The US National Intelligence Council’s world in 2030

Here’s a snapshot of the defining features of the world in 2030, courtesy of the US National Intelligence Council’s excellent Global Trends 2030 report, the latest in a series of reports – published, in each case, shortly after US Presidential elections so as to be ready in the in-tray of the new National Security Adviser, whatever the political stripe of the incoming Administration.

The report pulls no punches on the risks of rising inequality – indeed, one of its four headline scenarios is entitled ‘Gini out of the bottle’, and describes a world in which inequalities within countries lead to “increasing political and social tensions”, inequalities in China “increase and split the Party” with middle class expectations not met except among the “very ‘well-connected'”, and “more countries fail, fueled in part by the dearth of international cooperation on assistance and development”.

It’s also emphatic about the risks that come from the food, water and energy nexus. A new Human Resilience Index, commissioned by the NIC from Sandia National Laboratories and presented in the report, is based on a mixture of demographic and ecological indicators. This focus on scarcity issues leads to some interesting conclusions – e.g. Ethiopia is cited as the world’s 10th most fragile country on this basis, ahead of Pakistan, Niger or Chad (c.f. a report of mine on scarcity risks in Ethiopia from a few months back). Interestingly, the index also concludes that the world’s 15 most fragile places in 2030 are precisely the same ones as the index identifies in 2008, albeit in a different order.

Also interesting – NIC also worked with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to identify natural disaster scenarios that could be so severe as to cause nations to collapse. They found four: staple crop catastrophes (which could be triggered, for example, by atmospheric aerosols following volcanic eruptions); tsunamis in selected regions (including Tokyo); erosion and depletion of soils; and solar geomagnetic storms.

And prospects for multilateral cooperation in all this? In essence, NIC concludes that the jury’s still out, and much will depend on whether the US and China can work together. On climate, the worst case scenario is that “global economic slowdown makes it impossible for the US, China and other major emitters to reach meaningful agreement … the result leaves UN sponsored climate negotiations in a state of collapse, with greenhouse gas emissions unchecked”. (I thought that was where we were already, but there we are.)

And the best case? Not that great, it turns out: “Cheaper and more plentiful natural gas makes emissions targets easier to achieve, but ‘two degree’ target would be unlikely to be met”. The silver lining? “As disparities between rich and poor countries decrease, rising powers may be more prepared to make sacrifices”. Which kind of leaves the question hanging, “…and will the US be prepared to make any sacrifices?”

Was the Washington Consensus right?

Michael Clemens and co-authors have just won this year’s Royal Economic Society Prize for a paper on aid’s role in pushing economic growth (ungated version here). It turns out that contrary to previous findings that aid and growth are unrelated, if you allow plenty of time for their results to kick in, certain types of aid do have positive impacts.

With African economies by all accounts booming in the past few years, this got me wondering whether the widely criticised structural adjustment programmes that were imposed on Africa in the 1980s and 1990s in return for World Bank and IMF loans might also come out looking slightly rosier if a time lag were allowed for. With the continent’s recent rise attributed by many to the improvements in macroeconomic policies that structural adjustment aimed to trigger, it may be time for a new look at a policy that most development professionals have written off, and an interesting challenge, too, for economists wanting to win next year’s prize.

A US carbon tax?

Lots of Brits will, like me, have been pleasantly surprised – astonished, in fact – by Henry Porter’s Observer piece over the weekend arguing that

things seem to be changing rapidly in the US and that may just help create the circumstances for a new carbon tax, which is aimed at controlling the rise in global temperatures and which, astonishingly, might be acceptable to conservatives. The opportunity arises, however, not because conservatives have moved lockstep into Obama’s camp, but principally because of America’s vast budget deficit and the approachingfiscal cliff.

And here’s the the bit that really had my jaw on the table:

The most surprising fact in this hushed debate is that the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute is prepared to contemplate the idea and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, has murmured that a carbon tax would not violate his principles.

Well, up to a point. In fact, while Grover Norquist had indeed made murmurings indicating some openness to a carbon tax, he’d backed away from that position very decisively more than two weeks before Henry Porter’s article (nul points for fact-checking there, Observer). Here’s Think Progress on the 13th of November:

Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist raised a lot of eyebrows on Monday when he told National Journal that a carbon tax might be on the table if it were swapped with a cut to the income tax. “It’s possible you could structure something that wasn’t an increase and didn’t violate the pledge,” he reportedly said …

But one day later, after being criticized by the American Energy Alliance, the advocacy arm of a Koch-supported energy think tank devoted to promoting fossil fuel development, Norquist has completely reversed his statement, saying there virtually “no conceivable way” he could support a tax on carbon.

“Grover, just butch it up and oppose this lousy idea directly. This word-smithing is giving us all headaches,” wrote AEA in its newsletter, while promoting a newly-published study  labeling carbon taxes “political cronyism.” Americans for Tax Reform issued this statement this morning: “Americans for Tax Reform opposes a carbon tax and will work tirelessly to ensure one does not become law.”

And here’s an excerpt from a piece in The Hill two days after that:

The entire House GOP leadership team has registered its opposition to climate legislation that raises revenue, underscoring the long odds that taxing carbon emissions has in negotiations on the fiscal cliff.

The Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity greeted Wednesday’s election of the House GOP leadership team by pointing out that the lawmakers are among the signers of the group’s “no climate tax” pledge. Signers agree to “oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.” They include Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who all retained their leadership posts.

All this said, it does appear that there’s increased interest in a carbon tax among some US conservatives; as Michele de Nevers and Lawrence MacDonald at CGD note in a joint blog post, there was a big turn-out for an AEI-hosted event on the issue last month – and who knows what might yet emerge from fiscal cliff negotiations as the deadline looms ever closer? Even so, it looks like it would be unwise for anyone to hold their breath for a GOP Damascene conversion on a carbon tax – more’s the pity.

The Problem with Fossil Fuel ‘Subsidies’

Like all right-thinking people, I am passionately opposed to fossil fuel subsidies. What could be worse than paying people to accelerate the rate at which we are screwing the climate?

So I was shocked to discover – courtesy of Bloomberg’s coverage of the climate talks in Doha – that:

Rich countries spend five times more on fossil-fuel subsidies than on aid to help developing nations cut their emissions and protect against the effects of climate change.

Even worse, when I tracked down the report that Bloomberg had drawn their story from, I found that the UK is one of the worst offenders.  According to the campaigning group, Oil Change International, the British taxpayer shelled out $6.6 billion in fossil fuel subsidies in 2011, but pledged only $793 million in ‘fast-start climate finance” that year.

Outrageously, for the UK, subsidies are over eight times greater than climate finance. I simply had no idea that the government of my own country was pumping so much money into oil, gas, and coal. Quite embarrassing really.

So where does this money go? Margaret Thatcher shut down the UK’s coal industry, while I’d always assumed that North Sea Oil was profitable without subsidy. Motorists, meanwhile, are always complaining about how much additional tax they pay on petrol and diesel (Daily Mail: “We’re the fuel tax capital of Europe.”)

Who then is getting 6 billion dollars a year?

Continue reading

Whatever happened to the AIDS apocalypse?

When I first started working in the AIDS movement in the mid noughties the picture was plausibly apocalyptic, but on World AIDS Day 2012 we are celebrating that an AIDS-free generation is now within our grasp. So what happened?

The acceleration of the science is one huge part of the story, but the effectiveness of the AIDS movement is at least as important and future campaigners can learn a lot from one of the most successful global mobilisations of the last few decades. For me four main lessons stand out:

1)      It starts with rights. Determining when to claim partial victory is the sort of thing that keeps movement leaders up at night. Overstate it and you lose the incentive for supporters to act, understate it and you lose the incentive for policy-makers to act. The moral and strategic tensions are captured in a (no doubt apocryphal) story told about a dispute inside the debt movement where one staffer accused another of being ‘the kind of person that during abolitionism would have been lobbying for more comfortable boats’. AIDS activism has successfully defined those tensions away by being more of a human rights movement than a development one. With early roots in gay liberation politics, the movement has always focused on those whose needs are greatest, not those whose stories are easiest to sell. It takes real courage to advocate for heroin addicts and sex workers at the same time as orphans and infected newborns, but unflinching honesty about the true nature of the epidemic has been, in the end, one of the movement’s great strengths.

2)      Injustice speaks for itself.  From the UK’s Terrence Higgins Trust to South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, the highest impact organisations have not been founded in solidarity by the charitable but in fury by the affected. I have written before about the importance of advocacy’s amateurs and for me the history of AIDS is the clearest example of why the advocacy ‘professionals’ should get out of the way and let the people who need to know ask the powerful how much they think their lives are worth.

3)      Institutions matter. The Global Fund, for all its faults, is multilateralism’s great success story. Its record is a triumph of institutional design, the result of a very special chemistry between the public, private and third sectors and people affected by the three diseases. While some education advocates have already started pushing for a replica for education, there is no other institution quite like the Global Fund, and no particularly good reason for that to be the case. The case for reform of global governance is painfully familiar to Global Dashboard readers, but we should try to learn at least as much from what we’ve got right as what we’ve got wrong.

4)      It takes coalitions of the willing. It bears constant repetition that the man behind the world’s first government anti-AIDS campaign was a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. Likewise, while the global AIDS fight is now one of the few areas of bipartisan consensus in the United States, it was a Republican rather than Democrat incumbent of the White House who first initiated a scaled emergency response and a distinguished veteran of George Bush’s PEPFAR who will now be leading global efforts at the new chief of the Global Fund.

We still have a long way to go but at a time when so many promises are being broken, tomorrow provides a good chance to remember that, just sometimes, campaigning works and the results can be spectacular when it does.


Early adopters: Africa’s hunter-gatherer Pygmies go hi-tech to combat loggers

If you were asked to rank the peoples of the world in terms of their enthusiasm for the things of the 21st century, it is a fair bet that Singaporeans, Japanese, the coastal-dwelling communities of America and perhaps Scandinavians would be near the top of your list. Groups like the Amish, Afghanistan’s Taliban, the nomads of the Sahara and the creationists of the American interior are likely to be somewhat further down.

Compared with the hunter-gatherer Pygmies of the Congo Basin, however, these latter groups are novelty fetishists. Said Pygmies not only spurn such commonplace phenomena of the modern world as farming, villages or towns, and houses; they also get by perfectly well without reading, writing, or ever venturing out of their rainforest home. They are, you could be forgiven for thinking, the Luddite’s Luddites.

But in a paper published last March, the anthropologist Jerome Lewis showed a different side to a people who at first glance appear so stick-in-the-mud. The paper is worth reading in full for its exposé of how it is not just rapacious logging companies but also conservationists who are destroying the Pygmies’ traditional way of life, but its most arresting passages describe how these forest-dwellers have embraced modern technology to combat the threats they face.

Logging tramples on the Pygmies’ sacred sites, destroys their favoured campsite locations, and removes vital hunting and gathering grounds (the fencing off of national parks to protect the forests from the loggers has a similar effect). Rates of malnutrition among Pygmies have increased since African governments, in attempting to alleviate poverty at a national level, made it easier for loggers to strip the forests. ‘We who are older notice that all that was in the forest before is getting less,’ complained a Pygmy elder interviewed by Lewis. ‘We used to always find things – yams, pigs and many other things. We thought that would never end. Now when we look we can’t find them any more.’

To counter these blights, the Baka Pygmies of Cameroon and their Mbendjele counterparts in Congo, assisted by a handful of local and international NGOs, have adopted a novel solution. Continue reading

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