Friday, January 30, 2009
PS, Could the sporadic posting really have started a full year ago? Yes.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
To be honest, I’m very surprised. I thought the neocon attitude that the rest of the world is out to get us so we must bomb them first was more deeply entrenched in
Signing an executive order that will effectively close Gitmo within a year was a promising beginning to the Obama administration. But that was a campaign promise and was to be expected.
The first somewhat surprising move came on day two, when Obama appointed George Mitchell as special envoy for
Obama followed up the Mitchell appointment with an appearance on Al Arabiya television in which he made some important gestures of respect towards the Muslim community. It was basically just a PR appearance, but it was very good PR and showed once again that Obama is serious about doing things differently than Bush. A few words about
The real shocker came a few days ago when Robert Gates talked extensively about
is the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world. If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience or money.” Afghanistan
Gates recalled that the Soviet Union failed in
in the 1980s even with 120,000 troops and a “ruthless” method of operating there. “It’s not for nothing that Afghanistan ’s known as the ‘graveyard of empires,’” he said. Afghanistan goals in
must be “modest, realistic,” and “above all, there must be an Afghan face on this war,” Gates said. “The Afghan people must believe this is their war and we are there to help them. If they think we are there for our own purposes, then we will go the way of every other foreign army that has been in Afghanistan .” Afghanistan
These statements sound nothing like pre-inauguration Obama and nothing like Bush-era Robert Gates. Thank goodness for that.
Lastly, there is even hope for an immediate thawing of ice-cold relations with
I look forward to seeing what develops out of these promising beginnings.
I think a commitment to the rule of law means we actually have to be okay with that. We should and will still try to interdict them, of course, but it could very well happen that the above nightmare scenario actually takes place. Scary, for sure. But the whole point of the rule of law is to cut against fear and caprice, and though a fear may turn out to have been warranted, it's not a good enough reason, if we care about the rule of law, to bring down the power of the state on someone. Civil liberties would be meaningless if they perfectly overlapped with our emotions and instincts.
That is actually why I'm a little sketched out by the "don't torture because it doesn't work" argument. It takes honoring civil liberties and lines them up perfectly with our emotions and fears - we're saying, "uphold civil liberties because you're not giving up any safety to do so."
Because it could be that torture does work. In fact, no one is seriously saying that the reason torture doesn't work is that people are resistant to it. No one is resistant to it. From what I can tell, the "torture doesn't work" argument works like this: if you torture 10 suspects, you'll have 9 false leads and only one good one - and you won't have the manpower to track down which is which. So, don't torture, because we don't have the manpower for it.
I'm not suggesting that people who make this argument believe they're making a moral justification of a prohibition of torture. It's just a pragmatic reason not to torture. But it seems to me that persuasion-wise, we're putting a lot of eggs in the pragmatism basket, and hearing less often that torture is just plain wrong. Even if it were to work.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
As it turns out, Obama is a Rorschach test for Europeans, too. In my travels this month in Brussels, one EU official said “Obama is our great hope,” and literally every person I talked with expressed some version of that sentiment. Today’s Commission communication is infused with that idea – it’s like a sprint out of the blocks after last Tuesday’s starter’s pistol. It calls for EU-US work towards an eventual international OECD carbon market, which echoes what I mentioned a few posts ago – that a number of people in the Commission talked to me about an immanent “transatlantic carbon market.” “The battle of words between Europe and the US over climate change is now over,” said John Bowis today, a member of the European Parliament. European policy-makers talk about the Bush-era dynamics of international climate negotiations in the past tense, which may be appropriate, but it still leaves open the question of what dynamics replace them, and this is where Europeans, like Americans, seem to see what they want to see in our new President (who is awesome, by the way.)
I really don’t think we are close to seeing a transatlantic carbon market. First of all, in order for two or more countries to have linked carbon markets, those countries have to have domestic carbon caps of comparable stringency. Otherwise, you’d have different prices in different countries, and the linking would simply lead to a wealth transfer from one country to another. I don’t think the US is about to jump into the cap and trade business at the same level as the EU. We don’t have to – the flip-side of our profligacy should be that we have available many more low-cost reductions than the Europeans. Of course, as discussed in my last post on the subject, if we really want to stimulate innovation we need to set a stringent-enough cap to get above the low-hanging fruit, but first things first. I just find it hard to believe that the domestic politics allow for a really big first step. Second, the EC communication talks about dedicating a significant portion of the revenues raised by auctioning of allowances under a linked developed-world cap and trade system to a technology, mitigation, and adaptation fund for developing countries, to help them start to slow their emissions growth. We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars through 2020. One American policy-maker said to me last week that he would bet his life that Congress will approve no wealth transfer to China. So as a next-decade strategy, I think the EU’s Copenhagen negotiating position is a pipe dream. Maybe they know that, and it’s simply a negotiating position. And maybe I’m wrong. I’m hedging because I’m new to this, but that’s what I think.
Nevertheless, I promised some good news, and it is simply this: For at least a little while longer, the slope of the curve matters more than absolute magnitude. I really, really doubt that the US is going to be doing its share to get a handle on this problem – to satisfy the 2 degrees – by 2020. The EU is not asking for more than is required; they may not even be asking for what is required. And I’ve just said that I don’t think there’s much of a chance that the US is going to go there. But I do think that we might get to a point, by 2020, where the slope of the curve is good; where we are starting to really abate emissions pretty rapidly. And if that’s the case, and by then we are charging towards an attractive mid-century global emissions level, then it probably won’t matter if it took a few marginal years to get serious.
This is where some good ole’ fashioned America-rocks thinking comes into play. I just think that once we really turn to this – once we get our first carbon price into the market, once we start innovating, once we start growing an industry that wants to make money globally, once we add, in Lincoln’s words, “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius” – we stand to make fast progress. We’re getting close to a “too late” moment – maybe we’ve passed it. But just like the EU ETS needed a few years to work out the wrinkles and start counting things, so does the US need a few years to find its footing at last, though late, on this problem. Europe will be frustrated during that time – today’s communication presages that – but I’m optimistic for what will happen once we do.
Monday, January 26, 2009
For example, would you like to see this?
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
A particular lowlight came when, on the way down to the Mall some time around 8 am, we (my apocalypse platoon of my sister Becca, her boyfriend Joey, Dan Benaim, and our friend’s neighbor – and now friend in her own right – Sophie) found ourselves quite literally trapped in the L’enfant Metro station. When I say trapped, I mean that the station was packed, they weren’t letting people out (presumably because it was so crowded above-ground, which was the most terrifying thought of all), and they weren’t letting anyone off of the trains that came through the station, from which of course it can be deduced, by the principle of doors being two-way, that we couldn’t get on a train to get out of there. So, trapped. In a Metro station, sweet lord. Joey was pretty cool, but I’d say the rest of us saw panic attacks on the horizon anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes away. Luckily things got moving again in about 30 minutes. Maybe 29.
But more luckily, as the Washington Post editorialized today, everyone was “on their very best behavior.” And how. There were no arrests. Not a single arrest. Are you kidding me? There were 1.8 million people there, and not one arrest. And it’s not like there weren’t a lot of rules that were available for the breaking. It says a lot about the mood of the day. We were put through a lot to be a part of that moment, together with one out of every 160 Americans, but the spirit of the day was palpable, and it reigned.
The event itself was exciting, though if not for the nostalgic coin of having been there, and being able to say I was there, probably not marginally better enough than watching it elsewhere to warrant the crowd and the cold. It certainly was unique and thrilling, to hear the ceremony and the speech echoing down the gauntlet of the assembled, bouncing from massive government building to massive government building, each word reaching us at least a dozen times with varying volume and crispness and distance, none of them loud or crisp or close. It was as if – and after writing this, I realize it’s a perfect description of what I felt at the time, and I hope it conveys the sense of it well – as if it were already history, and we were already just remembering it.
The speech improves as it germinates in my mind. I read it twice on the plane home today. It is, as it struck me when he spoke it, surpassingly simple. But I think its ideas are clear, strong, powerful, and important. The passage with messages for people around the world remains, for me, the best part. The simple deal offered to anti-democratic regimes – “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist” – re-articulates a vision of broad American leadership for which I, we, the country, and the world have been waiting. It is familiar but new. The speech did not move me like so many of his others did, but after 36 hours, I am starting to fall in love with it.
Finally, I’m very grateful for the shout-out to non-believers. As I’ve often said, nothing makes me feel more alien in America than not believing in God. You know the drill – “No matter what you believe, you can be an American; what makes us so great is the diversity of our beliefs; we are united in faith.” That this moment, of all moments, was the first time I heard a public figure legitimize me as part of the fabric of beliefs of our county was a very appreciated capstone to a day I will never forget.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood Daily, required reading in these parts, put it this way: "WHO NEEDS FILM CRITICS? Moviegoers make 'Mall Cop' #1..."
The headline has it a little wrong. The commercial success of Mall Cop is unexpected relative to the expectations of movie executives, not of critics. And not to bite off too much - art versus commerce doesn't fit too neatly into a blog post - but the conflation of those two kinds of successes is a common mistake in show business. Consider the often-heard argument that Two and a Half Men is 'good' because it has the highest viewership of any comedy program. This boils down to the idea that so many people liking it is constitutive of it being 'good.' While gaining the approval of so many people is certainly an achievement of some kind, and though the factors leading to its popularity may ultimately render it a thing of artistic value, those are independent things. And it has long been held that a claim that something is of artistic worth must be more than a the simple claim of "I like it."
This all seems like a little-to-no-brainer, but in the fog of war it's a real muddle. Entertainments generally aren't expressly commercial nor are they expressly artistic, and most entertainment practioners/producers won't pander (all the way) down to the lowest common denominator, nor will they (totally) screw the audience. But when companies are trying to do commerce by way of art, you can lose track of where you're located on the art-commerce continuum, as I routinely did earlier in my career.
The muddle is exacerbated by awards like the Oscars and Golden Globes. It would be one thing if all the grotesque self-congratulation were at least focused on the arts side of the spectrum (which I concede Lady Oscar mostly does), but when you are the Emmys and you nominate Two and Half Men for a series award many times but The Wire never, it's a joke, and you couldn't possibly be valuing the arts side over the commerce side. And The Wire is obviously good because lots of people say so.
To Barack Obama, but even more, to our country, which will face all the challenges tomorrow that it faces today, but which has written the perfect poetry to tell of its greatness by choosing him.
Of course, Hamas and other Palestinian political actors deserve their own heavy dose of disdain for years of suicide bombing and other atrocities. But citing all the reprehensible, gut-churning acts of Palestinians does not make Peres’ endorsement of collective punishment any more palatable. He cannot be forgiven simply by saying: “the other side is just as bad.” Add the blatantly calculating political motivations of Ehud Barak and Tsipi Livni to the equation, and the Israeli government’s actions look even more heartless.
Israeli officials may end up feeling good about the results of this Gaza operation, but they shouldn’t. Israel has suffered yet another large setback in the arena of world public opinion—an arena that will only become more important as this conflict drags on ad infinitum. American public opinion, which has been the sole pillar of support for the Israeli government, is slowing beginning to shift as more and more people seek news from alternative sources of media. I think the Israeli government will look back at this episode in Gaza, which they will hail as a military “victory” of sorts, and realize that this was the beginning of the end of America’s unconditional and unquestioning support for Israel.
For more on Gaza, I recommend reading: “Another War, Another Defeat: The Gaza offensive has succeeded in punishing the Palestinians but not in making Israel more secure,” by John J. Mearsheimer.
And I highly recommend watching this bloggingheads video featuring Amjad Atallah and David Frum. Note that Mr. Atallah is focused squarely on achieving peace and he has some imaginative and bold ideas about how to work towards that end. Mr. Frum, on the other hand, seems more interested in picking apart Atallah’s argument and thinking about how to “destroy” Hamas, while losing sight of the larger, more important objective of achieving lasting security for Israel along side a free and independent state for Palestinians.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
I think this does have something to do with the times, and not just the man, who is remarkable. Our devotion to Obama is heightened by the insecurity we feel about everything else. Many of us feel a sort of gratitude for him, and to him; we’re grateful for this person who makes us feel safe, who makes us feel like he has a plan. But it also occurs to me that this is not necessarily the most democratic of postures. Maybe that’s what the times demand. As a country, we’re poised to give Barack a lot of rope, because the only way to find our way back to solid ground is through the kind of decisive action that democracies aren’t well equipped to deliver in normal times. So it’s good that Obama is so politically strong. But it’s also something of which to stay keenly aware.
Hopefully these next few days will inspire some interesting and/or moving insights, and hopefully I’ll be able to convey a sense of what it’s like to be a part of this amazing moment.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
If we can do that, we do it with a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which meets every year at what is called the Conference of the Parties, or COP. This December is COP15, in Copenhagen. It’s the most important COP in a while, for two big reasons. One, the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012, and if there is to be a new deal in place by that time, it must be substantially completed this year. Two, Obama. Kyoto was the first attempt to get something meaningful in place internationally. We get a mulligan. The climate science tells us that we won’t get another one. Fool those 2 degrees once, shame on you; they won’t get fooled again.
President Bush has said that US emission can stop growing by 2020 – which is nothing like the 30% reduction the science seems to say we need. President-Elect Obama (six days and counting; deep down in my bones, I’ve never been so excited for anything before in my entire life) says we can get back to 1990 levels by 2020. That’s much better – and given that we are 15-20% above 1990 levels right now, ambitious – but will the 2 degrees accept the deal? There’s obviously still a gap between that and what the science demands.
How about Europe? The Europeans, to their credit, are damn focused on those 2 degrees. Last month, the European Union passed a big climate package to reach an emissions reduction goal of 20% by 2020. They know the 2 degrees are asking for 30%, but they’re no fools: their measures automatically intensify to reach the goal of 30% by 2020 if other nations agree to a similar commitment.
It’s bold leadership, and it is all that can be asked and more of Europe acting unilaterally. But it’s not quite the path-breaking it is advertised to be. A large percentage – a third to a half – of the 20% reduction in the recent EU legislation can be achieved through offsets, or as we call them in my family, indulgences. Companies and countries that are obligated to reduce their emissions can, instead of abating at home, pay for abatements abroad. From an efficiency standpoint, that’s good – it opens up a global playing field for finding the least-cost reductions.
But the problem is that everyone needs to mitigate. If Europe’s plan to get its 30% reduction relies heavily on cleaning up China and getting the credit, how does China make its own cuts? Furthermore, stabilizing atmospheric CO2 concentrations at 550 ppm means a developed world reduction by 2050 of as much as 80%. The low-hanging fruit won’t get us very far down that road. Pick it all now, and you’re in just really horrible shape 20 years from now. Reach a little higher up the tree now, though, and you can start to build momentum. Mandating that more reductions from developed countries be achieved at home would drive up the carbon price exactly as high as it needs to be to stimulate the kind of investment that will really change how we power the world. Europe’s new climate package will lead it to make steep cuts in emissions, but because it opens the door to such broad use of offsets, it’s not the strong opening COP15 negotiating position that it at first appears to be. Which means that ain’t no one arguing for a Copenhagen Protocol that really faces up to the scope and scale of the challenge ahead.
That’s the bad news. Tune in tomorrow for the good news. Well, the better news.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
This is what I thought of when an official at the European Commission Energy and Transport Directorate told me that they had a saying: “If it matters, it’s monitored; if it isn’t monitored, it doesn’t matter.”
We were talking about the early days of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme. The EU ETS is Europe’s cap and trade system for greenhouse gasses, and it is the first big successful market for trading carbon in the world; it accounts for about 80% of the global market for carbon emissions allowances. In 2003, the European Commission decided to set up a carbon market as the cornerstone mechanism of European efforts to comply with its obligations to reduce carbon emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. The basic idea is that you put a cap on the amount of carbon emissions across the whole market, you allocate emission allowances that, in total, add up to the cap, and then you let polluters trade those allowances. If the market functions properly, it finds the least-cost mitigations, and the market price of an allowance is the marginal abatement cost – the cost of abating the ton of carbon that is the last least expensive under the cap, so to speak. That market price then, in effect, becomes the cost to emit a ton of carbon, where there was none before, creating an incentive for people to stop emitting carbon when they can do so for less than the price, and for technology innovation.
The EU ETS went into operation on January 1, 2005, and the first phase ran through the end of 2007. Many stakeholders in the states, including the GAO, have argued that the first phase was more or less a failure, because the price of an allowance dropped to zero, so there was no effective incentive. Here in Brussels, though, there is unanimous agreement that this misses the point, and pending my return to the states, I’m going to agree. The first phase was always about “learning by doing,” and it was a success, because they learned what to count, and how to count it. The simple existence of the ETS was enough to stimulate a robust system for measuring and tracking emissions, and in the process, for corporate boardrooms to take an internal look at their carbon emissions. In fact, the reason the carbon price dropped to zero seems to be that as soon as everyone started tracking this stuff, they found all sort of pipes and cracks and whatnot that were spilling CO2 for no good or necessary reason, and it was trivial to just shut them off. Significant reductions were available at no cost, so the last least expensive reduction cost nothing.
So now the ETS is in phase 2, which will last until the end of 2012, and they’ve taken the lessons from phase 1 and adjusted the rules for phase 3, which begins in 2013. They’re tightening the caps 1.74% per year (I think – about that much) through 2020, so that, overall, by 2020, they will have a 21% reduction from 1990 levels in sectors that are covered by the EU ETS (mostly the electricity sector, and about half of all emissions in the EU.)
The “learning by doing” phase of the EU ETS didn’t lead to much of a price for carbon, but it sure seems to have gotten the ball rolling. I think it’s a big, big success story, and something we can and should (and will) copy once we do cap and trade in the US. In the Environment Directorate here, everyone is talking about the transatlantic carbon market that is on the horizon.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Absent though I have been for a few weeks from the Pickle, I will keep you posted as this drama unfolds over the next few weeks.
In the meantime, I should tell you that I happened today, by chance, upon a 10,000-person march through the streets of Brussels today, protesting Israel. All over town for the last couple of days, I’ve seen graffiti that wouldn’t pass muster in the US: the swastikas, Hitlers, stars of David, Bushes, and juifs have been playing fast and loose together. And even though someone I was talking with at a bar the other night launched into a whole thing about how if the US did not so blindly support Israel, Israel would be forced to seek peace in earnest, I was not prepared for the drama that unfolded before me outside the Bourse this afternoon.
I came around a corner to find a couple vans full of riot police, and wondered what they were doing there. Then I came out onto a main street that was closed to traffic, to find a couple of hundred fiercely shouting 20- and 30- something men waiving Palestinian flags, and I thought, “well that’s a little racist, to pull out all those jack-booted cops just for a few demonstrating minorities.” And I kept walking, and then I was not so flippant about the presence of riot police. From one side to the other of Boulevard Anspach, which is very large and wide, for as far as the eye could see, were people chanting (my French is improving, but thousands of voices in chorus remains beyond me – I could pick out “Hamas” and “Hezbollah,” among a few other words), marching, and holding improvised signs with things like a really seriously heavily armed lady liberty and the simple but effective swastika followed by equals sign followed by star or David. I walked, mouth agape, for a few minutes until the intermittent explosions and sounds of gunfire (seriously, I have no idea what those were) stoked my fear that someone would talk to me and hear my American accent got the best of, and I abandoned ship.
OK, on to energy and climate tomorrow. I just wanted to share that. It was quite shocking.