Category Archives: Governance

Netanyahu’s zealotry is derailing German alliance


Guilt for the horrors of the Holocaust have made Germany Israel’s most reliable supporter in Europe, the source of massive financial support and reliable political backing.

But the fanaticism of Israeli Prime Minister and his cynical exploitation of guilt are now threatening an already frayed alliance.

From Der Spiegel:

By now, Angela Merkel is used to it. Whenever she meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the confidential content of their discussion appears in an Israeli newspaper a few days later. But the story that appeared in Israel Hayom, a free, pro-Netanyahu newspaper on Feb. 16 surprised even the German chancellor. “Merkel: This Isn’t the Time for Two States,” was the headline. That was the chancellor’s message to Netanyahu, the paper claimed, during the German-Israeli government consultations that had just taken place in Berlin.Merkel’s advisors were furious. The Israeli premier had apparently twisted her words to such a degree that it seemed as though she were supporting his policies. In fact, though, Merkel had repeatedly made it clear to Netanyahu that she believes the effects of Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territories are disastrous. The settlement policy, she believes, makes it unlikely that a viable Palestinian state can be established in accordance with plans aimed at a two-state solution. Any other approach, Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are convinced, would ultimately transform Israel into an apartheid regime. Netanyahu, however, has not shown himself to be the least bit impressed by such arguments.

The Israeli prime minister has always been able to depend on Berlin ultimately standing together with Israel and not joining the country’s most vocal critics. But many, particularly in the Berlin Foreign Ministry, have begun wondering if Germany sent the wrong signals in the past. An example that is frequently mentioned is Chancellor Merkel’s speech in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 2008 when she said that Israeli security is part of Germany’s “raison d’état.”

“The perception has been growing in the German government that Netanyahu is instrumentalizing our friendship,” says Rolf Mützenich, deputy floor leader for the Social Democrats (SPD) in parliament. The SPD is Merkel’s junior coalition partner and Foreign Minister Steinmeier is a leading member of the party. Mützenich says it would be a welcome change if the Foreign Ministry and the Chancellery were to rethink the relationship with Israel.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the zealous Netanyahu turned out to be Palestine greatest, albeit unintentional, ally?

More environmental woes in Latin America


From Brazil, the first our three stories today, starting with an ongoing problem, reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

Latin America’s largest country is still losing tropical forests the size of two football fields every minute, despite attempts to tackle illegal logging and improve local land rights, a former head of Brazil’s forestry service has said.

Deforestation rates in Brazil, home to the world’s biggest expanse of tropical forests, slowed significantly between 2004 and 2010, but have picked up again in recent years due to a lack of innovation and government planning, Tasso Azevedo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Preserving forests is a key way to reduce emissions of planet-warming gases and combat climate change, as trees suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Forests are also home to hundreds of thousands of people who depend on them for their livelihood.

“In some cases, we are walking backwards,” warned Azevedo, citing poor cooperation between competing government departments and civil society in Brazil.

And from Brazil and the Thomson Reuters Foundation again, more devastation, this time human, as activists fighting to preserve lands and forests continue to die at the hands of developers:

Land rights campaigners and environmentalists are facing growing violence and intimidation in Brazil, with at least six activists killed so far this year, a human rights group said.

The killings, tracked between January and February 2016, happened in three largely rural Brazilian states with a history of land conflicts: Rondônia, Maranhão, and Alagoas, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported this week.

South America’s largest country has some of the world’s widest inequality in land distribution, according to a U.S. government report, with one percent of the population owning nearly half of the country’s land.

A growing number of activists demanding land reform and rights for indigenous people are facing “an increase in acts of violence, repression and criminalization”, the IACHR, that monitors human rights across the Americas, said in a statement.

And for our third story, we move closer to home, via teleSUR English:

The southern Mexican state of Chiapas has been hard hit by the El Niño climate phenomenon causing such an intensive drought that 13 rivers have been completely dried up, Mexican newspaper Reforma said Friday.

State Director of Civil Protection Luis Manuel Garcia told Reforma that 40 Chiapan municipalities have been affected, of which four are experiencing extreme drought.

“All of the biggest rivers in the coastal area of Chiapas have been practically dried up,” Garcia said.

In light of the extreme circumstances, Garcia said they would send a petition to the federal government requesting that they issue a state of emergency decree for three of Chiapas’ municipalities in order to get financial resources from the National Disaster Fund.

UC Davis chancellor investigated, sent on leave


University of California, Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi [previously], formerly known as the boss of the Pepper-Spraying Cop and the beneficiary of large chunks of cash from corporations publishing textbooks used by her students and operating a for-profit university, is out, at least for now.

The move comes two weeks after the University of California Students Association formally called for her ouster.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Suddenly, however, Katehi was gone — abruptly placed on administrative leave late Wednesday by UC President Janet Napolitano.

Napolitano ordered an outside investigation into “serious questions” over Katehi’s involvement in jobs for family members, possible misuse of student funds and “material misstatements” about her role in the hiring of social media firms to bury negative publicity about a campus police pepper-spraying of peaceful student protesters in 2011. If proven, Napolitano said, the actions may violate university policies on conflicts-of-interest, ethical conduct and use of student fees.

Katehi’s attorney has called the allegations “entirely unjustified,” while the chancellor told faculty members on Wednesday morning that she was “100% committed” to staying at Davis.

On Thursday, the campus was abuzz with a central, perplexing question: How could such a brilliant woman stumble so badly with a string of such questionable decisions?

The latest issues raised follow weeks of controversy over Katehi’s decision to take two paid board positions — one with a textbook publisher, the other with a for-profit firm, DeVry Education Group, which is being investigated by state and local authorities for allegedly deceiving students over job and income prospects.

In addition to her personal profiteering Katehi came to the university with a express agenda: Pull research away from the big questions of general science and refocus on work that could lead to profitable patents.

From Ars gratia artis to Ars gratia emolimentum.

There’s a certain hypocrisy in Napolitano’s action, given that the university system actively hypes its celebrity academics who reap millions from startup companies they found based on work they did on the public payroll.

Quote of the day: Neoloberalism and the Clintons


From Robin Corey, writing in Jacobin:

[N]eoliberalism, of course, can mean a great many things, many of them associated with the Right. But one of its meanings — arguably, in the United States, the most historically accurate — is the name that a small group of journalists, intellectuals, and politicians on the Left gave to themselves in the late 1970s in order to register their distance from the traditional liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society.

The original neoliberals included, among others, Michael Kinsley, Charles Peters, James Fallows, Nicholas Lehmann, Bill Bradley, Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart, and Paul Tsongas. Sometimes called “Atari Democrats,” these were the men — and they were almost all men — who helped to remake American liberalism into neoliberalism, culminating in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.

These were the men who made Jonathan Chait what he is today. Chait, after all, would recoil in horror at the policies and programs of mid-century liberals like Walter Reuther or John Kenneth Galbraith or even Arthur Schlesinger, who claimed that “class conflict is essential if freedom is to be preserved, because it is the only barrier against class domination.” We know this because he so resolutely opposes the more tepid versions of that liberalism that we see in the Sanders campaign.

It’s precisely the distance between that lost world of twentieth century American labor-liberalism and contemporary liberals like Chait that the phrase “neoliberalism” is meant, in part, to register.

Big Brother’s panopticon chills online searches


It’s no secret that we’ve long suspected that the revelations of NSA’s panopticon powers would result in self-censorship online, and now we have evidence in the form of an academic study published right here in Berkeley.

Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use [PDF] has just appeared online from the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, and it’s well worth a read.

Reuters sums up:

Internet traffic to Wikipedia pages summarizing knowledge about terror groups and their tools plunged nearly 30 percent after revelations of widespread Web monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency, suggesting that concerns about government snooping are hurting the ordinary pursuit of information.

A forthcoming paper in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal analyzes the fall in traffic, arguing that it provides the most direct evidence to date of a so-called “chilling effect,” or negative impact on legal conduct, from the intelligence practices disclosed by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Author Jonathon Penney, a fellow at the University of Toronto’s interdisciplinary Citizen Lab, examined monthly views of Wikipedia articles on 48 topics identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as subjects that they track on social media, including Al Qaeda, dirty bombs and jihad.

In the 16 months prior to the first major Snowden stories in June 2013, the articles drew a variable but an increasing audience, with a low point of about 2.2 million per month rising to 3.0 million just before disclosures of the NSA’s Internet spying programs. Views of the sensitive pages rapidly fell back to 2.2 million a month in the next two months and later dipped under 2.0 million before stabilizing below 2.5 million 14 months later, Penney found.

Here’s a chart from page 37 of the paper dramatically illustrating the decline:

BLOG Terror

More details from Abhimanyu Ghoshal of The Next Web:

In his paper, ‘Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use’, Penney looked at monthly views on Wikipedia pages for 48 topics that the US Department of Homeland Security said it tracks on social media, including ‘Al Qaeda’, ‘terror’, ‘weapons grade’, ‘Abu Sayyaf’, ‘Iran’, ‘extremism’, ‘Nigeria’ and jihad.

He noted that in the 16 months prior to Snowden’s first big reveal, the articles drew between 2.2 million views per month rising to 3 million. After Snowden went public, those figures fell below 2 million before stabilizing at just under 2.5 million 14 months later.

Penney’s paper highlights the ‘chilling effect’ of the government’s snooping programs, which refers to the discouragement of the legitimate exercise of legal rights by the threat of legal sanction – in this case, to seek information and learn about what’s going on around the world.

And the money quote from page 40 of the study itself:

Skepticism among courts, legal scholars, and empirical researchers has persisted about the nature, extent, and even existence of chilling effects due, in large part, to a lack of empirical substantiation. The results in this case study, however, provide empirical evidence consistent with chilling effects on the activities of Internet users due to government surveillance. And, to be clear, the activity here is not only legal—accessing information on Wikipedia—but arguably desirable for a healthy democratic society. It involves Internets users informing themselves about important topics subject to today’s widespread social, political, moral, and public policy debates. The large, statistically significant, and immediate drop in total views for the Wikipedia articles after June 2013 implies a clear and immediate chilling effect. Moreover, the broad and statistically significant shift in the overall trend in the data (e.g. the shift from the second results excluding outliers) suggests any chilling effects observed may be substantial and long-term, rather than weak, temporary, or ephemeral. This study also bolsters support for the existence of the chilling due to the data upon which it relies. It is among the first studies to demonstrate evidence of such a chilling effect using web traffic data (instead of survey responses or search), and the first to do so in relation both to the potential chilling effects on Wikipedia use, and, more broadly, how such government surveillance and other actions impact how people access and obtain information and knowledge online.

We leave the last word to Glenn Greenwald, writing at The Intercept:

The fear that causes self-censorship is well beyond the realm of theory. Ample evidence demonstrates that it’s real – and rational. A study from PEN America writers found that 1 in 6 writers had curbed their content out of fear of surveillance and showed that writers are “not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” Scholars in Europe have been accused of being terrorist supporters by virtue of possessing research materials on extremist groups, while British libraries refuse to house any material on the Taliban for fear of being prosecuted for material support for terrorism.

There are also numerous psychological studies demonstrating that people who believe they are being watched engage in behavior far more compliant, conformist and submissive than those who believe they are acting without monitoring. That same realization served centuries ago as the foundation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: that behaviors of large groups of people can be effectively controlled through architectural structures that make it possible for them to be watched at any given movement even though they can never know if they are, in fact, being monitored, thus forcing them to act as if they always are being watched. This same self-censorsing, chilling effect of the potential of being surveilled was also the crux of the tyranny about which Orwell warned in 1984:

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

Well, not quite the last word. Undoubtedly, the net beneficiaries of the reluctance of the populace to look deeper into issues of terrorism serves the interests of a government with a vested interest in keeping secret many of its operations and deepest political motives. . .

Headline of the day: Well pardon me all to hell


From United Press International:

Philippines’ likely next president would pardon self for 1,700 deaths

Rodrigo Duterte, the front-runner in the Philippines’ presidential election, said he would pardon himself and the death squads he led that allegedly killed 1,700 people.

New studies reveal fracking environmental costs


Two new reports focus on the growing evidence of the dangers of fracking to environments both far and near.

First up, from NASA’s Earth Observatory, a report on the danger that fracking in the lower 48 and elsewhere poses to the Arctic:

BLOG Frack gas

Researchers have suspected for several years that the flaring of waste natural gas from industrial oil and gas fields in the Northern Hemisphere could be a significant source of nitrogen dioxide and black carbon pollution in the Arctic. Research from a NASA-sponsored study lends new weight to that hypothesis.

Nitrogen dioxide is a well-known air pollutant that is central to the production of ground-level smog and ozone. It is closely associated with black carbon (also known as soot), which is an agent of global warming, particularly in the Arctic. In addition to absorbing sunlight while aloft, black carbon darkens snow when it settles on the surface. Both processes lead to heating of the air and the land surface, accelerating the melting of snow and ice.

The amount of black carbon that reaches the Arctic is poorly estimated, but scientists know that any soot could have a significant impact. “The Arctic starts from a very clean state, as there are no significant local sources of dust or smoke pollution,” said Nickolay Krotkov, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a member of a team examining the origins of Arctic black carbon. “In this kind of pristine environment, even small anthropogenic sources make a big difference.”

Previous research has suggested that gas flares from oil and natural gas extraction near the Arctic could be a key source of black carbon. But since international inventories of industrial emissions have gaps in observations and in reporting, they often over- or underestimate the amount of pollutants.

Gas flares are an often-overlooked subset in that already messy data set. Regional estimates from Russia, for example, suggest that gas flaring may account for 30 percent of all black carbon emissions. But with few monitoring stations near flaring sites, the scientific community has had great difficulty getting accurate estimates of emissions.

Can Li and other researchers at NASA Goddard were recently asked by atmospheric modelers to see if they could provide flaring estimates based on satellite data. Black carbon levels in the atmosphere cannot be directly measured by satellites, but they can be derived indirectly. Black carbon is associated with nitrogen dioxide and with the total concentration of aerosol particles in the atmosphere. Nitrogen dioxide and black carbon particles are often produced at the same time when fossil fuels are burned.

The modelers were simulating the trajectories of pollution through the atmosphere based on existing, flawed emission inventories. And their results generally underestimated the amount of black carbon reaching the Arctic compared to what scientists in the field were measuring directly.

The first step for Li, Krotkov, and colleagues was to find gas flares. They compiled “night lights” data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite on the Suomi NPP satellite. They examined four known fossil fuel extraction sites: Bakken, North Dakota (shown above); Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada; the North Sea near Great Britain and Norway; and western Siberia, Russia. The researchers pinpointed gas flares by excluding electric light from nearby towns and roads.

For each study site, Li and Krotkov analyzed nitrogen dioxide data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument aboard the Aura spacecraft. A sample is shown at the top of this page. Fellow NASA researchers Andrew Sayer and Christina Hsu retrieved aerosol concentration data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite.

“We found a pretty good match-up between the gas flare signals from the night lights and the nitrogen dioxide retrievals for two regions—Bakken and the Canadian oil sands,” said Li. Every year from 2005 to 2015, the levels of atmospheric NO2 rose about 1.5 percent per year at Bakken and about 2 percent per year at Athabasca. This means the concentration of black carbon produced by those flares was also likely on the rise.

The team saw a smaller rise in nitrogen dioxide in western Siberia, and no discernable flaring signal from well-established oil rigs in the North Sea. According to Li, the North Sea signal was likely obscured by the abundance of nitrogen dioxide pollution in Europe.

Aerosol data were less conclusive. Aerosols tend to linger in the atmosphere longer than nitrogen dioxide, making it more difficult to establish whether there was an increase due to oil field activities, as opposed to general background levels, Sayer said.

The new observational results fit well with modeling done by Joshua Fu, an atmospheric modeler at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and a collaborator on the paper. When Fu and colleagues added the gas flare locations and estimated emissions into a model of chemical transport in the atmosphere, they were able to reproduce the amount of black carbon observed in the Arctic by ground stations and aircraft.

Fracking waste spills pollute soil, water

Next, from Duke University, a report revealing that far from being exceptional, soil- and water-polluting spills of contaminated fracking waste water, filled with chemicals fracking companies aren’t even required to report to the concenred public, are all-too-common occurrences:

Accidental wastewater spills from unconventional oil production in North Dakota have caused widespread water and soil contamination, a new Duke University study finds.

Researchers found high levels of ammonium, selenium, lead and other toxic contaminants as well as high salts in the brine-laden wastewater, which primarily comes from hydraulically fractured oil wells in the Bakken region of western North Dakota.

Streams polluted by the wastewater contained levels of contaminants that often exceeded federal guidelines for safe drinking water or aquatic health.

Soil at the spill sites was contaminated with radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element found in brines, which chemically attached to the soil after the spill water was released.

At one site, the researchers were still able to detect high levels of contaminants in spill water four years after the spill occurred.

There’s a whole lot more, after the jump. . . Continue reading