Murari Sharma: Climate Change — Do Not Throw Under Bus

When I was growing up, we had several tangerine trees in our garden; we had a thick forest around our village; we had no mosquitos in our house; and the Makalu Mountain range, which we could see from our house, was covered with snow down to a much lower elevation. Now, the tangerine trees have died, the forest is gone, mosquitos are in full force, and the snow cover has receded to near the top only.

Similar changes have occurred in Kathmandu, where I have lived for several decades. Until 15/20 years ago, a thick sheet of fog used to envelope the valley every morning in winter. Mosquitos did not exist in downtown. Tropical fruits did not grow in the valley. Air was cool and crisp. Now, the fog does not rise from the valley’s rivers and fields; mosquitos are as ubiquitous as flies; tropical fruit trees have begun to flourish; and Kathmandu has become one of the most polluted cities in the world.

I know the changes in my village and in Kathmandu first hand. Secondary sources of information make it clear that such changes are occurring as rapidly elsewhere too.

For instance, scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, have found that global warming has forced alpine chipmunks to move to higher elevations in the Yosemite Park. European wasp spiders found in southern Europe until 1930s have now moved to north. Due to the steadily shrinking ice habitat, two-thirds of the polar bears, the US Geological Survey predicts, will disappear by 2050. In Tosa Bay near Japan, the once lush kelp forest has been stripped bare and replaced by coral.

Most people do not need reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to convince them about these changes. They remember how the enforcement of new rules in the United State to reduce toxic emission from its factories has stopped acid rains in Canada. However, we have a small number of powerful people amongst us who deny climate change and block measures to stop it.

Who are they and why do they deny climate change? These are otherwise normal and intelligent people just like everyone else; however, they are blinded by their vested interest. They deny climate change because their paymasters — energy companies — ask them to do or lose their financial contributions. These are the same people who to win votes and power insist on replacing evolution with creation in schools.

Most of these climate change deniers are concentrated in the United States, and to a smaller extent, in the United Kingdom. They are politically conservatives, economically tied to or dependent on big energy firms, and relatively wealthy. For them, profit for such energy companies which contribute generously for their election is more important than public safety and welfare. They oppose, therefore, any measure that hurts the profit of such companies, though they may say they are trying to protect businesses and jobs.

These are the same people who demand the abolition of the US Environmental Protection Agency or remove its teeth. They are the one who have prevented the United States, the second largest polluter and largest economy in the world, from taking far-reaching international measures to arrest climate change. They are the ones who trashed President Barack Obama when he agreed recently with his Chinese counterpart to cut greenhouse gases that cause global warming and climate change.

Occurred on the eve of the Lima conference on climate change, the agreement is very important. Obama committed to reducing greenhouse gases up to 28 percent by 2025, while China, the largest polluter and second largest economy in the world, agreed to slow down and stop emissions by 2030. In the past, China and other developing countries had argued that controlling climate change would reduce their growth. The US-China agreement helped the recent Lima conference to find a common ground.

Well, it did not happen quickly or smoothly. International conferences are notorious for procrastination until the 11th hour. Often the delegates seriously engage only when the clock is stopped once the conference time has run out and they are in a hurry to head home. The Lima conference on climate change was no different. On the last day, nonetheless, there was agreement on most issues, though several pending issues will have to be sorted out in the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015, which will seek to improve on the Kyoto Protocol.

In 1997, the international community had adopted the Kyoto Protocol, a part of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which became effective in 2005. It provided for the trade in emission credit — those countries that produced less emission than they were allotted could sell the excess credit to those countries which went above their allotment or could invest in greener technology in low emission countries so they could buy the excess credit.

The problems with the Protocol were several. For instance, nearly one-third countries, mostly from the developing world, did not support it; the United States flatly refuse to abide by the protocol until large greenhouse gas producing developing countries also did not promise to reduce it; Canada did not pay for the credit when the time to do came up; Russia set its own allotment. The Paris conference will review and strengthen the carbon trade regime stipulated in the Kyoto Protocol.

This will not be possible without the willing and active commitment of developed as well as developing countries. While the high-income countries produce around 45 percent of world greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change, the rest comes from the developing countries, a large portion of it from the big manufacturing nations like China, India, Brazil and Russia.

Even though the Lima conference was able to sort out many of the differences between the developed and developing countries as well as within those groups themselves, there is no guarantee that the Paris Conference will find consensus on the remaining issues for three reasons. First, the major producers of greenhouse gases would not want to reduce the emission swiftly to protect their economies from a major shock. Second, low-emission countries may find the price on offer for their emission credit is too low to sell. Third, the climate change deniers may block the consensus or its implementation.

The first two reasons are relatively easy to address, if there is the acknowledgement of the problem and the need to address it. It may take some time to find common ground, but it will be found sooner than later. However, the third obstacle will be more problematic, because you cannot work on any solution as long as you do not admit that there is a problem. How do you convince those people to change their mind who refuse to see evidence right before their eyes?

While I know that the climate change in my village and in Kathmandu is for real, let me confess that I do not understand whether it is a natural or man-made phenomenon; neither do I understand whether we can arrest it if it is part of nature’s spontaneous cycle. Yet there is no doubt that denying something that is happening before your eyes is delusional, and not trying to do anything to prevent it is stupidity. If you try your best and still cannot deter it, then you will have the satisfaction that you did not throw yourself under a running bus.




Murari Sharma: Hold Them to Account

EIT (enhanced interrogation techniques), the euphemism for torture, has become a global buzzword after Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the US Senate Intelligence Committee and a Democrat, recently made public the summary of her committee’s report after years of investigation. In 2002, after the 9/11, the Bush administration had approved guidelines  to extract information from terror suspects by using torture to keep America safe. And the Central Intelligence Agency had used torture until President Barack Obama had ended the program in 2008 as unacceptable.

As soon as the summary came out, mutual recrimination started in the United States. The Republicans, who had opposed the report’s publication, criticized Feinstein’s step as partisan, because a republican White House had authorized the program. They defended the program arguing that it was the president’s duty to keep America safe by whatever means after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington DC.

The Democrats justified the report’s publication. They argued that torture is illegal and wrong, and the United States should admit the mistake so no future administration would ever resort to it, which is against American values and principles and against rule of law; it also undermines America’s moral standing in the world and puts Americans in the harm’s way if they are caught outside the United Sates.

John Brennan, the CIA director, took a conciliatory path in a press conference the other day. He publicly admitted that mistakes were made by some CIA operatives, but defended that the CIA action as within the mandate. He also conceded that the benefits of the program were unknowable. He urged everyone to look forward, rather than trying to find faults in a program that has been ended already several years ago.

In response, Amnesty International Director Steven Hawkins issued a statement in which he said, “Brennan is wrong if he thinks the process stops with the release of the torture report summary. It is just starting. Acknowledgement is not accountability and torture isn’t a mistake – it’s a crime. We need to see full investigations, prosecutions where there is sufficient evidence, and justice and remedies for victims.”

Political pundits are divided. Conservative columnist of the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer thundered, “The root-and-branch denunciation of the program as, in principle, unconscionable is not just hypocritical but ahistorical.”  On the other hand, Fareed Zakaria, a liberal columnist of the same paper, wrote supporting the report’s publication, “Closed systems work badly. Open systems have the great advantage of getting feedback — criticism, commentary, audits, reports . . .Democratic accountability is almost like a market test for government agencies. It forces an outside check that is otherwise very difficult to come by.”

What has been missed in this debate is this: Torture is illegal in international law, for the UN Convention Against Torture 1984 has prohibited it. It is illegal in the US laws because America has ratified the convention.

It has also seriously undermined America’s role as the champion of human rights. The United States was instrumental in bringing forward the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that bans torture. It was instrumental in disbanding the UN Human Rights Commission, which had too many human rights violators as members, and replacing it with the Human Rights Council with more stringent membership rules.

Every year, the State Department puts out a report criticizing torture and human rights violations perpetrated by other governments around the world. US ambassadors poke their nose preaching democracy and human rights across the globe. Now the sheriff is caught with his hand in the till; his credibility and moral authority on this matter has been undermined, if not vanished completely, simply because it is still the foremost power in the world.

I have always thought the United States as my second home, a country where I went to school and worked for seven years. I am deeply saddened by this unfortunate EIT program. The world needs a country with a powerful voice that champions human rights and democracy. The European countries are there, but their voice is not heard around the world that much anymore. Billions of people around the world, whose human rights are at stake, have been saddened that America has lost its moral pedestal.

Let us face it: Torture is wrong in all circumstances, even if it yields actionable intelligence. It was wrong immediately after 9/11, it is wrong today, and it will be wrong tomorrow. It is wrong for other countries and it is wrong for the United States to use it. Sure, it was wrong that the Republican president approved the program and it was wrong that the Democrats did not oppose it then. The use of torture is a dark spot in America’s image in the world.

However, the most horrendous wrong will be not to hold accountable who authorized torture and who used it physically.

America can do better than torture people to extract information about terror plots. If America compromise its principles and values, other countries will follow suit. The Islamic State will justify far more heinous crimes citing the EIT practiced by the United States. Rogue states around the world would do the same. You cannot criticize others and hold them accountable for torture with a straight face and from a moral high ground if you engage in it yourself.

I am happy that EIT is already discontinued. That is welcome. The way forward now is to hold those people to account who authorized it and who administered it, so that it is never used again. So let us take the Senate report on torture in a constructive spirit and chart a better course for the future.