A Marina on Baffin Island.

Global warming is causing the polar ice-caps to melt. There is forty percent less summer ice now than in the 1970s. By 2030 the Arctic could be free of ice during summer. And I ask, “What is the good in this?” Well, it creates all sorts of opportunities. Some of these come from resources exploitation. Some of them come from adapting to climate change.

In the case of the North Poles, this is freeing up access—after a fashion and in relative terms—to the seas north of Canada, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries.[1] In 1982 the United Nations adopted a “Convention on the Law of the Sea.” This grants signatories ownership of undersea resources up to 200 miles off their shores. One area of interest is oil and natural gas drilling.[2] Because the ice cap and terrible weather prevented people from exploring for gas and oil beyond Alaska’s North Slope, geologists are not sure how much oil and gas might be found as the ice cap retreats. One estimate is that 20 percent of the world’s as-yet-undiscovered gas and oil lay under the Arctic ice. This might include a third of the world’s natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil.[3] Oil companies have rushed in to explore where angels fear to tread: Exxon, BP, Statoil (Norway), and Eni (Italy) have all begun exploration of the fields north of Russia. Since the “Deepwater Horizon” disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, they have been giving a lot of thought to how to deal with the inevitable spills that will happen in such a harsh environment. So far, they don’t have any good answers.[4]

Similarly, the retreat of the polar ice caps is liable to open a mining boom in Arctic areas. Ice, snow, permafrost, and brutal winters have kept people from exploiting some of the Earth’s resources. Russia stands to profit from a warmer, greener Siberia. Separatists in Greenland are already speculating on seeking independence from Denmark.

Some of the adaptive responses have a comical note to them. Artificial snow-machine makers face rising demand from imperiled ski resorts. Others responses have potentially bigger pay-offs. Environmental disasters in the 1950s spawned ideas that have great relevance today. In 1952 the British forester and conservationist Richard Baker proposed creating a tree-belt along the southern edge of the Sahara to hold back desertification. In 1953 a gigantic storm in the North Sea led to massive flooding in Holland and eastern Britain. Holland responded with a thirty year campaign of dike and storm surge barrier construction; Britain built the Thames Barrier downstream from London.[5]

In 2002, the African Union adopted Baker’s idea of a tree barrier against the Sahara. Then it was taken up by the African Union. To make this plan work, somebody is going to pay to plant a belt of trees thirty miles deep and four thousand miles long. Foresters, nurseries, and irrigation engineers will be in demand. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy demonstrated New York City’s vulnerability to storm surges and rising sea levels. Builders experienced with massive sea-gate flood control projects are likely to be in demand in a host of places.

If people don’t adapt to climate change one way, they will adapt another way.

[1] It hasn’t become the Gulf of Mexico yet. In summer there is still a lot of drift ice floating around for the high winds to blow into off-shore rigs; in winter the temperature still drops to 50 degrees below zero and the whole place ices up.

[2] The US Senate has not ratified this convention. Which isn’t the same as saying that the US will not defend what it conceives to be its national interests.

[3] So, you burn the gas and oil; that heats up the planet even more; it gets progressively easier to access the gas and oil. Neat. Sort of.

[4] “The battle for the Arctic,” The Week,” 6 December 2013, p. 11.

[5] McKenzie Funk, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming (New York: Penguin, 2014).


The heir of Nasser.

Abdel-Fattah al Sisi (1954- )[1] grew up in Cairo; his father sold knick-knacks to tourists and wanted something better for his children. He stressed self-discipline and study. His children absorbed the lesson. About the time of the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War (1973), Abdel al Sisi chose to become a soldier. He graduated from the Egyptian Military Academy in 1977. He rose in rank, alternating between staff and command assignments.[2] He did military courses in American (1981), Britain (1992) and America again (2002), and served as the Egyptian military attaché in Saudi Arabia. In 2008 al Sisi took command of the Northern Military District, headquartered in Alexandria. After this command, he jumped to become chief of military intelligence. These promotions brought him membership in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a group of twenty-odd senior military officers who intermittently exert great influence.

In 2011, the “Arab Spring” reached Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the ouster of the long-serving dictator, Hosni Mubarak. A panicky Obama administration added its voice to the chorus. Eventually, the Egyptian military bent to avoid breaking. Mubarak went to a hospital-prison, and—eventually–elections put the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi at the head of a civilian government. In 2012, Morsi wanted to get rid of the Minister of Defense, General Mohammad Tantawi, who had commanded the early crack-down on dissent. Al Sisi was reputed to be a conservative Muslim.[3] What’s the worst that could happen?

Morsi soon wore out his welcome with the military and its allies in Egyptian society.[4] In June 2013 the military evicted Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power. American policy pin-balled in response: President Obama delayed delivery of some military equipment to express concern, while Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the restoration of “democracy” by the military overthrow of an elected government.[5] Al Sisi got busy expanding democracy by driving a new round of protestors off the streets of Cairo. (About a thousand of them were killed.)

Lots of Egyptians—and ones who mattered a lot more than either Muslim Brotherhood beardies or tech-savvy young people—welcomed the coup-that-dared-not-speak-its-name. In June 2014 al Sisi won election as President of Egypt. Since then, al Sisi has cracked down on Islamists, talked about economic innovations like cutting the subsidies that fuel inflation and expanding the capacity of the Suez Canal. He has sought closer relations with Russia and with Saudi Arabia—both of which are fed up with American uncertainty.

Curiously, for a kid often described as quiet and bookish, al Sisi became a “charistmatic” and a “passionate” speaker. So, “Bad Moon Rising”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-DkyMXTo5Q

The World is what it is.

“Egypt’s New Strong Man,” The Week, 6 September 2013, p. 11.

[1] So, he’s my age and has accomplished a lot more.

[2] If he had a specialty it was anti-tank weapons. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) has a great many tanks.

[3] Rumor has it that his wife wears the “niqab.” No Westerner has ever seen her, so who can say?

[4] Since 1953 Egypt has been run by an alliance between the military and the economic elites—rural landowners and urban industrialists. The ignorance of the American press about the nature of Egyptian society and politics is surprising. Or perhaps not: they don’t know much about American society or politics either.

[5] See: Rene Magritte.


Decline of the Death Penalty.

In 1972 the United States Supreme Court imposed a moratorium on capital punishment on the grounds that “the arbitrary and capricious application of capital punishment in America represented cruel and unusual punishment.” In 1976 it permitted executions to start up again after states introduced reforms to address the concerns expressed by the Court. Since 1976 American courts sentenced over 4,600 people to death. Of these, 820 were executed and 102 were exonerated. This put the US in the same lethal category as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

However, these figures are very deceptive. First of all, twelve states (Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota) did not have a death penalty. Second, of the 38 states with a death penalty, six (New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Kansas, South Dakota) have had no executions since 1973. Third, of the 32 states that employed the death penalty after 1973, seventeen states used it fewer than ten times for a total of 59 executions in thirty years. Fourth, the fifteen states that used the death penalty ten or more times, account for over seventy percent of the executions. These states fall into several groups, but share a certain identity. There are those states with ten to 49 executions (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Illinois, Arizona, California). There are those with fifty to one hundred executions (Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma). And there are two states where you absolutely, positively did not want to get convicted of murder. Of the 820 executed, 289 (35 percent) were executed by Texas and thirteen by Delaware.  The common feature of most of these states is that they are Southern states.

Even these figures disguise important differences. In Texas, county prosecutors have the freedom to seek and courts can impose the death penalty. The vast majority of counties in Texas imposed no death penalties after 1973. So whence come the high totals for Texas (and hence for the United States as a whole)? Five urban counties accounted for 143 of the 289 death penalty cases: Nueces County (Corpus Christi) 10 executions; Bexar County (San Antonio) 18 executions; Tarrant County (Fort Worth) 22 executions; Dallas County (Dallas) 26 executions; and Harris County (Houston) 67 executions). Why are some small areas so bloody-minded?

Another distinction is temporal. While executions became legal once more in 1976, virtually none took place until 1987. [This probably reflected the delays introduced by extensive appeals.] Between 1994 and 1999, the number of executions accelerated.

What has happened since 2003? Actually, since 1999 the tide has been falling. DNA evidence began to become available. Deference to DNA evidence now sets a high bar for a death sentence. “Life-without-parole” emerged as an acceptable alternative, in the US if not in Scandinavia. Pharmaceutical companies have fled the lethal injection market. Six states have abolished the death penalty and the governors of two other states have imposed moratoriums. The number of death sentences issued each year has fallen from 300 in 1996 to 72 in 2014; the number of executions has fallen from 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014. The geographical distribution of death sentences and executions remains pretty much as before.

Similarly, the number of death sentences in China also has fallen—from 24,000 (1983) to 12,000 (2002) to a mere 2,400 (2014).

Jen Joynt and Carrie Shuchart, “The Nation in Numbers: Mortal Justice,” Atlantic, March 2003, pp. 40-41.

Ashby Jones, “Executions, Death Penalties Hit Multiyear Lows in U.S.,” WSJ, 18 December 2014.

Holy Land.

First the people of the Middle East “Medized” (adapted to Persian rule); then they “Hellenized” (adapted to Greek rule); then they “Romanized” (adapted to Roman rule); then they “Christianized” (accepted Christianity as the sole true faith); and then they “Islamized” (accepted Islam as the sole true faith). Not a great example of sticking to your guns, but pretty normal human behavior.[1] Of course, there were always people who didn’t want to go along. As one leading expert has said, “the Jews are a stiff-necked people.” In similar fashion, some Christians clung to their faith under Islam. As late as 1900, fully a quarter of the population of the Ottoman Empire was Christian.

Then came the tumultuous 20th Century. First, nationalism spread among the Christian peoples of the lower Balkans. In 1908 Austria-Hungary seized Bosnia to keep Serb nationalists from getting their hands on it. In 1912, the Serbs, Greeks, and Bulgarians conquered most of what remained of Turkey-in-Europe. In the early 1920s, the Greeks tried to conquer a big chunk of Turkey that contained many Greek and Armenian Christians. They over-reached and many Christians died or were expelled in the blood-bath that followed. Second, the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire broke up into nation-states that included adherence to Islam in their national identity. Arab birth rates rose (a sign of optimism), while Christians either had small families or emigrated (either one a sign of pessimism). By 2000 Christians made up only five percent of the population of the Middle East.

Since then, things have gotten dramatically worse. The secular dictatorships that ruled Iraq, Syria, and Egypt after they gained independence from the imperial powers had long repressed sectarian conflicts as well as human rights and liberty.[2] The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled one of these regimes. The Syrian civil war weakened another one. The “Arab Spring” let loose sectarian hostilities long held in check by the Mubarak regime in Egypt. Fearful Christians often sided with the secular regimes, so they came to be seen as counter-revolutionary and anti-democratic by those who already had a grievance against them. Faith-based initiatives followed. Both sides in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war in Iraq targeted Christians.   The bulk of the opponents of the Assad regime have always been conservative Sunni Muslims who leaned toward Islamism. Muhammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood dominated the writing of an Egyptian constitution that assigned a central place in society to Islam. The Morsi government did little to rein-in a wave of popular violence directed against Egyptian Christians.

As a result of this anti-Christian violence, 600,000 Iraqi Christians and 300,000 Syrian Christians had fled abroad by May 2013. Iraqi and Syrian Christians could flee to Turkey, still a peaceful and more-or-less secular state. Egyptian Christians didn’t have that option.[3]

Then there’s Pakistan, where a Christian couple were murdered by a mob on a false charge of blasphemy in Fall 2014. Not the first case of this. Can you say “Leo Frank”?


[1] Still, one can’t help but wonder if the Arabs aren’t the spineless descendants of spineless ancestors.

[2] I suppose one might think of lynching Christians as a “civil right” in a certain kind of society. Kind of like standing Tsarist Russia on its head.

[3] Maybe we could create Xr15t0 visas?


Climate of Fear XII.

What is the “price” of one ton of carbon-dioxide pollution emitted into the atmosphere? According to Obama administration economists, it is $37.[1] If you add that cost into the price of carbon, then market forces will nudge people to burn less carbon and will create a market for alternative energy sources. A government can either tax carbon burning directly or it can dodge around the formal tax by establish a system in which companies have to buy what amount to licenses to pollute. (These are usually labeled “cap-and-trade: solutions.)

People who depend on carbon-burning for jobs, profits, and comfort see carbon-pricing as getting their ox gored for the sake of scientific predictions in which they cannot afford to believe. Australia is a good example. It produces 5.5% of the world’s coal, most of it for export. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, a climate change believer, pushed through a carbon tax. In 2013, she lost her office. Her successor immediately got the tax repealed.

In 1990 the Country-Formerly-Known-As-East-Germany merged with West Germany.[2] East German had been an environmentalist’s nightmare, owing to its reliance on burning coal for energy. Many of the polluting electricity-generating plants were soon shut down. Nevertheless, Germany relied on coal for much of its fuel. In 1997 Germany adhered to the Kyoto Protocol. Angela Merkel was then serving as environment minister. Since then she has committed herself to cutting greenhouse gases. In 2007, as chancellor, she committed Germany to making substantial cuts in emissions. Cutting across this effort, however, was a desire to move away from nuclear energy. Germany had 17 nuclear plants, but started to shut them down as they aged, without building additional production capacity. The disaster at Fukushima in 2011 gave this slow movement a strong shove. As a result, Germany’s reliance on coal has returned to the 2007 levels. In 2013 Germany got 45 percent of its energy from burning coal and 25 percent from renewable energy. Moreover, coal miners and electrical plant workers are a big and well-connected constituency. It remains to be seen whether Merkel can push through real cuts.

The United States offers another good example. It produces 11.7% of the world’s coal.[3] In 2010, President Obama tried to get a cap-and-trade bill through the Senate, but was defeated by Republican opposition. The new Republican Congress isn’t likely to change course now.

If a carbon tax isn’t saleable in Western democracies with diverse economies, how will it fair in developing countries that rely heavily upon coal and oil to fuel their advance? India produces 7.7% of the world’s coal. China produces 46.4% of the world’s coal, all for domestic consumption. China signed a declaration sponsored by the World Bank that called for a price on carbon that reflected its real cost. China has begun cap-and-trade policies in some of its provinces. Loud snorts of derision followed the gestures: China continues to expand its burning of carbons and the declaration it signed was non-binding. Is it more than just window-dressing?

A German mining union official spoke for more than just German miners when he asked, “Is it worth it if we as a country succeed in reaching our targets in reducing carbon emissions, but sacrifice good jobs and our industrial base?”


[1] Coral Davenport, “President’s Drive For Carbon Pricing Fails to Win at Home,” NYT, 28 September 2014.

[2] Melissa Eddy, “Missing Its Own Goals, Germany Renews Effort to Cut Carbon Emissions,” NYT, 4 December 2014.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_coal_production

The History of AIDS.

For tens of thousands of years, some types of monkeys in West Africa have lived with a virus that attacks the immune system. Two different strains of it developed, one in Cameroon and one in the Senegal-Ivory Coast region. It wasn’t fatal because it was a “weak” virus. The immune system counter-attacked and fended off the virus. Over-simply put, it couldn’t evolve because the immune system jumped on it before the virus could make genetic changes. For the virus to evolve fast enough to become dangerous, it would have to be passed rapidly from one host to another—making changes along the way–before the immune-system hammered it flat.

So, no big deal even for diseased monkeys. However, American Indians hunted buffalo for food and Africans hunted “bushmeat” for food. Monkeys, tapirs, stuff like that. Then you had to skin them out to make steaks, chops, Kentucky Fried Tapir, etc. Butchers got nicked by knives and covered in (infected) blood along the way. So, the monkey immune-virus got into humans through open cuts. Still, this was not a big deal for most people because most Africans lived in isolated and not-very-large communities. That is, they lived in villages in the middle of forest clearings. The human version of the monkey immune deficiency, HIV, didn’t transmit very well because it needs to enter the bloodstream in some fashion. Even normal sex won’t do it most of the time. So, it settled into humans like it had settled into monkeys, and the human immune system fell on it.

So, no big deal even for diseased humans. However, European imperialists took over West and Central Africa in the late 19th Century. They tried to turn the place into a paying concern by starting plantations, building ports and railroads and warehouses, and corralling a lot of African labor. Port cities, railroad towns, and mining camps sprang up. All had large African working populations and small European ruling populations. People kept pouring in from the countryside. Most were men, but a minority were women.

The truth of the matter is that guys will pay for sex. Prostitution thrived in the towns of Central Africa. So did venereal diseases like syphilis. These diseases cause genital ulcers.[1] Such ulcers greatly facilitated the rapid spread of HIV into the human bloodstream. Rapid transmission allowed rapid genetic evolution into the fearsome plague we know today. Widespread vaccination of workers against smallpox compounded the problem because the colonial medical authorities did not sterilize needles between injections in order to save money.[2]

So, a big deal for African workers, but no big deal for anyone else. However, in the mid-1960s, HIV reached the Western Hemisphere and Europe. In all likelihood, a merchant seaman carried it from one port to another. In the early 1960s a young Norwegian merchant sailor spent time in West Africa. He came down with gonorrhea and was infected with HIV. By 1968 he had abandoned the sea to work as a long-haul truck-driver in Europe. He often had sex with prostitutes while on trips. He died in 1976. In 1966 a boy in St. Louis contracted HIV by some unknown means and died of it in 1969. Was a closeted gay man working in tropical medicine at one of the St. Louis universities? HIV/AIDS was still unknown outside Africa at the time and American and European doctors were stumped. About the same time some still-unidentified person traveled from the newly-independent Democratic Republic of the Congo to Haiti. S/he carried HIV. An epidemic soon began in Haiti. From here it was communicated in much greater numbers to the United States. By 1981 doctors had begun to identify an HIV/AIDS epidemic.


[1] See: US Army training films during the Second World War.

[2] I’m not making this up. Alas.

Climate of Fear XI.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) issues reports on critical energy issues. It’s “Energy Technology Perspectives” reports offer an insight into climate change issues. So, is the glass half-full or is it empty?

The power industry produces almost 40 percent of America’s carbon dioxide emissions. There have been big technological gains in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These improvements are what allowed President Obama to order a 30 percent reduction in emissions from a 2005 baseline by coal-burning power plants by 2030. (His recent agreement with the Chinese apparently merely ratified changes already underway.)

People have stopped believing in some of the alternative energy sources touted by environmentalists. All these technologies hold promise, but they are not yet anywhere near price competitive with carbon energy generation. Funding for things like bio-energy, offshore wind,[1] and geo-thermal dropped more than twenty percent between 2011 and 2013. It can be dangerous to extrapolate from brief periods of change. The price of photovoltaic solar cells dropped sharply from 2008 to 2012 because a land-rush of producers into the market led to savage price competition. The subsequent shake-out has led to a stabilization of prices. The “levelized” costs of solar energy generation have fallen by 40 percent from their 2010 estimate. Thus, as part of the stimulus, the Obama administration heavily subsidized alternative energy generation sources. As a result, in 2010, the US added 5 gigawatts of energy generation from wind-power; in 2011 it added 7 gigawatts; and in 2012 it added a whopping 13 gigawatts. The end of the stimulus left wind-power generation becalmed: in 2013, the US added only 1 gigawatt from wind-power, and 2014 isn’t shaping up to be much of an improvement. Lesson: in the current state of technology, alternative fuels are only competitive with carbon-fueled energy generation when the government “levels the playing field” by tilting it in one direction.

What are the real possibilities?

By 2019, onshore wind generation could cost $71/megawatt, “even without subsidies.” By 2040, in exceptionally windy places (Washington, DC?) the cost might be as low as $63.40/megawatt. By 2040 nuclear-generated power might cost $80.00/megawatt. By 2040 solar might generate power at $86.50/megawatt. None of this is going to amount to much.

The IEA predicts that by 2040 only 16.5 percent of energy will be produced from renewable resources. More than 65 percent will come from the burning of coal and gas. This means that “carbon capture” technology must develop rapidly. However, “carbon capture” technologies are failing to develop at an adequate pace. Costs are high relative to the return, so no one is interested in investing. Similarly, we need a 24 percent increase in nuclear power generation by 2025 to fend off drastic climate change.[2] Instead, nuclear generating capacity is falling.

The best solution to this problem is a severe carbon tax. Today the US emits about 5.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide. If carbon emissions were taxed at $25/ton beginning in 2015, with a 5 percent/year increase (i.e. rising to about $60/ton by 2040), lots of alternative energy sources would start to look more attractive—if not attractive.

Eduardo Porter, “A Carbon Tax Could Bolster Green Energy,” NYT, 19 November 2014.

[1] Migrating birds and drunken pleasure-boaters alike are happy about this.

[2] Build a lot of nukes in Maine. No one lives there and the winds aloft will carry the fall-out from the inevitable accident across the Atlantic to Portugal and Spain. Bad for the cork oaks and cod donuts I’ll grant you.