The Conversation – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Thu, 04 Mar 2021 05:02:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Pope’s upcoming visit brings attention to the dwindling population of Christians in Iraq Thu, 04 Mar 2021 05:01:11 +0000 By Ramazan Kılınç | –

Pope Francis will arrive in Iraq on Friday in a first-ever papal visit to the country that is expected to raise awareness about the challenges facing Iraqi Christians – a majority of whom are Catholic.

In the past two decades, the Christian population in Iraq has fallen by over 80%. The 1987 Iraqi census reported that there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, and today it is estimated that the Christian population is less than 250,000. Spurred by political instability and war, many Christians have immigrated to other regions, including North America, Western Europe and Australia.

My recent book, “Alien Citizens: The State and Religious Minorities in Turkey and France,” examines how international factors influence the status of religious minorities. I argue that in Iraq’s case, it was a series of international interventions that eventually led to the dwindling of the Christian minority.

Who are Iraq’s Christians?

Most Iraqi Christians are ethnically Assyrian, and they belong to the historic Church of the East, one of the three major branches of Eastern Christianity. The language of worship is a dialect of Aramaic, the language that Jesus is said to have spoken.

The largest of these Assyrian communities belongs to the Chaldean Catholic Church, making up more than two-thirds of all Christians living in Iraq.

The Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East are other smaller Assyrian communities that constitute about 5% of Iraqi Christians.

Syriacs, who constitute somewhere between 10% to 15% of Iraqi Christians, are organized around the Syriac Catholic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church, which are headquartered in Lebanon and Syria respectively.

Armenians and Arab Christians, along with other small groups, constitute the rest of the Christians living in Iraq.

Christians flee Iraq after war

The events that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq led to a large-scale persecution of the Christian population.

While Saddam Hussein repressed ethnic and religious groups such as Kurds and Shiites, Christians fared relatively better under his rule. As religion scholar Kristian Girling wrote, in return for their acquiescence to Saddam’s authoritarianism, Christians were given protections and gained prominence in business and cultural life.

Tariq Aziz, who was the deputy prime minister in Saddam’s Cabinet between 1979 and 2003, was affiliated with the Chaldean Catholic Church.

The ousting of Saddam by U.S. troops led to a power vacuum in which sectarianism and instability helped create the conditions for the rise of extremist groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq from 2004.

Violence against Christians in the form of killings, attacks and kidnappings soared.

As a result, many Christians fled Iraq. According to data compiled from U.S. International Religious Freedom reports, by 2013, a decade after the invasion, more than half the Christian population had left the country.

The destruction by Islamic State group

The plight of Iraq’s Christians became more precarious as the Islamic State group took hold of swaths of the country.

In 2014, IS controlled the territories around Mosul in Northern Iraq and expelled Christians from Nineveh Plains. According to some estimates, more than 100,000 Christians fled from Nineveh Plains to the autonomous Kurdish regions.

Many never returned after the defeat of IS in 2017. Those who did had to face the Shiite militant groups who helped the Iraqi government defeat IS and controlled some Christian territories.

Until the Iraqi government had tamed these militias and had political control over them, Christians had skirmishes with them over properties and lands. According to media reports, many more Christians left Iraq in this period.

In short, the U.S. invasion of Iraq started a cycle of violence that put Christianity under threat. As foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer wrote in a piece for The Boston Globe: “By overthrowing Hussein, we hastened the end of Christianity in a land to which Saint John is said to have brought it soon after the Crucifixion.”

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Is there hope?

Between 2017 and 2019, the Trump administration provided over US$300 million in aid to support the rebuilding of the Christian cities and villages of Nineveh Plains destroyed by IS in Northern Iraq.

However, a long-lasting solution to improving Christians’ status is maintaining the rule of law in Iraq. The Iraqi constitution, drafted in 2005, declares Islam as the country’s official religion. Singling out one religion at the expense of others can put religious minorities at risk unless clear protections are provided. Iraq needs a legal framework for equal citizenship to create a safe environment for religious minorities.

The Iraqi government invited Pope Francis to visit. The president of Iraq, Barham Salih, described the visit as “a message of peace to Iraqis of all religions.” Media reports have quoted a Vatican source as saying the pope aims “to comfort Christians who, amid wars and conflicts, have been forced to flee from Iraq.”

One cannot know if the pope’s visit will help Iraqi Christians heal from many years of suffering, but it will definitely bring public attention to their situation.The Conversation

Ramazan Kılınç, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Nebraska Omaha

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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America – The Jesuit Review: “Why is Pope Francis visiting Iraq? | Behind the Story”

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A common soil pesticide cut wild bee reproduction by 89% – here’s why scientists are worried Wed, 03 Mar 2021 05:02:50 +0000 By Philip Donkersley | –

When you think of bees, a hive humming with activity probably comes to mind. But most of the world’s 20,000 bee species don’t call a hive home. These wild species lead solitary lives instead, and around 70% of them build nests underground where they raise their offspring on the nectar they gather from flowers.

Incredibly, almost all scientific understanding of how pesticides affect bees has came from testing domesticated honeybees, and, more recently, bumblebees. That’s largely because these species tend to be easier to work with in lab conditions. How non-social bees cope with these chemicals is largely understudied, despite them making up the vast majority of bee species worldwide.

Neonicotinoids are a family of pesticides which have been used in farming across the world. Their chemical structure resembles nicotine and they’re designed to kill crop pests by targeting the insect nervous system. Neonicotinoids can be sprayed on plants, but are most commonly used to coat seeds. Since their introduction in the late 1980s, robust scientific evidence has emerged to suggest these chemicals impair learning and memory, foraging behaviour, and pollination in bees. The EU banned neonicotinoids in 2019, and while the UK government pledged to follow suit, it granted a special exemption for sugarbeet farmers to use the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam throughout 2021, and possibly until 2023.

Because honeybees don’t spend much time on the ground, environmental risk assessments for neonicotinoids often neglect to consider how exposure to these chemicals in the soil affects all pollinators. But in a landmark study published in Nature, researchers have shown how neonicotinoids affect bees not just by accumulating in the plants pollinators visit, but in the ground where most wild bees build their nests.

Down on the farm

Working over three years in Ontario, Canada, the researchers mimicked the conditions on a real farm by growing crops of squash plants in large polytunnels. Before planting, common neonicotinoid pesticides were applied to the seeds and later the leaves, while one chemical called imidacloprid was applied to the soil. This is used in Ontario to control the striped cucumber beetle.

Mated female bees were introduced when the crop came into bloom. They dug nests in the earth around the plants and began foraging for nectar from the large, yellow squash flowers, which they’d bring back to offspring tucked away in special chambers underground.

These were hoary squash bees – a ground-nesting species found on farmland throughout North America. Squash bees are uniquely suited to pollinating the flowers of squashes, pumpkins and cucumbers thanks to special leg hairs that fit the size and shape of their pollen grains. They tend to forage earlier in the day than most bees too, to match the early morning flowering of these plants.

The researchers studied nest building, foraging and reproduction in these bees and found imidacloprid in particular – one of the most widely used neonicotinoids worldwide – had a devastating effect on all aspects of squash bee life. Compared to insects living on untreated cropland, the hoary squash bees exposed to imidacloprid in the soil created 85% fewer nests, left 5.3 times more pollen unharvested and produced a staggering 89% fewer offspring.

Imidacloprid appeared to rob squash bees of their usual industrious attitude towards the laborious work of building nests, foraging for food and rearing young. These non-social bees lack the support of relatives in big hives, and must face these essential tasks alone. By reducing the amount of pollen they collect, the pesticide could leave squash bees and their offspring with less energy to do so.

But it’s not just bees which are in trouble. Pumpkins, squashes and gourds are entirely dependent on pollination by bees to set fruit. Without an influx of new bees or a recovery in their reproduction, farm productivity could suffer too.

Hoary squash bees, like many bee species, are specialists. Unlike generalist honeybees which are comfortable pollinating a wide range of plants, specialists co-evolved with their host plants and are uniquely adapted to pollinating them. Generalists can sometimes step in to do their work, but they’re unlikely to manage it with the same kind of skill.

Due to their wild nature, non-social insects are far harder to protect on farmland than domestic species. Honeybees hives can be moved around the countryside if an area is no longer able to support them. Squash bees and other non-social bees build small nests throughout the landscape, making it impossible to pinpoint and protect them all. Protecting honeybees from pesticides is already difficult. For wild bees which forage and nest among a wide variety of crops worldwide, it may be impossible.The Conversation

Philip Donkersley, Senior Research Associate in Entomology, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Featured photo: h/t Pixabay.

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Decline of Coal shows Gov’t Policy, Renewables crucial to Reducing Carbon Emissions: The Market isn’t Enough Tue, 02 Mar 2021 05:01:27 +0000 By David Drake and Jeffrey York | –

The big idea

People often point to plunging natural gas prices as the reason U.S. coal-fired power plants have been shutting down at a faster pace in recent years. However, new research shows two other forces had a much larger effect: federal regulation and a well-funded activist campaign that launched in 2011 with the goal of ending coal power.

We studied the retirement of U.S. coal-fired units from January 2008 to September 2016 and compared the effects of various market factors, regulations and activism on their early closure. In all, 348 coal-fired units either retired or switched to natural gas during that time.

Among the many pressures on coal power that we reviewed, a federal regulation implemented in 2015 had the biggest overall effect. The Cross State Air Pollution Rule requires states to reduce soot and smog pollution that blows across states lines, including from power plants. We estimate that it was responsible for reducing the expected production life of the coal power units that it affected by a total of 1,170 years.

Looking at coal units individually, however, we found that the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, backed by over US$174 million to date from Bloomberg Philanthropies, had the most impact per targeted plant.

The campaign works by generating public pressure on utilities and state and local politicians to close down coal-fired units, often through targeted lawsuits. When the Beyond Coal campaign targeted a coal-fired unit, we found that the unit’s life expectancy, normally 50-60 years, was reduced by an average of just over two years.

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule was the second-biggest factor per individual plant, though it affected more plants. It reduced the expected life span of each coal-fired generating unit that it affected by an estimated average of about 21 months.

We were surprised to find that neither low natural gas prices nor the adoption of renewable energy significantly reduced the life of coal units. Both have been widely touted by politicians and business leaders as the market-based drivers of coal plant retirement.

Chart of the changing costs of coal and gas
Falling natural gas prices had little impact on coal-fired power plant closures.
David Drake and Jeffrey York, CC BY-ND

However, while adoption of renewable energy alone did not reduce coal units’ life spans, the average use of each source of renewable energy in an area did have a significant impact. Coal units operating in regions with high average renewable energy use retired an average of 15 months earlier.

It is important to note that a large number of coal plants were already nearing the end of their lifecycles during this period. But through statistical modeling, we were able to isolate the impact of each of these interventions on accelerating the retirement of a given unit.

Why it matters

A rapid transition away from carbon-intensive energy sources such as coal is essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. Burning coal releases nearly twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced as natural gas does, and natural gas’s contribution to global warming is significant.

From 2011 through 2018, coal-fired generating capacity in the U.S. contracted by 23%. We estimate that the emissions impact of the accelerated retirements we studied was equivalent to taking 38 million typical passenger cars off the road.

The common narrative has been that market forces and economics have driven the demise of coal. However, our research suggests that a continued focus on federal policy is a more effective route for reducing emissions.

The Biden administration has already halted new leases for coal, oil and gas extraction on federal lands. And its climate task force – which includes the Cabinet-level department and agency heads – met in February to start coordinating governmentwide climate change solutions. Those likely will include new regulations and could include a price on carbon.

What’s next

Our current work sheds light on where responsibility lies for the acceleration of coal-fired power unit retirements through late 2016.

Next, we are interested in expanding on our findings about differences between renewable energy use and initial adoption. Understanding how to increase use of renewable sources, while creating new businesses and jobs, is a critical research agenda for addressing climate change.The Conversation

David Drake, Assistant Professor of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Operations Management, University of Colorado Boulder and Jeffrey York, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, University of Colorado Boulder

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

DW Planet A: “The history and future of coal, explained”

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Where does the 10 Million Tons of Plastic we put into the Oceans Annually actually go? Mon, 01 Mar 2021 05:01:26 +0000 By Bruce Sutherland, Michelle DiBenedetto and Ton van den Bremer | –

Of the hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic waste we produce each year, it’s estimated that around ten million tonnes enters the ocean. Roughly half of the plastics produced are less dense than water, and so they float. But scientists estimate that there are only about 0.3 million tonnes of plastic floating at the ocean surface, so where is the rest of it going?

Consider the journey of a plastic fibre that’s shed from your fleece. A heavy rain washes it into a storm drain or a nearby river. Does the tiny fibre settle there? Or does the river carry it out to the coast where it lingers on the seabed? Or does it continue to float further out – finally ending up in the vast open ocean?

The dizzying variety of forms plastic waste can take means that a fibre’s fate is just one mystery among countless others.

Finding out where all the missing plastic ends up can help us figure out which parts of the ocean are most affected by this type of pollution – and where to focus clean-up efforts. But to do that, we need to be able to predict the pathways of different kinds of plastic, which requires large teams of physicists, biologists and mathematicians working together.

That’s what our research team is doing. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Plastic pathways

We already know that large pieces of plastic, like bottles, can float on the sea surface for years, if not centuries, taking a long time to break down. Currents, winds and waves can, after a journey of several years, bring them to the centre of ocean basins, where they accumulate in 1,000km-wide circulating systems known as gyres. The vast “garbage patches” that result resemble more of a soup of plastic than an island of trash.

But the fate of plastic fibres – perhaps the smallest plastic fragments to reach the ocean – is more complex. Large fibres can break up over days and weeks into even smaller pieces, due to turbulence from breaking waves and ultraviolet radiation from the sun. These are called microplastics, and they range in size from five millimetres to specks smaller than bacteria.

Microplastics can be eaten by fish – it’s estimated that one in three fish eaten by humans contains microplastics. Tinier particles can also be consumed by zooplankton – microscopic animals that float at the surface – which are then eaten by even larger animals, including whales.

Microorganisms can grow on the surface of microplastics too, in a process known as “biofouling” that causes them to sink. Muddy rivers, like the Mississippi or the Amazon, contain clays that settle rapidly when they come into contact with salty ocean water. Microplastics can be carried down by the settling clay, but how much this happens exactly is unknown.

Quantifying all these outcomes for each bit of plastic is an enormous challenge. What fraction ends up in fish, carried down by clay or covered in microbial slime on the sea bed? Of the fraction of plastics which make it all the way out to the open ocean, it’s unclear how long it takes for biofouling or other forces to pull the particles well below the surface to begin their long, final descent to the sea floor.

With all these complicating factors, it may seem hopeless to predict where plastics ultimately end up. But we’re slowly making progress.

Catching a wave

If you have ever been on a boat in choppy waters, you might think you’re just bobbing up and down in the same spot. But you’re actually moving very slowly in the direction of the waves. This is a phenomenon known as the Stokes drift, and it affects floating plastics too.

For particles smaller than 0.1 millimetres, moving through seawater is like us wading through honey. But the viscosity of seawater has less of an influence on plastics larger than one millimetre. Each wave gives these bigger particles an extra push in its direction. According to preliminary research that’s currently under review, this might mean larger plastics are carried out to sea much faster than tiny microplastics, making them less likely to settle in parts of the ocean where more marine life is found – around coasts.

Waves at the ocean surface.
The size and shape of a plastic particle can decide how far and fast waves transport it.
Matt Hardy/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

This research involved studying spherical plastic particles, but microplastic waste comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, including disks, rods and flexible fibres. How do waves influence where they end up?

A recent study found that non-spherical particles align themselves with the direction of waves, which can slow the rate at which they sink. Lab experiments have further shown how the shape of each plastic particle affects how far it’s transported. Less spherical particles are more likely to go further from coasts.

Solving the mystery of the missing plastics is a science in its infancy. The ability of waves to transport large microplastics faster than previously thought helps us understand why they are now found throughout the world’s oceans, including in the Arctic and around Antarctica. But finding the fibre that was pulled from your fleece is still more challenging than finding a needle in a haystack.

Professor Bruce Sutherland, University of Alberta, leads the research project:

Modelling Microplastic Waste Transport in Rivers and the Coastal OceansThe Conversation

World University Network provides funding as a content partner of The Conversation UK

Bruce Sutherland, Professor of Physics, University of Alberta; Michelle DiBenedetto, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Washington, and Ton van den Bremer, Associate Professor of Engineering, Delft University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This story is part of Oceans 21

Our series on the global ocean opened with five in-depth profiles. Look out for new articles on the state of our oceans in the lead up to the UN’s next climate conference, COP26. The series is brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.

Featured Photo:

Brian Yurasits/Unsplash, CC BY-SA
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How Miracle Workers made 60% of S. Australia’s Electricity Green in only 20 Years Sun, 28 Feb 2021 05:01:49 +0000 By Michael McGreevy and Fran Baum | –

Less than two decades ago, South Australia generated all its electricity from fossil fuels. Last year, renewables provided a whopping 60% of the state’s electricity supply. The remarkable progress came as national climate policy was gripped by paralysis – so how did it happen?

Our research set out to answer this question. We analysed policy documents and interviewed major actors in South Australia’s energy transition, to determine why it worked when so many others fail.

We found governments need enough political power to push through changes despite opposition from established fossil fuel interests. They must also watch the energy market closely to prevent and respond to major disruptions, such as a coal plant closing, and help displaced workers and their towns deal with the change.

South Australia shows how good public policy can enable dramatic emissions reduction, even in a privately owned electricity system. This provides important lessons for other governments in Australia and across the world.

Artist impression of SA solar plant
South Australia is a world leader in renewables deployment. Pictured: artist impression of solar thermal plant proposed for the state.
Solar Thermal Power Plant

Why is the energy transition so hard?

In decades past, fossil-fuel-dominated energy markets revolved around a few big, powerful players such as electricity generators and retailers. Overhauling such a system inevitably disrupts these incumbents and redistributes benefits, such as commercial returns, to newer entrants.

This can create powerful – and often vocal – losers, and lead to political problems for governments. The changes can also cause hardship for communities, which can be rallied to derail the transition.

The change is even harder in a privatised energy market, such as South Australia’s, where electricity generators and other players must stay profitable to survive. In the renewables shift, fossil fuel businesses can quickly become commercially unviable and close. This risks supply shortages, as well as price increases like those after Victoria’s Hazelwood coal plant closed in 2017.

The obstacles help explain why a wealthy nation such as Australia, with extremely high per capita emissions and cheap, plentiful renewable resources, has struggled to embrace its clean energy potential. Even frontrunners in environmental policy, such as Germany, have struggled to make the switch.

How South Australia did it

South Australia is a dry state – extremely vulnerable to climate change – with abundant wind and solar resources. These factors gave it the motivation and means to transition to renewables.

The South Australian Labor government, elected in 2002, adopted a target for 26% renewables generation by 2020. At the time, wind energy was already a competitive supplier of new generation capacity in Europe, creating an established wind farm industry looking to invest.

Some of South Australia’s best onshore wind potential was located near transmission lines running 300 kilometres from Port Augusta to Adelaide. This greatly reduced the cost of connecting new wind generators to the grid.

South Australia benefited greatly from the federal renewable energy target, established by the Howard government in 2001 and expanded under the Rudd government.

The scheme meant the South Australian government didn’t need to offer its own incentives to meet its renewables target – it just had to be more attractive to private investors than other states. This was a relatively easy task. Under the state Labor government, South Australia’s energy and environment policy was consistent and coordinated, in contrast to the weak and inconsistent policies federally, and in other states.

To attract renewable energy investors, the government made laws to help construct wind farms in rural zones away from towns and homes. New wind farms were regularly underwritten by state government supply contracts.

As the transition progressed, the state’s largest coal generator, at Port Augusta, was wound back and eventually closed. To help workers and the town adjust, the state government supported employment alternatives, including a A$6 million grant towards a solar-powered greenhouse employing 220 people.

The Labor government enjoyed a long incumbency, and the state was not heavily reliant on the export of fossil fuels. This helped give it the political leverage to push through change in the face of opposition from vested interests.

Worker walks through greenhouse
A state government grant helped establish a solar greenhouse.
Sundrop Farms

It’s not easy being green

South Australia’s transition was not without controversy. Between 2014 and 2018, the state’s consumer electricity prices rose sharply. While critics sought to blame the increasing renewables share, it was largely due to other factors. These include South Australia’s continued reliance on expensive gas-fired power and the closure of the Hazelwood coal-fired power station in neighbouring Victoria, which fed large amounts of power into South Australia.

And in late 2016, South Australia suffered a statewide blackout. Again, renewables were blamed, when the disaster was in fact due to storm damage and overly sensitive trip switches.

After a second, smaller blackout six months later, the then federal treasurer Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament and argued South Australia’s renewables transition was:

…switching off jobs, switching off lights and switching off air conditioners and forcing Australian families to boil in the dark as a result of their Dark Ages policies.

In 2018, Labor lost office to a Liberal party highly critical of the renewables transition in opposition. But by then, the transition was well advanced. In our view, specific legislation would have been required to halt it.

The state Liberal government has now firmly embraced the renewables transition, setting a target for 100% renewable electricity by 2030. By 2050, the government says, renewables could generate 500% of the state’s energy needs, with the surplus exported nationally and internationally.

Leading the world

The South Australia experience shows a successful renewables transition requires that governments:

  • have enough political power to advance policies that disadvantage energy incumbents

  • monitor the energy market and respond proactively to disruptions

  • limit damage to displaced workers, businesses, consumers and communities.

It also highlights the importance of having transmission infrastructure near renewable resources before new generators are built.

As energy markets the world over grapple with making the clean energy transition, South Australia proves it can be done.

The Conversation

Michael McGreevy, Research Associate, Flinders University and Fran Baum, Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor, Foundation Director, Southgate Institute for Health, Society & Equity, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Australian Renewable Energy Agency: “How are big batteries helping to transition to renewables?”

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Gulf War: As Biden bombs Iraqis, 30 years on the consequences of Desert Storm are still with us Sat, 27 Feb 2021 05:01:26 +0000 By Lorena De Vita and Amir Taha | –

It was a short message to end a short war. On February 26 1991, Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz put his signature to a letter addressed to the United Nations Security Council:

I have the honour to notify you that the Iraqi Government reaffirms its agreement to comply fully with Security Council Resolution 660 and all other UN Security Council resolutions.

A few hours later, at 8am Baghdad time, a ceasefire entered into effect. The international military campaign, dubbed by the United States as “Operation Desert Storm”, had lasted only a few weeks. And yet, as recent rocket attacks against US targets in Iraq illustrate, its consequences are still with us today.

But how did it all begin? The then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein criticised what he saw as Kuwaiti “economic treachery” related to the production and pricing of oil. When Kuwait refused to lower its oil production, Saddam began what would become a shortlived military intervention in the neighbouring oil-producing country.

Saddam’s motives in fact related to his need to replenish an impoverished Iraqi economy that had been severely undercut by a protracted and costly war against Iran (1980-1988), which resulted in more than 1.5 million estimated Iraqi and Iranian deaths.

Not quite grasping what the waning of the cold war would mean for his own regional ambitions, Saddam ordered the invasion and annexation of Kuwait on August 2 1990.

Once diplomatic and economic pressure to deter Saddam failed, the US – under then president George HW Bush, assembled the largest international coalition since the second world war and – with the authorisation of the UN Security Council – began a five-week military operation that pushed Saddam’s forces back into Iraq and reinstated the Kuwaiti royal family at the helm of the country.

Military action included the systematic targeting of Iraqi infrastructure, including the sustained – and controversial – attack against retreating Iraqi military personnel along the road connecting Kuwait with Iraq, which was subsequently dubbed the “Highway of Death”.

The rapid military campaign was a success – and its implications were potentially massive. Before the intervention, Bush had addressed the US Congress, stressing the importance of the “unique and extraordinary moment”.

The crisis in the Persian Gulf offers a great opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation. Out of these troubled times … a new world order can emerge: a new era – freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace.

The rapid success of the international military campaign, whose legitimacy was reinforced by unequivocal UN authorisation, ushered an era of triumphalist confidence in the possibilities of such a “new world order” and in the US ability to mould it.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Back then, there were reasons to be optimistic. One of them related to the cooperation – unseen up to that point – between Americans and Russians. Despite Iraq having been one of its main cold war clients in the region, the Soviet Union quickly endorsed the US-led military operation. Indeed, at the time of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, US secretary of state James Baker and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze were in a meeting together and rapidly issued a joint statement of condemnation of Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait.

Typed record of phone conversation between Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, 7 August 1990, with 'secret' written and crossed out at the top
Declassified telephone conversation reveals the true US-Soviet difficulties.
George H.W. Bush Presidential Library; National Security Archives digital collection edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton, ‘Inside the Gorbachev-Bush Partnership on the First Gulf War 1990’.

Recently declassified sources show that US-Soviet cooperation back then was more difficult than the leaders’ statements led the world to assume at the time. Yet speaking in October 1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev underlined that:

without a radical improvement and then a radical change in Soviet-US relations, we would never have witnessed the profound qualitative changes in the world that now make it possible to speak in terms of an entirely new age, an age of peace in world history.

He added that, “the right conclusions have been drawn from the Gulf War.” But had they? In Iraq, Saddam remained in power, and bombing and sanctions against his regime continued into Bill Clinton’s presidency. Until in 2003, in the wake of 9/11 and of the invasion of Afghanistan, the then president George W. Bush declared a new war against Iraq with the disputed justification of Iraq’s alleged development of weapons of mass destruction.

Many commentators saw the conflict as a way to deal with the “unfinished business” of the first Gulf War started by Bush’s father. Military “contractors” flooded into Iraq, with complex consequences that are still playing out. One of the last acts of the US presidency of Donald J. Trump involved pardoning four Blackwater security contractors. These were responsible for the 2007 Nisour Square massacre, a shooting that killed 14 Iraqi civilians, including nine-year-old Ali Abdul Razzaq. UN human rights experts condemned the presidential pardon as an affront to international justice.

The war of the early 2000s left behind a much weakened Iraqi state infrastructure, and a high body count – a situation that rendered Iraq an easy prey to the forces of the Islamic State, which took over Mosul in 2014, continuing a legacy of violence and brutalisation.

Many saw the end of the 1991 Gulf War as the beginning of an “age of peace”, to quote Gorbachev. The hope at that time was that the country – and the region – could prosper. Instead, the ceasefire of February 28 marked the end of a conflict that had been remarkably short, but whose consequences and unintended outcomes are still being felt to this day.The Conversation

Lorena De Vita, Assistant Professor in the History of International Relations, Utrecht University and Amir Taha, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Humanities, University of Amsterdam

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Smithsonian Channel: “Actual Footage of Desert Storm’s First Apache Strikes”

Facebook’s news blockade in Australia shows how tech giants are swallowing the web Fri, 26 Feb 2021 05:01:07 +0000 By Jennifer Grygiel | –

When Facebook disabled Australians’ access to news articles on its platform, and blocked sharing of articles from Australian news organizations, the company moved a step closer to killing the World Wide Web – the hyperlink-based system of freely connecting online sites created in 1989 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Though the social media giant has said it will return to the negotiating table and restore news for now, the company has shown its hand – and how it is continuing to reshape the web.

As a social media scholar, I see clearly that the internet in 2021 is not the same open public sphere that Berners-Lee envisioned. Rather, it is a constellation of powerful corporate platforms that have come to dominate how people use the internet, what information they get and who is able to profit from it.

Tim Berners-Lee
Tim Berners Lee, the man who in 1989 invented the hyperlink-interconnected World Wide Web.
Paul Clarke via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Paying for news

The Australian government’s legislative efforts aim to support the news industry by helping to broker a deal whereby Facebook would pay Australian news organizations for content posted on its platform by users. Right now, Facebook isn’t required to pay for news in any way, and the company objected to this new potential cost of business.

Berners-Lee warned the Australian government the proposed law could undermine free linking, which he called a “fundamental principle of the web.” Facebook’s own statement of self-defense focused on Berners-Lee’s argument, saying Facebook provides value to news organizations by linking to them. But their statements show that neither has acknowledged that Facebook has, for many people, effectively become the web.

Back in the 1980s, Berners-Lee envisioned the web as a network of community-minded academic researchers sharing their knowledge quickly and conveniently across the world. The main mechanism for this was the hyperlink – text that, when clicked on, led readers to something they were interested in, or to supporting material on the actual source’s website. This meant information was freely exchanged, with attribution. The priority was helping users find the material they wanted, wherever it was online.

Berners-Lee’s design serves the reader, but not everyone was as public-spirited: Companies like Facebook have been moving away from this principle since the web’s founding. These corporate platforms are designed to capture and dominate users’ attention – and turn it into money.

A Facebook news post
A Facebook post often includes key news content – not just a link.
The Conversation screenshot of the Guardian’s Facebook page, CC BY-ND

Keeping users on the site

When a user posts a link on Facebook, it’s not just a hyperlink as Berners-Lee envisioned. It’s much more advanced, displaying information from the linked page, including, for news stories, a headline, a main image and sometimes a summary of the news users might see if they clicked the link. In this way, users can get a lot of the information without ever leaving Facebook, hurting news organizations’ revenues.

On Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, users’ options are even more restricted. People can post photos and text, but cannot directly share links to other websites. The only active links in a post are internal, for tagging others on Instagram and hashtags.

In my view, both cases show that Facebook doesn’t really want an interconnected web: It wants to keep its users on its own platforms. Facebook displays valuable information, but if people don’t click through, or there is nothing to effectively click on, then those who actually created the content will continue to have a hard time making money off their work.

Possible ways forward

The situation in Australia is a significant opportunity to examine how much power Facebook has over the ways people can seek information online.

News media may decide to bid farewell to Facebook, which provides about one-fifth of traffic to media sites in Australia, and not necessarily much revenue in other parts of the world. They might seek other options for digital distribution of their content. But in the near term they may need financial help from somewhere if they have become too dependent on Facebook.

Or news organizations could negotiate with Facebook directly in deals and avoid restrictive laws, as the proposed legislation is not even final yet.

News publishers could also ask regulators to help them gain more control over how news content is presented on platforms to increase link referral traffic, which is key to generating revenue. A return to simpler hyperlinks – and adding them to Instagram – could help more users click through on news stories while preserving the principles of the web. Just because advanced technology exists doesn’t mean it’s helpful in all situations or good. But then again, a basic old-timey solution may not work for those trapped in the “attention economy.

Editor’s note: The Conversation U.S. is an independent media nonprofit, one of eight news organizations around the world that share a common mission, brand and publishing platform. The Conversation Australia has publicly lobbied in support of the Australian government’s proposal.The Conversation

Jennifer Grygiel, Assistant Professor of Communications (Social Media) & Magazine, News and Digital Journalism, Syracuse University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CNBC: “Facebook cuts deal with Australia to restore news pages in the country”

Texas blackouts show why energy should be a universal right Thu, 25 Feb 2021 05:01:47 +0000 By Gordon Walker | –

An unprecedented cold wave in the US state of Texas recently left several million households without power for days on end, as temperatures dropped well below freezing. Dozens of people died from hypothermia, car crashes, house fires or carbon monoxide poisoning from running cars or generators simply to keep warm.

The particular circumstances that led to such widespread grid failure, including how the state has chosen to organise and run its electricity infrastructure, are being loudly debated. There are, though, wider issues to consider.

Blackouts, of whatever cause, always reveal a deeply rooted dependence on flows of energy to power the rhythms of modern living and keep day-to-day health and well-being in balance. When the power fails, the consequences can be devastating. Those most vulnerable to the cold or heat – older people in particular – and those living in poor quality housing, can die as a consequence of technologies losing their power. This adds to the background toll of “excess deaths” linked to energy poverty on an annual basis.

At moments like this, the basic rights of citizens to infrastructures that work are called into question, not just in Texas, but far beyond. In my academic research I have looked at what it would mean to make energy a universal right. Surely we should now be asserting this basic right, including for the 10% of the global population without access to even basic electricity provision?

At first sight the case is compelling. After all, energy enhances many of the basic capabilities of a decent life, not only good health, but also education, communication, livelihood, self-respect and conviviality. But as with many assertions of fundamental rights, details and interpretations matter.

Energy that works

Having an infrastructure in place is fundamental, but it needs to be one that works, that is well maintained and is resilient, including in the face of the types of (predictable) climate change-induced extremes experienced in Texas. Energy bills also need to be affordable, with cost structures that do not penalise those on low incomes and that ensure that a baseline of access can be sustained when times are hard, or needs are most intense.

In the UK, households have a legal right to not be disconnected from the water supply, but they can be disconnected from energy, including when the money runs out in pre-payment meters found in many low-income households – a process known as “self-disconnection”. Policies are in place to protect categories of energy-vulnerable households, overseen by the regulator Ofgem, but a universal right to electricity or gas connection does not exist.

Regulatory structures matter, and experience has shown that the state cannot just leave energy provision to the unfettered market, with profit above all else determining how energy is supplied and consumed. It can instead enforce clear social obligations on energy suppliers, or it can take electricity infrastructure into public ownership. But either way, the state has a responsibility it cannot shirk to ensure what should be basic rights for its energy-consuming citizens.

A right to low carbon living

Two further important considerations also have to be factored into a general notion of the right to energy. First, we should be doing all we can to ensure that the energy that is used, is used well – it is madness to be putting energy into homes and other buildings, for it then to leak out again so easily.

This highlights that nobody really wants to consume energy per se. It is the heat, light, cool, communication, mobility and so on that are really valued and that really matter. There should therefore be much more focus on realising such services in ways that minimise energy use and energy bills, and cutting energy demand as part of zero carbon trajectories.

Second, the citizen’s right to energy has now to be asserted as a right to low carbon energy, or more generally as a right to low carbon living. There is some irony that Texas, a US state so deeply implicated in fossil fuels, is now experiencing a hard kick back from climatic change. Maybe in a post-Trump world that irony will not be so readily ignored.

In a climate emergency, the right to energy cannot be realised through old energy infrastructure, using old models of carbon-heavy generation. Universal provision is crucial, but the right to energy and the right to low carbon living have to work hand in hand, if we are to avoid further deepening the consequences of the climate crisis in Texas and many other parts of the world.The Conversation

Gordon Walker, Professor at the Lancaster Environment Centre and previously co-director of the DEMAND Centre, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Featured Image: David Hoffman, “Wind Turbines near Oklaunion, Texas, Flickr

Saving the Planet: Why a net-zero future depends on the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon Wed, 24 Feb 2021 05:02:17 +0000 By Anya M. Waite, Brad deYoung, Chris Milley, and Ian G. Stewart | –

Most of us growing up along Canada’s East Coast never worried about hurricane season. Except for those working at sea, we viewed hurricanes as extreme events in remote tropical regions, seen only through blurred footage of flailing palm trees on the six o’clock news.

Today, a warming ocean spins hurricanes faster, makes them wetter and drives them towards Atlantic Canada and even further inland. Hurricanes, winter storms and rising sea levels will continue to worsen unless we slow climate change.

The lifeblood of coastal economies and societies has always been the connection between land and sea, and that’s become more evident with climate change. But this isn’t just a coastal story anymore.

The oceans moderate the world’s climate through the absorption of heat and carbon. And just how much carbon the ocean will continue to absorb for us remains an open question. Whatever we do, it must be grounded in our growing wisdom of the deep connections between life on land and in the sea.

As Canada commits to a net-zero future and plans its post-COVID economic recovery, innovations and investments could backfire if they reduce the ocean’s ability to absorb our excesses.

Links between land and sea

The ocean has always directly affected the climate on land. The well-being of communities across the globe is directly linked to the ocean’s capacity to continue its regulating role of heat and carbon cycles.

Drought in the Prairies is tied to water temperatures in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. When temperatures are most extreme, they signal the possible arrival of a “megadrought.”

In Australia, the occurrence of below-average rainfall, lasting several years, can be predicted by high Indian Ocean temperatures. This dries soils and lowers river flows, resulting in major community impacts such as water restrictions, declines in agricultural production and increased frequency of bushfires.

Fire burning near a road sign warning of kangaroos.
Fire burns in the grass near Bumbalong, south of the Australian capital, Canberra, on Feb. 1, 2020.
(AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

The success of Canada’s climate policies will therefore hinge on understanding how ocean processes are changing and society responds. The opportunity is at hand: Canada has committed to net-zero carbon in 2050, and to economic recovery once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the nation after the throne speech on Sept. 23, 2020.

The federal government’s throne speech in September highlighted the oceans as critical to economic recovery post-COVID. The “blue economy,” mentioned in the throne speech, includes fisheries, aquaculture and offshore wind energy.

These two commitments are fundamentally linked: economic recovery and carbon neutrality both depend on the ocean’s ability to continue to regulate climate through heat and carbon absorption.

But the development of national policies on climate change, both in Canada and internationally, has generally ignored the ocean in climate calculations. Scientists lobbied intensely before the Paris Climate Agreement just to make sure the ocean was mentioned.

Changes to the ‘carbon sink’

We dare not further neglect the most important global storage depot on Earth: the ocean stores hundreds of times the heat and 50 times more carbon than the atmosphere, and takes up more carbon than all the rainforests combined.

Ocean carbon and heat absorption also provide a critical natural timescale against which we can measure our effectiveness in battling climate change. Fluctuations in the ocean “carbon sink” — the amount of carbon the ocean can remove from the atmosphere — will change the urgency with which we need to act.

Waves crashing over a seafront road covered in debris.
Hurricanes and winter storms will continue to worsen unless we slow climate change. Hurricane Lorenzo hit the Portuguese island of Faial in October 2019.
(AP Photo/Joao Henriques)

For example, a waning carbon sink shrinks our window to curb land-based carbon emissions. But a growing sink might give us more time to enact difficult but necessary carbon policies that will have disruptive economic consequences.

There is no time for delay, and rewards come quickly; strong scientific evidence demonstrates that ocean processes controlling this absorption can either weaken or strengthen measurably in just a few decades.

Heat is absorbed physically from the atmosphere and mixed through the ocean on the scales of millennia. But carbon is absorbed through a complex network of chemical and biological processes, including coastal ecosystems such as kelp, mangroves and seagrasses that sustain local economies. Plankton (the tiny plants and animals that feed everything from mussels to whales) store carbon, so their behaviour and biology become a critical factor in the climate discussion.

We urgently need better observations of the ocean’s continued role as our heat and carbon sink.

Shifting carbon sink

The North Atlantic Ocean is the most intense carbon sink in the world: 30 per cent of the global ocean’s carbon dioxide removal occurs right in Canada’s backyard. If we extend Canada’s net-zero calculation to our exclusive economic zone (waters within 200 nautical miles of our coast), our net carbon emissions could change significantly.

Current estimates suggest including the oceans would reduce net emissions and help us get to net zero faster, but what happens if that changes? We must understand fully the processes controlling the “sink” to make the right climate policy choices.

This recalculation could shift our thinking on how to rejuvenate the Canadian economy. Investment in controversial industries such as deep-sea mining, which can supply materials needed for renewable ocean-based energy technologies like those used in offshore wind, can at the same threaten the very ocean ecosystems and food systems on which we depend. Formulating effective policies in the face of these uncertainties is a major challenge. Our path forward must build on our growing understanding of the deep connections between societal and ocean well-being.

Canadian researchers, including those at the Ocean Frontier Institute where we are based, are poised to address the fundamental questions about the ongoing role of the ocean in absorbing carbon, and to help develop appropriate policies. These conversations cut across traditional academic boundaries. In the past, ocean research was separated into the natural and applied, the social and human sciences. Now, we all need to work together.

The role of the ocean has been neglected for too long and must be drawn to the centre of the carbon discussion as we plot our trajectory to net-zero carbon in 2050. Canada’s carbon policies can lead the way internationally if they are grounded in strong, and strongly integrated, natural and social sciences. It is time for the research community to step up in their support.The Conversation

Anya M. Waite, CEO and Scientific Director, Ocean Frontier Institute; Professor and Associate VP Research, Dalhousie University; Brad deYoung, Robert Bartlett Professor of Oceanography, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Chris Milley, Adjunct professor, Marine Affairs, Dalhousie University, and Ian G. Stewart, Associate professor of Humanities, University of King’s College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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The carbon cycle is key to understanding climate change | The Economist