Archive for April, 2014

April, 2014

When facing down Putin, don’t let him choose your ground

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Adam Quinn

Adam Quinn is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the Dept of Political Science and International Studies (POLSIS) and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS)

American presidents often grow to enjoy foreign-policymaking more than the domestic kind as their time in office goes on. One reason is that they find that the comparative lack of interest it holds for both Congress and the general public allows them scope to make decisions with less need to bend to short-term political pressure. Sometimes, however, events come together in such a way as to thrust foreign policy into the spotlight of the 24-hour news cameras, as they did in Ukraine in February with the overthrow by popular uprising of President Viktor Yanukovych. That event, the latest product of deep, longstanding divisions within Ukraine regarding its relations with its powerful neighbour, Russia, has triggered a spiral of unforeseen repercussions. These included Russia’s annexation of the majority-Russian-speaking region of Crimea and destabilisation of the remaining eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian and Moscow-backed paramilitaries.

The apparent inability or unwillingness of the United States to do much in the way of concrete action to prevent this, in spite of its support for the new Kiev government, has led to a good deal of public fulmination on the part of President Obama’s political critics at home, rarely in short supply, largely focused upon his supposedly having tacitly provoked Russian adventurism by projecting ‘weakness’ in the face of foreign aggression. Implicit admiration for the virility of President Putin’s contrastingly ruthless and assertive pursuit of Russian interests, if not for those interests themselves, has coursed through the hawkish wing of the American foreign policy commentariate. Targeted economic sanctions have imposed some limited cost on the Russian regime, but apparently not enough to outweigh Putin’s determination to make his point regarding Russia’s right to assert special prerogative as a hegemonic power in its own ‘near abroad’. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Western backers seem to have concluded that the risks entailed by even suggesting a military dimension to their response are prohibitive, with President Obama adopting a loftily dismissive tone regarding the threat posed by Russia, noting its status as a ‘regional power’ rather than a global force.

With the appeasement of Hitler’s expansionism at Munich being the favoured analogy of many, should we be alarmed that that the United States has been disinclined to take an uncompromising stand against Putin’s destabilisation and partial dismemberment of a weaker neighbour? No. Or at least, not so long as the American strategy is to concede Russian ‘gains’ – if that is what they are – so far while planning ahead for the defence of the United States’ greater regional interests in the longer term.

It is important to bear four points in mind when considering the present situation. First, there is nothing that the United States can realistically do, short of the nuclear war, to defend Ukraine should Russian choose to use its military superiority to bully it. The combination of geographical proximity and asymmetric geopolitical commitment make it impossible for the United States to respond to Russian use of conventional military force across its Ukranian border. The analogous reverse-scenario of imagining Russia attempting to defend Mexico against a US incursion is something of an overstatement in light of differences in US and Russian military transport capabilities, but the point remains that extreme differences in geographical advantage count for a lot. Second, the United States has never committed to defend Ukraine’s borders, and its failure to do so now conveys no message whatsoever regarding its willingness to live up to its actual guarantee to its NATO allies. It therefore in no way weakens the United States position in Eastern Europe and may strengthen the attachment its NATO allies feel to the American alliance. If it was prepared to defend Ukraine when push came to shove, the United States would have admitted Ukraine to NATO, and it did not precisely because it could imagine a scenario such as this and not wanting to do so.

Third, the United States is not alone in its disinclination to incur real costs in order to act against Russia in Ukraine: so long as continental Europe depends so much on Russian energy and the City of London so much on an influx of Russian cash, the major powers of Europe will not consent to meaningful sanctions against the sort of core economic activities that might force a genuine pause for thought in the Kremlin. Fourth, Russia has not, in the grander scheme of things, achieved much of a victory here. At the beginning of 2014 it had vast influence over government policy in the whole of Ukraine thanks to its hold over Yanukovych. Today, it has lost all of that, perhaps forever, in exchange for the gain of a small, expensive territory for which it has paid a high price in international opprobrium.

In light of the downturn in relations with Russia, the name of George Kennan, the senior American diplomat who first conceived the Cold War strategy of ‘containment’ has reappeared on many op-ed pages analysing the need for a new toughness in the United States’ Russia policy. It is important to remember in drawing this analogy that Kennan regarded it as key, in operationalising containment, to avoid deploying resources unthinkingly to confront Russian expansionist efforts on whatever ground it might happen to choose for to make a push. Rather, it was key for the United States to concentrate on shoring up the strength of those strongpoints the defence of which it regarded as essential to maintaining its global position of strength. It should avoid costly peripheral engagements, apply counterpressure in those places where the United States held the advantage, and wait for the pressure thus applied on Russia to play itself out in its internal politics. This is good advice now as it was then.

To be drawn into making overblown pledges of support for Ukraine against Russia, pledges which will assuredly ultimately be revealed as impossible to back up in practice given the asymmetry between Russian and Western capabilities and motivation in that theatre, is to confront Putin on his own chosen ground and set the stage for the further burnishing of his desired reputation as a strategic hard men when he calls the bluff. Sounder policy is to lodge genuine but restrained protest at his recent actions, while proceeding to take the appropriate steps elsewhere to assure full preparedness for the defence of the United States’ larger stake in the broader regional theatre. That means reinforcing both the military capabilities and political will which underwrite the security of those nations to whose territorial inviolability the United States actually is committed, through NATO. It also means encouraging and assisting America’s European allies by all available means in reducing their dependence on Russia for energy supplies, and in the case of the UK encouraging it to curb its appetite for Russian cash. In this way, while Putin digests the questionable gains of a subsidy-hungry new province and a destabilised, mostly hostile neighbour, the United States and its allies can invest their time in taking the necessary steps to ensure that they are commandingly placed to prevail in any challenge to those positions of strength at which they chooses to draw their real red line against Russian revanchism.

Image Source https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/12864176923/

April, 2014

Let’s heed the canary

Professor Rob MacKenzie

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IMAGE: Smog in the city (www.istockphotos.com)

Day three of southeast-England-in-the-murk, and still a pool of smoggy gloom catches your throat and wipes out the middle distance. This little week of blogs, with which I had hoped to engage with the large-scale and chronic challenges highlighted by the University of Birmingham’s Saving Humans theme, has — in the event — mutated into reflections on a local and acute threat to health and well-being. Such a change of focus may actually be for the better; perhaps through learning what pollution ‘feels like’ the debate about how to ameliorate the pollution that surrounds us every day can be reignited.

My suspicion is that there is a window of opportunity in public engagement with issues that are difficult to perceive directly most of the time. If nothing brings air pollution to our attention — really, tangibly to our attention — then we have to rely on expert opinion and ‘white-coat fatigue’ can set in. If we have to struggle through a pea-soup of pollution each and every day then it becomes easy to regard it as unavoidable and irremediable. But, in communities in which public engagement counts, sudden and perceptible reductions in quality of life can cause a commotion and galvanise governments into action.

Having issued the smog alerts and kept the message simple, scientific commentators are now beginning to fill-in some details. The analyses may, in the end, change our diagnosis of the event quite radically, reducing the role of Saharan dust and increasing the role of chemical production of particles in air travelling to us from Europe. A more complete diagnosis will enable policy-makers to consider options to minimise the risk of a repeat of these conditions in the future. Controlling local pollution would improve our chronic exposure to pollution and provide a little more ‘head room’ within which natural particle loadings and long-range transport of pollution can vary, but car bans and the like are unlikely to be a useful measure in the middle of episodes. International action to limit emission of the gases that react in the atmosphere to form particles looks to be necessary. Certainly we should not accept that there is nothing we can do simply because the particles did not, in the main, originate from within our borders.

International environmental regulation has enabled us to avoid catastrophic damage to the ozone layer and has outlawed many environmentally persistent poisons. Where, as in these instances, technological ‘fixes’ to industrial processes reduce the emission of pollutants, the chances of binding international agreement seem relatively high. Unfortunately, for smog, improving engine efficiency and fitting stack and tailpipe filters only gets us so far; human behaviour can subvert our best efforts. To go the next step towards clean air requires joined-up ‘systems thinking’ that, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advocated this week, seeks win-win-win solutions, recognises that there will be unintended consequences, and privileges a love of life over incomplete measures of cost and benefit.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

April, 2014

The three-legged race to sustainability

Professor Rob MacKenzie

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Image: Dawn Smog (istockphoto.com)

The old adage says if you want to give God a laugh, tell her your plans. I had the best of intentions of putting all the cares of everyday academic life to one side for a day in order to enjoy the Trees, People & Built Environment conference, here at University of Birmingham. Then, late on Tuesday night, news began to filter through that weather patterns had conspired to produce a situation in which local air pollution, regional-scale pollution from north and central Europe, and Saharan dust were all contributing to an air pollution episode. So, instead of musing deeply on urban sustainability and our innate connection to “nature”, I spent the day saying what amounted to the content of the third sentence of this blog. Well, truth be told, I did manage to smuggle in a few sneaky references to what I think is really the “big picture” when we are confronted by one of these environmental episodes, be it flood, or heat wave, or smog: these are symptoms of a systems failure, and the system (or system-of-system) that is failing is UK land management.

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Image: Green City (istockphoto.com)

We can apply sticking plasters to a particular transport bottleneck, or a particular river, and relieve the problem for a while, only for it — or something quite different but subtly related — to pop up somewhere else. But perhaps there is another approach. I am feeling fired-up enough by Tuesday’s seminar on the biophilic city to venture an outlandishly ambitious vision: to reconfigure our relationship with “Nature” and with the City so that we break apart the old-fashioned dichotomy of town and country. Breaking these boundaries would usher-in a new view of human life: shared with every other form of life that can help us turn a linear highway to hell into a circular pattern of birth, death, regrowth. We have the visionaries to show us some of the way and we should not be scared to add to the canon of those ideas, so long as we recognise that ideas only work when in harness with strategy and serendipity. We are in a three-legged race to sustainability and, as I eventually learnt as a child, that can be an exhilarating race once you learn how not to fall over.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

April, 2014

Trees of life

Professor Rob MacKenzie

Welcome to a week of the Saving Humans blog focused predominantly on how the plant life with which we share the planet is saving, and can do even more to save, us. First and foremost amongst the plant life-savers are the plant crops we’ve domesticated and changed beyond all recognition for efficient production of food. This week, however, the focus will be more on trees: wild woodland and forest landscapes; trees in agricultural landscapes; parks and gardens; and trees in streets. The blogs coincide with the launch of the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR), an event to launch Birmingham as the UK’s first biophilic city, and the Trees, People & Built Environment conference of the Institute of Chartered Foresters.

The role and importance of the world’s woodlands and forests is hard to overstate: they prevent soil erosion, help in maintaining the water cycle, check global warming by using carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, provide recreational facilities, provide economic benefits, and are home to more than half of all species. Yet despite this the UK still has only 13% of its area given over to forest and the world’s forests are subject to continuing threats from emerging disease pandemics and from environmental change.

In response to these challenges, The University of Birmingham and the UK-based JABBS Foundation have invested £20million to establish the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFOR) that will address two fundamental and interrelated challenges: the impact of climate and environmental change on woodlands; and, the resilience of trees to invasive pests and diseases.

The Institute, which has secured initial funding for  ten years, will consist of refurbished laboratories and growth facilities on-campus, along with a large-scale, ground-breaking ‘free-air carbon dioxide enrichment’ (FACE) field facility that will enable globally leading scientists to take measurements from deep within the soil to above the tree canopy. The forest-FACE facility will be one of only two currently working worldwide (the other is in Australia) and one of only two that have ever attempted the experiment on a mature, mixed, semi-natural woodland.

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The Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the environment, University of Western Sydney. Photograph courtesy Prof David Ellsworth.

The Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the environment, University of Western Sydney. Photograph courtesy Prof David Ellsworth.

Autonomous sensors and instrumented trees will allow our scientists to take measurements continuously and remotely, over timescales ranging from seconds to decades. The facility will enable our ecologists, plant biologists, and environmental scientists to raise the concentration of CO2 in a specified area in an otherwise natural environment. By measuring the trees’ response, we will elucidate environmental risk and help developed and developing societies innovate to prepare, adapt and prosper to a future that is already set in-train by our current use of fossil fuels.

Yesterday saw the release of the Summary for Policymakers of the Working Group II contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — that is the non-technical summary of the part of the “IPCC report”, as it is known by scientists the world over, dealing with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. The summary IPCC report weighing-up the evidence for man-made climate change was published in September 2013; the current part of the report is much about how we will feel climate change in almost every part of the Earth and in almost every part of society. The 44 pages of densely argued and comprehensively referenced text summarise many ways in which forests are under threat from climate change, each with the IPCC’s assessment of how confident they are in their statements:

“Carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere (e.g., in peatlands, permafrost, and forests) is susceptible to loss to the atmosphere as a result of climate change, deforestation, and ecosystem degradation (high confidence). Increased tree mortality and associated forest dieback is projected to occur in many regions over the 21st century, due to increased temperatures and drought (medium confidence). Forest dieback poses risks for carbon storage, biodiversity, wood production, water quality, amenity, and economic activity.”

Thankfully, the report also points to the many ways — e.g. agroforestry projects and reforestation of coastal mangrove swamps in Asia — in which forests can be part of a solution or, at least, an accommodation to our changing environment. This upbeat identification of opportunities to change things for the better is the perfect introduction to this week’s series of blogs, so I leave the last word to the IPCC:

“Significant co-benefits, synergies, and tradeoffs exist between mitigation and adaptation and among different adaptation responses; interactions occur both within and across regions (very high confidence). …Examples of actions with co-benefits include …(ii) reduced energy and water consumption in urban areas through greening cities and recycling water; (iii) sustainable agriculture and forestry; and (iv) protection of ecosystems for carbon storage and other ecosystem services. (IPCC, WG2 SPM, p24)”.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

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