US immigrant professionals returning home

From today’s Washington Post:

KISUMU, Kenya — With the U.S. economy in turmoil, his job as a truck driver no longer secure and his upwardly mobile life in the Dallas suburbs in jeopardy, James Odhiambo decided it was time for a change.

He wanted a healthier lifestyle for his family, less anxiety, fewer 14-hour days. So he recently traded his deluxe apartment, the pickup truck, the dishwasher and $4.99 McDonald’s combos for life in a place he considers relatively better: sub-Saharan Africa.

“Right now I’m no stress, no anxiety,” said Odhiambo, 34, relaxing in his family home in this western Kenyan city along the shores of Lake Victoria. “Think of it this way: When I was in the U.S., I was close to 300 pounds. Now, I’m like 200. The biggest thing for me was quality of life.”

While that may seem counterintuitive to Americans accustomed to bleaker images of Africa, recent studies have documented the flight of immigrant professionals from the United States to their home countries. Chinese and Indian workers increasingly say they see better opportunities and lifestyles at home. And diaspora associations of Nigerians, Ghanaians, Kenyans and other Africans say their members — mostly from middle-class backgrounds — are joining the exodus, choosing life in the land of slow Internet connections and power outages over the pressures of recession-era America.

“I personally know many people who are going back,” said Erastus Mong’are, who works as a program manager for an insurance company in Delaware and heads an association of Kenyans living there. “The people I know here work two or three jobs just to make ends meet, while in Kenya — despite its problems — people seem more happy. They seem to be getting more time with family. More relaxed. Here, if my neighbor sees I’ve parked in his spot, he becomes so upset.”

How to slash global warming AND save 1.6 million lives a year

A while back, David did a post extolling the virtues of biochar as a potentially important – but widely overlooked – element of the response to climate change. Well, here’s another: black carbon.

As Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development notes, black carbon is “the dark soot that comes from old diesel vehicles and burning biomass for cooking”. It accelerates global warming in two crucial ways: first, by absorbing more heat while particles of it float around in the atmosphere, and second by darkening snow and ice surfaces after it falls to the ground, thereby absorbing still more heat.

It’s a big deal.  One recent study cited by Zaelke suggests it’s responsible for 50% of Arctic warming; another that it reduces springtime Eurasian snow cover by as much as CO2 does.  Black carbon’s also a major part of the recent why the MIT study published 2 days ago is so gloomy (it predicts “a median probability of surface warming of 5.2 degrees Celsius by 2100, with a 90% probability range of 3.5 to 7.4 degrees” – great).

The good news?  This is eminently tackle-able, especially through pretty basic technologies like better cooking stoves and smoke hoods. More good news?  Undertaking a major push on this would not only deliver immediate progress on reducing climate change, but would also save millions of lives and make a tangible difference to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. 

As Practical Action (one of the best NGOs in this area) summarise, more than a third of humanity (2.4 billion people) use biomass as their main cooking fuel, of whom 800m depend exclusively on crop residues and dung. Smoke in the home from these fires kills 1.6 million people a year – mainly women and kids. That’s more than malaria, and almost as much as poor water and sanitation. This WHO graph shows worldwide causes of death and illness:

While this one shows causes of death among under-fives:

So sorting out such stoves is one of those rare things, a genuine win-win. It’s also something the development community could actually deliver.  As a rule I’m sceptical when I see the aid world cheerfully adopting a throw-money-at-it approach – but one area where resource transfer can clearly achieve results is when (a) it’s geared towards getting stuff distributed, and (b) the stuff in question doesn’t depend on complex delivery systems (such as a functioning health sector).  In those conditions, donors can be extremely effective: look at distribution of bed-nets to combat malaria.

So: someone needs to initiate a major push on universal access to basic stoves and safe cooking technology.  But who has the standing to unite the climate world and the development world in this endeavour, and could also bring it to G8 or G20 summits for high level political cover? 

Sounds like a job for the SG to me.

David Simon on US drug policy

Don’t get too excited about PortugalThe Wire creator David Simon is less than sanguine about prospects for change in the US:

..despite his avowed admiration for Obama, Simon believes the new regime will do nothing to solve the US’s drugs problems. “I do not believe that we have the stomach for serious change,” he said. “The war on drugs is as disastrous as any government policy has been over the past 50 years, but I do not believe Obama and his people will use their political capital to end it … If a policy failed this unequivocally in any other part of US life you would cashier the generals. But the drug problem oppresses the poor. If rich kids were wandering the streets stealing car radios we would not be so complacent. But it is easier to brutalise the poor and discard them. We are not a manufacturing economy any more and we don’t need our least educated people, so we marginalise them. The cynicism of Reagan and Thatcher still applies.”

Those secret US / China climate talks in full

Today’s Guardian has a big splash announcing that “China and US held secret climate talks“.  According to Suzanne Goldberg,

A high-powered group of senior Republicans and Democrats led two missions to China in the final months of the Bush administration for secret backchannel negotiations aimed at securing a deal on joint US-Chinese action on climate change, the Guardian has learned.

The report continues that the track 2 talks were orchestrated by the Carnegie Endowment’s Bill Chandler, who says that “My sense is that we are now working towards something in the fall… It will be serious. It will be substantive, and it will happen.”

Hmm. For all the breathless talk of “secret” dealings and “backchannel” negotiations about which “the Guardian has learned”, you have to figure that the talks probably weren’t that secret if Radio Free Asia was able to report fully two months ago that,

China has raised hopes for environmental cooperation with the United States despite differences that emerged during a Washington visit by leading officials this month. 

On March 18, Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development Reform Commission (NDRC), stressed a positive outlook for cooperation on climate change at a Washington meeting co-hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Global Environmental Institute of Beijing. After years of disagreement over which country bears greater responsibility for global warming, Xie, China’s top climate negotiator, voiced readiness to discuss joint action.

If you’re wondering where Bill Chandler is coming from on climate change, then this 2007 interview with CFR  is worth a look (n.b. his heavily sceptical view of Kyoto’s crappy Clean Development Mechanism); more up-to-date and in depth is this 2008 article entitled “Breaking the Suicide Pact: US-China Cooperation on Climate Change” (see also this summary on China Stocks Blog).

There’s a lot of good stuff in the article, with a particular focus on cooperation on best practice technologies and innovation in new ones.  But here’s what gives me pause: “Both countries could reach a deal – without a treaty – that could unlock the global stalemate”.

Without a treaty? Hmm. Chandler’s article is full of sensible proposals for confidence building measures between the US and China.  But none of these can substitute for a global system of binding, quantified targets, if the world wants to be sure of stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations at any given level.  Initiatives like this are useful – but if we learned anything from the Bush Administration, it’s that there’s always the risk of them becoming figleaves.