As glaciers melt, adapting means more than cold, hard science

SCIENCE IS SO ELEGANTLY straightforward. Greenhouse gas emissions go up, the earth warms, glaciers melt, and some places get wetter while other places get drier.

Mark Carey, environmental historian at Washington & Lee University, certainly didn’t question climate feedbacks, and showed iconic photographic evidence of slowly retreating glaciers in the Peruvian Andes. What Carey did question during his lecture November 17 at NYU Wagner — the latest in the “Climate Change and Water” series sponsored by the school — was how climate science is used, and whether the equations really take all of the relevant variables needed for effective adaptation efforts into account.

Using the Cordillera Blanca range in the Peruvian Andes, Carey made a case for climate adaptation work in glacial areas to go beyond hard science into the muddy realm of historical trends, culture, and governance in the region. Why? Because glacial regions are naturally hazardous and unpredictable – glaciers are lax in staying put, and when they move around, the resulting earthquakes, avalanches and flash floods can wipe out villages and kill untold thousands in the valleys below. A warmer world exacerbates these incubating risks, and governments and international donors stand ready to prepare hazard mitigation projects designed by teams of engineers and other technicians.

Questions of adequate funding aside, things can get a little prickly. The science of engineers, glaciologists and climatologists isn’t so great at predicting human behavior – and its biases can result in conflicting situations and thus hamper efforts to reduce risks for vulnerable populations. Carey offered he hydro power sector as an example, showing first the historical influence of macroeconomic policy in promoting hydro development, and how the now-privatized sector continues to develop and compete with other users (e.g. farmers) for dwindling water supplies. 

Competition for water use resulted in the forcible takeover of a Duke Energy dam by local farmers, following accusations that the company was taking an unfair share of the supply and leaving them with too little for their crops. In a question of who has the ultimate right to a common-pool resource; the lack of legal and institutional clarity has resulted in an impasse that has lasted well over a year. Similarly, Carey reported on situations where glacier scientists, company representatives and government workers have become entangled in conflicts and occasional stone throwing, largely due to inattention to local attitudes and governance structures in studies and project work.

The main take-away of the presentation was that adaptation measures need not neglect history or fail to integrate the technical and social sciences — and can effectively mitigate conflicts in helping regions adapt to disappearing glaciers. Carey proposes a framework that gives some weight to sociocultural and governance issues, along with the technical questions Perhaps a next challenge is figuring out how to operationally integrate hard and soft sciences —  before the glaciers melt.

What the Internet tells us about Jihadi strategic thought

     WILLIAM McCANTS, program manager for Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative, delivered a talk entitled “U.S. Power in Jihadi Strategic Thought” on Nov. 4 at  NYU Wagner, explaining how the Internet provides a window on the beliefs and suppositions of major jihadi thinkers.

       McCants said that terrorists think deeply about the uses for violence in the pursuit of their objectives.  Analysts such as McCants seek insights into the thoughts, beliefs and motivations of jihadis by examining information that jihadis post online to inspire their fellows and exchange ideas.

    Among three jihadi thinkers cited by McCants, he finds commonalities. Each believes that the United States has a finite amount of money it can spend on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially given the recent U.S. economic downturn. This limitation, they believe, constrains America’s ability to address other countries where terror threats exist. They believe that the U.S. military is spread too thin and that public opinion will not abide years-long wars.

      These jihadists also identify the media as a primary avenue by which the U.S. projects its power internationally.

       While McCants stressed that footsoldiers in the jihadi movement rarely think strategically, the information gleaned from the postings of jihadi thinkers is invaluable, in that it helps the U.S. gain a better understanding of jihadi motivations and it can assist in the development of counter-terrorism programs.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Understanding Iran’s Revolutionary Guard

      FRED WEHREY, an expert on the domestic influence of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a Senior Policy Analyst at RAND, spoke at Wagner on October 30, 2009.  His lecture, “The Rise of the Pasdaran: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iranian Politics and Implications for the U.S.,” emphasized the domestic role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and highlighted potential policy options for the United States.

     Wehrey described how the Revolutionary Guard, a branch of Iran’s military, became more assertive in Iranian domestic life after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Guard rose to its current position of power primacy after violently quelling the Green Revolution, and changed Iran from a theocracy into what he called a military dictatorship. The Guard’s presence is now pervasive, and cuts across the social, economic and political life of the nation; it cannot be challenged by other without fear of violent reprisal. Even so, there are political fissures in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, he said, giving the U.S. opportunities to understand and influence its future direction as it relates to U.S. strategic interests.

     For, in addition to preserving its political power, the Revolutionary Guard has to be concerned with its long-range financial stability, Wehrey said – namely its continued ability to generate revenues. Wehrey believes that the imposition of economic sanctions on Iran by the international community would only play into the Revolutionary Guard’s hands, allowing its leaders to keep their stranglehold over the Iranian market and black market. Isolating Iran economically would also give the Revolutionary Guard an opportunity to stoke fears of external interference and forced regime change. As long as Iran and the Guard can participate in the world economy, economic pressure applied through the business sector can be effective in forcing it to act responsibly and rationally vis-a-vis Iranian society and the world.

      Wehrey, meanwhile, said he sees the Iranian nuclear program as more domestically focused than has been portrayed. Since the Revolutionary Guard is the only state entity capable of maintaining and expanding the country’s nuclear program, the issue of the program’s sustainability in the face of external opposition has become a measure and a symbol of the Guard’s power – a power that even Iran’s powerful clerics cannot equal. The nuclear program has taken on a life of its own and a symbolism that prevent its easy discontinuation.

     Wehrey laid out four U.S. policy options that he believes should drive American relations with Iran from now on: Highlight the opportunity costs of the nuclear program to other elites in Iran; stress the positive economic effects that the discontinuation of the nuclear program can bring; indicate the negative effects of the Revolutionary Guard’s extremist positions and policies; inform the merchant, bazarri class of the effects of the Guard’s no-bid contracts.

National security beyond al Qaida, according to Juan Zarate

     ON OCT. 21, 2009, in the first installment of the “Middle East Speaker Series,” Juan Zarate, who formerly served as deputy assistant to the U.S. president and as deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, spoke to students and others in the Wagner community. His lecture, entitled “Beyond al Qaida: National Security in an Age of Globalization, Terror, and the Internet,” outlined his views of the “new security environment”–post-9/11–in which the growing importance of non-state actors, impending resource crises, and the shift in U.S. hegemony toward a plurality of international voices, pose threats to the security of the United States. 
     While Zarat believes that Al-Qaeda’s power has diminished, it remains a powerful and salient model for other extremist groups and individuals to follow, he said. He stressed the danger and importance of “marriages of convenience,” wherein non-state actors collude with rogue or politically outlying states.

      Zarate described his work at the Treasury Department and the National Security Council, where he encouraged the use of smart financial sanctions to prod decision-makers in the banking and private sectors to cut off the flow of money to threatening groups. By identifying the financial trail of extremist groups posing a security risk, and blocking transactions that have to pass through U.S. banks, the United States can influence the ability and decision making processes of extremist groups worldwide, he said.

     Zarate’s talk explored the threats the United States is facing in Afghanistan.  He stressed the need to focus on what instability in Afghanistan means for the Afghan state and people, as well as for the region.  The current focus on troop levels exclusively fails to take into account the limitations of U.S. power.  He stated that human rights and women’s rights need to be included in the calculus of decision-making in Afghanistan, but added the U.S. needs to understand better the tribal nature of the country in attempting to foster development and stability.

     The ongoing Middle East Speaker series has been organized by NYU Wagner Visiting Professor Michael Doran, an historian and an expert on the international politics of the Middle East, and the author of the book “Pan-Arabism Before Nasser.”