29 September 2007

Will the next war be in Syria?

By Liam Carroll

The winds of change are blowing through Syria and Lebanon and there is now much speculation about the internal power structures of these two relatively young countries. Opinions seem to vary as to who rules Syria and what their role is in supporting the Iraqi insurgency, Hamas, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and several other candidates on the United States most wanted list. Throw in political assassination in Lebanon and you can understand why there is a body of opinion in Washington that believes Syria should be confronted more forcefully. A mysterious Israeli air strike in Syria some three weeks ago, for which concrete details remain elusive, are believed by some to be a beginning toward just such a confrontation.

Intimately related to the question of Syria is the question of who rules Lebanon. Although Syrian troops were forced to leave Lebanon in 2005 it is well known that they left a Syrian dominated intelligence service behind. Although some key Syrian intelligence officials have stepped down, the extent of continued military influence remains unknown. Western experts believe that the pro-Syrian military intelligence was running Lebanon as a private fiefdom, and to some degree still is.

Lebanon is however moving increasingly toward a more independent and sovereign state, despite the large number of assassinations and bombings that have targeted the anti-Syrian political community in recent years. Although there is no shortage of suggested candidates for the murders, from al Qaeda to Israel, the old pro-Syrian intelligence agencies are the most widely suspected. Whether Lebanon can endure yet another assault on its sovereignty remains to be seen, however in the wake of last years assault by Israel the signs are that the appetite in Lebanon for internal peace is strong. If Lebanon can sustain civil relations between its many factions and select a new President before the end of November, then the prospects for peace in that country are surely much improved.

The fate of Lebanon could, however, be contingent on events in Syria, and perhaps more importantly, on how Washington deals with those events. The big question in Washington appears to be whether or not Syria is more useful to US foreign policy in the region with President Bashar al Asad at its head, or whether they would be better off without him. Bashar al Asad comes from a minority Shiite sect (Alawite) and owes his position as President to his fathers rise through the army ranks and the ruling Baath Party. In power since his father’s death in 2000, Bashar, still at the relatively young age of 42, is considered by many to be unable to exercise authority over many elements in his regime, including that of the private fiefdom in Lebanon.

Senior officials in the US, including President Bush have been careful not to blame Bashar directly for the Lebanese bombs, and have vacillated between criticism and muted praise for his efforts in stemming the flow of insurgent activity across the Syrian-Iraq border. The hawks in Washington maintain that Bashar is still sanctioning cross border transfers while others maintain that he is simply powerless to prevent them. A similar division of opinion exists over the presence of militant organizations in the Syrian capital Damascus. Hizbullah and Hamas are popular in Syria and part of Bashar's legitimacy as a leader stems from his support for these organizations, leaving him no choice but to accommodate them.

Pro-democracy elements in Syria itself have warned against attempts to remove Bashar claiming that he has a genuine desire to reform and modernize Syrian society but is highly constrained by far harsher elements in the security apparatus who do not want change. They would go so far as to suggest that the bombs in Lebanon carried a message not just for Lebanese society, but also for Bashar himself.

There are elements in the US foreign policy establishment that would like to remove Bashar and bomb Syrian military assets. There are others that caution against such radical action on the grounds that Syria is a secular regime that, in spirit at least, if not in deed, is an ally both in stabilizing Iraq and in containing more violent Sunni militants such as al Qaeda and Fatah al-Islam. That Lebanon also might go up in flames again is another argument in favour of caution they argue.

For most of us the idea of smashing up another part of the Middle East with very little idea of what the outcome might be would of course be criminal insanity. The recent Israeli air strike in Syria and subsequent US talk of ‘nuclear facilities’ however, suggests that the debate in Washington hasn’t quite yet reached the same conclusion.

22 September 2007

Beautiful science explains climate

By Andrew Boswell

The greatest science can be understood by its simple relationship to the world. When something can be seen, heard or experienced through other senses, then we trust it.

As children develop spatial awareness, they start to understand how 'things' work. It's a wonderful experience to watch children as they explore the world, and a great moment for parents when share that Eureka moment as their child first sees a ball bounce, or an apple falling from a tree. A child learns to trust that a ball thrown in the air will return to earth, and in a predictable way.

Humanity had been on earth for thousands of millennia before Isaac Newton coined the term 'gravity'. Gravity, of course, had always existed. Newton just gave this name to the attraction between objects. Well not just - Newton, of course, did a great deal more, and developed an entire world view – Newtonian mechanics - that remained the pre-eminent understanding of the universe for two hundred years and is still by applied scientists including engineers and astronomers.

Newton largely developed his world view from 'first principles' and through the realms of mathematical logic. This is another essential of brilliant science - understanding a phenomenon from a simple logic, or deriving it from first principles. This also gives trust as we can feel that the process relates to something very fundamental.

The falling apple was described by Newton's in beautifully, simply formulas lead to an understanding of the motion of planets and our physical world. To look at Newton’s work is to see true beauty.

So too, with Einstein's theory of special relativity The beauty of Einstein's early work around 1905 was that it was derived from first principles. So simple, an A-level maths pupil can understand the equations and their logic. Just by working in this first principles way, Einstein was able to derive the famous formula E=mc2.

Those with great vested interest, like large oil companies and even the US government, don't care about science or truth of climate change and have put out that climate science is not to be trusted. Yet climate science is grounded too in first principles science, but this is largely ignored in the media.

Malicious climate deniers largely concentrate on trying to cast aspersion on climate computer models. This is because people can't see a climate model, nor understand its inner workings, so it is easy to build a false 'trust' problem. However many times Al Gore or leading scientists show how the models accurately predict current temperature rises in terms of both greenhouse gas emissions and background cycles some people just won't 'get it'.

Now, these computer models are essential tools in predicting and understanding the details of global warming. However, they are not actually the fundamental science. Let me briefly explain that science.

The Greenhouse Gas effect that underlies global warming is based on an effect called 'radiative forcing'. This is a measure of how much heat radiation leaving the earth is absorbed in the upper atmosphere – by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide – and is reflected back.

Radiative forcing is like gravity, it has always existed. There has always been a background level of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere, and some heat from the earth has always been reflected back by them. Without this greenhouse effect we would be a cold planet like Mars. The effect was first recognised over one hundred years ago.

The first principles of radiative forcing are that gases are made of molecules and molecules absorb heat radiation. Every chemistry student knows this causes molecules to vibrate with greater energy. However, such excited molecules don't hold this extra energy for long and they re-emit it. Radiative forcing happens because the heat is coming from the earth in one direction – out towards space – but the heat re-emitted is in all directions – in other words, half of it travels back towards the earth. Simply, the more gas, the more radiative forcing.

There is no reason why anyone who accepts that gravity exists would not also accept that radiative forcing exists. Climate sceptics may deny computer models, but why do they deny fundamental properties of matter that have been accepted for hundreds of years?

Recently Channel 4 broadcast another program where Michael Meacher and a top Met Office scientist were confronted with an audience clearly chosen because the majority of them were climate sceptics. This was such a lost opportunity to have a real discussion about the real first principles science that sceptics are failing to grasp.

15 September 2007

Peace one day

By Rupert Read

Six years ago, the United Nations General Assembly set 21 September as the now permanent date for the International Day of Peace. In establishing the International Day of Peace, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed that it would be appropriate:
    "to devote a specific time to concentrate the efforts of the United Nations and its Member States, as well as of the whole of humankind, to promoting the ideals of peace and to giving positive evidence of their commitment to peace in all viable ways […] The International Day of Peace should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples."
The Assembly's resolution declared that the International Day of Peace
    "will serve as a reminder to all peoples that our Organization, with all its limitations, is a living instrument in the service of peace and should serve all of us here within the Organization as a constantly pealing bell reminding us that our permanent commitment, above all interests or differences of any kind, is to peace. May this Peace Day indeed be a day of peace."
This year, the International Day of Peace is receiving more media and public attention than ever before. This is in part due to the remarkable efforts of British filmmaker, Jeremy Gilley (see http://www.peaceoneday.org/), who is a startling living reminder that one dedicated person can make a huge difference in the world. He started this whole process up, eight years ago – without him, the UN would not even have been discussing an International Day of Peace, because it was his lobbying that set the UN General Assembly on the path to the resolutions quoted above.

Due to the efforts of Mr Gilley, and of over 27 million people internationally who took part in 'Peace one day' celebrations on 21 September last year, the International Day of Peace now has a truly worldwide reach.

"But", I hear you ask, "What has all this got to do with me? What can I possibly do about it?"

Well, one thing you could do would be join those of us who are celebrating the International Day of Peace locally, this year.

For example, the Norwich Walk Together for Peace. Let me give you a flavour of what this upcoming event will look and feel like:

The Norwich Peace Walk will be a colourful celebration of peace, designed to help build community understanding in and around Norwich. It is taking place on Saturday 29th September, beginning outside the Forum in Norwich City Centre at 11am.

The Lord Mayor of Norwich will lead the Walk together with the MP for Norwich North and other representatives of cultural and faith communities in the city. Blue and white banners and balloons featuring the Walk for Peace logo – a dove supported by hands on a bright blue background - will be on show. Members of Norwich's Big Sky Choir will sing as the walkers assemble.

The interfaith group who have organised the Peace Walk believe that getting to know one another is a vital part of building peace. Peace isn't just about international treaties or 'peacekeepers'. Peace is in every step, every breath, every word. We make a little bit of peace, every time we respond coolly to the harsh words of another, or de-escalate a situation in our homes or workplaces. Norwich is a relatively peaceful city - compared to many hitting the headlines these days - because its citizens have historically made good human relationships.

Peace-making is a process. It is about connecting with the highest aspirations for everyone, acknowledging that all human beings who inhabit the same fragile planet, this one and only world of ours, desire the same respect for their ways of being. It is about knowing that the kaleidoscope of colour that the different communities who have settled in Norwich have made is the warp & weft of Norfolk cloth…

We "do different" in Norfolk. Let us take time to think about how all our citizens can live together in this beautiful part of the world, peaceably.

And in doing so, it is worth us all reflecting on the double meaning of Peace one day:
  • One day in each year when we all specifically do something in the cause of peace;
  • In the future, one day, peace will reign.
The first could help make the second happen. What will you do this year, for the International Day of Peace?

Thanks for help researching this column to Diana Stephenson and Ann Lewis.

8 September 2007

We are all skating on thin ice

By Marguerite Finn

An award ceremony took place in New York on 20th June this year, without much media attention. A female Inuit leader won a prestigious United Nations award for activism against climate change. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a 53-year-old political leader representing indigenous communities in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia – and a nominee for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize together with former US Vice-President Al Gore – received the Mahbub ul Haq Award for Excellence in Human Development from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Sheila was born in Nunavik in Canada's frozen north. Her mother was a skilful healer and interpreter and for the first ten years of her life, Sheila was raised traditionally, travelling on the land by dog sled before being sent to school in Nova Scotia. From the mid-1970s she worked to improve the education and health of the Inuit people. Elected President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) in 1995, she served as spokesperson for Arctic indigenous peoples in negotiating the banning of the manufacture and use of 'persistent organic pollutants' (including DDT), which had entered the Arctic food chain and accumulated in the bodies of the Inuit.

More recently, Sheila's work has concentrated on the impact of global climate change on the Arctic. Claiming that unchecked greenhouse gas emissions violated Inuit cultural and environmental rights, she declared: "The world must pay attention to what is happening to Arctic communities because we are the early warning system for the rest of the planet".

It is generally accepted that the Arctic is the barometer of global environmental health. In May this year Aqqaluk Lynge, Greenlander and current President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, made a similar point in a devastating critique of the link between Britain's cheap flights and the effects of climate change on his people and he pleaded for an end to plans to expand Stansted airport. His testimony, given to the on-going public enquiry into plans to increase the capacity of London's third airport, is as relevant to discussions about the expansion of Norwich Airport as it is to Stansted.

Arguing that the effects of flying from Stansted, where 80 percent of flights are on budget carriers and eight out of ten passengers are travelling for leisure, are felt far beyond Britain in the vast Inuit ice fields stretching from Russia's Bering Straits to Greenland, Mr Lynge pointed out: "There is now a connection between our backyard and your backyard and we would like you to question some points of your lifestyle such as flying and creating more emissions. That is why Stansted is important. Getting on a plane in England for a cheap holiday is felt here on the Arctic ice today".

No country in the world is immune to the effects of the actions of another. The Arctic is being disproportionately affected by the global warming created by our carbon emissions. Emissions from the extra flights at Stansted, if the expansion is permitted, will increase from five million tonnes to seven million tonnes each year – the equivalent of the emissions that would be saved if every home in the UK switched to energy saving bulbs. Yet to suggest making such simple changes to our precious lifestyles provokes howls of rage. The Government has lost the plot. It's plans to cater for up to 460 million passengers at UK airports by 2020 are directly at odds with its vow to cut carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050.

For generations, the Inuit lived in harmony with their environment and travelled safely on the sea-ice to hunt seals, whales and other animals for essential food. Today the ice flows - their traditional hunting grounds - have disappeared. Melting sea-ice and thawing permafrost have caused fatal damage to the infrastructure of their towns and villages. We, in the industrialised countries have placed the Inuit in the 'firing line' of global warming. They are experiencing at first hand the effects of indisputable climate change.

Their plight is a salutary warning. Discussions about climate change focus on political, economic and technical issues rather than human impacts and consequences. The refusal to even consider a modification, however slight, to Western 'lifestyle' is extremely short-sighted. It is not just the Inuit who are skating on thin ice. What is happening to the Inuit today will happen in Britain and Europe tomorrow – so what price 'cheap flights' then?

Which is more important: regular visits to see grandchildren in Washington DC and cheap holidays in the sun, or ensuring that the Inuit children have a present in which to grow up and that the grandchildren have a future in which to do the same?

1 September 2007

What is the Middle East anyway?

By Juliette Harkin

What is the Middle East, anyway? In the Middle of where and East of where? My Jordanian colleague posed this question as I resorted to the usual generalisations to describe a geographic area so diverse in culture and history. This is as important a point now as it was when Edward Said, the late Palestinian academic, tackled it in his influential book Orientalism first published in 1978. Said had argued that old fashioned colonialist Orientalism served only to create and reinforce negative views of the Arab people and the Arab world. We are taking Arab history away and replacing it with our own versions – as it relates to and is important to the British, French and the Americans.

As we cling to old clichés and stereotypes that hark back to the time of Lawrence of Arabia we are missing the opportunities to learn and understand about contemporary Arab culture in all its exciting forms. In my first Arabic class my teacher rolled her eyes as we told her we were studying Arabic because of the politics in the region. "Arabic language has nothing to do with politics," she exclaimed defiantly, "…can we not learn about the people and the culture and leave the politics out?" At the time I was somewhat perplexed, the only Arab world us political science students knew was the one we had been introduced to through its political conflicts and wars. Our teacher, a Muslim from Sarajevo and refugee in America, was certainly not living in blissful ignorance of the effects of politics on people.

Ten years ago I arrived for my first visit to the Arab world, Jerusalem. I struggled with a heavy suitcase at five thirty in the morning in search of a taxi to take me to Ramallah. The streets were deserted except for the small gathering of Arab labourers who were hoping for a day's work. They were wearing traditional headscarves favoured by many older Arab men. I wondered, should I cover my hair? Are they looking at me? They were, as I looked like a crazy foreigner on an empty street! At the time I had just completed a year’s research into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But my own 'Western' conditioning had planted a faint fear of other.

Fed on a diet of bad news about the Iraqi wars, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Lebanese-Israeli war for so long, we cannot think of Arabness without thinking of war, terror, conflict. These images of the Arab world dominate my family's thoughts each time I travel and yet they bear absolutely no resemblance for me to the glorious cities I visit and the experiences I have.

Should we judge the people by the actions and inadequacies of their political masters? Do we want to be judged on the past or present record of our governments? The people I met in bustling cafes, bars and nightclubs in Damascus, Beirut and Cairo want to get on with their lives as we do. They are working two or three jobs to cover the fees for their children to complete high school and go on to university. Family is central and it is a delight to see. Syrians celebrate life by going to restaurants that serve food in huge quantities. Tables full of meats, salads, breads and then fruits and Arab sweets washed down with Arab teas and conversation extended as the water pipe is smoked. In Beirut, café culture outlives all the wars and normal life picks up as soon as it is physically possible. I can picture my family and friends there too, being monumentally surprised by the fun to be had and the beauty to behold in these Arab cities.

As home to the three monotheistic religions it would be strange if religion did not hold a special place in the Arab world. You cannot fail to be in awe of the majesty of the mosque in Sana'a built during the life of the Prophet Mohammed and sense the history in the great mosque in the old city of Damascus. As the Islamic holy month of Ramadan approaches, practising Muslims will fast from dawn to dusk and even those that aren’t so pious will make a special effort during this holy month. All the better to enjoy the evenings as the fast is broken and its time to kick back and relax until dawn breaks and the fast starts again.

I now understand my Arabic teacher's sentiment much more clearly.