Underpants bombs – what next for airport security?

Reading about the underpants bomb episode reminded me of a funny rant on airport security penned by Shashi Tharoor in the FT a few years back when airport security measures were stepped up in response to the ‘Shoe bomber’ incident, with the following prophetic words:

Generals are always fighting the last war, and security screeners are the same. I’m just grateful it was a shoe bomber they were reacting to. What on earth would they do if the next Richard Reid tried to ignite his underwear?

We’ll soon find out… (See the full piece here.)

Are autocracies better at tackling climate change?

This arresting question was raised at every stop on a recent visit to four European capitals to present the findings of the World Resources 2010-2011: Decision Making in a Changing Climate, which was jointly launched this week by the World Resources Institute, UNDP, UNEP and the World Bank.

The question came variably from journalists, think tankers, academics and government officials. Invariably, the US record on the issue was contrasted with China’s apparent boldness and resolve in embracing a low-carbon future. But it’s not just the US. Across the ‘free world’ governments appear to be shirking in front of the formidable challenges and difficult decisions that climate change throws up, backpedaling on earlier pledges and commitments as economic and financial turmoil knocks climate change in to the long grass, politically.

Is there something about democracies then that make them singularly ill-equipped to adapt to the vagaries of a changing climate? Could it be, for example, that the political myopia enforced by electoral cycles makes it inherently difficult for democracies to address long term issues? While the question is thought-provoking and in tune with the current mood of self-questioning and soul searching in the West, I wonder if anyone asking the question was seriously suggesting democracy be sacrificed on the altar of climate change adaptation. A recent Eurobarometer survey carried out in June 2011, indicates that public sentiment would in fact favour a higher prioritization of climate change than was the case the last time the poll was taken in 2009.

A reading of this World Resources Report 2011 suggests that the more important, useful (and interesting) question to pose is whether – regardless the political system in place – the decision-making process can be improved to make for more effective adaptations to a changing climate. A clear message from the report is that good decisions – i.e. those that are responsive, proactive, flexible, durable and robust to a range of climate outcomes – are the ones that are opened up to the public and grounded in participatory processes that are unmistakably democratic in character. Given the deep uncertainties and long time horizons characteristic of decisions relevant to climate change adaptation, effective public engagement is all the more critical to ensure legitimacy and durability of policy decisions. And public participation is important in another important regard: in ensuring that public values and interests are reflected in decisions about what constitutes acceptable levels of risk. On this point, see also Voice and Choice – an excellent report which delves deeper into the benefits of public participation in decision-making.

The findings of the World Resources Report 2010-11 are on the whole intuitive. The report is well worth a read in particular for the case studies of adaptation decision-making at the national level in the developing world which are particularly rich and illustrative of the inventiveness and initiative of governments of all political shades in adapting to a changing climate.

Premier Wen comes clean on China’s fragile recovery

Nearly two years ago I had warned on this blog of the deep risks linked to China’s (then-widely-praised) fiscal stimulus and financial easing measures, which while displaying early signs of efficacy also reinforced the structural imbalances at the source of China’s economic vulnerabilities and environmental ills (see my earlier blog post here).  I pointed out that much of the RMB 1 trillion (GBP 100 billion) stimulus spend and an even larger amount in bank lending was being funneled into energy-intensive manufacturing and export-oriented sectors already plagued by overcapacity, even as global demand was dropping off (hence dimming prospects for Chinese exports).

In a follow up post later that year (see the post here) I again highlighted concerns about the sustainability of the stimulus and pointed to the environmentally detrimental consequences of the fiscal and credit ‘binge’, noting that the recovery was unlikely to be nearly as ‘green’ as many pundits at the time – including analysts at HSBC – had made it to be (NB: HSBC were so gung-ho as to speak of a ‘New Green Deal’ in China. See their report here), and notwithstanding China’s pledge to join other G20 leaders in using fiscal stimulus programs to build a “resilient, sustainable, and green recovery.” I lamented that the government had missed the opportunity of a massive counter-cyclical boost to steer the economy on to a more equitable and sustainable growth path powered by domestic demand.

Now finally, Premier Wen has come clean on the fragility of the recovery. During a recent online chat with netizens ahead of the meeting of China’s congress, Wen explained that the government would reduce its growth target down a percentage point to 7% (GDP growth was 10.3% last year) in order to check inflationary pressures and mitigate the environmental and socially adverse consequences of runaway growth fueled by the stimulus. In the interview, he counseled that:

“We must not any longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth and reckless roll-outs, as that would result in unsustainable growth featuring industrial overcapacity and intensive resource consumption”

He further noted that China must become more self-sustainable by increasing domestic consumption and reducing its reliance on exports and investment. He cautioned that:

[continuing on the current path] will lead to production capacity gluts and deepening pressure on the environment and resources so that economic development will be unsustainable.

Mr. Wen’s online interview was held against the backdrop of widespread public dissatisfaction with soaring inflation and a call for Chinese “Jasmine rallies” – a reference to the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia which set of a domino of unrest through the Middle East.

Dealing with oil spills: the Chinese method

The reporting on China’s handling of its recent oil spill in the Global Timesan affiliate of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily – was characteristically smug:

It is astonishing how a State-owned company can get back on its feet again in such a short time after a big explosion and oil spill. People will probably forget about it as soon as the news stories fade away.

On the other side of the world, another oil giant is in a similar position as CNPC, except that BP must envy the ease with which CNPC has dealt with a major oil spill. (see full article here)

The authorities were indeed quick to dispatch “more than 1,300 professional cleaners and 5,300 workers from the province to clean up the mess”. Here’s a photo of one such rescue crew hard at work cleaning up the mess, which appeared in the NY Times this weekend (see article here):

With what appears to be a kitchen ladle, this particular worker is better equipped, it seems, than many of her co-workers. According to Zhong Yu, a Greenpeace campaigner observing the clean-up efforts:

The citizens-turned-cleaners we saw yesterday in the sea basically did not have any protective gear and could only use their hands to clean up the oil (quoted in AFP article: Clean-up crews use bare hands against China oil spill)

At least give them ladles!

China managing expectations at Davos

In sync with Chinese Vice Premier (and likely PM-in-waiting) Li Keqiang’s address at Davos, an interesting piece appeared today in the Global Times (the international news arm of the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, i.e. a mouthpiece), which is revealing about the Chinese leadership’s continued ambivalence towards projecting China as an emerging superpower. Excerpts of the article entitled ‘managing the world’s rising expectations‘ follow:

The world has been expecting more from China, especially since the financial crisis. But between the increasingly high expectations and China’s real capabilities, there is a huge gap, which is evident in the 2010 World Economic Forum that opened Wednesday in Davos, Switzerland.
At the forum attended by about 2,500 leaders from over 90 countries and regions, China is expected by many to purchase Greek bonds, to continue holding US treasury bills, and to lead global recovery while under the onslaught of protectionism.
Even those who are blaming China’s monetary and trade policies for causing tensions in the post-crisis period expect that China should save the world’s economy.
Though such expectations may boost national pride among a section of Chinese, there is a strong case for China to remain clear-headed about the reality it is facing.
On the one hand, it is an emerging economy, with its 8.7 percent GDP growth in 2009 and its soaring middle class population.
On the other hand, it remains a developing nation, with its per capita GDP ranked 106th and over 100 million people below the World Bank indicated poverty line.
The world’s expectations, unless cautiously managed by China, could jeopardize the hard-earned fruits of labor accumulated in the past six decades.

As The Economist once shrewdly observed, “China’s own world view has failed to keep pace with its growing weight. It is a big power with a medium-power mindset and a small-power chip on its shoulder.” The cautious attitude of the leadership reflects concerns that a ‘superpower’ role in international affairs would: (i) make it difficult for China to avoid adopting positions that will add complexity to decision-making and may be at odds with the raw pursuit of national self-interest; (ii) divert its attention and resources away from addressing domestic issues. The more cynical, such as Yan Xuetong, the Director of the Institute for International Studies at the elite Tsinghua University,  go as far as to suspect a Western conspiracy to ‘trap’ China and ‘exhaust our limited resources’ by locking it in to onerous international agreements and obligations. Li Keqiang’s  address at Davos was in keeping with Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of keeping a low profile in international affairs. It was a reminder that the national interest will remain paramount even as China’s voice and involvement on global affairs rises. Along similar lines, see also the report on China’s participation at Davos in today’s FT: ‘West too busy with its crises to engage east’.