a shortened version of this appeared in mint at http://www.livemint.com/2010/01/27203228/There-is-still-climate-change.html this was written on 26 jan and submitted to rediff then, but it has not been published yet. the attacks on IPCC and pachauri continue. i am not necessarily a fan, but i think they are being unfairly targeted with malice aforethought.

(PS. for some odd reason, i am running into compatibility problems between openoffice 3.0 and wordpress — this ends up giving me either too few or too many spaces between paragraphs. sorry)


Glaciergate or not, there is still climate change

Rajeev Srinivasan cautions against throwing the baby out with the bathwater

In addition to Climategate – the accidental release of emails from a UK university that suggested some scientific data had been suppressed by global-warming zealots – there is now Glaciergate. The Nobel-Prize-winning IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and its chairman, Rajendra Pachauri of The Energy Research Institute (TERI) in Delhi, have committed a Himalayan blunder.

IPCC, it turns out, made a faux pas in asserting that “Himalayan glaciers will disappear by 2035”. There is some confusion about how they arrived at this conclusion, but it appears as though they depended solely on an interview given by Jawaharlal Nehru University glaciologist Syed Iqbal Hasnain to an Indian magazine, based on unpublished and non-peer reviewed research. Hasnain speculated about the Himalayan glaciers’ disappearance by 2035, although a report in the Economist (“Off-base camp”, January 21st) suggests that the research itself was focusing on the year 2350, not 2035. Some typo!

Because the IPCC is considered an impeccable scientific authority, this scandal goes to the very heart of the institution’s credibility. Their process may be flawed, thus imposing a question mark on many of the predictions it has made. This is on top of allegations of financial irregularity that have been dogging Pachauri and TERI, especially after the IPCC won the Nobel along with Al Gore. A report in the UK Telegraph (“Taxpayers’ millions paid to Indian institute run by UN climate chief”, January 16th), among others, suggests impropriety and conflict of interest.

There is probably a grain of truth in the allegation that grand proposals about cap-and-trade are designed to enrich the very people who have caused major bubbles: the friendly neighborhood investment bank. It is also possible that those involved in the transfer of massive sums – like the $100 billion bandied about in Copenhagen about money to be given to developing nations to induce them to do less destructive things in their search for energy security – have vested interests.

But let us consider one fraught possibility – that even if the messenger is dubious, the message has value. There is the chance that despite exaggerations from the climate-change-supporters, the climate *is* changing.  What if the world is already hurtling towards certain disaster, and we have on the verge of moving from a stable equilibrium to catastrophic, irreversible ecosystem damage?

A lot of the climate skepticism is of the form “we’ve heard these stories before, by the way weren’t more or less the same ‘the sky is falling’ crowd saying just a few years ago that we were going to enter a new Ice Age?” Others suggest that the recent warming is merely part of the longer-term sunspot cycle, or that the total amount of carbon remains constant on earth, so that CO2 emissions should not be a big worry. But it does matter where the carbon is: sequestered in, say, forest or permafrost it’s fine, but it’s not fine when it’s free-floating in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

Admittedly, climate is such a complex issue with so many variables that any computer models are necessarily imprecise and removed from the reality. The fact is that nobody knows, but there is still that nagging doubt: what if the climate Cassandras are right? Do we want to say a few years down the road, “Oops, they were right and now we are toast?” What if sea levels are indeed rising inexorably? Has one exceptionally cold winter made everybody forget the series of increasingly powerful hurricanes that have ravaged different parts of the world?

It is undeniable that changes in climate have a large impact on flora and fauna and certainly on human societies. We are familiar with what is believed to have been the effects of radical climate change (either due to asteroid hits or volcanic activity) that caused ‘nuclear winters’ and exterminated the dinosaurs. Then there is the giant explosion of super-volcano Mt. Toba in Sumatra that caused, according to geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer, the complete extinction of all human populations in India around 74,000 years ago. More recently , the once-fertile and well-watered regions of the Sahara in Africa and the Thar in India have turned into desert because of climate change.

Thus, the impact of climate change is nothing to be sneezed at. And there is enough circumstantial evidence that, indeed large changes are taking place. All of us may have noticed the change in local flora – in my native Kerala I have seen the kani konna (Indian laburnum) which traditionally flowers around VIshu, April 14th, has been flowering as early as January in the last few years. Old favorite thumba, with its humble and startlingly white flowers, once a metaphor for demure purity, is now not to be seen at all.

Pests and diseases are marching northwards, tree lines are going higher, and Arctic and Antarctic ice-packs and yes, glaciers are indeed retreating, all based on observations over the last few decades. Summer temperatures are soaring. Coral reefs are dying. It is hard to doubt that there is some level of global warming going on, and that increased acidity in the ocean is a result of more CO2 in the air.

And the culprit is not far to seek either. It is a very reasonable hypothesis that the increasing hydrocarbon usage is upsetting the carbon equilibrium: large amounts of the stuff that had been sequestered in forests, underground in coal mines and natural gas and oil deposits, have now been allowed to escape into the atmosphere.

In defense of hydrocarbons/fossil fuels, it is obvious that the current globalized civilization would not have been easy to create without convenient petroleum. On the other hand, the deleterious effects of oil are also visible: the vast amount of pollution and despoliation of nature for oil drilling, pipelines, and refining, not to mention emissions. Then there is also the other huge problem – that of non-biodegradable hydro-carbon-based plastics clogging the land and forming dead zones the size of France in the gyres of the oceans.

The point therefore is to get the world off its suicidal appetite for hydrocarbons. It also appears that the general public is not likely to change its fossil-fuel-guzzling ways just because they think the weather is going to warm up a little bit. Appeals to their good nature or to the legacy they are leaving their children does not seem to get results: the only thing that caused a reduction in consumption was the hike in oil prices; when prices fell, consumers went back to their bad old habits. The January 2010 Pew Center poll on American voters’ priorities puts the economy, jobs and terrorism at the top of the list, and global warming has slid to 21st place, just below trade policy! Therefore, a little exaggeration and invocation of catastrophe is probably not so bad to get the public to do what’s good for the planet.

But the worst outcome of the hue-and-cry from climate skeptics is complacency. It is not enough for the world to sit back and smugly say, “Ah, global warming is a myth. We can continue business as usual”. Not at all. The major emitters of greenhouse gases have had a free ride so far, and we all know of the Tragedy of the Commons. The industrialized nations, in particular the US, have refused to abide by the Kyoto Protocol. In Copenhagen, China, in a tactical maneuver appropriate to the world’s biggest polluter, managed to eviscerate any attempt at regulating or even monitoring its copious production of noxious emissions.

Thus, if the result of the fuss over Glaciergate and Climategate is a certain cavalierness about the issue of climate change, that would be disastrous. The baby – the environment – cannot be thrown out with the bathwater – the IPCC’s alleged malfeasance. There needs to a focused thrust to get away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy sources such as solar and wind. It is that sense of urgency that is being dissipated by the hoo-haa over Glaciergate.

In particular, for India with its minuscule stocks of hydrocarbons, it is practically a life-and-death matter that the thrust towards renewable sources of energy should not be diverted on what is essentially a political pissing content between two groups of affluent Westerners. India’s quest for energy security and its ability to provide a better life for its citizens will both be jeopardized by a quixotic crusade by those intent on scoring debating points. Climate change is real. Atmospheric pollution is real. We have no idea what we have done to complex natural systems: we cannot, like King Canute, order the waves to withdraw. Or the climate to stabilize.

Postscript: Is Pachauri being singled out as an Indian in a visible global position, and is this a hatchet job on him by the British? indeed, those howling the loudest for his head are British newspapers such as the London Times (“UN climate panel blunders again over Himalayan glaciers”, January 24th) and the UK Telegraph (“Pachauri must resign at once as head of official science panel”, January 24th). Given general British animosity towards Indians, this is not a far-out conclusion.

1500 words, 26th January 2010


versions of this were published by rediff (eleven days after i sent it to them!) at http://news.rediff.com/column/2010/jan/20/khost-deaths-a-point-of-inflexion-in-obamas-war.htm and by the pioneer at  http://www.dailypioneer.com/229225/Close-to-tipping-point.html

The massacre of CIA officers in Khost: a point of inflexion in Obama’s war?

Rajeev Srinivasan on how the US has to step up or lose the initiative to the Taliban/al Qaeda

The Jordanian suicide-bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who infiltrated the CIA’s Forward Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan and killed seven CIA operatives and his Jordanian handler on December 30th, 2009, carried out a picture-perfect strike. He devastated the operational capacity of the US Special Operations on the ground, and also dented the aura of invincibility that Hollywood and the popular imagination – think Bond, James Bond – have invested in western spooks.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal on January 7th (“The Meaning of al Qaeda’s double agent”), former CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht suggests that – eerily biblically – al Qaeda did unto the CIA what the CIA wished to do unto al Qaeda. Says Gerecht: “Indeed, al Qaeda did to us exactly what we intended to do to them: use a mole for a lethal strike against high-value targets. In the case of al-Balawi, it appears the target was Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladin’s top deputy.”

It was a brilliant operation, and the Americans were sitting ducks. The question is: why? The fact that the CIA threw normal caution to the winds when the Jordanian double-agent dangled some confidence-building carrots – in the form of verifiable information about low-level terrorists – indicates American incompetence, or, chillingly, desperation. They are dying (no pun intended) to get some good intelligence. Ergo, the likelihood is that they fear they are losing the war.

Conversely, ever since President Obama unveiled his timetable for an American pull-out, the Taliban and the al Qaeda have gone from strength to strength – they are winning the psychological war. An indication of their new-found confidence comes from three recent, high-visibility incidents: the shooting of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood (although this did happen a few weeks before Obama’s actual speech, the contours of “surge, bribe, declare victory and run like hell” were already known then); the Christmas Day (talk of a significant day!) attempt to blow up Northwest flight 253 over Detroit; and then the Khost incident itself.

Aren’t all of these highly demoralizing for the Americans? Even the normally placid Obama is showing the strain – he is under pressure to do something. He is reincarnating himself as a war president, however reluctantly. 2012 and re-election loom large in the background.

Going back to the Khost attack, Gerecht also maintains that normal operating procedure was violated under the orders of the station chief in Khost – startlingly, a mother of three – and several regional CIA staff flew in to have a face-to-face meeting with the supposed informant; he apparently was also not subjected to the usual detailed security check including pat-downs. What had the informant done to earn such unquestioning trust?

One answer may lie in the critical dependency of the CIA on others – for reasons of lack of language skills and of length of tenure. Since they seldom speak Arabic or Pushto or Urdu, they are forced to depend on third parties – in this case on Jordanian intelligence, which apparently does have a good track record in West Asia.

The fact that the CIA underestimated the enemy’s resourcefulness and smarts also bodes ill for the future. They should have learned that their enemy is capable of surprisingly good tactical operations, and they should have taken due care. There have been at least two previous instances where the jihadis – whether they call themselves al Qaeda or Taliban or something else is a moot point – demonstrated a  clear grasp of tactics.

The first was the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud in his Panjshir Valley redoubt. An unquestioned military genius, Massoud had held off the formidable Soviets with age-old tactics of perimeter defense, tactical withdrawals, and hit-and-run. He was assassinated in September 2001, just two days before 9/11 – and it is unlikely that it was a mere coincidence. Massoud had in a previous speech warned about a major attack planned against America: he might have had inklings about 9/11.

Massoud was the Taliban’s principal foe as the military commander of the Northern Alliance, and the major obstacle in their overrunning all opposition in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly a cautious and careful man, Massoud was tricked into accepting an interview by two Tunisians bearing Belgian passports, who posed as journalists – they had hidden a bomb in the videocamera, using which they were able to kill him. Possibly the assassins were supplied to the Taliban by the al Qaeda.

Then there was the singular incident of the siege of Kunduz in November 2001. In this ‘Airlift of Evil’, the US allowed Pakistan to spirit away hundreds, if not thousands, of Taliban operatives cornered by the advancing Northern Alliance in Kunduz. Most of the so-called Taliban who were evacuated were senior officers of the Pakistani Army or the ISI. At the time, I wrote (see my column “What happened in Kunduz?”) that this was an historic blunder.

Clearly, the CIA was bamboozled by the ISI and the Pakistani Army in allowing the airlift. Left to themselves, the Northern Alliance would have overrun the fort in Kunduz and captured the insurgents, thereby breaking the back of the Taliban. The Pakistanis had a big stake in preventing these strategic assets of theirs from being eliminated – and apparently they convinced the CIA that their potential capture, and  subsequent interrogation, would reflect badly on the CIA too.

These chickens have now come home to roost. The CIA has a history of strategic blunders in Afghanistan, surely because they are misled continuously by the Pakistanis. For instance, as much as 20% of all the billions of CIA dollars funneled into fighting the Soviets went to the ISI’s then favorite, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is now an implacable foe of the Americans. Furthermore, some reports suggest that Ilyas Kashmiri, a HUJI jihadi, allegedly killed by a drone in September, resurfaced and planned the Khost operation in revenge. (Americans have consistently interfered in Kashmir on behalf of Pakistan and its jihadis.)

There is now great confusion about the motives of the double-agent al-Balawi. The most obvious hypothesis is that the Taliban/al Qaeda wished to disrupt Predator and Reaper drone flights that are  inconveniencing them by pinpointing their cadre from the air. Since the Taliban are a strategic asset of the ISI, the intelligence and the planning for the operation almost certainly came from the ISI.

But there is a nice new twist – a videotape has surfaced in which al-Balawi appears with Hakimullah Mehsud and vows to avenge the killing of Baitullah Mehsud by a drone. There are a couple of ways of looking at this. One is that there are clearly tactical alliances between the al Qaeda and various Taliban factions. Despite the fine distinctions made between “good Taliban” (eg. the Haqqani tribe that the ISI refuses to move against) and the “bad Taliban”, there apparently is no such difference on the ground. The much-ballyhooed Pakistani Army surge in South Waziristan against the Mehsud tribe may be an eyewash, and the ISI may still be in cahoots with them.

A second possibility is that the tape is ISI-manufactured disinformation (digital doctoring of videotape is possible), because the Mehsud are now considered “bad Taliban” (translation: people who are not advancing the Pakistani agenda), and surely this is a good way of directing American ire at them.

That, indeed, is the $64,000 question: will there be any American ire? It is not going to be easy for President Obama to continue with his soft approach. His Cairo and Ankara speeches, his munificence to Pakistan, etc. have caused him to be perceived as a pushover. Maybe it is time for Obama to break out his trusty copy of the ‘Arthashastra’ and to realize that after sama (dialog), and dana (bribery) come other tactics – bheda (manufacturing dissent) and danda (force).

I hear from those in the know that American surveyors and geologists have discovered a veritable trove of minerals, including copper, iron, gems and hydrocarbons, in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Chinese have already started work on a giant copper mine there. Perhaps the Americans may stay in Afghanistan for the long term: the minerals would be tempting, and much more so than merely the prospect of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) oil pipeline, which Amoco once salivated over. From India’s point of view, this is probably a bad thing, but then nobody is bothered about India’s interests.

The minerals may cause Obama to rethink the “declare victory and run like hell” part. In any case, that is a losing strategy against the jihadis in the long run because they are nothing if not triumphalist. Obama, the Nobel peace-prize winner, is perforce going to be a war president, glimpses of which he displayed in his reaction to the alleged systemic failure in regards to would-be bomber Abdulmuttab.

In any case, whether Obama stays on or not, he has to acknowledge that the Taliban/al Qaeda have demonstrated a surprisingly sophisticated grasp of both geo-politics and about which strings, when pulled, provide the greatest benefit. It is a mistake to underestimate them – they have the ISI, the kings of covert action, to help them plan their operations. In this context, I was amused to come across a story from The Economist of January 24, 2009, titled “The growing, and mysterious, irrelevance of al-Qaeda”. Famous last words. A year later, it is not the al Qaeda that seem irrelevant.

Comments welcome at https://rajeev2007.wordpress.com

1600 words, Jan 9th, 2010