John Feffer – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 19 Sep 2022 01:54:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 As Falls Russia, So Falls the World: Exceptionalism Goes Global Mon, 19 Sep 2022 04:02:41 +0000 ( ) – Here’s a nightmare scenario: Unable to recruit enough soldiers from the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin takes North Korean leader Kim Jong-un up on his recent offer to send 100,000 North Koreans to join the Russian president’s ill-fated attempt to seize Ukraine. Kim has also promised to send North Korean workers to help rebuild that country’s Donbas region, parts of which Russian forces have destroyed in order to “save” it. Consider this an eerie echo of the fraternal aid that Eastern European Communist states provided Pyongyang in the 1950s after the devastation of the Korean War.

The current love connection between Russia and North Korea is anything but unprecedented. The Kremlin has provided a succession of Kims with military and economic support. If Putin were ultimately to rely on so many North Korean soldiers and laborers, however, it would mark the first time that country had returned the favor in any significant way. As a down payment on the new relationship, Pyongyang is already reportedly assisting Moscow’s war effort with shipments of Soviet-era rockets and ammunition.

An even tighter alliance between Moscow and Pyongyang, now just one goose step from reality, suggests the possibility of a future Eurasian Union of autocracies, including China and several Central Asian states. Just a few years ago, an anti-Western alliance making up nearly 20% of the world’s landmass and roughly the same percentage of its population would have seemed unlikely indeed. For all its autocratic tendencies, Russia was still pretending to be a democracy then and, together with China, maintaining reasonable economic relations with the West. North Korea, on the other hand, was an isolated outsider, suffering under a hereditary dictatorship and tight sanctions that restricted its access to the global economy.

Now, instead of North Korea adopting the political and economic norms of the international community, it’s surging to the front of the illiberal pack as Kim waves his tour-guide flag to encourage others to walk his way. Putin, for one, seems ready to enthusiastically follow his lead. Over the last decade, after all, he’s taken steps to eliminate Russian civil society, while creating a top-down, corporatist economy. After ordering the invasion of Ukraine in February, the Russian leader now faces the same kind of sanctions regime that plagues Pyongyang, forcing his country to pursue its own version of juche, North Korea’s philosophy of self-reliance. Both nations have largely replaced their governing ideologies of the 1990s — communism in North Korea, democracy in Russia — with an ugly, xenophobic nationalism.

At a more fundamental level, North Korea and Russia are both exemplars of exceptionalism. From its founding after World War II, North Korea has generally considered itself an exception to any rules governing international conduct. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, has cemented in place Putin’s version of a new Russian exceptionalism, meant to bury once and for all the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to bring the Soviet Union and its successor states into greater compliance with global norms.

Nor are Russia and North Korea exceptional in their exceptionalism. Thumbing a nose at international authorities has become an integral part of a growing authoritarian populism, which has manifested itself as anger at economic globalization and disenchantment with the liberal democratic elites who have supported that project. Although the assault on liberalism and the embrace of illiberal exceptionalism have taken an acutely violent form in the war in Ukraine, they can be found in less virulent but no less troubling forms in Europe (Hungary), Asia (Myanmar), Africa (Ethiopia), and Latin America (Brazil).

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Ground zero for modern-day exceptionalism, however, has always been the United States, where a longstanding bipartisan consensus holds that America has the right to do almost anything it wants to maintain its global hegemony. Of course, exceptionalism here is also on a spectrum, with liberal internationalists like Joe Biden at one end and Donald Trump, a Russian-style autocrat in the making, at the other. Put differently, there’s a growing struggle here over the degree to which this country should play well with others.

What’s taking place in Ukraine — an exceptionalist power trying to crush a liberal internationalist system — is a version of that very same power struggle. Indeed, the ongoing bloodbath there anticipates the kind of carnage that could ensue in this country if Donald Trump or some politician like him were to take the White House in 2024.

The End of Accession?

Nationalists hate globalization because they believe that international bodies should not be writing the rules that constrain the conduct of their governments.

In Brazil, Trump-style President Jair Bolsonaro has lashed out at U.N. agencies and transnational environmental organizations for their criticism of his laissez-faire approach to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Euroskeptics like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the United Kingdom’s Brexiteers dislike having to abide by regulations from European Union (EU) headquarters in Brussels covering everything from the size of cucumbers to the freedom of the press. Trump famously pulled the United States out of every international accord that came within swinging distance of his MAGA machete, including the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Ukraine has moved in the opposite direction. After the 2014 Euromaidan protests sent its pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, packing, the more-or-less liberal governments that followed certainly didn’t shy away from appealing to Ukrainian nationalism. Still, they were also willing, even eager, to submit to the rules and regulations of external powers, at least those further to the west. The Ukrainian political struggles of 2013-2014, after all, centered around a desire to join the EU, support for which has recently topped 90%.

Putin has, of course, held out a very different kind of membership to Ukraine — in a Slavic brotherhood. Whatever the pluses or minuses of any future tight partnership with Russia and neighboring Belarus, it would flow from compliance with the parochial dictates of the Kremlin. In other words, Ukraine has faced an all-too-stark choice: become an unwilling partner of Russian exceptionalism or willingly accede to the rules of the West. Given such options, it’s hardly surprising that Euroskepticism barely registers there.

Nor, of course, is Ukraine the only country eager to knock on the EU’s door. Several others are already in the queue, undoubtedly including — if it votes to separate from the United Kingdom and its Brexiteers — Scotland. For Europe, in response to the challenges of economic globalization, including pressures to privatize and a potential race to the bottom when it comes to environmental and labor regulations, the response has been to establish a transnational system that preserves at least some social-democratic features. And that seems like an attractive compromise to a number of countries huddling outside the EU’s door, exposed to the harsh winds of free trade and onerous debt.

But Brexit has hardly been the only challenge to the power and breadth of the European Union. A refusal to abide by the democratically determined policies of Brussels has united right-wing populists in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, even as it’s generated a strong current of Euroskepticism in countries like Romania. Support for the far right — as well as the Euroskeptical left — remains strong in France, particularly among the young. A coalition of far-right parties historically allergic to European federalism is poised to take over the governance of Italy after elections later this month. In fact, the EU faces a threat even greater than its possible fragmentation: a hostile takeover by right-wing forces determined to destroy the system from within.

Such authoritarian nationalism is on the rise elsewhere as well. According to the metrics of the largely government-funded research institute Freedom House, only 20% of the world’s population now lives in “free” countries. (In 2005, it was 46%.) And of that 20%, many are in countries where authoritarian nationalists — Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen in France, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel — have a plausible chance of taking or retaking power in the near future.

What a far cry from the 1990s when much of the former Soviet sphere scrambled to join the EU after the Warsaw Pact dissolved. In that decade, too, even China lobbied hard to join the World Trade Organization, finally gaining Washington’s support in 1999. It was such a golden age of United Nations conferences and international agreements — from the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development to the Rome statute establishing the International Criminal Court — that the name the U.N. chose for the 1990s, the Decade of International Law, seemed extraordinarily apt. Unfortunately, today it seems more like ancient history.

Of course, the need for international cooperation has hardly disappeared. Think climate change, pandemics, and the loss of biodiversity, to mention just three urgent crises. But any enthusiasm for creating binding international commitments has dwindled to the vanishing point. The 2015 Paris climate accord was voluntary. Transnational cooperation during the Covid pandemic, beyond scientific circles, was minimal and often undermined by export restrictions on critical medical supplies. Nuclear arms control agreements remain at a standstill, while the”modernization” of such arsenals continues apace and military budgets rise as the weapons trade hits new highs.

The 2020s are shaping up to be the Decade of the International Scofflaw. Ukraine’s tragedy lies not just in its geography, so near to Russia and so far from God, but in its timing. Three decades ago, after the Soviet Union imploded, Ukraine’s desire to accede to international norms was unremarkable and its willingness to relinquish its nuclear weapons universally applauded. The worst response an EU application could have engendered back then was a cold shoulder from Brussels. Today, the desire to join Europe has led to war.

Whither Autocracy

Autocrats often hide behind sovereignty. China argues that what’s happening to its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province is simply none of the international community’s business. North Korea insists that it has the sovereign right to develop nuclear weapons. And, of course, in the U.S., Donald Trump’s MAGA crew stoutly rejects snooty foreigners passing judgment on the American attachment to fossil fuels, border walls, and guns of all sizes.

Sovereignty was once the king’s prerogative; he was, after all, the sovereign. Today’s autocrats, like Vladimir Putin, are more likely to have been voted into office than born into the position like Kim Jong-un. The elections that elevate such autocrats might be questionable (and are likely to become ever more so during their reign), but popular support is an important feature of the new authoritarianism. Putin is currently backed by around 80% of Russians; Orban’s approval rating in Hungary hovers near 60%; and while Donald Trump could likely win again only thanks to voter suppression and increasingly antidemocratic features baked into the American political system, millions of Americans did put Trump in the White House in 2016 and continue to genuinely believe that he’s their savior. Bolsonaro in Brazil, Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, Narendra Modi in India, Kais Saied in Tunisia: they were all elected.

Yes, such leaders are nationalists who often act like populists in promising all sorts of handouts and feel-good nostrums to their supporters. But what makes today’s autocrats particularly dangerous is their exceptionalism, their commitment to the kind of sovereignty that existed before the creation of the United Nations, the earlier League of Nations, or even the Treaty of Westphalia that established the modern interstate system in Europe in 1648. Both Trump and Xi Jinping harken back to a Golden Age all right — of rulers who counted on the unquestioned loyalty of their subjects and exercised a dominion unchallenged except by other monarchs.

Sovereignty is the ultimate trump — sorry for that! — card. It can be used to end every argument: I’m the king of this castle and my word is law inside its walls. Autocrats tend not to be team players, but increasingly democracies are playing the sovereignty card as well. Even Russia, in so obviously violating Ukrainian sovereignty, has done that by arguing that Ukraine had always been part of Russia.

The war in Ukraine boils down to a conflict between two conceptions of world order. The first is defined by a one-against-all exceptionalism, the second by an all-for-one transnational cooperation. Unfortunately, the latter has become associated with economic globalization (which is really about ruthless competition, not global cooperation), Davos-style political elitism (which is usually more focused on collusion than transparent collaboration), and trans-border migration (which results from wars, the miseries of global economic inequality, and the ever more devastating nightmare of climate change). Anger at these three elements of “globalism” pushes voters to support “the other side,” most commonly an authoritarian exceptionalism rather than an authentic internationalism.

The dismal endpoint of such political devolution could be a Russia with North Korean characteristics: isolated, belligerent, and tyrannical. Today, countries that take such a path risk the outlaw status North Korea has enjoyed for 75 years. The question is: What happens if, in some future moment, the outlaws constitute the majority?

What’s truly frightening, however, is that this larger geopolitical conflict is a two-front war. Even as the West unites against the Russia that Putin built, it finds itself fighting homegrown variants of authoritarian exceptionalism, from Trump to Orban. Think of this as the geopolitical version of that commonplace horror-film twist: the phone call from the serial killer that turns out to be coming from within the house.

Can the heroine of this story, true internationalism, survive the onslaught of lawless maniacs bent on reviving a world of unaccountable sovereigns and promoting a war of all against all? We can only hope that our heroine not only survives these harrowing challenges but goes on to star in less horrifying and more edifying sequels.

Copyright 2022 John Feffer

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Will 2022 Mark the Turning Point in the Climate Crisis? Sat, 27 Aug 2022 04:06:16 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) Over the last six months, the world took a giant step backward in its efforts to address the current climate crisis. In February, after finally reversing its position and pledging to become carbon-neutral by 2060, Russia invaded Ukraine and set off a panic around access to fossil fuels. In March, South Koreans voted out an administration that had put a Green New Deal at the center of its agenda in favor a new president whose idea of a sustainable energy transition was to build more nuclear power plants.

Carbon emissions continue to rise, but this year the international community might finally be getting serious about climate change.

And in the United States, the Biden administration was trying but failing to get any of its climate legislation passed in Congress thanks to the opposition of a senator from West Virginia who owed his personal fortune to the coal industry.

In 2021, carbon emissions rebounded from pandemic lows to reach a new record. Last year, the world sent over 36 metric gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere from fossil fuels alone.

The “recovery” from the pandemic slowdown has continued this year. More disturbing has been the trend of countries to use more coal because of the war in Ukraine. And carbon emissions continue to climb. In May 2022, the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory measured a record 421 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Despite sanctions, Russia is expected to earn $320 billion in energy sales in 2022 as it has redirected its sales away from Europe and toward China, India, the Middle East, and Africa. Meanwhile, the United States and other countries have increased their own energy production to compensate for the reduction in access to Russian oil and natural gas.

Meanwhile, in Korea, the new Yoon administration is indeed moving to revive interest in the nuclear industry, particularly smaller units. But it has not attempted to revise the previous administration’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 or meet interim goals in 2030. Energy companies in South Korea are also slated to source 25 percent of their energy from renewables by 2026, which is a dramatic increase from 9 percent.

In a remarkable turnaround, the Democratic Party in the United States managed to achieve consensus on a major spending bill that includes $370 billion for addressing the climate crisis. Packaged as a way to reduce inflation, the new measure will pour money into communities to facilitate a transition to clean energy along with creating a national green bank to provide additional financing.

So, after a dismal start, will 2022 mark a turning point in humanity’s effort to address the climate crisis? Can we not only stay on target to keep the global temperature increase to under 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 but also begin to take more radical steps to improve the health of the planet?

Let’s start with the United States. The recent Inflation Reduction Act is the largest climate-related piece of legislation in U.S. history. The amount of money slated for the clean energy transition is unprecedented.

But it isn’t enough.

By most estimates, the Inflation Reduction Act will reduce carbon emissions in the United States by 40 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. That’s not quite the 50 percent reduction that the Biden administration has promised, but it’s better than the 30 percent reduction that would have likely taken place without the new legislation.

But the models that have generated the 40 percent number do not account for the resistance to clean energy taking place in the United States. In some cases, that resistance is individual (a desire to keep using a huge recreational vehicle or a Hummer); in other cases, pushback is community-based (a rejection of wind farms or solar arrays). But much of the resistance comes from fossil fuel companies that spread misinformation about climate change and push for laws in conservative-controlled states that make it virtually impossible for cities to mandate changes in housing, utilities, and transportation.

Worse, the Inflation Reduction Act contains provisions that benefit fossil fuel companies such as increased subsidies, tax benefits, and more opportunities to drill.

The European Union is doing a little bit better. It is aiming for a 55 percent reduction (below 1990 levels) by 2030, which should enable the 27-country bloc to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. But at least some of this reduction will be a sleight-of-hand maneuver as the EU continues both to outsource its carbon-heavy manufacturing to other countries and to rely on extraction industries in the Global South to provide components currently necessary for solar and wind energy.

And what of the rest of the world?

To reach global carbon neutrality, all countries essentially have to immediately stop all of their oil and coal projects. That’s something that the new government in Colombia is pledging to do. But not too many other countries are following suit.

Even the notion of “carbon neutrality” is flawed, because it allows for countries to use “offsets” to compensate for their continued emissions of carbon. Some of these offsets are legitimate, such as rain forests, but others are essentially tricks of accounting.

If all the world’s countries meet the more stringent pledges made at Glasgow, temperature rise could be kept to a 1.8 percent Celsius rise. But those pledges continue to be voluntary, so there’s no mechanism to enforce compliance. The imperative to grow the economy is overwhelming. When faced with a choice between growth and meeting Paris goals, many countries will choose the former or, at the very least, fudge the latter.

Other obstacles loom. All the carbon we’ve pumped into the atmosphere isn’t going anywhere. The Global North has not provided the resources for the Global South to make a clean energy transition. In narrowly focusing on global warming, we aren’t addressing all the other symptoms of humanity’s overconsumption of natural resources such as biodiversity loss, depletion of ocean stocks, deterioration of soil productivity, and so on.

To save the planet, 2022 has to be the last year that we collectively waste our energies on war, pour state funds into fossil fuel companies, drag our feet in shifting to clean energy alternatives, and fail to assist less well-off communities and countries to leapfrog into a Green future.

The fight to save the planet cannot be a partisan struggle. Embedding carbon reduction goals into government policy, as South Korea has done, can ensure that a change in political administration won’t completely derail progress toward a clean energy future. Then, when visionary leaders do take office, as Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez have done in Colombia, countries can take even more significant steps forward.

The last six months have been discouraging in so many ways. But there is still time to turn things around and make 2022 a pivotal year in our struggle to save the planet.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

The Green New Deal Goes Local Sat, 20 Aug 2022 04:10:40 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) – Ithaca, a city of 30,000 people in the Southern Tier of New York state, has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2030. The city government is leading the way by implementing a strategy to achieve full decarbonization, including all areas of the economy. That means vehicles, buildings, the electric grid, waste, and land use.

The Biden administration will be spending hundreds of billions of dollars on addressing the climate crisis. But what does that mean for communities around the United States?

“It’s a huge challenge,” admits Luis Aguirre-Torres, the director of sustainability for Ithaca. “That’s 6,000 buildings in the next seven years, and 10,000 vehicles. We need to improve infrastructure. But we also have to make sure that climate justice is at core of our policy.”

Ithaca is only one example of the cities in the United States that are out in front of federal policy on climate change. “Cities have been taking the lead and been a huge part of the progress, especially during the Trump administration,” points out Julia Peek, director of communication and mobilization at the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. “Cities are doing incredible work to become energy efficient, reduce pollution, increase resilience, and connect with affected communities.”

Cities and localities have taken the lead because, frankly, the federal government has failed to develop a consistent approach to a clean energy transition. The Obama administration pushed hard to support the Paris climate deal in 2015, only for the Trump administration to pull out of the agreement as soon as it took office. The Biden administration began with its own vision of “building back better” then encountered fierce resistance to its decarbonization plans not only from the Republican Party in Congress but a couple members of its own party as well.

Then, in a surprise turnaround, the Democratic Party managed to achieve consensus within its ranks to salvage key elements of the administration’s climate agenda as part of an Inflation Reduction Act that narrowly passed the Senate on August 7 on its way to approval in the House and the president’s signature on August 16.

This is “a historic and hopeful moment in the decades of U.S. climate inaction,” tweeted Rebecca Leber, who covers climate change for Vox. “The Senate just passed $370 billion more to fight climate change. It’s on track to becoming the first law to address fossil fuel pollution across the entire economy.”

The Inflation Reduction Act, framed as an effort to address rising prices, reduce federal debt, and provide targeted economic assistance, contains within it a raft of clean-energy provisions from climate justice block grants to the creation of a national green bank. It’s not as much as the $550 billion included in the failed Build Back Better legislation, but it’s still the largest federal investment in clean energy in U.S. history. Despite some disheartening concessions to fossil fuel companies, the Act has many sustainability advocates feeling hopeful.

“I see the climate crisis as awful but also the greatest opportunity in human history for wealth creation and better health outcomes,” observes Susie Strife, directs all of Boulder County’s sustainability efforts. “It is clever to frame this as a great economic opportunity, for us to be the leaders of this future we want to have. Let’s be clear: the United States has been an international disgrace: for the children growing up on this planet and for generational justice overall. As the country with the greatest cumulative impact of carbon in history, we need to show leadership.”

To understand how the Green New Deal has played out at a local level and what role the Inflation Reduction Act can play in that process, reporter Rebecca Leber sat down with local sustainability experts Luis Aguirre-Torres, Julia Peek, and Susie Strife in early August, just as the bill was making its way through Congress.

Where Climate Action Comes Alive

The Green New Deal was a short manifesto about the urgency of embarking on the environmental and economic transformation of the United States. It was full of bullet points and broad proposals, such as “invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century” and provide all Americans “with access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.”

The original bill was a call to arms, but it was also largely abstract.

“Cities are where so many policies come alive,” explains Julia Peek, who mobilizes efforts among the 250 cities that are part of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. “Either people have clean, safe, affordable, livable homes or they don’t. Either they can get around their cities or they can’t. Either their communities are safe and resilient and they have the infrastructure they need, or they don’t.”

Cities are sites of innovation, where policies are tried out, improved, and shared with other cities in ways not so easily replicable at the state or federal level. “We can showcase what is possible in our local communities,” Susie Strife points out. “We can pilot local services and show what’s possible to other communities and to the feds.” Sustainability directors are part of this process, she continues, by providing “residents, businesses, policymakers, and other stake-holders actual models for how to acting responsibly, how to respond resiliently in the face of climate change, how to achieve local climate goals through direct emission reduction, and how to build partnerships across communities and organizations to leverage higher impact strategies and system change.”

In the past decade, Luis Aguirre-Torres adds, “we’re seeing cities taking leadership roles” in this process of moving from “red-light policies”—for instance, banning oil exploration in nature preserves—to more transformative actions. After the Paris agreement, he adds, as the conversation moved from ambition to concrete pledges, the message from Washington to cities was “’do what you can.’ Now, finally, the federal government is saying ‘we’ll help you out’ and some states are saying that, too.”

A number of cities—like Portland, Maine—have begun bulk purchasing of clean energy equipment, like heat pumps. Now, Aguirre-Torres continues, it’s becoming possible to imagine a national level bulk purchasing program. All of the examples of Green Banks at the state and local level have similarly contributed to the creation of something comparable at a national level through the Inflation Reduction Act.

Cities are also where climate justice becomes real. In 2019, when the City of Ithaca Common Council passed its resolution on the local Green New Deal, it was a moment, relates Aguirre-Torres, not only when “we said ‘let’s fight climate change, but also let’s address historical inequities, racial injustice, and economic inequality. There was a time when I was about to receive an award from the U.S. president on work we were doing on climate change and, on the same day, I got arrested for ‘lingering while brown’ in Washington. In 12 hours, I got a huge lesson on race relations in America and how disconnected they were from the fight on climate change. So, when I took this job to help Ithaca design a policy to be carbon neutral by 2030, I wanted to make sure that sustainable prosperity would be shared by everyone in the community.”

Cities have begun to hire climate justice directors. “We just hired our first climate equity strategist for Boulder County,” Susie Strife reports. “She has 30 years of deep community engagement and climate justice activism. She’s going to catalyze the work that needs to be done in those communities.” One idea that has come out of this new effort is to create a climate justice lobbying organization.

At the federal level, the Biden administration initiated the Justice40 program, according to which 40 percent of climate-related spending should be directed toward underserved communities. At the Energy Department, Shalanda Baker heads up the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity where she focuses on implementing energy justice.

These federal initiatives, Aguirre-Torres argues, “need to match the efforts happening at the local level—in Vermont, Ithaca, Seattle, Ann Arbor. In some cases, we need a more specific definition of what climate justice means at the local level and to get beyond ethnicity to include the undocumented and the formerly incarcerated. Now there is a line of funding and that’s great. But more important than the money is the intention, and the aligning what we’re doing at a local level with what the federal government has been proposing for several years without any clear idea of how to operationalize it.”

The Backlash Begins

One measure of the success of municipal clean energy transitions is the backlash it has generated.

“Preemption” is one of the tactics the fossil fuel industry has used to push back. When cities like Tucson, Arizona began to look at ways to change building codes to move away from natural gas to other sources of heat, the state legislature passed a law that prevented municipalities from adding new regulations concerning natural gas utilities.

“Interest groups for the natural gas industry, worried about losing energy customers, have now promoted bills in half the country to strip cities of basic powers to set greener building codes and help phase out fossil-fuel pollution,” Rebecca Leber wrote in Vox in September 2021. “These ‘preemption’ laws have swept through 20 state legislatures; three more states have bills pending this year.”

Susie Strife ties these preemption laws to disinformation campaigns run by the fossil fuel industry, which sets up Facebook groups that appear to represent civic groups but are simply vehicles “to misinform communities about the cost of electrification. The feds are still allowing the fossil fuel industry to get away with this stuff. It has to be regulated. I love the grassroots movements that are stopping the PR firms from helping the fossil fuel industry spread disinformation.”

Once, at his Ithaca home, Luis Aguirre-Torres relates, a canvasser knocked on his door with a flyer condemning the city’s Green New Deal. “He started to tell me about Communists coming to town with these ideas and these people from south of the border who decided to implement these ideas,” he says. “This is progressive Ithaca, and yet you still have campaigns of misinformation rooted in racism and discrimination.”

The fossil fuel companies and their PR firms have a lot of money at their disposal. On the other side, “our incredible sustainability staff don’t always have the tools to wage a complex PR campaign to explain that what they’re doing will help everyone,” Julia Peek reports. “They can be outspent by lobbying firms with Astroturf campaigns. But the more ambitious and controversial cities are going to be, the more likely they will be a target of the fossil fuel industry or other industries that pour in money to create a ‘community group’ to shut it all down.”

The Climate Crisis Is Already Here

At the same time that cities are moving forward with more-or-less ambitious plans to transform their energy and infrastructure, they have to deal with the very real impacts of climate change. In a March 2022 Gallup poll, one in three Americans reported that they’d had to deal with extreme weather events in the last two years. A few months later, one in three Americans found themselves living under extreme heat alerts.

Boulder County has had to deal with more than its fair share of climate-related disasters. “At the end of December 2021, we experienced an unprecedented urban firestorm that was put out by snow the next day,” recalls Susie Strife. “The Marshall Fire was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, destroying 1,100 homes and leaving so many people displaced. It was the tenth or maybe the ninth most destructive fire in U.S. history now. We’re not alone. Many cities are experiencing climate-related disasters, which are extraordinarily draining in terms of all the social, economic, and emotional costs that linger long after the fires are put out and the media has moved on. Since I moved to Colorado in 2001, Boulder County experienced six major wildfire events and a once-in-a-500-year flood event. These extreme events due to changing climactic conditions are becoming our new normal.”

So, instead of marshaling resources to put toward a more sustainable future, cities have had to respond to current emergencies. “We’re trying to become more proactive in our adaption approach,” Strife continues. “We’re trying to help communities understand the risks they face, mapping that knowledge by neighborhood and giving them more resources to adapt to those climate vulnerabilities.”

“This is where the rubber hits the road,” Luis Aguirre-Torres adds. “Local governments need to be empowered to implement hazard mitigation. But we’re a bit late to the fight.”

Paying for the Green New Deal

Whether it’s hazard mitigation or transitioning existing infrastructure away from fossil fuels, cities need money to address the climate crisis.

“The City of Ithaca budget is $80 million a year,” Aguirre-Torres explains. “Our climate action plan will cost $2 billion to implement. Multiply that by the number of cities in the country and, according to a Bank of America report, that’s $5 trillion a year until 2050.”

One method of accessing additional funds for a Green transition has been Green banks. The Connecticut Green Bank, established in 2011 as the first such financing authority of its kind, provides credit to homeowners, businesses, non-profits, municipalities, and institutions to install solar panels, retrofit buildings, and build EV chargers. Between 2012 and 2020, the bank mobilized nearly $2 billion of investment into Connecticut’s clean energy economy. Other states, counties, and even cities have created their own such banks.

“The Connecticut Green Bank, the model everyone wants to follow, has a mission of removing the reliance on subsidies and incentives and aggregating otherwise high-risk, small-scale projects,” explains Aguirre-Torres. “It helps local and national institutions by derisking participation in the clean energy transformation.”

The Inflation Reduction Act authorizes $27 billion for a National Climate Bank, with $8 billion set aside for disadvantaged communities. “With this national Green bank, a relatively small amount of money can leverage a lot more,” Julia Peek notes. “It will help get projects off the ground that would not attract private capital or might not qualify for federal grants.”

Ithaca, which is also working on creating a regional Green Bank, has already tapped into private capital to make up the shortfall in funding for its plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. The city effectively turned its problem, namely carbon emissions, into an asset. “We said that we have a huge opportunity—400,000 metric tons of opportunity!—for people who want to come in and helps us with this,” Aguirre-Torres adds. “Suddenly the money started flowing and new partnerships were formed. We’ve secured $105 million from private investors, along with soft commitments that take us to half a billion dollars.”

Another tactic for raising money has been to sue the fossil fuel industry for damages. “Boulder County, San Miguel county, and the city of Boulder filed a lawsuit in 2018 against Exxon and Suncor Energy, some of the dirtiest fossil fuel companies out there, to force them to pay their fair share of the mess they helped to created,” explains Susie Strife. “Communities have huge price tags related to climate impacts. According to an analysis we did in 2017, it will take hundreds of millions of dollars just to repair all the roads that have buckled from high heat. For 50 years, these companies knew the danger of the products they’ve been selling. Instead of acting responsibly, they chose to conceal this information in order to continue to profit. They should pay their fair share so that the costs don’t fall disproportionately on taxpayers.”

Strife compares the lawsuit to those mounted against tobacco and opioid peddlers, which also deceived the public and have had to pay damages to their victims. “The case is proceeding through the courts,” she adds, “though the companies are trying to delay case from moving forward. The case is now on hold at the Supreme Court. The lawsuit is an example of what local governments can do. We need to use every tool at our disposal. If we win, it will be a huge precedent in holding industry accountable for climate change damages.”

“These cases are taking off all around the world,” Rebecca Leber reports. “So, this legal strategy is clearly on the radar of oil and gas companies.”

Action at the Federal Level

The Inflation Reduction Act includes a number of incentives and penalties to nudge individuals and industry toward a clean energy future. For instance, auto companies can access $2 billion in funding to retool for EV production and electric vehicle purchasers will be eligible for $7,500 in tax credits. Wind and solar production will get a boost as will other, more controversial technologies like hydrogen and small-scale nuclear reactors. On the stick side, oil and gas companies will face penalties for excessive methane production in their operations.

One critical provision is $500 million for heat pumps and critical minerals processing under the Defense Production Act. “When the president invoked the Defense Production Act,” Luis Aguirre-Torres relates, “I was excited but there was no money in it. Now finally we will have $500 million, which will also mean jobs. We’re finally finding a way of getting everyone to the table. I would have loved it if we didn’t have to give up all of these concessions, but we brought people to the table.”

Julia Peek is particularly energized by the climate justice provisions in the Act. “I’m excited about the $1 billion for grants and loans for energy efficiency and resilience in affordable housing. A lot of money is going to urban forestry, to decarbonizing heavy-duty vehicles, equitable mobility, cleaning up ports, and other ways to improve air quality in frontline communities. The Act will also build domestic clean energy industries that should produce well-paid, family sustaining jobs across the country. At the same time, there are giveaways to the fossil fuel industry that sacrifice some frontline communities because that is still how American politics works. Those fights will continue.”

Susie Strife singles out climate justice block grants for community projects in the Act. “Communities of color and underserved communities deserve these resources and decision-making power,” she notes. “They have so many ingenious ideas to implement, but they have been left out.”

“Biden came into office and he inspired everyone by describing all that his administration was going to do on climate,” Aguirre-Torres recalls. “I’m so sick and tired of being inspired! People don’t pay rent or put food on the table with inspiration. We need an opportunity. I’m excited about the Inflation Reduction Act because it’s clever. It’s groundbreaking from the policy-making point of view because it turns this crisis into an opportunity to reduce inflation. That’s brilliant.”

The scale of the problem is simply too big for cities alone to solve the problem, Susie Strife argues. They need federal assistance. “This year and last we put more carbon into the atmosphere than any other year,” she points out. “This makes it much less likely to achieve the 1.5 Celsius limit. Even if we stop emissions today, and we know that’s not happening, it’s only a 50 percent chance of achieving that goal by 2050. And we also have to deal with legacy emissions. We have to remove gigatons of carbon that’s built up in our atmosphere over the years. Doing all that can’t happen at a local level without resources, without market signals, and without national leadership.”

What’s Next?

Cities are innovating around the Green economy, and now the federal government is providing several hundred billion dollars in support. But there is still the problem of connecting the two.

“A lot of local governments just don’t have the capacity to identify, seek out, and apply for these grants,” Julia Peek explains. “They don’t have staff capacity to handle the money. If they don’t have capacity to administer the grants, they won’t even apply for them.”

Even with the Inflation Reduction Act, there is a place for more regulations and executive actions. “Like clean car standards,” Susie Strife suggests. “It’s silly that you can still go into a car dealership and buy a combustion car! Biden’s executive order that 50 percent of cars by 2030 will be electric, that’s a huge game-changer.”

There has even been some pressure on the president to declare a climate emergency, which 200 U.S. cities and counties have already done. Such a declaration would enable the president to take stronger measures like blocking oil exports and ending offshore drilling.

“There has to be a plan behind a declaration of a climate emergency,” Luis Aguirre-Torres explains. “It’s when you exhaust all other possibilities. Even though I believe that we live in a climate emergency, it’s a complicated matter for the president to assume powers over Congress. I don’t think it’s the time to do so. But the time may come after the November elections.”

As the United States addresses the climate crisis at all levels from the federal government down to the cities, what can individuals do to speed the process?

“Talk to people,” Julia Peek urges.

“And not just your friends,” Aguirre-Torres continues. “Talk with people who disagree with you. We have this program to have 1,000 conversations that reflect what the community feels. Don’t assume that what people think or feel about climate change is hardwired into their brains.”

“Also do what lights you up,” Peek adds. “It doesn’t matter what you do, we need you!”

Susie Strife agrees. “We need everyone with whatever skill you have; communication, marketing, filmmaking, visuals, therapy. The climate movement needs those skill sets. And we need to be electing local climate champions, including state treasurers that are climate-friendly.”

“And let’s not forget the power of sharing a common goal,” Aguirre-Torres says. “John F. Kennedy did it when he said that we’d land on the moon and no one had a clue about how we were going to do that. We needed a COVID vaccine and we needed it fast, and suddenly we worked together on something that seemed impossible. When we start to move together in the right direction, we can make things happen.”

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

The Turkey-Russia-Ukraine Grain Agreement and the Weaponization of Food Thu, 28 Jul 2022 04:10:14 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – When Russia bombed the port in Odesa last week, it was not an auspicious beginning to the new deal on grain exports. If anyone believed that this agreement between Moscow and Kyiv would have some positive spillover effect on the war grinding on elsewhere in Ukraine, the Russian military surely destroyed that wishful thinking.

Russia and Ukraine have come to an agreement on food exports. Will the deal hold?

International outcry against the Russian bombing of Odesa—as with its earlier strikes on shopping malls, train stations, and hospitals—has been fierce. “Striking a target crucial for grain export a day after the signature of Istanbul agreements is particularly reprehensible & again demonstrates Russia’s total disregard for international law & commitments,” tweeted Josep Borrell Fontelles, who coordinates the European Union’s foreign policy.

Despite Russia’s action, the agreement on grain exports will likely hold. After all, Russia didn’t technically violate the accord. The Kremlin promised only to avoid hitting the ships carrying food to the outside world.

More importantly, the deal has been designed to benefit all sides. Ukraine needs the export earnings from the approximately 22 million tons of wheat, corn, and other products in its warehouses, and it has to get rid of this surplus to make way for this year’s harvest. Turkey will make money facilitating the transport and sale of the commodities. And Russia, as part of a parallel agreement, will get sanctions relief for its own agricultural exports, which will bring in billions of dollars given both Russia’s record harvest and high global food prices.

Article continues after bonus IC video
Ukraine, Russia agree deal over grain exports | DW News

The deal also helps Russia address the reputational damage connected to its naval blockade of Ukrainian ports, which has contributed to driving up food prices around the world. Russia has countered charges that it has weaponized food by blaming the West for causing the food crisis with its punitive sanctions against the Kremlin. This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is touring Africa in an effort to bolster the Kremlin’s brand, which depends not only on agricultural trade but on huge amounts of arms sales and the services of security firms like the Wagner Group.

The recent grain deal, brokered by Turkey and UN General Secretary António Guterres, will take some time to implement. An entire monitoring system has to be put into place to ensure that the ships heading out contain nothing but food and that they don’t return full of weapons. There are mines around Odesa that have to be avoided—or removed. So, the countries of the Middle East and Africa will have to wait a while before they see the Ukrainian and Russian grain that they’ve depended on for so long.

Even then, it’s not clear how much effect the renewed grain shipments will have on food prices. Those prices jumped dramatically in March, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Cooking oils, cereals and meats hit all-time highs and meant food commodities cost a third more than the same time last year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s monthly food price index,” reported The Guardian back in April. Wheat prices alone jumped nearly 20 percent last March.

The spike in food prices has in turn brought people into the streets all over the world, from Peru to Palestine to Indonesia, to protest their governments’ inaction in the face of inflation. The government in Sri Lanka, which had been in place for most of the last two decades, fell as a result of the country’s current, unprecedented economic crisis. In the Sahel, 18 million people face severe hunger because of diminished harvests while 13 million people are experiencing severe drought in the Horn of Africa. Ordinarily, it’s the World Food Program that steps in to help. But the WFP purchases more than half of its wheat from Ukraine. An estimated 47 million people are on the verge of starvation.

Who should all these people blame for their predicament?

Russia: Villain?

Food prices were already on the rise before Russia invaded Ukraine. Supply chain problems connected to COVID, the spike in the price of inputs like fertilizer connected to rising energy prices, diminished harvests connected to climate change: these were all contributing to rising prices beginning in 2020.

A less well-known factor has been financial speculation. After the food price hikes in 2007-8, the International Food Policy Research Institute published an analysis that would prove prophetic:

The flow of speculative capital from financial investors into agricultural commodity markets has been drastic, and the number of future traded contracts is increasing over time. From May 2007 to May 2008, the volume of globally traded grain futures and options rose significantly. Excessive speculation in the commodity futures market could, in principle, push up futures prices and— through arbitrage opportunities—spot prices above levels justified by supply and demand fundamentals.

The recent fall in food prices—after the spike in March, the cost of a basket of food commodities began to drop—proves that “excessive speculation” has indeed played an influential role. Commodities have yet to flow out of Ukraine—or Russia—so the drop has more to do with expectations that a coming recession will reduce demand, which, as economist Ann Pettifor points out, has restrained financial speculation. The supposed laws of supply and demand have little to do with it.

I don’t think these factors let Russia off the hook, however. Putin clearly targeted Ukrainian agriculture as part of his overall assault on the country. It wasn’t just the blockading of Ukrainian ports, which the Russian government signaled its intention of doing several days before the invasion. Once the war began in earnest, the Russian military hit grain terminals, blew up silos and burned fields, hijacked Ukrainian grain to sell as Russian exports, stole agricultural equipment, and destroyed a bridge linking Ukrainian farmers to export markets in Romania.

These moves were designed to cut off Ukrainian access to its own food supply as well as deprive it of export earnings. But another strategy might also have been in play.

Those close to Putin have spoken of the Russian leader’s belief that he can outlast the West, which will eventually have to deal with shifts in public opinion after months of rising energy prices. Even more ominously, Putin pushed for a grain blockade in the hopes that it would “lead to instability in the Middle East and provoke a new flood of refugees,” according to Russian economist Sergei Guriev, former chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Russian ex-president Dmitry Medvedev effectively acknowledged Russia’s weaponization of food when he wrote in April that “many countries depend on our supplies for their food security. It turns out our food is our silent weapon. Quiet, but mighty.”

Russia wouldn’t be the first country to use food as a weapon in this way. Africa expert Alex DeWaal identifies seven cases of governments resorting to this tactic, which the UN has declared a war crime. The Saudi-led coalition behind the war in Yemen, for instance, has blockaded ports and prevented food deliveries from reaching starving Yemenis (although the blockade has been eased, it is still in place in parts of the north). The Ethiopian government has restricted the flow of food and finance to the Tigray region in an attempt to starve the rebellious state into submission. Syria, South Sudan, Myanmar, Venezuela: the governments in these countries have also relied on this brutal and unfortunately effective strategy.

So, Why Did Russia Sign the Agreement?

Putin is clearly worried that time is not in fact on his side. Even as he has continued to pursue maximalist goals—asserting once again this week that regime change in Kyiv is a priority— Russian forces have reached what might prove the high-water mark of their territorial acquisition. Ukraine’s effective use of HIMARS (high-mobility artillery rocket system) to target Russian artillery positions and logistical centers behind the line of engagement has not only stopped the Russian advance in key areas but has prepared the way for a Ukrainian counter-offensive to retake the city of Kherson and other territory in the south.

Yes, inflation is taking its toll in the West. The European Union, bracing for the impact of reduced Russian energy imports in the winter, just came to an emergency agreement to cut natural gas consumption by 15 percent starting next month and lasting until next March. The willingness of Americans to pay a price to support Ukraine—higher energy costs, risk of escalation—has fluctuated since March and will not likely last forever.

But Putin faces a more difficult challenge. He doesn’t have the soldiers for an indefinite war of attrition. His military-industrial complex has been hit hard by the sanctions—so much so that he has gone begging to Iran to get drones. The Russian economy has essentially been hollowed out, with domestic production at a standstill and the foreign companies that accounted for 40 percent of Russia’s GDP not returning any time soon. The only thing that stops Russia from going off the precipice is its energy exports. These are significant, to be sure, but they won’t be enough to save the country from a downward spiral a la Venezuela.

That’s why Putin needs to start selling his grain, salvage Russia’s reputation among the world’s biggest food importers, and consolidate whatever gains he can in the territories that the Russian army has seized in Ukraine. Sensing desperation, Kyiv is going to press what it thinks to be its advantage.

This war will end not with a clear-cut victory—Russia will not seize all of Ukraine, Ukraine will not deprive Russia of all of its ill-gotten gains—but only with what both sides can claim as a victory. In the meantime, as the tug-of-war continues across one of the world’s primary breadbaskets, the eventual delivery of food to the global hungry will be a win for everyone.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

The Fateful Fist Bump Thu, 21 Jul 2022 04:08:27 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – If you thought the polarization of politics in the United States was corrosive, brace yourself for the even more corrosive polarization of geopolitics. By | July 20, 2022

The fist bump has been the default method of person-to-person contact in the COVID era. Shaking hands is too intimate and bumping elbows is too awkward. But the brief collision of fists has been deemed just about right to avoid the risks of both mutual contamination and mutual embarrassment.

Perhaps Joe Biden’s advisors thought that a fist bump between the president and Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) would also somehow avoid the appearance of contamination and embarrassment, in this case of the political variety. Certainly, they were worried about the near-radioactivity of MbS. The crown prince is responsible for the murder of a Washington Post journalist, the ongoing war in Yemen, and innumerable human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, on the campaign trail, Biden had promised to turn the Saudi autocrat into a veritable “pariah.”

Shaking hands with such a devil seemed inconceivable for a president determined to distance himself from the callous disregard for human rights of his predecessor. But perhaps a fist bump…?

Biden reports that he challenged MbS by bringing up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights concerns. But the president didn’t travel all the way to Saudi Arabia to lecture the crown prince. He was there to grease the wheels of the global economy—quite literally—by persuading Saudi Arabia to release more oil and drive down gas prices, which he ultimately failed to do.

That the U.S. president puts the price of gas higher than the value of human rights is no doubt disturbing. But it’s also entirely consistent with U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia for the last 80 years of handshakes with sheiks.

Perhaps more disturbing is the moral calculations forced upon the White House by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, which increasingly resemble the trade-offs of the Cold War era. During that period, the United States made alliances with various authoritarian leaders in order to advance the larger goal of containing the Soviet Union. The Biden administration is pursuing similar compromises across the political spectrum—from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Venezuela and India—to isolate the Soviet Union’s largest successor state, Russia.

The fist bump with MbS, then, betokens the ongoing rearrangement of geopolitics. If you thought the polarization of politics in the United States was corrosive, brace yourself for the even more corrosive polarization of geopolitics.

Biden’s Middle East Trip

Successive U.S. administrations attempted to influence policy in the Middle East to preserve access to the region’s natural resources and to prevent other outsiders (such as the Soviet Union) from gaining a toehold. The George W. Bush administration went a step further by effecting regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq, kicking off an attempt to promote democracy across a large swath of the region. The United States no longer needs Saudi oil or Qatari natural gas, not directly at least, and the Soviet Union has disappeared. The region is no more democratic today than it was 20 years ago. Even Tunisia, the one country to crawl from the wreckage of the Arab Spring with a fledgling democracy, succumbed to a coup last year.

So, you might think that the United States, largely energy independent and a woeful failure at promoting democracy in the Middle East, would stay away from the region.

Think again. The Biden administration is so determined to stay in the game that it is bending over backwards to curry favor with the region’s theocrats and authoritarians. In addition to meeting with the Saudi leadership, Biden took time out to chat with Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on the sidelines of the Arab Summit, which was another opportunity to subordinate human rights concerns to more material matters. Earlier, a trip to Jerusalem offered Biden a chance to burnish his pro-Israeli credentials and reinforce the two countries’ military relationship. Benjamin Netanyahu is, for now, on the sidelines of Israeli politics. But he succeeded in pushing the country so far to the right that it has flirted with authoritarianism. Like Trump, Bibi is planning his political comeback as Israel prepares for its fifth election in four years.

Central to the semi-alliance between the United States and Israel is a shared suspicion of Iran. The Biden administration is still trying to revive the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Tehran that the Trump administration foolishly scrapped. A ninth round of talks just finished up in Doha with “no progress,” according to the State Department. Israel is talking about military options to prevent Iran from going nuclear, a scenario the Biden administration would like to avoid but may be forced into endorsing because of Israeli (and Republican) pressure.

Exacerbating this situation is closer military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow. According to news accounts this week, Iran is offering to sell the Kremlin both armed and unarmed drones to replace what Russia has lost on the battlefield in Ukraine. This is the reverse of the traditional arms flow, which suggests both that Russia is facing critical hardware deficits and that the sanctions are working. Putin himself is in Tehran this week to cement the relationship.

Biden was quick to point out in his remarks at the summit of Arab leaders that his visit was geopolitical in nature. “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” he told the autocrats brought together by MbS. Forget about nature: it’s the State Department and the Pentagon that abhor a vacuum!

To remain anchored in the Middle East, then, the administration will have to work with some pretty shady characters. Increasingly, that’s going to be the norm for U.S. foreign policy.

The Future of Fist Bumps

Donald Trump, an infamous germaphobe, was all about the handshake. Here he is with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Then there’s the grab-and-pump technique with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Trump looks like he’s never going to let go of Mohammed bin Salman in this video from 2017. Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte got a shake and a shoulder pat while Indian strongman Narendra Modi received an awkward grope of a benediction.

Is there an autocrat that Trump didn’t seek out for the laying on of hands? Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Trump and Thailand’s Chan-o-cha, Trump and Sisi, Trump and Xi Jinping. I’m sure that if he could, Trump would shake the hologram hands of Augusto Pinochet and Ferdinand Marcos.

Well, that’s Trump, you might say. He loved right-wing autocrats—and even a few putative left-wing ones as well. But now he’s out of the White House and, inshallah, he’ll stay that way.

Unfortunately, however, cozying up to autocrats remains a powerful force in the United States. Partly, that’s a function of U.S. history, partly that’s a legacy of Trump’s reign, and partly that’s a feature of the new cold war descending upon geopolitics.

The United States has long made deals with dictators, going back to the despotic Napoleon and the Louisiana Purchase. In the Cold War era, the United States looked the other way when men behaved badly, and even provided them with important assistance, as with Somoza in Nicaragua, Sukarno in Indonesia, and the Shah of Iran. Beginning with the Carter administration, however, the United States at least began to pay lip service to human rights and sometimes even severed relations with previous allies over their records.

Trump represented a step backwards for he was not interested even in paying lip service to human rights. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia was a key ally because of its anti-Iran policies and Trump’s bromance with MbS. Thanks to Jared Kushner’s Abraham Accords, the Trump administration helped unite Arab despots and a right-wing Israeli establishment, squeezing out the Palestinians and throwing dissidents in the region to the wolves.

The Biden administration is not likely to challenge these changes, particularly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Western governments need Arab despots on their side, if not to impose strict sanctions on the Kremlin then at least to replace Russian energy imports, especially to Europe. Fist bumps of friendships are the outward sign of strengthened economic and military relationships.

It’s not just the Middle East. The Biden administration has effectively fist-bumped the Maduro government by offering some sanctions relief in order to get more Venezuelan oil into the global market. It has ignored the dismal human rights record of Narendra Modi—going far beyond a fist bump to an enthusiastic embrace—in order to swing India more firmly onto the side of the United States. It has refused to reverse the Trump administration’s astonishing recognition of Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara, providing a fist bump of additional military assistance to the north African country.

Discussions of a reemerging Cold War between the United States and Russia—which overlaps with worsening relations between Washington and Beijing—focus for the most part on the risks of war. That is entirely appropriate, especially given the heightened risk of a nuclear exchange.

But another critical aspect of this new Cold War are the myriad moral compromises that the United States makes in order to secure the cohesion of its bloc of allies. Isolating Russia—and containing China’s ambitions—will be used as the prime directive that overrides any squeamishness around extrajudicial murders, imprisoned critics, and shuttered media outlets taking place in the countries of our putative allies. And that means a lot more future fist bumps with murderers like Mohammed bin Salman.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

Why China Will Decide the Outcome of Russia v. the West Fri, 24 Jun 2022 04:02:18 +0000 ( ) – In its attempt to swallow Ukraine whole, Russia has so far managed to bite off only the eastern Donbas region and a portion of its southern coast. The rest of the country remains independent, with its capital Kyiv intact.

No one knows how this meal will end. Ukraine is eager to force Russia to disgorge what it’s already devoured, while the still-peckish invader clearly has no interest in leaving the table.

This might seem like an ordinary territorial dispute between predator and prey. Ukraine’s central location between east and west, however, turns it into a potentially world-historical conflict like the Battle of Tours when the Christian Franks turned back the surging Ummayad army of Muslims in 732 AD or the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam in 1975.

The pivotal nature of the current war seems obvious. Ukraine has for some time wanted to join western institutions like the European Union. Russia prefers to absorb Ukraine into its russkiy mir (Russian world). However, this tug of war over the dividing line between East and West isn’t a simple recapitulation of the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly has no interest in reconstituting the Soviet Union, much less in sending his troops westward into Poland or Germany, while the United States isn’t wielding Ukraine as a proxy to fight the Kremlin. Both superpowers have far more circumscribed aims.

Nonetheless, the war has oversized implications. What at first glance seems like a spatial conflict is also a temporal one. Ukraine has the great misfortune to straddle the fault line between a twentieth century of failed industrial strategies and a possible twenty-first century reorganization of society along clean-energy lines.

In the worst-case scenario, Ukraine could simply be absorbed into the world’s largest petro-state. Or the two sides could find themselves in a punishing stalemate that cuts off the world’s hungriest from vast stores of grain and continues to distract the international community from pushing forward with an urgently needed reduction of carbon emissions. Only a decisive defeat of Putinism — with its toxic mix of despotism, corruption, right-wing nationalism, and devil-may-care extractivism — would offer the world some sliver of hope when it comes to restoring some measure of planetary balance.

Ukraine is fighting for its territory and, ultimately, its survival. The West has come to its aid in defense of international law. But the stakes in this conflict are far more consequential than that.

What Putin Wants

Once upon a time, Vladimir Putin was a conventional Russian politician. Like many of his predecessors, he enjoyed a complicated ménage à trois with democracy (the boring spouse) and despotism (his true love). He toggled between confrontation and cooperation with the West. Not a nationalist, he presided over a multiethnic federation; not a populist, he didn’t care much about playing to the masses; not an imperialist, he deployed brutal but limited force to keep Russia from spinning apart.

He also understood the limits of Russian power. In the 1990s, his country had suffered a precipitous decline in its economic fortune, so he worked hard to rebuild state power on what lay beneath his feet. Russia, after all, is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, its second-largest oil producer, and its third-largest coal exporter. Even his efforts to prevent regions from slipping away from the Russian sphere of influence were initially constrained. In 2008, for instance, he didn’t try to take over neighboring Georgia, just force a stalemate that brought two breakaway regions into the Russian sphere of influence.

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Meanwhile, Putin pursued strategies aimed at weakening his perceived adversaries. He ratcheted up cyberattacks in the Baltics, expanded maritime provocations in the Black Sea, advanced aggressive territorial claims in the Arctic, and supported right-wing nationalists like France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini to undermine the unity of the European Union. In 2016, he even attempted to further polarize American politics via dirty tricks in support of Donald Trump.

Always sensitive to challenges to his own power, Putin watched with increasing concern as “color revolutions” spread through parts of the former Soviet Union — from Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2005) to Belarus (2006) and Moldova (2009). Around the time of the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, he began shifting domestically to a nationalism that prioritized the interests of ethnic Russians, while cracking down ferociously on dissent and ramping up attacks on critics abroad. An intensifying sense of paranoia led him to rely on an ever-smaller circle of advisors, ever less likely to contradict him or offer him bad news.

In the early 2020s, facing disappointment abroad, Putin effectively gave up on preserving even a semblance of good relations with the United States or the European Union. Except for Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the European far right had proven a complete disappointment, while his fair-weather friend Donald Trump had lost the 2020 presidential election. Worse yet, European countries seemed determined to meet their Paris climate accord commitments, which sooner or later would mean radically reducing their dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

In contrast to China’s eagerness to stay on good terms with the United States and Europe, Putin’s Russia began turning its back on centuries of “westernizing” impulses to embrace its Slavic history and traditions. Like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and India’s Narendra Modi, Putin decided that the only ideology that ultimately mattered was nationalism, in his case a particularly virulent, anti-liberal form of it.

All of this means that Putin will pursue his aims in Ukraine regardless of the long-term impact on relations with the West. He’s clearly convinced that political polarization, economic sclerosis, and a wavering security commitment to that embattled country will eventually force Western powers to accommodate a more assertive Russia.

He might not be wrong.

Whither the West?

Since the invasion of Ukraine, the West has never seemed more unified. Even previously neutral Finland and Sweden have lined up to join NATO, while the United States and much of Europe have largely agreed when it comes to sanctions against Russia.

Still, all is not well in the West. In the United States, where Trumpism continues to metastasize within the Republican Party, 64% of Americans are convinced that democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing,” according to a January NPR/Ipsos poll. Meanwhile, in a surprising Alliance of Democracies Foundation poll last year, 44% of respondents in 53 countries rated the United States, a self-proclaimed beacon of liberty, as a greater threat to democracy than either China (38%) or Russia (28%).

In Europe, the far right continues to challenge the democratic foundations of the continent. Uber-Christian Viktor Orbán recently won his fourth term as Hungary’s prime minister; the super-conservative Law and Justice Party is firmly at the helm in Poland; the anti-immigrant, Euroskeptical Swiss People’s Party remains the most significant force in that country’s parliament; and the top three far-right political parties in Italy together attract nearly 50% in public opinion polls.

Meanwhile, the global economy, still on neo-liberal autopilot, has jumped out of the pandemic frying pan into the fires of stagflation. With stock markets heading into bear territory and a global recession looming, the World Bank recently cut its 4.1% growth forecast for 2022 to 2.9%. The Biden administration’s perceived failure to address inflation may deliver Congress to Republican extremists this November and social democratic leaders throughout Europe may pay a similar political price for record-high Eurozone inflation.

Admittedly, the continued military dominance of the United States and its NATO allies would seem to refute all rumors of the decline of the West. In reality, though, the West’s military record hasn’t been much better than Russia’s performance in Ukraine. In August 2021, the United States ignominiously withdrew its forces from its 20-year war in Afghanistan as the Taliban surged back to power. This year, France pulled its troops from Mali after a decade-long failure to defeat al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants. Western-backed forces failed to dislodge Bashar al-Assad in Syria or prevent a horrific civil war from enveloping Libya. All the trillions of dollars devoted to achieving “full-spectrum dominance” couldn’t produce enduring success in Iraq or Somalia, wipe out terrorist factions throughout Africa, or effect regime change in North Korea or Cuba.

Despite its overwhelming military and economic power, the West no longer seems to be on the same upward trajectory as after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back in the 1990s, Eastern Europe and even parts of the former Soviet Union signed up to join NATO and the European Union. Russia under Boris Yeltsin inked a partnership agreement with NATO, while both Japan and South Korea were interested in pursuing a proposed global version of that security alliance.

Today, however, the West seems increasingly irrelevant outside its own borders. China, love it or hate it, has rebuilt its Sinocentric sphere in Asia, while becoming the most important economic player in the Global South. It’s even established alternative global financial institutions that, one day, might replace the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Turkey has turned its back on the European Union (and vice versa) and Latin America is heading in a more independent direction. Consider it a sign of the times that, when the call went out to sanction Russia, most of the non-Western world ignored it.

The foundations of the West are indeed increasingly unstable. Democracy is no longer, as scholar Francis Fukuyama imagined it in the late 1980s, the inevitable trajectory of world history. The global economy, while spawning inexcusable inequality and being upended by the recent pandemic, is exhausting the resource base of the planet. Both right-wing extremism and garden-variety nationalism are eroding the freedoms that safeguard liberal society. It’s no surprise, then, that Putin believes a divided West will ultimately accede to his aggression.

The Ukraine Pivot

There’s never a good time for war.

But hostilities have flared in Ukraine just as the world was supposed to be accelerating its transition to a clean-energy future. In another three years, carbon emissions must hit their peak and, in the next eight years, countries must cut their carbon emissions by half if there’s any hope of meeting the goals of the Paris climate accord by 2050. Even before the current war, the most comprehensive estimate put the rise in global temperature at a potentially disastrous 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century (nearly twice the 1.5 degree goal of that agreement).

The war in Ukraine is propelling the world full tilt in the opposite direction. China and India are, in fact, increasing their use of coal, the worst possible fossil fuel in terms of carbon emissions. Europe is desperate to replace Russian oil and natural gas and countries like Greece are now considering increasing their own production of dirty energy. In a similar fashion, the United States is once again boosting oil and gas production, releasing supplies from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and hoping to persuade oil-producing nations to pump yet more of their product into global markets.

With its invasion, in other words, Russia has helped to derail the world’s already faltering effort at decarbonization. Although last fall Putin committed his country to a net-zero carbon policy by 2060, phasing out fossil fuels now would be economic suicide given that he’s done so little to diversify the economy. And despite international sanctions, Russia has been making a killing with fossil-fuel sales, raking in a record $97 billion in the first 100 days of battle.

All of this could suggest, of course, that Vladimir Putin represents the last gasp of the failed petropolitics of the twentieth century. But don’t count him out yet. He might also be the harbinger of a future in which technologically sophisticated politicians continue to pursue their narrow political and regional aims, making it ever less possible for the world to survive climate change.

Ukraine is where Putin is making his stand. As for Putinism itself — how long it lasts, how persuasive it proves to be for other countries — much depends on China.

After Putin’s invasion, Beijing could have given full-throated support to its ally, promised to buy all the fossil fuels Western sanctions left stranded, provided military equipment to buoy the faltering Russian offensive, and severed its own ties with Europe and the United States. Beijing could have broken with international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF in favor of the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, its own multinational organizations. In this way, Ukraine could have turned into a genuine proxy war between East and West.

Instead, China has been playing both sides. Unhappy with Putin’s unpredictable moves, including the invasion, which have disrupted China’s economic expansion, it’s also been disturbed by the sanctions against Russia that similarly cramp its style. Beijing isn’t yet strong enough to challenge the hegemony of the dollar and it also remains dependent on Russian fossil fuels. Now the planet’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, China has been building a tremendous amount of renewable energy infrastructure. Its wind sector generated nearly 30% more power in 2021 than the year before and its solar sector increased by nearly 15%. Still, because of a growing appetite for energy, its overall dependence on coal and natural gas has hardly been reduced.

Reliant as it is on Russian energy imports, China won’t yet pull the plug on Putinism, but Washington could help push Beijing in that direction. It was once a dream of the Obama administration to partner with the world’s second-largest economy on clean energy projects. Instead of focusing as it has on myriad ways to contain China, the Biden administration could offer it a green version of an older proposal to create a Sino-American economic duopoly, this time focused on making the global economy sustainable in the process. The two countries could join Europe in advancing a Global Green Deal.

In recent months, President Biden has been willing to entertain the previously unthinkable by mending fences with Venezuela and Saudi Arabia in order to flood global markets with yet more oil and so reduce soaring prices at the pump. Talk about twentieth-century mindsets. Instead, it’s time for Washington to consider an eco-détente with Beijing that would, among other things, drive a stake through the heart of Putinism, safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty, and stop the planet from burning to a crisp.

Otherwise, we know how this unhappy meal will end — as a Last Supper for humanity.

Copyright 2022 John Feffer


Biden’s Golden Opportunity to Reverse Course on China Thu, 16 Jun 2022 04:04:37 +0000 Originally published in Hankyoreh.

( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – Joe Biden has wrapped up his first trip to Asia. He met with new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to shore up the U.S.-ROK alliance. He traveled to Tokyo to reinvigorate the Quad grouping with Japan, Australia, and India. And he peddled the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, an attempt by the United States to reinsert itself into the Asian economy after the Trump administration’s pullout from the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Improving relations with China could lower inflation, isolate Vladimir Putin, and accelerate the transition to a clean energy future.

The headlines in the United States have all been about Ukraine, inflation, and gun violence. Biden’s trip was designed to prove that the United States is in fact focused on one thing above all: China, China, China.

The strengthened alliance with South Korea is a signal to Beijing that the more accommodating era of the Moon Jae-in administration is over. The Quad meetings are part of a strategy of countering China’s ambitions in the region including its ports and bases along the Asian littoral. And the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is a deliberate effort to roll back China’s considerable economic ties with its neighbors.

If you believe that China is the most important threat to U.S. interests, all of these moves make perfect sense. Indeed, Biden’s trip to Asia generally received positive marks from the foreign policy elite in Washington, DC. Virtually the entire U.S. expert class believes that it is necessary to confront China.

This fear of China, however, has created a certain blindness. By going all out to contain this rival superpower, the United States is missing a golden opportunity. The Biden administration should be taking advantage of the war in Ukraine to push the restart button with Beijing. Closer relations with China would serve to isolate Russia, reorient the global economy in a more sustainable direction, and even reduce inflation in the United States.

The easiest and most obvious policy change the Biden administration should make involves the Trump-era tariffs on Chinese products. Indeed, some members of the administration, notably Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, have indicated support for reducing the tariffs. Tariff reductions could bring inflation down within a year by a full percentage point. That would be good news for U.S. consumers and businesses—and for the Democratic Party’s political prospects.

Beijing would obviously welcome this move. It would also provide an opening for U.S. negotiators to try an even bolder gambit, one that recalls an earlier geopolitical venture by the administration of Richard Nixon.

In the 1970s, Nixon and his top advisor Henry Kissinger orchestrated an opening with Communist China. It was not a particularly happy time in China. The country was still in the midst of its murderous Cultural Revolution, and the elderly Mao Zedong was an increasingly erratic leader.

But Nixon and Kissinger saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between the two chief communist powers: China and the Soviet Union. It was of utmost importance for the United States to prevent any serious rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing. Moreover, Kissinger wanted to put pressure on the Soviets to be more compromising in arms control negotiations. Also driving the opening was a U.S. business community that was cautiously optimistic about the profits that could be made in the Chinese market.

In many ways, the gamble worked perfectly. The United States was able to negotiate a détente with the Soviet Union that lasted, more or less, until the end of the 1970s. The Nixon-Kissinger policy also helped guide China out of its Cultural Revolution and into a more sensible engagement with the outside world.

Of course, the United States is now angry that China has proven so successful in engaging with its neighbors and the global economy. Beijing is no longer content to play a subordinate role. It is challenging the U.S. position as the world’s top economy. It is also flexing its muscles near its borders—in the South China Sea and perennially with Taiwan—and challenging U.S. claims that it is the preeminent Pacific power.

But, as in the 1970s, there are still some very good reasons why the United States should open the door once again to China. Russia and China have formed an energy partnership based on their mutual fossil fuel needs (Russia to export, China to import). They have a shared distrust of certain liberal tenets concerning, for instance, free elections and freedom of speech. They have both aligned themselves with other authoritarian governments for their own security interests. If push comes to shove, Russia and China could form the basis of an anti-Western alliance.

But such an alliance is not inevitable. The Kremlin has long worried about Chinese designs on the Russian Far East. China is appalled at the way Russia has violated the sovereignty of its neighbors like Ukraine. Most importantly, China wants to preserve its more-or-less good economic relations with the West, while Russia seems to have given up on any potential rapprochement by doubling down with its invasion of Ukraine.

To further isolate Putin, the Biden administration should step in to offer Beijing a wide-ranging set of negotiations to normalize trade, address outstanding questions like intellectual property rights, and come to some shared understanding of the rules of the road in places like the South China Sea.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States has to offer China a different kind of energy partnership than what the Kremlin is promising. Instead of fossil fuels, Washington should expand the clean energy collaboration that the Obama administration began with Beijing. Together, the United States and China can lead the world into a new era of renewables that is far and away more compelling—and urgently needed—than the dirty energy paradigm that Russia is offering.

Is it too hard to imagine Joe Biden turning his back on the foreign policy consensus in Washington in order to push the reset button on relations with China?


But Joe Biden as a presidential candidate promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” Now, President Biden is planning a visit this month to Riyadh, despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s assassination of a U.S. journalist and the multiple war crimes the Saudi leader has committed in his war in Yemen. The reason for this reconciliation is quite simple and quite narrow: Biden wants to persuade the Saudis to put more oil into global markets to drive down the price of gas in the United States.

Surely if Biden is willing to make friends with the assassin of Riyadh, he can mend fences with Beijing for a much larger set of benefits and the prospect of a much more advantageous peace.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

What Remains of the U.S. Green New Deal? Sun, 08 May 2022 04:04:54 +0000 By John Feffer | –

In November 2018, the Green New Deal became a rallying cry for climate activists when members of the Sunrise Movement occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and adopted the slogan as their unifying message. A few months later, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who had joined the young activists in Pelosi’s office, brought this message to Congress when she partnered with Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) to introduce their Green New Deal resolution. More manifesto than binding legislation, the resolution laid out a vision of an equitable clean energy transition for the United States.

Build Back Better is on the ropes. But other parts of a just transition are moving forward.

In drawing from the language and history of FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s, climate activists have hoped to join together two strands of the progressive movement: environmentalism and economic justice. The United States needs to radically reduce its carbon footprint and, at the same time, create well-paying jobs, especially for those workers leaving economic sectors associated with dirty energy. As with FDR’s program, the Green New Deal relies on government direction and funding to advance this major economic transformation.

Since the original resolution, other Green New Deal bills have emerged on education, housing, and cities. U.S. cities, too, have established Green New Deal initiatives, and many civic organizations continue to champion the GND as a radical vision for a reoriented U.S. society.

Yet many of the actual components of a clean energy transition have stalled in Congress even though the candidate who promised such a transition won the presidential election in 2020. Although some very modest climate-related provisions can be found in two successful pieces of legislation supported by the Joe Biden administration—the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, both in 2021—the bulk of the clean energy provisions have been bundled into Build Back Better. Originally a $3.5 trillion Democratic proposal, this bill was whittled down to $2.2 trillion and then effectively killed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in late 2021.

“Build Back Better is seen by many as the biggest step in the direction of the Green New Deal,” relates Brett Fleishman, the head of global finance campaigns at “Joe Biden had expected to arrive at COP 26 in Glasgow in November 2021 with the bill signed in his back pocket so he could slap it down on the table and start a bidding war with the Chinese. But that didn’t happen.”

May 30, Fleishman continues, will be the next deadline to make a push to win Manchin’s support for a smaller bill that includes higher taxes on the rich and a prescription drug provision. The West Virginia senator is also likely to insist on increased fossil fuel production, at least in the short term. Complicating the picture, large-scale government spending programs have recently become more difficult because of rising prices and inflationary concerns.

The climate provisions in Build Back Better “are not 100% dead,” agrees Rajiv Sicora, Senior Policy Advisor for Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). “But as my boss says, they’re on life support. The truth is, we’re not going to have federal climate legislation at the scale that we need without making a lot more noise, without being a lot more disruptive, and without finding ways to counter the power of the fossil fuel industry and other corporations that are lobbying furiously against it.”

Saul Levin, a Senior Policy Advisor for Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), notes that the Biden administration has not done much to meet its climate change promises. “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law had a lot of good things in it,” he points out. “But every study suggests that it will create more greenhouse gas emissions than it will reduce. Climate change is getting worse because of that law and without the Build Back Better plan. From my own personal perspective, it would be an international disgrace for the Democratic Party not to pass substantial climate legislation.”

While policy-makers squabble about Build Back Better, climate change continues to contribute to major wildfires, droughts, and other disasters across the United States.

“How many climate-related disasters will it take for us to understand that this is a serious issue?” asks Susie Strife, who manages all of Boulder County’s sustainability efforts, policies, and programs with a special focus on clean energy, finance, and climate action. “There’s clearly a disconnect between what local governments and state governments are doing, and the push for national federal policy and change. Doing nothing puts us in a much more precarious position, and it’s more expensive.”

In response to the war in Ukraine and a surge in gas prices, the Biden administration announced at the end of March the release of a million barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And instead of restricting fossil fuel production, the United States has been scrambling to persuade other countries to boost output to substitute for the loss of banned Russian imports, particularly for European partners. These developments contrast sharply with the latest IPCC report, which appeared at the beginning of April. Although pessimistic about recent trends in carbon emissions, the report stressed that halving emissions by 2030 was still within reach.

Against this backdrop, in mid-April, these three experts gathered for a conversation facilitated by Brett Fleishman about the promises, polices, and prospects of the Green New Deal in the United States. Expressing concern about the urgency of the moment, they offered concrete suggestions about how to achieve at least parts of the GND vision.

Pushing Joe Manchin

Although several Democrats were unhappy with elements of Build Back Better, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin emerged as the bill’s principal opponent. The bill passed the House of Representatives on November 19, 2021. One month later, Manchin released a statement outlining his opposition to the bill, based on its costs in light of overall government debt and surging inflation. Despite his later declaration that the bill was “dead,” Manchin remains open to a radically reduced version that focuses on “climate change, prescription drug prices and deficit reduction.” Most recently, he has sought to build momentum for a bipartisan energy bill that would boost domestic fossil fuel production and avoid the Democratic-only budget reconciliation process.

Manchin’s reputation as a deficit hawk is not the only reason for his opposition to Build Back Better. Not only did he make his fortune from a coal business, he protected that business and the coal industry more generally through his actions as a politician. The Biden administration’s efforts to transition away from coal and other dirty sources of energy—through Build Back Better and other measures— directly challenges Manchin’s financial and political interests.

“We’re all inside of a house that’s burning down and there’s a person standing there with a fire extinguisher,” Saul Levin says. “The House did its job, and it’s come down to Senator Manchin. The House does not have leverage over Manchin. Speaker Pelosi doesn’t have much leverage over Manchin. The question is: will President Biden and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) do their jobs and hold their party together? And the answer so far has been a resounding no.”

“The Biden Administration and the leadership of the Democratic party in Congress did not have a plan to deal with Manchin,” reports Rajiv Sicora. “We could have loaded up Build Back Better with even more good things for the people of West Virginia, and gone directly to them to make the case for how the bill would improve their lives—the kind of organizing approach that Bernie Sanders would have pursued as president.” At this point, the White House is waiting on Manchin rather than putting pressure on him.

The fight has expanded beyond the congressional floor. “A bunch of activists blockaded Joe Manchin’s coal plant this weekend,” Levin reports. “If I were Joe Biden, I’d use the Antiquities Act to take over coal fields all over West Virginia to establish national monuments and then do a live broadcast each time saying that ‘Joe Manchin is killing the coal industry’—over and over again until he stops.”

Defense Production Act

The Biden administration has other options besides Build Back Better to advance elements of the Green New Deal. One of those is through the Defense Production Act where, in the name of national security, the president can declare an emergency that provides the executive with powers to force companies to produce key commodities. Ordinarily, the Act is invoked during wartime. But activists have long argued that the climate crisis should put the United States on just such an emergency footing.

“Our team—Congresswoman Bush and Rep. Jason Crow (D-WI) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)— introduced a bill a little less than a week ago called the Energy Security and Independence Act,” reports Saul Levin. “It basically calls for $150 billion for various investments in the renewable energy supply chain. Two-thirds of that was for the Defense Production Act.”

He continues, “Joe Biden could say right now that because of the emergency in Ukraine as well as the climate emergency, we’re going to redirect hundreds of billions of dollars to making strategic investments to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels from Russia and Saudi Arabia. The money could cover public transit and vehicle electrification, but also heat pumps and other measures to reduce utility costs.”

The bill is designed to provide Biden with the congressional backing to invoke the Defense Production Act and deploy $100 billion through that mechanism. It has, Levin reports, attracted support across the Democratic Party. Even if it doesn’t pass, he adds, it will help shape the messaging around the urgency and the resources needed to address a clean energy transition.

Green New Deal for Public Schools

The Energy Security and Independence Act is only one of a number of Green New Deal-adjacent bills in the House.

In July 2021, for instance, Jamaal Bowman introduced the Green New Deal for Public Schools Act. It would provide $1.43 trillion over 10 years to overhaul America’s public schools through healthy green retrofits, hiring more educators, expanding social services, and updating curricula. “The bill provides enough funding for every school in the country to get to zero carbon emissions through a combination of a comprehensive retrofit to reduce energy use, install solar on site and electrify the building, and get rid of all the toxic materials that are currently threatening so many young people, particularly students of color and low-income students in rural communities,” Rajiv Sicora explains. “The funding would also cover climate resilience efforts such as building out broadband infrastructure and EV charging stations, and garden and tree planting,” according to The Washington Post.

It’s not just about upgrading public schools. The bill imagines young people taking greater control of the green transition. “My boss is passionate about putting young people at the center of our response to this crisis,” he continues. “Right now, we have a youth mental health crisis in no small part because of climate change and what they’ve been going through during the pandemic.”

“But imagine you’re a public-school student in a community where your school has been ignored and experienced disinvestment,” he adds. “Then, suddenly, your school becomes the epicenter of this new process. And you’re able to study the retrofit to your building. You’re participating in a community garden. You’re seeing how the electric school bus is procured. And you’re watching how climate-friendly food is coming into the school for lunches.”

The bill would have various knock-on effects. For instance, Sicora continues, “investing in curriculum development would bring in more educators and expand community partnerships with all sorts of groups. The bill would create over a million jobs a year to carry out all the retrofits and to fill the new educator positions.”

Green New Deal for Cities

In October 2021, Rep. Cori Bush introduced a bill called the Green New Deal for Cities Act that would earmark $1 trillion to build back better at the local level. The money could be spent on a number of different environmental initiatives—”replacing lead pipes, retrofitting water infrastructure, building bike lanes, installing electric vehicle charging stations, testing soil and water for contaminants, and phasing out fossil fuel infrastructure, among other options”—as well as to compensate for historic environmental injustice.

“The name is a bit misleading,” Levin notes. “The bill actually would fund a Green New Deal in every city, county, state, territory, and tribe. It’s based on the American Rescue Plan around COVID and the way dollars were distributed around the country for people to do masking and hand sanitizing at different phases of the pandemic. We need the same thing on an even greater scale for dealing with climate change and for uprooting environmental racism, which is so pervasive all over the country.”

The bill is based on the notion that every community in the country needs federal support, even if they’re already run by politicians who are pushing a clean energy transition. Such politicians “are nitpicking around the edges of the climate problem because they don’t really have the resources, for instance to expand public transit in the way that’s needed,” Levin notes.

Green Champions in Congress

There are so many Green New Deal-related bills in Congress that progressive legislators have created a “Green Champions” checklist to track congressional support for the 10 top bills.

“Most people don’t have time to read through all these bills,” Saul Levin points out. “And there are hundreds of bills introduced every year called the Climate Act or the Environmental Justice act and so on. Most of them are just not very good at all. They’re not ambitious enough or don’t focus on justice or on internationalism.”

After choosing the best bills, he continues, “we spent about six months bothering offices, saying, ‘Hey, you signed onto the Green New Deal for Public Housing, why aren’t you signed up to the Green New Deal for Public Schools. From there, we steadily built up support for all of those bills. We started with just four members of Congress supporting every bill and now we’re at 24.”

What started out as a checklist has now become a pledge. There are now 45 organizations that support the Green Champions pledge, from Sunrise Movement and the Climate Justice Alliance to Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and the American Federation of Teachers.

“Instead of running for Congress as a progressive candidate supporting the Green New Deal, the question is now: do you agree to be a climate champion by signing onto these other nine bills?” Levin continues. “The candidates running for office are not just pledging to support all 10 bills, they’re also promising not to take money from the fossil fuel industry.”

Lessons from the Climate Frontlines

Boulder County in Colorado is one of the most committed regions of the country to a clean energy transition. It has also been the site of several major climate-related disasters. At the very end of 2021, the Marshall Fire broke out there, ultimately destroying more than a thousand homes. It was the worst fire in Colorado history.

“We have experienced tremendous wildfires,” reports Susie Strife, “as well as a 500-year flood event. My own children witnessed many of these events from our own backyard. Boulder County and California, which have become the epicenters of these climate-related catastrophes, ironically house a lot of the national labs and the researchers—climate modelers, scientists, engineers—that are doing the work to understand how we can get to a decarbonized economy.”

In response to the state of the emergency declared during the Marshall Fire, the federal government provided tens of millions of dollars in emergency funding. An even more costly flood in 2013 elicited hundreds of millions of federal funding.

“What happens when a community experiences a climate-related disaster, any disaster really, is an all-hands-on-deck-all-the-time response,” Strife continues. “No matter how much support you get, it diverts attention, resources, and staff. I was astonished to see how amazingly organized Boulder County was in its response to the Marshall fire. But that’s a sad fact to share. We’re getting good at disaster response.”

“These unprecedented events—the Marshall Fire, the 2013 flood, a firestorm in December that was put out by snow—are taking us away from being proactive to mitigate the climate crisis,” she continues. “We don’t have the time and resources, because we’re continuing to respond to these disasters. It’s bizarre: a lot of the federal funding and potential statewide funding that comes to us doesn’t require us to build back better in a more resilient manner.”

Even with these climate-related emergencies, Boulder is in a better situation than a lot of other cities. “We’re a bit of a unicorn,” Strife notes, “because we’ve had a lot of support in the past. In 2010, we received a $25 million grant to jumpstart our transition to a clean energy economy, though that was really more about jobs. We’ve been able to leverage that funding over time to showcase our success. We were then able to pitch to the voters the first ever sustainability tax, and that has provided a really good stable resource for us.” Passed in 2016, the tax raised $387,000 for disbursal as grants to the country’s towns and cities in 2020.

Even with this funding, however, Boulder county hasn’t met its climate goals. “In a dream scenario, the Feds would back the regulations and the policies for a decarbonized economy, and also help us staff up to full capacity,” she continues. “But

every community is not where Boulder is, and we still need the local capacity-building. To reach carbon neutrality by 2030, local governments are ready and primed, but we would need quite a lot of investment and help in staffing and capacity.”

Mobilizing Local Power

To move their agenda at a federal level, climate activists have had to marshal support from various sectors. One of those has been the labor movement, which has been attracted to the job-creating potential of the Green New Deal. Recent organizing victories at Starbucks and Amazon suggest that unions are making a comeback.

“To the extent that we can, the climate movement should be looking for opportunities to partner in creative ways with the resurgent labor movement,” Rajiv Sicora notes. “We need to be fighting the same fight. It can’t just be lowest common denominator stuff. Retrofitting every public school in the country is one example. I was just talking to someone from Seattle where teachers are leading this fight in coalition with the climate movement, and brought the building trades on board to demand that the latest bond renewal include $19 million to put solar on school rooftops. This is a huge area of potential cooperation, with teachers and climate activists and parents and young people coming together.”

Saul Levin agrees. “We’ve talked to Chris Smalls and Derek Palmer, who organized the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, about what they think about climate change,” he reports. “They told us that people get hurt and are dying at Amazon all the time because they’re being forced to work during tornadoes, hurricanes, and other climate events. A lot of these new unions are being formed by young people who are savvy and are seeing the climate crisis hit them in their own lifetime.”

Localities are also trying to amplify their voices at the state and national level. “We often act in coalitions to lobby at the state and federal level for climate protective policies,” reports Susie Strife. Early on, she was involved in compiling greenhouse gas inventories to get a better understanding of what was needed at a local level. At this point, though, it’s no longer necessary to do more such inventories. Instead, she has worked with other local partners to create Colorado Communities for Climate Action, an umbrella lobbying organization that mobilizes the collective power of 40 local governments.

“That collective lobbying power is very well respected at the state legislature,” she reports. “While our mission does include federal lobbying we’ve been pretty deflated in the last several years, especially during the Trump administration. Local governments have long played the role of showcasing what’s possible when it comes to deep cuts in emissions and establishing standards, policies, and regulations regarding reductions.”

Next Steps

The panelists were all acutely aware of the challenges of pushing a large federal program for clean energy transition at a time of war and inflation.

“Obviously, we do have to care about the impact of gas prices on working class people,” points out Rajiv Sicora. “This is something that the mainstream environmental movement hasn’t always been good at, to say the least. But that’s changing. We are putting the well-being of working-class Americans at the forefront of our thinking. We have answers, and we have alternatives, which the Biden administration should be exploring instead of scrambling to get more fossil fuels online that are not going to magically bring down the price of oil. For instance, they need to subsidize public transport. In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu has a fantastic Green New Deal platform, with free public transit as a centerpiece.”

The funding for such initiatives can come from the federal budget. But revenue can be raised in other ways.

“The fossil fuel industry is making very healthy profits,” Sicora points out. “Right now, the solution is not to appeal to their patriotic duty, which is what the Democrats are doing, to drill more. Instead, we need to crack down on the windfall profits of the fossil fuel industry and invest those profits to bring relief directly to people and accelerate the green energy transition. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) have a bill that does that specifically for the oil industry, and provides rebates to people. And my boss has a bill with Bernie Sanders that takes an economy wide approach, because it’s not just the oil industry. If you’re making windfall profits, we’re going to tax that at 95 percent as a temporary emergency measure.”

“I’m particularly excited about the Green New Deal for schools and also building a workforce for decarbonization,” replies Susie Strife. “Finding folks who are ready and able to electrify homes has been challenging. There needs to be some deep preparation for communities who will potentially get any of the stimulus funding to start thinking through what’s possible. I’m also excited about building a climate youth corps, like the one in the original Build Back Better legislation. We need to get people back out helping to regenerate our land. It’s a win-win if you can do carbon sequestration and involve youth as part of solution.”

Bin Putin? How Russia is increasingly becoming the Saudi Arabia of the North Fri, 08 Apr 2022 04:06:29 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) – A failed military intervention. The genocidal killing of citizens. Economic isolation by the international community. The arrests of anti-war protestors at home and the shuttering of independent media.

Any one of these factors could mark the end of an ordinary political leader. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin has not only weathered these challenges, his popularity has actually risen. According to the independent Levada polling center, Putin has improved his support among Russian citizens from a 69 percent approval rating in January to 83 percent in recent days. That’s significant even when you discount the steady impact of government propaganda on the Russian capacity for critical thinking.

The bump up in Putin’s ratings results not just from the “rally around the flag” effect. Russian citizens think of their leader as the only person who stands between them and the complete ruin of their country. Such faith gives new meaning to the word “absolutism”—absolute fidelity to an absolutist leader to prevent absolute collapse.

Putin’s surge in popularity is also sobering news for anyone who imagines that the war in Ukraine and the sanctions squeezing the Russian economy will lead to some kind of regime change inside the Kremlin.

At best, the sanctions are designed to disrupt the Russian war machine by creating shortages in the supply chains that keep the country’s military-industrial complex humming. There is some evidence that the sanctions are having just that effect by driving up prices for key components and restricting access to high-tech items.

The sanctions will necessarily impact Russian citizens along the way, which may give Putin an easy way to blame the country’s woes on outsiders. But that is no reason to oppose sanctions. Putin has been blaming outsiders for some time, and his approval ratings have consistently hovered around 70 percent. So, sanctions don’t really change the domestic political calculus inside Russia. Moreover, the suffering of ordinary Russians can’t compare with the suffering of ordinary Ukrainians. So, if the sanctions help in scaling back and eventually ending the war, they must be pursued.

If sanctions won’t precipitate regime change—and they haven’t done so in North Korea or Iran either—then what could push Putin from power? Probably not a popular revolution like the Euromaidan protests that ejected Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych from Ukraine in 2014. Russian dissidents like Alexei Navalny are in jail or, like Vladimir Kara-Murza, have gone into exile. Since the invasion began, the regime has arrested thousands of anti-war protesters. The recent exodus of Russian oppositionists and intellectuals from their country—environmental activist Arshak Makichyan to Berlin, Pussy Riot’s Anna Kuzminikh to Tbilisi, journalist Sergey Smirnov to Vilnius—makes the prospect of a grassroots uprising even dimmer.

However, Putin won’t live forever. As the war drags on, his popularity will eventually take a hit. At some point, those in his inner circle might decide that he is more of a liability than an asset. Or perhaps a broad-based coalition will oust a weakened Putin in some future election.

The Cold War didn’t end until Mikhail Gorbachev transformed the Soviet Union. The current stand-off between Russia and much of the rest of the world will not end until someone takes Putin’s place. But that begs the question: what will a post-Putin Russia look like?

Fascism Continues

Russia has long favored leaders that rule with an iron fist, from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin. Putin has continued in that long line of ruthlessness, pairing his apparatchik background with an instrumental nationalism to appeal to communists and the far right simultaneously. He has taken advantage of the wealth of the petrostate and a deep nostalgia for the predictable order of the Soviet era (especially among those who didn’t live through its worst excesses). Putin’s popularity rating of around 70 percent is approximately the same that Stalin also currently enjoys, a telling convergence.

Putin, in other words, is not an aberration. His removal from power will not magically transform Russia into a liberal place.

At one point, it might have been possible to imagine a military leader taking over Russia, either through an election or a coup. Lieutenant General Alexander Lebed came in third in the 1996 elections behind Boris Yeltsin and the Communist Party’s Gennady Zyuganov. If he’d run for election in 2000, Lebed might have beaten Putin, who’d only been appointed to succeed Yeltsin on a temporary basis, and imposed a Pinochet model on Russia. But Lebed didn’t run, and he died in a helicopter accident in 2002. Thereafter, Putin made sure that the military was entirely under his heel.

Today, after the disaster in Ukraine, the Russian military is hardly in a position to occupy the Kremlin. But Russia has no shortage of political figures who could take the country in a hyper-militarized direction.

Zyuganov, for instance, is still the head of the Russian Communist Party, a position he’s had since 1993. He is the very definition of “unreconstructed,” having supported in 2010 the “re-Stalinization” of Russia in the face of the relatively mild anti-Stalinist policies of Putin’s right-hand man Dmitry Medvedev. In a February 16 piece faithfully reproduced in People’s World, Zyuganov praised the “good neighborliness” of Russia in its efforts to beat back the “fascists” in Ukraine and their “Washington puppeteers.” Zyuganov and his comrades seem entirely unaware of what you get when you add “nationalism” to “socialism.”

Zyuganov’s bedfellow on the other side of the political spectrum has long been Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the dangerous clown prince of Russian politics. Way back in the 1990s, Zhirinovsky previewed many of Putin’s later positions on Ukraine when he argued that the country was really part of Russia. He has unabashedly supported the restoration of a grand Russian empire. Fortunately, his poor health prevents him from currently making any serious bid for power.

Given the age of this troika—Putin, Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky—it may well be that the post-Cold War generation of Russian neo-fascists is dying out. Alas, there is a younger cadre ready and willing to take their place. As political scientist Robert Horvath has argued, the Kremlin has long cultivated ties with a young and vibrant far right in Russia, from the youth group Nashi to the neo-Nazi Russkii Obraz. The alumni of these groups—politician Maksim Mishchenko, Internet troll Anna Bogachyova—are waiting in the wings for their opportunity.

Then there is the Russian alt-right, which draws on the hazy ideological roots of Eurasianism (which I wrote about here in 2014). The leading figure for some time has been Alexander Dugin, a political scientist who has guided Putin toward fascism. Even before Putin came to power, Dugin advocated for exploiting tensions within the United States, sowing dissent within the European Union, and expanding Russian influence over a huge swath of Eurasia. After a steady diet of government propaganda, the Russian public is all too susceptible to such delusions of grandeur.

You might think that such delusions will die in Ukraine. As Hitler demonstrated, however, a skilled politician can exploit the resentments of a defeated power and spur it to even greater imperial ambitions.

Coup of the Siloviki?

The siloviki are Russia’s power elite: the heads of the security, intelligence, and military agencies. They have formed the foundation of Putin’s institutional support, allowing him to exert unprecedented control over Russian society as well as the country’s foreign policy. They come from the same milieu as Putin himself and form a protective Politburo around him.

The Ukraine war has certainly rattled the siloviki. Putin has placed two high-ranking members of the foreign intelligence branch—Sergei Beseda and his deputy in the Fifth Service of the FSB—under house arrest. Roman Gavrilov, the deputy head of the National Guard recently resigned—or was sacked and possibly arrested. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu disappeared for nearly two weeks amid rumors of health problems and political disagreements, and eight generals were reportedly replaced as the Russian invasion floundered.

Of course, it wasn’t just the military problems on the ground that spooked Putin. It was also how much Western intelligence agencies seemed to know about the invasion in advance, which suggested that someone near to Putin was leaking information to the outside. The failure of three assassination squads to kill Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky has also been attributed to the actions of anti-war members of the security services.

The paranoia that Putin currently exhibits is reminiscent of the latter days of Stalin, who imagined that a group of doctors, many of them Jewish, were determined to kill top government officials. Only Stalin’s death in March 1953 put an end to the extensive purges that were planned in connection to this fabricated “doctors’ plot.” Of course, Stalin’s paranoia may well have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, judging by the evidence of poisoning (most likely by the head of his secret police Lavrenti Beria) that led to his death.

Will the siloviki likewise turn against Putin? There has been a shake-up, to be sure, but so far there’s no proof of any serious splits within the president’s true inner circle, which consists of fewer than a half dozen people. But that was the case with the cabal around Stalin, too, until he ordered the construction of new gulags to house all the “saboteurs” he was planning to arrest because of the “doctors’ plot.” If Putin goes off the deep end, and figures like National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov fear for their lives (or even just their status), Putin’s days may well be numbered.

A Liberal-Conservative Coalition

It’s hard to imagine a free and fair election in Russia at this point. In the last presidential election in 2018, Putin “won” around 77 percent of the vote, with the Communist Party candidate and Zhirinovsky coming in second and third respectively.

Much of the so-called opposition basically falls in line behind Putin, including the Communist Party and Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party. A Just Russia, a supposedly center-left party, has largely supported Putin as well, endorsing the invasion of Ukraine and earning an expulsion from the Socialist International. The center-right Civic Platform, formed by oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov in 2012, also supports Putin. Only the centrist liberal party New People voted against the recognition of the breakaway republics in Ukraine. The social-liberal party Yabloko, once the great hope of Western powers as the vehicle for the political transformation of Russia, no longer has much influence.

In Hungary, where Viktor Orbán has not (yet) succeeded in eradicating a political opposition, the liberals and conservatives finally came together behind the candidacy of Péter Márki-Zay to challenge Orbán in the most recent elections. Yet Orbán won again, for the fourth time.

Putin faces nominal opposition in the Duma and on the streets. It would take a massive sea change in popular sentiment inside Russia for a viable opposition to emerge. Even so, as the Hungarian example demonstrates, such a movement would face an uphill struggle against a Putin-controlled state apparatus.

Saudi Arabia of the North

Russia’s future: the Saudi Arabia of the north.

A small ruling elite will go to great lengths to remain in power by ruthlessly suppressing the opposition, killing dissidents if necessary, and funding its operations through the sale of fossil fuels. It will launch wars—Yemen, Ukraine—to maintain regional dominance. It will thumb its nose at the international community because it believes, ultimately, that oil is its get-out-of-jail-free card.

Yes, women can drive in Russia. But otherwise, Russia is well on its way to becoming an isolated, male-dominated, hyper-conservative, autocratic society that increasingly resembles the illiberal Middle Eastern kingdom—just substitute taiga for sand. Putin is making the same bargain with the population that the Saudis have done. He promises a measure of economic security in exchange for political dependency, and he offers, like the Saudi monarchs, to protect citizens from the disruptive influences of the modern world, like homosexuality and freedom of speech.

The next generation of neo-fascists wouldn’t take Russia in a different direction. A change at the very top, with a member of the siloviki substituting for Putin, might make some accommodation with the international community, but he wouldn’t fundamentally alter the current Russian order. Perhaps a modern-day Gorbachev lurks somewhere in the hinterlands, biding his time until Putin passes before making a play for power. Perhaps Putin will prove so self-destructive a leader that a political opposition could somehow organize itself in the ensuing anarchy.

The most likely scenario is this. A “reformer” will come along promising some type of modernization—chiefly economic—that attracts some support from the West. But remember: Mohammed bin Salman styled himself as just such a reformer in Saudi Arabia. The Russian version will likely turn out just as ruthless as MbS and just as corrupt as the political system that produces him. I only hope that the Russian people will prove me wrong.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus