Newsnotes 2011 03

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Give Them Liberty Or Give Them Death [Egypt]

Colour-of-Money Politics [Colour Revolutions]

Democracy’s Strange Fruit [US Racism and Billy Holiday]

Remembering Abraham Lincoln [(Racist)]

The Wealth and Misery of Nations

Why China Works

Climate Change

Libya: the HagueFather Speaks


Give Them Liberty Or Give Them Death [Egypt]

The USA gives priority to foreign governments being pro-USA. If they can also copy US politics by alternate power between two similar and broadly harmless parties, that is an excellent extra. But the USA has a long history of encouraging or sometimes organising coups to prevent elections or overthrow elected governments that they dislike.

The USA calls for ‘freedom’, but faces the horrible prospect that a roused public in foreign lands might think that ‘freedom’ extended to freedom to be something different from the USA.

The US public and politicians seem agreed that:

  1. their own system is near-perfect.
  2. their own system is failing to give most of them what they are entitled to.

If the contradiction ever bothers them, it never leads to anything beyond a demand for more of the same. That’s common ground between US Democrats and US Republicans, and also shared by a lot of the rest of the world

Various ‘reflective’ pieces have been written in the wake of the overthrow of existing governments in Tunisia and Egypt. The absence of a coherent government in either place does not bother the commentators. Nor a sudden surge in people trying to flee from Tunisia to Italy. It is Democracy and therefore it must be A Good Thing.

The USA does also seem to have learned some lessons from the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The main lesson seems to be that you should rat on your Third-World friends as soon as they look shaky.

In Egypt, the protestors would have been wiser to have kept Mubarak once he seemed committed to reform. This would have been sound advice, but it was not the advice they were given. Instead the West more or less endorsed the hard-line stand that Mubarak must go before anything else happened.

The protestors missed what would have been the best way to ease tensions, an assurance of immunity. This worked in South Africa, but it was arrived at because the USA was then dominant globally and the USA was looking after its friends. Elsewhere they see no need for it. Mubarak may have thought the USA was his friend, but the way he was treated suggests that they saw him as their servant, and now ‘surplus to requirements’.

The actual departure was curious. On Thursday 10th, Mubarak was scheduled to make a speech which was heavily pre-publicised as a decision to resign. It was obvious from the first few sentences that something else was happening. The man talked about what he would do, based on a clear assumption that he would retain power to choose. I followed it on the BBC, which provided a fast English translation, but which was slow to notice that the ‘script’ was not being followed.

On Friday 11th, we were told that Mubarak has resigned, but the news did not come from him. The world media has not heard from him, and the world media does not seem concerned, and the world media is not asking any awkward questions. I assume that he has been removed and is currently under arrest. If he isn’t ill, then he soon may be.

The problem now is that there is no legitimate leadership, just a bunch of Mubarak subordinates who have removed their boss. Chaos is very likely, because the various forces that got together to protest don’t have all that much in common.

Removing Mubarak solves nothing. There was little substance to the protest beyond demanding an end to corruption. But corruption typically reflects the general situation. I can’t think of a single anti-corruption political movement that achieved anything, unless it had other issues of substance.

Removing Mubarak made sense in terms of the Liberal or Libertarian notion – there is some magic force will of the people, expressed in multi-choice elections from which harmony emerges, usually with two parties politely alternating in power. This rests on the assumption that there is a single thing called ‘the will of the people’. But if there were, why would there need to be separate parties? The people could just chose the most worthy individuals, which was the original intention in the USA.

The Liberal or Libertarian view see dictatorial rule as a senseless interruption in the political process. I see it as a reflection of actual tensions within the system, that can be resolved by concentrating power. When tensions get less, then the system can manage with power more dispersed. But it’s a mistake to see dictatorship s resulting primarily from personal ambition. Someone has to want the position to get it, but also there has to be broad consent that there should be a single ‘strong man’ in charge. And there are plenty of examples of a political system churning and producing nothing, but this lesson is not learned.

In Egypt, a lot of the anger has been about Egypt following a ‘globalist’ agenda, increasing inequality and trying to shrink the state. That’s bound to be a big issue if elections actually get held. But it may also prove that no one can cope with the new politics except the Islamists.

As I said last month, the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9 proceeded by stages, with the Islamists eliminating their enemies by stages. Something similar could happen in Egypt, particularly since the non-Islamic forces have nothing very obvious to offer.

Even though the Iran state that emerged from the Islamic Revolution has had popular elections that raise or cast down its leading politicians, it keeps making choices that the USA dislikes and is targeted. And the BBC obediently calls it a ‘dictatorship’, even though Ahmadinejad’s election as President in 2005 was broadly accepted. The Opposition played the West’s game by claiming ballot rigging in his re-election in 2009, part of a global pattern of disrupting every election that produces an unwanted result.

The Western media have also irresponsibly hyped revolts that stand little chance of success, and which are much more likely to lead to civil war. At the time of writing, 22nd February, Libya has the beginnings of a civil war. Bahrain may be heading for a compromise between the ruling Sunni and the majority Shia, but it would be unstable if it happened. Yemen and Morocco have had disturbances but seems to have ridden them out. If the army stands with the government and is prepared to shoot, a ‘colour revolution’ will not work.


Colour-of-Money Politics [Colour Revolutions]

The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings are being seen as a continuation of the ‘Colour Revolutions’, the wave of well-organised popular protests that knocked over some of the governments which had emerged from the Soviet collapse.

The overthrow of most governments in Middle-Europe in 1989 had a definite logic: those governments had become little more than puppets of Moscow, and people wanted a sharp change. Mostly they wanted admission to the European Union and incorporation in the European Union’s way of life. This is pretty much what they got.

The change to a Western system was carried through without disaster in countries where there was a memory of multi-party politics. It has still been distinctly disappointing, with many of the new politicians making fools of themselves at international gatherings. Still, it has lasted.

East of Middle-Europe – east of the Baltic states and the Carpathian Mountains – things were much more muddled. Middle-Europe could see itself as returning to its natural place as the close associate of Western Europe. The true Eastern Europe had different traditions and nowhere clear to go.

The ‘Rose Revolution’ in Georgia is normally counted as the first of the Colour Revolutions. This resulted in a stable new government, but also a government of fools who got into a confrontation with Russia over a non-Georgian enclave that had been bundled with Georgia when they were all part of the Soviet Union. The Georgian leadership clearly expected the West to back them, and they were dead wrong. Russia still has nuclear weapons and the West’s bark has proved worse than its bite.

The next big event was the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. It was part of a futile political merry-go-round involving the rival leaderships of Yanukovych, Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, what could be called the Y-Y-Y Effect. Yanukovych was overthrown in the Orange Revolution of 2004, but the new government was pretty lousy and Yanukovych was re-elected in 2010.

Compared to Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine is quite orderly. The Tulip Revolution of 2005 brought Bakiyev to power: he was thrown out again in 2010 after allegedly rigging an election. North and South cannot get along together. There is a real possibility that the country may break up.

Why should anyone be surprised by this? Competitive politics easily spills over into Civil War. In Britain, the relatively stable settlement of 1688 came after several decades of disorder. It worked because each faction had tried to dominate at one stage or another, and all had failed. It seemed safer to stick to electoral contests, elections that were often corrupt and not even loosely democratic until the 1880s. The system worked because people accepted the result and assumed they would have another chance later. This is highly unnatural behaviour, and attempts to reproduce it elsewhere have often failed. France ran through three monarchies, two Empires and five Republics before achieving its current stability. Of course the Fifth Republic will need to last past 2028 to displace the much-despised Third Republic as the longest-lasting system of government since the French Revolution.

Elections can spark civil wars – this happened in 1860-61 in the USA, the Spanish Civil War of 1936 and the secession of East Pakistan as Bangladesh in 1970-71. Multi-party politics did not prevent the Irish War of Independence, the subsequent Irish Civil War and the series of IRA campaigns that have undermined but not yet destroyed British rule in Northern Ireland. Back in 1914, Irish Home Rule was so contentious that there seemed a real chance of civil war in Britain as well as Ireland: World War One intervened. In Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – multi-party elections polarised the island between Tamils and Sinhalese and led to a long-running secessionist war that ended only with the Tamil Tiger defeat in 2009.

Transitions from authoritarian system to multi-party government have gone wrong more often than they have gone right. The Arab world seems particularly unlikely to get it right.

There is an old joke about a man who is asked “can you play the piano?” And he replies, “I don’t know, I’ve never tried.” It’s the same with a multi-party system, it only works if people have an existing set of political habits, mostly quite different from what the liberals and the libertarians claim to be necessary.

If you are not afraid of freedom, then you have no understanding of freedom. Freedom normally involves people doing things you never expected. Freedom means freedom for what you hate or fear as well as what you hope for or desire. You will probably call something else, but that’s just your opinion. You may try to impose the ‘Sinatra Principle’: I’ll do it my way, you’ll do it my way. But how do you actually impose your ideas on someone who can fight back?

Rapid change also has its thrilling aspects, but that’s precisely because it is dangerous and unpredictable. Myself, I am looking forward to a further decline of US power and the likely emergence of governments hostile to the USA in Arab counties. I am also waiting for those who currently cheer on the process to express utter shock and amazement that it has ended up as something quite alien.


Democracy’s Strange Fruit [US Racism and Billy Holiday]

The Western media say ‘democracy’ when they mean ‘legalised forms of political aggression against the legitimate political authorities’. Historically, the two have been separate. Britain’s system didn’t include a majority of adult males living in Britain until the 1880s. The most successful democracies are those where elected politicians gradually learned politics while the state was governed by someone else. This was true even in the British colonies that seceded as the USA: they had state assembles that worked as local agents of the British Empire and had a set of political habits that let them run the new Republic fairly smoothly. (And the USA’s much-hyped constitution is largely the former British system of rule with a republican gloss.)

A multi-party system works OK when a single view is dominant. It is often a burden on a weak system. Stable multi-party politics should be seen a result, not a system. It depends on a lack of major issues between the electable parties. No issue worth dying for, at least.

One should also remember what it was like in the US South from the 1870s to 1960s. Before the South seceded, almost all of the North excluded negros from voting. They were also not allowed to join the Union army in the early years of the war. They had been allowed to fight in previous wars – on both sides in the War of Independence, though this was also true of many white Americans. But the US Civil War began as a war of two racisms, with the North objecting to slavery because it wanted an all-white free society. Abraham Lincoln was responding to popular opinion when he looked for some scheme to persuade the newly freed negros to quit the USA.

As things happened, a brief surge of Northern triumphalism led to constitutional amendments which affirmed that negros were citizens and also gave them the vote. It was of course men-only until 1918, but it would have been a huge advance if it had stuck. But the North then got wobbly and allowed the mass terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan to deprive negros of the vote. It was of course a continuation of something de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s in Democracy in America, non-whites intimidated out of voting even where they had the vote.

And so it continued really up until the 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement successfully challenged and faced down the terror. It took a long time, and might not have happened had the USA not been preoccupied with their Cold War against the Soviet Union and keen to clean up domestic politics to conciliate world public opinion, particularly the newly independent states of Black Africa.

The Guardian recently carried a reminded of how it was back in the 1930s:

” You’ve heard the buzz about the resident singer, a 23-year-old black woman called Billie Holiday who made her name up in Harlem with Count Basie’s band….

” She begins her final number.

“‘Southern trees bear a strange fruit.’ This, you think, isn’t your usual lovey-dovey stuff. ‘Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.’ What is this? ‘Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.’ Lynching? It’s a song about lynching? The chatter from the tables dries up. Every eye in the room is on the singer, every ear on the song. After the last word – a long, abruptly severed cry of ‘crop’ – the whole room snaps to black. When the house lights go up, she’s gone.

“Do you applaud, awed by the courage and intensity of the performance, stunned by the grisly poetry of the lyrics, sensing history moving through the room? Or do you shift awkwardly in your seat, shudder at the strange vibrations in the air, and think to yourself: call this entertainment?

“This is the question that will throb at the heart of the vexed relationship between politics and pop for decades to come, and this is the first time it has demanded to be asked.

“Written by a Jewish communist called Abel Meeropol, Strange Fruit was not by any means the first protest song, but it was the first to shoulder an explicit political message into the arena of entertainment. Unlike the robust workers’ anthems of the union movement, it did not stir the blood; it chilled it. ‘That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard,’ Nina Simone would later marvel. ‘Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.’ For all these reasons, it was something entirely new. Up to this point, protest songs functioned as propaganda, but Strange Fruit proved they could be art…

“It was not, by any stretch, a song for every occasion. It infected the air in the room, cut conversation stone dead, left drinks untouched, cigarettes unlit. Customers either clapped till their hands were sore, or walked out in disgust….

“Holiday’s regular label, Columbia, blanched at the prospect of recording it, so she turned to Commodore Records, a small, leftwing operation.” [A]

What’s this got to do with democracy? Everything, because Southern Racism was very democratic within its defined racial limits. It had and in part still has a real sense of community. It had and still has all of the feature of the smooth-running democracy of the global English-speaking community. And all of these English-speaking communities were racist to some degree, varying mostly on the basis of how many non-whites they co-existed with and whether they were part of a secure global empire, as they were in the West Indies.

Lynching – mob action – is also very much part of the tradition. Not originally racial and never exclusively anti-black, it served as a useful underside to the fine words of official politics. ‘Lynch Law’ was a term that evolved from the very rough and biased system of punishments applied during the break-down of regular law during the American War of Independence. The most likely origin is the work of Charles Lynch, a Virginia planter and Quaker of Irish origin. But the idea was much older, mob action on a vaguely legal basis. And it worked only for as long as most people went along with it, failed to challenge it even when they took no part in it.

Hence Strange Fruit. It’s worth quoting the song in full:

“Southern trees bear strange fruit, / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, / Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

“Pastoral scene of the gallant South, / The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, / Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!

“Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, / For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, / For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop, / Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

Racist democracy in the USA was very successful and very democratic within its defined limits. Left alone, it might still be around today, might have propagated itself into an indefinite future. It was broken up by elite action, judges putting a set of absurd interpretations on the constitution as part of the price the USA paid to become global superpower.

The former racist democracy was not at all the same as the Tea Party movement, though strong covert racism has certainly played a part in the Tea Party’s rise. But the Tea Party movement is not acting in its own interest, it is manipulated by the rich and foolish and used to let the US ‘overclass’ accumulate even more wealth. The Tea Party movement is a movement fit for chimps.

One must regretfully reject the hopeful populist notion that ‘the people’ would choose a good system once they were educated and free to choose. They don’t – and in much of the USA and some parts of Britain, they even take a pride in not being educated. The former racist democracy of the US South was highly effective for what I’d view as bad ends, what most people nowadays would view as bad ends. The current Tea Party movement has been highly effective in electing Republicans but is actively undermining the social order that it thinks it is defending.


Remembering Abraham Lincoln [(Racist)]

In the US Civil War, the North largely stood for a purer form of White Racism than the South. The South had become dependent on black slave labour for its cash crops, the core of its economy. The North largely managed with free white labour, and found the expansion of slavery unacceptable. But if blacks were not to be slaves, what should they be? A few radicals started out with the belief that they should be equal citizens, or at least theoretically equal. A rather larger number just wanted to be rid of them, and Lincoln was one of them.

“A new book on the celebrated US president and hero of the anti-slavery movement, who was born 202 years ago on Saturday, argues that he went on supporting the highly controversial policy of colonisation.

“It was favoured by US politicians who did not believe free black people should live among white Americans, and had been backed by prominent abolitionists like Henry Clay as far back as 1816.

“Mr Lincoln also favoured the idea. But he was believed to have denounced it after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed of most of America’s four million slaves, in January 1863.

“The notion that he came to regard it as unacceptable contributed to the legend of the 16th president, who is frequently voted America’s greatest, and is held by some to have left an impeccable record.

“Yet Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page, the authors of Colonisation After Emancipation, discovered documents in the National Archives in Kew and in the US that will significantly alter his legacy.

“They found an order from Mr Lincoln in June 1863 authorising a British colonial agent, John Hodge, to recruit freed slaves to be sent to colonies in what are now the countries of Guyana and Belize.” [B]


The Wealth and Misery of Nations

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is a much more subversive than the Communist Manifesto or Das Capital. A serious right-winger could accept Marx’s writings as a description of reality and then look at how to reach some other end. But anyone who accepts Smith’s work as a description of reality is on the road to ruin.

Marx correctly identified capitalism as an erosive force that would bust the conditions of its own existence. Successful conservatives have been those who accepted this much as true. It is anyway part of traditional wisdom – material wealth was socially corrosive, Marx’s contribution was to accept that as true and to suggest that something better might come out of the corrosion. Successful conservatives saw the same and tried to save what they cherished.

When I speak of successful conservatives, I mean successful in actually having a conservative effect, not in winning elections and holding office on a nihilist populist program. Traditional values eroded fast under Thatcher and Reagan, but they managed to shift the blame. But brilliance in shifting the blame is of little use if you are really concerned with outcomes.

What was Adam Smith’s own motivation? He had a Deist agenda, believing in some sort of distant rationalist God but rejecting the Christian notion. He was careful in his published works, but from his surviving letters we know that he disliked Christianity in all its forms, and also had a contempt for it. Yet he also approved of gentry rule, which was actually the first casualty of the new economic forces. He was treated as a trusted insider and advisor by the British politicians who provoked the American War of Independence. In short, his insights were incomplete and his reassurances false.

Smith and others have justified it as economic freedom. But since all of us live within a single economy – independent small-scale production has long been undermined by the cheapness of factory goods – freedom for a few rich people and a few more ambitious rising people is at the expense of everyone else.


Why China Works

With the turmoil in the Arab World, there was a brief attempt to get something going in China. But the authorities were ready and it got nowhere:

“Police in China showed up in force in several major cities after an online call for a ‘jasmine revolution’.

“Calls for people to protest and shout ‘we want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness’, were circulated on Chinese microblog sites.

“The message was first posted on a US-based Chinese-language website.

“Several rights activists were detained beforehand and three people were arrested in Shanghai, but the call for mass protests was not well answered.

“Reports from Shanghai and Beijing said there appeared to be many onlookers curious about the presence of so many police and journalists at the proposed protest sites, in busy city-centre shopping areas.

“Police in the two cities dispersed small crowds who had gathered. There were no reports of protests in 11 other cities where people were urged to gather on Sunday.” [C]

There is not so far the basis for mass discontent. Wages are rising and there is actually a shortage of workers in some parts of the country:

“On one of the busiest recruiting days of the year, Yang Guowei of New Happiness Hair Accessory Company sits slumped behind a small table, one of many set up at a labour exchange in Yiwu, a city in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang.

“Mr Yang is trying to recruit migrant workers as the Chinese New Year holidays wind down. He is offering a monthly salary of Rmb1800-Rmb3000 ($274-$456), and looking to hire 10 workers to make rhinestone-embellished hair baubles, but has had no takers in spite of offering wages 30 per cent higher than last year.

“‘I have been here for four days and I haven’t found anyone yet,’ Mr Yang says.

“Nearby, Langsha Knitting, one of the world’s largest sock producers which makes 1m pairs of socks a day, is having an easier time. Its human resources manager, Wang Lai, reports that he has signed up nearly all the 2,000 workers he needs.

“Labour shortages for manufacturing workers have dominated headlines in the Chinese media as migrant workers return from their holidays, but some employers are proving more able to hire workers than others.

“While smaller factories struggle with a nationwide tightening in the labour market, larger firms that offer better wages and benefits – those that are more likely to have HR managers – are able to recruit the staff they need.

“Across the country, local governments have been raising the minimum wage. Next month, Guangdong province, home to a large share of China’s manufacturing, will raise the minimum wage by 18 per cent.

“In Dongguan, a city in the province that is home to many of China’s light manufacturing factories, employers are promising an annual bonus, annual leave, and even rewards on their birthdays in a bid to sign up workers.

“‘Workers are God now,’ complains Mr Yang.

“His hyperbole underlines an important demographic shift. China’s once endless supply of workers is looking less infinite. The cohort of those entering the workforce, defined in China as those between 15 and 24 years old, peaked in 2005 at 227m and is expected to fall to 150m by 2024…

“Most companies are unlikely to shift manufacturing operations in China to countries like India or Bangladesh.

“Dragonomics, a research consultancy, calculates that labour productivity in China grew by 13 per cent annually in apparel manufacturing between 2003 and 2010, offsetting most of the increase in wages. China’s rate of labour productivity growth comfortably outstrips that of Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and Turkey, it says.

“Moreover, for industries such as the assembly of electronic components, efficient and tightly knit supply chains passing products from factories in Japan or Taiwan to the Pearl River Delta for labour-intensive work make it difficult to move manufacturing facilities elsewhere.

“And behind the headlines about China’s exchange rate lurks a more lethal secret. China’s infrastructure is on a par with South Korea, according to the World Bank. Dragonomics says than means China combines ‘Third World wages with First World infrastructure’.” [D]

“Rising labour costs in China are not a new phenomenon. Research by the International Labour Organisation suggests that Chinese wages have been outpacing the rest of Asia for at least a decade.

“Chinese workers received real wage rises averaging 12.6 per cent a year from 2000 to 2009, compared with 1.5 per cent in Indonesia and zero in Thailand, according to the ILO.

“At about $400 a month, Chinese workers are now three times more expensive than their Indonesian counterparts, and five times as costly as in Vietnam, although they remain considerably cheaper than in Taiwan and Malaysia.

“However, that simple calculation takes no account of changes in relative productivity. Stephen Roach, chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, says World Bank data indicate productivity growth in Chinese manufacturing of 10 to 15 per cent a year since 1990.

“That averages out at close to the same level as annual real wage increases over the last decade, suggesting unit labour costs may have risen very little, if at all.

“Accenture, the global management consultancy, concluded in a report published on Monday that a minimum wage rise of 30 per cent would cut margins by just 1 to 5 per cent for companies with a large Chinese manufacturing base.

“Noticeably, much of the discussion about production shifts relates to labour-intensive, low-margin sectors such as footwear and textiles, which have been relocating for years to Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cambodia and elsewhere.

“There is little talk, however, of shifting more complex manufacturing such as silicon chips and flat panel screens, for which labour makes up as little as 2-3 per cent of total costs.

“Intel, the US chipmaker, recently opened a $1bn plant in Vietnam, and Hon Hai and Compal, the Taiwanese equipment manufacturers, have also set up assembly plants there.

“However, manufacturing experts doubt that many high-tech companies are planning to abandon China – not least because many rely on suppliers who have co-located in southern China’s vast technology clusters specifically to be near their customers.” [E]

China has also learned from the Soviet Union and refused to reject its own past. Chairman Mao is on all the banknotes: back in 1997 he was merely first of four ‘first generation’ leaders on one of the banknotes. And a report of a new official history suggests that his position will stay unchallenged:

The History of the Communist Party of China (Part 2), a book about the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC) from the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949) to the 1978 Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the CPC, was published last month after 16 years of research by the Beijing-based Party History Research Center of the CPC Central Committee.” [F]

I don’t know what it actually says in detail, or whether it will ever appear in English. But it certainly doesn’t sound as if Mao is being blamed for anything. And since the current leadership are pursuing a version of the politics Mao created, it would make no sense for them to do so.


Climate Change

The weather is always a series of unusual events. But recently it has been much more unusual than the norm.

Predictions for ‘global warming’ have always been a general trend. Models of future weather show an overall warming, but also some local cooling. The real weather is being ever less predictable:

“Freezing weather and snow have paralysed much of northern Mexico, which is experiencing its lowest temperatures in more than 50 years.

“Thousands of homes have been left without electricity and water, and schools and factories have been closed.

“At least six people are reported to have died from the cold.

“Among the worst-hit cities has been Ciudad Juarez, which is already suffering the worst violence in Mexico’s drugs war.

“Temperatures in the border city have dropped as low as -18C (0F).” [G]

“Last year’s drought in the Amazon raises concerns about the region’s capacity to continue absorbing carbon dioxide, scientists say.

“Researchers report in the journal Science that the 2010 drought was more widespead than in 2005 – the last big one – with more trees probably lost.

“The 2005 drought had been termed a ‘one in a century’ event.

“In drought years, the Amazon region changes from being a net absorber of carbon dioxide into a net emitter…

“The 2010 drought saw the Amazon River at its lowest levels for half a century, with several tributaries completely dry and more than 20 municipalities declaring a state of emergency.

“Research leader Simon Lewis, from the University of Leeds, is the scientist who gained an apology from the Sunday Times newspaper last year over the so-called ‘AmazonGate’ affair.

“‘It’s difficult to detect patterns from just two observed droughts, but to have them close together is concerning,’ he told BBC News.

“Both droughts were associated with unusually warm seas in the Atlantic Ocean off the Brazilian coast.

“‘If that turns out to be driven by escalating greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, it could imply that we’ll see more drought years in the near future,’ said Dr Lewis.

“‘If events like this do happen more often, the Amazon rainforest would reach a point where it shifts from being a valuable carbon sink slowing climate change to a major source of greenhouse gases.’

“Some computer models of climate change – in particular, the one developed at the UK’s Hadley Centre – project more droughts across the region as the planet warms, and a diminishing capacity to absorb CO2.” [H]

“The heaviest snowfall in more than a century on South Korea’s east coast is causing widespread chaos.

“Hundreds of houses have collapsed under the weight of the snow. One newspaper described it as a snow bomb.

“The South Korean government has deployed 12,000 soldiers to rescue stranded residents.

“The worst weather has been in Gangwon province. Weather experts say there will be more snowfall in the area in the coming hours.

“‘I am 83 years old. It’s the heaviest snow in my life. I am really grateful for the soldiers’ help,’ said Park Chae-ran.

“The BBC’s Nick Ravenscroft in Seoul says that although winters are colder than anywhere else at its latitude, with frequent frost and snow, this year has been different.

“January was the coldest since the 1960s.

“In Gangwon on the eastern coast, one city recorded 80cm (2.6 feet) of snow in a single day – the heaviest fall in 24 hours since records began there back in 1911…

“The Han River in the capital, Seoul, iced over for the first time in years – but the latest snowfalls have left the capital unaffected so far.” [J]

“Global warming made the floods that devastated England and Wales in the autumn of 2000, costing £3.5bn, between two and three times more likely to happen, new research has found. This is the first time scientists have quantified the role of human-induced climate change in increasing the risk of a serious flood and represents a major development in climate science.

“‘It shows climate change is acting here and now to load the dice towards more extreme weather,’ said Myles Allen of Oxford University, who led the work, which he started after his own home was nearly flooded in 2000. It will also have wider consequences, say experts, by making lawsuits for compensation against energy companies more likely to succeed.

“It may also have billion-dollar consequences by determining which countries benefit from the future $100bn-a-year UN adaptation fund which aims to build resilience against the impacts of climate change.

“‘This is ground-breaking work,’ said Professor Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser to the department of the environment and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Until now, he said, scientists could state that global warming was expected to cause more extreme weather, but not that it was to blame for any specific event. ‘The research shows human-induced climate change is not an issue for the next decades or century: it is an issue…

“Between September and November 2000, over 500mm of rain fell in the UK, the wettest autumn since records began in 1766. More than 10,000 homes were flooded and £3.5bn of insurance claims were made. After Allen’s home was nearly flooded, his colleague, Pardeep Pall, suggested using modelling to determine the role of global warming, but the amount of computing time required was formidable. To solve that problem, Allen used his project, through which members of the public have donated over one billion hours of PC time to running models.” [L]

In Britain, December’s abnormal cold has been followed by a typically wet English winter, at least in the south. But who knows what next? Globally, there have been crop failures that helped fuel the riots and revolutions in the Arab world.


Libya: the HagueFather Speaks

In Tunisia and Egypt, the army mostly refused to shoot protestors and the rulers fell. In Morocco, Yemen and Algeria they did shoot and the protests have faded for now. Likewise in Bahrain, but the West is pressurising them to compromise.

Libya seemed to be like Morocco, Yemen and Algeria, but then Gaddafi blundered. A lot of the stories circulated by the global media may turn out to be just as untruthful as the 1991 story of Kuwaiti babies tossed out of incubators by the occupying Iraqis. But it does seem that Gaddafi used Black-African mercenaries and used aircraft to attack protestors. This was seen as breaking the rules by people who had supported him and who had positions of power.

Probably very few of the protestors are pro-British. The former Gaddafi supports are pretty certainly not. So a sensible British Foreign Secretary would have quietly concentrated on getting Britons safely away while a hostile regime self-destructed.

Mr Hague must have thought he knew better. I’d hazard a guess that he has been given sound advice by his senior Civil Servants and has chosen to ignore it. First he made a fool of himself by signalling belief in the false story about Gaddafi fleeing to Venezuela. Then he failed to do his proper job, making sure that Britons in Libya could get out quickly. When this was reported he took no notice, leaving it to Cameron to make the big apology. What he’s done instead has been to posture as if he were something from The Godfather, or maybe the gangster-comedy The Sopranos. Seeing him being interviewed on television in the first week of the Libyan Civil War, I kept expecting him to say ‘The graveyards are full of dead people who at one time would have been alive’. Instead he made sinister-sounding remarks about anyone committing war crimes would be liable to held responsible for it.

[The proper quote would be ‘ The graveyards are full of indispensable men‘. I intentionally turned it into a banality, in line with opinion of Hague. It has since been confirmed that Gaddafi was indeed indispensable for holding together the artificial creation called Libya.]

Everyone nowadays knows that war-crime trials apply only to losers, and then only if they can’t find a safe refuge. If Gaddafi falls, any of his people who get to Venezuela should be safe, Venezuela is getting stronger and stronger as the oil price rises. Various African countries might make a more probable refuge, and it seems Gaddafi’s people still control the air. An imposed ‘no-fly-zone’ has been proposed, most notably French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who has got his own people safe away. So for now, Mr Hague’s threats are empty. People caught up in the growing civil war must view it as ‘an offer they can’t be bothered to take notice of’.

Or is he threatening something ‘irregular’? Has he been watching Raid on Entebbe and think he has a bright idea to help the Britons trapped in desert outposts? One hopes not: they got robbed by looters but otherwise no one seems to care what they do or when they leave. It would not be wise to change this.

British Special Forces have been pretty good at their proper job, making fast and skilled attacked on difficult military targets. Trying to use them as a global goon-squad was foolish and has not really worked. They failed to defeat the IRA. They don’t seem to have damaged al-Qaeda at all, or achieved anything notable in Iraq of Afghanistan.

It isn’t anyway a good time to be boasting about law. Though it has nothing to do with Hague, it was the day that English justice decided that Julian ‘Wikileaks’ Assange should be cast into a den of Swedes. They felt justified on the basis of accusations of rape from two women who undeniably invited him into their homes and into their beds. If he’d then beaten them with a bullwhip that would be criminal assault, certainly, always supposing that they had not requested such treatment. But for what is actually said to have happened, the behaviour of the Swedish prosecutor makes no sense unless some trick is intended. Some spoof that perhaps would not work under English law, where judges are comfortable with respectable injustice but hate having their long-standing traditions disturbed.

Looking back at Libya, it seems very unlikely Gaddafi can recover, but also doubtful if he will go quietly. And it’s not clear what unites the opposition beyond rejection of Gaddafi, who should have handed on power years ago. Does the West want another Somalia? A Somalia sitting at the core of the Mediterranean and with vast reserves of oil?

[Surprisingly, this was just what they wanted and got. It also became a jumping-off point for migrants to Europe, a point I overlooked at the time.]



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