April 28, 2014

Déjà Vu All Over Again

One person who might benefit from the crisis in the Ukraine is Neville Chamberlain. He has been scorned for his "appeasement" of Germany after Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938. Hitler followed that by stirring up unrest in Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, all in the name of protecting ethnic Germans, a process that culminated in the Munich Agreement in September of that year, after which Chamberlain declared "peace for our time." By March of 1939 Hitler was rolling through Prague, having taken control of all of Czechoslovakia. Well, it's déjà vu all over again, and the current crop of leaders isn't faring much better than Chamberlain, at least so far.

Chamberlain's big mistake was hoping that Hitler would be satisfied with the Sudetenland. Unfortunately for Chamberlain and the rest of Europe, Hitler had larger ambitions. He wanted to recreate Germany as it was before being sliced and diced by the victors after World War I. First came the annexation of Austria. Then came the seizure of the Sudetenland to protect ethnic Germans. Europe and Great Britain couldn't agree on what to do, their indecisiveness giving Hitler the green light to grab off the rest of Czechoslovakia.

Now we have Vladimir Putin, a man who says he is just looking for a little respect. He bristles at attempts to expand NATO and the European Union into countries that historically have served as a buffer between Russia and Europe. Like Chamberlain, who felt that some of Hitler's concerns in the Sudetenland were justified, I think a lot of people get that Russia doesn't like the expansion of Europe's sphere of influence into adjoining territories. And honestly, when trouble broke out in the Ukraine over just that issue, I don't think anyone was shocked when Putin grabbed off the very low hanging fruit of Crimea, given it's history and strategic importance to Russia.

The big question is whether that will satisfy Putin. Like Hitler, Putin has a grand vision for his country. He talks of rebuilding "historic Russia" and protecting the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. You would think Ukrainians would have had enough of Mother Russia after Stalin starved seven million of them to death. But then again, the current crop of ethnic Russians came to the Ukraine to rebuild the population after Stalin's ethnic cleansing operations and the resulting famines.

So Putin plays a cagey game of lies and distortions, speaking out of both sides of his mouth with a fluency not seen since the days when Henry Kissinger ran the State Department. He treats the legitimate government of Ukraine as if it is an occupying force. He foments unrest while talking peace. In the meantime, caught up in the spirit of bringing back the good old days, pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists have been going after the Jews and the gypsies. I've always felt the typical middle European was just a half-step away from storming the streets with pitch forks and axes.

Like their fathers before them, today's American and European leaders wring their hands and issue stern denunciations. The main strategy seems to be to make Putin's rich friends suffer, in the hope that they will pressure him to ease up. Next will come a war of words on Twitter, no doubt. It's true, the world is in a different place today. We are more global. Russia is more vulnerable to economic sanctions. But history shows that people will eagerly drink the Kool-Aid if they feel they are on a mission to restore greatness. Maybe we should just "friend" Vlad on Facebook. If we give him enough "likes," then perhaps he'll stop being such a grumpy face.

While Putin moves pieces around on the chessboard, we sit and wait for ... what? World War III? Oh no, that could never happen. We are far too advanced for that. Surely, men of reason will surely find a way to appease ... check that ... negotiate a settlement. I'm sure Mr. Putin will not call our bluff and seize eastern Ukraine. And if he does, that surely will be the end of his ambitions. You folks in Poland and the Baltic Sea can go back to your homes. Nothing to worry about here. We will have peace in our time.

April 1, 2014

Climate: No Change

Back in 2009, there was a big UN-sponsored climate change conference held in Copenhagen. All the countries, great and small, would gather round and divvy up the globe into must-do, ought-to-do, and don't-have-to-do lists for reducing carbon emissions. To no one's surprise, the lists varied depending upon perceived national self-interest.

Those who produced the most carbon emissions wanted to do the least. Those on the front lines of climate change -- usually poorer countries relying on the good will of others -- sought immediate action. Emerging nations wanted to avoid anything that might impede their emergence. The conference ended in disarray, with each group blaming the other groups for failing to agree on anything other than to disagree.

Nothing has changed since that conference. Zero progress has been made towards eliminating what scientists decry as the single most significant threat facing humanity. Here is what I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the failure at Copenhagen:
"So where does that leave the rest of us? Pretty much on our own, I’d say. It is every man, woman and child for himself or herself. That can mean ... thinking real hard about what it might be like to live with the kind of problems you get with climate change: people on the move, scarcities of food and water, extreme weather, rising rates of disease."

A recently released U.N. Report entitled "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability" stresses these same problems, no longer potential but very real. A summary of the report in the New York Times states:
“Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” the report declared.
The report also cited the possibility of violent conflict over land, water or other resources, to which climate change might contribute indirectly “by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”
... climate change is not just a problem of the distant future, but is happening now.
We are in deep trouble. Nothing has happened to reduce carbon emissions. Nothing has been done to prepare for the human and natural catastrophes that are coming our way. By every measure, things have gotten palpably worse. What was unthinkable just a few short years ago is now looming on the horizon line of our lifetimes.

Governments have let one window of opportunity after another slam shut. At this point, it would take drastic measures to get us to the lesser zone of risk, and there is virtually no political will in sight to make this happen. Instead, governmental leaders at the national level continue to be incapable of dealing with this problem. Local governments are doing what they can, but a problem like global warming requires a global solution.

Meanwhile, we the people must face a hard truth. We are on our own. There really is nothing to do at this point but to begin building our Arks in whatever way seems to make the most sense.