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Saturday, May 28, 2011

China and Green Energy Alternatives

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While environmentalists are rightly very worried about the effects of mining and burning the world's remaining coal reserves, many are now just as concerned in the post-Fukushima world about the safety of nuclear energy. Prior to this year, nuclear power was increasingly viewed as the most feasible near-term alternative to coal-fired electricity.

It is well-known that China's vast coal reserves are of special concern to environmentalists. As the NYT reported two years ago, "China now uses more coal than the United States, Europe and Japan combined." China opens two or three new coal-fired plants every week! As for the nuclear alternative, China suspended nuclear construction plans after the Fukushima accidents in March. However, recent news reports suggest that China will resume its ambitious nuclear plans after it releases a new safety program in August.

Lucia Green-Weiskel, project manager of the climate change program at the Beijing-based Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation, thinks that China could use the current moment to slow its nuclear plans and invest more heavily in other "greener" energy technologies. After all, China is officially committed to finding sustainable solutions:
China passed into law its Twelfth Five Year Plan, which will serve as the country’s economic blueprint until 2015. The primary theme of the plan is sustainable development, with a high priority on securing nonfossil fuel energy sources. New policies include reducing carbon intensity by 17 percent by 2015. That means manufacturing entities would need to emit at least 17 percent less carbon in 2015 than they emitted in 2010 for the same amount of economic output. The plan also mandates ambitious energy-cutting targets, implementation of market mechanisms like cap and trade, and generation of 11.4 percent of total energy from nonfossil fuels by 2015, up from the current 8 percent. Pre-Fukushima, a sizable portion of that 11.4 percent was to come from nuclear sources. That target is being reconsidered.
I've previously noted that China is becoming a major player in "green" energy technology. It's a small bit of good news in a future that otherwise looks clouded by coal soot.

Green-Weiskel emphasizes the stakes in these decisions. A bold move by China would have profound global implications -- for the future of the technologies as well as for the environment:
it is possible that one consequence of the horrific meltdown in Japan will be China’s accelerated development of clean and safe energy. With its huge economy, driven by central planning and aggressive government investment, China is the only country building a green-technology industry on a scale that could bring down global prices of solar panels and wind turbines, making them affordable in the developing world. This should be a key part of the global strategy to keep emissions under 350 parts per million, the maximum threshold recommended by climate scientists. For this to happen, solar and wind energy must become cost-competitive not only with nuclear but with fossil fuels. Given China’s size and unique role as world manufacturer and exporter, it is fair to say that it is the best hope for giving solar and wind energy that boost.
Is China really the best hope for a sustainable future? If so, what does that imply about the prospects for such a future?

Inevitably, this discussion ties into old debates about democratic versus centralized decision-making about the environment. Does the world need green leadership with dictatorial authority?

Democratic states certainly seem more accountable to the costs of pollution -- and responsive to the wishes of their constituents. Like China, a number of democracies have suspended their nuclear plans in the wake of Fukushima. However, both Germany and Switzerland have announced that they intend to phase-out their reactors altogether. China's brief moratorium seems unlikely to lead to that kind of decision. A stronger declaration about a safe nuclear future seems far more likely. Thus, I remain skeptical that the future of environmentalism rests with leadership from non-democratic regimes.


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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sabbatical project

In fall 2011, I will be on sabbatical. Given that courses are over and my near-term service obligations are coming to a close soon, I will be able to work on this project as much as I'd like beginning in a couple of weeks.

Curious readers might want to know my plans. Right?

Well, I will be working on a book-length project tentatively titled The Comedy of Global Politics. Essentially, it is a call for a new narrative framework in IR that is consistent with critical theory. It is based on a series of papers that I have written and delivered at academic conferences over the past few years.

Realist theorists of international relations are pessimists and embrace tragic narratives to help explain IR. The University of Chicago neorealist John Mearsheimer, for instance, called his major theoretical work The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

Classically, the main character of a tragedy is a person of nobility, the story is set in the "great hall" or on the battlefield, and the plot features the downfall of the protagonist -- often his death. Realist theory is primarily about great powers, their story is set in the competitive "high politics" arena of the international system, and the plots are typically gloomy (featuring war, imperial overstretch, etc.). The parallels are obvious.

By contrast, comedic narratives often focus on ordinary people and allow for happy endings -- or they reveal and critique the foibles of elites. Satire, farce and black comedy can be subversive.

In a paper presented a few years ago, I argued that great power politics during the war on terror seems like a ludicrous mismatch between events, state practices, and IR theory. Despite realist expectations, major powers are not engaging in balancing behavior, great power war itself seems obsolete, the US and China are major trading partners and not foes, NATO is thriving not disintegrating, weak and failed states, plus terrorists, are viewed as the major threats to major states, etc.

In other chapters, I will use a comedic perspective to view the buildup to the Iraq war as farce, examine the wide recognition that nuclear deterrence is an absurd strategy, and explain the U.S. view of Pakistan in 2001 as a potentially ridiculous case of mistaken identity. Another chapter examines how the pre-war anti-war movement in 2003 potentially took advantage of what another scholar has called an "ironic speech situation" to allow for broad public criticism of planned US policy in a difficult context. Finally, the ongoing development of "cooperative security" as a grand strategy for major states potentially provides a pathway to incorporate the needs and interests of ordinary people in IR.


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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

War Burden-Sharing

I just completed some work on "cooperative security" as grand strategy. Hopefully, in October (during my sabbatical!!!), I'll be able to deliver a paper on this topic in London at Millennium's annual conference. The 2011 theme is "Out Of The Ivory Tower: Weaving the Theories and Practice of International Relations." The proposal I submitted evaluates "cooperative security" as a critical IR theory -- particularly given its contemporary emphasis on consensual decision-making and human security concerns.

While the multilateral approach has obvious implications for nonproliferation and "the war on terrorism", policymakers should also keep in mind that it likewise has significance for the use of force.

Arguably, the Libyan operation is an example of cooperative security in practice, as was the first Persian Gulf War.

Though I have blogged about this point previously, even scholars and policy analysts in the security field sometimes forget on important dimension of the first Gulf war. Put simply, U.S. contributions were mostly financed by other states.

The most recent Iraq war has cost the U.S. more than $1 Trillion by some measures. In contrast, the UN Security Council-approved 1991 Persian Gulf War, which involved over 500,000 U.S. troops and associated equipment, directly cost only a small fraction of that total. The overwhelming majority of the $61 billion cost was paid by contributions from Gulf States (primarily Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), Japan, and Germany in 1990 and 1991. In total, international payments towards U.S. costs amounted to $53 billion, or 86.9% of the costs.

The U.S. also benefited from many indirect in-kind contributions from Saudi Arabia -- and the world certainly viewed the operation as legitimate.

For full details, see Appendix P, Department of Defense, Final Report to Congress, Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, April 1992, p. P-2, 3.


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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Water

I have a big stack of magazine clippings beside my computer desk -- stuff I pulled that was meant for blogging. Here's some material from an interesting chart that was in Mother Jones almost 2 years ago (by Jen Phillips):

Did you know that almost 600 gallons of water are needed to produce a pound of cheese? Beef = 1857 gallons (though hamburger = only 634). Chicken = 467.

It takes less water to make a pint of beer (20 gallons) than it does to produce an equal volume of Diet Coke (33). A comparable amount of wine needs 128 gallons; coffee = 148.

And that's one reason I don't drink Diet Coke or coffee and rarely drink wine.


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Saturday, May 07, 2011

Anti-Austerity

Keep August 2 in the back of your mind. That's the date the US government is expected to exceed the current debt ceiling, meaning that Congress will again have to approve either a higher limit or new spending cuts (or, ha ha ha, new revenues).

Late last year, economist and Time columnist Zachary Karabell reminded his readers of the dangers of austerity during recessionary times:
As Liaquat Ahamed charted in Lords of Finance, his Pulitzer-winning account of central bankers' policymaking before the Great Depression, the orthodoxy of austerity and budget cutting hobbled the world and led to a decade of deflation and depression.

The Tea Party has woven a story of government overreach that includes deficits, health care, job loss and general disdain for Washington and Wall Street elitism. It's a simple narrative fueled by legitimate outrage at the cozy system of influence that characterizes politics today. But as economic policy, it is the 2010 version of what the blind, rigid bankers of the 1920s and '30s offered—and it will sink an already leaking ship.
I'll be watching over the next few months to see if any DC politicians or influential TV media personalities point out the dangers of austerity during tough times.

Who will lead the anti-austerity parade?



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Friday, May 06, 2011

Academic update

Two days ago, the Louisville Courier Journal ran a list of 34 Kentucky high school seniors who won a $2500 scholarship from the National Merit Scholarship Corp. I am primarily interested in the dupont Manual listings, for obvious reasons:
Manual: Rohun Kulkarni, Amanda L. O'Malley, Claire C. Payne, Daniel L. Pearson and Julian Rippy
Congratulations to Claire and to all the other winners.

A couple of weeks ago, a co-worker's child was also announced as a winner of a National Merit corporate-sponsored scholarship.


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Monday, May 02, 2011

After OBL

I was interviewed Monday afternoon by the producer of the local cn2 TV show "Pure Politics." They have a story here. Much of the interview was about the future of US relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I argued that the latest news might pave the way out of Afghanistan. From this point forward, the US has much less incentive to stay.

Obviously, the US killed the messenger, Osama bin Laden, this past weekend. However, his organizational infrastructure and message have been falling apart for a longer time. The al Qaeda of 2011 is not like the al Qaeda of 2001 -- no training camps and friendly government host, for example. As Peter Bergen says frequently on CNN, there's really no one wibh OBL's profile to replace him. He was rich, connected, symbolically important, etc. His history and position was unique and he's gone.

OBL's message is dying in large part because the events in Egypt and elsewhere this year demonstrate that ordinary Muslims don't require a jihadist terrorist to transform their lives. The US willingness to allow longtime partner Hosni Mubarek to fall without attempting to save him also demonstrates that many grievances about US interference and backing of tyrants are now out-dated.

A video excerpt from the interview is here.


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