Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Top News Stories Of The Day

1. Prometheus Bound

I linked last Friday to a disturbing article about a Kansas regulatory board's decision to block the construction of a new power plant because it emits carbon dioxide—the first direct use of the global warming hysteria to shut down industrial power generation in the United States.

Below, the New York Times editorial board celebrates that decision and other evidence of state-level government interference with power-plant production—even in states generally considered to be conservative—and calls for an even more comprehensive "cap and trade" system of energy rationing to be imposed by Congress.

Congressional Democrats have so far been too bogged down in their failed efforts to force a withdrawal from Iraq to produce global-warming regulations. But this is a political juggernaut that is just beginning to get underway, and the fact that global warming restrictions are now beginning to be imposed on the state level means that America may already be starting to black itself out, one state at a time.

"Montana and Kansas Take on Big Coal," New York Times, October 23

On Saturday, The Times's business section featured two reports from unexpected parts of the country that should cheer the bipartisan coalition in the Senate that wants to move ahead quickly on legislation limiting emissions of carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas….

One report, from Montana, described an increasingly vocal movement opposed to new coal-fired power plants on the Great Plains. The movement includes not only the usual suspects in the environmental community but also conservative and largely Republican ranchers worried about the impact of global warming on their water supply.

In addition, The Times reported that a state regulator in Kansas had denied a permit for a large coal-fired power plant because of the global warming gases it would emit. As far as anyone knows, that's the first time that a power plant has been blocked for that reason alone.

Now it's Washington's turn. A Senate subcommittee will soon take up a very promising global warming bill written by Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and John Warner of Virginia—the first step in what could be an arduous legislative journey. The bill would place a mandatory, declining cap on emissions from the electric power, manufacturing and transportation sectors of the economy. It aims to cut total emissions to 63 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, less than many scientists say is necessary but still very ambitious….

The Lieberman-Warner bill makes it clear that coal-fired power plants, new or old, will be forced to meet stiff new emissions targets just like everyone else. Dirty plants, in short, will pay heavily, as they should.

2. The Global Warming Battle

The global warming hysteria is a cultural juggernaut, backed by everyone from academic scientists to failed former politicians to Hollywood celebrities. But it is possible, eventually, to defeat this dogma because, as is so often the case, the environmentalists have chosen to fight for their philosophy within the arena of the special sciences, in this case the nascent science of climatology.

They have the advantage of the corrupting influence of government funding on scientific research, and of the second-handed motive that causes many scientists to go along with the flow of whatever is considered "politically correct" among their college-educated peers. But they have the disadvantage of the clean, reality-oriented methods of science itself, methods which make facts the intellectual gold-standard.

Here's an example: an op-ed from a scientist who doesn't fundamentally challenge the underlying philosophy of environmentalism, but who points to the inconvenient truths (to borrow a phrase) which show that global warming is not likely to lead to significant sea-level increases, mass extinctions, or any particularly harmful consequences to human beings.

Most significant, he talks of global warming as a test of scientists' commitment to science (which he regrettably calls their "faith in science") and laments the way in which some of his colleagues rationalize the distortion of science to achieve political ends. Environmentalism succeeds only because it is promoted under the cover of science—and articles like this one work to strip off that disguise.

"Global Warming Delusions," Daniel B. Botkin, Wall Street Journal, October 21

Global warming doesn't matter except to the extent that it will affect life—ours and that of all living things on Earth. And contrary to the latest news, the evidence that global warming will have serious effects on life is thin. Most evidence suggests the contrary.
Case in point: This year's United Nations report on climate change and other documents say that 20% to 30% of plant and animal species will be threatened with extinction in this century due to global warming—a truly terrifying thought. Yet, during the past 2.5 million years, a period that scientists now know experienced climatic changes as rapid and as warm as modern climatological models suggest will happen to us, almost none of the millions of species on Earth went extinct. The exceptions were about 20 species of large mammals (the famous megafauna of the last ice age—saber-tooth tigers, hairy mammoths and the like), which went extinct about 10,000 to 5,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, and many dominant trees and shrubs of northwestern Europe. But elsewhere, including North America, few plant species went extinct, and few mammals.

We're also warned that tropical diseases are going to spread, and that we can expect malaria and encephalitis epidemics. But scientific papers by Prof. Sarah Randolph of Oxford University show that temperature changes do not correlate well with changes in the distribution or frequency of these diseases; warming has not broadened their distribution and is highly unlikely to do so in the future, global warming or not….

Some colleagues who share some of my doubts argue that the only way to get our society to change is to frighten people with the possibility of a catastrophe, and that therefore it is all right and even necessary for scientists to exaggerate. They tell me that my belief in open and honest assessment is na├»ve. "Wolves deceive their prey, don't they?" one said to me recently. Therefore, biologically, he said, we are justified in exaggerating to get society to change….

At the heart of the matter is how much faith we decide to put in science—even how much faith scientists put in science. Our times have benefited from clear-thinking, science-based rationality. I hope this prevails as we try to deal with our changing climate.

3. "We Will Have the Power of the Gods"

As a semi-antidote to environmentalism, here is an article about a new British television documentary that projects potential future breakthroughs in science and technology, predicting that we are in a "historic transition from the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery" and that "we will have the power of gods."

Note however, that even in this story, the scientists interviewed (I have excerpted only the article's introduction below) still express somewhat overwrought fears about the potential negative effects of these new scientific advances (some of which, such as "artificial intelligence," are themselves exaggerated).

"Future of Science: 'We Will Have the Power of the Gods'," Roger Highfield, Daily Telegraph, October 23

According to the theoretical physicist Professor Michio Kaku of the City College of New York, we are entering an empowered new era: "We have unlocked the secrets of matter.
We have unravelled the molecule of life, DNA. And we have created a form of artificial intelligence, the computer. We are making the historic transition from the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery in which we will be able to manipulate and mould nature almost to our wishes."

Among the technologies he believes will change our lives in the coming decades are cars that drive themselves, lab-grown human organs, 3D television, robots that can perform household tasks, eye glasses that double as home-entertainment centres, the exploitation of genes that alter human ageing and the possibility of invisibility and forms of teleportation.

"We will have the power to animate the inanimate, the power to create life itself," says Prof Kaku. "We will have the power of gods. But will we also have the wisdom of Solomon?"

In a new BBC4 series called Visions of the Future, Prof Kaku talks to today's pioneers about how we are moving from being passive observers of nature to its choreographers. Here are their remarkable speculations about how the scientific and technological revolution will transform life and society in the 21st century.

4. The Syrian Mystery

The mystery about the recent Israeli air strike on a possible nuclear site in Syria had seemed to clear up with additional news reports—but now it is deepening again, as two congressmen drop hints that there is much more to the story than we are being told.

Stanley Kurtz analyzes those hints below, concluding that they indicate that Syria may have been buying a nuclear weapon from North Korea and not just building a nuclear reactor—and that Iran may have been much more closely involved than we have been told.

More disturbing is the speculation that the Bush administration has been suppressing these facts in order to avoid the implication they would lead to: the need for military action against Iran and North Korea.

"Raid Revelation," Stanley Kurtz, National Review Online, October 23

If people had known how close we came to World War III that day there would have been mass panic. That is how a very senior British ministerial source recently characterized Israel's September raid on what was apparently a Syrian nuclear installation. Whether matters were quite that grave is an open question. Yet it does seem clear that the full story of the Israeli raid has not been told, nor its full significance recognized. Now two key members of Congress have raised an alarm about this event, thereby throwing our nuclear agreement with North Korea into question.
Peter Hoekstra and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, as senior Republicans on the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees, respectively, were among the mere handful of members of Congress briefed on the Israeli air strike. What they learned obviously dismayed them greatly, as is evident from "What Happened in Syria?" a Wall Street Journal opinion piece published by Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen this past Saturday.

In that piece, Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen protest the "unprecedented veil of secrecy, thrown over the airstrike" noting that the vast majority of foreign relations and intelligence committee members have been left in the dark on the details of the raid. Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen acknowledge that they have personally been "sworn to secrecy," yet add that: "...based on what we have is critical for every member of congress to be briefed on this incident, and as soon as possible."

Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen obviously believe that Syria obtained "nuclear expertise or material" from outside state sources. And while they base their concern on press reports, it seems likely that their top-secret briefings confirmed this fact. Notable here is Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen's repeated use of the phrase "North Korea, Iran, or other rogue states" when referring to Syria's possible nuclear collaborators. After their briefing, Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen seem just as concerned about Iranian involvement as North Korean.

5. The Oil Curse

The Eastern Europeans are moving closer to liberty and free markets—the Poles just voted in a political party whose platform is tax cuts and privatization—but Russia continues to relapse into "Stalin Lite" authoritarianism.

The article below highlights the negative consequences for Russia. Like other corrupt states cursed by large oil reserves, Russia has used the windfall of high oil prices to cover up its underlying failure to develop a diverse and thriving economy outside of the oil sector. And this article indicates that even the oil revenue might decline, as Russia scares off the foreign investors who are needed to renew its oil fields.

The only good news is for us, not Russia: the Russian military has still not recovered from its late Soviet-era collapse.

Another piece of good news: while Russian President Vladimir Putin is still supporting Iran, a major Russian oil company has just pulled out its investment in Iran's oil industry, thanks to American economic sanctions imposed on companies that deal with Iran.

"Russia's Doing Great. Or Is it?" Eugene Rumer, International Herald-Tribune, October 22

At the center of Russia's economic recovery is the flow of petrodollars. Oil, fuel, and gas account for two-thirds of Russia's exports. At the outset of Russia's economic revival, hydrocarbons were expected to "prime the pump" for a diversified economy to spring to life, as befits a major global power with Russia's traditions and ambitions.

But nearly a decade later, Russia is using its commodities-driven recovery to finance, well, its commodities sector. In 2006, fewer than one in five foreign direct-investment dollars went to manufacturing, and even those funds were spent largely on the relatively low-tech metallurgical industry and food processing, intended mainly for domestic consumption.

In domestic investment, the picture is even worse….

The oil and gas fields feeding this bonanza are running dry. Russian gas output has leveled off; oil production is expected to peak by 2010. Russia has more gas and oil, but its energy sector has to make the right decisions now to tap new fields. Western energy companies, whose capital and know-how will be essential to sustain Russian oil and gas production, have felt distinctly unwelcome in Putin's Russia, and the outlook for the energy sector, consolidated under the Kremlin's control is not encouraging….

The Russian military is only about a quarter of the size of its Soviet predecessor…. Between 2000 and 2007, the Russian air force has received three new combat aircraft—a Tu-160 Blackjack bomber and two Su-34 fighter-bombers. The Bear bombers that have resumed long-range patrols of late first entered service in 1952.

6. Mongolia's "Third Neighbor"

Quick, what are Mongolia's three geographic neighbors? There's Russia to the North, China to the South—and then, of course, there is…America?

In an odd geopolitical move, Mongolia has volunteered to join America's global empire, designating the United States as its "third neighbor"—I am not making that up—and adopting English as its official second language, even though the nearest English-speaking nation is thousands of miles away.

As an impoverished nation looking to connect to the global economy, Mongolia is making the right choice of allies and the right choice of political and economic systems.

The article below is about Mongolia signing up for a US foreign aid package, but the foreign aid is not the important part of the story. Mongolia is simply doing whatever it can to forge a closer bond with America, and the "Millennium Challenge" is one of the better foreign-aid programs, requiring political reforms and anti-corruption measures which address some of the real causes of economic backwardness.

"Mongolia First to Qualify for Aid Program," David R. Sands, Washington Times, October 23

Mongolia yesterday became the first Asian country to qualify for President Bush's signature Millennium Challenge foreign-aid program, a move President Nambaryn Enkhbayar described in an interview as just the latest sign of warming economic and security ties between the two countries.

In another first, Mr. Bush hosted the signing ceremony at the White House, personally endorsing a five-year, $285 million aid package for the one-time communist state, the 15th negotiated under the Millennium program.

"The fact that President Bush himself has agreed to sign the compact shows the closeness of the friendship we have developed," Mr. Enkhbayar told editors and reporters from The Washington Times in an interview at Blair House, the presidential guest residence….

Sandwiched between its giant neighbors China and Russia, sparsely populated Mongolia has been an unlikely US foreign-policy success story since throwing off its centralized command economy in the early 1990s.

While maintaining ties to Moscow and Beijing, Mongolian leaders have adopted the United States as its "third neighbor," looking to boost trade and investment and enlisting as a full partner in the global war on terrorism. The country's parliamentary democracy has seen a series of peaceful transfers of power, although corruption and poor infrastructure remain major problems.

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