, is how bipartisan, how apolitical, the whole reeking thing is. John Kass of the Chicago Tribune, a connoisseur of the region’s corruption, refers to it as “the Combine.” Republicans run the machine when it’s their turn, and then hand the wheel over to Democrats when the public has had enough. [continued…]

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