Sunday, January 29, 2017

Fake News: The Russian Hacker Story

"If you can't maintain the dominant paradigm, at least you can subvert the emergent ones."

Jazz musician and iconoclast Harry Shearer observes that Donald Trump’s ability to openly lie and then deny he did and then move on to telling the same lie again is “profoundly transactional.

This trait is not new in US presidents, merely less concealed in our era by the RealPolitik that kept it more discrete before. We could go back and find examples from the very first presidency, but let’s just retrace to Franklin Roosevelt who, besides concealing his infidelities, of necessity had to dissemble about wartime secrets, as did Truman and Eisenhower when the wars grew cold. Nixon was profoundly secretive, arrogating to his office a false claim of constitutional authority, that, while it cost him his job, was kept around for his successors to use, more liberally with each administration.

To dissemble lubricates a slippery slope. Nixon was impeached for lying about the Watergate cover-up. Clinton was impeached for dallying with an intern. Mountains of lies invite being tunneled into and mined, and mining tools are getting better all the time. Is it any wonder then, that ‘secret’ lying by Reagan, Clinton, Obama, The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC and others begat the baldface lying of Drudge, Fox, Trump and the new generation of fake news on steroids?

In the days before Christmas it easily escaped attention — certainly that of the mainstream echo chamber — that the US Lame Duck in Chief signed into law the LDNDAA (Lame Duck's National Defense Authorization Act) which legalized government propaganda — fake news — when deployed for national security against the citizenry of the US. The law gave the government sweeping powers to feed its minions — CNN, ABC, MSNBC — and covertly take down any competing news outlets that might dare to put out an alternative narrative or question the veracity of the fakes. RT Commentator Max Keiser called it a bailout for the bankrupt mainstream press.

If you can't maintain the dominant paradigm, at least you can subvert the emergent ones.

When our souls are mollified, a bee can sting.
— Cicero (Disp Tusc. II, 22)

[T]he Democrat / Prog coastal elite, hardcore Hillary, PC-and-unicorn crowd are moving through their post-election Kubler-Ross Transect-of-Grief from denial to anger….

Lately the Democratic Party in the US has adopted its own form of birtherism, which is using the “Russians hacked my homework” excuse for losing the last election. The evidence is flimsy, but that does not stop the handwaving, pompous haranguing, or other forms of smoke and mirrors. Lets look at the evidence.

According to the Obama spook estate, Russian hackers sent out volleys of phishing emails hoping someone would click. If you have email, you’ve seen this. They tell you that you won something, you qualify for a free trip, there is a bank error in your favor, or you have to upgrade some common piece of software like Java or Flash. Maybe, as in the case of a Russian hacker group that successfully phished Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party for 6 months in 2016, they’ll use as their trojan domain. If you follow the link, they get your credit card info or your password. Maybe the password you are prompted for is the same one you use for gmail. That’s what happened to John Podesta.

He got a suspicious mail, sent it to an aide to look at, the aide thought it was legit and some lucky hackers in Moscow downloaded 60,000 messages from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager’s gmail account. So what do you do with 60000 messages if there is no money in it? Give it to Wikileaks.

At least one targeted individual activated links to malware hosted on operational infrastructure of opened attachments containing malware. APT29 delivered malware to the political party's systems, established persistence, escalated privileges, enumerated active directory accounts, and exfiltrated email from several accounts through encrypted connections back through operational infrastructure.

That was the normal part. Now comes the nasty part. Unnamed “security experts” in the employ of the Democratic National Committee but now cited by the White House and cyberwar apparatchiks within the beltway “believe two Kremlin-connected groups were behind the hack.” Take that apart: Two hyphen connected groups. For Kremlin, substitute Vladimir Putin, because surely nothing in the Kremlin happens unless he directs it (?). So boom: frontpage stories that Putin stole the US election and gave it to Donald Trump, and media cheerleaders go with that because, boy does that boost ad revenues. Soon to be a major motion picture. Saturday Night Live is having a field day.

The two groups were Moscow hackers known to Microsoft as APT (“advanced persistent threat”) 28, a.k.a. Fancy Bear, and APT 29 or Cozy Bear.

“We were shocked to find our names there,” Aleksey Gubarev [who alongside his IT company, has been listed in an FBI report as the cyberlink connecting Trump and Russian hackers, told RT-TV,  saying he had “never met” anyone listed in the report. “Nobody from the intelligence agency contacted me about this story... to verify this information,” he said. Neither did any journalists reach out to him.

The published report is “fake news,” Gubarev said. "I still do not understand why our names [are] there and we do not understand a reason of this report in general." It may not matter.

We are reminded of the Italian Memo. In a story for Vanity Fair in 2006,  Craig Unger recalled:
Though it may be unprepossessing, the Niger Embassy is the site of one of the great mysteries of our times. On January 2, 2001, an embassy official returned there after New Year’s Day and discovered that the offices had been robbed. Little of value was missing—a wristwatch, perfume, worthless documents, embassy stationery, and some official stamps bearing the seal of the Republic of Niger. Nevertheless, the consequences of the robbery were so great that the Watergate break-in pales by comparison.

In his January 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush let this shoe fall: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” What came next is too horrible to recount, and it continues today, with each U238-mangled baby born in Fallujah. [Footnote: The new US Secretary of Defense is General James "Mad Dog" Mattis, who ordered his marine tank corps to put a depleted uranium shell in every house in the city. More than 300,000 DU rounds are estimated to have been fired. The uranium dust in the air turned sunsets green. Birth defects are now much higher than those recorded among survivors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.]

The British government, of course, had learned nothing of the sort, although Tony Blair jumped on the Cheney bandwagon, calling it the “Dossier of Doom.” Within months, polls showed 90 percent of USAnians believed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN, “There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Saddam] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Unger reported:

On the same day the “mushroom cloud” slogan made its debut, The New York Times printed a front-page story by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller citing administration officials who said that Saddam had “embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.” Specifically, the article [planted by White House Aide Scooter Libby] contended that Iraq “has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.”

It was a clever hoax. Well, actually, not all that clever. Just repeated often, and loudly, from the bully pulpit. “That was their favorite bureaucratic technique —ruthless relentlessness,” Colonel Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell told Vanity Fair. The CIA had a mole inside Saddam’s war cabinet who told them there was no WMD program. The White House told the CIA that it no longer mattered and by the way they were the designated fall guy for the ensuing “intelligence failure.”

Disinformation of this kind was not new and the Italian bit players in the Niger ruse had entered the American political arena twice before. The first was during Reagan’s election campaign when embarrassing “facts” about Billy Carter, the President’s bubba brother, taking slush money from Libyan president Mohamar Khadafi to meet with Yassir Arafat. Never mind that Billy denied it, the news came out the last week in October, just before the election, and by then it was too late to track down the source: an Italian covert agency run by militant anti-Communists that had infiltrated the highest levels of Italy’s judiciary, parliament, military, and press, and was tied to assassinations, kidnappings, and arms deals around the world.

In 1981, the same covert network orchestrated a disinformation campaign saying Mehmet Ali Agca, the right-wing nut who shot Pope John Paul II, had been taking orders from the Soviet KGB and Bulgaria’s secret service. As Unger put it:

In light of the ascendancy of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the Pope’s homeland, the Bulgarian Connection played a role in the demise of Communism in 1989.

When Nixon stepped down in 1974, two individuals ascended to positions of almost unlimited power in the Ford White House. Donald Rumsfeld was the sixth White House chief of staff. Dick Cheney was the seventh. Cheney was House Minority Whip during the Reagan years, Chairman of the Republican Policy Committee and later  the Ranking Member of the Select Committee to investigate the Iran-Contra Affair. He became Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush and Vice President under Number 43.

Did Cheney and Rumsfeld pull the Italian strings in Billygate and the Bulgarian Connection? No one is telling. What we know is that stationary stolen from the Niger embassy was used for a forgery and ultimately combined with other papers that were already in Italian secret service archives. A codebook and a dossier with a mixture of fake and genuine documents were delivered to Blair. Among the fakes, embassy stationery was used to forge a two-page memo purportedly sent to the president of Niger concerning the sale of 500 tons of pure uranium per year to Iraq.

The forged documents were full of errors. A letter dated October 10, 2000, was signed by Minister of Foreign Affairs Allele Elhadj Habibou — even though he had been out of office for more than a decade. Its September 28 postmark indicated that somehow the letter had been received nearly two weeks before it was sent. In another letter, President Tandja Mamadou’s signature appeared to be phony. The accord signed by him referred to the Niger constitution of May 12, 1965, when a new constitution had been enacted in 1999. One of the letters was dated July 30, 1999, but referred to agreements that were not made until a year later. Finally, the agreement called for the 500 tons of uranium to be transferred from one ship to another in international waters—a spectacularly difficult feat.

* * *
Over the next two years, the Niger documents and reports based on them made at least three journeys to the C.I.A. They also found their way to the U.S. Embassy in Rome, to the White House, to British intelligence, to French intelligence, and to Elisabetta Burba, a journalist at Panorama, the Milan-based newsmagazine. Each of these recipients in turn shared the documents or their contents with others, in effect creating an echo chamber that gave the illusion that several independent sources had corroborated an Iraq-Niger uranium deal.

A story by Seymour Hersh for The New Yorker suggested that retired and embittered C.I.A. operatives had intentionally put together a lousy forgery in hopes of embarrassing Cheney’s hawkish followers. If that was true it backfired. Never underestimate the gullibility of the press.

First Case in point: the fake National Guard documents that cost Dan Rather and Mary Mapes their jobs at CBS News.

Second Case in point: Russian hackers stole my election.

Another point we observe as we follow this thread was how language is used to frame subject. The “mushroom-cloud” and “smoking gun” visuals were so visceral they were repeated by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld and became standard NeoCon talking points in the run-up to the Second Gulf War.

When RT says that President Obama leaves behind a “vast, unaccountable permanent warfare state,” or that levels of economic inequality in the West are “obscene,” or that Trump “terrifies European leaders,” it’s worth asking if it might be Russian disinformation. But it’s also worth asking if it might be true. Distrust but verify.
With the power to persecute and prosecute journalists, the American government is a dangerous media critic. Judging by the report on RT, it’s also a lousy one.
— Stephen Bates, Lawfare

The Russian hacking story gets reframed to appeal to different echo chambers. For the left wing it assuages the cognitive dissonance that comes when you try to wrap your mind around President… Donald… Trump. Never mind that what is said to have bent the election at the 11th hour was the content of the Podesta emails, not their source. For the right, it’s a chance to blame Obama for the “Cyber Gap” and the anticipation of another wondrous pot of gold at the end of a forthcoming defense authorization rainbow. Of course, neither side questions the veracity of electronic voting machines.

Next week we will look at how the same genetic program that allows us to swallow a yarn like the Russian hacker tale keeps us from doing the right thing about climate change. Later, we will learn how to turn that gene off. In the meantime, the best antidote to fake news is to take yours from as broad a spectrum of opinions as you can find and make your own judgment.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Three Pillars

"By pushing the system beyond the brink, the status quo protectors have now put it into free fall."

  Naysayers about the potential for a radical shift in the foundational structure of civilization argue by looking backward, not forward. “It has never happened before and so it cannot happen now.” But there are three fundamental differences.

First, the change of our climate away from the Holocene and into the Anthropocene is without any historical analog, even looking back hundreds of millions of years. Nafeez Mosadeq Ahmed terms this "Earth System Disruption."

Industrial civilization is undergoing a second geophysically driven change that will shake it to its roots. It has never happened before and it cannot happen again. You can call this “peak oil,” but as Richard Heinberg pointed out, it's really "peak everything."

The thin driving wedge that will crack open our assumptions about what is normal will be financial collapse, but that is just a reflection of what the peak oil community has been saying since M. King Hubbert presented a paper to the 1956 meeting of the American Petroleum Institute:

[W]e are living on a finite world and infinite growth of material consumption is simply not possible.

Nor, as Paul and Anne Ehrlich warned nearly half a century ago, is exponential population growth.  Ahmed terms this "Human System Destabilization."

The unprecedented part — something few advocates for a renewables revolution yet grasp — is that each time humans moved from one dominant energy supply to the next it was towards greater caloric density at lower cost. We went from firewood to charcoal, to whale oil, to coal and coal gas, to petroleum and natural gas, and each time we got more bang for our buck, production and automation revolutionized, and our population and its footprint leaped another notch. After conventional oil peaked in the first years of the new millennium (just as Hubbert forecast in 1974), unconventional sources like fracked gas and oil shales filled the gap, but with a significant hitch — they cost more.

The same is true of renewables.

We set aside discussion of nuclear energy here — even though it has the greatest power density of any — because that industry is a colossal con-game when it is not busy concealing its silent death toll. Even Hubbert was misled on that point. One might also boil water to make steam to make electricity by burning human embryos, children and old people, but it would cost more and have the same stranded ethics as atomic energy. Just imagine for a moment a gigawatt-sized Auschwitz- or Buchenwald-like furnace powering every major city. Fukushima is morally indistinguishable from that.

Solar and wind energy is now cheaper across much of the world than coal, oil or nuclear energy, but the real cost is not the market price, but rather the non-renewable components made from rare earths like ion-absorbing lanthanum, super-magnetic neodymium and luminescent, paramagnetic europium.  At present China mines 90 percent of the world supply of those rare earths (at untold human and ecological cost) but a 2012 government assessment put the reserves to extraction ratio at 15, meaning a 15-year supply at then rates of removal.

Last week Barack Obama wrote for the peer-reviewed journal Science (with ghostwriting by John Holdren and Brian Deese):

[T]he business case for clean energy is growing, and the trend toward a cleaner power sector can be sustained regardless of near-term federal policies."

— Obama B., The irreversible momentum of clean energy, Science 09 Jan 2017, DOI: 10.1126/science.aam6284

Unless a new Saudi Arabia of rare earths magically emerges in the next 10 years (or a date far sooner, given the exponential expansion of the solar industry), renewable energy will meet a hard biophysical limit.

After climate and energy, the third onrushing constraint to our present civilizational structure is “Whole System Disruption.” The global consumerist culture seems nearly oblivious to its dependence on a web of life — the inability of humans to go it alone. We seem unaware that our solar orbit is at the inner edge of the zone where biological life is possible this close to the Sun.

Our political capital — the wiring diagram for modern societies — is built on denying these three pillars — climate, peak everything and respect for limits.

 Dysfunctional systems have a way of disassembling themselves, with no assistance required. In his new book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Naffiz Ahmed gives the recent example of Syria (forgive the extended excerpt but this may soon be behind a paywall and it's worth it):

The conventional narrative of the causes and consequences of the 2011 'Arab Spring' tends to focus on the idea of a democratic deficit in the region as the primary trigger, but fails to integrate this with a wider vision of the range of factors involved.

It is increasingly recognized that climate change played a major role in establishing conditions of societal vulnerability for the conflicts that followed the Arab Spring (Johnstone and Mazo 2011). Others argue correctly that the uprisings of the Arab Spring itself were triggered by unprecedented global food price spikes, (Lagi et al. 2011) while still others show that peak oil occurred in Egypt and Syria prior to the uprisings (Hallock et al. 2014). However, these studies neglect the systemic interconnections across these different factors. They thus fail to offer a truly systemic understanding of these phenomena.

In reality, the string of state failures across the region, and the inexorable swing toward multiple conflicts spurred on by the rise of various Islamist militant groups, can be traced directly to ESD (Earth System Disruption) phenomena unravelling the local sub-systems underpinning state integrity. In short, HSD (Human System Destabilization) in the form of the escalation of political violence has been fueled by ESD driven by interconnected biophysical processes of climate change, energy depletion and food crises.

Political Repression

The collapse of Syria into internecine warfare is, as with the Arab Spring, largely viewed as a direct consequence of the extreme political repression of President Bashar al-Assad, and the competing role of outside powers. To that extent, international policy has focused on viewing the conflict through the lens of geopolitical interests and regional security.

There has been some important recognition that climate change played at least an indirect role in catalyzing the Syrian conflict by creating a drought that led to social pressures conducive to civil unrest. Yet there has been no recognition at all that a primary factor in the Syrian state's extreme vulnerability to such pressures was peak oil.

Peak Oil

Prior to the onset of war, the Syrian state was experiencing declining oil revenues, driven by the peak of its conventional oil production in 1996 (Ahmed 2013). Even before the war, the country's rate of oil production had plummeted by nearly half, from a peak of just under 610,000 barrels per day (bpd) to approximately 385,000 bpd in 2010 (Department of State 2014).

Since the war, production dropped further still, once again by about half, as rebels took control of key oil producing areas. Faced with dwindling profits from oil exports and a fiscal deficit, the government was forced to slash fuel subsidies in May 2008—which at the time consumed 15 % of GDP. The price of petrol tripled overnight, fueling pressure on food prices (IRIN 2008).

Climate Change

The crunch came in the context of an intensifying and increasingly regular drought cycle linked to climate change. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has provided the most compelling research to date on how climate change amplified Syria's drought conditions, which in turn had a "catalytic effect" on civil unrest. The authors found that the 2007-2010 drought was the worst "in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers", and was made three times more likely than by natural variability alone: "We conclude that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict" (Kelley et al. 2015). Compounding the impact of climate change, between 2002 and 2008, the country's total water resources dropped by half through both overuse and waste (Worth 2010).

Syrian refugees in Bulgaria - Milwaukee Jewish Federation
Once self-sufficient in wheat, Syria has become increasingly dependent on increasingly costly grain imports, which rose by one million tonnes in 2011-2012, then rose again by nearly 30% to about 4 million in 2012-2013. The drought ravaged Syria's farmlands, led to several crop failures, and drove hundreds of thousands of people from predominantly Sunni rural areas into coastal cities traditionally dominated by the Alawite minority. The exodus inflamed sectarian tensions rooted in Assad's longstanding favouritism of his Alawite sect—many members of which are relatives and tribal allies — over the Sunni majority (Agrimoney 2012).

Since 2001 in particular, Syrian politics was increasingly repressive even by regional standards, while Assad's focus on IMF-backed market reform escalated unemployment and inequality. The new economic policies undermined the rural Sunni poor while expanding the regime-linked private sector through a web of corrupt, government-backed joint ventures that empowered the Alawite military elite and a parasitic business aristocracy. Then from 2010 to 2011, the global price of wheat doubled — fueled by a combination of extreme weather events linked to climate change, oil price spikes and intensified speculation on food commodities — impacting on Syrian wheat imports. Assad's inability to maintain subsidies due to rapidly declining oil revenues worsened the situation (Friedman 2013).

Population Bomb

As of 2010, Syria's then 20 million-strong population had one of the highest growth rates in the world, at around 2.4 %. In the first two months of 2011 alone, Syria's population grew by a monumental 80,000 people, most of whom were concentrated in the poorest eastern regions most badly affected by drought conditions (Sands 2011).

The food price hikes triggered the protests that evolved into armed rebellion, in response to Assad's indiscriminate violence against demonstrators. The rural town of Dara'a, hit by five prior years of drought and water scarcity with little relief from the government, was a focal point for the 2011 protests. The emerging Syrian conflict then paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups. Regional and international geopolitics fanned the flames of various rebel movements who moved into the widening vacuum of Syrian systemic state-failure to build new proto-state criminal enterprises.

Yet parallel processes have also been at play across the border, where ISIS is also active. US meteorologist Eric Holthaus specifically points out that the rapid rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 coincided with a period of unprecedented heat in Iraq, recognized as being the warmest on record to date, from March to May 2014. Recurrent droughts and heavy rainstorms have also played havoc with Iraq's agriculture. With water supplies dwindling, and agriculture waning, Iraq's US-backed Shi'ite-dominated government has largely failed to address these burgeoning challenges, even as ISIS has moved quickly to exploit these failures, for instance by using dams as a weapon of war. Holthaus points out that climate-induced droughts have accompanied rapid population growth and agricultural stagnation, both of which are straining the capacity of the central government to feed its own population and deliver basic goods and services. As that state-level failure has been exacerbated, ISIS has rapidly filled the vacuum (Holthaus 2014).

Outgoing UN leader Ban Ki Moon and Bashar al-Assad
Lamenting lack of progress on climate change, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, said:

 “Too many leaders seem content to keep climate change at arm’s length, and in its policy silo. Too few grasp the need to bring the threat to the center of global security, economic and financial management.”

It is easy to understand why policymakers ignore the elephant in the room. In a 2015 study by the George C. Marshall Institute, Fossil Fuel Energy and Economic Wellbeing, the NeoCon think tank turned the need for change on its head, arguing that everything we’ve just argued above is a reason not to change.

    Despite the obvious reliance of the entire world on fossil fuels and the prospect that such reliance is likely to continue for decades, particularly in the developing world, it has become fashionable to argue that such fuels must be phased down and perhaps discarded entirely. The targets tend to be longer range, but they involve drastic proportions. For example, the European Council calls for an 80-95% reduction in CO2 emissions in advanced countries by 2050 which, because fossil fuels account for the great majority of these emissions, almost certainly would require an enormous reduction in their use.  In 2009 the Obama Administration pledged the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, but made clear this is just a first step towards much more stringent goals in future years.

    It is simply a mistake, conceptually and practically, to propose a drastic phasing out of fossil fuels. Even a relatively high cost assigned to anthropomorphic climate change does not imply such a phase-out, and given the tremendous value of these fuels to country economies everywhere, no such phase-out is likely.

    Worldwide gasoline consumption is at least 2 1⁄2 times U.S. consumption, so we are speaking of at least 25 billion miles traveled every day worldwide. This mobility enables people to take jobs they otherwise would find hard to access and to move about more within those jobs as needed. It also enables them to access more goods and services, visit family and friends more, etc. The result is that people are more productive than they otherwise would be, and are able to experience a higher quality of life. It is hard to overstate how important mobility is to people around the globe.
Yes, mobility becomes extremely important when you are leaving an area struck by famine, having lost its energy and agricultural underpinnings, and climate change is beating at your back as you confront hard physical barriers like the Mediterranean or Caribbean Seas.

The disconnect between the risk assigned to something that might potentially damage the global economy by reducing mobility and that assigned to the alternative — auguring near term human extinction within the space of a lifetime — is stark. It is only made possible by the denial of the three pillars of this analysis — ESD, HSD and WSD — which of course can only be expected by the author of the paper, an oil industry flack working in a right wing echo chamber. His variety of “fake news” is what provides a lavish standard of living for the legions of ear whisperers in the Power Zone.

The curious thing about what just happened in 2016 is that mostly the ear whisperers were exposed as clueless or misinformed. Most, like the pundits of K-Street, MSNBC and FOX, the President’s National Security Advisor, or the seers of Silicon Valley, assumed that BREXIT would be defeated, Hillary Clinton would become President of the United States, ISIS was a spontaneous anti-American insurgence, Assad and Erdogan would be deposed, and the Cubs would lose the World Series. If they had placed a $5 bet on Trump, Brexit and Leicester City they would have earned $15 million.  Instead, rather than admit they were wrong, they create a kind of new “birtherism,” demanding that Vladimir Putin be held accountable.

Imagine for a moment a country that unexpectedly has their national presidential elections tampered with, not through the balloting process but by media buys, leaked documents, last minute revelations of corruption and millions of foreign dollars flowing in to boost the lagging candidate who gets a last minute, 10 percent surge over polling predictions. Imagine further that the new president is immediately surrounded by advisors from the same foreign power who trash universal medical coverage, abandon free education, and slash away the social welfare net while feathering the nests of a new class of billionaire oligarchs made fat off privatization of the former treasures of the state. Millions of the unemployed, sick and elderly simply die. The national economy of the country is in tatters.

If you think we are describing Trumpageddon you would be mistaken. We are describing the 1996 election in Russia, when the party stalwart  Gennady Zyuganov  was defeated by the enormously unpopular drunken buffoon Boris Yeltsin by a margin of 13.7 points, riding on a wave of support openly engineered by George Soros and the Clinton White House.
He vowed to transform Russia's socialist economy into a capitalist market economy and implemented economic shock therapy, price liberalization and nationwide privatization. Due to the sudden total economic shift, a majority of the national property and wealth fell into the hands of a small number of oligarchs. The well-off millionaire and billionaire oligarchs likened themselves to 19th century robber barons. Rather than creating new enterprises, Yeltsin's democratization led to international monopolies hijacking the former Soviet markets, arbitraging the huge difference between old domestic prices for Russian commodities and the prices prevailing on the world market.

Much of the Yeltsin era was marked by widespread corruption, and as a result of persistent low oil and commodity prices during the 1990s, Russia suffered inflation, economic collapse and enormous political and social problems that affected Russia and the other former states of the USSR.

Clinton, Yeltsin, Trump and Zyuganov —Russian Universe
To imagine that something similar to this could have occurred 20 years later and that it was engineered by none other than the aspiring young apparatchik who replaced the disgraced Yeltsin when he resigned in 1999, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, beggars belief. Nobody is that cunning. Or possessing such a deliciously ironical sense of humor.
We have described the challenge. We need to move on to provide the solution, but first let us reiterate a phrase used by Bill Mollison: “the problem is the solution.” By pushing the system beyond the brink, the status quo protectors have now put it into free fall. It will crash, and there is really no way to avoid that. Nafeez Ahmed puts the date at 2018. James Howard Kunstler says don't count out 2017. But make no mistake: the coming collapse is a blessing in disguise.

Had Syria not experienced the twin curses of peak oil and climate change in rapid succession, it would have continued to grow its population at exponential rates until it invited the Whole System Disturbance. The outcome, even as bad as it has been, would have been exponentially worse. Now, with the benefit of experience with severe and radically transformational change, the Syrian people are more favorably disposed to something completely different.

What that might be, precisely, will be described in future installments.

The  current recession is just a prelude. We have passed biophysical limits. This explains the current era of political weirding but it doesn’t help us to avoid or soften it. We shall get to that, but we have to concede, our situation will very likely get much worse before it gets better.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Without a bucket to RCP in

"The only thing holding this global tsunami back is the cold depth of the deep blue sea."

  We are in a crisis of civilization but most people, by and large, have not realized it yet. It is as if we are a prizefighter in the ring with a stronger opponent and we have just been dealt a knockout punch but we are still on our feet, uncomprehending of what has just happened. It is not as though the fight can continue. We will shortly be on the floor. It is not as though we will suddenly bounce back, alert and still fighting. We are done. We just don’t know it yet. If we are lucky, our opponent will relent for the moment it takes us to go down, sparing us another, potentially lethal blow from which we would be completely defenseless.

Lets bore in on the illusion that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), having been awarded the Nobel Prize, has prescribed a rescue remedy to “avoid dangerous interference with climate” if nations are willing to take it.

Perhaps you concur with that conventional wisdom even while lamenting that national governments lack spine.

“The scientists have been the finger-pointy adults in the room on this issue,” said Andrew Revkin, former NY Times reporter and author of the dot earth blog. But the IPCC quickly learned that not only did it not have any authority to set policy, it was an object of ridicule. It came to expect that any advice it gave would be resisted and so it took measures to soften its approach. It fed governments baby food — sugar coated, easy to digest, and somewhat shy of full nutrition.

Case in point: the IPCC future scenarios (RCPs for “Representative Concentration Pathways”, and ECP’s for “Extended Concentration Pathways”).

Over the course of many years the IPCC science community produced RCP and ECP models representing a broad range of climate outcomes, based on the peer-reviewed literature. The RCPs and ECPs are defined by their total radiative forcing (cumulative measure of human emissions of atmospheric pollution from all sources expressed in Watts per square meter) starting in 2005 and accumulated change by 2100 in the case of the RCPs and 2300 in the case of the ECPs.

They are not forecasts, just a survey of known possibilities. Assessing likelihoods requires comparisons of the projections with observations in real time.

In 2011 the figure to the right appeared in the journal, Climatic Change:

van Vuuren et al (2011) The Representative Concentration Pathways: An Overview. Climatic Change, 109 (1-2), 5-31.

The dark grey area contained the range of estimates previously deemed to be 90% certain. The blue line — RCP 8.5 — is tracking closest to actual data at the moment, and so the light great area was added to extend the range to a 98% certainty for 2050-2100.

If you were assigning likelihoods, you would probably give RCP 8.5 a pretty high probability now, but bear in mind you are just looking at where the line begins to arc upwards in 2016 and there is no real evidence that the arc will then settle into a straight line and even bend back down a little in the 2090s. It could as easily turn straight up and shoot off the top of this chart in the 2040-2075 interval.

The other three lines were chosen in 2011 to represent a few selected RCPs that expressed the confidence range. Each RCP could result from different combinations of economic, technological, demographic, policy, and institutional futures. For example, the second-to-lowest RCP assumes technological improvements and a shift from manufacturing economies to service industries but does not make any efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions as a goal in itself. The highest line represents industrial expansion as usual, or, alternatively, industrial contraction supplanted by runaway methane releases, radical deforestation, change of arctic albedo or some other phenomenon, or combination, that keeps the rate of forcing growing even though industrial GHG emissions decline.

The scenario process then moves to translating what effect each Watts per meter change would have on the biosphere.

These scenarios have been developed by the same means humans have planned for their future since we first started keeping history: by observing past events and projecting that process of development into the future. It is entirely linear. Pattern recognition.

Granted, when you are projecting an observed exponential rate of growth into the future (such as a doubling rate for CO2 concentration, which can be taken from Keeling’s Mauna Loa data) at some point the curve turns a corner and rockets upward until the distinction between linearity and non-linearity becomes moot. Like a broken clock, even linear models will be right occasionally in a non-linear world. What the IPCC models do not do, and cannot do, is predict the geobiological results of non-linear change. That’s unknowable.

    [T]he present anthropogenic carbon release rate is unprecedented during the past 66 million years. We suggest that such a ‘no-analogue’ state represents a fundamental challenge in constraining future climate projections.

— Zeebe, R., A. Ridgwell, and J. Zachos. 2016. Anthropogenic Carbon Release Rate Unprecedented during the Past 66 Million Years. Nature Geoscience 9:325–29.

Observed decline in global sea ice to Jan 2017
A second problem is that the RCPs only look from 2005 to 2100, a little less than a century. Consequently, they do not consider what changes may occur before Earth’s systems may recover equilibrium with the new forcings, a process that can require millennia. For example, estimates of global average sea level rise were recently revised to 2 meters this century, based on observations of ice loss in Antarctica. Those studies did not include observed loss of ice in Greenland and so the revision is still too low. And yet, we know from the geologic record and the equations of thermodynamics that equilibrium for present concentrations of GHGs take global sea level to about 23 m (75 feet) higher than today and average global temperature to about 17 degrees C (30 F) warmer. (Goreau, T.J.F., 2016. Regenerative Development for Rapid Stabilization of CO2 and Climate at Safe Levels, Soil Carbon Alliance White Paper). Even applying the ECPs, the equilibrium state will not likely be achieved by 2300. It could take a few thousand years.

The only thing holding this global tsunami back is the cold depth of the deep blue sea. Deep sea holds around 95% of the heat in the climate system. It is the biosphere’s thermal battery. The deep sea is now just above freezing, but it is warming. If we stopped adding GHGs today, it would take about 1600 years for the ocean to stop warming. Additions are not slowing down however — they are speeding up.

Implicit in the failure of the IPCC to model non-linear dynamics and long-term equilibrium is the gap in information being communicated to decisionmakers regarding the potential for the unexpected. One “known unknown” is the capacity of critical failures to cascade complimentary forcings. Any sound policy response should be building resilience and antifragility to buffer against these unknowns. Employ nature as a hedge. Instead, nature is being rapidly removed and in its place we are being sold risky geoengineering schemes.

IPCC prides itself on taking the conservative approach and being non-alarmist, but it does not offer hedges. To the contrary, it makes grand speculations based on science fiction. The most recent annual reports assume that as we pass some as yet unknown threshold of political pain, presumedly around mid-Century, human civilization will implement large scale CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) and begin pulling legacy carbon back from the atmosphere.

Anyone who has seriously studied this assumption (the US National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society, for instance) has concluded it is one part wishful thinking and 9 parts fairy dust.

CCS does not exist.

Experiments at putting liquefied carbon dioxide into geological storage have been both horrendously expensive and remarkably ineffective — leaking back to the atmosphere relatively quickly. The technology only holds promise for those unwilling to crunch the numbers. In that camp are most of the national delegations to the UN climate talks and much of the business world.

Technological fixes, after all, would be so much easier than systemic social change.

    Of the 400 scenarios that have a 50% or better chance of no more than 2°C warming . . . 344 assume the successful and large-scale uptake of negative-emission technologies. Even more worryingly, in all 56 scenarios without negative emissions, global emissions peak around 2010 . . . In plain language, the complete set of 400 IPCC scenarios for a 50% or better chance of meeting the 2°C target work on the basis of either an ability to change the past, or the successful and large-scale uptake of negative-emission technologies.

— Anderson, K. 2015. “Duality in Climate Science.” Nature Geoscience 8:898–900.

Over the next few months, this weekly blog will sketch our manifesto. We will try to set forward a multitrack approach that has a realistic chance of reversing climate change within the short window of time required. It is no secret — it does it by building resilience and letting nature do the heavy lifting.

Motivating this change is another matter. It is our view, born of our experience, that nothing short of extreme social change is capable of relieving the existential crisis of climate change and nothing short of extreme crisis will be capable of motivating that kind of extreme social change. If we learned anything from 2016, it is that people are clamoring for change.

So, buckle your seatbelts. We are going to crash. What it looks like on the other side of that crash, however, is utterly charming. It is not like being hit by Conor McGregor and going down hard in the first round. It is more like a snowboarder’s crash in powder or a kiteboarder on water. You can get back up.

We need not fear the power zone, but we should be cautious as we approach.



Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Power Zone Manifesto

" The physical requirements are not negotiable. They cannot be bargained down, discounted, or put on a layaway plan."

Fire in the New Valley, Egypt - PlanetLab
2016 was a year for revolutions. Really it was only a continuation of the Tunisian Spring that began in 2010 or, even before that, the Arab labor strikes that ran from 2006 to 2008, followed by insurgencies and civil wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, civil uprisings in Bahrain and Egypt, large street demonstrations in Algeria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Sudan and minor protests in Djibouti, Mauritania, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and the Western Sahara, then the 2008 financial crash, Occupy, the collapse of Greece, the Ukrainian civil war, Brazil, Venezuela, Turkey, many more and eventually Brexit and Trump. A major slogan of the demonstrators in the Arab world was Ash-sha`b yurid isqat an-nizam ("the people want to bring down the regime"). It applied equally well to Brexit and Trump.
 It is no coincidence that all this revolutionizing started with the crash of the world’s energy pyramid in 2005 and the climate chickens coming home to roost about the same time. It has been papered over by financial fictions in the West (Ponzinomics), but 2005 marked the start of the long emergency and the decidedly different times in which we now live. Historic, concurrent and rapid state failures in the Middle East, Northwest Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Europe and North America are either coming, or have already arrived. This week we are witnessing the implosion of México, next week it could be Japan.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

— Yeats (1919)

In Failing States, Collapsing Systems (Springer 2017), Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed writes:
Yet while policymakers and media observers have raced to keep up with events, they have largely missed the biophysical triggers of this new age of unrest – the end of the age of cheap fossil fuels, and its multiplying consequences for the Earth’s climate, industrial food production, and economic growth.

What we are about to undertake is to write a prescription. Essentially, over the next 10 or 12 weeks, we are going to write a book comprised of a string of these blog posts, chapter by chapter. We intend to lay out the whole philosophy of the change required, and then describe, in mechanical detail, not only what must be done, but how it can be accomplished without bloodshed but with plenty of gaity, song and dance. We are calling this our Power Zone Manifesto.

Power Zone: A kite wind window is the area where the kite can fly. This is a three-dimensional semi-dome. In the wind window there are three components: the power zone, the intermediate zone and the edge of the wind window. When you can feel the wind in your back, you will find the power zone lying in front of you. In the picture you see the red and orange colored areas where this is indicated. This is the part where the kite catches wind the most and thus where the kite generates the most power. A Power zone is a risk zone where you should go with caution, but this does not mean it’s dangerous. It’s a learning process on how to use it.

Manifesto: (1620, Italian, from manifestare — denunciation, and Latin, manifestus) a written statement that describes the policies, goals, and opinions of a person or group
— Mirriam-Webster  

We are embarking, with this first installment of the New Year, on a journey together. We are sending a kite into the power zone. Our subject is climate change, but more importantly, civilizational change. The two are a coupled pair, like matter and anti-matter. Not everyone understands that yet, or appreciates the gravity of the situation, and that is unfortunate but okay. The full horror will reveal itself gradually, in fits and starts, and in times and places not of our choosing. Here, in 2017, we take it on faith that we still have options. That faith could be entirely misplaced  but from the available evidence we cannot say either way — the climate juggernaut is in motion but perhaps still reversible. Faith gives us agency. Apostasy does not. We are creatures that exercise agency as an inherited condition. Take that away and we psychologically shatter, wither and die. We need to feel we have choices. We need to be able to exercise will.
So, feeling the wind at our back, we edge the kite closer to the power zone. 

Escondida Mine, Chile, PlanetLab
It has been said that what distinguishes homo from other animals is our ability to make tools. We disagree. Other apes make tools. A crow uses a stick dabbed with honey to catch ants. A humpback whale, having neither hands nor feet, may fashion a bubble net to snare its lunch, humming a song of its own composition as it reels in the harvest. 

Perhaps one thing that distinguishes homo from other animals is our ability to accumulate knowledge culturally, and to do so more rapidly than, say, the lessons passed by each generation of she-wolves to their young, or the nuanced dances of honey bees.

Climate change is occurring so rapidly now, and with such apparent acceleration, that it forces us to go beyond even our high rates of cultural cataloging. We do not have the luxury of slow, generational change. Already born are children who will experience an Earth four or five degrees warmer than it is right now, maybe even much hotter. 

Graeme Taylor, in A Realistic (Holistic) Approach to Climate Mitigation, World Future Review 2016, Vol. 8(3) 141–161, writes:
In general, a realistic climate mitigation strategy must (1) clarify the requirements for a safe global climate, (2) develop a viable strategy for managing critical risks and ensuring safe outcomes (e.g., a multitrack approach capable of both accelerating change within existing institutions and catalyzing systemic transformation), (3) progressively build scientific and political support for this strategy, and (4) develop national and international alliances to educate, encourage, and pressure decisionmakers at all levels to take effective action.

Diplomats and politicians have been slow to come to agreement about the requirements for averting catastrophic climate change. Rather than clarify, they have generally done everything possible to obscure. Scientists, by contrast, have been gradually moving into consensus for the last century or more and now are at nearly complete unanimity, with piercing clarity. 

In broad stroke, to reestablish the relatively stable climate of the last 10,000 years, the Holocene epoch, we must restore the relationship between energy arriving and leaving Earth’s land, oceans and atmosphere.
By any reasonable measure, we are outside the zone of safety already.
The physical requirements to return to a safe climate zone are these:

  1. Humans must stop adding carbon to the atmosphere (and thereby to the oceans);
  2. We must stop throwing off the balance of nitrogen, phosphorus and other critical cycles that maintain photosynthetic equilibrium and the energy balance of the Earth in relation to the Sun;
  3. We must reverse desertification;
  4. We must arrest the degradation of biodiversity;
  5. We must restore the naturally regenerative systems and allow them to heal the damage that has been done.

These five physical requirements are not negotiable. They cannot be bargained down, discounted, or put on a layaway plan. This creates a dilemma for human societies, because, as far back as our emergence from the past ice age and the adoption of agriculture, we have been marking progress by measures that result in the precise opposite of these requirements. 

Atmospheric carbon dioxide, at least a third attributable to agriculture, is on track to peak after 2050 at 600 ppm, more than double the Holocene mean. But agriculture was only made possible by the advent of the gentle Holocene.

Agriculture made us sedentary, created a system of division of the commons and private property, installed capitalism (to borrow and lend lands and seed and to apportion risks and profits) and militarism (to protect property, stored harvests and contract rights), codified laws beyond the moral variety handed down on tablets from God, and gave rise to cities and monumental state architectures.

Could it be that to meet the five requirements we next need to undo all that? Is that even possible?

This is what regime change looks like

Taylor’s second point is more difficult to address than his third and fourth. We have been building political support the same way we built the scientific support, only much more slowly. National and international alliances have been forged, across all parts of civil society, and those continue to exert pressure on decisionmakers. To find “a multitrack approach capable of both accelerating change within existing institutions and catalyzing systemic transformation,” however, is a much bigger ask.

Taylor correctly summarizes the state of international negotiations:
Critics argue that the Paris Agreement failed to deal with many crucial issues. These include assessing and managing the real risks and costs of climate change; defining greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration safety limits; determining a time frame for emissions to peak; stopping fossil fuel subsidies; imposing carbon pollution taxes; limiting both fossil fuel supply and demand; developing clean substitutes for nonelectrical uses of fossil fuel energy; ensuring that climate change costs are borne equitably by rich and poor nations; reducing resistance to climate mitigation through developing alternative, nonpolluting uses for fossil fuels; and planning the transformation of the global political economy into a sustainable system.

Because it does not take a holistic, precautionary risk management approach to climate modeling, it does not recognize that biophysical limits and timelines are nonnegotiable, and that passing critical thresholds creates the potential for systemic failure or state change. For instance, the Paris Agreement does not place safety limits on atmospheric CO2 and other GHG concentrations, an absolute cap on ocean and atmospheric temperature increases, an absolute cap on ocean acidification, or a specified timeline for reducing GHG emissions.
None of these deficiencies was corrected in Marrakech, nor are they expected to be corrected in COP-23 in Bonn next year. This does not make the UNFCCC multi-stakeholder process useless, it just means it is very slow. Like climate itself, it moves in fits and spurts. We can agree: it is probably not up to the challenge posed by exponential chaos.

Plutonium Valley, Nevada Test Site, PlanetLab
If you are toying with some of these ideas, before you throw in the towel and say its hopeless, lets start by naming the deluding passions.

The world is not easily divided between those who deny climate change is a problem and those content to criticize the political stalemate as the karma of capitalism. Nor is it easily divided between those who assume that governments have the matter under control and those that believe the AI singularity will deal with it by dint of human ingenuity.

There is a spectrum of opinion out there. One may overlap with another, or the roles reverse without warning. What is “conservative” actually? What is “liberal?”

Reframing Reality

One might think from the plain definition of the word that conservatives are those who seek to protect and “conserve” the resources that confer wealth upon societies. Those would be things like soil, water, clean air, biodiversity and a system of social contracts that prevents despoliation of the commons. And yet, whether you are speaking of conservatives in the US, UK, Europe or somewhere else, they all have in common a disdain for these very things, and are doing everything possible to use up, trash, and deregulate the expropriation of resources while at the same time relaxing restrictions on pollution and habitat destruction.

On the flip side of that coin we have the liberals — like deer in the headlights when it comes to net energy and peak everything. “Liberal” should mean broad-minded, generous, and progressive. Instead, in an era that screams for rapid build-down of over-extended economies, liberals champion expansion, whether it be programs to resettle, educate and empower refugees, conferring rights to “sustainable development” on non-industrialized, rapidly overpopulating countries or sending out a high-tech military empire in search of the final drops of fossil sunlight in order to sustain the nonnegotiable.

Caught between these polar conflicts are masses of sheeple, running this way and that, trying to escape the pull of the power zone. Knowing that Ash-sha`byurid isqat an-nizam  is the dominant sentiment, regimes are running scared, whether they are regimes of government, economics, academia, or science. Regime change is in vogue. The world has become a free-fire zone.

Cooler heads will eventually prevail. Some pain may have to be experienced first. A change is coming, and next week we will continue to tease out some of its outlines.
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?




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