John Feffer – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sat, 21 Jan 2023 04:52:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Economic Growth is killing the Planet. How do we Engineer an Alternative? Sun, 22 Jan 2023 05:08:11 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) – In 1972, the Club of Rome released a report called The Limits to Growth that laid out the damage to the planet and to human beings of unrestrained increases in economic production and population. It was a straightforward extrapolation from then-current trends that took into account limited resources like water, fertile soil, and fossil fuels.

That same year, the United Nations held its first environment conference, which led to the creation of the UN Environment Program. Climate change was barely on the conference agenda, but it would increasingly focus the attention of scientists and policymakers over the next two decades with the introduction of the term “global warming” in 1975, the Montreal Protocol in 1987 that restricted ozone-destroying chemicals, and the creation in 1988 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

For half a century, in other words, the international community has issued warnings about the linked hazards of economic growth and climate change. Despite these warnings across five decades, very little has been done to engineer an alternate to unrestrained growth that can safeguard the planet and yet still secure a measure of prosperity fall all humans.

Current doomsday scenarios of a future dominated by environmental disasters and economic deprivation are not the result of “sudden panicking,” points out Vedran Horvat, the director of the Institute for Political Ecology in Croatia and a panelist at a recent Global Just Transition seminar on post-growth alternatives. “We had 50 years to realize what the Club of Rome said in the 1970s. Already at that time we knew there were limits and boundaries to our growth and that the planet does not have unlimited resources. Already we are too late. But I don’t see that as a reason not to act. Now it’s a question of how we act.”

Similarly, discussion of “peak oil”—of a falling off of oil production—has been around since 1956, when geophysicist Marion King Hubbert predicted that the United States would hit peak production around 1970 while the rest of the world would top out in the early 2000s. Although Hubbert did not anticipate the discovery of new sources of oil, his predictions were only off by a couple decades. The COVID pandemic’s impact on global supply chains, the war in Ukraine, and the rapid transition to electric vehicles have combined to ensure that peak oil demand will arrive in the next few years if it hasn’t happened already.

As with the Club of Rome’s warnings, little has been done to prepare for the depletion of fossil fuels.

“For the last 14 years, we’ve talked about green transition,” observes Simon Michaux, an associate professor of geo-metallurgy at the Geological Survey of Finland. “But there’s been no feasibility study for macro-scale industrial reformation. We had some ideas, but we didn’t cost them out. We didn’t get to the point of determining what kind of power stations we would need, who would pay for them, and what kind of engineering we’d need to keep each one running. Here we are perhaps past peak oil, and we still don’t have a credible plan to phase out fossil fuels.”

The lack of a plan and the urgency of the crisis are two major obstacles. A third challenge is the absence of consensus on how to move forward. “For the last two decades, those of us who are more and more worried about these conditions and the fact that things aren’t changing are aware of just how far we are going down the road we shouldn’t be going down,” says Susan Krumdieck, professor and chair in Energy Transition at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. “We’ve put on our superhero capes to fight. Unfortunately, we’re pulling in different directions.”

One obvious difference in approach is between the richer countries of the Global North and the poorer countries of the Global South. “We’ve seen lots of initiatives like the Green New Deal in the United States which lack the perspective and participation of peripheral economies in the Global South,” notes Renata Nitta, a campaign strategist for Greenpeace International based in Brazil. “When you think of plans to decarbonize the economy and transition to electric vehicles, you have to ask where those raw materials come from. More than half of lithium resources, for instance, are based in Latin America in a very dry area where the mining takes a lot of energy and water and dispossesses traditional and indigenous communities.”

At this point, after a half century of study and debate, the international community has a good understanding of the challenges of economic growth and the urgent threat of climate change and resource depletion. Only recently, however, have scientists, engineers, policymakers, and movement leaders begun to identify the components of an action plan around post-growth alternatives. From “transition engineering” and “degrowth by design” to a new social contract and a new economic model built around the commons, visionary thinkers and activists are finally beginning to pull in the same direction.

Transition Engineering

In 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City. One of the exits was locked while a fire escape was too flimsy to hold all the fleeing workers. Because they could not get out of the building, 146 garment workers died in the flames. It was one of the deadliest industrial accidents in U.S. history. It also set in motion the transformation of working conditions in factories through the improvement of safety standards.

The Triangle fire is not the only example of a man-made disaster. “At that time, roughly 40 coal miners a day were dying on the job in the United States and that year 5,600 UK workers died on the job,” notes Susan Krumdieck. “That isn’t the case anymore. Maybe in Qatar a lot of people are still dying on the job but that’s because they’re not doing what we do, namely safety engineering. We see the emergence of corrective discipline time and again. After the Titanic went down, maritime safety emerged to ensure that that didn’t happen again. After toxic waste disasters like Love Canal, we saw the emergence of processes to prevent those man-made disasters.”

Climate change is also a man-made disaster. Like coal mining deaths and toxic waste dumps, it is a byproduct of the industrial era. Recognition of climate change—and the costs it has already exacted in human lives and environmental deterioration—has led to the creation of what Krumdieck calls “transition engineering,” namely an effort to “downshift fossil fuel production and consumption and then engineer the adaptation and resetting of the energy system and the economic behaviors in that context.”

Krumdieck was motivated to become a mechanical engineer as an undergraduate in 1981 “because of the energy crisis, the OPEC oil embargo, global warming, and the existential threat of biodiversity loss,” she remembers. “For nearly 20 years, I taught people how to put CO2 safely and efficiently into the air. Then in the late 1990s, many like me got distracted by carbon capture and storage and by biofuels because we are engineers and it was very exciting to work on these really impossible things.”

She has since transitioned to transition engineering. “That’s how impact happens: by developing standards, training, and professional organizations,” she points out. “Now is the time for people working on this all around the world to come together and create a discipline.”

She hopes that future historians will look at humanity’s predicament today much as we look back at the Triangle Fire. Transition engineering can potentially transform the way economics work much as safety engineering has radically minimized man-made hazards in the workplace.

“This year, in the UK, fewer than 150 will die on the job,” she concludes. “Not one of those is okay. But 100 years ago, all 5,600 worker lives lost were just the price of the progress of industrialization.”

Addressing Fossil Fuel Dependency

Despite considerable investments by China, the United States, and other countries into renewable energy systems like solar and wind, fossil fuels remain the dominant source of energy in the world. In 1966, oil, gas, and coal supplied approximately 94 percent of all electricity. By 2009, that number had dropped to a little above 80 percent. But over the next decade, even as concern over climate change spiked, dependency on fossil fuels barely shifted, falling to just under 79 percent by 2020. The economic rebound from the COVID lockdowns, coupled with the initial energy shocks associated with the war in Ukraine, has encouraged a greater reliance on fossil fuels, particularly coal, and generated record profits for oil and gas companies.

But the war in Ukraine—and the near universal desire to achieve energy independence from external suppliers—has also inspired many countries to push harder to install renewable energy, forcing the International Energy Agency to revise its estimate of increased renewable capacity by 30 percent. According to the IEA, “renewables are set to account for over 90% of global electricity expansion over the next five years, overtaking coal to become the largest source of global electricity by early 2025.”

The desire for transition may be strong but the physical infrastructure is still lacking. “The task to get rid of fossil fuels is much larger than we thought, so large that we should have been taking it seriously 20 years ago,” reports Simon Michaux. “We need 586,000 non-fossil-fuel power stations to phase out fossil fuel, but there are only 46,000 in the existing system. We don’t have enough minerals to build these new stations.”

Further, those minerals are often in areas of the Global South where extraction poses serious risks to surrounding communities and the environment. “Half the world’s cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Renata Nitta points out, adding that such mines are often the locus of human rights abuses. “More than 14,000 children are working in cobalt mines.

The challenge is not just the insufficiency of mineral resources. “Wind and solar are highly intermittent,” Michaux continues. “To become viable, we need a power buffer. My calculations show that such a power buffer would be so large as to be impractical. Which means that wind and solar can’t be the foundational energy system we want it to be. So, we either need to change wind and solar or we need to change electrical engineering to deal with variable power supply.”

One strategy for gradually reducing dependency on fossil fuels is rationing. The United Kingdom, in a plan supported by the Labour and Green parties, considered implementing Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) as a way to equitably reduce fossil fuel consumption. In a TEQ system, individuals are issued quotas of fossil fuel energy to use, the surplus of which they can sell. Institutions purchase TEQs at auction or buy as needed. The TEQs are linked to carbon reduction goals, and governments can progressively reduce them to meet national and international requirements.

“The system that does the rationing and why is a primary requirement,” Susan Krumdieck points out. “Seats at a Queen concert are rationed: there are only so many. If everyone who wanted to see the concert just showed up it would be a disaster. So, the system that lets us book and manage our expectations is essential. Does that system exist for fossil fuels? No, so let’s build it.”

Simon Michaux agrees that rationing would be sensible, but it would work only if there were sufficient trust in the system, which requires full transparency. “Everyone involved has to understand what’s happening and why,” he maintains.

Because of the war in Ukraine, rationing of energy has already happened throughout Europe. Vedran Horvat points to measures “related to air-conditioning temperatures in offices, the heating of swimming pools, and the lighting of public monuments. This broad range of measures to decrease energy consumption, in the context of the energy crisis in Europe due to the war in Ukraine, is well understood and easily accepted. It is also an issue of solidarity to understand that if we maintain our comfort at an unsustainably high level, it might have detrimental impact on people on the other side of the planet.”

Addressing Growth

Economic growth continues to push greater consumption of energy. The pandemic shutdowns led to a 4.5 percent decline in global energy consumption in 2020, but that was erased by a 5 percent increase in 2021 during the economic rebounds. In the first half of 2022, energy consumption continued to rise by 3 percent.

The war in Ukraine, however, has dampened growth prospects, not only for Russia and Ukraine but for Europe more generally. “At the moment, many European countries are facing zero-growth scenarios and some core European economies are not predicting any growth in the next few years,” Vedran Horvat points out. “Which means that we really need to address questions of how to organize our lives and ensure wellbeing for all in conditions of if not degrowth then at least zero growth. This sort of degrowth, which is imposed by geopolitics, is degrowth by disaster.” This kind of degrowth resembles austerity measures imposed during or after other kinds of disasters, like war or debt default.

A better approach, Horvat notes, would be “degrowth by design.” In this way, “we program our developmental scenarios to satisfy human needs and wellbeing but in ways that don’t lead necessarily to economic growth,” he explains. “This would involve fair and equal redistribution of resources through as much of a democratic process as possible. We should think of how to use the current crisis as an opportunity, A democratic transition to degrowth is necessary if we want to discuss viable alternatives rather than have degrowth imposed by disaster as is now the case.”

Such degrowth by design, argues Renata Nitta, must include a major shift in thinking. “We have to move from a very individualistic, profit-driven society to one that is more based on sharing, on the commons, on valuing care,” she notes. “In this sense, we have a lot to learn from what indigenous and traditional communities are doing and telling us. Their vision of the cosmos is embedded in a different ethic that respects the environment. Deforestation rates inside indigenous areas can be 26 percent lower than other areas. So, these communities are very effective in terms of protecting the environment. We have to ensure that they’re part of the decision-making and we surely have to respect their constitutional rights.”

Who Are the Changemakers?

All transitions need people who help engineer the pivot. These are the changemakers, like the revolutionaries in America and France in the eighteenth century or the Silicon Valley scientists and entrepreneurs who ushered in the computer age.

“When change happens, it’s not a shift in mass consciousness among people as such,” Simon Michaux points out. “It’s a relatively small number of people embedded in our civil service. They’re not necessarily elected officials, they’re people advising those officials. And when they decide to move on things, they can move quickly.” He notes that it’s difficult to work through official channels because the establishment is not interested in change: “They’re having a great time with growth and power and money.” But advisors, who aren’t themselves in charge, are a different matter. “If they decide that they’ve had enough, change happens,” he points out.

Scientists and engineers, too, can play a role. “A network of badly-behaved scientists and engineers who just do stuff without permission,” Michaux continues, can also spur forward a shift in consciousness by developing new ideas, approaches, and innovations and getting information about them into circulation. “Most of humanity is inured to the existing paradigm. So, you only need 4-5 percent of humanity” to understand the new approaches and decide to move on them.

Vedran Horvat looks to trade unions as key players in the process, particularly in Europe where the European Green Deal is decarbonizing economies from the top down and without sufficient attention paid to addressing inequality and injustice. Trade unions, he argues, are essential in forging a new social contract that creates the consensus necessary for degrowth scenarios to move from the fringe to mainstream acceptance.

“Trade unions are sometimes quite difficult but necessary partners to tackle the justice element of moving toward post-growth scenarios,” he concludes. “Post-growth scenarios are not politically represented in democracies, are not related to democratic power in a way to execute such scenarios. So, we must find other ways to have political representation of this shift in the political arena.”

Renata Nitta is skeptical about the notion that technology can solve all environmental and climate challenges. To advance zero-growth alternatives, she says, “we need to redefine the convergence points between state, trade union movements, and all those who might be left behind when adopting this new regime.”

Tipping Points

Change can happen when a critical mass of people abandons an old model in favor of something new. Sometimes that happens as a result of a particular event. For instance, the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 spurred an effort to ban the pesticide DDT. On the climate front, the approach of a number of tipping points—the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, the complete thaw of northern permafrost—should have already prompted a reconsideration of the push factors behind global warming. Ideally, physical tipping points should translate into perceptual tipping points.

When it comes to economic growth, however, virtually all governments, international financial institutions, and economists—as well as significant majorities of the population—believe that either the status quo is working for them or that directing a larger share of a growing pie will remedy what’s wrong. Only when a critical mass of people understand that the pie can’t keep growing—that unlimited growth is not liberating but ultimately self-defeating— will a tipping point in public opinion be reached.

In April 2010, the largest oil spill in history happened when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Several months later, a massive fire at a ruptured gas pipeline south of San Francisco brought renewed scrutiny to the perils of the fracking industry. Also in 2010, “it was becoming quite clear that the Kyoto protocol was not going to make a blip of difference,” Susan Krumdieck reports. “Those were the galvanizing moments. And that’s when 100 engineers came together to create the Global Association for Transition Engineering. It was clear we were going down a very dangerous path and that we had to help end users adapt to a better way of doing things.”

Another way of discussing tipping points is the notion of sacrifice. When will a critical mass of people willingly accept sacrifices—of their SUVs, frequent air flights, cruise ship vacations, and so on—to save the planet from its multiple environmental threats? Or will sacrifice need to be imposed on an unwilling populace, as China did with its one-child policy beginning in 1980?

“In many countries, social majorities are not accepting that sacrifices need to be made,” Vedran Horvat points out. The stumbling block is not willingness to recycle but willingness to scale back on consumption. “The circular economy obviously has some positive environmental or climate impacts but it doesn’t teach us to consume less,” he adds. “Bringing some resources back into circulation to use again is all good and needed, but it doesn’t require us to consume less. We need to relearn what our lives look like if we consume less.”

Sacrifices can be imposed from above, or they can be agreed upon collectively through a democratic process. “Obviously governments, commissions, and transnational governance regimes are all engaged in delivering quick, top-down solutions without investing time into democratic processes,” Horvat continues. “That’s no reason not to bring this debate into society and, wherever possible, enable citizens to learn how to transform their lives. When we say that we don’t have enough resources, we are not asking what energy is being used for at this moment and whether we need that to maintain the system. Some things must be shrunk or calibrated to the new reality if we are to be more responsible toward future generations and for them to live in a just world.”

As Renata Nitta points out, the Global South has already made sacrifices for centuries through colonial appropriation and its aftermath. But now, the Global South urgently needs help in transitioning away from fossil fuels and addressing the current impacts of climate change. “It took 30 years to agree on financing for loss and damage,” she points out. “We can’t wait another 30 years to define the rules for financing the transition. At the national level, we need to move away from the lobbying of big corporations on governments to create processes that are more bottom up than top down: to include marginal groups and ensure that their rights are being respected. It takes a lot of time, but what other choices do we have? I don’t see any other way to create faster change.”

At the same time, Nitta stresses the importance of utopian alternatives. “We are constantly being bombarded by messages of doom,” she says. “These messages disempower people. For quite some time, the environmental movement was quite good at using “end-of-the-world” messages. But now is the time to change. People are building resilience in communities all over the world. Our job as researchers and environmentalists is to help amplify these ideas.”

Sacrifice won’t come easily to the affluent in the Global North. “We’ve been living a wonderful life in the last century, a golden era of getting whatever we want with a snap of our fingers,” notes Simon Michaux. “What happens if we are moving into a world without enough to go around, when we have to work very hard for less outcome? From a biological point of view—and I learned this from Nicole Foss—energy determines the size and complexity of an organism. If energy is reduced, that organism has to shrink in size and become less complex. If we are stepping into a low-energy future, industry will likewise become simpler and smaller whether we like it or not. There will be a reorganizing of energy around new energy sources. Then people will reorganize themselves around those industrial hubs, and our food production will reorganize around those people.”

In other words, a major fork in the road approaches. “In this way, we’ll decide who we really are and what kind of world we want to live in,” Michaux concludes. “Do we turn against each other or work together?”

Role of the State

The economic trend of the last four decades has been in the direction of reducing the power of the state: privatization of state assets, reduction of regulatory apparatuses, weakening of government leverage over the economy. Some of the policies to address climate change fit into this pattern by emphasizing market-based solutions such as carbon trading. But as the example of Chinese state investments in renewable energy suggests, governments have enormous power to push through economic transitions.

“If a government can come up with a sensible plan that everyone gets behind, more government intervention might work,” notes Simon Michaux. “But if it’s like the Roman Empire, when the government wasn’t acting in the best interests of the majority of the population, then it won’t work. If that happens, there will be less government intervention and a parallel system of governance will emerge, and the social mandate to govern will transfer from one system to the other. We’ll need government in some form, but that government would have to implement a new system that doesn’t exist yet in a paradigm that doesn’t exist yet. My job going forward is to build the tools that try to understand what that paradigm might be and then hand those tools off to people who will go on past me.”

Governments also remain subject to considerable influence from the corporate sector, particularly fossil fuel companies that continue to lobby for subsidies and other favorable terms. “We see at every COP how weak governments are,” Vedran Horvat explains. “They are not able to make agreements that are immune from fossil fuel companies and the corporate sector more generally. The return of government is essential in abandoning fossil fuels for it is governments who ultimately have to operate in the public interest.”

Renata Nitta agrees: “The market won’t resolve the climate and biodiversity crisis. A market mechanism proposed by companies is often little more than greenwashing so that they can maintain business as usual. It’s important to pressure government to keep these corporations accountable and not accept false solutions.”

Time, all of the presenters agree, is of the essence. “Now that I’m a granny, I don’t have time to think about things I can’t do anything about, such as the way the market works or the way politicians work,” Susan Krumdieck reports. “I’m laser-focused on the changes that are required, on a change in a place or a system that can be scaled up.”

Odrast is the Croatian word for degrowth,” points out Vedran Horvat. “The word doesn’t sound negative in Croatian. It means to grow up and be mature. So, we need to be mature enough to cooperate and identify a definite set of options to ensure the survival of future generations.”

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

A New Crop of Disruptor-Politicians is failing the Earth Sat, 14 Jan 2023 05:04:25 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) – House Republicans, Euroskeptics, Vladimir Putin, and Jair Bolsonaro are the agents of a new kind of political disorder that parallels the chaos of failing states, economic catastrophe, and climate disasters.


Some politicians just hate politics. They get into the game in order to disrupt it. They have such a visceral hatred of governance that, like suicide bombers, they’ve smuggled themselves into government in order to blow it up from within.

Much of the coverage of the multiple attempts to elect Kevin McCarthy as House speaker treated the uprising of the “radical wing” of the Freedom Caucus as a political tactic. The 20 Republicans who opposed McCarthy on more than a dozen votes extracted a series of important concessions before they relented to voting along party lines. In other words, these politicians were playing the time-honored political game of horse trading.

But there’s another way of looking at how these far-right politicians held Congress hostage to their demands.

Back in 2001, the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist mused that he and his cohort wanted to scale back government until it was small enough “to drown in a bathtub.” The struggle between McCarthy, himself a MAGA toady, and the likes of firebrands Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Andy Biggs (R-AZ), was no mere political game. Rather, Americans were glued to their newsfeeds in the new year watching a new generation of self-hating politicians in their attempts to drown the U.S. government in a bathtub.

Don’t believe me? First, let’s take a look at the perps.

Twelve of the 20 holdouts rejected the results of the 2020 election and thus participated in the undermining of U.S. democracy. Several, including Scott Perry (R-PA), reportedly sought presidential pardons from Donald Trump for their efforts to overturn the election. Chip Roy (R-TX) has explicitly said that his work is all about “empowering us to stop the machine in this town from doing what it does.” Lauren Boebert wants to dispense with representative government altogether by making it subordinate to churches.

These are not politicians. They are coup followers waiting for the return of their authoritarian Godot.

Next, let’s look at the concessions this band of not-so-merry pranksters extracted from McCarthy. First there’s the “motion to vacate the chair,” which allows any one member of the House to call a vote to recall the speaker. They should rename this rule the “chaos option,” since it offers pretty much anyone the opportunity to bring the chamber to a standstill over a leadership battle.

Another concession requires spending cuts to accompany any decision to raise the debt limit. Raising the debt ceiling to avoid default has become a fraught process in Democratic administrations as Republicans in Congress use the requirement as a way of forcing government shutdowns (for instance in 2013). During Trump’s tenure, Republicans had no qualms about raising the ceiling since their would-be authoritarian leader was in charge of government and transforming it into a incoherent mess. In the next two years, expect the Republicans to demonstrate just how much they hate government by bringing it to the brink of shutdown as often as possible.

In a third concession, McCarthy agreed to a 10-year budget proposal that caps spending at 2022 levels. Peace activists might be cheered by the estimated 10 percent reduction in military spending such a budget cap would entail. But let’s be serious. The Republicans won’t actually cut from the Pentagon side of the budget. They’d simply slice off more from the non-military side with approximately 18 percent reductions in health-care spending, agricultural supports, child nutrition, and the like.

In other words, the Republicans have turned on the faucets and readied their knives to make government small enough to fit in the bathtub. If they win in 2024, their new slogan will ring out: let the drowning begin!

Not Just the United States

Nigel Farage deserves an award for world’s most self-hating politician. Here was a guy who despised the European Union so much that he couldn’t wait to push his country out of it. Farage was a main force behind the Brexit campaign in the UK, which improbably succeeded in 2016 with a narrowly passed referendum.

And what exactly was Farage’s job at the time?

Why, he worked as a UK representative in the European Parliament! Farage was first elected to the principle representative body of the institution he hated in 2009. He was reelected to his post four more times—even in 2019 after the Brexit vote. For a guy who hated the European Union, you’d think he’d be the first to jump ship. But how could he resist being in the European Parliament on the day when Brexit went into effect in order to gloat big time.

In January 2020, Farage made a final speech in which he declared that:

I am hoping this begins the end of the project. It’s a bad project. It isn’t just undemocratic, it’s anti-democratic and it gives people power without accountability. That is an unacceptable structure… I can promise you, both in UKIP and indeed the Brexit Party, we love Europe – we just hate the European Union.

When he began waving the Union Jack, the speaker of the European Parliament cut him off and told him to leave. That the speaker hadn’t cut off Farage’s mic 11 years earlier proves just how wrong the Euroskeptic was and just how democratic the EU is.

Over the years, Farage had made out like a bandit at the EU’s expense, having taken home $6,000 a month plus a daily allowance of more than $300 for what was, at least to Farage, an anti-job. A couple years ago, the EU fined him for misuse of budget, but frankly he should be forced to forfeit everything he’d ever earned from his political tenure in parliament on the grounds of political malpractice.

Farage is part of a new generation of far-right-wing politicians who don’t believe in politics. They operate in the political world, for democracy is the name of the game in their countries, but they are fundamentally anti-political. Like Donald Trump, they are good at breaking things, but they haven’t a clue about how to forge the political compromises necessary to build things.

Vladimir Putin is a model in this regard. He has systematically deconstructed democracy in Russia, such as it was after Boris Yeltsin stepped down in 1999. He has done whatever he can to sow political chaos in Europe and the United States by supporting Euroskeptics and, in a spectacular series of dirty tricks, Donald Trump. And now, after causing so much damage in Chechnya and Syria, he is busy destroying Ukraine.

Not all far-right actors are anti-political. Viktor Orban, for instance, is an intensely political creature who has cleverly maneuvered his way into power in Hungary and then wielded that power very effectively (though malignly). Georgia Meloni, too, is a crafty politician who has no intention of destroying the institutions she needs to implement her regressive anti-immigrant and “pro-family” policies in Italy.

But all of these imps of the perverse—the MAGlogdytes, Nigel Farage, Vladimir Putin—are the agents of a new kind of political disorder that parallels the chaos of failing states, economic catastrophe, and climate disasters. In practice, they view liberal democracy as a fatally flawed model characterized by stolen elections, deep-state conspiracies, and unacceptable parliamentary compromises. Not surprisingly, these self-hating politicians all gravitate toward the authoritarian end of the spectrum.

They are no doubt watching what is happening in Brazil with bated breath.

Attempted Coups

All self-hating politicians dream of coups.

For Vladimir Putin, the coup was of the slow-motion variety, with political opponents neutralized over a period of time and consolidation of authority taking place within a democratic shell.

Donald Trump, as Maggie Haberman details in her book Confidence Man, reveled in his newfound authority to use Air Force One, invite whomever he wanted to the White House, and order Diet Cokes with a tap of a button on his desk. But as a man of limited imagination and even more limited managerial capability, Trump couldn’t effectively plan for a seizure of power in the aftermath of his loss in the 2020 election. He could only gesture in that direction and rely on a cohort of equally inept advisors (remember Giuliani at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference?) and a poorly organized mob that did a lot of damage without achieving any of its goals.

But don’t let ineptitude distract from the central purpose of this circus. As Roger Stone, the intermediary between the mob and the mobster-in-chief, put it on January 6, “Fuck the voting, let’s get right to the violence. Shoot to kill.”

Perhaps January 6 will come to seem like merely a pilot episode. In The New York Review of Books, Fintan O’Toole explains:

If it happens again, it will probably not happen like this. The pilot episode was a disaster because it had no coherent script, too many ham actors, too weak a grasp on the difference between gestures and consequences. But there is much to learn from it. Next time, if there is one, the plot will be much tighter, the action less outlandish, the logistics much better prepared, the director more competent.

Consider, then, what happened this week in Brazil, when followers of Jair Bolsonaro enacted their own version of January 6 a couple of days after the second anniversary of the U.S. debacle, as another failed pilot.

In the Brazilian case, the protesters were not trying to interfere in the handover of power from Bolsonaro to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. After all, Lula held his inauguration last week. The insurrection organizers were instead hoping for the chaos to trigger the Guarantee of Law and Order, allowing the military to step in to suspend democracy.  Toward that end, and with the tacit approval of many members of the security forces on the scene, rioters cranked up the crazy as they breached government buildings in Brasilia. According to one account, “they seemed beside themselves with hate, like a horde of zombies. They were running down hallways, smashing things, urinating, defecating in the corridors and in the rooms on one destruction spree.”

A hardcore band of protestors had been outside the Brazilian Congress for weeks, not unlike the “Freedom Convoy” of truckers in Ottawa at the beginning of last year. Bolsonaro and allies had been collaborating closely with their friends in the United States. Like Trump, Bolsonaro pressed his claims that the election was fraudulent—and, as in the United States, the courts rejected his claims. Like Trump supporters, Bolsonaro fans claim that “leftist infiltrators” were actually behind the violence in Brasilia. Like Trump, too, Bolsonaro has retreated to Florida, the preferred location of sore losers.

Brazilian authorities arrested more than a thousand people in connection with the storming of the Brazilian congress, presidential palace, and supreme court. More importantly, two top security officials have been ordered arrested for their failure to rein in the anti-Lula protestors. Despite the promise of future pro-Bolsonaro protests, these arrests coupled with huge pro-democracy gatherings throughout the country might be enough to quash efforts by the mob leaders and the self-hating politicians that inspired them to destroy Brazilian democracy.

But don’t make the mistake of underestimating these forces of mayhem. As those 20 recalcitrant Republicans once again discovered last week, it’s relatively easy to throw a spanner in the works. They turned the relatively straightforward election of the House speaker into a travesty. For the next two years, they’ll do whatever they can to stop the U.S. government from working, thus undermining what little remains of public trust in these institutions.

Then, if the 2024 election goes their way, they’ll borrow a page from Putin’s book and turn their attention to the larger task of drowning not just government but democracy writ large.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

Forget the Deplorables and Focus on the Persuadables: The Code behind the Far Right’s Success Mon, 19 Dec 2022 05:02:17 +0000 ( – Arizona is ground zero for the wackiest theories and craziest political candidates.

Exhibit A: Kari Lake, the Republican who ran for governor in the recent midterm elections. Though she lost in November, she’s still campaigning — on social media, in the courts, and in her own beclouded imagination. She refuses to accept that Katie Hobbs, her Democratic opponent, won by 0.6% of the vote. It’s a delusion she shares with Donald Trump who tweeted that Lake should be “installed” in the position anyway, like a triumphant coup leader. Lake, Trump, and all-too-many Americans now believe that any election in which a MAGA extremist doesn’t achieve a pre-ordained victory is, by definition, “stolen.”

Then there’s Blake Masters, the losing Arizona Republican Senate candidate, who accused the Biden administration of encouraging millions of immigrants to enter the United States “to change the demographics of our country.” That’s a clear reference to the “great replacement” theory according to which outsiders (foreigners, non-Whites, Muslims), abetted by liberals and globalists, are using immigration and higher birthrates to replace “indigenous” White majorities. It has become ever more popular among White nationalists, alt-right activists, and mass murderers from El Paso to New Zealand who cite it in their manifestos.

Perhaps the craziest of that crew is Ron Watkins, the leading proponent of the QAnon cult of misinformation, who moved to Arizona to run for Congress. According to QAnon, an international cabal of Satanic pedophiles extract and consume a mysterious substance found in the bodies of trafficked children. Oh, and these well-connected devil-worshippers also control the United Nations, the global economy, and even the Oscars.

Watkins never made it out of the primaries, but Lake and Masters ran very close races, while other conspiracy theorists did win seats in the Arizona state senate, including election-denier Wendy Rogers, January 6th insurrection attendee Anthony Kern, and QAnon supporter David Farnsworth. Don’t be fooled by their campaign literature. Those Arizona Republicans and others like them across the country are not conservatives. Rather than preserve the status quo, they want to overturn democratic institutions, as well as elections.

Their success should come as no surprise. A large number of Arizonans believe that the government lies about everything from the Covid pandemic to the availability of water, and paramilitary groups like the Patriot movement have made inroads into that state’s politics. The three most widespread and demonstrably false far-right narratives — globalist-Satanists control the economy, elections are being “stolen,” and foreigners are out to “replace” Whites — flourish in a state that, long, long ago, gave the world Barry Goldwater, the original radical right-wing politician.

But it’s a mistake to attribute the strong showing of those far-right candidates solely to such crazy talk. Exit poll data from the last election suggests that Arizona Republican voters prioritized very real bread-and-butter issues like inflation, which was causing them significant hardship. No matter what you think of rising prices, they’re real, unlike the macabre fictions of QAnon. And it wasn’t only White nationalists who supported such candidates. Kari Lake, for instance, picked up 47% of the Latino vote. 

Sure, the far right attracts plenty of “deplorables” from outright racists and homophobes to QAnon crackpots. But far more of those who support candidates like Kari Lake and her global counterparts — Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Narendra Modi in India, among others — are actually “persuadables,” voting in their perceived self-interest based on perfectly real economic and political needs. By courting such voters, the far right has managed to pivot from the fringe to the mainstream.

And those same persuadables may now hold the key to the future of democracy.

What Motivates Far-Right Voters

Not so long ago, Sweden would have been considered the un-Arizona. In the post-World War II era, that Scandinavian state became the symbol of democratic socialism. Yet even there, the far right has gained ground, precisely by reaching those persuadables.

For one thing, though Sweden is still far more equitable than the United States, it’s no longer quite so socially democratic. In the 1980s and 1990s, a series of center-left governments cut back on barriers to the free flow of capital and trade, helping to globalize that country’s economy, and paving the way, in 2006, for a center-right government that implemented neoliberal tax cuts and rolled back welfare programs.

The result: a marked increase in economic inequality. From 1980 to 2019, the transfer of wealth to the richest one percent of Swedes was on a par with Thatcherite England and so, by 2017, that country had a greater per-capita concentration of billionaires than any other in Europe, except Switzerland. In 2019, The Economist reported approvingly on the sheer number of Swedish super-rich and also their apparent popularity.

But not with all Swedes, it turns out. The neoliberal globalization of that economy also produced lots of “losers,” who now support the Swedish Democrats. Founded in 1988 and led by neo-Nazis, that party held early meetings that, according to Le Monde, featured “brown shirts and party members performing the Nazi salute, and their security was provided by skinheads.” After new leaders jettisoned the Nazi trappings and focused instead on the immigrant “threat,” the party began to climb in the polls, coming in second in last September’s elections with 20.5% of the vote and so helping a new right-wing government take over.

To break into the mainstream, that previously marginal party increasingly relied on its populist economic platform, offering to increase government handouts and cut some taxes to appeal to working-class voters and the unemployed. Racism and Islamophobia have certainly played a role in boosting support for it, but the party has benefited most from a surge of anger at the economic austerity policies that have made Sweden one of the least equal countries in Europe.

Across that continent, the far-right has relied on anti-globalization messages, effectively raising a middle finger to both the European Union and world financial institutions. In the east, such parties have won power in both Poland and Hungary, while, in the west, they have siphoned off votes from Communist parties in France, Italy, and elsewhere.

If opposition to austerity politics has been the meat and potatoes of such far-right parties, the special sauce has been social messaging, especially about immigration. When it comes to ginning up fear and resentment, border-crossers are the perfect scapegoats. The Sweden Democrats, for instance, have promised to deport immigrants who have committed crimes or are simply “asocial” and they don’t want to accept more migrants unless they come from neighboring (in other words, White) countries.

The far right is obsessed with those who cross not just territorial borders, but also the more conceptual borders of gender, sex, and race. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán changed the constitution to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman, while effectively banning adoption by same-sex couples. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni declared that her party says “yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology.” Jair Bolsonaro spent his term as Brazilian president denying the existence of racism in his country while undermining the rights of indigenous communities.

At the heart of such far-right social policies is an effort to assuage the anxieties of dominant groups — Whites, men, heterosexuals, Christians — over the erosion of their economic status and reassure them that they won’t suffer a decline in social position as well. In the process, left and liberal parties, which might once have appealed to voters left behind by globalization and neoliberalism, have lost out on what should have been “their” issues.

Crafted to appeal to voter interests, the far-right agenda can often seem far indeed from the universe of conspiracy theories in which Jews control the world through financier George Soros or leaders of the Democratic Party run a child trafficking ring out of the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. Still, a major reason for the far right’s success has been its ability to toggle between pragmatic policies and extremist messaging.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

A month before the Italian elections, Giorgia Meloni released a curious six-minute video in which she managed to effortlessly switch from English to French to Spanish. In the process, she denounced Nazism and anti-Semitism, while pledging her support for NATO and Ukraine.

In those six minutes, Meloni introduced herself to the rest of Europe as a multilingual cosmopolitan who rejects the fascist roots of her own party. Inside Italy, the video appealed to those appalled by the far right’s flirtation with Vladimir Putin and concerned that its rise to power might jeopardize the European Union’s financial support. Precisely because Meloni didn’t deliver those remarks in Italian, the speech was less likely to alienate her core nationalist supporters.

The Meloni video is a perfect case of code-switching: speaking in different ways to different audiences. Far-right politicians around the world are often remarkably adept at switching the crazy on and off, depending on their audience. Viktor Orbán has typically been careful to keep his anti-immigration views couched in race-neutral terms. Only when talking to ethnic Hungarians in Romania did he frankly admit that Hungarians don’t want to become a “mixed race.” Pauline Hansen, leader of a far-right Australian party, thought she was addressing a gun lobbyist when she floated the outlandish notion that the country’s worst mass shooting in 1996 was a false-flag operation to boost gun control. Running for the Senate in Ohio, J.D. Vance typically voiced many conspiracy-laden views — the 2020 election was stolen, discredited radio host Alex Jones was “a far more reputable source of information than Rachel Maddow” — that he would never have defended before more liberal audiences.

“Dog-whistling” is just another version of this phenomenon, where politicians embed coded language in their speeches to address different audiences simultaneously. References to “law and order,” “family values,” or “globalists” can mean different things to different people. Only the in-crowd will understand the Pepe the Frog image in a right-wing politician’s tweet. Attendees at a Trump rally might hear a catchy tune without realizing that it sounds a lot like the QAnon anthem.

What makes this code-switching and dog-whistling so dangerous is the proximity of the crazy and sane parts of the far right’s discourse. In fact, the three most prominent false narratives just happen to map neatly onto the far right’s three most prominent mainstream appeals.

So, for instance, the economic policies of globalization and neoliberalism have indeed created hardships for certain communities like blue-collar workers, rural residents, and older voters. And while such policies are pushed by powerful institutions like transnational corporations and banks, they are not the result of a Jewish conspiracy, a cabal of Satanists, or a group of globalists with a shadowy “great reset” plan to use Covid to destroy the sovereignty of nations.

Mainstream parties the world over are indeed full of corrupt politicians who often do their damnedest to game the system. Still, the notion that liberals and leftists have “stolen” elections in the United States or Brazil by hacking electronic voting systems or fabricating thousands of ballots has been debunked over and over again.

War, civil unrest, and climate change have indeed created one of the largest waves of refugees and immigrants since World War II. Those poor souls are desperate to find shelter and safety in other countries. But they have no plan to “replace” the majority White populations of Europe, the United States, or Australia. In truth, many would return home if only it were possible.

By their very proximity, the illegitimate arguments borrow a veneer of credibility from the legitimate ones, while the latter derive some raw power from the former. It’s just one short step, for instance, from acknowledging the corruption of political parties to believing they’ve stolen elections. Ironically enough, if anyone’s trying to rig elections, it’s far-right parties — Republicans using voter suppression tactics or Hungary’s Fidesz party controlling the media landscape to reduce the public voice of the opposition. The far-right frequently projects onto its adversaries the very sins it routinely commits behind the scenes.

Worst Case, Best Case

In his September 30th speech announcing the annexation of four provinces of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin engaged in his now-familiar uber-nationalism to justify the abrogation of international law. But he also took several bizarre detours. Western countries, he argued, were advancing toward “outright Satanism.” Moreover, the West “is ready to step over everything in order to preserve the neo-colonial system that allows it to parasitize, in fact, to plunder the world.” Finally, he decried all those who tell children ”that there are various supposed genders besides women and men” and offer them “a sex-change operation.”

These were odd assertions in what should have been a speech focused on geopolitics, but Putin was dog-whistling like crazy. He was sending a message to his far-right supporters at home and abroad that he, too, believed Satanic liberals controlled the world and were indeed “grooming” children to change their sexuality and gender.

Unlike Giorgia Meloni, Putin doesn’t need to move to the center to reassure European allies or win over independent voters. The invasion of Ukraine severed his ties to Europe — even to the European far right — and he’s rigged elections in his own favor for years. His unfettered use of false narratives offers a nightmarish look at what would likely happen if far-right politicians around the world were to win ever more elections, rewire democracies to ensure their future dominance, and begin to take over international institutions like the European Union or even the World Bank. Untethered from the compromises of electoral politics, the far right will forget about those persuadables and, like Putin, let its freak flag fly.

It’s still possible to head off the next set of Putins, Melonis, and Trumps at the pass. But that means avoiding the false temptation to promote comparably crazy stuff or appealing to true deplorables. Instead, a coalition of the sane must try to understand the real political and economic reasons why those persuadables vote for Kari Lake and her brethren — and then craft arguments and policies to win them over.

It can be done. Even as Italy turned to the far right, just enough voters rejected Kari Lake and Jair Bolsonaro at the polls. Despite Trump-driven Republican politics and an Elon Musk-driven Twitter, the crazy can be constrained and the radical right rolled back. But that means engaging citizens where it matters most: their heads, their hearts, and above all their pocketbooks.

What Climate Debt Does the North Owe the South? Thu, 01 Dec 2022 05:04:26 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – Richer countries haven’t met their $100 billion promise to help poorer countries move beyond fossil fuels. Where’s the money going to come from? By | November 30, 2022

To keep the planet from overheating, there’s just so much more carbon that humans can pump into the atmosphere. From the onset of the Industrial Revolution until today, humanity has used up approximately 83 percent of its “carbon budget”—the amount of carbon the atmosphere can absorb and not exceed the Paris climate agreement’s aspirational goal of a 1.5C degree increase in global temperatures since the pre-industrial era. At the current rate of emissions, the budget will be used up within the next decade.

Equally troubling has been the distribution of those carbon emissions. “With just below 20 percent of the world population, the Global North has overconsumed 70 percent of the historic carbon budget,” notes Meena Raman, president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia and head of programs at Third World Network, at a Global Just Transition webinar. “Those who became rich in a world unfettered in terms of emitting greenhouse gasses are responsible for much of the destruction we’re facing today.”

Because of this large disparity in emissions and in wealth earned alongside those emissions, the rich countries of the north owe the poorer countries a kind of “climate debt.” Now, when carbon emissions have to be controlled severely, the north has a historic responsibility to help the south make its own transition to a post-fossil-fuel future.

This responsibility is not simply a function of carbon emissions. The extraction and burning of fossil fuels by the Global North during and after the Industrial Revolution went hand in hand with an ongoing process of looting the Global South. The colonial era established an unequal power balance between the north and south, which has continued into the post-independence era. The Global South continues to supply the Global North with natural resources, increasingly to support a “clean energy” transition. The countries of the Global South also remain locked into various forms of debt servitude to the financial institutions of the Global North.

“We need to talk about all of these external debts—foreign, financial—which involve colonialism, the exploitation of labor, racism, and patriarchy,” observes Alberto Acosta, Ecuador’s former minister of energy and mining. “These ways of expropriating nature have been from the beginning instruments of domination over the Third World or developing countries or poor countries. These countries on the periphery have been historically bled out.”

Via Pixabay

Avoiding the worst-case scenarios of climate change will require money: a lot of it. “Regardless of how we frame the discussion—climate debt, climate reparations, climate fair share—the challenges are immense,” points out Tom Athanasiou, co-founder of EcoEquity. “There is no conventional politics that can properly address both the climate crisis and the inequality crisis. The science tells us that we have to phase out fossil fuels globally in only a few decades. That means that the countries of the Global South must rapidly decarbonize even while they are still poor, even if they have fossil resources they hope to extract and sell for development.”

But where will this money come from and what political structures are necessary to rectify the imbalance of power and wealth between the north and south?

The Stakes

In 2021, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that 85 percent of the world’s population had been affected by climate change. This year, unprecedented monsoon rains late this summer put one-third of Pakistan under water. Drought has brought high levels of malnutrition to East Africa, while the deforestation of the Amazon has happened at a record pace in the first six months of 2022. Meanwhile, the smaller islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans are getting smaller every day. Among other climate disasters in the north, forest fires have devastated Russia, Europe, and the United States.

“If you look at recent IPCC reports, the window for adjusting to climate change is fast closing,” Meena Raman says. “This is not only the window for emission reduction but also the window for adaptation. We are already in the era of loss and damage. Real suffering is happening around the world: there’s been flooding in Pakistan and Nigeria, and in the rich world too.”

“The scientists are close to panic,” Tom Athanasiou reports. “It’s possible that the global temperature could very briefly hit the 1.5-degree limit in only two years. At the end of this decade, it will likely be at 1.5 degrees, or very close. By that point, with conditions getting very, very dangerous, political dynamics will have changed. It’s inevitable. Of course we don’t know how they will have changed.”

A shift in the political dynamics might also result from disruptions that take place beyond national borders, such as glacial melt in the Antarctic. The Thwaites glacier, nicknamed the “doomsday glacier” for the impact its melting will cause around the world, is now shrinking at twice the rate it did over the previous decade. “When the Thwaites glacier goes and sea level everywhere rises, will this change the political dynamics?” Athanasiou asks. “Does radical change that previously was completely off the agenda find its way on the agenda in a new way? People know that neoliberal economics have got to go. It’s not just street-fighting people. Everyone knows. So, what new channels of cooperation, resistance, and transformation does this open up?”

These recent disasters are the culmination not just of climate change but of a maladaptive human philosophy toward nature. “This climate collapse reflects the reality of anthropocentrism,” observes Alberto Acosta. “But this disequilibrium of the planet is not the result of all humans, but of privileged humans exercising their consumerism. It’s the history of capitalism, a history of voracity for accumulation that affects billions of people on earth, especially women and indigenous communities.”

In part because of the effects of this disequilibrium—the floods, droughts, intensified hurricanes—humans have finally begun to address climate change, but not with the requisite urgency or resources. So, for instance, the Paris agreement in 2014 established targets for the reduction of carbon emissions, but national efforts towards these targets are voluntary. Similarly, the more recent pledges by countries to reach “net zero” by 2050 are not enforced by any international authority.

“Net zero by 2050 is too little, too late,” Raman points out. “The developed world should have gotten to real zero by now. And because of the war in Ukraine, they’ve even backtracked to increasing their use of fossil fuel, with Germany for instance turning back to coal.” Alberto Acosta agrees that the Ukraine war has been a step backward for the climate justice movement Nuclear energy, like coal, has made a rebound. And tremendous investments have gone into armaments, he notes, at precisely the moment when they’re needed for addressing climate change.

As Tom Athanasiou points out, getting to zero by mid-century “would be hard even if we had functioning democracies and responsible leadership, and we don’t have either. In fact, a lot of very powerful people stand to lose a lot of money by phasing out the fossil fuel industry.”

Although nearly everyone in the world now experiences a byproduct of climate change, these impacts vary according to geography and wealth. “The countries with the highest climate vulnerability indexes—the countries most vulnerable to climatic destabilization, are almost all ex-colonies,” Athanasiou adds. “That tells you a lot right there.”

Alberto Acosta puts the blame squarely on colonialism. “The extraction of resources is a function of colonialism,” he says. “Consider the destruction of the Amazon to grow soybeans and export protein in the form of animal feed to the richest countries on earth. This transfer of natural resources to the Global North to feed industrial processes is done without consideration of the costs to the Global South. Meanwhile, going the other way from the Global North to the countries on the periphery is the spread of agricultural monocultures, the imposition of the most polluting industries, and the dumping of toxic wastes.”

That unequal relationship has carried over to the era of “clean energy.” The Global North’s push to reduce its dependency on fossil fuel has meant, Acosta continues, “transferring the problem to the Global South through the mining in poor countries for lithium and copper for electric cars and the destruction of tropical forests to obtain balsa wood to build more wind farms.”

Another divide, Athanasiou points out, is between different philosophies of development. In Africa, he notes, the conflict has heightened “between governments that want to develop fossil resources and civil society that want to keep those resources in the ground and launch crash program of renewable development. This conflict is sharp and visible and very different from what it would have been five years ago.”

The Scale

To put the brakes on global warming, the richer countries of the world need to reverse this colonial relationship and provide the funds necessary for the poorer countries to make the transition to a post-fossil-fuel future. This, Meena Raman points out, is not just an ethical or moral issue. It is a legal commitment.

“The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement: these are legal instruments,” she explains. “The Global North is legally committed to provide resources to the developing world.”

But what is the price tag for this transformation and what are the mechanisms to effect this change?

First, the richer countries have made commitments. In 2010, they promised to reach $100 billion per year in climate financing. “The number was plucked from a hat,” Meena Raman reports. “It was not based on what developing countries needed.” By 2021, the richer countries claimed to have mobilized around $80 billion, but in reality the figure was, as Oxfam estimates, about one third that much. “So, the $100 billion goal was shifted in 2021 to delivery by 2025,” she continues, noting as Oxfam does that the developed world counts even loan and insurance as part of that 100 billion.

Another mechanism of paying off the climate debt is the Green Climate Fund, an initiative pushed by the Group of 77 and based in Incheon, South Korea. “Since 2014, it has delivered only $13.9 billion, which is very little in terms of the scale,” Raman reports. The Adaptation Fund, created in 2001 under the Kyoto Protocol, has committed only $850 million.

Compare these numbers—under $100 billion a year—with the scale of the challenge. According to one research report last year, the world needs to spend $5 trillion by 2030 in climate finance to meet the Paris goals by 2030. But as Raman points out, this figure is based on only 30 percent of the costs. Meanwhile, on the adaptation side, the UN Environment Program estimated in 2016 that $140 to $300 billion a year was necessary to cover adaptation costs in the developing world (which it placed closer to the upper range in its 2021 report).

These numbers don’t take into consideration the loss and damage costs. According to one study, the developing world will be paying somewhere between $290 billion and $580 billion per year by 2030 to deal with the consequences of climate change.

“We have to put the scale of the crisis in proper context,” Raman concludes. “It’s not about there being no money but about the political will. The movements for climate justice and debt justice have to go together. So, we need to talk about debt cancellation as part of reparations.”

The original loans, Acosta notes, were often taken by autocratic governments that wasted the money in corruption. Debt repayment, moreover, has forced countries not only to cut social programs but to increase their mining and extraction. In this way, the foreign debt directly drives carbon emissions.

In addition to the compensation for loss and damage are the opportunity costs associated with keeping fossil fuels in the ground. “What about compensation to countries like Ecuador that possess fossil fuels but refrain from extracting these resources?” Athanasiou asks. “How do they receive it? And do the big Middle East oil producers get compensation for not continuing to pump out their oil and how much, and who pays? Is the liability for those compensations the same as for global loss and damage?”

Other costs would include those associated with climate refugees forced to resettle because their homes have become uninhabitable. “Even if we determine what should be paid, who will pay?” Athanasiou asks.

Who Pays?

The climate transition will cost trillions of dollars. The developing world, locked into a neocolonial relationship of debt and dependency, doesn’t have the resources. So, where will the money come from to help the Global South leapfrog into a post-fossil-fuel era?

“There are three possibilities,” Tom Athanasiou suggests. “Fossil fuel corporations. The rich countries of the north. Or the rich people of the world.”

Fossil fuel corporations have historically profited enormously from peddling the products that have produced climate change. Even worse, they are making windfall profits now as a result of the Ukraine war, which has put restrictions on the amount of Russian oil and gas that’s available to Western markets. In the second quarter of 2022, for instance, BP “earned” profits of $8.5 billion, its biggest take in 14 years. In total, according to the International Energy Agency, fossil fuel companies have pulled in $2 trillion in profits over the course of the war so far. “People around the world want to push for a windfall profit tax for both tactical and strategic reasons,” he continues. “And I wouldn’t argue with them!”

The second option is the traditional climate debt approach, to make the rich countries of the north pay. “These countries obviously have to pay the greatest part of the bill because they have the greatest historical responsibility and the greatest capacity to pay,” he adds. “Yes, but there are lots of poor people, poor by global standards, in the countries of the north, including in the United States, the richest country the world has ever seen. And there are also some very rich people in the countries of the south.”

Because wealth is not so neatly divided between north and south, “maybe it should be rich people and not rich countries that pay,” Athanasiou suggests. “This is not as crazy an idea as you might think, especially if you follow Thomas Picketty and his colleagues at the World Inequality Lab. They argue that more than half of inequality on the planet is now within countries rather than between countries. So, what if we tax the emissions of just the richest one percent of the global population regardless where they live—at a rate high enough to pay for the entire cost of the emergency climate transition?”

Assessing individuals rather than countries would still conform to a fair share approach by geography. “About 6 percent of luxury emissions come from China, so it would have significant fair share,” he explains. “The United States, with 57 percent of the global luxury emissions, would have a far larger share, about ten times the size of China’s.”

He cites the work of Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò and his recent book on reparations: “Táíwò says that we need a constructive approach to reparations or to climate debt, a forward-looking, world-building approach that supports mobilization and cooperation. Such an approach cannot simply reference the climate debt that the north owes the south, huge though that is. It must also spotlight the responsibility to pay of rich people wherever they live in whatever countries.”

The bottom line, Athanasiou concludes, is that “with so many governments going neo-fascist, it’s not really very likely we’ll get tens of trillions from central bankers in the next several years. You can’t just print that money. It has to come from the rich. It’s complicated how it will be done. But it’s extremely important that the luxury consumption of the super-rich be made a big issue on this planet. And there’s no way of doing that except by taxing it. Such a tax will not in and of itself solve the problem. But to create a sense that a just world is being built, there has to be a sense that the rich are being reined in.”

Other Mechanisms

In 2020, the world subsidized fossil fuels to the tune of nearly $6 trillion (in both direct and implicit subsidies). Of that figure, the G7 countries shell out around $88 billion a year in direct subsidies, which they recently pledged to phase out by 2025. “This is a wasted resource,” Meena Raman points out, “which could be redirected to the developing world to address both the climate crisis and the development crisis.”

A second mechanism for raising money is, as mentioned before, taxes. In addition to a tax on luxury emissions, a tax on financial transactions (also known as a Tobin tax) has been long discussed as a generator of funds to address climate change. Such a tax has been introduced in a watered-down version in the European Union, but a stronger global version could help finance a just global transition, as Albert Acosta has suggested. He also recommends going after tax havens, which have cost governments around $500-600 billion annually in lost revenue (with poorer countries losing around $200 billion of that amount).

A third mechanism would be for the international community to pay countries to keep their fossil fuels in the ground. Acosta, who created an initiative for Ecuador to raise money internationally to keep oil beneath the Yasuni rainforest preserve, believes that “rich countries have to pay more to preserve the equilibrium of the planet. We have to keep underground two-thirds of all fossil fuel reserves, whether oil, gas, or coal. If we don’t, global temperatures will increase past the 1.5-degree limit.”

Another mechanism for redirecting resources southward would be the “special drawing rights” or SDRs that the IMF issues. During the pandemic, when the global economy teetered on the precipice, the IMF issued $650 billion in SDRs. “These went to rich countries,” Meena Raman reports. “The IMF can do this, but it’s not doing it for the developing world.”

The prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, is attempting to change this situation. She has called for redirecting $500 billion of these SDRs to the developing world annually for decarbonization. “We in civil society have to push for this as well,” Raman urges.

At the same time, any number of “false solutions” to the climate crisis have been proposed. “Beware of green colonialism,” Alberto Acosta warns. “Beware of carbon markets and the mercantilization of human rights.”

Through carbon offsets, as Meena Raman explains, “you can continue to emit a ton of carbon if you sequester another ton through planting trees.” Ultimately, the polluting enterprises continue to operate as before. No net decarbonization takes place, and the same economic and energy system remains in place.

“Elites in the north, in cooperation with corporations, are now looking at geoengineering, the removal of emissions from the atmosphere through technical ‘solutions,’” she continues. “How do we veer away from false solutions to protect systems that are still intact? The last frontiers in indigenous communities are now under threat of land grabs. Free trade agreements allow corporations to sue governments for doing the right thing through investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms.”

On the other hand, some leaders are coming to the fore, like Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez in Colombia. “These new leaders are talking about new development models, post-extraction and post-fossil-fuel solutions,” she adds. “But it’s not easy having to fight to dismantle structures and proposing alternatives like canceling the debt.”

Making Connections

To address climate change effectively, countries have to work together across any number of divides: north and south, east and west, rich and poor, and those rich in fossil fuels and those rich in sustainable energy sources. That is the challenge facing the annual Conferences of the Parties or COPs, the latest of which just took place in November 2022 in Sharm al-Sheikh in Egypt.

This imperative to cooperate extends to civil society as well. “We need to find solutions that connect all of our movements from north and south,” urges Meena Raman, “to fight the same system that is creating the climate crisis, the inequality crisis, and the development crisis.”

She continues, “We need to have a longer conversation about how to connect progressive movements. In the Global South, we can do what we can, we can bring progressive governments to power. But if the northern governments maintain the current mechanisms, we won’t have real change here. So, change has to come in the north. We need massive progressive solidarity movements in north. These movements are working in your interests in the north and in our interest too. That’s the motto for Friends of the Earth International: mobilize, resist, and transform for real system change.”

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

China’s Decarbonization Miracle: “We are Witnessing a Fundamental Change in its Electricity Mix” Thu, 03 Nov 2022 04:04:14 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) – When it comes to a global clean energy transition, China is both part of the problem and part of the solution.

On the problem side, China is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world by a rather wide margin. In 2020, China was responsible for a little over 30 percent of annual carbon emissions. The share of the number two emitter, the United States, was about 13.5 percent. Factoring in all greenhouse gasses doesn’t change the picture very much, with China still number one at 26 percent and the United States number two at approximately half that figure. But if you look at historical emissions, the picture reverses, with the United States responsible for approximate 20 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions since 1850 and China in second place at 11 percent. Also, on a per-capita basis, China slips to the number four position, with approximately half the emissions today of either the United States or Russia.

In the space of a single generation, China transformed itself into a global economic giant. Now, at the same rapid rate, it must lead the world by greening its enormous economy.

At the same time, China has been a global leader in shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, adding more renewable energy capacity than any other country. By the end of 2022, China is on pace to install an astounding 156 gigawatts of additional capacity provided by wind turbines and solar panels, which is 25 percent more than the record it set in 2021. By comparison, the United States is expected to install only about 30 gigawatts of solar and wind power this year.

China’s economy continues to grow, albeit less dramatically at the moment, and so does its energy needs. Total power usage has increased about 4 percent so far in 2022 compared to last year. Since China made its first international pledges to tackle climate change in 2009, its economy has grown threefold—but its energy consumption has only grown by half that figure.

“China hasn’t absolutely decoupled GDP growth from energy consumption and emissions,” points out Chinese journalist Liu Hongqiao, “but the trend is bringing us in the direction of decoupling.”

China has also been a driver of international climate agreements. Its 2014 bilateral climate deal with the United States made possible the subsequent Paris climate agreement. But more recently, China suspended climate discussions with the United States because of the latter’s Taiwan policy, including high-level congressional visits to the island.

“At the government-to-government level, the U.S.-China relationship appears to be in the dumps right now,” points out Jennifer Turner, the director of the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum. “But in the area of environment and climate, cooperation has become part of the DNA of the two countries.” She points to subnational cooperation between, for instance, China and California, as well as the large number of U.S. environmental NGOs operating within China.

Tobita Chow, the founding director of Justice Is Global and the moderator of this recent conversation about the future of China’s Green Revolution, has been looking for alternative approaches to the U.S.-China relations “that get away from the framework of great power competition, which I think is dangerous in many ways. Cooperation is a promising way to define a healthier U.S.-China relationship, for instance cooperation around clean energy and tech-sharing in the Global South, which could be a powerful way of addressing the intersection between global inequality and climate change.”

In the space of a single generation, China transformed itself into a global economic giant. It now faces a task of comparable urgency and scale. In the space of a generation, China must lead the world by greening its enormous economy. How quickly Beijing can accomplish this goal will largely determine whether the world can prevent the global temperature from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, the goal the international community established as a goal for 2050 under the Paris climate agreement.

China’s Decarbonization Miracle

Despite its commitment to expand its renewal energy infrastructure, China remains the leading consumer of fossil fuels in the world, using twice as much as the United States. Moreover, more than half of China’s energy consumption comes from coal, which releases more carbon into the atmosphere than oil or natural gas.

Yet the Chinese government has pledged to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. “If China meets these goals,” notes Liu Hongqiao, “it can prevent a further 0.2 or 0.3 degrees of global warming. China is contributing its share, though you can argue whether it is a fair share or not” given the country’s current carbon output as well as its historic emissions.

The timeline for China is highly compressed. “In comparison to the European Union or the United States, China has to hit peak emissions in the next few years and go from peak emissions to net zero in 30 years, which is what the United States and other countries are accomplishing in 70 years,” she continues. “In reality, China’s emissions could peak earlier and at a lower level. And that would mean avoiding even more emissions on the path from peak emissions to carbon neutrality.”

But, she adds, the essential question remains, “Can the country go from the Chinese miracle that it created over the last 30 years to a decarbonization miracle in the next 30 years?”

To track China’s trajectory, Liu has dug into the details of China’s energy use. “We’re witnessing a fundamental change in China’s electricity mix,” she notes. “For instance, we all know that China is very dependent on coal. But that is changing. China has reduced its share of coal in primary energy and electricity consumption by 15 and 22 percentage points, respectively, since 2009. The share of coal is still about 56 percent right now in primary energy consumption. By 2025, however, the share of coal will drop below 50 percent.”

China has pledged to bring the share of non-fossil energy sources—wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and nuclear—to 80 percent of total energy consumption by 2060, but Liu notes that the share of wind and solar might get up to 96 percent in certain scenarios produced by the state-planners’ Energy Research Institute. The final result may depend as much on the provinces as on the state government.

“Provinces and cities are the gatekeepers of China’s decarbonization,” she points out, citing a recent Greenpeace report. “In some frontrunner cities and provinces, like Shanghai, Guangdong, and Beijing, we are already witnessing a strong decoupling of GDP and emissions. Other frontrunners like Sichuan province have pledged to ban new coal-powered plants. The city of Zhangjiakou, which is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, has more wind and solar capacity than all but nine countries in the world. On the other hand, there’s a relatively weak decoupling of GDP and emissions in Tianjin, Hubei, Jiangsu, and Anhui provinces.”

China’s climate strategy is not just narrowly about decarbonization. “The Chinese government thinks that addressing climate change is a lever to change China’s entire social and economic structure, not just energy,” Liu concludes. “It wants to put China on a pathway to decarbonization but more importantly to high-quality economic development.”

Pressure has also come from the Chinese public, for instance, to address air pollution. “Beginning in 2007, you saw a lot of street protests, and also complaints on social media about air quality in cities,” notes Jennifer Turner. “In 2013, the northern part of the country was hit by several shocking air-apocalypses. That year, China declared war on pollution, which has been nothing short of phenomenal in terms of improving air quality. If you’re addressing coal and cars for their air pollution, it has obvious co-benefits for addressing climate change, which the government is well aware of. So, yes, the government’s actions are about the economy and economic growth, but they are also in the interests of social stability.”

The Future of U.S.-China Climate Cooperation

In the wake of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in early August 2022, China broke off talks on climate cooperation. Jennifer Turner remains optimistic that bilateral negotiations will resume: “Things are still happening, albeit at a slower rate.”

“I’ve had a front-row seat for 23 years to see how the two countries work together,” she recalls. “During the Obama administration, there were seven clean energy agreements. The U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC) brings together national labs, NGOs, tech companies, business, and government to solve wicked problems involving electric vehicles and photovoltaic cells as well as the policies to enable the new technology.”

In addition to the national level, U.S.-China cooperation can be found at a subnational level. For years, Chinese experts studied California’s zero emission vehicle program as a model for China’s own program.

At the NGO level, a Chinese law in 2018 requiring the registration of foreign NGOs reduced the number of such organizations working in the environmental space. But some larger organizations like Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense Fund continue to operate, with largely Chinese staff. Meanwhile, Chinese NGOs continue to do important work, like mapping water pollution in rivers. In 2017, the government issued a call on social media to identify filthy rivers, but it was Ma Jun of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs who transformed this incoming information into a map. The organization Green Hunan has mobilized citizens to monitor the Yangtze River. These NGOs serve “as the ears and eyes of the local environment protection bureaus that can’t monitor in those ways,” Turner notes.

U.S. and Chinese environmental policies are linked sometimes in unexpected ways. For instance, China announced in 2018 that it would no longer import recycling waste from other countries. “China absorbed half the world market of recyclables, which it was using as industrial feedstock,” Turner explains. “China was choking on its own municipal waste.” In response to the ban, “a lot of U.S. cities and states canceled their recycling programs,” she adds. “But earlier this year, the international community came to an agreement to end plastic pollution by 2024.” Now the United States and China will be working together as part of an international effort to reduce one of the major components of the recycling stream.

More explicit partnerships between the two countries are essential, Turner urges. She points to the need for standards on lithium and rare earth elements, which are essential components of clean energy technology like electric vehicles and wind turbines. The need for lithium, primarily for batteries, will increase tremendously over the next decade as electric vehicles replace traditional internal combustion cars. China owns somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the supply chain for electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries, as well as 60 percent of the rare earth element production.

“Besides normal energy cooperation on climate, there’s also the issue of food and agriculture,” Turner points out. “China and the United States are both global superpowers when it comes to food. And one third of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and food production. The two countries plus Europe are responsible for agricultural imports leading to emissions, biodiversity loss, and social-cultural threats.”

Another option would be to work together within China’s major global infrastructure development project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese leader Xi Jinping “has pledged to green the BRI,” Turner continues. “For instance, China has announced that it is stopping overseas investments in coal-fired power plants.” The United States could compete with China in a “race to the top” in setting global standards for infrastructure development around the world.

Or, Tobita Chow adds, the United States could partner directly with China. He cites the recommendation of Rebecca Ray of the Global Development Policy Center for the United States to follow up on a Chinese suggestion to work jointly on specific development projects. “This would give the United States a say on standards governing any projects it collaborates on with China,” he notes.

Setting Standards

Both the United States and China have devoted considerable energy to establishing standards that can raise the quality of development projects. The United States has been instrumental in establishing the Blue Dot Network, which promotes “quality infrastructure investment that is open and inclusive, transparent, economically viable, Paris Agreement aligned, financially, environmentally and socially sustainable, and compliant with international standards, laws and regulations.” China, meanwhile, has developed a “traffic light system” to ensure that BRI projects reduce environmental risks and contribute to a green transformation, with green representing a positive contribution, yellow neutral, and red negative.

“Raising environmental and social standards for the mining of rare earth elements (REE) and other minerals crucial to a green transition is urgent,” Liu points out. “But if we frame this question under a just transition, it goes way beyond environmental standards. Concerns were raised in China about local communities’ sacrifice of their livelihoods, environment, and clean water to supply the rest of the world and meet domestic demand for REE used in high-tech products. But that argument wasn’t taken into consideration in the WTO dispute when China cut its quota on REE exports. And attempts to incorporate such external costs and to raise the commodity price in the global market only started to receive attention as the United States and EU sought to secure the supply in their own territories.”

The Obama administration took China to the World Trade Organization, accusing it of unfairly restricting exports of REE. The United States argued that China was using export quotas to give a market advantage to domestic producers that had access to cheaper raw materials. The WTO ruled in the U.S. favor, and China cut its quotas accordingly.

“Since 2016, China has been passing new industrial and environmental standards to regulate REE and other minerals and has also ramped up enforcement of those standards,” Liu continues. “However, we simply don’t have enough supply in the market to meet China’s domestic demand let alone global demand. What’s very worrisome is the prospect of Myanmar and other developing countries taking over the REE supply chain. You can’t count on military-controlled Myanmar to enforce environmental standards, particularly where REE mining occurs illegally, against both the constitution and local laws.”

China and the United States thus have a common interest in global standard setting, whether the bar is raised by their cooperating on joint projects or their competing to see which country can promote cleaner projects.

“China has led the technical revolution on the mining of rare earth elements as well as cobalt and lithium,” Liu adds. “Because China has been the hub for production, processing, refining, and manufacturing, turning these minerals into key components for clean technology, China owns the most patents on this technology in this very niche field. If competition with the United States happens in a good way, it can bring down costs and that would benefit not just United States and China but also the rest of the world. Without fixing global resource governance, seeking alternative supplies from countries like Myanmar, where governance is even laxer than China’s, simply doesn’t make the problems go away. It will only produce more issues.”

A common criticism of higher environmental or labor standards is that they will deter outside investors, China among them. But Jennifer Turner notes that a recent study of countries in the Andean region shows that more stringent regulations has not affected Chinese investments. “China says that it will obey the rules in host countries,” she points out. “Often a host country or subregion will invite China in, give it carte blanche. But this research gives ammunition to local governments and civil society to push for stronger enforcement in their own countries.”

Meanwhile, outside NGOs are coming up with tools to help civil society to do just that. Asia Society, for instance, has developed a BRI toolkit to support local stakeholders in their own efforts to push for stronger environmental and social standards. “It’s not just environmental impact assessments,” Turner notes. “There are different mechanisms along the entire path of a project to promote transparency and other goals.” At the same time, she acknowledges that raising BRI standards is challenging because so much of the work goes through subcontractors such that China state-owned enterprises can’t easily “green” every step of the supply chain.

“There have been a few breakthroughs on greening the BRI in the last one or two years,” Liu adds. “To start with, China committed to stop building overseas coal-powered projects, though this pledge has been challenged in some places where coal power is packaged as a ‘clean energy project.’ In addition, state planners issued their first high-level opinion on greening the BRI in March, outlining a dozen areas of cooperation in transportation, industry, and infrastructure.”

Hydropower continues to be a controversial issue. China has financed a lot of hydropower facilities in the Mekong Delta and in Africa. But they were largely built before the launching of the BRI in 2010. Today, under BRI, hydropower is still considered part of green energy cooperation.

“I participated in an environmental and social impact assessment of a Chinese company’s overseas hydro project in Azad Kashmir,” Liu continues. “Chinese companies do carry out such assessments, not just at the site but also increasingly covering the river basin. Can the standards for environmental and social safeguards be further improved? Absolutely, yes. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that the wind is changing. Large-scale energy infrastructure projects like traditional coal—and even gas power plants and mega-dams—are no longer the main focus of China’s overseas energy investment. Clean energy like wind and solar are becoming the next big push of the green BRI.”

The Role of Europe

Although China has suspended climate discussions with the United States, such talks continue with Europe. “I haven’t heard of any formal door-closing to the Europeans, compared to what I hope is temporary with the United States,” Turner reports. In February, France became the first country to partner with China on third-party intergovernmental infrastructure deals, inking an agreement to build seven infrastructure projects worth $1.9 billion in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. China has separate investment deals with a number of Eastern European countries.

“Compared to the United States, Europe is viewed as relatively less hostile on climate cooperation policy not only by Chinese policymakers but also civil society and the public in general,” Liu points out. “Most of the time, Europe is not perceived as aggressively pushing China to do this or that, while we see the United States ‘urging’ China to take actions on many things. In fact, Europe is seen as a mediator in the bipolar conflict. It pushes the climate agenda forward without creating a triangular position in climate diplomacy. There is less competition in clean technology. We see fewer trade wars initiated by the EU than by the United States.”

But this is changing, she adds. “A proposed forced labor ban will be discussed very soon. Last year, there were sanctions from both the United States and Europe related to Xinjiang, and all this has had impact on climate cooperation.” Other tensions have emerged. In September, Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua chided Europe for backsliding on its Paris commitments by increasing its use of coal to offset the reduction of imports of Russian oil and gas.

The war in Ukraine has indeed introduced a new dynamic into China’s relationship with Russia, Europe, and the United States. China imports a significant amount of energy from Russia—around 15 percent of its oil and its coal plus a good portion of its natural gas. Those purchases spiked over the summer as Russian sales to Europe dropped, and the Kremlin was cutting its prices. Beijing has also financed several energy projects in Russia as part of BRI—including a significant stake in Yamal LNG, the northernmost natural gas facility in the world.

But Chinese energy needs have also declined overall as its economic growth has slowed over the last year. “China’s actual fossil fuel imports from January to August this year dropped significantly,” Liu notes. “Meanwhile, China is ramping up domestic production of coal, oil, and gas to substitute for overseas imports. Energy security in China means gaining as much energy independence as possible: holding the rice bowl of energy supply in our own hands, as Xi Jinping said last year. China’s dependency on energy supply from Russia is very small compared to European countries. For instance, 70 percent of natural gas in Germany comes from Russia, while China has been diversifying its fossil energy imports to several dozens of countries.”

Framing China

According to one dominant narrative, China is the spoiler when it comes to the environment. It is the largest emitter of carbon in the world. It continues to rely heavily on the most polluting source of energy, coal. And it builds and finances huge, energy-intensive projects around the world.

But China is often blamed for the same sins of which the West is guilty. “The United States used to build big dams,” Jennifer Turner points out. “The World Bank used to build big dams. We don’t any more, but China based its hydropower construction on the U.S. model. U.S. government experts helped site the China’s Three Gorges Dam until they decided not to be involved in it.”

Liu Hongqiao cites the issue of the “debt trap,” the contention that China loans money to other countries with the intention of taking possession of the funded projects, like ports, when the recipient government defaults on the loans. “Many studies have confirmed that the ‘debt trap is a myth,” she notes. “Also, China’s development finance is demand-driven. If China’s development banks didn’t loan the money, other banks and financial institutions would. The difference is that often Chinese public financial institutions provide lower interest loans than Western commercial banks and the World Bank. Also, they operate in high-risk zones where other financial institutes refuse to take the risks.” On overseas coal finance, China’s public finance only makes up a small share despite China being the largest bilateral creditor.

Organizations working on questions of debt relief, Tobita Chow reports, “repeatedly run into the narrative that the problem is China. And that has become an excuse that Western actors will use to block progress on debt relief. In many cases, countries supposedly in a debt trap to China owe far more debt to Western banks and other private creditors.” African countries owe Western creditors three times what they owe China, and are being charged double the interest, according to a report this year from Debt Justice.

The politicizing of these narratives, Liu continues, distracts attention from many critical issues. “We have heard so much about China controlling, dominating, and weaponizing the critical raw material supply chain,” she says. “But we don’t hear much about how we can improve and elevate the value-chain of rare-earth or other materials so that resource-abundant countries—like China in the case of rare earth elements or the DRC in the case of cobalt—can benefit from the booming clean energy industry by moving up the value chain.”

“How do we respond to this dominant narrative that China is not a reliable partner on climate?” Chow asks.

“It’s a dated argument,” Turner responds. “Yes, China could probably move even faster on renewable energy. True, there’s been some slippage because with recent power outages, China is building more coal-fired power plants. But at least half of the existing coal-fired power plants are not being used or hardly being utilized, so this was very much a political move.”

“Some coal-fired plants that were already in the pipeline and had already completed preliminary studies were recently approved, but the current fleet of coal-fired plants operates below 50 percent of its designed utilization capacity,” Liu agrees. “The designers of China’s energy transition believe that the country’s young coal power fleet—with an average age of 15-16 years—would stay around for a long time, so why not use them to provide greater stability to the grid by improving fuel efficiency, reducing emission levels, and lowering their operational hours? The rational thinking behind this controversial ‘clean coal’ strategy that China has taken for its energy transition is not well understood in the global push for a coal phase-out. The trend provides some optimism: Coal use will peak very soon if it hasn’t done so already. China is marching to peak carbon emissions way ahead of the 2030 deadline.”

“Or take the example of solar panels,” Turner adds. “China flooded the world with cheaper solar panels. There were complaints that they were so cheap in order to undercut U.S. manufacturers. But those cheap panels enabled part of the global transition to clean energy. Also, as many studies have demonstrated, the jobs—75 percent of them—are where clean energy installed, so it it doesn’t matter who makes it.”

But what ultimately undermines the narrative of unreliability are the concrete interests that undergird the climate commitments of Chinese leaders.

“One factor that Jennifer mentioned is the rise of pollution protests in China,” Tobita Chow notes. “Since one of the top priorities of the government is to maintain social stability, shifting away from highly polluting industries can be understood as addressing that goal. Hongqiao mentioned that shifting to renewable energy is a strategy to increase China’s energy security. A third motivating factor is that China sees an opportunity to build soft power by positioning itself as a global climate leader. During the Trump period, China made a strong push when it became clear that the United States is not most reliable leader. This was an opportunity for China, particularly in the Global South.”

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

Why does the Ukraine War overshadow the Middle Eastern Wars? Thu, 13 Oct 2022 04:02:44 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – The war in Ukraine has dominated the headlines in U.S. and European newspapers, not to mention outlets in other parts of the world. The explosion this weekend that destroyed part of the bridge connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland, along with Russia’s retaliatory missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, are only the latest and most dramatic developments that CNN, The New York Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and others have covered so extensively on a daily basis.

I must confess that I, too, am part of this trend. Over the last year, I’ve written more on the Ukraine conflict than any other issue. Every Monday morning for the last six months, I’ve appeared on KPFA radio out of the Bay Area to provide a weekly update of the situation in Ukraine. In part, I’ve followed the war there because I have a background in Russian and Soviet studies. I feel a certain obligation to write about a region of the world that has occupied so much of my attention over the years.

But as many voices especially in the Global South have pointed out, other wars are going on around the world. Why aren’t they getting as much media attention? Why hasn’t the West rallied so readily behind the victims of those wars? Where is the determination to punish the aggressors in those other conflicts?

These are good questions, which deserve answers regardless of what one feels about the conflict raging in Ukraine.

The Centrality of Geopolitics

The importance of Ukraine, some argued in the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, boiled down to race. White folks in majority White countries—in Europe, North America, and Australia/New Zealand—sympathized with the plight of White Ukrainians in ways that they didn’t with the non-White victims of wars in other places like Yemen or Ethiopia. Ukrainian refugees in Europe have been welcomed with an enthusiasm that was largely lacking during earlier waves of Syrian, Afghan, and Libyan refugees. In the most extreme case of this racial sympathizing, White supremacists have largely backed Russia, seeing Putin as their staunchest global ally, though some White nationalists have instead backed openly far-right formations in Ukraine.

Article continues after bonus IC video
ABC News: “Ukraine latest”

It’s true that White folks in the Global North have routinely thrown up their hands in the face of conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Skipping over those articles in the newspaper, they refuse to figure out the reasons for the fighting or accept the role of European or U.S. governments in the perpetuation of the wars. In the American case, at least, this tendency to ignore large swathes of the world is part of a general refusal to learn other languages or pay attention to other countries except as part of tourist itineraries. Race and racism may indeed play a role, but never discount the importance of sheer laziness and ignorance.

But let’s look at some other reasons for the current focus on Ukraine. For instance, the country is of supreme interest to Europeans because of sheer proximity. Ukraine is on the edge of Europe, has expressed strong interest in joining the European Union, and has extensive economic connections through energy and food to European consumers. Then there are the ties of genealogy, with many people of Ukrainian heritage now living in Western Europe, the United States, and Australia.

Ultimately, though, the war in Ukraine garners the lion’s share of the headlines—and thus the intellectual bandwidth of journalists, pundits, and policymakers—because it historically lies at the very center of geopolitics.

The originators of geopolitics—Mackinder, Mahan, Spykman—focused on the control of the Eurasian “heartland” and the waters surrounding it. Preoccupied with global hegemony, they were naturally drawn to the huge expanse of territory, resources, and industrial capacity of the Eurasian continent. Africa, Latin America, Australasia: these were peripheral concerns.

By this distorted view of the globe—a perspective that still informs the policies of the United States, Europe, and (arguably) Russia—Ukraine is at the very heart of the struggle for control of the globe. It is at the center of the Eurasian territory, and its coastline provides critical access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean beyond.

A war in Ukraine matters in a way that, say, the current conflict in Ethiopia does not, because it is vitally important in the internecine battles within the countries of the Global North over control of the entire game board.

But let’s take a look at some other reasons why Ukraine dominates the headlines.

Scale of Conflict

There actually aren’t that many interstate wars going on in the world today. The internal conflict in Yemen has become international with the intervention of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. The civil war in Ethiopia has an interstate dimension because Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed has allied with Eritrea to defeat a Tigray insurgency. Armenia and Azerbaijan have sparred over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, but that fight has abated, at least for the time being.

Other international wars have now become almost entirely national. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan allows the Taliban to refocus on fighting against its internal enemies. The war in Iraq has settled mostly into a simmering civil conflict, though a full-blown civil war could indeed return. The war in Syria, which still engages the United States, Turkey, and Russia, failed to dislodge Bashar al-Assad and has burned down to the embers, though another flare-up is possible. Similar conflicts in Kashmir, Libya, and Palestine have become intermittent, with relatively few casualties, though these conflicts could escalate quickly and become regional conflagrations.

Civil wars remain active in Myanmar and Somalia, while various extremist factions such as the Islamic State continue to launch sporadic attacks throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Finally, there are the frozen wars—between the two Koreas, between China and Taiwan, inside Georgia—that could heat up if the various adversaries decide to supply the necessary spark.

But in terms of actual casualties, the conflict in Ukraine is clearly the most troubling war going on today, with tens of thousands of military and civilian deaths. The closest conflict in terms of scale would be the civil war in Myanmar with about 13,000 casualties so far in 2022. Other conflicts have generated fewer death tolls with about 5,000 deaths each in Ethiopia and Yemen this year.

Ukraine has also been in the news because of the number of refugees who fled the country—more than 7.6 million Ukrainians went to Europe in the aftermath of the February invasion— along with the hundreds of thousands who have left Russia to avoid the draft, prison, or economic uncertainty. Of course, Ukraine is not unique with regard to refugees. Nearly 7 million Syrians escaped persecution and civil war, over 6 million Venezuelans have left for other countries, and approximately 6 million Afghans have fled their homes.

Then there are the reports of war crimes taking place in Ukraine, involving summary executions, torture, rape, and indiscriminate targeting of civilians. Here, too, the Ukraine war faces stiff competition from the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar, the ongoing repressions in Syria, and the deliberate starvation of Yemenis by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Yet, today’s horrors tend to crowd yesterday’s horrors out of the spotlight. As conflicts drag on, those with attention-deficit disorder—in some sense, all of us in this brave new world of information overload—begin to focus on something else. The sheer length of a conflict inevitably increases both attention fatigue and compassion fatigue. If the Ukrainian conflict goes into a second or a third year, a lot of people will begin to turn the dial and change the channel.

Beyond Good and Evil

Another reason why Ukraine is so much in the news is that the victims are “relatable.” That’s a term used to explain the popularity of characters in fiction and film. In the case of Ukraine, the average reader is drawn in by what they believe—and what so much media coverage implies in so many ways—is a basic conflict between “good guys” ad “bad guys.”

Most people love an underdog, and the Ukrainians have battled hard against a band of merciless invaders. So strong is this basic moral narrative that various complications fall to the wayside. Many Russians oppose the war. Some Ukrainian fighters come from the extreme right. Russia has some legitimate grievances about NATO expansion. The Ukrainian government has made some stupid moves like a state language law that “requires that Ukrainian be used in most aspects of public life.” Nothing is ever black and white.

Still, the Ukraine conflict can be explained in relatively simple language to people who know nothing of the complexities of the region. Russia has invaded a country to seize as much of its territory as possible; Ukraine is fighting back to avoid disappearing as a country. It’s hard not to stand on the sidelines and cheer the victories of the victims.

Other ongoing wars do not lend themselves so readily to such packaging. Take, for instance, the war in Ethiopia.

Prime Minister Ahmed, of Oromo background, has waged a political struggle against what had once been the ruling party from 1991 to 2018: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. That political struggle turned violent when the TPLF, sidelined from Ahmed’s government, relocated to northern Ethiopia and, in November 2020, attacked an Ethiopian army garrison in Mekelle, the regional capital of the Tigray region. To defeat this Tigray insurgency, Ahmed teamed up with Eritrea, which battled Ethiopia until a 2018 peace agreement, brokered largely by Ahmed, finally ended the dispute. In addition to Eritrea, Ahmed enlisted the help of another ethnic group, the Amhara. The Oromo Liberation Army has also been involved in the fighting, though its role in committing atrocities is controversial. The Ethiopian government also stands accused of trying to starve the Tigrayans into submission through siege tactics.

As Jon Lee Anderson writes in The New Yorker:

Most of the international observers I spoke with believe that Abiy’s soldiers and the Eritreans have committed violence on a greater scale than the Tigrayans, but none of the partisans in the conflict seem to have avoided brutality. A recent U.N. report described war crimes and human-rights violations on both sides. In addition to the widespread starvation caused by the siege, Abiy’s forces and allies had killed and raped civilians, and carried out scores of air strikes on civilian targets, including one on a displaced-persons camp in which some sixty civilians died. The Tigrayan forces, the report said, had committed “large-scale killings of Amhara civilians, rape and sexual violence, and widespread looting and destruction of civilian property.” The senior Western official told me, in disgust, “They’re all as bad as each other.”

Similarly, although the Saudi coalition has committed an enormous number of human rights abuses in Yemen, their adversaries, the Houthis, are no angels either. Both India and Pakistan are responsible for human rights abuses in the areas of Kashmir that they occupy. The United States acted abysmally in Afghanistan, but it’s not like anyone in the world was exactly rooting for the Taliban to take over.

Meanwhile, despite the various defects of its government, Ukraine remains a democracy. Defending Ukraine is essential in this age of creeping authoritarianism. It is today’s version of Republican Spain trying to fend off fascism. In other words, there are sound political reasons for standing up for the underdog. Ukraine is not just a country, it’s a symbol.

Still, none of these reasons justifies the scant coverage that other conflicts have been accorded in the media compared to Ukraine. Just because a war drags on, takes place far from the Eurasian heartland, or doesn’t easily resolve into a battle of good versus evil, it still deserves the attention of journalists (who need to cover the casualties and explain the complexities) and policymakers (who need to try to end the bloodshed). The deaths of a few score people in a war is a lesser tragedy than a full-scale genocide, but it is a tragedy nonetheless.

But Ukraine also commands the world’s attention for understandable reasons. The war there is the result of an unprovoked attack, and it represents a gross violation of international law. When it comes to fighting injustice and promoting peace, we must embrace the dictum of improvisational comedy: “yes and…” Yes, the wars elsewhere in the world deserve our attention and we must decry Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

The Walking Dead: Fascism as the Zombie Philosophy that will Not Die Fri, 07 Oct 2022 04:04:31 +0000 Italy just elected a far-right leader. Is this the beginning of a resurgence of fascism, or the beginning of the end?

By John Feffer | –

( Foreign Policy in Focus) – The telegenic star of Europe’s far right, Giorgia Meloni, released a video last August that was designed to dispel all the fears that Europeans were voicing about the potential “return of fascism” to Italy. Meloni’s short speech was a triumph of misdirection.

Meloni’s party, the Brothers of Italy, had previously not been much of a player in Italian politics, having failed to receive more than 5 percent of the vote in any national election. But in 2019, it managed to capture 6.4 percent in European Parliament elections and, the following year, achieved even better results in local elections in regions such as Marche and Tuscany. After that, the party seemed almost unstoppable.

As I wrote here in December 2021:

The party that’s only recently surged to the top of the polls, Brothers of Italy, has its roots in a group started in the wake of World War II by diehard supporters of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It promotes an anti-vaxx “Italy first” agenda and, if elections were held today, would likely create a ruling coalition with the alt-right Lega Party and right-wing populist Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy.

So, for the last year, the same Europeans who quaked at the prospect of Marine Le Pen becoming president in France have been bracing for the impact of her sister-in-arms winning in the September elections in Italy. And indeed, that worst-case scenario has come to pass, with the Brothers of Italy coming out on top last month with 26 percent of the vote. A coalition government with Lega and Forward Italy is in the offing.

One of the reasons for this electoral victory was surely Meloni’s strategic pivot to the center. In her video message, a six-minute speech released on August 10, she demonstrated her cosmopolitan credentials by moving seamlessly from French to English to Spanish. The content was consistently, almost defiantly, center-right rather than far right. Meloni refuted as “absolutely absurd” the notion that she and her party posed any danger to Italy or threatened the stability of the EU. “A great Italy can better contribute to creating a great Europe,” she proclaimed.

Article continues after bonus IC video
Who is Giorgia Meloni? | The Hindu

Meloni further insisted that her party stood “unambiguously” against Nazism and anti-Semitism and embraced democracy without reservation. She unequivocally condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and backed NATO. She compared her party to the British Tories, the Israeli Likud, and the U.S. Republican Party. It is a measure of the rightward drift of global politics that references meant to suggest a more accommodating stance— to the Tories (which pulled the UK out of the EU), the Likud (ever more extremist under Benjamin Netanyahu), and the Republicans (currently deranged by Trumpism)—are not reassuring in the least.

Indeed, Italy is about to embark on its own roller-coaster MAGA ride—let’s call it a mega-MIGA—that threatens not only to upend Italy but the EU as well.

Euroskepticism Reimagined?

In the run-up to the election, Meloni sounded some of the traditional themes of the Italian far right, namely opposition to immigration, support for “family values,” and a deep mistrust of redistributive economic policies. As Europe’s third largest economy, Italy has been doing pretty well by conventional measures, with substantial post-COVID-shutdown growth last year of 6.5 percent and projected 3.3 percent expansion this year. But like much of Europe, Italy faces spiking inflation as well as an unemployment rate that, even on its recent downward trajectory, remains higher than the EU average. High debt, low birth rates, and a sclerotic state bureaucracy have all put Italy in a difficult bind.

Fortunately, however, Italy is part of the European Union.

Ordinarily a right-wing populist of Meloni’s ilk would be expected to be a Euroskeptic who takes easy potshots at Brussels while asserting Italy’s superiority. And indeed, that’s certainly how she has tacked in the past with broadsides against the euro and an effort to remove all references to the EU from the Italian constitution. “The fun is over” for the EU, she promised shortly before the elections.

At the same time, however, she and her party have abandoned any thought of exiting the EU or even abandoning the euro zone. Meloni’s not stupid. She knows who butters Italy’s bread. The country currently stays afloat thanks to a significant influx of COVID stimulus funds from Brussels. Hannah Roberts and Jacopo Barigazzi write in Politico:

Italy needs cash from Brussels. The new government has until December to meet 55 milestones and targets set by the European Commission in order to secure the next tranche of funding from the EU’s €750 billion post-pandemic economic recovery plan.

Even Meloni’s fellow right-wing fanatic, Silvio Berlusconi, called an earlier Brothers of Italy proposal to renegotiate the EU deal “illogical and dangerous,” prompting Meloni to backtrack.

Here’s the rub: Brothers of Italy are still a minority force in European politics and Meloni can count on only a few sympathetic governments. Viktor Orban in Hungary of course supports a whittling away of Europower in Brussels. The Polish Law and Justice Party largely sides with Meloni’s alt-right messaging (though PiS might be out of office come next fall if the Polish liberal-left can stay unified).

Then there’s Sweden. In last month’s elections, however, the deceptively named Democratic Party came in second, dislodging the Social Democratic government. A right-wing coalition will likely take power in the coming weeks. Like the Brothers of Italy, Sweden’s Democratic Party has fascist roots and has taken pains to distance itself from its past. But changing the party icon from a flaming torch to a gentle flower has not fooled anyone in Sweden, not even the other members of the winning right-wing coalition who probably won’t even invite the Democrats to participate in the new government.

Meloni’s tempered Euroskepticism, in other words, is pragmatic and tactical. She just doesn’t have enough allies in powerful positions. Meanwhile, the far right in Europe has largely shifted away from opposing the European Union to a more covert effort to transform European institutions from within. Toward that end, far-right parties began some time ago to compete seriously in European Parliament elections. They have simultaneously built power bases at a local level, often in rural areas and often, with a program of economic populism, at the expense of communist or neo-communist parties in urban areas. They have even grown in influence in countries like Germany and Spain that, because of their fascist pasts, have put significant barriers in front of neo-fascist parties.

Eurohijacking is infinitely more dangerous than Euroskepticism. Meloni, Orban, and their co-religionists are biding their time as they build power at the national and European levels. Their goal is that of the political termite: to eat away at the foundations of the common European home.

For the time being, the Brothers of Italy, the Swedish Democrats, and Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary are on the ascendant. The grand vision that Steve Bannon put forward after Trump’s victory in 2016—of an alt-right trans-Atlantic alliance—was initially inspired by the victory of Lega and the Five Star Movement in the 2018 elections in Italy. Bannon is similarly pumped about Meloni: “I’ve said for years that Italy is the worldwide laboratory for the populist-nationalist revolution,” he said recently. “The world needs to be watching very attentively to Giorgia Meloni, and taking note.”

A Republican Party still subservient to Trump has also embraced Meloni, regardless of her past. Rand Paul (R-KY), for instance, was “cheering” her victory. “I think people probably reacted in an unfair way to her,” he said. “For goodness’ sake, calling the woman Mussolini is a little bit over the top.”

But then, both Bannon and Paul continue to support Donald Trump, an obviously over-the-top figure who is a great deal closer to Mussolini than Meloni will ever be. As Italian philosopher and activist Lorenzo Marsili points out, Meloni has not been following a historic model of Italian fascism so much as the current model of American neo-fascism, courtesy of Trump himself.

Through such positive reinforcement loops—Orban to Trump to Meloni and potentially back to Trump—the far right aspires to build its Nationalist International against the “globalists” who preside over the European Union and the United Nations.

Goodbye Fascism?

The victories of the far right in Europe do not, however, necessarily represent a major swing in public opinion toward neo-fascism. The liberal-left parties in Italy received more votes than the far-right. The Social Democrats remain the most popular party in Sweden. Marine Le Pen lost her bid for the French presidency earlier this year, the Alternative fur Deutschland saw a drop in support in last year’s German elections, and Austria’s Freedom Party is no longer part of a ruling coalition (though its popularity has been edging up again).

Further to the east, the most powerful fascist politician in the world today, Vladimir Putin, is facing a serious challenge to his authority because of his ill-considered decision to invade Ukraine and the frankly inept performance of his military. No, I’m not just jumping on the Putin-as-fascist bandwagon. I’ve been calling the Russian leader a fascist since early March. The war in Ukraine is not simply a territorial grab, and it’s certainly not, as the Kremlin asserts, a covert effort by the West to use Ukraine as a proxy to defeat Russia. Rather, it is an expression of Putin’s fascist imperialism. That phrase, “fascist imperialism,” sounds an awful lot like Soviet propaganda from the Cold War era as applied to the United States. But in his quest for power and national glory, Putin has transformed himself into precisely what he accuses his enemies of being.

The Russian president once aspired to lead an axis of illiberalism with his right-wing buddies Orban, Le Pen, and Matteo Salvini of Lega. The Ukraine war, however, has made Putin politically radioactive even to most of the European far right, which has largely condemned the invasion. Meanwhile, if the sheer intemperateness and QAnon lunacy of his annexation speech last week is any indication—identifying the West with “Satanism,” referencing the “golden billion” conspiracy theory, veering off on a rant against the LGBT community—the Russian leader obviously feels the need to ramp up his invective to compensate for declining public enthusiasm for the war and his leadership. Putin has extended his fascist control over parts of Ukraine but at the risk of losing grip over his entire kingdom. Such are the perils of imperial overstretch.

But perhaps the most exciting news for anti-fascists around the world is the impending loss of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. The “Trump of the Tropics” is perhaps more of a traditional Latin American caudillo than a fascist exactly, though he does meet the necessary criteria to qualify as the latter: authoritarianism, militarism, extreme nationalism, and a far-right social policy. He is only intermittently a corporatist, given his anti-statist and pro-free market ideology, but Brazilian activist Gabriel Landi Fazzio makes a strong case that Bolsonaro’s economic philosophy and actions still constitute a form of neo-fascism.

Lula just missed winning the election in the first round this weekend, gaining 48.4 percent of the vote versus Bolsonaro’s 43.2 percent. Bolsonaro did better than predicted by the polls, but it’s still going to be difficult for him to get enough votes from the candidates who are dropping out to beat Lula. A lot of Brazilians didn’t vote, either because they don’t like either candidate or because they thought their choice would win outright (Lula) or lose anyway (Bolsonaro). In any case, Lula might benefit from the same tailwind that Emmanuel Macron enjoyed in France when people came out to the polls in the second round to prevent Le Pen from taking over.

Bolsonaro could still win in the run-off. And his party—the equally misnamed Liberal Party—is now the largest one in the Brazilian parliament. But perhaps the greater threat is that, like his pal in the United States, Bolsonaro might simply refuse to leave office. He has often talked of his fondness for Brazil’s past military dictatorship. Unlike Meloni in Italy, he is not scrambling to disavow his connections to fascists of the past. He could lose at the polls and attempt a military coup in response.

And that, ultimately, is the biggest problem with fascism. You say “Goodbye,” and fascism keeps saying, “Hello, hello, hello.” It is the most undead of political philosophies. Just when you thought you’d put a stake through its heart, fascism climbs out of its grave once more to suck the blood out of the body politic.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

Is Putin in a Corner? Thu, 29 Sep 2022 04:04:13 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – When a country starts casting around for 60-year-old veterans to send to the front, you know that something’s wrong. All hands don’t go on deck unless the ship is foundering. It’s not yet clear whether the Russian ship of state is taking on water. But its military effort in Ukraine is obviously at the SOS stage.

Exactly how weak is Vladimir Putin, both in terms of his effort to defeat Ukraine and his ability to maintain power in Moscow?

Last week, Vladimir Putin ordered up reservists from around Russia, the first such emergency appeal since World War II. The call is supposed to apply only to those with combat experience, but the net has been cast broadly to include anyone from 18 to 60. Even Putin allies have been forced to complain publicly about ridiculously ineligible men—old, disabled—who have been caught up in this “partial mobilization.” Notably absent from these insider critiques has been any acknowledgement that recruitment has focused on the poorest, non-ethnic-Russian parts of the federation. In Russia, as in the United States and so many other countries, poor minorities are the cannon fodder of first resort.

Russians of all nationalities have pushed back. Demonstrations broke out in 43 cities immediately after the announcement of the mobilization, and the authorities have detained nearly 2,400 people. Seventeen recruitment centers have been attacked in the latest upsurge of anger (and 54 in all since the launch of the invasion). All too aware of how this particular game will end, a lot of Russians have simply headed to the exits: more than a quarter of a million men have joined the exodus since the announcement, on top of the nearly 4 million people who left in the first quarter of the year.

It’s not just Russian citizens. Ukrainians in the occupied territories, too, have reportedly been press-ganged to fight, with Russian commanders threatening to send them to the front without any weapons if they refuse.

As the call-up continues, Russian-backed referenda in four areas of occupied Ukraine have polled people on whether they want to join Russia. It’s really a moot question. Russian authorities have already introduced the ruble into these areas, in addition to distributing Russian passports and deporting to Russia a lot of folks who would have likely voted against annexation.

Putin is calculating that Russians will be more willing to fight on behalf of questionably de jure as opposed to merely de facto Russian territory. Whether they want to or not, the new recruits can be more easily dispatched to the front once it has become technically part of Russia. As soon as the referenda produce their pre-engineered results, the Russian president can also recast the conflict as Ukraine attacking Russia rather than the other way around. Further, he has ominously hinted that the Kremlin will introduce more advanced weapons (read: nuclear) to defend against any attacks on this enlarged Mother Russia.

Russian state propaganda has cast all these developments as expressions of strength. They clearly aren’t. The recent Ukrainian counteroffensive has clawed back significant chunks of previously occupied territory around Kharkiv in the north, Russian forces have been back-footed around Kherson in the south, and Russia’s command structure on the ground has suffered grievous losses. But such reversals could be temporary, and military setbacks in the Donbas don’t necessarily translate into political setbacks in Moscow.

So, exactly how weak is Vladimir Putin, both in terms of his effort to defeat Ukraine and his ability to maintain power in Moscow?

Sanctions Bite

Half the world, the northern half, has maintained targeted sanctions against Russia after its February invasion of Ukraine. These sanctions principally cover weapons sales, transfers of sophisticated technology, some financial services, and some energy exports. So far, they have produced what often seem to be contradictory results.

So, for instance, Russia has continued to bring in a lot of money from its energy exports, but the sales have increasingly been at discounted prices. Export earnings from energy sales are expected to reach nearly $338 billion this year, compared to $244 billion in 2021, a nearly 40 percent increase. But the Russian economy overall is shrinking—from anywhere between 3 percent (Russian figures) to 5.5 percent (OECD figures) for 2022.

The ruble has stabilized, levels of unemployment remain roughly the same, and inflation is steady. The Russian government decreed a 10 percent increase in pensions and the minimum wage, which helps explain why Putin’s approval rating remains north of 80 percent (a figure that fails to reflect persistent discontent among younger Russians as well as anger surrounding the current “partial mobilization”).

However, the sanctions weren’t designed to trigger regime change or precipitate a collapse of the Russian economy. They were meant to disrupt Russia’s ability to prosecute its war in Ukraine. Here, the sanctions appear to be effective in hobbling Russia’s military-industrial complex.

The first evidence is Putin’s outreach to Iran and North Korea. Traditionally, the military relationship with these countries has been one-way, involving the export of Russian military hardware to countries facing significant sanctions of their own. This time, with Russia now leading the list of sanctioned countries, Putin has gone to Tehran and Pyongyang with a tin cup, desperate to get drones from the former and Soviet-era materiel from the latter.

Second, even for hardware manufactured domestically, Russia depends on components made in other countries. It’s these high-tech parts—such as semiconductors—that are proving to be the weak link in the Russian manufacturing process.

“The sanctions are not working as fast as the West had thought,” says former Russian deputy minister of energy Vladimir Milov from the relative safety of Lithuania. “But Russia’s industrial output is down 60 to 80 percent and, in terms of high technology, Putin is already back in the Stone Age.”

Will any of this make the Russian president think twice about his war in Ukraine?

Putin’s Determination

Leaders rarely act according to sophisticated cost-benefit analyses. Hitler’s attack on Russia in 1941 was less strategic than megalomaniacal. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, from the standpoint of either winning the war in Afghanistan or increasing U.S. influence in the Middle East, was a tremendous tactical error.

Putin’s decision to wage war in Ukraine was similarly hare-brained, not so much because he failed to anticipate Ukrainian resistance—most people, including a lot of Ukrainians, were surprised at the defeat of Russian forces outside the gates of Kyiv—but because he did not understand how geopolitically isolated Russia would become as a result of the invasion. He counted in particular on greater support from China, but Beijing has studiously obeyed the sanctions regime and voiced quiet concerns about Russian actions. India has been slightly more vocal in its criticisms. At the UN this week, both countries urged negotiations to end the war.

Perhaps after absorbing all of this information—about the impact of sanctions, the resistance to the “partial mobilization,” the criticisms from erstwhile allies—Putin will reconsider his aims in Ukraine. Indeed, in a speech released on September 21, he said nothing about the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of all of Ukraine and focused more narrowly on the Donbas region. But judging by his insistence on holding the line at Kherson and the continued bombardment of cities far from the front lines like Odesa, Putin still wants to control as much of Ukraine’s southern coast as possible, to further connect Crimea to Russia by land and to box Ukraine in by sea.

Can Putin be persuaded—or forced—to abandon these larger ambitions? Again, he is not operating according to an entirely rational game plan. The Russian leader has become intoxicated by the idea that he will restore Russia to its nineteenth-century grandeur as a regional hegemon, a counterforce to European powers, and a respected (and feared) global actor. Victory in Ukraine is central to this plan, for if Russia cannot recover territories that it held until the 1917 revolution—and under the auspices of the Soviet Union for another 75 years—then it can make no such grandiose claims. If nuclear weapons are necessary to secure such a legacy, Putin will not likely hesitate to use them.

That’s where China and India come in. Putin doesn’t care what Joe Biden has to say, and he doesn’t seem to pay much heed to NATO either. But China in particular is furious that it is suddenly caught between two unpredictable nuclear powers—Russia and North Korea—and there’s nothing like a thermonuclear blast to mess up one’s plan for global economic expansion. The Biden administration needs to work much more closely with Beijing to thwart Putin’s nuclear brinksmanship. If that requires an economic and diplomatic rapprochement between the United States and China, so much the better.

The other lingering question is Putin’s own political position. He faces no serious opposition either from individual politicians or institutional forces. The citizens that most oppose his policies have been jailed or have left the country. The economy hasn’t tanked completely, the population has been largely bought off with handouts and force-fed with pro-war propaganda, and the anti-mobilization protests don’t yet show the potential of becoming part of a larger anti-war effort much less an anti-Putin movement.

Putin has made himself into the indispensable leader. A military coup is conceivable, along the lines of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, but that will only happen if the war, the economy, and the president’s political acumen all simultaneously go south. Even if Putin himself were to suddenly die, an imperial nationalist of similar pedigree like former president/prime minister Dmitry Medvedev would likely take the reins and stay the course. Russia needs another revolution—peaceful, democratic—not just another leader.

Whether he’s out in front or backed into a corner, Putin is dangerous: for Ukraine, for the world, even for a lot of Russian citizens. The challenge is to force the Russian leader into the kind of middle position where he can preserve Russia’s regional power without the occupation of Ukraine and its superpower status without the use of nuclear weapons. That’s not the Russia that Putin wants. But, as long as Russian citizens continue to protest, Ukraine hangs tough, and China and India clip Putin’s wings, that’s the Russia he will get.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

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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