Weekly Letter to the President
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ofthisandthat.org. All rights
INAUGURATION, January 20, 2009
Drunk in its stale air
For two hundred years.
Fettered in mind and body,
The soul, the safe escape
To let me breathe the cries
Of my heart singing
Tears of mel-an-choly.
The tears flow free today
Washing the stains of blood
And sweat in brotherhood.
Raise the curtain then an'
Let the world look in
On this promised land --
We breathe free today.... almost.
--- Arshad M. Khan
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
--- Native American proverb
August 31, 2018
Mr. President: Behavior acculturated to ancestral norms, originally necessitated by
occupation, is the focus of a new study in China with interesting ramifications for
climate change. In general, farming requires more stable relationships than, say,
herding with the constant movement of animals. Now the authors have taken farming
a step further:
They observed that northerners were three times more likely than southerners to
push an obstructing chair in a Starbucks out of the way; southerners eased
themselves around in order not to inconvenience whosoever had placed the chairs.
The behaviors were true to type as northerners are considered brash and
aggressive, while southerners are conflict averse and deferential.
The authors ascribe the behavior to ancestral occupation. Wheat is farmed in the
north, and such dry-land farming is more individualized than rice farming in the south.
The latter requires complex irrigation systems for paddies and forces cooperation and
coordination among multiple families. The interdependence also means it is crucial
not to offend anyone. This ancestral culture prevailed despite the fact that most
descendants were no longer farmers.
The question of which people change their environment and who change themselves
is an important one at a time when the world has to face the existential challenge of
climate change. In the last couple of years we have seen a cooperative Europe
facing a quintessential maverick, as in Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump lives in his own world ignoring the mounting research and irrefragable
evidence for climate change with its human fingerprint that can no longer be
disputed. Worse still are the consequences and the inevitable danger of conflict
fueled by resource needs. Thus the melting of Arctic ice has made possible new sea
pathways, opening up oil and gas exploration, and pitting Russia, the U.S., Canada
and other Arctic countries against each other.
China is now in virtual control of solar panel manufacture through a heavily subsidized
industry against which producers in other countries are unable to compete. The U.S.
imposed tariffs in 2017 and India might follow suit.
As electric car use increases, the demand for the rare minerals necessary for their
batteries has begun to soar. Unfortunately the Congo with its incessant tribal wars is
by far the largest producer of cobalt. Nickel has varied sources including Indonesia
and the Philippines although the largest reserves are in Australia, Brazil and Russia.
Chile has the highest reserves of Lithium followed by China, while Australia is the top
current producer. The scramble for these resources is underway and producer
countries have begun to guard their reserves through tariffs and controls.
Perhaps the most fraught issue is that of sharing water. For millennia one country
has relied on the Nile. The annual flooding in ancient Egypt brought new alluvial soil
yielding rich harvests. Even now more than 95 percent of the country's mostly farmer
population lives on the river's banks in an area approximately 5 percent of Egypt's
land mass. That whole way of life could be in jeopardy depending on how quickly
Ethiopia chooses to fill a huge reservoir behind a vast damn it is constructing.
China shares the Mekong with six other countries and is the only one not a member of
the Mekong River Commission. The problem is upstream dams and delicate
negotiations for the equitable treatment of downstream farmers and fishermen.
Then there are India and Pakistan, perennial enemies, now nuclear supercharged.
They share the Indus and some of its tributaries. Thanks to the 1960 Indus Waters
Treaty, they have never fought a water war although there have been others. Now
India is planning upstream dams. The situation can only worsen if the sources in the
Himalayas diminish with global warming.
How should humans respond to these environmental challenges? Should diffuse
bodies deal with associated problems, and/or should there be a world environment
court as a last resort against individualistic mavericks?
The Paris Agreement deals with greenhouse gas emissions and continues to function.
It has added new members, despite the US withdrawal, which, by the way, is not
effective until November 2020 leaving open the possibility of a newly elected
president rescinding it.
The Montreal Protocol, dating back to 1987, protected the depleting ozone layer
through the control of substances, chlorine and bromine, causing the problem. The
culprits hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were to
be phased out and replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The latter lacking
chlorine are safe in this regard.
Governor Jerry Brown is independently hosting the Global Climate Action Summit in
San Francisco (Sept. 12-14) next month to "put the globe back on track to prevent
dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris Agreement."
Then there is the New York Declaration on Forests (2014) which pledges to halve the
rate of deforestation by 2020 and to end it by 2030. It resulted from dialogue among
governments, corporations and civil society following the UN Secretary-General's
Climate Summit in New York.
Meanwhile, China produces 20 percent of emissions and it will need to address the
consequences of its Belt and Road Initiative. However, an agreement between China
and the US, the two largest polluters, could open the intriguing possibility of the US
returning to the Paris accord.
Such diffuse bodies dealing with the myriad problems emanating from climate change
and the evident cooperation of different actors relegate an out-of-sync Trump into a
discordant minority. While the US remains a hugely important party responsible for
18 percent of global emissions, a hopeful sign is that other politicians in the country
are clearly not following President Trump's lead.
These ad hoc arrangements might work for the present. But what of the future?
What of environmental degradation leading eventually to mass migrations, even wars
for scarce resources? We have the benefit of Europe's experience with large
numbers of refugees from America's wars in Libya, the Middle East and Afghanistan;
the welcome mat has been gradually rolled back. How effectively will the UN Security
Council counter environmental wars, particularly those involving China or other
countries with veto power ? That all such questions need to be addressed and soon
is a no-brainer, and COP 24 (Dec 3-14, 2018) could be an appropriate venue to
begin the discourse.