Category Archives: Environmental Politics

Posts about global environmental politics

Climate Change is the BIG issue in IR

COP_12_MAVThe most important issue in IR today, climate change, is receiving little scholarly attention in our discipline. To help address this gap, I am hereby winding down much of my work on war, retiring from my IR textbook, and will make climate change my main area of work. Thirty years ago I set out to understand war because it was the overriding moral issue of our time and the greatest threat to humanity. Today that issue is climate change.

Climate matters not only for practical reasons but because it cuts to the heart of IR as a field. IR is all about the governance of an “anarchic” system with weak central authority, in which power resides primarily in sovereign states whose individually rational decisions lead to bad outcomes for all. We call it the collective goods problem (public goods, collective actions, Prisoners’ Dilemma, etc.). It’s the central, pervasive theme of my IR textbook, shaping subfields from war to trade to international development. But the biggest example, the most difficult dilemma, and the case with the greatest impact is climate change.

Each actor’s economy benefits from burning fossil fuels, no single actor can affect the overall outcome alone, yet all will suffer catastrophic consequences as a result. The global governance mechanisms have proven very weak – the Kyoto treaty basically failed, targets are not being met, some leading economies are backsliding, and nobody has a workable plan for how to change our trajectory. Year by year, for our global institutions it’s “talk, baby, talk” while in the real world it’s “drill, baby, drill” from the melting Arctic to the American shale fields to the Persian Gulf.

The basic structural challenges to reaching agreement are amplified by several additional problems. Today’s generation would have to pay costs for the benefit of future generations – a hard sell whether in a democracy or an autocracy. Rich country would have to pay for the benefit of poor countries. And specific constituencies and regions will feel different costs and impacts:  multinational oil companies versus farmers in Bangladesh, for example. On top of it all, there is widespread public confusion about the issue, notably in its categorization as an “environmental” problem as though it will impact cute animals not cities.

This then is a prime area for IR scholarship in general and IR theory in particular.  The guru of IR theory, Robert Keohane, thinks so. But he writes, “In view of the magnitude of climate change, it is distressing to observe the slow response from political science as a discipline.” That’s an understatement. Consider the current issues of our leading IR journals. Let’s count the number of climate change articles and the total number of articles:

  • International Studies Quarterly, 0 for 16
  • Am. Political Science Review, 0 for 10
  • International Organization, 0 for 11
  • World Politics, 0 for 5
  • Journal of Conflict Resolution, 0 for 7
  • Journal of Peace Research, 2 for 8

Across these six journals, we have 2 climate-related articles out of 57. Both of those are about possible effects of shifting weather patterns on something we do study – armed conflicts. Not a single article deals with the challenge of an international system trying to come to terms with a massive collective goods problem that threatens civilization. This in a year when the world will gather in Paris to try for a new global agreement to grapple with the problem. Debra Javeline calls climate change “the most important topic political scientists are not studying.”

Climate change is not an environmental issue. It’s an existential issue – the slow-motion equivalent of an asteroid heading for earth. We have no effective global mechanism to develop and launch a mission to knock that asteroid off its trajectory. Yet every day it gets closer and harder to shift off its course. How would the world respond to that scenario?  Would a hegemon take the reins and implement a solution?  The G20?  The United Nations?  Would all countries have to contribute to an expensive solution?  Would competing programs by different states step on each other’s toes?  Would private companies abandon the profit motive to develop technologies to save us? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking about climate change in IR. Now would be a good time to start. The asteroid is not waiting.

[Photo credit:  COP 12 MAV by agenciaandes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Philippines Storm and Climate Change

Super typhoon Haiyan: survivors walk past a ship that lies on top of damaged homesThanks to the BBC (again), we can watch in near-real time as desperate masses of Filipinos struggle to stay alive without water, food, or health care. The “super-typhoon” that hit them is possibly the biggest storm ever recorded.

On the other side of the world, in Poland, an international conference got underway to try to negotiate about precursors to a possible agreement to someday set targets to reduce the growth of the rate at which we are adding carbon to the atmosphere. The Philippine delegate cut through all that with an emotional speech that electrified the room, linking the devastation in the Philippines to the world’s failure to prevent climate change. “We can fix this. We can stop this madness,” he pleaded. He began fasting until the conference takes effective action.

The media coverage of this storm and other recent weather destruction always warns us that no particular weather disaster can be attributed to climate change. This is technically true, but misleading. If you are sitting on the beach while the tide is rising, you will notice that some waves come up much higher on the beach than others, unpredictably, and with no relation to the tide. But over time, for certain, your picnic is going to get soaked. Same thing with planet Earth – our picnic is for certain going to be completely soaked if we continue on our current path.

People wonder if the recent weather disasters will be the “new normal.” The answer is definitely no. The new normal will be far, far worse. The trends that will play out over the next few decades have only just begun. This is just a little taste of a future that will be truly catastrophic, barring a major change in the direction of human civilization.

The massive denial about climate change that now pervades our collective consciousness is reminiscent of the “nuclear numbing” of the public during the Cold War. We were aware of such matters as nuclear war planning, but their logical consequences were too horrible to look at. So we delegated the uncomfortable core issues to experts and policy makers, who could treat the issues surgically, with acronyms and euphemisms. The nuclear freeze movement upended that arrangement, and I wish the same would happen for climate change. The experts and policy makers are not solving it. The international governance institutions are not up to the job. And, embarrassingly, my own dear United States is on the wrong side of the issue, emitting way more than its share of carbon and failing to lead the push for change, indeed even undermining the world’s feeble efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol (unratified by the USA).

Climate change is the overriding moral issue of our time. So when I say the USA is on the wrong side of the issue, I mean the wrong side of history.

[Donations to help the people in the Philippines can be made through one of these groups.]

Roundup — Pace of Events Picks Up

Whether it’s a coincidence or a pre-holiday frenzy, the pace of activity in the world’s hotspots picked up this weekend going into what will be an important week.

Egypt Tahrir square protestLet’s start with the Arab Spring countries. In Egypt, protesters staged the largest demonstration in Tahrir Square since Mubarak’s ouster. Islamists and liberals are back together, and they want the military government to speed the transition to democracy. Until now, the military continues to hold power tightly and to arrest opponents at will. Government forces assaulted the protesters, killing at least 11 people, but protesters took back the square and the clash continues. Parliamentary elections are scheduled in a week (Nov. 28), the first step in a prolonged, slow process of building a democracy in Egypt.

In Libya, the government has captured Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif and, the next day, Gaddafi’s intelligence chief.  Both have been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, which wants them sent to the Hague for trial. The new government, however, plans to try them in Libya. Presumably they will get more of a due process than Gaddafi himself, who was shot in the head shortly after being captured.

In Syria, the Arab League’s deadline to end the violent crackdown on protesters passed this weekend, and the League rejected Syria’s efforts to modify a plan to send in League monitors. This week the League will consider economic sanctions and other measures against Syria, a sign of the striking isolation of the Assad regime internationally. Not only has armed resistance against the government begun to pick up recently, but so has sectarian violence among armed gangs of Sunnis, Alawites, and Christians who make up the ethnic mix of the country. Russia expressed concern the country was sliding into civil war.

Meanwhile in Europe the euro crisis continues. Although Italy installed its new technocrat prime minister and passed an economic austerity bill, new riots erupted in Greece in response to cutbacks there. In Spain, conservatives won a big election victory this weekend, taking power from the socialists and promising economic reforms. But markets had already spoken, pushing up Spain’s borrowing costs to the 7 percent level. Even France — let’s just say almost everyone but Germany — is facing high borrowing costs and a crisis of confidence. The solution of having the European Central Bank inject money into the troubled eurozone economies is opposed by Germany. And while Germany wants to respond by deepening European economic integration, Britain wants to go the other direction. The mess will play out this week at an ever more knuckle-biting pace.

Two important UN reports came out this month. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran appears to be making substantial progress toward building a nuclear weapon. Now the United States, Britain, and Canada are preparing new sanctions on Iran in response. Meanwhile the scientific body, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that climate change is likely tied to destructive weather events that seem to be on the rise. Look for more heat waves, droughts, and heavy rains in the coming years, though it’s not clear whether hurricanes will be affected. Negotiations to reduce carbon emissions are at a virtual standstill.

In Asia, the new reform-minded president of Burma (Myanmar) has loosened the military’s grip a bit and opened up elections to the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the longstanding leader of the nonviolent opposition. ASEAN has rewarded Burmese reforms by scheduling the country to host the next summit of the regional group, and President Obama recognized the changes by sending Hillary Clinton for a visit that could lead eventually to a normalization of relations after many years of sanctions.

Obama himself returned home this weekend after his Asia trip, where China was the ever-present subtext. (Harvard professor Stephen Walt makes the case for containing a rising China, which I recently argued against.  I share the NY Times editorial assessment that pivoting to Asia must not stand in the way of defense spending cuts.) The big challenge, writes Fareed Zakaria, is China’s:

People keep saying that America needs a new China strategy. But I think if you see how many countries are wondering about Beijing, the truth is that China needs a new China strategy. Beijing needs to recognize that it has become a world power, that its every move is now deeply analyzed, and that it is expected to play by the rules – indeed, it is expected to help maintain the rules. Will it? That’s one of the big questions of this new century.

Obama may wish he stayed in Asia when he gets back to dealing with Congress. In a striking example of the importance of domestic politics to foreign policy, the Congressional “super committee” must decide by Monday how to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget deficit, or face automatic across-the-board cuts. Republicans (who oppose increasing taxes as part of the deal) have claimed the automatic cuts would destroy our defense establishment, but I’m not convinced. (The levels of cuts are perfectly manageable, though it would be better to plan them rationally.)

By Sunday night, everyone seemed to agree the talks would fail, but I would caution that this is clearly a Chicken game, and in Chicken there is never any deal until the last possible moment. Indeed, it is only the prospect of imminent disaster that induces a deal. Unfortunately that means a minor miscalculation or unexpected event can lead to a disaster for everyone. Failure to reach a deficit deal could, furthermore, put a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating back in play.

The combination of a possible eurozone meltdown and a possible deadlock on the U.S. deficit could make this an international economic week to remember. Fasten your selt belts, everyone. We might hit a few bumps.

Seven Billion and Counting

Baby photoToday the world’s population passes seven billion, more or less. Population is growing by about 200,000 a day and nobody really knows when it passed, or will pass, this milestone. But UN officials declared October 31 as their best guess.

This led to some silliness about declaring one person to be the “seven billionth baby” — proof that people like stories better than statistics. Since India is the country with the most babies being born, and Uttar Pradesh the most populous state in India, with 11 new babies every minute, why not pick a baby there as the lucky number 7 billion?  Why not indeed? “A primary health centre in Sunhaida village has predicted the baby will be born to 25-year-old Pinky Pawar, wife of a local shopkeeper.”

Then a couple of NGOs that focus on the skewed sex ratio of boys and girls, the result of sex-selective abortions, decided to pick a girl baby in Uttar Pradesh, in order to draw attention to their issue. They picked the newborn daughter of a poor farmer, Baby Nargis, to symbolize how great baby girls are (what’s not to like?)

But why cede ground to India? International relations is a competitive business after all. The Philippines got a jump by declaring Danica Camacho the 7 billionth even though she was born two minutes before midnight. Her mother said simply, “She looks so lovely.” But a Philippines health official warned, “We should really focus on the question of whether there will be food, clean water, shelter, education and a decent life for every child … If the answer is ‘no,’ it would be better for people to look at easing this population explosion.” Easier said than done.

Recently I have been lecturing about the encouraging decline of armed conflict worldwide in recent decades. At almost every event, someone in the audience asks whether it isn’t true that the world’s growing population and a shortage of natural resources will send war back into an upswing. My answer is mostly no. The partial truth behind this idea is that poverty is a big risk factor for civil war Economist Paul Collier has written clearly about the “conflict trap” in which war keeps poverty in place while poverty makes war more likely. To the extent that growing world population makes it harder for the poorest countries to get economic growth going, those countries will be at greater risk of civil wars. However, we can see from the example of India that rising population and some festering little civil wars do not necessarily hold back a big country from getting its economic legs under it. India’s economy is growing robustly, its birthrate has been falling for years, and its war-proneness is also gradually abating. The same is generally true for the world as a whole.

As for fighting over natural resources, I don’t really buy it. It’s one thing to see small bands of thugs, I mean armed militias, grabbing diamonds or coltan in very remote locations in very poor countries in Africa. But the idea of big wars between countries fought over water or oil or food doesn’t fly. After all, this was the model of Japan in the 1930s — use military conquest to secure access to needed natural resources — and of Germany’s military expansion to gain “living room” for its growing population. How did that work out for them?

Today China has some conflicts with its neighbors over, say, oil in the South China Sea. The moment a war breaks out, nobody will be able to pump oil there. Or take Israel and Lebanon, trying to figure out who owns newly discovered natural gas deposits offshore near their border. Fighting over them will not allow the gas to be developed. Rather, the way to get the goods is through negotiation, agreeing on a line or a division of the spoils, and using international institutions to monitor compliance. In the Caspian Sea, vast oil deposits were discovered just after the Soviet Union broke up and the international boundaries were unclear. But no war resulted. Instead the countries yelled at each other for a few years, then got out the maps, drew some lines, and started pumping oil.

Thinking about the big wars of recent decades, none of them were fought over access to natural resources: The Ethiopia-Eritrea war,the Iran-Iraq War, the India-Pakistan Wars, the Vietnam War, the Korean War. Some people look at the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a grab for oil, but if so it sure didn’t work out.

Wealth these days comes from trade, not land. Trade is disrupted by war.  Countries used to encourage patriotic baby-production to create larger armies. Now technology trumps size in military conflicts. Therefore a growing population does not mean growing levels of violent conflict.

As for baby Danica Camacho in the Philippines and baby Nargis in India, they arrive in a world wired for Internet, not for war. Just Google “Danica Camacho billion” — 200,000 results, impressive for someone not yet a day old. And “baby Nargis billion”?  2.4 million pages. We have a winner!  You go baby!

The World’s Most Important Issues

Here’s a shout-out to the college students starting the semester using my textbook International Relations. You will learn about many complex issues, trends, and theories. But keep your eye on some Big Issues that matter most. Here are five of them:

1. Global Warming. It is for your generation the greatest threat to humanity, a catalyst of international conflicts, and an issue that the international system has proven utterly incapable of solving so far. Global warming is the very model of a “collective goods problem” in that all countries will share the outcome but each one’s contribution to that outcome is made independently. If China and the United States keep burning coal (and they do), Europe, Southeast Asia, and others will pay the price even if they themselves act responsibly.

Within countries, where there is a government with coercive powers, the solution to problems like this is to force people to follow a solution, just like we make cars get smog inspections and repairs. The international system (a.k.a. “anarchy”) does not have that option. So we’re left with cooperative arrangements based on reciprocity, like the Kyoto treaty — you cut x amount of carbon, we cut y amount…  Without enforcement, and with long-term benefits but short-term costs, it hasn’t worked.

For decades, scientists have warned that global warming would lead to bigger storms, floods, droughts, and fires as the world’s weather system became unbalanced. Hurricane Katrina came and went, and lately we seem to have lots of these weather disasters. But a rising number of Americans, now about half, think the effects of global warming have been exaggerated. Congress certainly doesn’t want to pay to address it. And China still wants to keep growing at 10 percent a year.

As you learn about world order and the many structures of the international system, state-based and nonstate, think about this question: What would need to happen in order for the world to respond effectively to the problem of global warming?

2. The Decline of Armed Conflict: Another huge and underappreciated trend is the decrease in warfare in recent decades. The world’s states have not only joined the UN and agreed to work out their problems peacefully, they’ve actually stopped fighting. The remaining wars of the world, civil wars, are being gradually dampened, with greater effectiveness, by international peacekeeping.

What is it about the international system that has let countries deal with one of the worst, oldest problems of the human race, war, so much better than it deals with global warming? This issue is so important, it’s the subject of my new book, Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.

3. The Arab Spring: Nobody knows quite why it happened — presumably the huge “youth bulge” in Arab countries’ demographics had a role, as did the spread of information technologies, and the poor economic performance of the Arab world. And nobody knows quite where it’s going — perhaps a democratic transformation of the entire region, or perhaps a bloody Shi’ite-Sunni war. But everyone knows that It’s Big!

This is the latest of the waves of democratization that have swept the world over several decades, touching Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Military governments are becoming rare, and authoritarianism seems to be endangered. Stay tuned for breaking developments this semester!

4. Palestine: Speaking of the Middle East, the Israel-Palestine conflict can seem like just part of the background music in world politics, but it’s actually moving toward a breakthrough or breakdown. The world’s longest-running major armed conflict (60+ years), Palestine holds tremendous emotional resonance for Arabs and Muslims whose countries are not even remotely affected by the conflict directly. It also shapes America’s standing in a world region where a lot of oil comes from.

Later this month, Palestine may bring its case to the United Nations. That has set off a flurry of activity either to support that option or come up with an alternative. In effect, the idea of a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security) is on the line, with support eroding on both sides.

5. The Euro Zone:  Many of the benefits that countries enjoy in the international system come from trade and prosperity, no where more so than in Europe. The economic crisis that began in 2008, and has never really resolved, threatens those benefits. China faces the loss of export markets. The United States faces paralyzing stagnation. Most importantly, Europe faces the greatest test ever of its experiment in economic integration.

In particular, the euro currency — the world’s boldest financial experiment in history — is on the line. When it created the euro, the EU let individual countries control their own fiscal policies (taxation, spending), while centralizing monetary policy (how much currency to print). Right away it became clear that some countries, notably Greece but including big players like France, had cheated on the requirements of fiscal discipline needed before adopting the euro. Now Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and even Italy are facing debt crises because they spend too much and don’t take in enough revenue. Cutting government spending in the middle of a stagnant economic period is politically unpopular and may not make much sense economically either. But that leaves Germany and other stronger, more responsible EU members holding the bag for the problems of Greece & Co. The Germans don’t want to pay for others’ problems, but don’t want to let the euro be destroyed either. Again, stay tuned.

So, there you have it — five big issues to keep in mind, ranging from environmental politics to conflict to political economy. If you are a student studying IR this semester, you will have a great seat to watch the concepts in your textbook unfold in the real world in real-time.

Electric Cars – Closer Than They Appear

The most important and most intractable problem in international relations is not war or poverty, each of which are seeing rapid progress in recent years. It’s global warming, where a world-scale disaster is unfolding and the international community seems to lack fundamental tools to craft a solution. Individuals, cities, U.S. states, and some countries are trying to find answers, but the big international agreements like Kyoto and Copenhagen have been, essentially, a big bust. Carbon continues to accumulate in the atmosphere as fast as ever.

Last week I saw a fascinating presentation in a converted water tank, now a 100-person theater with seats repurposed from old car seats. It was the visitor’s center of the company, Better Place, near Tel Aviv. The presentation highlighted how much bad comes from something we all do every day – getting in a car and driving. Gas-powered cars are a major source of carbon dioxide worldwide, they prop up unsavory regimes in oil-exporting countries, they are a big contributor to the U.S. trade deficit. Also they make a lot of noise and they stink. The technology is a hundred years old, and Better Place wants to revolutionize it through a massive switchover from gas to electric cars.

Right now a lot of the electricity we use comes from coal, a dirty fuel (even after the industry rebranding it by fiat as “clean coal”). But over the time it will take to switch over from gas to electric cars, alternative ways of making electricity will become more economical, so the electric car offers a path forward, a possibility (the word we heard a lot at Better Place) for the cleaner future we need. Gas cars by contrast are a dead end.

Personally, I’ve been driving an electric car for about three years. It’s a Solectria Force, one of about 400 made by a Boston company in the 1990s. They quit after no major car company would pick it up, but quite a few of the old ones are still on the road. It uses 13 regular lead-acid car batteries. My car is fun to drive, economical (the equivalent of 100 mpg in fuel cost terms), and very practical for driving kids around town and the like.The range is about 40 miles — plenty for most trips — and then you plug it in right in your garage and never have to visit a gas station. We keep a gas car too, for longer trips.

The two big drawbacks of our electric car are (1) there is no service other than getting out your own wrenches and then relying on other Solectria owners who connect on the Internet; and (2) let’s face it, this thing was a Geo Metro before it got electric, so it’s pretty stripped-down and underpowered.

At the Better Place visitor’s center, I got to test-drive one of their new cars, made for them by Renault. They’ve solved my two problems completely. Customer service is available by phone 24/7 by pushing a button in the car, and the driving experience is decidedly un-Geo Metrolike. It’s a nice comfortable sedan with good acceleration and a fun driving experience. I want one! Not enough to move to Seattle — one of the areas where you’ll first see the car, along with Israel, Denmark, Australia, and Hawaii — but enough to be impatient.

The big innovation with Better Place, compared with the other electric cars everyone now seems to be selling, is their solution to “range anxiety.” This is the feeling drivers have that their electric car could strand them, even though most trips are in fact within the range of the car. (Lithium batteries now used give more like 100 miles compared with my car’s 40 miles.) The Chevy Volt solves it with an onboard gasoline-powered generator, and that’s fine but still gas-based. Better Place solves it with a network of charging spots to plug in, and of robotic battery-swapping stations that can give you a fully charged battery in less than five minutes while you sit in the car. The Better Place model is that you own the car but not the battery — you pay for fuel by the mile, not by the gallon. A NY Times Magazine article a couple of years ago nicely describes range anxiety and Better Place’s solution.

The car’s GPS system knows where you are and where all the charging spots and battery-swap stations are. When you tell it to go from Point A to Point B, it says, “great, but we’ll stop at Point C briefly for a battery swap.”  There’s more detail to their system but the essence is that in a gas car you’re on your own but in a Better Place car you’re embedded in an intelligent network that takes care of you.

Electric cars are fun to drive and to blog about, but the big point here is that someone has a big idea to transform one of the biggest stumbling blocks that’s kept us from solving global warming. When I heard about the Better Place plan a couple of years ago, I thought they were insanely ambitious. I was wondering how we get the first one percent of drivers to go electric (millions of people). They were thinking, how do we get everyone. Now that I’ve driven the car myself, I still think the plan is insanely ambitious, but holds great possibility. And being fun doesn’t hurt.

In Praise of UNICEF

UNICEF photo of childThe famine in Somalia continues to call for our attention and response. As stepped-up international aid begins to arrive, I have been noticing the key role of an agency we too easily take for granted — the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF.

It’s not just how much UNICEF does, but how many different kinds of things. UNICEF has operated in Somalia continuously since 1972. In the past week, it vaccinated 40,000 children under five, and a like number of women, in Mogadishu alone, while gearing up to vaccinate 55,000 more kids in Somalia and another 200,000 in areas of Kenya overrun with refugees. Recently, when the Islamic militant group al Shabab eased its restriction on international aid to areas it controls, the first in with an airlift to the town of Baidoa was UNICEF. This involved a delicate negotiation to ensure aid was not diverted by the militants and that aid workers were not harmed. The latter, sadly, cannot be taken for granted, as aid workers in Somalia have been harassed, kidnapped, and killed in the past. In Burundi in 1999 the UNICEF representative was murdered by rebels.

The agency’s role in emergencies such as the present one is laudable. But more impressive is its worldwide presence. UNICEF is the largest purchaser of vaccines worldwide, responsible for 40 percent of vaccines used in developing countries. It provides nutritional supplements such as Vitamin A, and helps with mosquito nets for malaria. UNICEF also promotes breast-feeding and other low-cost methods to enhance child health.

These efforts are dramatically improving prospects for poor children. In just thirty years, immunization rates went from below 20 percent to 75 percent worldwide. And most impressively, in just 20 years since 1990, the overall mortality for children under five has fallen by a third, from about 12 million to 8 million a year. That translates to 12,000 fewer child deaths per day. And the progress is accelerating in the new century compared with the 1990s. Many people are sad that the world is falling short of a Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015, but one-third in twenty years is still historically unprecedented.

UNICEF operates in 150 countries and sticks around through thick and thin. In Sierra Leone in the 1990s, UNICEF arrived years before any peacekeepers, and stayed on when fighting flared and the peacekeepers left for a while.

All this from an agency that receives no money from the UN budget, and relies entirely on voluntary contributions from governments, businesses and individuals. When I was a kid, we collected donations at Halloween in little orange boxes. Today kids continue this tradition, started in 1950, but this year people short of spare change can scan a Microsoft Tag on the box with a smart phone to donate to UNICEF. Don’t wait for Halloween, though — the UNICEF website is here. Or think about supporting the other organizations doing vital work in the Somalia famine, mentioned in earlier blog posts:  Oxfam, the World Food Program, the International Rescue Committee, and Doctors Without Borders.

The international response to a famine says a lot about who we are, as human beings. In this case things were slow to get going, but are gearing up impressively as the international community mobilizes. NGOs and agencies like UNICEF have learned a lot over the years, and are doing a good job with limited resources. It’s worth a “thank you” and some money in that orange box.

Sharing the South China Sea

Map of S. China Sea

(Note: Hainan island is part of China). BBC map.

China has unexpectedly agreed with its ASEAN neighbors on a new set of guidelines to implement their general agreement (2002) about peaceful exploration in the South China Sea. Apparently Chinese leaders decided their previous stance of “Mine! All mine!” was not the most productive approach after all.

When approved by all the governments, the guidelines should cool tensions and improve coordination of efforts to explore for oil and other resources in the sea, which is very rich in resources indeed (possibly second to Saudi Arabia in oil). The countries might even scale back their little displays of power, such as when China recently clipped cables being towed by Vietnamese and Philippine survey boats (two different incidents). Maybe the Vietnamese navy will stop harassing Chinese fishing boats. Or maybe not, but the point is that an agreement is better than none, and talking is better than skirmishing at sea.

The Law of the Sea treaty has brought a lot of good benefits to the world, but it does create one recurring problem — conflicts over little islands. It all started with the treaty’s solution to the problem of overfishing, which was to give each country a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The zones more or less coincide with the continental shelf and hence the fish concentrations. So now Spanish or Taiwanese factory fishing ships can’t come in next to Canada’s shore and suck out everything that swims.

The problem is that the EEZ system means that ownership of a tiny island in the middle of nowhere give a country economic control of the fish, the oil and gas, and the undersea minerals for 200 miles in every direction. That’s about 125,000 square miles of goodies for an island that might be one square mile. But what if the  island is not in the middle of nowhere, but in a sea crowded with a lot of other little islands and surrounded by six countries that each claim all or some of the islands? That’s the situation with the South China Sea, encompassing the Spratly and Paracel island groups.

The solution is to talk it out and probably come to an agreement to split up revenues or coordinate who gets to exploit what resources. That kind of agreement takes a long time and gets very complicated, but it can work. What’s the alternative? War is not likely to give a country stable control, and China has to take into account that the United States has held military exercises recently with both Vietnam and the Philippines. (See my recent post about power balancing.) Nobody will get the goodies in the South China Sea if war drives away investors and hampers trade.

The Chinese leadership also may have in the back of their minds China’s last war, fought in 1979 against Vietnam to “teach them a lesson” after Vietnam took over Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge disaster. In the end, as Vietnam got the better of the fighting, it was China that learned a lesson from this “Pedagogical War,” and the lesson was that war does not pay. China hasn’t fought one since.

Somalia Famine Declared

Yesterday the UN declared that a famine exists in southern Somalia, a designation triggered by specific levels of malnutrition and mortality in the population. Ten million people are affected. The declaration is designed to trigger a much stronger response from the international community. The USA pledged $28 million more, which is more than nothing but less than enough.

Somali child / BBC NewsOne important part of the response is private contributions from individuals around the world. The best way to help is to send money to groups working on the ground in East Africa, and I really like the three organizations suggested by ABC News’s Dr. Rich Besser. They are doing great work and can use your contributions effectively:

World Food Programme (for actually getting food to the hungry). You can donate online to or you can make a $10 donation to the World Food Programme by texting AID to 27722.

Doctors Without Borders (for medical care for the refugees)

International Rescue Committee (IRC) (for making the refugee camps work).

The famine results from a combination of drought, high food prices, and the breakdown of society in Somalia, including the decision (just recently reversed) by the Islamic militants who control much of southern Somalia to ban international aid groups over the last year.

In 1992-93, the United States sent a military force to protect humanitarian supplies during a famine in Somalia. The mission accomplished that goal and stopped the deaths of several thousand people a day who had been starving there before the intervention. When 18 Americans were killed by a local militia, the United States quickly pulled out, followed by the UN, and left Somalia to its fate. For twenty years since then, Somalia has been just about the worst, most intractable conflict in the world, and now we’re back where we started (although not as bad as 1992, mercifully). Is an intervention that costs 18 American lives and saves many thousands of Somali lives a “failure?”  Food for thought.


East Africa Drought

Today I’d like to pause and give some sympathy and support to the displaced people in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya who are suffering from drought on top of war. Refugees International calls it the worst drought in Somalia in sixty years.

Here is background video from al Jazeera:

Oxfam writes:

Severe drought has pushed more than 10 million people in East Africa into a struggle for survival. Conditions are deteriorating rapidly, forcing many families to abandon their homes for refugee camps, a journey so difficult many don’t survive. In some areas, more than half the livestock has perished, while remaining herds are sick or seriously underweight.

Oxfam is trucking water to villages where all other sources have dried up, digging wells and providing life-saving food and medical supplies to people in crisis. As this crisis grows, we MUST rush more supplies and staff to Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

Here’s a video about the kind of work Oxfam is doing in drought-prone east Africa:

And here’s where you can donate if you want to help Oxfam provide humanitarian aid to the displaced people from Somalia:

Oxfam America — Donate