26 July 2008

Why does the UK have nuclear weapons? or France?

While the nuclear powers, especially the United States, Britain and France, express great concern about Iran developing a nuclear weapon and while they issue threats of sanctions and even darker measures, an obvious question is being overlooked. Why exactly do Great Britain and France have nuclear weapons?

With nuclear neighbours to the north and east, wars being fought by nuclear-armed nations on its eastern and western borders, and its access to the sea prowled by the warships of a hostile, nuclear-equipped power, if any nation can justify a nuclear arsenal, it's Iran. Great Britain and France, on the other hand, are surrounded by friends and the only nuclear neighbours they have are each other.

Nonetheless, Iran claims it isn't developing a weapon and the United States' intelligence agencies concur. If it was, it would be in violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty which it has signed. But then all signatories to the treaty are committed to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." We see sparse evidence that Britain and France, or the United States for that matter, are acting "in good faith" to achieve "complete disarmament."

So what's stopping Britain and France from doing their duty by setting an example? Why not adhere to the spirit of the treaty themselves and disarm their nuclear arsenals? We're waiting, Messrs. Brown and Sarkozy.

Someone might go further and ask why anyone has these insane weapons. Good question. One the nuclear powers might be asking themselves, and each other, even while they self-righteously condemn Iran.

21 July 2008

Talking to the axis of evil

Throughout George W. Bush's reign as president of the United States, I can think of very little he has done that might be considered progressive. Almost everything in U.S. affairs, whether foreign or domestic, seems worse off than when he was first elected in 2000. He collapsed international respect for his country to its lowest level ever and will leave office with his country bogged down in two wars. Domestically, things are equally bad. The discrepancy between rich and poor has been expanded, individual citizens and government are both hugely in debt, and the economy sinks into recession.

Yet a bright spot appears on the horizon. In a remarkable about-face on foreign policy, the Bush administration seems prepared to talk to Iran. On the heels of their deal with North Korea regarding its nuclear capabilities, the Americans have dispatched William Burns, the under-secretary of state, to meet Iranian representatives in Geneva to discuss Iran's nuclear program. More importantly, the Americans have expressed interest in establishing a diplomatic office in Tehran, the first since the Shah, one of their favourite dictators, was tossed out in 1979. It appears the Cheney faction has been defeated as the U.S. abandons its position that it would only meet with Iran once it had suspended its uranium enrichment. The Pentagon apparently convinced the administration that the regional consequences of an air strike against Iran would outweigh the temporary benefits of delaying Iran's nuclear program. The cavalry to the rescue so to speak. Of course, Iran's recent missile tests may also have been an incentive.

If you want peace, it is said, you don't talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies. Certainly there won't be peace in the Middle East until the United States engages players such as Iran at a high level. A diplomatic mission is a good start. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, commenting on the Iran initiative, observed, "The United States doesn't have any permanent enemies." It might be difficult to convince Cuba of that; nonetheless, recent events elsewhere suggest the statement may hold promise. If so, Bush could end his reign on at least one high note.

16 July 2008

Is satire dead?

As someone who has done a little cartooning myself, I feel obliged to comment on the now internationally famous (or infamous) July 21st cover of the New Yorker magazine which depicts Barack Obama and his wife as gun-toting, flag-burning, Islamic terrorists. The cartoon is obviously a satire on the buffoonery that Fox and other networks offer as news commentary on American television. For example, the buffoon who suggested if Obama is elected, the U.S. would have an anti-semitic, terrorist president or the one who suggested the fist-bump is a terrorist greeting. If anything is deserving of satire, it's this parade of idiocy.

Yet many Americans and others seem to have missed the satire entirely and take the cartoon as serious comment. I would have thought every literate person in the English-speaking world would realize how utterly unlikely that is given the editorial position and sophistication of the New Yorker. It is, after all, one of the U.S.'s most well known and respected magazines.

Journalists at least ought to be concerned if not outraged about the way their profession is being debased by Fox and others in the television world. They ought to be debating the object of the New Yorker cover, not the cover itself. But ... maybe the magazine erred in assuming its concern or its sophistication was widely shared. Maybe neither are. Reaction to the cartoon certainly suggests satire is beyond the ken of all too many commentators. And that in itself may indicate the level to which political commentary in the U.S. has sunk, ironically justifying the New Yorker's concern.

14 July 2008

The German miracle

What country is the world's leading exporter? China, you say? Wrong -- China is number two. Then it must be the United States? Wrong again -- the U.S. is number three. Actually, it's Germany. This may have surprised you, it certainly surprised me. For a country with only 82 million people, compared to China's 1,325 million and the United States' 301 million, it is impressive indeed.

Yet something else is even more impressive. As Germany has become the world's leading exporter, it has also become a world leader in decreasing its greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1990 and 2006, Germany reduced its emissions by 18 per cent, highest among the G8 nations except for Russia. Russia, however, doesn't really count as its reduction came about largely from the collapse of its manufacturing. Britain was close to Germany with a reduction of 15 per cent. The United states on the other hand, the world's champion polluter, led in the increase of emissions -- up 32 per cent, followed by Canada at 22 per cent.

Germany's performance puts the lie to the argument that environmental responsibility may place the economy at risk, an argument trotted out ad nauseam in North America. Germany has recognized the challenge of global warming and answered it with innovation and conviction. We North Americans, it seems, are lacking in both.

11 July 2008

The Catholic Church -- misogyny triumphant

So the Church of England has voted to allow women to be consecrated as bishops. Hallelujah! The heartland of the Anglican community has finally caught up to its brothers and sisters in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Scotland.

Some 1,300 clergy opposed to the measure had threatened to leave the Church if safeguards they demanded, such as male "super-bishops" to cater for those who opposed the change, weren't implemented. One traditionalist, the Right Reverend John Broadhurst, Bishop of Fulham, declared, "I think a lot of us have made it quite clear if there isn't proper provision for us to live in dignity, inevitably we're driven out." All were disappointed. The women will be bishops equal to men, despite Reverend Broadhurst's dignity problem.

But the remnants of resistance to women's equality in the Church of England were topped by the reaction of the Catholic Church. The Vatican denounced the decision, stating, "Such a decision signifies a breaking away from the apostolic tradition maintained by all of the churches since the first millennium, and is a further obstacle for reconciliation between the Catholic church and the Church of England." Note the reference to "all the churches" -- so much for the Baptists, Presbyterians, United, etc.

The "apostolic tradition" the statement refers to is the notion that only men should be priests because all Christ's apostles were men. But weren't all the apostles also Jewish? So how to justify a German pope? This is nonsense. Women have been largely excluded from all positions of power from biblical times to very recently. The "apostolic tradition" is nothing more than an attempt to use historic prejudice to justify current prejudice.

What is it about women in power that offends, even frightens, priests? After all, it may have taken centuries but they eventually overcame their fear of heliocentricity and evolution. The equality of women shouldn't be that much more difficult. A little soul-searching on the subject might just open up a whole new world of possibilities for them.

09 July 2008

Should Canada not be a leader on climate change?

The Harper government has decided to be a follower on global warming, specifically to follow the American tactic of refusing to get serious about the issue until China and India have committed to reduction targets. Our government has, in other words, committed us to following the follower.

Of course, China and India, with their massive economies must eventually agree to limits on greenhouse gas emissions, but why must we wait on them to do the right thing? Since when was what other people do the justification for moral behaviour?

We are one of the most technically advanced and prosperous nations on Earth. And, along with other industrialized nations, we have created most of the pollution and benefited the most from what caused it, so we ought to lead the way in cleaning it up. And there is no better way to lead than by example. As Anthony Cary, Britain's High Commissioner to Canada, has said, "The European Union, for its part, is clear that the best way of galvanizing the whole process is to act. Not only is that in our self-interest, but it is the path best calculated to bring in recalcitrant countries." Well said, High Commissioner.

It is embarrassing, pathetic even, to find Canada waiting upon developing countries to get on board before we take the action necessary to avert the greatest threat civilization has ever faced. We should set the targets scientists recommend and start meeting them. Now.

04 July 2008

The times, they are a’changin … and so is Obama

So Barack Obama may "refine" his timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. No kidding. The United States now has a major military presence at the centre of the largest conventional oil reserves in the world and they are going to walk away from that? Not likely. It was only a matter of time before someone tactfully explained that little reality to the senator. I suspect if he becomes president he will "revise" the word timeline right out of his vocabulary.

Some Americans are calling Obama a hypocrite, changing his policies for crass political advantage. Others are complimenting him for exercising flexibility, a quality greatly lacking in the current administration.

Flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, is commendable in a leader. Unless of course he is simply changing his tune to suit his audience which, it seems, is what Obama is doing. One tune for confronting Clinton, another for confronting McCain. One for confronting fellow Democrats, another for confronting the American public. Whatever it takes. McCain is, of course, doing the same thing.

Be that as it may, a switch on Iraq was inevitable. Those Americans who believed otherwise simply weren't recognizing the reality of empire.

03 July 2008

Will gas prices defeat our efforts to combat global warming?

In former British PM Tony Blair's report to the G8 Hokkaido summit Breaking the Climate Deadlock, he claims, "Most people no longer need persuading that the changing climate poses a serious risk to humankind. ... There is now agreement that we should shift our economies away from carbon dependence. Again, most people agree that a framework for national and international action is needed to incentivise, encourage and oblige such a radical shift."

Far be it from me to question Tony Blair, but do most people agree action is needed for a "radical shift"? According to a recent Strategic Counsel poll, when asked what the most important issue facing them today is, Canadians rated the environment number three, dropping from number one last year. It is now topped by concern over the economy and, no surprise, gas prices. Only one per cent of Americans named the environment as their most important issue. These numbers suggest that North Americans are willing to sacrifice to combat global warming right up to the point where they have to get out of their cars. And they aren't alone. Europe, which has shown a much more enlightened approach to climate change, has been racked with protests against higher gas prices, as have other parts of the world.

As for our leaders -- not much recognition for the need of a radical shift there. Ed Stelmach, premier of Canada's pollution province, dreams the dream of carbon sequestration while emissions steadily increase. Prime Minister Harper attacks Stephane Dion's plan for a carbon tax entirely on economic terms while coming up with no coherent plan of his own. And in the United States, the world's major polluter, the current president continues to suppress evidence of the crisis.

Our leaders may not even understand the problem. It isn't, as many think, a greenhouse gas effect. It is, as the scientists are trying to tell us, a runaway greenhouse gas effect. Global warming is progressing geometrically, not linearly. As the Earth warms, other phenomena kick in which add to the warming. For example, as the Arctic Ocean ice cover shrinks due to warming, we lose a major reflector. Instead of being reflected back into space, sunlight is absorbed by the darker ocean, warming it further. The same effect occurs on land as the the snow cover declines each year. And warming up the north will melt the permafrost, releasing billions of tonnes of methane, a greenhouse gas over 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide. And so it goes.

Tony Blair says in his report, "If we are not radical enough in altering the nature of our economic growth, we will not avoid potential catastrophe to the climate." Well said. But then he adds, "If we are not realistic enough in setting a framework to get there, we will fail to achieve agreement." I fear our political and business leaders, and perhaps even more importantly a gas price-obsessed population, have a concept of "realistic" that lacks the urgency scientists have recognized. The truth may be, as Al Gore would say, just too inconvenient. After all, business leaders' first priority is profit, political leaders' first priority is winning the next election, and the public's first priority seems to be the price of gas. Only scientists' first priority is the truth. They, however, are not the ones with the power.