Monday, October 15, 2018

My Log 652 Oct 15 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 88 ; Climate threat could be even worse than suggested last week: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists weighs in with another urgent warning about “self-reinforcing feedbacks”


-->
Since the report last week of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change challenged the world to take immediate action if we are to have any hope of averting irretrievable consequences for the planet Earth, I have decided to make further warnings along these lines into what might virtually be called my own work.
The latest piece demanding attention comes from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists published on October 8, and warning that the IPCC report of last week, welcome though it is, has quite conceivably underestimated the threat caused by continued warming of the planet by man-made means.
His report published under the names of Mario Molina, Veerabhadran Ramanathon and Durwood J. Zaelke, three world-renowned scientists, points out that  last week’s “report, dire as it is, misses a key point: Self-reinforcing feedbacks and tipping points—the wildcards of the climate system—could cause the climate to destabilize even further. The report also fails to discuss the five percent risk that even existing levels of climate pollution, if continued unchecked, could lead to runaway warming—the so-called ‘fat tail’ risk. These omissions may mislead world leaders into thinking they have more time to address the climate crisis, when in fact immediate actions are needed. To put it bluntly, there is a significant risk of self-reinforcing climate feedback loops pushing the planet into chaos beyond human control.”
Lower in their piece the authors say that even if 50 per cent warming is added to the present level of 1 per cent over pre-industrial levels,  “this would risk setting up feedbacks that could fall like dangerous dominos, fundamentally destabilizing the planet.”
And then, in a note that should be of especial interest to Canada, and particularly to the Canadian government, which seems at the moment to be trapped into dangerous double-think, the authors add: “These cascading feedbacks include the loss of the Arctic’s sea ice, which could disappear entirely in summer in the next 15 years. The ice serves as a shield, reflecting heat back into the atmosphere, but is increasingly being melted into water that absorbs heat instead. Losing the ice would tremendously increase the Arctic’s warming, which is already at least twice the global average rate. This, in turn, would accelerate the collapse of permafrost, releasing its ancient stores of methane, a super climate pollutant 30 times more potent in causing warming than carbon dioxide.”
The article notes recent promising initiatives taken by Governor Jerry Brown of California, and President Macron of France, and names also President Xi of China and President Modi of India as others who might provide the intense motive force needed to move the world’s politicians into action.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

My Log 651 Oct 9 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 87 Remarkable book, The Slave, by a great novelist who won the Nobel Prize although his works were all written in Yiddish


-->
I have just finished reading a remarkable novel, set in seventeenth century Poland. Well-read readers will already have spotted the likely author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, that amazing man all of whose voluminous writings were in Yiddish and yet who, from such an obscure base, nevertheless produced such high-quality literature that in 1978 he won the Nobel prize for literature, the most prestigious prize of them all.
This 254-page work, published in English in 1962 is rather difficult for me to describe, because, dealing as it does with a man whose religious beliefs dominated every action he took, it could hardly have been further from my own atheistic outlook in life. Yet the power of the writing not only brings to vivid life the appalling conditions of so many Poles in those far-off days but also produces such extraordinarily vivid characters as to command our continuous attention.
The book is called The Slave, and its hero is a Jewish man called Jacob who managed to escape the great pogram imposed in 1648 by the raiding Cossacks on helpless Jewish populations, but was thereafter captured by roving Polish marauders, who sold him as a slave to a man of property, called Jan Bzik. Bzik installed him as a herdsman on a hilltop, remote from other herdsmen, and pretty soon wakened to the fact that this man looked after his cows so expertly that they produced more, and better quality milk. As the only Jew in the community  he had little to do with the ruffians who surrounded him, which was just as well, because they were constantly plotting his murder, an act from which they were ultimately dissuaded by their master, who had come to value the Jew’s sterling qualities, from which, of course his owner profited, even though the crooked landlord above him was getting away with a huge proportion of the earnings from his cows.
Jacob lived a minimal life in a shed, along with his animals, in touch only with the daughter of Jan Bzik, Wanda, whose task it was to go to him on the mountain every day with some minor supplies --- food and such to keep the man alive --- and to return to the village with two big buckets of milk. Almost from her first having caught sight of him, Wanda became enamoured of the big, generous  strangely well-educated Jew, and, although inhibited from such advances by the fact that co-habitation with anyone outside the Jewish faith was punishable by death,  he gradually became enamoured of her.  Wanda took the initiative, but was firmly repulsed by a man determined to live according to the precepts laid down in the great Jewish books, with which he was not only well acquainted, but by whose instruction he was guided in all his life’s decision.
The novelist, a man open to the human heart and its strange decisions, knew better than his characters: before long, their lust for each other grew to such proportions that they had to give way. One stormy night, unable to make it back to the village, Wanda slept on some straw in a corner of the shed, but when Jacob awoke in the morning, there she was lying beside him in his own bed, and from that moment on, theirs was a match born of the Gods, whatever the books might say.
Eventually their union came to be accepted by the villagers, though everyone was aware of its unacceptable nature. Jacob even relaxed so far as to become a teacher for the younger children. But he still dreamed of his original home in the far-off town of Josefov, and when a visiting circus told him they went there from time to time, he asked that the next time they were there they might mention having met him and the constraints under which he was living his life.
Time passed, Wanda, courted by numerous men, refused them all for she never stopped dreaming of her wondrous Jew. She was taken on a visit by her father to a neighbouring town and on that very day some people turned up who said they were from Josefov, and when they were convinced they had found the Jacob they sought,  they paid the sum demanded for him, quickly bundled him into their wagon and took him off, giving him no chance to gather his few possessions or leave any messages for anyone. On her return to find her Jacob gone Wanda could not believe he would leave her in that way, and slowly deteriorated into morbid loneliness. As did Jacob, once settled back in his home town, surrounded by Jews, and governed by all the demands and pleasures of Jewry.  He constantly asked himself if his passion for the gentile could not be excused by the actual behaviour of the leaders of the Jewish faith as described in the sacred books. “Had not Moses married a woman from Ethiopia? Did not King Solomon take as his wife Pharaoh’s daughter? Of course these women had become Jewesses. But so could Wanda. The Talmud law stating that a man who cohabits with a gentile could be put to death by anyone in the community was only valid if there had first been a warning and the adultery was seen by witnesses.” According to such stern rules did people in those days order their lives. and with such reasoning Jacob, although convinced his lust for the woman was the work of Satan, nevertheless decided to return to find her, and bring her, whatever the consequences, back to his own home town.
All this he carried out, imposing on Wanda the need to pretend to be a mute, and to change her name, since her mastery of Yiddish was incomplete, and she spoke the sort of Polish that would betray her.  Many people were suspicious that a man of such learning could have saddled himself with a mute when he could have had his pick of the most eligible women….but their subterfuge worked until events forced Sarah, as she was known, into speaking, and revealing the plot.
To say these were star-crossed lovers would be to belittle the grand passion that dominated them. The village, torn between those who supported their marriage, and those who regarded it as a matter worthy of death, of course would never leave them alone. Wanda/Sarah dies in childbirth, and Jacob is arrested and is on his way to a certain death when he escapes, returns to pick up the new-born infant, and thereafter disappears for twenty years, at the end of which, still drawn to search for the remains of his deceased wife, he returns.
I tell you, this is one hell of a story, fascinating in its description of the conditions of life hundreds of years ago, when the division between animals and humans was less marked than in the present day, at least at the peasant level. It is also a remarkable disquisition on religious faith, its cruelties and glories, its honesties and hypocrises. And it marks the passage in society of a genuine saint, trapped in a transcendent love affair, and the rocky welcome given him by those among whom he had to live.
(The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer,  Avon books, published by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1962, pps 254).


Monday, October 8, 2018

My Log 650 Oct 8 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 86 It sounds like the final warning: we have only 12 years to halt the man-induced warming of the planet; otherwise, we face irreversible and disastrous consequences


It has seemed to me for a long time that the current international political situation is dominated by three irreconcilable facts:
First: we are confronted with immense challenges of a global scale that we seemed to be unprepared to meet, because our political structures (nation states, etc) are inadequate to the challenge.
Second: Without apparently acknowledging the unprecedented nature of the challenges, people everywhere are turning towards meretricious, poorly-informed leaders whose lack of understanding of the problems almost guarantees that they will worsen. This is illustrated by the election of the know-nothing Donald Trump as US president, by the election of the know-nothing Doug Ford as Premier of Ontario, the likely election of Jair Bolsonaro as next president of Brazil, and the move towards supporting leaders of far-right parties throughout Europe.
Third: even leaders who appear to understand the challenges appear to be sticking their heads in the sand, pretending that, while dealing with the problems by one set of policies, they continue also to follow policies that will inevitably worsen them.  A prime example of this is Justin Trudeau, pretending to have policies to lessen climate warming, while at the same time pushing to extract even more of the world’s worst-emitting source of oil, the Alberta Tar Sands.

*                           *                         *                         *
Into this situation this week the Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change has dropped its latest highly informed report warning that we don't have the several decades we have previously thought we had in order to deal with the problem of man-created climate warming, but, on the contrary, to quote from The Guardian’s report, “The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
“The authors of the landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on Monday say urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target, which they say is affordable and feasible although it lies at the most ambitious end of the Paris agreement pledge to keep temperatures between 1.5C and 2C.
“The half-degree difference could also prevent corals from being completely eradicated and ease pressure on the Arctic, according to the 1.5C study, which was launched after approval at a final plenary of all 195 countries in Incheon in South Korea that saw delegates hugging one another, with some in tears.
A key finding of the new IPCC report is the dramatic difference that restricting warming to 1.5C above pre industrial levels would have on the global environment.
“The scientists found:
• By 2100, global sea level rise would be 10cm lower with global warming of 1.5C compared with 2C.
• Extreme heatwaves will be experienced by 14% of the world's population at least once every five years at 1.5C. But that figure rises to more than a third of the planet if temperatures rise to 2C
• Arctic sea ice would remain during most summers if warming is kept to 1.5C. But at 2C, ice free summers are 10 times more likely, leading to greater habitat losses for polar bears, whales, seals and sea birds.
• If warming is kept to 1.5C, coral reefs will still decline by 70-90% but if temperatures rise to 2C virtually all of the world's reefs would be lost.
“It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” said Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the working group on impacts. “This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.”
“Policymakers commissioned the report at the Paris climate talks in 2016, but since then the gap between science and politics has widened. Donald Trump has promised to withdraw the US – the world’s biggest source of historical emissions – from the accord. The first round of Brazil’s presidential election on Sunday put Jair Bolsonaro into a strong position to carry out his threat to do the same and also open the Amazon rainforest to agribusiness.
“The world is currently 1C warmer than preindustrial levels. Following devastating hurricanes in the US, record droughts in Cape Town and forest fires in the Arctic, the IPCC makes clear that climate change is already happening, upgraded its risk warning from previous reports, and warned that every fraction of additional warming would worsen the impact.”
All the foregoing is from The Guardian’s report of the new IPCC assessment, which involved the expertise of hundreds of scientists from around the globe. For readers who wish to pursue this in more detail, The Guardian story is to be found at

The complete report can be found at http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/
Which has asked that anyone quoting from it please provide the full reference:
IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.






Saturday, October 6, 2018

My Log 649 Oct 6 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 85 Yet another election defeat prompts musings about the socio-political system and its inadequacies in relation to equality


Considering that I have been intensely interested in politics since my mid-teens, one might have expected that in the many elections I have taken part in since then, I would have come out on the winning side more than twice. Alas, it is not so. I just voted in Quebec this week: my guy did better than usual, came in second in our constituency, and his party third in the overall seat-count, a result they considered to be almost a victory.
I think I have to go back to my early conditioning about politics to understand how come I am usually backing the losers.  I now know that compromise is the art of politics. Which is to say there is always something that should be acceptable that the other side is proposing.
My resistance to that commonsense attitude was born when, at the age of 16 or so, I realized that not a single favorable word about our government had ever appeared in any New Zealand newspaper.  The government was Labour, and was made up almost entirely of working class men and women who did their best to represent the interests of the average worker, and had done some remarkable things in pursuance of that end.
For example in 1938, the middle of the Great Depression, they had introduced the English-speaking world’s first universal health care system. They had also --- or were in processing of doing so --- overhauled the education system so as to make it more democratic, using the best educational theorizing of the time in doing so.  They had carried on the nation’s good record of social welfare --- established in 1905 when a Liberal government of the time introduced one of the first old age pensions in the world ----  and they were working hand in glove with the diminishing Maori population to attempt a resurgence of that proud people, an effort that eventually drew wholehearted  admiration around the world. In addition they had introduced a system of price stabilization for New Zealand’s exports of meat, wool, butter and cheese, that should have earned them the support of farmers, but did not, the farmers remaining rhere as always, a stubbornly conservative group.
Not a bad record, one might think.  But the conservative opposition were so entrenched in their old-fashioned, outmoded ideas, that they couldn’t bear even to admit the value of what had been done. In other words, they were our implacable adversaries: I picked up that attitude when in my teens, and I have not changed.
What I discovered as I ventured out into the world was that “our side”, the yearning socialist masses, although they should have been the greatest in number, in fact have always been the smaller. Everywhere, it has been a struggle to convince the groaning masses that they could, if they wished, shake off the tyrannical, controlling  hand of the wealth-owning  corporate class.
As I watched  in dismay this failure of the workers to sweep all before them,  I developed a less ambitious objective than I started out with. “I will vote for anyone,” I decided, “who will nationalize the banks and insurance companies.” But even these have been few and far between. I have never been able to accept the arguments for this failure put forward by our political enemies on grounds of the ineptitude of publicly-owned services. Rather --- and I know something of what I am saying in this field, having worked in it for all my life --- rather it is ascribable to the fact that the wealth-owners have always owned, or if not owned, certainly dominated,  all the means of communication and the information systems.
With his dominance, they have kept up a relentless drumbeat of propaganda, so complete that even in the publicly-owned services, every news item these days is followed by an advertisement which, in terms of its effect, is really just an argument for private wealth and private ownership of everything.
In the years before the Second World War there was at least a countervailing impetus emanating from the global Communist movement. But the long-term effect of this great movement was stunted by its fatal subservience to the Soviet Union.  Ludicrous decisions were made about that war which completely discredited the movement among serious people.  In the 1930s, Communism was the only serious opponent of fascism, for example, fronting up against it in Spain when the effete British ruling class, and the wealthy but extremely conservative American ruling class, were more than ready to play ball with the rising Nazis and fascists.
With the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in August 1939, a month before Britain declared war following Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the world-wide Communist movement changed overnight from being against the coming war and fascism, to acceptance of the Pact,  thereafter  propagandizing on its behalf, an action which lost them whatever goodwill they might have previously earned in the Western world by their staunch defence of the working classes.
That remained official global Communist policy, each national party falling into line behind Moscow without blinking an eye, until Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June, 1941, at which point they all magically changed sides again, flinging themselves into the war enthusiastically and becoming a central part of the Resistance against the Nazis throughout Europe. One might argue that if any nation won that war, it was probably the Soviet Union, 27 million of whose citizens died in the process, a burden far ahead of that borne by any other nation.
Just to outline this scenario illustrates what a tough world it has been for a democratic socialist to make his way in. In fact, the only successes of democratic socialism have been to save capitalism from its worst excesses, modifying the system in the United States with the New Deal, in Britain with the Labour governments, in Scandinavia with its tenacious governments combining socialist-tinged communities with capitalist economic systems, and elsewhere with fairly short-lived governments  in smaller counties like New Zealand and Australia, or, in Canada, the provincial government of Saskatchewan, which took advantage of the discontent among prairie farmers to create a spirit for socialism in that province, a spirit that led to Canada’s universal health-care system today, one of our proudest achievements.
Speaking as a person who has always supported social democracy, I have always been aware of this paradox in a society dedicated to more equality of opportunity, including economic opportunity: that such an aim can be achieved only by taking the surplus wealth off the wealth-owners and redistributing it among the ordinary workers, who, let’s not forget, have actually created this wealth.  The wealth-owners are never ready to give it away, therefore it has to be taken from them. And to persuade an electorate to accept this as a fact of life has proven to be so difficult in face of the dominant control of every lever of society by the wealth-owners, that by the time a standard leftist-leaning party might be  voted into government, it has usually betrayed all its original principles by subordinating everything to the search for votes. In other words, even if they are elected, they prove to be scarcely worth electing.