UNESCO funding cut by U.S. puts millions of lives at risk — NYT science blogger blames the rest of the world

At his Dot Earth blog in the New York Times, Andrew Revkin points out the devastating consequences which may follow budget cuts at UNESCO, now that U.S. funding has been severed due to the U.N. agency’s acceptance of Palestine as a full member.

Revkin relays a report from Oakley Brooks, author of Tsunami Alert: Beating Asia’s Next Big One, who writes:

There are plenty of things that the multi-tentacled Unesco does, in its slow and bloated way, which the world really needs. One indispensable and thankless Unesco task is organizing tsunami warnings systems and pushing for tsunami education on risky shores around the world.

I have serious reservations about relying on warning systems near fault lines — they tend to make people complacent between events and confused during. But these systems are undeniable saviors for long-distance tsunamis, such as the one that traveled trans-Pacific, from Japan to the U.S. West Coast, last March.

It’s frustrating to think that the ever-widening collateral damage from American Holy Land politics would reach — like its own long-distance tsunami — into the essential work on tsunami science.

Since UNESCO’s loss of funding is due to a law passed by the US Congress back in 1990, before the Oslo Accords and before anyone in Washington professed their support for the creation of a Palestinian state, Oakley correctly attributes the source of the damage to American Holy Land politics.

Revkin, however, wants to locate the problem elsewhere:

To my mind, the 107 nations that voted for Palestine’s membership knew what the financial result would be, and were willing to put the agency’s operations at risk for the sake of making a geopolitical point. That seems unwise. But that’s a personal, not professional view, on my part.

Since the bulk of Revkin’s writing covers environmental issues, whatever views he might have about Israel and Palestine are hard to glean. But he certainly doesn’t lack an interest in politics. In the mid-90s he reported on multiple ways the Bush administration was interfering with science.

Perhaps he sees the UNESCO issue as just another example of politics intruding on the work of scientists. Yet he seems to assign a law passed by Congress with something like the immutable status of a law of physics and think that the political points are only being made at the U.N..

As Ian Williams notes:

The actual legislation [PDF] the state department invokes is a 1990 prohibition on funding “the United Nations or any specialised agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organisation the same standing as a member state”, and another in 1994 banning payments to “any affiliated organisation of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organisation or group that does not have the internationally recognised attributes of statehood”.

Any president, as we have seen, has ways to get around congressional mandates like this. For example, there are questions about which manifestation of Palestine is applying: the PLO or the Palestinian Authority. The congressional legislation was passed before the Oslo accords – and before the US began funding the Palestinians directly, so an executive decision could have declared that events had overtaken the intent of the law, and, what is more, that it was not the PLO but the Palestinian state that had been admitted.

As for the second part, US diplomats will have fun explaining why the US maintains membership of the World Bank and IMF – which have admitted Kosovo, whose disputed territory and statehood, rightly or wrongly, has far less general recognition than Palestine’s.

Are there any other indications that Revkin may be subject to his own non-scientific slant when it comes to issues involving the Middle East?

Back in early February, when the Egyptian revolution was in full swing, Revkin was among those helping promote a fear that a wave of uprisings across the region might cause trouble for the United States if oil supplies were disrupted. At that moment, he and his interlocutor, Gal Luft, saw a beacon of hope being raised in Israel by Benjamin Netanyahu with an initiative aimed at ending global dependence on oil.

Revkin also sought council from leading neoconservative, James Woolsey. The former CIA director saw in Revkin’s inquiry an opportunity to preach about the fount of all peril: Iran.

The point is that this Iranian government will use any tool it can – religious and otherwise – to spread its influence. If we see demonstrations in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States it will be highly likely that more is going on, with an Iranian hand behind it, than just impressionable folks watching television and imitating what they see. It will be about Iran moving to build its ability to call the shots.

Does all of this imply that Revkin has his own Middle East agenda? Kind of, but I don’t think it necessarily has anything to do with supporting Israel. It sounds more like a strain of environmentalist populism that wants to harness America’s isolationist and xenophobic trends as a means to break our dependence on oil.

The problem with reinforcing prejudice for the sake of a good cause is that the prejudice may end up being served better than the cause.

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One thought on “UNESCO funding cut by U.S. puts millions of lives at risk — NYT science blogger blames the rest of the world

  1. acerigger

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