Archive for October, 2010

Given the stunning lack of serious coverage of the issue in American papers, readers can be forgiven if they are not up to speed on the situation in Sudan, where we might see the formation of a new country at the beginning of the new year – but probably not.  Southern Sudan is scheduled to hold a referendum on independence from Northern Sudan on January 9, 2011 – and most observers say that the southern Sudanese will vote for independence by a wide margin.  This is not good news for the Sudanese government in Khartoum, not least because most of the oil in Sudan is in the south.  So, we have seen various efforts to stall the referendum, which was promised in 2005 as part of a peace deal to end the Sudanese civil war, because of procedural or logistical issues.  This was worrying, as it showed a lack of commitment on the part of Khartoum . . . and the possibility they would not honor this deal.  Remember, the Sudanese government are the lovely people who brought us the Janjaweed militias in Darfur, so they have a history of, shall we say, problematic behavior.

Say what you will about these subtle hints that I think suggest this referendum will not play out, the signals of a coming disaster are starting to become too clear to ignore.  The BBC (among others) notes that the Sudanese government is blocking further UN presence along the buffer between North and South Sudan.  If you read between the lines, the dialogue here is chilling:

Officials at the UN said the decision had been made following an appeal from South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, who was concerned the North was preparing for war.

But President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s security adviser, Salah Gosh, rejected the plan, saying troops could not be deployed without the consent of the government.

Ibrahim Ghandour, another leading politician in Mr Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), said any tension in the region could be sorted out between the two sides, so a buffer zone between North and South was not necessary.

First, Gosh is correct – the UN doesn’t really have a lot of good mechanisms for ordering countries around.  Unless the security council gets serious and orders a military action a la Kuwait in the early 1990s, UN Peacekeepers do operate at the will of the national government . . . which right now sits in Khartoum.  But for Gosh and for Ghandour to argue against more peacekeepers is worrying . . . peacekeepers are only meant to prevent violence.  Arguing against their presence makes sense only if . . . you are planning violence.  And when you hear the Southern Sudanese leader saying he fears the North is planning war, and he would love more peacekeepers . . . figure it out, people.  Things are about to go very, very badly in Sudan.

There are all sorts of reasons this matters.  First, the human suffering associated with war is never a good thing, and should be prevented whenever possible.  Second, this referendum is meant to be a democratic expression of the will of the people, and if we sit by and let this process fail or devolve into violence, we lose any high ground when discussing governance with other countries.  Further, they would lose confidence in our support for them – basically, we’d be saying that we really want to help, unless, of course, things get ugly.  In which case, we’ll just stand by and watch.  Not a real powerful stance.  Third, if this blows up, the likelihood of regional impacts is very, very high – the conflict in Northern Uganda is intimately linked to the long standing tensions between Northern and Southern Sudan.  A shooting war in Sudan will likely lead to greater violence in Northern Uganda.  Fourth, remember Darfur?  Also in Sudan, folks – and most of that violence started when the North-South civil war was settled, giving the government in Khartoum the time and resources to address what they saw as a threat to their authority in Darfur.  If a new North-South war starts, the impact on Darfur (and the people who fled to neighboring Chad) is difficult to predict.

And let’s not even wade into the large international interest in Sudanese oil.  I don’t even want to think about what might happen to the people in this region if international powers start picking sides.

If there were ever a moment where a forceful statement from the US and Europe could make a difference for a lot of people, this is it.  A real threat to intercede in this referendum before there is a conflict by a power or powers large enough to turn back the Sudanese Army could probably stop this before it starts . . . and earn us a lot of goodwill from the people of the region, even as it infuriates Khartoum.  Then again, who the hell cares what a government headed by an indicted war criminal thinks?  Has there ever been an easier choice for us?

So, the Center for Global Development, a non-partisan think tank focused on reducing poverty and making globalization work for the poor (a paraphrase of their mission statement, which can be found here), has issued a report that more or less says that USAID’s quality and effectiveness of aid is very low when compared to other agencies.

Well, I’m not all that freaked out by this assessment, principally because it fails to ask important questions relevant to understanding development needs and development outcomes.  In fact, the entire report is rigged – not intentionally, mind you, but I suspect out of a basic ignorance of the difference between the agencies being evaluated, and an odd (mis)understanding of what development is.

For me, the most telling point in the report came right away, on pages 3 and 4:

Given these difficulties in relating aid to development impact on the ground, the scholarly literature on aid effectiveness has failed to convince or impress those who might otherwise spend more because aid works (as in Sachs 2005) or less because aid doesn’t work often enough (Easterly 2003).

Why did this set me off?  Well, in my book I argue that the “poles” of Sachs and Easterly in the development literature are not poles at all – they operate from the same assumptions about how development and globalization work, and I just spent 90,000 words worth of a book laying out those assumptions and why they are often wrong.  In short, this whole report is operating from within the development echo chamber from which this blog takes its name.  But then they really set me off:

In donor countries especially, faced with daunting fiscal and debt problems, there is new and healthy emphasis on value for money and on maximizing the impact of their aid spending.

Folks, yesterday I posted about how the desire to get “value for our money” in development was putting all the wrong pressures on agencies . . . not because value is bad, but because it puts huge pressures on the development agencies to avoid risk (and associated costs), which in turn chokes off innovation in their programs and policies.  And here we have a report, evaluating the quality of aid (their words) in terms of its cost-effectiveness.  One of their four pillar analyses is the ability of agencies to maximize aid efficiency.  This is nuts.

Again, its not that there should be no oversight of the funds or their uses, or that there should be no accountability for those uses.  But to demand efficiency is to largely rule out high risk efforts which could have huge returns but carry a significant risk of failure.  Put another way, if this metric was applied to the Chilean mine rescue, then it would score low for efficiency because they tried three methods at once and two failed.  Of course, that overlooks the fact that they GOT THE MINERS OUT ALIVE.  Same thing for development – give me an “inefficient” agency that can make transformative leaps forward in our understandings of how development works and how to improve the situation of the global poor over the “efficient” agency that never programs anything of risk, and never makes those big leaps.

Now, let’s look at the indicators – because they tell the same story.  One of the indicators under efficiency is “Share of allocation to well-governed countries.”  Think about the pressure that places on an agency that has to think about where to set up its programming.  What about all of the poor, suffering people in poorly-governed countries?  Is USAID not supposed to send massive relief to Haiti after an earthquake because its government is not all we might hope?  This indicator either misses the whole point of development as a holistic, collaborative process of social transformation, or it is a thinly-veiled excuse to start triaging countries now.

They should know better – Andrew Natsios is one of their fellows, and he has explained how these sorts of evaluation pressures choke an agency to death.  Amusingly, they cite this work in here . . . almost completely at random on page 31, for a point that has no real bearing on that section of the text.  I wonder what he thinks of this report . . .

In the end, USAID comes out 126th of 130 agencies evaluated for “maximizing efficiency.”  Thank heavens.  It probably means that we still have some space to experiment and fail left.  Note that of the top 20% of donors, the highest scores went to the World Bank and UN Agencies, arguably the groups that do the least direct programming on the ground – in other words, the “inefficiencies” of their work are captured elsewhere, when the policies and programs they set up for others to run begin to come apart.  The same could be said of the Millennium Challenge Corporation here in the US, which also scored high.  In other words, they are rewarding the agencies that don’t actually do all that much on the ground for their efficiency, while the agencies that actually have to deal with the uncertainties of real life get dinged for it.

And the Germans ended up ranking high, but hey, nothing goes together like Germans and efficiency.  That one’s for you, Daniel Esser.

What a mess of a report . . . and what a mess this will cause in the press, in Congress, etc.  For no good reason.

The WWF has just released its 2010 Living Planet Report (download a copy here).  The big headline, being run by all the news organizations, is that we “need to find another Earth”.  The headline is attention-grabbing, but misses the real issue here.  In several posts on this blog I’ve referenced the fact that we need about three Earths worth of resources to allow everyone to live at the standard of consumption of the average person in the US.  Implicit in this measurement has been the fact that we here in the US (and in Europe, Australia, Japan, parts of China, parts of India, etc.) can go on consuming as we do just so long as the other 4-odd billion people don’t consume much at all.  This is the part of sustainable development nobody likes to talk about – there are two ways to achieve it: either cutbacks on the consumption of those who consume the most until consumption at a fairly high level is available for all (how most people tend to think of it) or just keep a hell of a lot of people really, really poor so that a small minority can just go on consuming (de facto, this is the choice that we’ve made up to this point – that’s right, if you are reading this blog, you live the way you do because 4 billion people cannot).

Well, this report now throws a bit of a wrench into the ugly, unacknowledged path we have chosen – turns out that our current levels of consumption will not be sustainable past the next 20 years no matter how many people we impoverish.  Our global population and consumption figures are simply too high.  That’s right, by 2020 we’d better have figured out how to get twice as much resource out of this planet as we do now.  I don’t see that happening.

I don’t think this means the revolution is coming anytime soon – I think the steadily rising inequality we see here in the US will eventually be mirrored by similar patterns across the advanced economies, as a smaller and smaller group of people cling to their privileges.  Further, the whole two Earths in 20 years argument is a bit overstated, as they work in carbon sinks and other regulating services from ecosystems that are not completely understood and therefore sometimes more resilient than expected, and are often fungible with other resources and biophysical processes.  But if the WWF is right (it is too early to say for sure), we are shifting into an era where our choices for how to achieve sustainable development narrow to one: reducing consumption.  Then we will have new choices – who reduces, and how?

Well, they pulled all 33 miners out of the hole.  This is an absolutely staggering feat – first, finding the miners nearly a half mile underground in the first place, and then drilling a precision shaft all the way down to them that was straight enough to accommodate a rescue capsule – which then worked flawlessly 33 times.  It never got old watching the miners come out of the ground.  And certainly the Chileans have a lot to be proud of these days.

AP Photo/Jose Manuel de la Maza, Chilean presidential press office

But this whole experience has caused me to think again about development and our persistent inability to get things done in a consistent manner for the world’s poorest people.  This rescue was, in many ways, everything that modern development is not.  The Chileans never asked about the cost – in fact, nobody knows what this cost, besides a hell of a lot.  The government didn’t parse options and try to pick the most cost-effective rescue – they ran three plans at once, to see which would work best.  It was expensive, but saved time and probably saved some lives.  In short, the Chilean government didn’t even try to assess the value of a human life here – by any economic measure, they’ve probably spent a lot more saving these men than the miners will ever earn or spend in the Chilean economy, so the rescue was an economic loser all along – the government decided that saving these men was necessary at any cost, that the value of their lives was not calculable.

When I see that attitude, with this amazing result, I am appalled by the piles of monitoring and evaluation red tape that development organizations must wade through to justify their activities – was that the lowest bid?  The most cost-effective intervention?  All of that accounting misses the point – there is no such thing as a good intervention that leaves people behind in the name of efficiency or cost-effectiveness.  Human lives cannot, and should not, be valued that way.

Second, this rescue was innovative and risk-taking.  They ran three plans at once.  Nobody had ever done any of them at this sort of depth.  There were huge risks of failure.  And they plowed forward anyway – two of them did not work out, but the third (actually, plan B) saved 33 lives.  There are so many of us in development who carry around the desire to try innovative things, to risk failure, learn and try again . . . but the culture of development with its budgeting and monitoring chokes off these sorts of efforts for interventions that produce easily measured results.  When we take risks and fail, the accountants take the money away.  So we go for easy, safe results, even when those results have little meaning for the people at the receiving end of the intervention.  What does it mean to say that this year we trained 25 judges in country X?  Have we really improved the judicial system, or the standard of living for those subject to it?  That number does nothing to help us understand if what we are doing matters at all . . . but we keep working on this sort of project because it is a measurable outcome that is of relatively low risk.

Contrary to what Jeffrey Sachs keeps preaching, we DO NOT know what works in development.  If we did, there would be a hell of a lot less suffering in the world today.  We do know, however, what produces measurable results that look good, and we keep pounding away at that sort of work because we can rejustify our budgets each year.  Development is pathetically risk-averse, from the top down, and those that would take risks cannot find the funding or support to do so.

Chile just pulled 33 men out of a hole in the ground a half-mile deep.  They did it with help from mining and drilling experts from more than a dozen countries and with advice from NASA specialists on living in isolated conditions (if there were any doubt of the value of a human spaceflight program, here is yet another spinoff value that we have gained.  NASA’s unique expertise in this area surely contributed to the safe recovery of many of these men).  This was an international partnership to try to do the impossible, making it up as they went along.  And they did it.

Surely we can reimagine development in the same way, and with the same spirit.  But with much more urgency.  There are a lot more than 33 people down this hole.

Ryan Lizza has an amazing piece in this week’s New Yorker that traces how the Senate version of the climate bill – the one backed by John Kerry (D -MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) – really came to an unnatural, totally unnecessary death.  It is a really sad story in that the bill did not have to die.  But it is also the story of stunning incompetence from the Obama White House, which sold the bill down the river just at the moment the three senators might have been able to marshall the votes.  I disagree with Lindsey Graham on all kinds of stuff, but to be honest he comes out looking the best in this piece.  The poor man got hosed.  Kerry comes off looking like a statesman, too.  Even Lieberman seems forgivable for his past behavior.  But the Obama administration looks to have completely blown this one, and both the US and the larger world will suffer greatly for it.

But one thing remains unresolved for me.  How could the White House, run by an experienced legislative dealmaker like Rahm Emanuel, screwed these negotiations up like this?  Incompetence?  An alternative agenda?  I simply don’t get it . . .

Mickie Glantz has an interesting post up on his FragileEcologies Blog in which he muses about whether or not politicians can be bought.  I gained some insight into this question during my orientation for my current fellowship, as we were addressed by a number of former officeholders.  One of them argued that politicians aren’t generally bought by campaign donations or bribes, though this sort of thing happens.  Instead, the process is much more mundane.  Donations buy access to the politician.  The politician then sees you around, says hi to you, starts to recognize your face, and after enough of these sorts of events, might even feel like s/he knows you.  At which point you have the ability to talk to them about your pet issue, and argue for it . . . and if the politician doesn’t have a strong stand one way or the other, s/he just might think that you are a good person, and you care a lot about the issue, so why not go with your point of view?  This, so the argument went, is how donations really come to affect lawmaking, votes, etc.

Now, finding an issue that the politician has no feelings about is hard – people follow voting records, etc..  And politicians generally have their survival in mind when they vote.  So there are limits to this means of influencing politicians.  But if this is how it is done, it is much more subtle and complex than the simple story of bribery, etc. that we seem to fall into when we discuss such things.  Thus, how policy is made is also much more complex than a simple story of big money shaping votes directly.  In the end, the story does run out in the same manner, because the people who can afford to attend a bunch of fundraisers in which they can shake their congressman’s/senator’s hand are by and large wealthy, and so that wealth is buying access and possibly influence.  At the same time, it suggests that working on campaigns for elected officials might provide similar access without the need for so much money – so perhaps activists might consider that route?

A while back, I put up a post about how the US failure to pass climate legislation is screwing up the entire process at the global level.  While the Chinese are enormously problematic, and the Indians are not much better, our domestic political scene’s inability to come to any sort of agreement on anything that might look like a climate bill makes us the single biggest obstacle to addressing emissions productively.  What most people do not understand is that legislation is not the only way to control emissions here in the US.  In 2007 the Supreme Court held that the Environmental Protection Agency not only could, but indeed had to treat greenhouse gas emissions as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.  Thus, we can control emissions via the regulations put forth by an agency of the executive branch, effectively cutting Congress out of the loop (unless they want to revoke or amend the Clean Air Act, and nobody seems to have the votes for that).  Hey, that is what the Court said, and what the Court says is the law until Congress rewrites things or the Court reverses itself.

So when people start arguing that the EPA’s impending move to actually come into compliance with the law is something “dangerous”, “activist” or “unwarranted”, they are hoping that the reader/listener/viewer doesn’t know the history or legal background of the issue – and they would often be right.  Certainly, that is the tactic of Mackubin Thomas Owens at the Washington Times, who in a recent Op-ed ignored this case, calling the possibility of controlling emissions through regulations a “ploy” and a “naked power grab by the EPA.” So, let’s review, shall we?

I have no doubt that this is a tactical effort on the part of the Obama administration to force some of those blocking real climate legislation to come to the table and negotiate something they can live with.  However, I don’t think the term “ploy” applies here – this is not an effort by the executive to do some backroom deal, such as consolidating power executive power at the expense of the other branches (for studies in that, see the Nixon and Bush 43 presidencies).  The president and his people surely know that regulation is a much weaker form of emissions control than is legislation.  One need only read the Washington Times Op-ed to see why, as they argue “a constitutional perspective suggests that Congress, not unelected bureaucrats, should be setting U.S. policy.”  Even with the backing of the court, it is much easier to argue against regulations (however legally empowered) created by the bureaucracy than it is to argue against a law passed by a majority (or, in the case of the Senate, a supermajority) of both houses and signed by the president.  Let’s also remember that the rest of the world is watching us to see what we do – and likely will build off of our domestic legislation for any global agreement (to ensure we participate).  Domestic regulation, especially if it is contested, will never work as a similar foundation, and it is entirely likely that the Senate would not ratify any agreement predicated on that regulation (2/3 of the Senate must vote to ratify).  If we want a global deal that even beings to address our problems, then the EPA must be an intermediate step toward binding legislation.

Now, do agencies grab for power when they can?  Of course they do.  But in this case, the EPA laid back until the Supreme Court told them, in effect, they had the right to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.  In fact, one could argue that once the Court placed greenhouse gases under the purview of the Clean Air Act, the EPA had no choice but to move toward regulating emissions lest it fall out of compliance with federal law.  After all, the court found:

“EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. The agency “identifies nothing suggesting that Congress meant to curtail EPA’s power to treat greenhouse gases as air pollutants”. . . The court majority said that the EPA clearly had the authority to regulate the emissions and that its “laundry list” of reasons for not doing so were not based in the law. (via Washington Post)

This is how politics, policy and the global environment intersect, folks – turns out those civics courses were a lot more important than we realized at the time, huh?

I am, at least part of the time, an associate professor of Geography at the University of South Carolina.  I am in DC right now because the university has been kind enough to grant me a few years of leave to take up this fellowship (and who are we kidding, I’m saving them my salary and benefits in a time of budget crisis – everyone’s a winner!).  So the subject of education and its purpose still lurks in the back of my mind, even when I am away from campus.

I was struck by an opinion piece in the NY Times today about literary criticism – the piece itself is fine, if a bit esoteric unless you’ve spent a long time working in some of the areas of theory the author references.  I was, however, struck by one passage:

“research model” pressures described are beginning to have another poorly thought out influence. It is quite natural (to some, anyway) to assume that eventually not just the model of the sciences, but the sciences themselves will provide the actual theory of meaning that researchers in such fields will need. One already sees the “application” of “results” from the neurosciences and evolutionary biology to questions about why characters in novels act as they do or what might be responsible for the moods characteristic of certain poets. People seem to be unusually interested in what area of the brain is active when Rilke is read to a subject. The great problem here is not so much a new sort of culture clash (or the victory of one of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”) but that such applications are spectacular examples of bad literary criticism, not good examples of some revolutionary approach.

This jarred me into thinking about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities – I have a sort of unique background, having held an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Humanistic Studies and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship while in grad school – I have straddled these worlds.  This makes me sensitive to their relative positioning in the academy.  On most large research-oriented campuses, the sciences dominate – in large part because the sciences are avenues to large grants which the university can collect huge (40-50%+ depending on the school) overhead charges that contribute to the bottom line.  Even internal funding opportunities at these universities tend to be science oriented, as the hope is that the small internal grant will spur research that eventually brings in huge research (and overhead) dollars in a sort of academic multiplier effect.  In an era of rapidly shrinking budgets (South Carolina has been completely decimated by cuts over the past four to five years, despite the astonishingly disingenuous claims about our funding by Governor Appalachian Trail)*, these research dollars are crucial to the survival of all kinds of campus programs and jobs.  But at the same time, this creates a hierarchy that is rarely openly voiced, but always felt, on these campuses – research dollars are what matters, and everyone else needs to facilitate those who bring them in or get out of the way.

This worries me greatly – an inadvertent side effect of all the budget cutting these days is the collapse of the liberal arts education on our campuses.  This has implications for how students write, think, etc.  In short, it damages our ability to produce the sorts of citizens that a functioning democracy requires for its survival.  I’ve often said that I would rather talk to an intelligent person who disagrees with me than someone who agrees with me without understanding why – this idea, it seems to me, is the central premise of how our society should function.  But without training in the arts, in literature, in history, in other languages, we lose tools central to our critical faculties . . . the ability to tell right from wrong, to understand when we are being lied to, to imagine new ways to express ourselves and be heard, to be inspired by those who have gone before us.  In short, as we focus in some sort of myopic all-out charge toward science and math, we are not building a stronger America.  We’re creating a country full of little worker bees with no ability to think beyond their tiny little jobs.  Nothing could weaken this country more.

And as for the idea that the humanities should look to the sciences for models and theories . . . read Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman to see what the humanities can do for theoretical physics.  My father gave me that book years ago, and it is still one of the greatest things I’ve ever read.

Fund the humanities, dammit.

*Note: in the linked article, the reporter has his numbers wrong several times, which is distressing.  USC now takes closer to 10% of its operating budget from the state – the state is now the FIFTH most important source of funding on our campus, after THE BOOKSTORE.

I recently had an e-mail exchange with Rick Piltz over at Climate Science Watch (I link to them regularly, and if you are not familiar with the site, you should check it out – it is an activist site that does very good work) about the whole Cucinelli circus.  At the end of that exchange, Rick mentioned that with the upcoming IPCC plenary the question of Patchauri’s leadership was once again on the table.  This got me thinking . . . and I shorthanded an answer to him that I think I can expand on here.

For those not neck-deep in the world of climate change, Rajendra Pachauri is the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  The IPCC is the authoritative scientific body working on the issue of climate change – it is empowered to review the existing literature and evidence (it does not do its own research) and present what amounts to a summary of our best understanding of what is happening to the global climate and why it is happening.  (full disclosure: I have been appointed to the IPCC for this round as a review editor – basically, I will manage the peer-review process for one of the chapters).

The IPCC has come under fire quite a bit – in my opinion, mostly because the scientific story of climate change is getting clearer and clearer, and it is not a happy story.  However, there have also been screwups – for example, some of you may have heard how a completely unrealistic assessment of glacier melt in the Himalayas somehow got through review into the last IPCC report (this melt is important, as it tells us how much flooding to expect downstream (i.e. northern India and Bangladesh, among other areas) in the near term, and how much the river flows of the region will decrease once the glaciers have largely melted (potentially creating significant food crises in the same areas).  I wasn’t completely freaked out by this error – it is large document that is hard to manage, but the review process is very comprehensive.  It’s just not realistic to expect a review, compiled by hundreds of scientists and reviewed by hundreds more as well as representatives from the participating governments (including the US), to come together flawlessly in a reasonable timeframe.  However, when this popped up, the handling of it was botched – it was more or less the classic error: instead of identifying, acknowledging and fixing the error, at first the IPCC was seen to be stonewalling and trying to defend an undefendable statement. At one point, Pachauri issued a remarkably tone-deaf statement in which he effectively called India’s Environment Minister “arrogant” and dismissed the Indian Government’s report which seemed to contract the IPCC findings.  Even if the IPCC report had been correct in its claims, this could have been handled better.  However, the IPCC claims were wrong, and the Indian report was closer to the truth . . . which makes this a disaster.  The whole event badly damaged the legitimacy of the IPCC in some people’s eyes, and was fodder for those who would deny the role of human beings in climate change.  It was a PR disaster, really – the overall science of the report is, in my opinion (and it is an informed opinion) quite solid.  If nothing else, note that as the models of climate get more sophisticated, their results are mapping ever closer to observed reality . . . and the models are predicated on widely accepted understandings of the causes of climate change brought forth through exercises like the IPCC assessments.  Still, it was bad.

Add this to the fiasco from this summer (in which I’m afraid I was a visible participant), where the IPCC secretariat, in Pachauri’s name, issued guidance to members of the IPCC on how to interact with the press. The letter was astonishingly poorly worded to sound like those of us on the IPCC were not to speak to the press at all, when what was meant was that we were not to represent the entire IPCC report by ourselves to the press (in other words, we can speak to the press and say “in my opinion . . .” and be fine, but we cannot say “The IPCC says/believes/thinks . . .” because we do not speak for everyone on the IPCC).  The meaning of the message was completely innocuous, but the initial wording was very unclear, and set off something of a firestorm.

So, does tone-deafness qualify as a reason to throw the chairman under the bus?  Well, if you think that the chairman’s job is to be a media spokesperson, maybe it is.  But if the chair is to run the larger IPCC process, I don’t think replacing Pachauri changes anything – it’s just finding a scapegoat to make it look like the panel has been reformed or something – which I strongly object to, as I don’t think the IPCC needs reform.  The process is sound, the author selection is sound, the data is sound (yes, I know some people have issues with the data, but the vast majority of the scientific community does not – so I am going with them until such time as I see new evidence – though I remain open to new evidence, as our understanding of the climate as a complex system is incomplete, at best).  So replacing Pachauri might actually be read as an admission of guilt or problems with previous IPCC reports that I do not think exist – there is no systematic rot here.

Besides, this round of the IPCC has already started – the authors are selected, and the first plenary will meet soon.  So changing the chair now will do nothing but create administrative confusion.  And the importance of replacing Pachauri rests on the assumption that the chair has a lot of power – and the post does not, in the grand scheme of things.  In the end, the IPCC is an intergovernmental process, which means that the diplomatic process in large, key countries like the US greatly constrain and shape what the IPCC can do – probably more than the chair can.  You’ll notice an absence of calls for replacement from the diplomatic community, which tells you what they think.  More to the point, Pachauri still has his job – if any major country had an issue, he would be out.  For an illustration, take a look at what the Bush administration did to Bob Watson, the previous chair of the IPCC.  The Administration withdrew support for him (and there is documentary evidence to suggest that they did so because ExxonMobil really wanted him gone) and that was that.

So, in the end I vote to keep Pachauri in place.  I think he is sincere in his efforts to get outreach right, both in terms of his own statements and in terms of the dissemination of the IPCC reports.  He knows the process.  And the governments are, for now, backing him, so all of the demands for removal are going nowhere right now.  That said, I fear he may be one more public gaffe away from someone in the diplomatic world getting fed up and demanding a replacement . . . and that would not be good for the IPCC process during this assessment report.

So the Tianjin climate talks have come to an end with little outward sign of progress, despite protestations to the contrary by UN Climate Chief Christina Figueres (via AFP):

“I would dare say that this week has got us closer to a structured set of decisions that can be agreed in Cancun,” said Figueres, the executive secretary of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. “This week, governments had to address together what was doable in Cancun. … They have actually done that.”

In her defense, it is Figueres’ job to be a cheerleader for the process, so she sort of had to say that, evidence be damned.  Hey, if nothing else, we got to see China and the US go from passive agressive to openly pissy across the negotiating table, which is always fun.  When the Chinese start referring to “a pig looking in a mirror” to describe the US’s inability to discuss its own failure to pass climate legislation, at least it is amusing . . .

But despite the (not-so) diplomatic fireworks and cheerleading the face of evidence, the oddest statement of the week comes from Greenpeace:

Greenpeace international climate policy director Wendel Trio criticized the hard-line stance of the major players in the talks. “Governments should look at what they can do for the climate, not what the process can do for them,” Trio said.

Look, I know that someone has to stand up for the ideal world we all wish we lived in, if only to remind us of what that ideal looks like when we get too far away, this statement is so staggeringly naive as to be unproductive.  Of course governments will leverage the process for themselves – it’s what they do in international negotiations.  This is reality – begging them to behave like something they are not isn’t going to change anything, and fails to engage with the process as it is in the world – in other words, how things really get done.  A real effort to engage would have to address the staggering complexity of the diplomatic process, as well as the real self-interest of countries.  I am friends with someone close to the biofuels negotiations that just took place in Rome, and the US Government side of that negotiation alone involved several executive branch agencies or offices, and there were major differences between them that took a lot of smoothing before anyone could go sit at a table in Rome . . . so that means that not only are we dealing with national interests, but within countries we are dealing with bureaucratic interests – which speak to the interests of the constituencies of the various bureaucracies.

I share the general stance of Greenpeace with regard to the need for climate action.  However, their energy would be much better spent mobilizing all of the key actors along this legislative/diplomatic supply chain to understand why they care about the climate, and why it is in their interest/the agency’s or offices’ interest/the national interest to take action.