03 December 2012 - 09H40
Polls in breakaway Somaliland 'transparent': observers
AFP - Local elections in the self-declared nation of Somaliland were "largely peaceful and transparent", international observers said Monday, but noted concern at "weaknesses in safeguards against multiple voting."
Council elections across the northern Somali region, a rare area of relative stability compared to war-torn southern Somalia, took place on November 28, with over 2,300 candidates contesting for 379 positions.
"We can cautiously report many positives," the report read from the 50-strong international team of observers, organised by the British aid agency Progressio.
"Election campaigning appears to have been competitive and pluralistic, with seven different parties and associations fielding candidates."
However, the team said there were some concerns, the most serious being an "absence of a voter registry, and weaknesses in related safeguards".
That included inadequate indelible ink used to stain fingers of those who voted, making polling "vulnerable to multiple voting."
Results are due in coming days, with the observers to release a further statement after that.
Somaliland, a former British protectorate, won independence in 1960 but days later joined with Somalia. In 1991, after years of bitter war with the government in Mogadishu, it declared independence from the rest of the country.
While anarchic southern Somalia has been riven by years of fighting between multiple militia forces, Somaliland has enjoyed relative peace.
Mexico’s new prez signs five-point pact with opposition parties
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 2, 2012 20:20 EST
A day after taking office, President Enrique Pena Nieto signed a pact with rivals Sunday to strengthen democracy, in what could be a bold break with his party’s bad old days.
The “Pact for Mexico” was agreed after hard bargaining among Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).
The deal, which Pena Nieto and the opposition leaders signed in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle, has a five-point plan including fundamental rights; justice and security; anti-graft measures; and economic growth and competitiveness.
Pena Nieto’s presidency marks the return of the PRI, a once autocratic party that ruled non-stop from 1929 to 2000 with a mix of patronage, corruption and rigged-elections. The new leader insists that the PRI has embraced democracy.
So “this pact gives Mexico stability, certainty and a path,” said Pena Nieto, who was elected to a single six-year term on July 1.
The agreement divided the PRD, whose candidate in the election, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, finished second but refused to concede defeat. The top electoral tribunal threw out his bid to overturn the result over vote-buying claims.
Pena Nieto’s inauguration on Saturday was met with some violent protests.
In his inaugural speech, Pena Nieto unveiled a 13-point plan to transform Mexico, centered on a strategy to reduce runaway drug violence, boost the economy and reduce poverty.
Since 1997 legislative elections, none of Mexico’s political parties has managed to secure an absolute majority in either chamber of Congress, putting a break on many reforms.
The opposition leaders warned that Pena Nieto would not get an easy ride.
“It does not put conditions on our role of critic of the new government,” said PAN leader Gustavo Madero, whose party held the presidency for the last 12 years but finished third in the July election.
The presidency of Felipe Calderon was marked by economic growth but it was overshadowed by a drug war that has left a staggering more than 60,000 people dead since 2006.
December 2, 2012
Displaced Residents Grapple With Hurdles of Going Home
By WILLIAM NEUMAN
MAMPUJÁN, Colombia — The jungle owns Mampuján, this once-prosperous farming town near the Caribbean coast that has become a symbol of Colombia’s descent into lawlessness.
Paramilitary fighters invaded the town in early 2000 and accused residents of sympathizing with leftist guerrillas. They rounded up hundreds of people in the main square, threatened to kill them and ordered them to depart their homes and farms. The residents all fled.
Today, the square is choked with weeds. Bats roost in the one house that still has a roof. Green paint peels from a blackboard in the derelict schoolhouse.
Bringing people back to Mampuján and other rural communities that have been terrorized for decades by guerrillas, paramilitary groups and drug traffickers has become a priority for the Colombian government. It has begun an ambitious nationwide program to give millions of acres of land back to tens of thousands of displaced farmers. But the effort has been complicated both by the logistical difficulty of sorting out who owns long-abandoned or disputed plots and the extreme fear that still lingers among those who left.
“The love I have for my land, I haven’t lost it,” said Marquesa López, 61, recalling the 64 acres where she and her family grew yucca and corn and raised cattle. Like other displaced residents of Mampuján, she eventually moved to a makeshift settlement outside the nearby town of María la Baja. “I had my family, my banana trees, my coconut palms, my chickens,” she said. “Now I want to live that life again.”
In October, a special agrarian judge gave Ms. López and her husband, Carlos Arturo Maza, and 13 other Mampuján families title to the land they lost, the first such decision under a new land restitution law that is the centerpiece of the government’s effort to address the effects of years of violence and longstanding inequalities in rural areas.
The effort is unfolding as the government starts peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The unequal distribution of land in Colombia’s impoverished countryside, where poor farmers were pushed aside or exploited by wealthy landowners, was a major factor in the creation of the FARC nearly 50 years ago, and it has continued to fuel the conflict.
Now, the government sees the land restitution law as a crucial lever at the bargaining table.
“This is something that takes away one of their banner issues,” President Juan Manuel Santos said in October.
But for that to be true, Mr. Santos has to deliver on the program’s promise, an enormous and intensely complex task.
The government has received more than 27,000 claims for close to five million acres of land, and more are pouring in. Each claim must be investigated, and then considered by a judge. Many are dauntingly complex, involving ownership disputes with little or no documentation.
“Of course it’s complicated, and it’s difficult, but what was the alternative?” said Juan Camilo Restrepo, the agriculture minister. “To do nothing? Which is what some people wanted to happen, to do nothing and validate with silence and inaction 25 years of land takeovers.”
Critics say the process has been too slow and unwieldy, and they question the government’s commitment to face down powerful landowners and their political allies.
“It would be very sad if this ends up where you have 10 cases that will go down in history where, yes, we were able to do this, and thousands of cases in which it couldn’t be done,” said Iván Cepeda, an opposition lawmaker.
Mr. Restrepo said that about 300 people have reported being threatened in relation to land claims under the new program and that the government has taken measures to protect 159 of them, in many cases providing bodyguards.
Mayerlis Angarita, 32, an activist who visits remote villages encouraging people to make land claims in the region of low mountains around Mampuján, called Montes de María, travels with a government-assigned bodyguard because of repeated threats.
On Aug. 28, a gunman shot at her on the streets of her hometown, San Juan Nepomuceno. She was not hit but was injured while running to take cover.
“Peace is built here on the back roads,” she said, as her bodyguard drove a bulletproof S.U.V. in an area where former paramilitary fighters still enforce a nighttime curfew to keep local roads clear for drug trafficking. “They cannot force us out of here.”
But many activists have fled. In recent weeks, menacing fliers have been circulated, signed by a group called the Anti-Restitution Army. Activists believe the fliers are linked to landowners and their allies among the paramilitaries and drug traffickers.
“The armed groups and criminal mafias that were involved in the displacement in the first place continue to operate,” said Max Schoening, the Colombia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Unless you dismantle those groups and hold them accountable, you’re not going to eradicate the underlying source of threats and intimidation.”
Mampuján was a likely starting place for the restitution program because much of the farmland remains unoccupied and there is no one to dispute the residents’ ownership. But many other land claims involve parcels currently in the hands of owners who will fight to keep them, including guerrillas and former paramilitary chieftains.
In many cases, farmers sold their land under pressure, often at fire sale prices.
Fanny Martelo and her husband, Ismael Montes, fled a 113-acre farm in a hamlet called Palmito in 1992. Ms. Martelo explained that her husband and other farmers were summoned to a meeting in 2008 by a company that had bought a portfolio of delinquent government land loans. She said the farmers were pressured to sell to pay off the debt.
Ms. Martelo’s husband agreed to sell to a Medellín businessman, Rubén Darío Vélez. As part of the deal, in which Ms. Martelo and her husband received about $5,500 in cash, Mr. Vélez agreed to pay off the loan and associated legal fees, Ms. Martelo said.
She said that Mr. Velez then contacted the family in October after she and her husband filed a claim under the land restitution law. He threatened to have them put in jail and vowed to hold on to the property, she said.
Mr. Vélez denied her account.
Lawyers with the government restitution unit in Carmen de Bolívar, where Ms. Martelo and her husband now live, said they were investigating several claims involving Mr. Vélez and other buyers to see if they represented coerced land sales.
Those who have recovered their land still face challenges.
In Mampuján, there is no electricity and no schools or health clinic. Even if residents return, they will face the same problem holding back small farmers across Colombia: lack of capital, machinery and modern farming methods.
The government has promised help, but doubts remain.
“If we have the land but we don’t have help, with empty hands what are we going to do?” said Joaquín Mata, 67, a former resident who is still waiting for a ruling on his land claim.
Susan Abad contributed reporting.
World temperature set to increase 9 degrees: study
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 2, 2012 14:27 EST
PARIS — Levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) are rising annually by around three percent, placing Earth on track for warming that could breach five degrees Celsius (9.0 degrees Fahrhenheit) by 2100, a new study published on Sunday said.
The figure — among the most alarming of the latest forecasts by climate scientists — is at least double the 2C (3.6F) target set by UN members struggling for a global deal on climate change.
In 2011, global carbon emissions were 54 percent above 1990 levels, according to the research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change by the Global Carbon Project consortium.
“We are on track for the highest emissions projections, which point to a rise in temperature of between 4C (7.2F) and 6C (10.8F) by the end of the century,” said Corinne le Quere, a carbon specialist at the University of East Anglia, eastern England.
“The estimate is based on growth trends that seem likely to last,” she said in a phone interview, pointing to the mounting consumption of coal by emerging giants.
Other research has warned of potentially catastrophic impacts from a temperature rise of this kind.
Chronic droughts and floods would bite into farm yields, violent storms and sea-level rise would swamp coastal cities and deltas, and many species would be wiped out, unable to cope with habitat loss.
Developed countries have largely stabilised their emissions since 1990, the benchmark year used in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, the study said.
But this achievement has been eclipsed by emissions by China, India, Brazil and Indonesia and other developing economies, which are turning to cheap, plentiful coal to power their rise out of poverty.
In 1990, developing countries accounted for 35 percent of worldwide output of CO2, the principal “greenhouse” gas blamed for warming Earth’s surface and inflicting damaging changes to the climate system.
In 2011, this was 58 percent.
The temperature projections by the Global Carbon Project are at the top end of forecasts published by scientists ahead of the UNFCCC talks taking place in Doha, Qatar.
The study is based on national carbon dioxide (CO2) data and on estimates for 2011 and 2012. Between 2000 and 2011, CO2 emissions globally rose by 3.1 percent annually on average; for 2012, the rise is estimated at 2.6 percent.
Last year, Chinese CO2 rose by 10 percent, or more than 800 million tonnes, equivalent to Germany’s emissions in an entire year, said the Center for International Cimate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO), whose scientists took part in the paper.
“China is emitting as much as the European Union on a per-capita basis, about 36 percent higher than the global average per-capita emissions,” it said in a press release.
03 December 2012 - 09H14 Fractious climate talks enter second week
AFP - Countries entered a second week of UN climate talks in Doha deeply divided on key issues even as fresh warnings were issued that rising greenhouse gas levels are putting our planet in peril.
After six days of intense negotiations, observers said nations were far from agreement on extending the Kyoto Protocol on curbing emissions of Earth-warming gases, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) produced from burning fossil fuels.
With evidence mounting that man-made climate change is melting polar ice caps and causing sea levels to rise more quickly than feared, poor countries insist the West makes deeper, more urgent emissions cuts under Kyoto and gives more cash to help the third world adapt and cope.
The mechanisms for both remain in dispute.
"The science is clear: further delay would mean the opportunity to avert a global calamity would be irrevocably lost," the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a grouping of 43 countries at risk from warming-induced sea level rise, said on Monday.
"We begin the final week of negotiations in Doha with the sober recognition that time is running out to prevent the loss of entire nations and other calamities in our membership and around the world."
A new study warned Sunday that Earth could be on track for warming above five degrees Celsius (nine degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 -- at least double the two degree Celsius limit being targeted for what scientists hope will be manageable climate change.
Other studies in the past week showed that polar ice cap melt had raised sea levels by nearly half an inch (11 millimetres) over the last two decades, and that Arctic ice had diminished at an unprecedented rate in 2012.
Yet observers say the Doha talks have become stuck, partly over a disagreement within the European Union on whether individual nations should be allowed to hold on to unused emissions quotas -- so-called "hot air" -- rather than scrapping them.
These left-over unused emission allowances, estimated to amount to some 13 billion tonnes for all countries put together, were allotted under the first leg of the Kyoto Protocol that runs out on December 31.
EU member Poland and some other countries now insist on carrying the "hot air" over into a followup period -- a move vehemently opposed by the developing world and countries most at risk of climate change-induced warming.
The surplus allowances can be sold on the carbon market.
"What were billed as mainly procedural talks are showing more controversy than expected," Greenpeace said of the talks.
December 2, 2012With Carbon Dioxide Emissions at Record High, Worries on How to Slow Warming
By JUSTIN GILLIS and JOHN M. BRODER
Global emissions of carbon dioxide were at a record high in 2011 and are likely to take a similar jump in 2012, scientists reported Sunday — the latest indication that efforts to limit such emissions are failing.
Emissions continue to grow so rapidly that an international goal of limiting the ultimate warming of the planet to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, established three years ago, is on the verge of becoming unattainable, said researchers affiliated with the Global Carbon Project.
Josep G. Canadell, a scientist in Australia who leads that tracking program, said Sunday in a statement that salvaging the goal, if it can be done at all, “requires an immediate, large and sustained global mitigation effort.”
Yet nations around the world, despite a formal treaty pledging to limit warming — and 20 years of negotiations aimed at putting it into effect — have shown little appetite for the kinds of controls required to accomplish those stated aims.
Delegates from nearly 200 nations are meeting in Doha, Qatar, for the latest round of talks under the treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Their agenda is modest this year, with no new emissions targets and little progress expected on a protocol that is supposed to be concluded in 2015 and take effect in 2020.
Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the climate convention, said the global negotiations were necessary, but were not sufficient.
“We won’t get an international agreement until enough domestic legislation and action are in place to begin to have an effect,” she said in an interview. “Governments have to find ways in which action on the ground can be accelerated and taken to a higher level, because that is absolutely needed.”
The new figures show that emissions are falling, slowly, in some of the most advanced countries, including the United States. That apparently reflects a combination of economic weakness, the transfer of some manufacturing to developing countries and conscious efforts to limit emissions, like the renewable power targets that many American states have set. The boom in the natural gas supply from hydraulic fracturing is also a factor, since natural gas is supplanting coal at many power stations, leading to lower emissions.
But the decline of emissions in the developed countries is more than matched by continued growth in developing countries like China and India, the new figures show. Coal, the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, is growing fastest, with coal-related emissions leaping more than 5 percent in 2011, compared with the previous year.
“If we’re going to run the world on coal, we’re in deep trouble,” said Gregg H. Marland, a scientist at Appalachian State University who has tracked emissions for decades.
Over all, global emissions jumped 3 percent in 2011 and are expected to jump 2.6 percent in 2012, researchers reported in two papers released by scientific journals on Sunday. It has become routine to set new emissions records each year, although the global economic crisis led to a brief decline in 2009.
The level of carbon dioxide, the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, has increased about 41 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and scientists fear it could double or triple before emissions are brought under control. The temperature of the planet has already increased about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1850.
Further increases in carbon dioxide are likely to have a profound effect on climate, scientists say, leading to higher seas and greater coastal flooding, more intense weather disasters like droughts and heat waves, and an extreme acidification of the ocean. Many experts believe the effects are already being seen, but they are projected to worsen.
**************Carbon credit controversy could thwart UN climate negotiations
By Fiona Harvey, The Guardian
Sunday, December 2, 2012 16:37 EST
Brazil has said a row over carbon credits could derail the United Nations climate change negotiations taking place in Qatar this week.
The row concerns whether countries entering the second round of the Kyoto protocol should be allowed to carry over emissions credits from the first phase. Some countries, including Poland, Ukraine and Russia, have large surpluses of credits, generated because their carbon output collapsed alongside their industrial base after the fall of communism.
These credits are derided as “hot air” by critics because they represent greenhouse gases already reduced many years ago, rather than new efforts. André Corrêa do Lago, head of the Brazilian delegation, told the Guardian: “The second phase has to have environmental integrity, and you will not have that if countries are allowed to carry over [the credits]. The second period will be completely compromised. This is not a way to have effective reductions.”
Brazil occupies an important position at the talks: it is one of the rapidly developing Basic countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), but has acted as a moderating force between this group and the developed nations, which often have major differences.
Russia and the Ukraine are thought to have billions of emissions credits unsold, but the focus has been on Poland because as a member of the EU it has committed to the second phase of Kyoto. Its refusal to give up its credits has riven a deep split in the EU, which likes to be seen as one of the engines of progress in the talks.
“They are debating this inside the European bloc and we really hope that they will solve it in a way that gives environmental integrity. This is a loophole that means they won’t reduce emissions [as much as promised], so it’s a very strange logic,” said Corrêa do Lago.
Russia has refused to join the second commitment period, likely to run from 2012 to 2020, and Ukraine’s position is unclear.
Developing countries are already unhappy that so few rich nations have agreed to join a second phase of Kyoto. The non-joiners have argued that the focus should shift from the 1997 Kyoto protocol to forging a new global agreement covering developed and developing countries, that would be drafted by 2015 and come into force in 2020. New Zealand’s climate minister, Tim Groser, told the Associated Press in Doha: “This excessive focus on Kyoto, Kyoto, Kyoto, Kyoto, was fine in the 1990s. But given that it covers only 15% of emissions, I’m sorry, this is not the main game.”
Corrêa do Lago said the second phase was needed to give all sides the confidence to proceed: “It is clear from the number of ship-jumpers that if we do not have a Kyoto protocol, things will go rapidly downhill.” He said the number of countries taking on pledges under the continued protocol meant it would not be enough to cut emissions in line with scientific advice, but said it might be “enough politically” to bring developing and developed countries together in a new global agreement to succeed the protocol after 2020.
The row in Doha came as a paper in the journal Nature Climate Change suggested emissions rose again this year, by about 2.6%, to a record high of 35.6bn tonnes. This means global emissions from burning fossil fuels are now 58% above 1990 levels, which was used as the base year for calculating emissions cuts under the Kyoto protocol, according to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.
The research follows stark warnings from other authorities in recent weeks, including the World Bank and International Energy Agency, that the world is headed for catastrophic levels of warming, of as much as 4-6C. Scientists say emissions must peak by 2020 to have a chance of holding warming to no more than 2C.
“The prospect of catastrophic climate change needs to change the mindsets of political leaders,” said Martin Kaiser, climate campaigner at Greenpeace. “Coal-rich Poland is so far dictating the European Union position on hot air. Ministers coming to Doha must make a choice now about whether they have the courage to defend people from the impacts of climate change, or whether they will pander to Brussels politics. If Europe makes the wrong call here, it will lose the trust of the rest of the world.”
Under the Kyoto protocol, Poland was obliged to cut its emissions by 6% by 2012 compared with 1988 levels. Poland’s emissions are currently about 30% below the baseline, but the country is a big producer and consumer of coal for power generation, and the country has frequently tried to block EU moves to strengthen environmental regulation.
Poland had an estimated 500m tonnes of carbon credits, known as assigned amount units, or AAUs, but has sold an unknown number to Spain, Japan and Ireland, to help those countries meet their emissions targets, for an estimated €190m so far. The credits are not worth much at present – similar credits can be picked up for as little as €1 – but Poland argues they are a “national right”.
In a move that some applauded as a diplomatic coup and others called a joke, the UN has agreed that next year’s climate talks will take place in Warsaw. Following on from this year’s choice of Qatar, which has the world’s highest per-capita emissions and derives most of its wealth from oil and gas, the choice may prove to be either inspired or disastrous.
**************Biogas created by waste fuels Nepal’s tree regrowth
By Samantha Kimmey
Sunday, December 2, 2012 20:02 EST
While forests in Nepal have been shrinking for years, between 2007 and 2010 trees in the South Asian country of 27 million inhabitants began to grow again, reported Al Jazeera English.
Biogas has been credited with the shift, as roughly 250,000 Nepalese now use the fuel.
Biogas is created by combining manure and other organic waste, including toilet waste, with water, which is put underground in an airtight container where it creates methane, which travels by underground pipes into kitchens to be used to cook.
One woman explains how she no longer has to spend hours each day collecting firewood. “We had to steal the firewood from the national park, and the army guards would chase us,” she said.
The technology has also allowed Nepal to collect carbon credits, which it has sold to generate $2 million so far.
Watch the video, via Al Jazeera English, below.http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=mZsst4jCmuM
« Last Edit: Dec 03, 2012, 08:25 AM by Rad »
12/03/2012 01:33 PM
German Weapons for the World: How the Merkel Doctrine Is Changing Berlin Policy
Germany used to be extremely careful about where it exported its weapons. In recent years, however, Chancellor Angela Merkel has shown a preference for sending high-tech armaments abroad rather than German soldiers -- even if that means doing business with questionable regimes. By SPIEGEL Staff
It is unclear what, exactly, impresses the Arabs most about the new "Leopard 2" battle tank. Is it its reliable 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon, which remains stubbornly fixed on its target, even when the 68-ton behemoth is traveling at high speeds through the desert? Is it the "increased power-rated additional power generators for check-point missions" touted by the Munich-based manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann? Or the "communication interface on the exterior of the vehicle for dismounted forces?"
Surely the arms experts in Saudi Arabia and Qatar appreciate the fact that the new Leopard is equipped with an improved air conditioning system. After all, who wants to see their soldiers being roasted in an armor-plated oven in the desert, where summer temperatures can be as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit)?
In the first week of July, Krauss-Maffei shipped one of its new miracle weapons to the Saudi desert to test the Leopard 2 under extreme heat conditions. The Defense Ministry in Berlin sent along an officer with the German Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr, to ensure safety during test firing of the tank's guns.
The successful desert test didn't go unnoticed by the region's sheikhs. The government of Qatar has already shown interest in buying up to 200 tanks, a deal that, should it come to fruition, could be worth up to €2 billion ($2.6 billion).
The Saudis, for their part, have already become loyal customers. Last summer, the German government responded positively to their request to buy up to 270 of the Leopard 2 tanks. But now Riyadh wants more. In a new request, the sheikhs have petitioned the German government for its approval of the purchase of a few hundred "Boxer" armed transport vehicles. Germany's Federal Security Council, which meets in secret, addressed the request last week. The government hasn't issued a decision yet on the deal, which would likewise be worth billions.
German high-tech weapons are a hot commodity among Arab potentates and other autocrats. They haven't failed to notice that the coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) has steadily relaxed Germany's otherwise restrictive arms export policy.
The official (and most recent) Military Equipment Export Report for 2011 shows that business is booming, with arms export permits issued by the German government topping €10 billion for the first time. Some 42 percent of the weapons are destined for so-called third-party states, outside NATO, NATO-equivalent and European Union countries, another number that could very well be record-setting. In 2010, it was just 29 percent.
The numbers suggest that the Merkel doctrine is beginning to have its effect. In accordance with the chancellor's wishes, Germany is now sending soldiers to conflict zones in emergency situations only. Instead, "partner countries" in the affected regions are to be strengthened through arms exports to handle the job of maintaining peace and security on their own.
It's a risky strategy, and it also signifies a substantial departure from the nationwide consensus on German foreign policy. "Even with the benefit of hindsight, Germany's restraint regarding its arms export policy has proven to be the right approach, and we should remain true to it," says former longstanding Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (FDP), something of an éminence grise of German foreign policy.
Big ticket arms items often remain in service for decades. The Leopard 2, for example, was developed in the 1970s and old versions are still in service in many countries. For this reason, the risk is high that armaments could eventually fall into the wrong hands. The Arab spring showed how unstable many of the supposedly stable regimes in the region really are.
The chancellor points out that her foreign policy is "committed to the values" of democracy and human rights. And yet she permits weapons shipments -- in the name of stability -- to unsavory regimes whose human rights records are often appalling.
The body in which these contradictions are occasionally addressed is the Federal Security Council, which holds top-secret meetings at irregular intervals in the small conference room at the Chancellery. Merkel opened last Monday's meeting promptly at 4 p.m.
'Hospitable to Terrorism'
First, two FDP cabinet ministers, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Development Minister Dirk Niebel, reported on the situation in the troubled West African country of Mali, which has been divided since the military staged a coup in the spring. Then it was Gerhard Schindler's turn to speak.
Schindler, who is president of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence service, handed out a folder full of slides and charts. The situation in Mali is difficult, Schindler said, noting that many troops loyal to the government have deserted and the army is demoralized leading to a current inability to pressure the Islamists who have established control of the northern part of the country. "Northern Mali is in the process of becoming a region hospitable to terrorism."
Merkel is a disciplined politician who is almost never quoted using strong language. But when Schindler had finished his presentation, the chancellor exclaimed: "What a crap region."
After the first item on the agenda has been dealt with, the BND president and the intelligence coordinator at the Chancellery always leave the room. When it comes to individual arms exports, the chancellor and the other eight permanent members of the cabinet (ministers of foreign affairs, finance, defense, economics, interior, development and justice, along with Merkel's chief of staff) prefer to exclude other government officials from their discussions.
Only the relevant department head at the Chancellery, the government spokesperson and representatives from the Bundeswehr and the German president's office are allowed to stay in the room. The minutes merely contain rudimentary information on which arms export deals were approved and which ones were blocked.
Two projects that were discussed last Monday afternoon were particularly sensitive. The topic was the Middle East, as is so often the case. Protecting Israel's security is "part of my country's raison d'être," Merkel said in a March 2008 speech to the Israeli Knesset. "For me as German chancellor," she continued, "Israel's security will never be open to negotiation."
Partly as a result, Israel gets nuclear-capable submarines from the Germans, as well as any other weapons it wants. This time the Israelis wanted more modern launchers for rocket-propelled grenades and anti-armor weapons, made by Dynamit Nobel Defence near the western German town of Siegen.
'Now More than Ever'
In its advertising, the company notes that its RPGs can be fired at close range and out of confined spaces, making them perfect for use against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli request was on the Federal Security Council's agenda once before, in June. But the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development had concerns about exporting weapons for urban warfare to a potential combat zone, and the council decided to defer the decision.
Last Monday, with impressions from the most recent Gaza war in their minds, Merkel and her ministers decided to approve the weapons deal with Jerusalem. Germany had to support Israel, "now more than ever," one minister argued, saying that the threat coming from Hamas is serious. The group agreed that the arms shipment should also send a message.
In this context, Westerwelle is the personification of German paradox. Only a week earlier, he had tried in vain to serve as a peace broker between Israel and the Palestinians. And now the same minister was rubber-stamping the delivery of weapons that could be used in the Palestinian conflict.
The second request was even more sensitive. The Saudis are now interested in Boxer armored transport vehicles. Last summer, the news that Germany was willing to deliver up to 270 Leopard 2 tanks to Saudi Arabia triggered fierce political debates in Germany. But the sheikhs are unrelenting. Now they want to buy Boxers, which Krauss-Maffei Wegmann also co-manufactures.
The Boxer is one of the most modern battle vehicles in the world. It can be equipped with a remote-controlled weapons station or converted into a mobile surgical unit. The Bundeswehr uses the Boxer in Afghanistan as an armored personnel carrier. The Saudis need the vehicles for their Royal Guard, which protects the royal family.
Another Strong Year in 2012
The Royal Guard's three infantry battalions are stationed near Riyadh and have thus far had to make due with light weapons and armored vehicles. The addition of Boxers, however, would provide the Guard with international state-of-the-art equipment.
But Boxers are also well suited for suppressing uprisings, particularly because their tires make them useable on roads. Proponents of exporting to Saudi Arabia in the Federal Security Council argue that the tanks are not intended for Saudi Arabia's National Guard, which is responsible for ordinary combat missions. As such, they say, the tanks would only be deployed for reasons of defense.
Yet if the Arab Spring ever came to Saudi Arabia, the Royal Guards would almost certainly be involved, particularly when it came to defending the royal family in an emergency situation. One scenario could involve units loyal to the royal family fighting revolting crowds with German tanks. That was the argument used by German diplomats and the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development before the meeting, and it's also the view held by Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger.
In the Federal Security Council, the liberal justice minister is one of the most vocal critics of arms exports to the Saudis. Last year, she initially opposed Merkel when the Council discussed the Saudis' request for Leopard tanks, but then she deferred to the cabinet's decision. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger did not attend last week's meeting. Instead, like Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, she sent a deputy, officially because of a scheduling conflict. But ministers can vote only in person.
The Boxer deal would be a lucrative one for the German arms industry, but the companies involved will have to wait. Merkel and her ministers declined to reach a decision during last week's Federal Security Council meeting and have postponed it until next year.
Countries in Troubled Regions
In addition to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates is the other major importer of German weapons. In the last three years, the German government has approved the sale of about €1.2 billion in German armaments to the UAE.
But Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar aren't the only ones to benefit from the change in German export policy, and indications are that the arms export business remained strong this year as well. Although the government has yet to publish concrete figures, the Hermes export credit guarantees that were approved this year to back arms export deals are one indicator of how strong the business remains.
Six guarantees were approved by the end of November for a total value of close to €3.3 billion. That's already €800 million more than in 2011, says Left Party arms expert Jan van Aken, and the year isn't over yet. And the six guarantees have been issued for deals with countries in troubled regions throughout the world. The biggest recipient is Algeria, followed by Egypt, Israel, Indonesia, Iraq and Pakistan.
The guarantees for Egypt (€700 million) and Israel (€405 million) are especially sensitive. For both countries, the guarantees are intended to secure the purchase of submarines made by HDW in the northern port city of Kiel.
The submarines for Egypt, which are not as technically sophisticated as the ones for Israel, led to a dispute between Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who would like to block the Egypt purchase. The issue has yet to be resolved, but it is possible that Islamist Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi may soon take delivery of two new submarines.
The Egyptian case illustrates that the Merkel doctrine is in fact a large-scale program to help the domestic arms industry. Western countries, including crisis-stricken countries in the European Union as well as the debt-ridden United States, are radically reducing military spending. Germany's Bundeswehr also has to cut costs. Germany's military, for example, will be buying fewer "Puma" armored personnel carriers. The situation is even worse with the "Tiger" helicopter, with the military canceling half of its original order of 80 units.
Two options remain for the German arms industry, with its 80,000 jobs: Either it shrinks with declining demand, or it develops new markets. But those markets happen to be regions of the world where dictators are at war with one another, religious regimes are funding terrorists or autocrats use violence to suppress their own people. The biggest growth markets are in the Middle East and in the emerging economies of Southeast Asia and South America.
Compared to France and the United Kingdom, Germany is still restrained when it comes to promoting the domestic arms industry. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy remains the champion of promoters of his own war industry. He is thought to have promised rising nuclear power India a nuclear technology deal as a bonus if it chose to buy French fighter jets. It was an offer the Indians couldn't pass up.
But the Merkel administration is also making inroads in the field of arms sales. "In Germany, we are seeing increasingly intensive political support for offsetting declines in military spending with more arms exports," says Mark Bromley, an analyst with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
The Hermes guarantees are an important tool in the process. They provide financial security to companies engaged in major deals, such as the construction of submarines and frigates. Furthermore, Merkel is now using her trips abroad to pave the way for weapons deals. In Angola, for example, she offered President José Eduardo dos Santos the prospect of an energy partnership. But she also reminded him of the many offshore oil platforms that are largely unprotected. "We would also like to help you with your defense efforts, such as upgrading your navy," Merkel said at an economic conference in the Angolan capital Luanda. Specifically, she was talking about patrol boats for the Angolan coast guard, at €10 million to €25 million apiece.
The government also uses the Bundeswehr for its export offensive. For instance, there has been a "Eurofighter Task Force" in place at the Defense Ministry since 2008. The German Air Force spends more than €20 million in taxpayer money to support the marketing of Eurofighters to India.
Selling the Merkel Doctrine
Two Bundeswehr delegations attended the 2011 International Defense Exhibition (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi. One was headed by the deputy inspector general of the armed forces, and the other by the head of the arms department at the Defense Ministry. The five-day event in the emirate is considered a mecca for the arms industry. The Rheinmetall Group was one of 66 German companies exhibiting at the IDEX, where it exhibited its latest tank, dubbed the "Main Battle Tank Revolution."
The Bundeswehr also supports the industry with decommissioned material, especially the Leopard 2, of which it once had more than 2,100. Of those, some 1,233 have been sold abroad. In the post-Cold War world, Germany plans to make do with only 225 tanks.
Before the mothballed Leopards are sent to their new homes, they are completely refurbished, with the companies doing the work and often making several times as much as the Bundeswehr can collect for its used weapons.
Chile, for example, is getting 172 tanks, for which it is paying the Bundeswehr €46 million with an additional €78.6 million being spent on upgrades. Turkey took delivery of 354 tanks, which were outfitted with new combat technology for €298 million. A similar deal is in the works with Singapore, and Indonesia is expected to follow suit. The government issued a temporary export permit, so that a Leopard could be exhibited at the Indonesian arms exhibition, "Indo Defence," in early November.
Merkel knows that arms exports are not popular. Voters don't like it when authoritarian regimes like the one in Saudi Arabia use German weapons to stay in power. The official explanation that arms deals save jobs doesn't quite hold up with the public. Still, she has moved ahead, hoping to at least convince her global counterparts of the strategy.
She first laid out her approach, the Merkel Doctrine, at an event last September hosted by the Bergedorf Round Table, a venue that has brought together leading international and European politicians for talks on foreign and security policy since 1961. Last month, she presented her strategy to another select group of listeners. The EU and NATO are dependent on other countries, especially emerging nations, taking more responsibility in the future, she said at a conference of senior defense officials in Strausberg near Berlin. "I am convinced that it is in our interest to enable partners to effectively participate in upholding or re-establishing security and peace in their regions," she said.
Ensuring Peace and Stability
The Bundeswehr officers and security experts at the meeting knew exactly what she meant: The government is to supply weapons to regions of potential conflict, like the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and countries in those regions will then use those weapons to ensure peace and stability.
From the standpoint of the chancellery, two problems can be solved with this doctrine. On the one hand, it justifies arms exports to regions like the Arabian Peninsula, which have long been controversial. On the other hand, it provides the government with a better justification for Germany's reluctance to get involved in conflicts overseas.
And Merkel no longer wants to be responsible for major overseas military missions. She sees Afghanistan as proof that interventions in foreign countries usually fail. In the chancellor's opinion, it is better and less dangerous to provide military support to one side in a given conflict.
Algeria is one of these strategic partners. The North African nation borders two countries that have descended into chaos, Mali and Libya, and it is now expected to serve as a bridgehead in the fight against Islamist terrorists. Algerian intelligence has infiltrated al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on a large scale. The United States also wants to use the former French colony as a base for its counterterrorism efforts.
It's no accident that Algeria has become an increasingly important beneficiary of German export permits, with the autocratic country ranking eighth in 2011. Algeria finances its extensive arms deals with oil and gas revenues.
Two companies have played a major role in the arms buildup in Algeria. The country has ordered frigates from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. And Düsseldorf-based Rheinmetall is building a factory to produce Fuchs armored personnel carriers under a licensing agreement. According to the German Economics Ministry, up to 1,200 units will be built at the plant. By comparison, the Bundeswehr owns significantly fewer than 1,000 such vehicles.
Israel and the Submarine Deal
The North Africans recently laid out another, large piece of bait on the international market: the $1.5 billion contract for a modern border control system for the border with civil war-plagued Mali. The project will likely be of interest to Europe's EADS defense company, which is building a similar system in Saudi Arabia. The German government is participating in the deal by providing trainers for Saudi border guards.
But strategic partners can quickly becoming destabilized and unpredictable, as the example of Egypt illustrates. Last year, Cairo submitted an official inquiry to Berlin asking whether it could buy two submarines from Kiel-based HDW. The Egyptians were not inquiring about the nuclear-capable Dolphin-class submarines, which Germany supplies to Israel. They were interested in two vessels in the technically less sophisticated 209 class.
At first, the deal looked to be both economically lucrative and politically uncomplicated. German Defense Ministry officials checked with the Israeli Defense Ministry, and the chancellor called the Israeli premier. There were no objections. On Nov. 28, 2011, the Federal Security Council gave the go-ahead.
But the situation in Cairo has changed dramatically since then. The new president, Mohammed Morsi, comes from the Muslim Brotherhood and has close ties to the Islamist group Hamas. His party has developed a draft constitution that, like the one under deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, names Shariah law as the basis for all legislation. And in Jerusalem, the Egyptians are no longer seen as trusted allies in the region. The submarine deal is now a problem.
Through his spokesman, Netanyahu issued a demand in the press that the deal be canceled, and Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said that "we agree that we don't agree." Irritated by the Israelis' sudden about-face and the unexpected pressure from Netanyahu's staff, the Chancellery assured the Israelis that it would review the decision. In last Monday's Federal Security Council meeting, Westerwelle complained that Berlin shouldn't make its position completely dependent on that of Israel. But no matter what Berlin ultimately decides, it will alienate one important partner in the region, either the Israelis or the Egyptians.
Germany's arming of the United Arab Emirates has been uncomplicated by comparison, and very lucrative. The government in Berlin tends to counter political objections with the argument that the country has to be strengthened militarily against Iran. And with such political backing, it is little wonder that the Emirates have become a favorite customer of the German arms industry. Rheinmetall, for example, has not only sold the country 27-mm light naval gun systems, but also in recent years built the UAE's first munitions factory. It is located in the military town of Sayid and now offers its deadly products for export in the Middle East.
Questions from German Allies
The plant is owned by Burkan Munitions Systems LLC, of which Rheinmetall owned 40 percent until the beginning of this year, when it sold its stake. Rheinmetall also plans to build a modern, computer and laser supported combat training center in the Emirates by 2014.
Rheinmetall told analysts that it expects the training center to generate revenues of more than $100 million. Once the center goes into operation, the country's armed forces will be brought up to a level of technical expertise in computer and laser supported combat similar to that of the Bundeswehr.
Given the controversy which generally surrounds arms exports in Germany, the government is still hesitating to actively promote its new policy. The chancellor and her advisors do believe it is advisable to at least explain the outlines of the new security doctrine, and Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière also supports a bolder approach. "In effect, markets and sales opportunities for armaments are expanding," he says.
But neither Merkel nor her defense minister is being more specific. Both insist that the discussions and most of the decisions of the Federal Security Council remain secret. Officially, the government isn't commenting on the tank deliveries to Saudi Arabia.
If it were up to Foreign Minister Westerwelle, the government would only issue platitudes on the subject. Westerwelle is working untiringly, though unsuccessfully, on his image as a proponent of disarmament policy. After the re-election of US President Barack Obama, he said: "I hope that we can make progress together on disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation."
But when the public isn't paying attention, Foreign Minister Westerwelle acts as a promoter of the German arms industry. He has in the past advocated arms shipments to Russia and Egypt in the Federal Security Council. Merkel, by contrast, was hesitant. But the foreign minister doesn't want to explain his position to the public.
For the opposition, the government's silence presents a big opportunity. The Greens, for their part, campaigned for a tightening of arms export rules some time ago. They also want the Federal Security Council to become more transparent. "An arms export law must define certain disclosure requirements, which also apply to the Federal Security Council," Green Party parliamentary floor leader Jürgen Trittin said in a recent interview with SPIEGEL. "That would finally result in standards."
Even the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), despite its ties to heavy industry, seems to support a restrictive approach. "We must contribute to the prevention of new arms races," says longstanding former Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul. "It's a question of Germany's credibility in foreign policy." The SPD candidate for chancellor in next year's general elections, Peer Steinbrück, has also called for a more restrained arms export policy.
Ex-SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is also highly critical of Merkel's new approach. The Saudis showed interest in Leopard tanks way back in his tenure (1974 to 1982) as well, and the arms industry was exerting a lot of pressure. The counter-arguments from back then are still valid today: Bonn did not want to provide an autocratic regime like the Saudis with the means to crush an uprising by their own people.
The Germans also didn't want to add additional fuel to the Middle East conflict, a policy from which Genscher derived the principle that "anything that floats is okay" -- in other words, Germany could only export ships, because the Israelis and their neighbors were at war on land and not at sea.
But Schmidt is also outraged over the submarine sales to Israel, whose policy toward the Palestinians he has sharply criticized for years and characterizes as "responding to terror with their own terror."
A Greater Role?
Schmidt fears that by approving the submarine deal, Merkel is providing the hardliners in Jerusalem with the ultimate military support for their settlement policy. In critical remarks about Merkel in the spring, he said that he would not have approved the arms shipments to Saudi Arabia or Israel. "I wouldn't have done it," he told SPIEGEL. Weapons should be exported only to allies, Schmidt explained, and neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia is a German ally.
The German position has also raised some concerns among Berlin's own allies. Since their refusal to politically and militarily support the war waged by the West and its Arab allies against former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the Germans are seen as shirkers.
Some say this openly, and point out that Germany, as a strong economic power, has great influence. "Why doesn't Germany agree to do more in other areas?" asked former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, an advisor to Socialist President François Hollande. "I really don't see what prevents Germany from playing a greater role in international politics and military missions."
But the arms shipments to Saudi Arabia are a bigger problem for Merkel, because no Western diplomat can truly assess how stable the situation is there. The government, which is fundamentalist by Western standards, is threatened by even more extreme forces. If the situation there is less stable than analysts with the intelligence services and foreign missions suggest, tanks and other German weapons could fall into the hands of an extremely anti-Western movement.
This sort of development has a precedent in the immediate vicinity. For decades, the pro-Western regime of Shah Mohammed Reza in Iran enjoyed generous support from the United States. When the Iranian revolution swept away the authoritarian ruler in 1979, the American weapons were suddenly in the hands of the ayatollahs, who now saw Washington as their biggest enemy.
BY KONSTANTIN VON HAMMERSTEIN, RALF NEUKIRCH, GORDON REPINSKI, HOLGER STARK, GERALD TRAUFETTER and KLAUS WIEGREFE
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
03 December 2012 - 12H28
India navy chief concerned about China build-up
AFP - India's navy chief said on Monday that Beijing's naval build-up was a "major, major cause for concern" amid tensions in the South China Sea, according to a report.
"It is actually a major, major cause of concern for us, which we continuously evaluate and work out our options and our strategies," Admiral D.K. Joshi told journalists in New Delhi, the Press Trust of India reported.
"The modernisation is truly impressive," Joshi said of the rival navy, which in September inducted China's first aircraft carrier.
New Delhi is wary of growing Chinese influence around the Indian Ocean, where Beijing has funded or plans to invest in major infrastructure projects, including ports in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and military-ruled Myanmar.
According to a report issued by the Pentagon in May, Beijing is pouring money into advanced air defences, submarines, anti-satellite weapons and anti-ship missiles that could all be used to deny an adversary access to strategic areas, such as the South China Sea.
In the USA....
03 December 2012 - 11H21
Tough talk, no answers as US 'fiscal cliff' looms
AFP - A sense of deja vu gripped Washington Monday as Democrats and Republicans locked in who-blinks-first brinkmanship over taxes and spending, with pundits warning of economic chaos unless a deal is struck.
The White House will not budge on tax hikes and Republicans call the president's opening gambit ridiculous, but without a deal by the year's end the fragile US economy will plunge off what is being called "the fiscal cliff."
"I think we're going over the cliff," grimly predicted Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Appearing Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation" show, he said he was ready to consider closing tax loopholes for the richest Americans, but only in conjunction with entitlement reform aimed at saving such programs as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from bankruptcy.
But Graham insisted that the president's plan when it comes to entitlement reform "is just, quite frankly a joke."
In April 2011, there were less than two hours to go to avert a government shutdown when the same protagonists, Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner, struck a tentative budget deal.
The hard-fought accord that eventually raised the debt ceiling later that summer came too late to prevent Standard & Poor's from downgrading the credit rating of US government bonds for the first time in the country's history.
Despite international criticism then for playing a dangerously irresponsible game of chicken, both sides are at it again refusing to compromise and counting down the clock as financial disaster looms.
The debt ceiling deal signed into law in August 2011 included a poison pill provision that would usher in across-the-board spending cuts unless Congress passed a $1.2 billion deficit reduction bill by the end of 2012.
Combined with the expiry on December 31 of a raft of tax cuts, including reduced Bush-era rates for nearly all Americans and Obama's two percent cut in payroll taxes, the risk of a new recession is very real.
The point of the "fiscal cliff" provision was to force a fiercely divided Congress and White House to stop kicking the can down the road and get serious about tackling the $16.3 trillion public debt and arcane tax laws.
Obama called in the tough-talking Timothy Geithner to be his pointman on the crisis, hoping the outgoing Treasury secretary had enough respect on Capitol Hill and economic expertise to get the job done.
But, if the Republican leadership is to be believed, things got off to a rocky start when Geithner got negotiations rolling on Thursday by laying out Obama's initial offer.
It called for nearly $1.6 trillion in new tax revenue over the next decade and $600 billion in spending cuts, including from programs Democrats cherish like Medicare, which covers health insurance for the elderly.
"I was flabbergasted. I looked him and said, 'You can't be serious,'" Boehner told "Fox News Sunday."
"I've just never seen anything like it. You know, we've got seven weeks between election day and the end of the year. And three of those weeks have been wasted with this nonsense."
Republicans said the offer doubled the amount of revenue Obama had been asking for, included new stimulus spending to offset the spending cuts, and made no specific commitments to slash costly government welfare programs.
They also balked at a provision that would see a permanent end to congressional control over federal borrowing limits, the issue that set this crisis in motion.
Boehner, whose party controls one of the chambers through which any crisis-solving bill must pass, dismissed the notion that Congress would give up powers to vote on future debt limit increases as "silliness."
"They must have forgotten Republicans continue to hold a majority in the House," he said, adding bitterly: "The president's idea of a negotiation is: roll over and do what I ask."
Budget negotiations go right to the heart of ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans on the size and scope of government. The biggest sticking point has been on tax rates for high-earners.
Obama won re-election on a platform of raising taxes on individuals who make more than $200,000 per year and on families that rake in more than $250,000, as a way of raising extra revenue to tame the deficit.
Republicans insist that raising taxes on the wealthy would hurt small business owners, slow economic growth and dampen job creation.
"There's not going to be an agreement without rates going up. There's not," Geithner told CNN's "State of the Union" program.
Republicans say they are ready to extract more revenue from wealthy Americans, but want to do so by closing tax loopholes and limiting deductions rather than by raising income tax rates.
Besides resisting tax hikes, Republicans want action on Medicare and Social Security.
Geithner insisted that Social Security, which provides government funds to the elderly, the disabled, widows and the poor, should not be on the table in the current negotiations.
Geithner says no budget deal without tax hikes
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 2, 2012 12:10 EST
WASHINGTON — Lead White House negotiator Timothy Geithner insisted Sunday there would be no deal to avert the “fiscal cliff” unless Republicans allowed tax rates on the wealthiest Americans to rise.
Talks to avoid the dreaded “fiscal cliff” are at a dangerous impasse after President Barack Obama’s opening gambit in the high-stakes negotiations was shot down by leading Republicans on Thursday as “ridiculous.”
Markets are jittery as, without a deal by the year-end, a poison pill of tax hikes and massive spending cuts, including slashes to the military, comes into effect with potentially catastrophic effects for the fragile US economy.
Budget negotiations go right to the heart of ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans on the size and scope of government, but the biggest sticking point has clearly been on tax rates for high-earners.
Obama campaigned on a platform of raising taxes on individuals who make more than $200,000 per year and on families that rake in more than $250,000, as a way of raising extra revenue to tame the deficit.
Republicans insist that raising taxes on the wealthy would be counter-productive, hurt small business owners, slow economic growth and dampen job creation.
“There’s not going to be an agreement without rates going up. There’s not,” Geithner told CNN’s “State of the Union” program, saying the ball was in the Republicans’ court to propose a counter-offer to the Obama plan.
Republicans say they are ready to raise more revenue from wealthy Americans, but want to do so by closing tax loopholes and limiting deductions rather than by raising income tax rates.
“Increasing tax rates draws money away from our economy that needs to be invested in our economy to put the American people back to work,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner said on Friday. “It’s the wrong approach.”
Geithner, the tough-talking Treasury Secretary chosen as Obama’s pointman in the talks, took to the Sunday morning news shows to step up pressure on Republicans to propose a plan that embraces the spirit of compromise.
“What we did is put forward a very comprehensive, very carefully designed mix of savings and tax rates to help us put us back on a path to stabilizing our debt, fixing our debt and living within our means,” he said.
“We don’t expect them to like all of those proposals. But all we can do is lay out what we believe in and then ask them to come back to us and tell us what they would prefer to do.”
Geithner said the two sides were still “far apart,” but expressed hope they were moving closer together.
Former Republican president George W. Bush introduced across-the-board tax cuts that were framed as “temporary” measures back in 2001 and 2003.
The top income tax rate, which now stands at 35 percent, will automatically revert to 39.6 percent at the beginning of 2013 unless there is a new budget deal.
Obama is urging the Republicans to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all but the top bracket, roughly 98 percent of Americans, and campaigned on this promise before winning re-election on November 6.
Republican soul-searching in the wake of Mitt Romney’s decisive electoral defeat has seen several leading figures indicate a willingness to accept a deal that includes more revenue, but only by ending loopholes in the tax code and in return for cuts in funding to Democrats’ beloved welfare programs.
“They’re in a hard place. And they’re having a tough time trying to figure out what they can do, what they can get support from their members for,” Geithner said.
“If they are going to force higher rates on virtually all Americans because they’re unwilling to let tax rates go up on 2 percent of Americans, then, I mean that’s the choice they’re going to have to make,” said Geithner.
“But they’ll own the responsibility for the damage.”
The year-end deadline is the result of legislation passed when Republicans and Democrats failed to reach a previous long-term deficit and budget deal, and was meant to concentrate minds of lawmakers and spur compromise.
The parties are also feuding about where to cut expenditures, with some Republicans opposed to any trimming of the military budget and Democrats guarding social safety net entitlement programs.
December 2, 2012
Criticized as Weak in Past Talks, Obama Takes Harder Line
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — Amid demands from Republicans that President Obama propose detailed new spending cuts to avert the year-end fiscal crisis, his answer boils down to this: you first.
Mr. Obama, scarred by failed negotiations in his first term and emboldened by a clear if close election to a second, has emerged as a different kind of negotiator in the past week or two, sticking to the liberal line and frustrating Republicans on the other side of the bargaining table.
Disciplined and unyielding, he argues for raising taxes on the wealthy while offering nothing new to rein in spending and overhaul entitlement programs beyond what was on the table last year. Until Republicans offer their own new plan, Mr. Obama will not alter his. In effect, he is trying to leverage what he claims as an election mandate to force Republicans to take ownership of the difficult choices ahead.
His approach is born of painful experience. In his first four years in office, Mr. Obama has repeatedly offered what he considered compromises on stimulus spending, health care and deficit reduction to Republicans, who either rejected them as inadequate or pocketed them and insisted on more. Republicans argued that Mr. Obama never made serious efforts at compromise and instead lectured them about what they ought to want rather than listening to what they did want.
Either way, the two sides were left at loggerheads over the weekend with less than a month until a series of painful tax increases and spending cuts automatically take effect, risking what economists say would be a new recession.
Mr. Obama refuses to propose more spending cuts until Republicans accept higher tax rates on the wealthy, and Republicans refuse to accept higher tax rates on the wealthy while asking for more spending cuts.
“I’m puzzled why Republicans are locking into a principle that’s not sustainable and why Democrats aren’t taking the moment to put forward their own vision of entitlement reform,” said Peter R. Orszag, a former White House budget director for Mr. Obama.
Mr. Orszag’s former White House colleagues said they had grown tired of making unilateral concessions only to see Republicans moving the goal posts, as they see it. “The president is not going to negotiate with himself,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “He’s laid out his position, and Republicans have to come to the table.”
Republican strategists argue that in resorting to campaign-style events to take his fiscal message to voters, Mr. Obama is overplaying his hand, much as President George W. Bush did after his re-election when he barnstormed the country in favor of a Social Security restructuring plan that he never successfully sold to leaders on Capitol Hill.
“He is overreading his mandate,” said John Feehery, a former adviser to top House Republicans. “By doing the campaign thing, he is making the same mistake Bush made in 2005.” Eventually, he said, Democratic and Republican leaders “are going to cut the deal, and Obama is going to be on the outside looking in.”
The difference might be that Mr. Obama ran more explicitly on the idea of letting Mr. Bush’s tax cuts expire for incomes over $250,000, while Mr. Bush’s re-election was fought more on grounds of national security than Social Security. But both presidents emerged from relatively narrow popular-vote victories determined to impose their will on a balky Congress resisting their leadership.
Mr. Obama seemed to defy the Republican House last week when Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner delivered a plan calling for $1.6 trillion in additional taxes from the wealthy over 10 years, as well as $50 billion in short-term stimulus spending and $612 billion in recycled cuts first put on the table during last year’s failed debt talks.
Republicans erupted in outrage, though they produced no specific alternative. Instead, they noted they had expressed newfound willingness since the election to increase tax revenue by limiting deductions for the wealthy, though not by raising rates.
The administration laid out its latest plan in less formal ways a couple of weeks earlier, according to a senior official who declined to be identified discussing private deliberations. But the message was that Speaker John A. Boehner could not move yet. After waiting with no further response, the administration decided to have Mr. Geithner deliver the proposal on paper knowing it would be provocative but thinking it was needed to move the process along.
Instead, the process has collapsed, at least for now. The depth of disagreement played out on the Sunday morning talk shows, even as Mr. Obama went golfing with former President Bill Clinton in a session that White House officials presumed would include trading notes about the fiscal crisis.
“We’ve put a serious offer on the table by putting revenues up there to try to get this question resolved,” Mr. Boehner said on “Fox News Sunday.” “But the White House has responded with virtually nothing. They have actually asked for more revenue than they’ve been asking for the whole entire time.”
Mr. Geithner said it was up to Republicans to outline more spending cuts than Mr. Obama had previously put on the table. “Some Republicans apparently want to go beyond that, but what they have to do is tell us what they’re prepared to do,” Mr. Geithner told Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “And what we can’t do, Bob, is sit here trying to guess what works for them.”
That represents something of a shift for Mr. Obama, who did try to guess what worked for Republicans in his first term. When he crafted a stimulus spending program to bolster the economy shortly after taking office, Mr. Obama devoted roughly a third of the money to tax cuts that he assumed Republicans would like. They did not. Likewise, his framework for universal health care included free-market elements that he thought Republicans would embrace. They did not.
While Republicans argued that the overall programs overshadowed any palatable aspects, Mr. Obama came to believe he had made a mistake in offering concessions up front. In an interview in September 2010, he said he had learned “that if you already have a third of the package as tax cuts, then the Republicans, who traditionally are more comfortable with tax cuts, may just pocket that and attack the other components of the program.”
Aides said Mr. Obama came to the same conclusion after his clash with Republicans over raising the nation’s borrowing limit last year. “We put all these things on the table, and the reason we couldn’t do a deal is because Republicans couldn’t do revenues,” Mr. Pfeiffer said. “So our view here is the president won’t sign a deal that doesn’t have higher rates for the wealthy. Until they cross that bridge, nothing else is relevant.”
Yet there is risk in that. Republicans now understand that higher tax rates on the wealthy is Mr. Obama’s No. 1 priority, so rather than give in, some strategists say they should hold out to leverage those to shape other aspects of a final deal.
“He only cares about one detail: raising rates on the top two brackets,” said Tony Fratto, a former White House and Treasury Department official under Mr. Bush. “Everything else is secondary. That’s why if that is going to happen, it will be last if Republicans can hold out. I think it’s pretty clear Obama will sacrifice just about anything to get that. It’s the only win for him.”
December 2, 2012
Negotiators Leading Talks on Fiscal Crisis Defend Stands
By JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON – At a stalemate in their talks to avoid a self-imposed fiscal crisis at the end of this month, the lead negotiators for the White House and Congressional Republicans used the Sunday morning news shows to defend their positions and blame the other side for the impasse.
“Right now I would say we’re nowhere, period. We’re nowhere,” House Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“We’ve put a serious offer on the table by putting revenues out there to try to get this question resolved,” he said. “But the White House has responded with virtually nothing.”
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner countered Mr. Boehner on Fox and the four other programs by outlining President Obama’s proposals for long-term deficit reduction and insisting that Republicans were blocking compromise by their opposition to letting the Bush-era tax rates on high incomes expire as scheduled by law on Dec. 31. Mr. Obama and Democratic lawmakers want to extend the tax cuts on household incomes below $250,000 a year, but not for income above that level, as the president vowed in his re-election campaign.
“There’s just no reason why 98 percent of Americans have to see their taxes go up because some members of Congress on the Republican side want to block tax rate increases for 2 percent of the wealthiest Americans,” Mr. Geithner said. “Remember, those tax rates, those tax cuts, cost a trillion dollars over 10 years.”
“Those rates are going to have to go up,” he added. “That’s an essential part of a deal.”
The televised jousting reflected the political posturing that is typical in the early stages of Washington budget negotiations, with leaders of each party seeking to persuade the public that their position is the right one and to bring pressure on the other side to compromise. Mr. Geithner was scheduled to give interviews on all five major Sunday shows, and Mr. Boehner, in turn, requested time on Fox late last week, prompting the network to cancel appearances by two senators it had booked.
The White House and Congress do not have much time for the usual negotiating games, with the year-end deadline looming and the holidays approaching. Absent a deal offering an alternative, across-the-board cuts in domestic and military programs and immediate tax increases for all Americans – the result of the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts — would take effect in January. Together, the automatic spending cuts and tax increases would cut the deficit for fiscal year 2013 by more than $500 billion, an amount so sudden and large that economists say it would cause a recession. They have called it the “fiscal cliff.”
“I don’t want any part of going over the cliff,” Mr. Boehner said on Fox.
Mr. Geithner, also on Fox, said it was a “decision that lies in the hands of Republicans who are now opposing an increase in the tax rates.”
The goal of both Mr. Obama and Congress is a package of alternative spending cuts and revenue increases. Republicans, led by Mr. Boehner, have offered since the president’s re-election to accept higher revenue, but they have refused to support a partial extension of the Bush tax cuts that would let the top income tax rates rise to 39.6 percent, the level that was in place during the Clinton administration, from the current 35 percent.
The separate television appearances of the two men came after their private meeting on Capitol Hill on Thursday, when Mr. Geithner outlined the president’s positions for about $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the first 10 years to Mr. Boehner and the No. 2 Republican in the House, Eric Cantor of Virginia.
The specifics were the same as those proposed by Mr. Obama in his budget earlier this year, without any additional concessions. The proposal includes $1.6 trillion in new revenue from upper-income taxpayers; $600 billion in reduced spending for Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies and other programs; $1 trillion in other spending cuts that the president and Congress committed to last year for the coming decade; and an $800 billion reduction in projected war spending, reflecting the winding down of American combat operations overseas.
As he had late last week, Mr. Boehner dismissed the administration’s offer as “a nonserious proposal” for including too little in spending cuts and too much in additional stimulus measures, and for letting the top income-tax rates rise, which Mr. Boehner said would hurt some small businesses. On television, he recounted his reaction to Mr. Geithner at the meeting last week.
“I was flabbergasted. I looked at him and said, ‘You can’t be serious,’ ” Mr. Boehner said. “I’ve just never seen anything like it. You know we’ve got seven weeks between Election Day and the end of the year, and three of those weeks have been wasted with this nonsense.”
The speaker said Republicans had proposed “a dozen different ways” to raise additional tax revenue without raising rates. But he did not say what those were, and so far Mr. Boehner’s office has not provided details. Administration officials said Republicans have made no specific proposals.
Generally, Republicans — much like Mitt Romney in his presidential campaign — have not specified how additional revenue could be raised over 10 years by limiting tax deductions for the wealthy rather than raising their rates. The White House and nonpartisan policy groups have done analyses showing that revenue cannot be raised on that scale without ending popular deductions for mortgage interest, charitable contributions and state and local taxes, even for some middle-income taxpayers.
Mr. Geithner, on the ABC News program “This Week,” said the ball is “absolutely” in Republicans’ court to specify alternatives.
“They understand that,” he said of Republican leaders. “And when they come back to us and say, ‘We would like you to consider this and we’d like you to consider that,’ we’ll take a look at that.”
Mr. Geithner said Mr. Obama was willing to consider proposals to ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security, but as a matter separate from a comprehensive deficit-reduction agreement.
The president’s bipartisan Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission in 2010 similarly called for Social Security to be considered separately since it operates as a pay-as-you-go system — current revenues, mainly from workers’ payroll taxes, are used to pay current beneficiaries – and because it is not contributing to deficit projections nearly as much as Medicare and Medicaid are as the population ages.
Republicans want the president to at least support a proposal that he tentatively agreed to in unsuccessful debt-reduction talks with Mr. Boehner in mid-2011. That proposal would alter the formula for calculating beneficiaries’ cost-of-living adjustments in a way that would reduce future increases but, many economists say, would also more accurately reflect inflation.
December 2, 2012
Some Analysts Doubt Dire Predictions on Tax Increase Fallout
By NATHANIEL POPPER
As anxious investors assess their portfolios in light of expected tax increases on investment income, hedge fund manager Douglas Kass has a simple message: Relax.
Mr. Kass, the founder of Seabreeze Partners Management, thinks much of the investing world has overestimated how hard the markets and investors would be hit if tax rates on dividends and capital gains rise at the end of the year, as the White House has proposed.
Mr. Kass can look for support to several economists who have studied past changes in tax rates and found that the shifts had less of an impact on investor behavior than was initially expected.
That’s largely because a dwindling number of investors are subject to the taxes on investment gains that are set to rise at the end of the year, with most stocks held in accounts that are exempt from taxes.
For example, only 14.7 percent of American households have mutual funds in taxable accounts, down from as high as 23.9 percent in 2001, according to data from the Investment Company Institute.
Douglas A. Shackelford, an economist who has examined the 2003 legislation that lowered the tax rates on capital gains and dividends, said that when those changes were being put in place “people thought this would be revolutionary,” setting off a wave of changes in the way companies rewarded their investors, and how investors evaluated companies.
In the end, “it made a difference, but it certainly was not revolutionary,” said Mr. Shackelford, a professor of taxation at the University of North Carolina’s business school. The limited number of investors who were subject to the changes in 2003 has grown even smaller today, he said.
While data on the tax status of all stockholders is hard to come by, many economists agree than an increasing proportion of the entire equities market is now held by retirement investors whose holdings are not subject to current tax law; by foreign investors who don’t pay American taxes, or by institutional investors like insurance companies and pension funds that are exempt from taxes.
Sam Stovall, the chief investment strategist at S&P Capital IQ, said that even among individual investors who do pay the taxes, many have incomes under $250,000 and would not be subject to the increased rates on investment income proposed by the White House. The result Mr. Stovall is anticipating is that the coming changes will cause “a lot less of a hit than most people are making it out to be.”
Mr. Stovall and others who share his views are not discounting the potential disruption to the financial markets if the White House and Congress fail to reach any agreement on the broad set of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to hit at the start of the year. The largest of these changes are not on investment income. An increase in the payroll tax, for example, could remove $95 billion from the take-home pay of Americans.
But even if a broad agreement is reached, many strategists are expecting that taxes will rise on investment income, with the White House proposing that for households earning over $250,000 the rate on dividends rise to a peak of 39.6 percent from the current 15 percent, and the rate on capital gains increasing to 20 percent from 15 percent.
Wealthy households will face an additional 3.8 percent charge on most investment income to help pay for the recent health care legislation.
Neil J. Hennessy, the founder of Hennessy Funds, said at a year-end investing event last week that if politicians allow the rates to rise as much as the White House has proposed, dividends will become much less attractive and there could have a “disastrous effect” on the willingness of investors to put money into stocks.
Some companies have already acted ahead of the changes, with Costco and Las Vegas Sands leading the way in issuing special dividends before the end of the year so their shareholders can take advantage of current tax rates. Some investors have sold off stocks that issue regular dividends expecting the companies to become less valuable once a greater proportion of dividend income is lost to taxes.
Andrew Garthwaite, an analyst at Credit Suisse, has predicted that if the White House’s view on investment taxes prevails, it could lead to a long-term reduction in the value of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index of as much as 5 percent. Mr. Garthwaite cautioned that the figure is likely to be lower, and that investors have already incorporated some of those losses into the market by selling stocks.
Mr. Kass disputed Mr. Garthwaite’s estimates in a note to clients, and said he was looking at market losses of at most 1.6 percent and more likely closer to 0.8 percent. Part of the disagreement arises from Mr. Kass’s contention that many people who are subject to tax are either uninformed about tax law — and unlikely to respond to changes — or more focused on the long-term performance of their portfolio than on short-term tax payments.
Mr. Kass said that even the losses he has predicted assume that wealthy people will be willing to cash out of their stock positions and stay out, something that he said is unlikely given the small returns available in other financial investments.
But an even larger source of misunderstanding has come from the difficulty of ascertaining the amount of all United States stocks held by people who will have to pay the new, higher tax rates. Foreign investors controlled 12.4 percent of American stocks in 2011, up from 8.8 percent in 2004, Treasury Department data shows.
Among the stocks that are held in the United States, 48 percent are held directly by households, down from 65 percent in 1988, according to Federal Reserve figures. And 40.7 percent of households have mutual funds in tax-exempt accounts.
But only some of these have income over $250,000 a year, and a portion of those people have their money in accounts protected from taxes. Eric Toder, a co-director of the Tax Policy Center, said as a result market prices should have little to do with the taxes paid on gains because prices are largely “being determined by tax-exempt investors and by foreign investors.”
John Boehner Implies Raising Taxes On the Middle Class Instead of the Wealthy
By: Jason Easley
December 2nd, 2012
On Fox News Sunday, John Boehner said it doesn’t matter where new revenue comes from, but he ruled out raising taxing on the rich, which leaves the poor and middle class to foot the bill.
Here is a transcript of the exchange between Chris Wallace and John Boehner on Fox News Sunday,
CHIRS WALLACE: You talked about the fact that the President won and you came out with a concession the day after the election and they point out that the president campaigned on raising tax rates, you know, and it was the big issue, between him and Romney, and, they say, just as he had to cave, after your victory, in the 2010 midterms, now, it is your turn to cave on tax rates.
JOHN BOEHNER: Listen, what is this difference where the money comes from? We put $800 billion worth of revenue, which is what he is asking for, out of eliminating the top two tax rates. But, here’s the problem, Chris, when you go and increase tax rates, you make it more difficult for our economy to grow, after that income, the small business income, it is going to get taxed at a higher rate and as a result we’re gonna see slower economic growth, we can’t cut our way out of this problem, nor can we grow our way out of the problem, we have to have a balanced approach and what the President wants to do will slow or economy at a time when he says he wants the economy to grow and create jobs.
What Boehner was implying here was the Romney/Ryan tax plan. There aren’t enough loopholes to be closed in order to generate the revenue need, and if taxes aren’t going to be raised on the wealthy, who is going to pick up the tab? Some House Republicans are suggesting that we adopt Ryan’s plan of putting a cap on deductions, which would absolutely destroy the incentive for charitable giving.
Related clip from the same interview of Boehner talking tough on the fiscal cliff:
The reality is that does matter where the money comes from. The past decade of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy has demonstrated that lowering taxes at the top does not spur economic growth, but raising taxes on the middle class could cripple the economy. The Clinton administration is proof of the kind of growth that can be accomplished by raising taxes at the top and lowering them for everyone else.
Contrary to Republican belief, what Obama is proposing is not some untested theory. What the president is proposing has been proven to work. The tax plan that Republicans are advocating is based on ideological belief system, not economic fact.
The idea of extending tax cuts for the wealthy, while raising taxes on the middle class was already rejected by the voters less than a month ago at the polls. If this is their position, the GOP isn’t just running towards the fiscal cliff, they are committing political suicide by jumping off.
The Republican Austerity Bomb is the Real Threat to America
By: Deborah Foster
December 2nd, 2012
Hidden in the tedious language of “sequestration,” which is guaranteed to lull Americans into disinterest, is an epic battle between the interests of the rich and the poor. Since the rich tend to chronically have the upper hand, having the fiscal cliff conflict come out favorably for the poor seems improbable, though there’s always hope. When the poor come to the government for welfare, they are stigmatized and degraded. When the rich come to the government for welfare, they convince everyone they earned it.
Many of the same individuals who received billions of dollars from the government in the bank bailouts, such as Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon, are currently spearheading a campaign to demand billions of dollars in cuts to social programs while billions more are requested for corporate “incentives” like tax breaks. These men, and many other CEOs of companies ranging from TimeWarner and Honeywell to Boeing and General Electric, are all part of Campaign to Fix the Debt, a project of the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget. Fix the Debt is really just an advocacy organization for people who deeply believe in disaster capitalism and austerity measures. Their solutions for resolving the debt “crisis” always revolve around funneling more money toward the wealthy through tax breaks for both corporations and upper income people while making dramatic cuts to the social safety net.
Naomi Klein called the ideology practiced by Fix the Debt, “the shock doctrine,” albeit this time the disaster is being generated in the form of a “fiscal cliff.” Across the world, powerful financial interests like the World Bank or the IMF have declared countries, regions, or other localities “disaster zones” where they could go in and impose “restructuring.” This was always a conservative’s fantasy come true: 1) cut off government services, 2) sell off government assets 3) privatize remaining government services, and 4) focus the entire economy on paying off debt. If you follow up with the countries or other localities that endured disaster capitalism and its austerity measures, they are decimated societies that have fallen to the bottom on nearly every measure of well-being. Now, organizations like the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget want to impose the shock doctrine with the most ambitious target yet, the whole American government.
Corporate CEOs are pushing for austerity, knowing there is a payoff for them. Government services will become privatized, and the corporate class is ready to move in and provide these services at a profit. Tax rates will be kept low for corporations and individuals making millions of dollars. They may have lost some power, but Republicans still have the House, and right on cue, they have been representing their core constituency. They have been pushing austerity, and holding out for those with incomes over $250,000 to receive tax cuts.
On the other side, the Democratic Party, not always known for holding their ground in negotiations, is carrying the mandate of a solid electoral win, a strong endorsement of their policy to tax the rich. The most liberal wing of the Democratic Party and Bernie Sanders have been very vocal about protecting Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, as well as trying to scale back on the cuts to other social and educational programs that already occurred with the Budget Control Act of 2011, but this is where everyone waits pensively to see what compromises Obama and the Democrats will make now that Boehner has exercised some political muscle by again holding the threat of the debt ceiling over Obama.
Progressive advocates for society’s most vulnerable populations have been getting time with President Obama and other White House officials. Unfortunately, at the same time, the Fix the Debt campaign has also had sit-down time with top officials in the White House. The next few weeks will include a great deal of political wrangling and it remains to be seen who will win the stand-offs between forces for and against austerity.
Nobel-prize award winning economist Paul Krugman has not been shy about his contempt for austerity policies or his belief that these policies were causing a recession in the European Union. He’s been using his New York Times column to track how their cutbacks in government spending have led to contracted economies with subsequent high unemployment. So, when Krugman saw that powerful allies were joining forces to bring austerity to the United States, using the upcoming “fiscal cliff” as an excuse, he decided it was time to go on the offensive. Picking up on a phrase by Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo, Krugman is asking everyone to start calling the “fiscal cliff” what it actually is, “an austerity bomb.”
Conservatives have been allowed to get away with defining the conversation, which is something they frequently manage to do. They have been successfully manufacturing this “impending debt disaster,” pushing the language of a “fiscal cliff.” For a decade, Republicans oversaw government spending that reached hemorrhaging levels with wars that were not paid for and an unfunded prescription drug benefit. They saw no problem with running deficits as they watched tax revenues drop rapidly following the Bush tax cuts. Yet, according to Republicans, the nation must suddenly address the debt crisis that they created, despite the fact that doing so threatens to stall our economy. Even the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, agrees that austerity would harm the U.S. economy right now.
Come January, the austerity measures that congressional committees already negotiated will be enacted; we will have been handed an austerity bomb. In addition to the elimination of tax cuts, a significant portion of the $500 billion sequestration includes automatic cuts to spending. There will be across the board cuts to dozens of social programs for the elderly, disabled, and the poor while public education budgets will be similarly slashed. Head Start programs will soon begin shutting down, so low-income families will no longer have access to pre-school for their children. Many college students will not be getting Federal Work Study. Fewer people are going to be admitted to substance abuse treatment programs. Children are going to go without vaccinations.
Most of the money spent on government services goes to paying labor, so reductions in government spending will represent tens of thousands of public sector jobs eliminated. Obama’s first term already included major job losses in the public sector, which was unprecedented. During every other recession, the government has responded by hiring more people, but during the recovery from the Great Recession, the government actually shed jobs. In fact, just at the state and local level, 636,000 government jobs have been lost. Already under siege, public sector workers will face dire consequences as austerity pressures continue to sap their labor rights. Just ask the entire police force of Camden, NJ, which has been fired to be replaced by a cheaper, non-union force.
As it stands right now, there will be significant cuts to social programs no matter how fiscal cliff negotiations go. There is an austerity bomb going off in January. The question is only how big will it be and what it will hit hardest.
Bernie Sanders,’The wealthy and corporations must play a significant role in reducing the deficit.’
By: Jason Easley
December 2nd, 2012
After Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner took Social Security off the table, Sen. Bernie Sanders applauded Obama and added, ‘The wealthy and large corporations must play a significant role in reducing the deficit.’
On ABC’s This Week, Tim Geithner announced that Social Security will not be a part of any deficit deal, “We are prepared to, in a separate process, look at how to strengthen Social Security, but not as part of a process to reduce the other deficits the country faces.”
In a statement Bernie Sanders took Geithner’s remarks a step further, stressed that the wealthy and large corporations have a big role in deficit reduction,
I applaud the Obama administration. This is good news for more than 55 million Americans who have earned Social Security benefits today and every working American who will receive Social Security benefits in the future. The fact is that Social Security has not contributed a nickel to the national debt so it makes no sense for it to be part of deficit negotiations.
The American people have been clear that Social Security should not be cut and that the wealthy and large corporations must play a significant role in reducing the deficit.
While Republicans are bickering among themselves about whether or not to support raising taxes on the wealthy, Democrats and the left are pretty much in unanimous agreement on this one.
Sen. Sanders brought up a very important point that congressional Republicans aren’t understanding. Their beloved rich people and large corporations are going to have pay their fair share. There will be no more free ride for their sacred, “job creators.”
The White House proposal reflects exactly what Sen. Sanders is talking about. This deficit can’t be reduced on the backs of the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the middle class. Today, John Boehner came out in opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy. Also today, Grover Norquist said he wants a deal just like the extension of the Bush tax cuts that was signed in 2010.
Neither of those things are going to happen.
Led by people like President Obama and Bernie Sanders, the left had undergone a complete transformation since the 2010 election. It is now the left leaning part of the country that is unified around a set of values. President Obama has successfully transformed the Bush tax cuts into a values issues, and Sen. Sanders has become the guardian of beloved liberal institutions like Social Security and Medicare. The right is arguing that rich should pay less taxes based on ideology, while the left is championing the value of fairness.
As the right falls apart and the left is moves forward, the new political era that many thought would come after 2008 is now within reach.
Tell the DOJ to Investigate Mitt Romney’s Serial Fraud and Perjury
By: Rmuse December 3rd, 2012
A false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive is a lie, and there are various ways a person can lie, but the simple fact is a lie is a lie. During the campaign for the presidency that just culminated in Willard Romney’s defeat, Americans witnessed mendacity of epic proportions unseen in recent memory, and questions abounded as to why Romney felt more comfortable lying than breathing. The frequency of his lies gave the impression that his problem was pathological because his falsehoods appeared to be second nature leading some to wonder if it was the result of a lifetime of his religion’s encouragement that “lying for the lord” was both good and acceptable. Besides lying for religious reasons, there is a form of lying in criminal law known as perjury, or forswearing, that is the willful act of swearing a false oath or affirmation to tell the truth, whether spoken or in writing, concerning matters material to a judicial proceeding. Perjury is considered a serious offense as it can be used to usurp the power of the courts resulting in miscarriages of justice, and after investigating Willard Romney’s record while head of Bain Capital, it appears that committing perjury was standard procedure for him and his surrogates.
Now that the election is over and no-one can assert that demanding justice for Romney is politically motivated, it is time for the Department of Justice to thoroughly investigate him, his companies, and his surrogates for committing acts of perjury to usurp the power of the courts and subvert justice. There is a legal term, mens rea, that alludes to a person’s awareness of the fact that their conduct is criminal, and without question, lying under oath, swearing a false oath or affirming to tell the truth in writing is criminal, and in Romney and Bain capital’s surrogate’s case, it was for material gain. This column cited several instances of perjury to confound the courts and benefit Willard Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital, and they were ignored as being politically motivated.
Early in the election it was revealed that Romney perjured himself regarding when he left as head of Bain Capital on SEC and FEC forms that prompted MoveOn.org to file a complaint with the Department of Justice over his disclosure claiming he was 100% stock holder and paid Bain Capital executive in 2002 despite his contention left active management in 1999. In 2001, Romney was “sole shareholder, director, and President of Sankaty Ltd. and thus is the controlling person of Sankaty, Ltd,” and Sankaty applied for payment of administrative expenses from Stage Stores, a company in which Romney was controlling shareholder, and by not disclosing conflict of interest, he committed perjury according to USCS § 152 (3) that says, “A person who knowingly and fraudulently makes a false declaration, certificate, verification, or statement under penalty of perjury as permitted under section 1s746 of title 28, in or in relation to any case under title 11 shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.”
Romney’s surrogates working in several bankruptcy cases also made false declarations and committed perjury to be creditors and debtors’ counsel in eToys bankruptcy. A bankruptcy court golden rule that “mandates all disclosures of conflict of interest” was deliberately unheeded by Bain Capital’s secret law firm and Paul Traub who committed several acts of perjury by failing to disclose conflict of interest that will be addressed in a hearing that was set to take place December 4, but has been rescheduled to March 2013. Bain’s secret law firm convinced the Delaware bankruptcy court that on Tuesday, instead of addressing the acts of fraud and corruption in eToys bankruptcy, they will have a Status Conference to discuss the hearing in March. It is still a prime opportunity for eToys shareholders who were bilked out of their investments to address the court with their concerns regarding perjury that allowed Bain Capital to get eToys for free.
The Department of Justice cannot allow the miscarriage of justice by any American under any circumstance, and because Romney is no longer running for public office, he is no longer above the law. It was understandable, but egregiously wrong, for the DOJ to ignore Romney’s perjury in filling out disclosures and filings with the FEC and SEC during the campaign for the presidency, but as a loser and regular citizen, he must be investigated and held accountable as any other American. It is true that an investigation into him and his son’s connection to an $8.5 billion Ponzi scheme, and concealing over $15 million from the auto-bailout are being pursued, but the Justice Department must conduct a thorough investigation into all of the accusations of racketeering and criminal malfeasance that will inevitably lead to serious charges and if there is justice, a far-reaching RICO investigation. To expedite an investigation by the Department of Justice, a petition on We the People-WhiteHouse.gov website petitioning President Obama to instruct the DOJ to investigate “fraud & confessed, deliberate acts of perjury” may help bring Willard Romney and Bain Capital to justice, and now that he is no longer a candidate for public office, there is no reasonable excuse to allow this liar to escape justice any longer.
December 2, 2012
Vietnam Veterans, Discharged Under Cloud, File Suit Saying Trauma Was Cause
By JAMES DAO
NEW HAVEN — In the summer of 1968, John Shepherd Jr. enlisted in the Army, figuring that the draft would get him anyway. By January 1969, he was in the Mekong Delta, fighting with the Ninth Infantry Division.
Within a month, his patrol was ambushed, and Mr. Shepherd responded by tossing a hand grenade into a bunker that killed several enemy soldiers. The Army awarded him a Bronze Star with a valor device, one of its highest decorations.
Yet the medal did little to assuage Mr. Shepherd’s sense of anxiousness and futility about the war. A few weeks after his act of heroism, he said, his platoon leader was killed by a sniper as he tried to help Mr. Shepherd out of a canal. It was a breaking point: his behavior became erratic, and at some point he simply refused to go on patrol.
“I never felt fear like I felt when he got shot,” Mr. Shepherd said last week.
After a court-martial, the Army discharged Mr. Shepherd under other-than-honorable conditions, then known as an undesirable discharge. At the time, he was happy just to be a civilian again. But he came to rue that discharge, particularly after his claim for veterans benefits was denied because of it.
Today, Mr. Shepherd, 65, is part of a class-action lawsuit against the armed forces arguing that he and other Vietnam veterans had post-traumatic stress disorder when they were issued other-than-honorable discharges. The suit, filed in Federal District Court, demands that their discharges be upgraded.
The suit raises two thorny issues that could affect thousands of Vietnam veterans: Can they be given a diagnosis of PTSD retroactively, to their time in service, though the disorder was not identified until 1980? And if they can, should recently instituted policies intended to protect troops with PTSD be applied retroactively to their cases?
Mr. Shepherd’s legal team, students with the Yale Law School veterans legal clinic, argues yes on both counts. In court papers, they assert that it is reasonable to assume that Mr. Shepherd and other veterans who were later given PTSD diagnoses began exhibiting troublesome symptoms while in service.
Moreover, under rules put in place during the Iraq war, troops who say they have PTSD must be given medical examinations before they are forced out of the military, to ensure that problematic behavior is not linked to the disorder. If they are given a PTSD diagnosis, service members may still receive an honorable discharge.
“Vietnam War-era veterans, in contrast, have been denied this opportunity for appropriate consideration of the PTSD,” the students said in the complaint.
But the Army says no. In a rejection of an earlier request by Mr. Shepherd to upgrade his discharge, the Army tersely rejected evidence that his misconduct 43 years ago was linked to PTSD and raised questions about whether his platoon leader was actually killed.
A spokesman for the Army said the military has a policy of not discussing pending litigation.
The details of Mr. Shepherd’s case aside, the suit could have a wide impact. The Yale team says that its review of records from 2003 to 2012 shows that 154 Vietnam-era veterans petitioned the Army to upgrade discharges because of PTSD, but that only two were successful. Yet the Army Board of Corrections for Military Records granted upgrades nearly half of the time for other cases.
The students estimate that more than a quarter million Vietnam-era veterans were discharged under other-than-honorable conditions, and that thousands of those probably had PTSD. Their suit names as defendants the secretaries for the Army, Air Force and Navy. Vietnam Veterans of America, the veterans service organization, is joining the case as a plaintiff on Monday.
Discharges that are other than honorable can make it harder for veterans to find work and also disqualify them for veterans benefits.
In Mr. Shepherd’s case, a Department of Veterans Affairs doctor in 2004 gave him a diagnosis of service-connected PTSD. As a result, the department will provide health care for his PTSD. But it will not provide him general medical care, unless he is found to have other health problems related to his service.
Veterans disability compensation is also a problem. Mr. Shepherd’s undesirable discharge was actually upgraded to a general discharge in the 1970s under a special Carter administration program. That upgrade should have made it easier for him to apply for disability compensation. But subsequent legislation enacted by Congress said that clemency upgrades like Mr. Shepherd’s did not automatically qualify veterans for benefits. Mr. Shepherd’s compensation claim was ultimately rejected.
Mr. Shepherd, who has been divorced twice and battled through alcoholism and drug abuse, lives in New Haven, getting by on Social Security and a Teamsters pension. (He drove trucks for years.) He could use the extra money from disability compensation, but what matters as much, he says, is removing the stain of his discharge.
“I want that honorable,” he said. “I did do my part, until I really felt it wasn’t worth getting killed for.”
In the USA
Originally published December 1, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified December 2, 2012 at 12:42 PM
Elephants are dying out in America's zoos
Zoos' efforts to preserve and propagate elephants have largely failed, both in Seattle and nationally. The infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is almost triple the rate in the wild.
By Michael J. Berens
Seattle Times staff reporter
First of two parts
As the 1960s dawned, few Americans had ever seen a baby elephant. It had been more than 40 years since an elephant had been born in North America, and then only at a circus — never in a zoo.
But in a ramshackle exhibit yard at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, in the summer of 1960, the extraordinary occurred: A 15,000-pound male, Thonglaw, mated with a much smaller female, Belle, and Belle became pregnant. Zookeepers didn't know that elephant gestation takes 22 months, though, and they missed the pregnancy altogether. Unaware, they transferred the pachyderm pair to a zoo in Portland, under a sharing agreement.
In April 1962, at the Portland zoo, Belle gave birth to a male named Packy, and an international sensation was ignited. Life magazine devoted an 11-page spread to the birth. The country got caught up in a Packy craze, with toys, clothes and books bearing the cute baby's image flying off the shelves.
The public seemed to feel a unique connection to elephants, gentle giants who exhibit many humanlike qualities. Elephants live in families, exhibit memory and possess surprising self-awareness, such as recognizing themselves in a mirror. They experience grief and love, pain and fear.
Little Packy was everybody's baby, and attendance at the Oregon Zoo soared as visitors from all over the world waited in half-mile-long lines to see him. Cash receipts skyrocketed, and so did donations.
It was clear that elephants, the world's largest land mammals, were indeed "glamour beasts," box-office stars that would help America's zoos through the 20th century and into the 21st. Across the country, the race to produce baby elephants was on.
The effort would be good not only for zoos, officials insisted, it would be good for the Asian and African species that were under enormous pressure in their natural habitats. Zoos would help preserve and propagate elephants, they explained.
Fifty years later, The Seattle Times set out to examine how that effort has turned out. Despite the zoo industry's insistence otherwise, by almost any measure, it has failed.
A gamble goes bad
It took decades, but Seattle finally got its own baby elephant. In 2000, an Asian female named Hansa was born at Woodland Park Zoo, instantly bewitching the public. But 6 ½ years later, when she was found dead on the elephant-barn floor early one morning, zoo officials knew their gamble had failed.
They suspected an elephant herpes virus known as EEHV that had begun ravaging young elephants at a handful of U.S. zoos. The virus, believed to spread by contact, could lie dormant for years, then move so swiftly it could destroy internal organs in hours.
They knew that the virus had infected elephants inside the Springfield, Mo., zoo where they sent Hansa's mother to be bred. They feared it might find its way back to Seattle but the pluses "outweighed the negatives," they said, and they took a risk.
Besides, the zoo industry's governing body, the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), had privately approved Seattle's plan. The AZA was desperate to produce elephants, hoping to reverse or at least slow an alarming decline in the number of the animals in American zoos.
Publicly, the zoo industry was claiming — and continues to claim today — that "elephants are thriving inside zoos." It's a message that AZA officials have delivered repeatedly to lawmakers and regulators, trumpeted in news releases, and highlighted in a recent national marketing campaign.
But they know it's not true. And it never has been.
Rather, the decades-long effort by zoos to preserve and protect elephants is failing, exacerbated by substandard conditions and denial of mounting scientific evidence that most elephants do not thrive in captivity, The Seattle Times has found.
The overall infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is a staggering 40 percent — nearly triple the rate in the Asian or African wild.
Further, the same kind of virus that felled Hansa now has been found in a dozen zoos, as they circulated elephants around the country to try to breed much-desired offspring.
The Times did a first-of-its-kind analysis of 390 elephant fatalities at accredited U.S. zoos for the past 50 years. It found that most of the elephants died from injury or disease linked to conditions of their captivity, from chronic foot problems caused by standing on hard surfaces to musculoskeletal disorders from inactivity caused by being penned or chained for days and weeks at a time.
Of the 321 elephant deaths for which The Times had complete records, half were by age 23, more than a quarter of a century before their expected life spans of 50 to 60 years.
For every elephant born in a zoo, on average another two die. At that rate, the 288 elephants inside 78 U.S. zoos could be "demographically extinct" within the next 50 years because there'll be too few fertile females left to breed, according to zoo-industry research.
In the baby race set off by Packy's birth, zoos in the 1960s and 1970s recklessly bred father with daughter, brother with sister, practices since abandoned. The tainted bloodlines of these offspring still impair efforts to safely breed today.
Woodland Park and zoo-industry officials defend captivity as a tool for scientific advances that have benefited both captive and wild elephants. Additionally, they argue that live-animal exhibits are the best way to boost public awareness and raise funds for conservation efforts.
"We are trying to save elephants in zoos," said Bruce Bohmke, Woodland Park chief operations officer. "We'd never do anything to hurt our elephants," he said. "They are happy here."
Steve Feldman, AZA spokesman, said the association over time has raised standards that make life better for zoo elephants: more living space, softer indoor surfaces to reduce foot and joint stress, and limits on the use of chains and bullhooks, a long-handled, clawed-end training tool used to gouge, poke and strike elephants.
Feldman said many zookeepers think high death rates can be reversed with better-managed breeding programs. Other tactics include importing more elephants from the wild for genetic diversity, and using recent medical advances to fight the elephant virus.
"Our future looks brighter that our past indicates," Feldman said.
But some industry leaders say it's time to discard the traditional Victorian-era model of the menagerie: one of every animal.
"Elephants don't thrive in zoos," said David Hancocks, who was director of Woodland Park Zoo from 1976 to 1984. "We didn't understand elephants very well in the 1970s or '80s. But there is overwhelming scientific evidence today that shows the harmful impact of captivity."
Gifts of elephants
Woodland Park's efforts to breed elephants were unrelenting and emblematic of the quest by dozens of zoos to create their own glamour beasts at any cost. The story begins with Hancocks, a notable architect from Great Britain who arrived in 1975 to redesign Seattle's squalid, outdated zoo.
His pioneering designs featured natural habitats, known as the "immersion experience" for both the captive animals and visiting humans. Hancocks mesmerized city officials and was promoted to director of the zoo.
Hancocks began with the apes. He transformed the bleak, prisonlike ape pen into a lush, free-roaming micro-world. The design garnered national acclaim.
He next turned to the elephants and a dank and dimly lit two-room barn where zookeepers chained two female elephants — Bamboo, 14, and Watoto, 11 — for as long as 17 hours a day.
"Conditions were horrible," Hancocks recalled. "I planned to close the exhibit."
But those plans changed in 1980 when Thai Airways International, promoting a new overseas route, gave Seattle an unusual gift: a baby Asian elephant.
"What could I do?" Hancocks said. "The mayor, the public, everyone wanted this elephant. I couldn't refuse."
Attendance broke records at the city-owned zoo; hundreds of visitors circled the elephant exhibit daily.
The newcomer was named Chai — Thai for victory. She had been plucked from her mother at age 1 before being weaned, a common practice because zoos coveted crowd-pleasing calves. Chai was joined the following year by another 1-year-old Asian elephant, Sri — this time a gift from a Thai zoo.
The four elephants shared an 8- by-18-foot south room and a 20-by-42 north room. Conditions were so cramped that they were chained at night so they wouldn't accidentally roll over each other.
Hancocks said he was incensed by the substandard conditions — tight space and little activity for the elephants, particularly on cold days. Each elephant developed foot disease. He petitioned the Seattle City Council to build a new $3 million elephant exhibit. When city officials balked, he resigned.
The exit of the highly regarded Hancocks cast a national spotlight on Seattle's dilapidated zoo. In response, embarrassed city officials launched a "Save our Elephants" campaign, which pulled in millions of dollars in donations worldwide for a new world-class elephant house. When completed in 1989, it included larger, heated rooms, an outdoor yard adorned with trees, bushes, a wading pond and up-close viewing platforms for the public.
Seattle zoo officials decided it was time to increase the size of their herd. Blood tests showed that Chai had a predictable reproductive cycle and was the best for breeding.
An artificial solution
Zookeepers considered two pregnancy options.
They could cart Chai to another zoo and let the natural mating process take place. But such a trip would be costly and the zoo would lose Chai for nearly a year.
Or they could try artificial insemination. Though less expensive, it was experimental. No zoo at the time had successfully impregnated an elephant. Even so, Seattle zookeepers opted for artificial insemination.
Because it was an unnatural and invasive procedure, keepers had to train Chai to accept artificial insemination. First, they needed her to learn how to stand still for long periods without panicking. Zookeepers chained Chai's four legs to anchors, pulling them tight so she couldn't move an inch — a technique called "short chaining."
In the next phase, zookeepers got her used to having a long, flexible hose inserted into her winding, 3-foot-long reproductive tract. Zookeepers conducted mock inseminations on Chai for about two years.
In 1992, using elephant sperm shipped by Greyhound bus from the Oregon Zoo, zookeepers performed the first artificial insemination on Chai. They had recruited a staffer who had the "longest arms," records show. The sperm was pumped through the hose.
They repeated the procedures on Chai up to 10 times a month — sometimes twice a day, medical records show — with no success.
Still, zookeepers kept up hope. After a February 1994 insemination, one wrote on a medical log, "Come on sperm!"
After four years and 91 attempts at artificial insemination, Woodland Park Zoo officials grew weary of waiting for Chai to conceive. They petitioned the AZA to breed her at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo. The AZA, founded in 1924, is funded by memberships and provides its seal of approval, or accreditation, to those that meet the standards the zoo industry sets for itself. To remain accredited, a zoo must get AZA approval for its breeding plans for elephants and other animals.
Some Woodland Park zookeepers worried about sending Chai to the Missouri zoo. Dickerson Park was among a handful of zoos nationally that had experienced a lethal outbreak of a mysterious virus that killed only young elephants.
The dormant virus, which may hitchhike on elephant skin, can inexplicably flare into an infection that can ravage internal organs in days, sometimes hours, eating away tissue so rapidly that by the time an infected elephant drops to the ground it may already be dead.
The virus — elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV) — was first identified at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in 1995, after the death of a 16-month-old calf.
Despite the dangers from the virus, or that Chai might carry the virus back to Seattle, an AZA breeding committee gave its approval.
"It was decided that the plusses (a baby elephant) outweighed the negatives," according to a May 1998 Woodland Park memo that detailed zookeeper concerns.
That fall, at a cost of $50,000, Chai was sedated and trucked more than 2,000 miles to Missouri.
Dickerson Park Zoo, like Woodland Park at the time, was a "free contact" zoo. Keepers trained, fed and cared for animals without any barriers between them. To control and train elephants, keepers used restraints and bullhooks to mold behavior and establish who's in charge.
At Woodland, zookeepers characterized 8,600-pound Chai as shy and submissive, with no history of aggression. Within her first three days at Dickerson Park, keepers said, Chai turned dangerous and required restraints and physical punishment.
Two witnesses, upset by what they saw, said that Chai was chained by two legs and repeatedly struck with a bullhook during a two-hour training session in September 1998, according to a complaint from whistle-blowers filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates zoos.
Woodland Park and Dickerson Park officials disputed the accusations. They asserted that Chai had knocked down a keeper and later lunged at him. Chai was slapped several times with a bullhook but the skin was not broken or bruised during a brief disciplinary session, zoo officials said.
Even so, USDA inspectors cited Dickerson Park with a violation of the Animal Welfare Act for causing "trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and unnecessary discomfort." The zoo paid a $5,000 fine.
Chai had a hard time being accepted by the herd. Some elephants gouged and rammed her body. Keepers placed her in protective captivity after one elephant bit off a piece of her tail. Her weight and health rapidly deteriorated, medical records show. Zookeepers dosed Chai with Valium, an anti-anxiety narcotic, and azaperone, a tranquilizer, to calm her down and make her easier to handle.
Regularly, she was put in the same indoor paddock with Onyx, a prolific bull elephant.
When Chai was returned to Seattle, she weighed about 7,300 pounds — a loss of 1,300 pounds. But she returned pregnant.
Training by force
On Nov. 3, 2000, for the first time in Washington history, a baby elephant was born. Chai gave birth to a girl, weighing 235 pounds on wobbly feet, flourishing a 10-inch-long trunk.
Woodland Park had a naming contest for the baby elephant and from more than 27,000 entries, officials picked the winner, the suggestion of a Redmond schoolgirl — "Hansa," the Thai word for "supreme happiness."
Gate revenue and donations doubled at the Woodland Park Zoo, showing the economic power of a new glamour beast.
But baby elephants quickly lose their newborn cuteness and crowds taper after the first year, zoo studies show. By 2, Hansa weighed about 1,500 pounds and was undergoing training. Some Woodland Park visitors were aghast after hearing Hansa bellow and seeing a zookeeper strike her several times with a bullhook. Chai stormed out of the elephant barn to protect her daughter. The keeper later explained he was disciplining Hansa for eating dirt.
Officials defended the use of force, saying the blows did not harm Hansa. Later that year, Woodland Park switched to "protected contact" and dealt with its elephants mostly behind bars or barriers and discontinued using bullhooks.
As Hansa matured, zookeepers regularly conducted blood draws and hunted for evidence that she was infected with the herpes virus. It was appearing in more zoos and was a leading cause of death for captive Asian elephants under age 7.
Zookeepers resumed artificial insemination on Chai, hoping for another baby elephant.
The odds of success had gradually improved, enhanced by the use of ultrasound imaging that enabled precise placement of sperm. The rubber hose and air pump had been replaced by a 4-meter-long endoscope-equipped "artificial penis." And in lieu of chains, the zoo used a large steel-barred chute with contractible walls that could gently pin an elephant in place. It's officially known as an "elephant restraint device" or ERD, but zookeepers have nicknamed it the "iron maiden."
By 2003, the weight of scientific evidence that elephants failed to thrive in zoos, combined with pressure from animal-welfare groups worldwide, prompted U.S. agencies to dramatically slow the importation of wild elephants. An easy supply of elephants masked the premature deaths and decline of captive elephants in U.S. zoos. With their supply line nearly closed, zoos stepped up captive breeding to replenish the dying ranks.
The zoo industry also faced another problem: The Detroit Zoo said it was giving away its elephants to a nonprofit sanctuary. Cold weather and captivity took too high a toll on its elephants, the zoo director said.
Then a cluster of unexpected deaths of zoo elephants unfolded over several months in Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere. The deaths not only made national news but sparked protests from animal-welfare groups that "gain momentum every day of the week," a concerned AZA member wrote in an email.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums decided to fight back. In January 2005, it organized a private two-day meeting at Florida's Walt Disney World with representatives from dozens of zoos that housed elephants. Among them were Woodland Park Zoo's chief executive Deborah Jensen and Bruce Bohmke, deputy director at the time.
All agreed the death toll of captive elephants had risen to "crisis levels." According to documents and reports reviewed at the meeting, neither the African nor Asian elephant population was sustainable under current conditions.
They agreed to "speak and act with a unified voice" in claiming that elephants were thriving in zoos. Together, they hired a crisis-management firm and agreed to dub critics of elephant captivity as "extremists." They also committed in writing to aggressively breed elephants, following a "species survival plan."
To that end, later in the year Chai underwent her 99th artificial-insemination attempt. And Woodland Park officials won approval to breed Sri, then 12, at the St. Louis Zoo.
Sri quickly became pregnant. But near the end of her term, the calf in Sri's womb died. She still carries the mummified, stillborn calf.
For now, Sri remains in St. Louis, officially on loan, but is never expected to return.
For six years, Hansa showed no signs of medical problems.
In June 2007, she exhibited mild symptoms of colic, a common and treatable digestive disorder. She showed signs of improvement.
During the night shift on June 7, a watchman reported nothing unusual and went home at midnight. The next morning, before public gates swung open, Hansa was found dead on a rubber-matted concrete floor.
A necropsy revealed the cause of death: a strain of the elephant herpes virus.
Hansa was cremated. Mourners left flowers and stuffed animals in a makeshift memorial outside the zoo's south entrance
The strain that killed Hansa was a new variation. So which, if any, elephant was the carrier?
Tests showed that none of Woodland's three elephants was infected. But researchers have yet to develop a test to detect the virus in its dormant stage, so it remains unknown if any of the elephants were carriers.
An emerging theory is that the dormant virus may already reside in the bodies of elephants; when it turns active, it can spread by contact or be passed from mother to calf during pregnancy.
But some animal-welfare groups, relying on zoo records to track the path of the virus, believe that the zoo industry's practice of transferring elephants around the country to breed has contributed to the spread of the virus. Dickerson Park was one of the nation's hot spots for the elephant virus at the time Hansa's mother, Chai, was sent there in 1998. Indeed, six months after Hansa's death, the virus claimed a 2-year-old Asian elephant living at Dickerson.
112 artificial attempts
Like Woodland Park, many other zoos have pinned their hopes for crowd-pleasing new elephants on artificial insemination. But success has been spotty, with miscarriages and premature and stillborn deaths from artificial-insemination pregnancies reaching 54 percent.
Of 27 artificial-insemination pregnancies since 1999, eight resulted in miscarriages or stillborn deaths, documents show. An additional six calves died from disease, including from the herpes virus.
Simply to sustain the elephant population, accredited U.S. zoos need to acquire 10 new female elephants each year, according to modeling by scientists. Only three elephants have been born this year inside U.S. zoos, including one Friday at Portland's Oregon Zoo. Eight have died.
At Woodland Park, some zookeepers wanted to stop trying to get Chai pregnant. But others disagreed; Chai was the only fertile elephant left at the zoo. In March 2010, zoo records show, Chai was inseminated for the 104th time.
Last December, Woodland Park zookeepers corralled Chai once more into the restraint chute and over the course of four days performed three artificial-insemination procedures, bringing the total to 112 attempts, zoo records show. None of the three was successful.
Asked in August about the extent of its artificial-insemination program, zoo officials at first said they did not know the specific number. They also maintained they made no such attempts on their elephants before 2005.
But the zoo's own documents, acquired through public-record requests, include an October 1992 zookeeper log that marks the kickoff of its elephant-breeding program: "Artificial Insemination performed today!"
Confronted with the zoo's records, its spokesman, David Schaefer, acknowledged the earlier artificial-insemination attempts. He explained that zoo officials were embarrassed by the early procedures on Chai and did not consider them examples of what the industry now calls "AI."
They now say they have no plans to impregnate 33-year-old Chai.
"We've decided to stop for now," Schaefer said. "But we're not saying never."
Part Two: Elephant havens face zoo-industry backlash
SAN ANDREAS, Calif. —
After decades of captivity inside America's zoos, the elephants arrived broken in many different ways.
Maggie barely survived the harsh winters of the tiny Alaska Zoo. Confined many days to a cramped, indoor pen, she developed crippling foot and joint disease, collapsing to the floor — lifted only by a crane. Zookeepers conceded that frigid Anchorage was no place for a 4-ton tropical beast.
Annie spent much of her life in chains at the Milwaukee County Zoo until the public learned of brutal training sessions. Zookeepers routinely anchored the elephant's feet with chains, then struck and gouged her with a bullhook, even videotaping sessions to teach others how to make an elephant perform on command.
And there is Wanda, whose cracked feet and arthritic legs deteriorated with each bitter winter at the Detroit Zoo. Its officials concluded that captivity was unnecessarily cruel for the world's largest land mammal.
The three elephants now share a different life at a 2,300-acre compound nestled in the San Andreas foothills. Pat Derby, co-founder of the nonprofit sanctuary, says, "This is where elephants come to die."
But if the zoo industry's trade group had its way, their elephants would never come at all.
The Northern California sanctuary, and another in Tennessee, could represent a welcome, zero-cost option for zoos with aging or ill elephants. Instead, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) opposes sanctuaries for a key reason: Sanctuaries refuse to breed more elephants into captivity.
Privately-owned sanctuaries are not open to the public and "inhibit zoos' efforts to preserve and study elephants," says Bruce Bohmke, deputy director of Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo and member of the AZA national committee that oversees elephant management inside accredited zoos.
"We believe that breeding is essential to sustaining elephant populations in zoos," Bohmke said.
Despite repeatedly telling the public that elephants are thriving in captivity, the zoo industry knows otherwise and is desperate to breed more elephants.
For every elephant born in a U.S. zoo, on average two others die, a Seattle Times analysis has found. Under current conditions, with just 288 elephants inside 78 accredited U.S. zoos, they could be "demographically extinct" within 50 years, studies show.
Elephants are the zoo industry's glamour beasts — reliable crowd-pleasers and revenue generators. But for most zoos, elephants are the most expensive exhibit. With the economic downturn in recent years and an inability to get new and younger elephants, more zoos may view sanctuaries as an attractive option.
To dissuade accredited zoos from endorsing sanctuaries — as the Detroit and Milwaukee zoos had done — the national association adopted harsh punishments designed to hurt zoos' bottom lines.
This summer, the AZA used that power when Toronto City Council members voted to shut down the zoo's elephant exhibit and retire three African elephants to the California sanctuary. Council members decided that captivity was harmful.
The zoo association revoked Toronto's accreditation, preventing the exchange of animals with other accredited zoos.
But the association does allow zoos to give their unwanted elephants to circuses, where breeding can occur.
By their very nature, sanctuaries focus attention on a question the zoo industry doesn't eagerly discuss. How much space do these social, most humanlike of mammals require to lead a healthy life? Industry guidelines are fuzzy on the issue.
Generally, indoor facilities must provide "adequate room for elephants to move about and lie down without restriction," which means a "recommended" minimum of 600 square feet for males and 400 square feet for females, according to AZA guidelines.
Outdoor spaces must provide "sufficient space and environmental complexity to both allow for and stimulate natural behavioral activities and social interactions resulting in healthy and well-adapted elephants." Recommendation: 5,400 square feet per elephant, significantly smaller than a baseball infield.
Elephants commonly tower 10 feet tall or higher and weigh about 8,000 pounds for females and 12,000 pounds for males.
"Space is one of the most difficult measures to standardize," a zoo-association manual says. "There is no scientific data which clearly indicates the amount of space needed for an elephant to be healthy and well adjusted."
Some zoos have taken steps to mitigate problems. The Pittsburgh Zoo owns a 724-acre preserve where zookeepers plan to breed African elephants in a more natural environment. The Oakland Zoo randomly scatters food throughout its 6-acre exhibit to encourage its 15 elephants to constantly roam in search of food as they do in the wild.
Woodland Park's exhibit exceeds minimum recommendations with a 1-acre outdoor area for its three elephants. The indoor barn is divided into four sections. The largest stall is 22 by 39 feet; the smallest is 22 by 14 feet.
Animal-welfare advocates maintain that the size of many elephant exhibits, including Woodland Park's, is tantamount to neglect.
The debate over space and conditions recently played out in a Los Angeles County courtroom. Two citizens, with the backing of animal-welfare, groups sued the Los Angeles Zoo, with its relatively new $42 million Elephants of Asia exhibit, over treatment of the animals.
After weeks of testimony, Judge John L. Segal in a scathing opinion this June ordered zookeepers to exercise elephants at least two hours a day and to routinely till dirt surfaces to lessen potential damage to elephants' feet and joints.
He banned the use of disciplinary and training tools such as electric-shock rods and bullhooks. Zookeepers said they already had stopped using them.
The zoo was not a "happy place for elephants, nor is it for members of the public who go to the zoo and recognize that the elephants are neither thriving, happy, nor content," the judge wrote. "Captivity is a terrible existence for any intelligent, self-aware species, which the undisputed evidence shows elephants are. ... To believe otherwise, as some high-ranking zoo employees appear to believe, is delusional."
At sanctuaries, elephants behave in ways rarely seen in zoos. They move as a herd in a straight line over long distances. They stop to play. They often take midday naps by lying on the dusty ground wherever they can find shade. On the hottest days, they might wander to a pond and submerge their massive bodies.
Also striking is what is not seen: elephants standing still while repetitiously rocking their heads or shuffling their feet for hours at a time — a common behavior among zoo elephants.
Many of the world's top elephant researchers call it "stereotypical behavior," which they say is aggravated by close-quarter captivity and stress.
Up to 40 percent of elephants in zoos display symptoms, zoo-industry studies show.
Dr. Joyce Poole, recognized as a global elephant expert, reports that stereotypical behavior — the kind exhibited by many zoo elephants — is not found among elephants in the wild.
All three of Woodland Park's elephants — Chai, Bamboo and Watoto — have exhibited this behavior, said Alyne Fortgang, a Seattle animal-welfare advocate who has monitored the elephants for a decade.
Woodland Park officials do not disagree. But they insist that the prolonged foot shuffling or head rolling is normal, healthy behavior. Woodland Park's deputy director Bruce Bohmke characterized the behavior as a sign that elephants are anticipating food or eager to return to the barn.
Too many males
For decades, zoos were able to mask the high mortality rates of captive elephants by simply importing more wild elephants — usually in groups of up to 11.
By 2003, however, relentless pressure by animal-activist groups and public awareness about the tolls of captivity led the federal government and international agencies to severely clamp down on the number of imports of wild-born elephants. Consequently, zoos have been forced to concentrate on improving their breeding programs.
Despite intensified breeding efforts, however, the number of births continues to fall far short of deaths. Zoos' stepped-up breeding also created an unintended problem — too many male elephants have been born.
In the wild, bull elephants pose no threat to the natural order. Females lead the herd, bonding for life with daughters. Males are banished at puberty, around age 15, and roam with other males or live alone. Much larger and more aggressive, the males have weeks long periods of sexual arousal, called musth, that can turn even placid elephants uncontrollably violent.
In captivity, bull elephants must be segregated from females for safety, which can add millions of dollars in costs for zoos. It's a reason most zoos, such as Woodland Park and Point Defiance, own only female elephants.
But with industry pressure to breed more elephants, at least 12 zoos have been left with an unwelcome bounty of male births. Of the 41 elephants in zoos born since 2004, 21 are males. Many smaller zoos aren't equipped to handle even one adult male.
The first wave of elephants born since the 2003 import ban will enter sexual maturity in about six years.
Facing a ticking biological budget bomb, several zoos with juvenile males have warned AZA officials that they cannot absorb the extra costs or they lack the space to accommodate a male elephant.
Zoos in Denver and Birmingham, Ala., are expanding their elephant exhibits to take in more males from other zoos, if necessary.
A consortium of zoos is also building its own sanctuary where zoos can send unwanted males. Officials broke ground in April on a 225-acre sanctuary called the National Elephant Center in Fellsmore, Fla. The first phase includes a 13,000-square-foot barn and enough pasture for nine elephants. The $15 million project will eventually house up to 36 elephants.
Accredited zoos also plan to use the center for breeding, one way to revitalize the nation's elephant population. But for some zoos with elephants, a new center won't matter.
The Bronx Zoo in New York — the nation's largest and wealthiest zoo system — announced in 2006 that it would shut down its elephant exhibit after its three remaining elephants die.
Zoo officials say they were motivated by concerns about costs as well as the deleterious effects of captivity. Their elephants were too old to breed and acquiring fertile females was unlikely. Elephants can live from 50 to 60 years, representing long-term financial commitments. Since the early 1990s, at least 22 zoos — including Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and San Francisco — have closed their elephant exhibits or said they plan to do so.
Woodland Park officials say they will keep their elephant exhibit indefinitely and hope to expand it to include room for a male elephant and two more females. Point Defiance officials say they may be forced to shutter their exhibit when their two elephants, aged 48 and 49, die and new elephants are unavailable.
Dodging import squeeze
To more quickly replenish captive herds, the zoo industry is working to circumvent limitations on imports of wild-born elephants.The zoo association, whose members include zoos in Mexico and Canada, sponsored a mass importation this year that many animal-welfare advocates fear is designed to get around U.S. restrictions.
In June, nine wild-born African elephants were shipped to an AZA-accredited zoo in Mexico, which is not bound by U.S. law. With AZA approval, Africam Safari in Puebla, Mexico, bought the elephants for an undisclosed amount, bringing its elephant total to 13.
The purchase proved controversial. A Mexican zoo official claimed that the animals, aged 4 to 10, were rescued in Namibia after their parents were slaughtered by ivory poachers. Namibia government officials, as reported by The Associated Press, said that claim was false, that the elephants weren't in danger or needing rescue. They came from the Namib Game Services, which was identified as a private reserve.
But The Times found that Namib Games Services is the corporate front for Mount Paresis Guest & Hunting Farm, a 51,400-acre compound with six private luxury suites, a swimming pool and elephants wandering the grounds. Recreational hunters pay exorbitant fees to kill exotic animals, selecting from a menu that offers dozens of species, but not elephants, which are endangered and protected worldwide.
This means an AZA-accredited zoo cut a private deal with animal profiteers in order to bring elephants into a North American facility.
To kill a giraffe at the hunting farm costs about $2,080. Bagging a cheetah is $3,250. At the top of the list is the sable, a ringed-horned cousin of the antelope, which runs $11,050.
According to a promotional brochure, "Wounded animals will be charged for in full."
On a sultry August day at PAWS, Pat Derby took visitors on a tour around the scenic sanctuary, staying just outside its 7-foot-high, steel-barred fences.
"Always keep a barrier between you and the elephant," Derby explained. "And don't get too close. They can reach out through the bars with their trunks and grab you before you can blink."
Derby was Hollywood's foremost wild-animal trainer during the 1960s, working on such popular shows as "Flipper," "Lassie" and "Daktari."
She rocked the entertainment industry in 1976 with her tell-all book, "The Lady and Her Tiger," which exposed Hollywood's harsh treatment and neglect of its photogenic animal stars. By then she had traded show business for animal-welfare advocacy.
She and her partner, Ed Stewart, opened their first sanctuary in 1984 on 30 acres in Galt, Calif., a half-hour drive south of Sacramento. They called it the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), which is unrelated to the Lynnwood pet-rescue organization with the same name.
They began with a jaguar, a menagerie of lions, bears, wolves, and a 3-year-old African elephant called No. 71 that they rescued from a wealthy man who kept it on his Florida estate.
She and Stewart crusaded against circuses, staging protests and securing hidden videos of elephant abuse. PAWS sued the circuses in federal court, charging animal cruelty. The circus industry fought back, hard. In 2000, PAWS filed a lawsuit against Feld Entertainment, owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses, for racketeering and fraud, accusing the company of spying on PAWS, infiltrating it, and stealing documents as part of a campaign to discredit it. The parties settled for an undisclosed seven-figure sum — and six circus elephants — going to PAWS.
By then, wealthy and famous patrons had joined their efforts, among them actress Lindsey Wagner and former game-show host Bob Barker.
Derby and Stewart used the money to build the San Andreas sanctuary, which features several animal barns and a 12-foot-deep pool with massaging jets to treat the elephants' feet.
Elephants there are segregated by sex and by species, Asian and African. There is a quarantine section, where for a while they kept elephants that came with or acquired tuberculosis.
As part of their daily routine, the elephants receive one-on-one care — showers, foot cleanings, and nutritional snacks of carrots and apples. They are never chained.
Elephants may come to the sanctuary to die, but in the meantime many find new life.
For elephant No. 71, veterinarians predicted she would die within weeks from pancreatic disease and severe bouts of colic, Derby said.
The elephant, which took its name from its numbered tag at an animal auction, had been plucked from the African wild as a baby, and then sold to a wealthy Florida man who kept her at his estate until she fell ill from neglect.
"I never gave her a name," Derby said. "I wanted people to ask me why she was just a number." Then she'd explain how elephants are exploited for profit.
Derby and Stewart bottle-fed the young calf and slept near her in the barn for several months. Pound by pound, the calf grew more robust and recovered. No. 71 lived another 22 years before dying of pancreatitis linked to conditions from its first few years in captivity, an autopsy showed.
Annie, the Milwaukee elephant, no longer feels the bite of chains. She came to PAWS in 1995 after community outcry forced her transfer. People were upset after television stations showed unsettling training videos, obtained by animal-welfare activists, that showed Annie being restrained and repeatedly struck. In one video, zookeepers are shown around a blackboard, outlining the steps to take next time to better control Annie and get her to obey.
At the sanctuary, Annie was aggressive at first and tried to strike her keepers. She bobbed her head, for hours at a time, classic stereotypical behavior. Now 52, she no longer bobs her head.
After arriving from the Detroit Zoo in 2005, Wanda recovered from her arthritic legs after rehabilitation sessions in a special pool. She now roams the sanctuary without apparent signs of pain.
One of PAWS' greatest triumphs is Maggie. She came from the Alaska Zoo in 2007 after suffering years of crippling foot and joint problems, collapsing several times. Maggie wasn't abused but her plight underscores the challenge for zoos that try to provide superior care in climates where the tropical animals have to stay indoors for weeks and months as temperatures drop below freezing and snow piles up outside.
On that August day at the PAWS sanctuary, temperatures climbed to 80 degrees. After Derby tossed bulging paper bags of vegetables over the fence, Maggie shambled down a grassy hill to get at them.
Outside the fence, PAWS elephant keeper Michelle Harvey monitored Maggie's progress. She had been her keeper at the Alaska Zoo. Harvey said she left her Alaska job so she and Maggie would never be apart.
Maggie's feet are healthy now, Harvey said, so she no longer collapses.
Voyager discovers ‘magnetic highway’ at edge of solar system
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 3, 2012 20:13 EST
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has encountered a “magnetic highway” at the edge of the solar system, a surprising discovery 35 years after its launch, the experts behind the pioneering craft said Monday.
Earlier this year a surge in a key indicator fueled hopes that the craft was nearing the so-called heliopause, which marks the boundary between our solar system and outer space.
But instead of slipping away from the bubble of charged particles the Sun blows around itself, Voyager encountered something completely unexpected.
The craft’s daily radio reports sent back evidence that the Sun’s magnetic field lines was connected to interstellar magnetic fields. Lower-energy charged particles were zooming out and higher-energy particles from outside were streaming in.
They called it a magnetic highway because charged particles outside this region bounced around in all directions, as if trapped on local roads inside the bubble, or heliosphere.
“Although Voyager 1 still is inside the Sun’s environment, we now can taste what it’s like on the outside because the particles are zipping in and out on this magnetic highway,” said Edward Stone, a Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.
“We believe this is the last leg of our journey to interstellar space. Our best guess is it’s likely just a few months to a couple years away. The new region isn’t what we expected, but we’ve come to expect the unexpected from Voyager.”
Voyager is now 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) away from the Sun, which is 122 times the distances from the Earth to the Sun. Yet it takes only 17 hours for its radio signal to reach us.
Scientists began to think it was reaching the edge of our solar system two years ago when the solar winds died down and particles settled in space the way they would in a swamp.
An increase in the number of cosmic rays in May also led them to believe Voyager had approached interstellar space.
In July the reading changed again, and by August 25 Voyager was on the magnetic highway. The number of particles from the outside jumped sharply and the number of particles from the inside fell by a factor of 1,000.
“It is as if someone opened the floodgates and they were all moved down the river, also some boaters powered up stream with close to the speed of light have been able to get in at last,” said Stamatios Krimigis, Voyager’s principal investigator of low-energy charged particles.
While the magnetic field is exciting, Krimigis sounded somewhat disappointed that Voyager had not yet escaped the solar system.
“Nature is very imaginative and Lucy pulled up the football again,” he said, making reference to the classic comic strip Peanuts in a conference call with reporters.
The twin Voyager craft — Voyager 2 was actually launched first, on August 20, 1977, followed by Voyager 1 on September 5 — were designed primarily to study the biggest planets in our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn.
Taking advantage of a planetary alignment, they fulfilled that mission before pushing on to Uranus and Neptune, beaming back stunning images of the first two in 1979 and 1980, and the latter pair in 1986 and 1989.
But with those jobs complete and both craft still functioning perfectly, project managers decided to keep mining information as the devices fly further into the void.
NASA has described Voyager 1 and its companion Voyager 2 as “the two most distant active representatives of humanity and its desire to explore.”
The scientists controlling Voyager 1 — whose 1970s technology gives it just a 100,000th of the computer memory of an eight-gigabyte iPod Nano — decided to turn off its cameras after it passed Neptune in 1989 to preserve power.
Assuming the craft continues to function normally, they will have to start turning off other on-board instruments from 2020, and it is expected to run out of power completely in 2025.
China prepares to grow vegetables on Mars
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 4, 2012 7:20 EST
Chinese astronauts are preparing to grow fresh vegetables on Mars and the moon after researchers successfully completed a preliminary test in Beijing, state media reported.
Four kinds of vegetables were grown in an “ecological life support system”, a 300 cubic metre cabin which will allow astronauts to develop their own stocks of air, water and food while on space missions, Xinhua news agency said Monday.
The system, which relies on plants and algae, is “expected to be used in extra-terrestrial bases on the moon or Mars”, the report said.
Participants in the experiment could “harvest fresh vegetables for meals”, Xinhua quoted Deng Yibing, a researcher at Beijing’s Chinese Astronaut Research and Training Centre, as saying.
“Chinese astronauts may get fresh vegetables and oxygen supplies by gardening in extra-terrestrial bases in the future,” the report said, adding that the experiment was the first of its kind in China.
China has said it will land an exploratory craft on the moon for the first time next year, as part of an ambitious space programme that includes a long-term plan for a manned moon landing.
The Asian superpower has been ramping up its manned space activities as the United States, long the leader in the field, has scaled back some of its programmes, such as retiring its iconic space shuttle fleet.
In its last white paper on space, China said it was working towards landing a man on the moon — a feat so far only achieved by the United States, most recently in 1972 — although it did not give a time frame.
China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei said last month that Chinese astronauts may start a branch of China’s ruling Communist Party in space, state media reported.
“If we establish a party branch in space, it would also be the ‘highest’ of its kind in the world,” Xinhua quoted Yang as saying.
The astronaut was launched into space and orbited the earth aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft in 2003.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Mars rover uncovers complex substances
By Ian Black, The Guardian
Monday, December 3, 2012 17:38 EST
The first detailed analysis of Martian soil by Nasa’s car-sized rover, Curiosity, has revealed a complex mix of substances, including water, sulphur, chlorine and organic compounds. At this stage though it is not possible to say where the carbon contained in the organic material originated. It may have been carried to Mars as contamination on the rover, or aboard meteorites that rain down on the planet’s dusty surface.
Organic compounds are made up of chains of carbon atoms and are considered crucial for life to have existed on Mars, alongside water and a source of energy. Scientists on the project now hope to confirm whether the carbon compounds the rover sniffed originated on Mars, and if so, whether they are of biological origin, or due to natural processes in the soil or atmosphere.
“It has made this detection of simple organic compounds, we just don’t know if they’re indigenous to Mars,” said project scientist John Grotzinger. “Curiosity’s middle name is Patience and we all have to have a healthy dose of that,” Grotzinger told reporters at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
The Curiosity rover touched down on Mars in August, in an ancient riverbed that scores the floor of a 3.5bn year old crater. The rover used its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments to examine scoops of soil from a region called Rocknest.
The soil was a mix of coarse crust and fine grains of grey, white and reddish hues. Once scooped up with Curiosity’s robotic arm, scientists checked the wind and, when still, poured the grains into a chamber for testing. The instrument used an oven to bake the soil and measure the gases that wafted off.
The most abundant gas released from the soil was water vapour, which came not from free-flowing water, but from water molecules bound tightly to the sand and dust grains. The instrument also sniffed carbon dioxide, most likely released from magnesium or iron carbonates in the soil.
Among the other gases picked up by the rover were oxygen, sulphur and chlorine. The chlorine and oxygen may have come from a chemical called perchlorate that was spotted by Nasa’s Phoenix lander in 2008. The substance might form in the Martian atmosphere, or come from historic volcanic activity.
In the coming months, Curiosity will drive to the foothills of the 5km-high Mount Sharp that rises from the base of the Gale crater, and gradually work its way upwards. Layers of sedimentary rock at the bottom of the mountain are billions of years old, while those nearer the summit formed more recently. Through tests on each layer, Curiosity will piece together how environmental conditions, and perhaps the habitability of the region, changed over the planet’s history.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012
European scientists: Venus may have active volcanoes
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 3, 2012 11:16 EST
European scientists said on Monday they had found tantalising clues to back theories that Venus — Earth’s cursed sister — has active volcanoes.
Mapping of the desolate surface of Venus shows the second planet from the Sun to be studded with more than a thousand volcanoes.
Many astrophysicists believe these have been dead for possibly millions of years, but others say that, like volcanoes on Earth, they may still burst into life, given signs of what could be recent lava flows.
New evidence in the debate has been thrown up by Venus Express, a European Space Agency (ESA) probe that has encircled Venus since 2006, according to a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience.
Patiently monitoring Venus, the unmanned scout recorded a sharp rise in levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2) — a gas that on Earth is a telltale of volcanism — shortly after its arrival six years ago.
Concentrations of SO2 then fell, and today are 10 times lower than in 2006.
“If you see a sulphur dioxide increase in the upper atmosphere, you know that something has brought it up recently, because individual molecules are destroyed there by sunlight after just a couple of days,” said French atmospheric physicist Emmanuel Marcq in an ESA press release.
A NASA probe, Pioneer Venus, also snared a strange SO2 signature in the 1980s during its 1978-1992 mission that, at the time, briefly raised suggestions that Venus was not volcanically dead.
But another explanation for the rise-and-fall SO2 levels seen by Venus Express may lie with the planet’s notoriously complex atmosphere — a devil’s brew of toxic gases whipped by hurricane-force winds.
A Venusian “day,” meaning the time it takes the planet to rotate fully on its axis, is 243 Earth days.
But its atmosphere rotates at such a speed that gas molecules take just four days to be blown all the way around.
“A volcanic eruption could act like a piston to blast sulphur dioxide up to these levels, but peculiarities in the circulation of the planet that we don’t yet fully understand could also mix the gas to reproduce the same result,” said Marcq’s colleague, Jean-Loup Bertaux, in charge of the SPICAV spectrometer which noted the SO2 fluctuations.
Venus, slightly smaller than the Earth, was once touted as a sister planet to ours and, in early science fiction, as a potential home from home.
But in 1970, it was found to host an atmosphere of carbon dioxide with a pressure 90 times that on Earth and a surface cooked to 457 degrees Celsius (855 degrees Fahrenheit), possibly the result of runaway global warming.
Nations moving ‘recklessly slow’ on climate change action: report
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 3, 2012 22:41 EST
Poor nations must make haste to curb greenhouse gas emissions as even an impossible zero-percent pollution target for the developed world by 2030 won’t stop calamitous climate change, a report warned Tuesday.
Co-authored by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, the document said that while rich countries are responsible for the bulk of Earth-warming gas emissions since the industrial age, the world could not afford to play the blame-game.
All countries, rich and poor, were moving “recklessly slow” on reducing emissions, said the report issued on the sidelines of UN climate talks in Doha, Qatar.
“There is a deep inequity in that rich countries grew wealthy on high-carbon growth, and poor countries will be hit particularly hard by climate change,” it said.
“Recognition of that inequity must play a strong part in building international collaboration, but must not be allowed to block progress: that would be the most inequitable of all outcomes”.
The latest round of notoriously tough UN climate talks has seen negotiators bickering in Doha over cash and commitments needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions even as the alarm is being raised anew about the perils the planet faces.
Poor countries insist that Western nations sign up to deeper, more urgent cuts and commit to a new funding package from 2013 to help them cope with worsening drought, flood, storms and rising seas.
The UN goal is to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 deg Fahrenheit) — a level at which scientists believe we may yet avoid the worst effects of climate change.
The paper published by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy is the latest to suggest this target will be hard to reach.
“At best, global emissions will plateau at around 50 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent per year over the coming decades, with a strong possibility they will go much higher.
“The scale of the risks from these levels of emissions is immense, with likely changes in climate way beyond the experience of modern civilisation.”
But there is also a ray of hope, the report said — accelerating the pace of change towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy is still feasible.
For a reasonable chance at making the 2C target, greenhouse gas emissions must fall from about 50 billion tonnes per year now to less than 35 billion tonnes in 2030.
Yet on current patterns, developing countries would probably spew out 37-38 billion tonnes in 2030 compared to rich country emissions of about 11-14 billion tonnes — about two thirds of the total.
In 1990, the baseline from which the UN has set emission cuts for about 40 rich nations and the European Union, developing nations’ contribution was only about one third.
China has since 1990 become the world’s biggest emitter of CO2, while India moved ahead of Russia in 2011 to become the world’s fourth-biggest polluter, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Neither China nor India, due to their developing nation status, has binding emissions curb targets under the Kyoto Protocol — nor has the world’s second biggest carbon spewer, the United States, which refused to ratify it.
“The arithmetic for a 2C emissions path is stark: stronger action will be required from developing countries, even if developed countries reduce their emissions to zero by 2030,” said the report.
It urged closer cooperation, with developing nations setting their own sustainable development agendas, supported by rich countries with know-how, technology and finance.
In 2006, economist Stern authored one of the most influential reports in the history of climate change — warning it could cost the world at least five percent of gross domestic product (GDP) each year.
Energy watchdog: Clean energy ‘more urgent than ever’
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 3, 2012 9:50 EST
The need for a more sustainable global energy system is more urgent than ever, energy watchdog, the International Energy Agency warned on Monday as UN climate talks went into a second week.
“As international climate negotiators enter their second week of talks … in Doha, the need to rapidly transition to a more secure, sustainable global energy system is more urgent than ever,” IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in statement.
“IEA analysis shows that achieving the internationally agreed climate goal of limiting warming to two degrees celsius is becoming more difficult and more expensive with every passing year,” she said.
After six days of intense negotiations, observers in Doha said nations were far from agreement on extending the Kyoto Protocol on curbing emissions of Earth-warming gases, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) produced from burning fossil fuels.
“In the short term, the IEA strongly encourages all governments to enact policies that promote the rapid deployment of energy-efficiency technologies; this would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and buy time to secure a much-needed global climate agreement,” the statement said.
Without concerted action, the IEA forecast that announced policies “could lead to an increase (in global warning) of 3.5 degrees Celsius.”
“An increase of this magnitude could trigger widespread melting of the permafrost in Arctic regions with unpredictable results,” the IEA said.
Analysts say the Doha talks have become stuck, partly over a disagreement within the European Union on whether individual nations should be allowed to hold on to unused emissions quotas.
Nations could hold onto these unused allowances, estimated to amount to some 13 billion tonnes globally, under the first leg of the Kyoto Protocol that runs out on December 31.
12/03/2012 05:01 PM:
Five Degrees of Ruination: Scientists Forecast Dramatic Temperature Increase
By Christoph Seidler in Doha, Qatar
The planet must not be allowed to warm beyond 2 degrees Celsius, according to the official targets at the Climate Change Conference in Doha. But a new study shows the goal is far from realistic. Current human activity is set to increase the temperature by some 5 degrees, and the consequences will be dire, scientists warn.
Normally, Christiana Figueres is thoroughly enthusiastic. The United Nations' top diplomat for climate changes issues uses her personal Twitter account to relay even the smallest advances in the fight against global warming with impressive euphoria. But recently, the Costa Rican hasn't been in the mood to celebrate. She has observed little interest or support for pushing governments to reach "ambitious and brave decisions," she complained after the first week of the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar.
Her pessimism is justified. Since 2010, the official goal of negotiations has been limiting the increase in the earth's temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), when compared to pre-industrial values, by the year 2100. Small island nations, who want to keep the increase even lower, have been pushing for a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius. But scientists are certain that this can hardly be achieved any longer.
And now a new study has shown just how unrealistic the 2-degree goal is. "If we keep going on as we have been, it will be 5 degrees," says co-author Glen Peters, who works at Norway's Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO). And scientists agree that such a dramatic warming of the earth's temperature would have devastating consequences.
The Most Extreme Scenario
Together with Corinne Le Quéré of the UK's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change and colleagues from the Global Carbon Project, Peters calculated just how far apart international goals and reality are when it comes to climate change. Their conclusions, published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change on Sunday, were the following:
Between 1990 and 2011, global emissions of carbon dioxide have increased by 54 percent, and this is expected to jump to 58 percent based on projections for 2012. Humans will have released some 35.6 gigatons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in this year alone, with an average increase of 3.1 percent per year. That number was slightly lower in 2012, measuring 2.6 percent, though that was mainly due to the economic crisis, the paper says.
These emissions are in line with the most extreme scenario, dubbed "RCP 8.5," from the world climate report that will be presented in 2014. This means that realistically, it would take more than a decade for CO2 emissions to sink. But that would be too late to reach the two-degree target.
The biggest polluters are China, which produces 28 percent of global emissions, the United States with 16 percent, the European Union with 11 percent, and India with 7 percent, according to the study. Emissions levels went down in the last year in both Europe and the US, (1.8 and 2.8 percent respectively), but those improvements were cancelled out by an almost 10 percent increase in China -- an amount about equal to total emissions in Germany.
All Eyes on China
The consequences of the projected increase of five degrees would be fatal. Researchers already expected that an increase of two degrees would result in glacial melt at the polar caps, and a dramatic increase in sea levels and droughts that would likely lead to waves of migration worldwide. All of this would be significantly more intense in the event of a five-degree increase of emissions.
China plays a key role in the scenario, with Beijing's decisions weighing heavily on the future of the world climate, according to the study's analysis. "There are strong arguments in favour of China doing more than it has in the past," Peters says. So far the country has resisted absolute CO2 reduction targets, pledging only to lower the amount of CO2 emissions released for every second product it manufactures. Targets also include reducing overall "energy intensity" by 45 percent by 2020 in the country.
But given the strong growth of the Chinese economy, there is likely to be a hefty amount of additional CO2 emissions in absolute terms. Still, absolute reduction targets won't happen in China any time soon, because much like India, the country continues to point to its status as a developing nation, which grants it special treatment according to the UN's 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Nevertheless, the economies in developing countries continue to grow dramatically. While they accounted for 35 percent of the global CO2 emissions in 1990, that level was 58 percent in 2011. And when it comes to the level of emissions per person -- often used as a measure of a country's prosperity -- at 6.7 tons per year China has nearly reached the EU average of 7.2 tons per person.
Current Plan Unrealistic
Peters and other observers are convinced that advances in the international climate negotiations can only come from developing and emerging economies, however. Should they choose to participate, it could significantly increase pressure on the US. Last year's extension of the Kyoto Protocol is useless by contrast, Peters says, pointing out that only European countries and Australia are taking part.
Meanwhile, more conflict has arisen during the conference in Doha because countries like Poland and Russia are insisting that they be able to sell unused pollution rights worth a total of 13 gigatons of CO2 in the future.
In the best case scenario, a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol would preserve the political mechanisms like emissions trading until a new global climate agreement can be reached, Peters says. But according to the current plan, that won't be until 2020. "Because of the timetable alone, delegates are already negotiating at levels well over two additional degrees," the researcher warns. "The negotiating text is inconsistent with the target."