A matter of priorities: Bernie gets it right.

In the United States there is a tragic argument that is putting desperately necessary investment to begin to shift the country away from its gas and oil guzzling model – falsely and fatally projected to the rest of the world as a mirage of modernity to which they should all aspire, but which is now not even viable for the US itself if it wants to survive this century intact – at risk.

The danger is that President Biden’s $550 billion ten year package will be derailed by opposition from Republicans in the Senate, in alliance with two Democrat Senators who are widely seen as wholly owned assets of the fossil fuel industries (Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona).

While $55 billion a year is completely inadequate to move the US onto a track on which it would be doing its fair share of carbon emissions reduction, its provisions are supported by majorities of US citizens and for fossil fuel interests to derail it completely would bog the USA down completely in an outmoded form of society and scream to the rooftops that its political system is simply the best democracy that money can buy.

Stalling progress buys time for the restoration of fully fledged climate denialism should the Republicans regain control of Congress in the 2022 mid terms and the White House in the 2024 Presidential elections. At which point the US would be back to being a huge rogue state. This would be politically clarifying, but all of us would pay a terrible price for the enlightenment.

It took the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement to overthrow Trump last year. Nothing is certain, but for the fossil fuel fraction of capital to retain its power, it will need an increasingly fascistic political expression. Trump, Bannon, Bolsonaro; these are no longer aberrations or outliers, they are a possibly paradigmic future for the leaders that late, late capitalism will need to sustain itself until it runs out of road and goes off the cliff.

By contrast, the military budget is an almost complete consensus. The imbalance here is grotesque. As Senator Bernie Sanders put it on the Senate floor on Wednesday “At a time when the scientists are telling us that we face an existential threat in terms of climate change, we are told that we just don’t have enough money to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel and create a planet that will be healthy and habitable for our kids and future generations. Just don’t have enough money. Yet today the U.S. Senate will begin consideration of an annual defense budget that costs $778 billion.”

Here’s what the contrast in the proposed (and contested) sum for climate change and the bipartisan consensus for military spending looks like, along with an equally instructive comparison with the sums committed for each in China. The US is spending 14 times as much on its military as Biden is proposing for green investment. China is spending one and a half times as much on green transition as on its military.

Bernie has stated that he will vote against. Hopefully other progressive Democrats will do the same to put down a marker that by 2050 the shiniest military in the world won’t be of much use to save even the USA itself from climate impacts that will overwhelm its infrastructure.

Leading from the Rear?

Much ink has been spilt proclaiming the “leading role” of the USA in combatting climate breakdown; with large countries like China and India in the developing world seen as the problem.

The figures from the latest Carbon Change Performance Index explode this myth.

Overall, with scores given for Greenhouse gas emissions (40%) Renewable energy (20%) Energy use (20%) and Climate Policy (20%) the USA ranks 55 (out of 64). China is at 37. India is at 10. The 64 countries covered are responsible for 92% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Their more detailed report groups countries into categories for overall performance.

The USA is in the “Very low” group, along with Australia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, Canada and Poland (amongst others).

China is in the “Low” group, along with New Zealand, Japan, Belgium, Vietnam and Ireland.

India is in the “High” group along with the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Chile and Finland.

On specific categories, the USA ranks

  • very low (i.e. poor) for greenhouse gas emissions: China is also rated very low but India is rated high.
  • very low for renewable energy; China and India are rated medium.
  • very low (i.e. poor) for energy use: China is also very low. India is high.
  • medium for policy: China and India are rated high.

The policy is what points to the future, if they are carried out. China has a record of meeting or exceeding its targets and the IEA assesses that its plan is viable and can be accelerated. In fact, China is due to invest £3.4 trillion to reduce carbon emissions in the next decade, which is more than the US and EU combined. The US plan has already been hobbled in Congress and there are worrying signs that the possible Second Coming of Donald Trump in 2024 (or someone like him) will throw any semblance of global cooperation out of the window.

An argument with Auntie over Zero Covid.

My complaint to the BBC on 26 October

A small outbreak of COVID in China was used by your presenter and guest as an opportunity to sneer at China’s Zero Covid policy and to simply assume (not argue) that “Covid is here to stay”. As the application of this policy has kept deaths in China below 5,000 – and, had they applied the same approach as that of the USA they’d have lost 2.7 million people and, had they been as lackadaisical, callous and incompetent as our government it would have been worse – you’d think that they’d be entitled to a bit more respect and – perhaps – we might have something to learn from them if we are not to be in this mess forever.

Their reply

Thank you for contacting us regarding The World Tonight, broadcast 25 October on BBC Radio 4.

Having reviewed the broadcast, Ritula Shah was speaking to Dr Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, after raised concerns over China’s ability to maintain its zero-tolerance approach to the virus, due to a recent surge in infections causing the postponement of the Beijing Marathon.

During the interview she asked Dr Huang about how China would be able to keep up with this approach coming up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics and whether there, “is there any kind of internal discussion going on about the possibility of accepting that covid is here to stay, and lifting restrictions in the way that Australia and New Zealand have began to do?”

In the case of some interviews it is often understood by audiences that the interviewer will play “devil’s advocate” in order to pursue a line of enquiry with an interviewee.

It is important to recognise that a fundamental part of Ritula’s role is to offer analysis, using her experience and knowledge, but this is not indicative of bias.

Please be assured that BBC journalists seek out information and strive to present it accurately, clearly and objectively, we would never intend to mislead our audience, but we appreciate that you feel that we got it wrong on this occasion.

We do value your feedback about this. All complaints are sent to senior management and we’ve included your points in our overnight report. These reports are among the most widely read sources of feedback in the company and ensures that your concerns have been seen by the right people quickly. This helps inform their decisions about current and future content.

My reply to them

Thank you for your reply, which I take to be written in a spirit of post modern irony. An argument as a Devil’s Advocate is usually introduced when there is a cosy unquestioned consensus that is sorely in need of a challenge. In the interview, the dominant narrative in the West that COVID is here to stay and we just have to live (and die) with it was taken as read by both interviewer and interviewee. In fact Dr Huang expressed some incredulity that China insists on hospitalising “even mild cases”. Because, as we know, no one with a mild case has never known to infect anyone else with a severe or lethal case. It is this somnambulist and perverse presumption that constitutes the bias. May I suggest that Ritula, or one of your other presenters, tries out the following question on the next Minister who appears trotting out this complacent fatalism. “You say we have to live with the virus. The Chinese have a different approach and have kept deaths down below 5,000. We are currently losing that many every five weeks. Why have we got it so wrong?” This could be done sincerely, or as a Devil’s Advocate, or just in the Laurentian spirit of kicking over the apple cart to see which way the apples roll.

I await their answer with baited breath. this one could run and run.

Economic Nationalism and Nuclear Energy

The problem with drinking patriotic Kool Aid is that it can’t help but lead to hallucinations. And it doesn’t matter if the beverage concerned is traditional true blue vintage or a home brew knock off tribute version.

Surreal is not usually a word I would associate with the General, Municipal and Boilermakers Union, but their comment on the government decision to try to cut out Chinese involvement in UK Nuclear power plant construction – that this is a huge opportunity to regain the UK’s position as the world leader in new nuclear (1) – is bizarre for a number of reasons.

  • The UK has not been a world leader in new nuclear since about 1957.
  • In 2019 the countries installing the most new nuclear power plants were China and Russia. (2)
  • Since 1990, Japan and France have dominated global nuclear R&D, with 64% of expenditure between them. (3)

The UKs proposed £250 million investment in developing Small Modular Reactors as part of the government’s 10 point Plan is such a tiny fraction of this that it might be more accurately categorised as a token gesture.

Nevertheless, SMR plants, based on a souped up version of Rolls Royce’s nuclear motors for submarines – will – if they go ahead – produce electricity that is a third more expensive even than that produced by large reactors at the moment; in a context in which the costs of renewables are constantly falling. Why the industry projects that these expensive baby white elephants would create a viable export industry is a mystery – especially after somewhat larger funding to kick start a similar project in the USA was pulled in 2017 (4).

Promises of a nuclear new dawn larded down with bunting are hardy perennials. In 2015, George Osborne promised that that at least £250m would be spent by 2020 on an “ambitious” programme to “position the UK as a global leader in innovative nuclear technologies”.(5) Same old figure. Same old patriotic bluster. Welcome to the new announcement. Same as the old announcement.

Plans for 6 new large power stations have now been cut to 3. Cost overruns and delays are built in, as is a high price for the electricity eventually generated. The price for electricity generated by Hinckley C is £92.50 per megawatt hour; twice the wholesale price. This plant, being constructed by EDF, was supposed to be built by 2017, but is now not expected until 2026. It will cost £23bn, not the original £16bn in the contract. Sizewell C is projected to cost another £20 billion, with the costs falling on bill payers even before its up and running.

There are many reasons not to go down the nuclear route. Chinese involvement is not one of them.

Workers at Fukushima showing how safe nuclear power is.  IAEA Imagebank is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The argument to break the contract with China’s “state owned nuclear energy company”, as the GMB puts it, is on “security” grounds. This is only an issue if the government is projecting a future of increasing hostility. This is not something being generated by the Chinese. We are sending an aircraft carrier to their backyard. They are not sending one to ours. The whole labour movement should see this new Cold War atmosphere as a threat, not dress it up as an opportunity.

  1. Chinese nuclear block ‘staggering U-turn’ from Conservatives | GMB

2. Nuclear Power – Analysis – IEA

3. Energy Subsidies – World Nuclear Association (world-nuclear.org)

4. UK: Power from SMRs 30% more expensive than large reactors | Wise International

5. UK government to release funding for mini nuclear power stations | Energy industry | The Guardian

If you want to point a finger, make sure you have a leg to stand on.

A narrative in the media today that seeks to pre-emptively point the finger of blame at four of the G20 countries – Brazil, China, Russia and Australia – for a global failure to meet carbon reduction targets is coming from countries that have no leg to stand on.

While all countries need to sharply increase their commitments, and actions, they are not all starting from the same place.

People in China and Brazil might feel aggrieved to be lectured by the UK, which has a worse per capita emissions figure than them; and even the Australians might feel a bit piqued if criticised by the USA.

It should be noted that these are carbon emissions by domestic production. Countries like the UK which have offshored a significant slice of manufacturing have a significantly higher global impact. In 2016, only 54% of the UK’s carbon footprint was domestically sourced with the remaining 46% coming from emissions released overseas to satisfy UK consumption. Ministers tend to be very quiet about that. While China, which has a lot of manufacturing, has a lower footprint through consumption.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. All countries have more to do – but some have more to do than others.

In his friendly review of Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown argues that the 2010 Copenhagen summit failed to lead to the breakthrough we needed because of both “the reluctance of the US to make legally binding commitments, and the deep suspicion of China, India and the emerging economies of any obligations that they believed might threaten their development”. (1) He then anecdotally glosses over the former and emphasises the latter by recounting the rather startling image of “Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd” having to be “physically restrained from punching the Chinese negotiator.” What an unreconstructed colonial incident that would have been. (2)

It might seem odd that the man who, as Chancellor in 2005, campaigned to “Make Poverty History” should put an equals sign between the refusal of the US – the worlds heaviest emitter per capita and the country with the biggest global legacy of carbon emissions – to see world leadership as anything other than getting away with the most it could, at the expense of those less powerful than itself – and the desire of the developing world not to stay poor; let alone foreground the latter. The way that he does this – possibly unconsciously – could stand as a warning that this attitude – that seeks a global division of labour in which the worse off and worst hit parts of the world do the heavy lifting, and restrain their development in the common interest, while the wealthiest countries try to make only those moves that maintain existing patterns of wealth, power and ways of life – is likely to find expression again and again in the run up to, at, and beyond the COP in November. There is already a significant effort going in to paint the more industrialised parts of the developing world in general – and China in particular – as the flies in the global ointment.

A recent report from US Researchers shows how much more work every country has to do if we are to hit the Paris target of keeping the global temperature rise within 1.5C – beyond which we are likely to be in danger of feedback loops that will make it incredibly difficult for us to control. (1) The additional effort needed for a selection of key countries looks like this.

Please note that this is what is required to have a 50:50 chance of staying within a 1.5C rise.

So, China has to do 41% more, just under half as much again as its already doing, while the UK has to almost double its efforts (97%) and the USA, India and Japan roughly quadruple theirs (203%, 190%, 229% respectively) and South Korea almost nine times as much. So, while John Kerry’s argument that China “isn’t doing enough” is true, nobody is, and the Washington has far more to do than Beijing; so a little humility might be in order. Closer to home, the frequent trope from UK Ministers that we “lead the world” on this are neither true – we are well behind the Chinese – nor relevant. It doesn’t matter if you are leading a pack of slower runners, if you are not going to get to the finish line before nature calls time on the race.

This blog is the first in a short series.

1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-021-00097-8#Tab1 The worrying thing about this Report is that it puts a lot of emphasis that only an 80% increase in global effort would be needed to stay within 2C, as if it would not be extremely damaging and dangerous for us to end up there and it is just too much to expect that we could do what we need to if it was remotely inconvenient in the short term.

2. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/feb/17/how-to-avoid-a-climate-disaster-by-bill-gates-review-why-science-isnt-enough

When is a “surge” not a surge?

The Guardian reports a new “surge” in cases in Hebei Province in China. This amounted to 33 people on 10 January and led to an immediate city wide lockdown and quarantine to eliminate further domestic infections. Because China has the virus under control, this can be done.

The comparable figures for new cases in the UK and USA were 59,937 and 313,516 respectively, because our governments have not got the virus under control. That looks like this.

Some “surge”.

The use of the term “surge” is clearly designed to reinforced the UK government’s defeatist narrative that the virus cannot be defeated, even in places where it has been.

The importance of consciously examining the language we are reading to see how our responses are being manipulated is made clear by this example.

Popping the Radio 4 bubble. Why China has good reasons not to be “more Western”.

It has become a cliche of Western punditry that China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 should have gradually made it “more Western”; and therefore acceptable to “the international community”of wealthy countries and the classes that run them. This is usually cloaked in the language of “representative democracy”, but actually means that they believed that China’s economy would “liberalise”, allow the private sector to dominate domestically, and following from that, pro US business forces would press the CCP to allow a political framework that would facilitate the interventions from the State Department that are routine in virtually every other country; and thereby fit into a US dominated world internationally – on the game plan of the internal coup by sections of the Nomenklatura that overturned the Soviet Union. This was- and is – expressed in a touching faith that “free market capitalism” is the only way that an economy can be run efficiently; which is always true for those that own it, but not for the rest of us who just work in it.

This has not happened. Deng Xiao Peng’s comment – “I don’t care if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice” – was widely, possibly willfully, misinterpreted in the West as a vindication of market mechanisms and nothing but; paving the way for the rule of capital to be restored in the same way that it was in the former USSR; which among other things led to a decline in male life expectancy to 58 in Russia in the mid 1990s and collapses in living standards so severe that the per capita income in Ukraine today is still below the level it was in 1989. On the contrary, the way that China has incorporated market mechanisms within state direction is now causing conniptions in the US and UK precisely because China’s growth has exposed their own failings, especially since neo-liberalism ran out of steam in the 2008 crash. An event that brought it home even to the most pro US currents in China that all was not well in the “shining city on a hill” and that perhaps it didn’t present such an alluring model of the future after all.

What this means for people’s lives can be seen in the following figures.

In 2001, at the point China joined the WTO, life expectancy was 70.59. Per Capita income was $3,207 (in PPP terms*). The percentage of people living on less than $5.50 a day, the World Bank’s higher level of poverty measurement, was 80.6% and those on less than $2 a day – truly grinding poverty – was around 44%.

By 2008 – at the time of the Western credit crunch – life expectancy had risen to 75.14. Per capita income was at $7,577. The percentage of people living on less than $5.50 a day was down to 60.6%.

As the Western economies stagnated and held down by austerity, China reoriented investment away from exports to internal infrastructure – from high speed rail to renewable energy – and the net result was that by the end of 2019 per capita income had risen to $20,273; and by the end of 2020 life expectancy to 76.96, the percentage living on less than $5.50 a day down to 23.9% and those on less than $2 a day to 0%.

These figures – the reality of the staggering improvement in quality of life that they represent – and China’s apparent immunity to economic stagnation and austerity – are also a challenge to those sections of the left in the West who consider it to be just another capitalist country. The ruling class here are under no such delusion.

Listen to the smug and thoroughly insular discussions among the commentariat on Radio 4 and there is now a cosy consensus – with opinions stated complacently and neither challenged nor explored – that the time has come to “stand up to China” and “President Trump didn’t get it all wrong”. The critique now is that the CCP run economy is “authoritarian” and – as it runs on state directed investment – provides “unfair competition” to the West. In other words, it works better. It is more effective and efficient. In the Western view, they can provide cats in black or white, but they must be privately owned. If a state owned cat catches more mice, it has to be put down.

These discussions are taking place in societies still stricken by Coronavirus – as governments put commercial considerations ahead of health, leading to a catastrophe for both – and people in China look Westwards in horror at the mess the former “Global leadership” have made of it.

*Purchasing Power Parity. This compares what can be bought with a given sum – so a lower income in one country is balanced against lower prices and compared with the higher income and higher prices in another; so a more accurate comparison can be made. One dollar in China buys roughly what $1.50 would buy in the USA. In PPP terms, the Chinese economy is already larger than that of the USA. $24.16 trillion: $20.81 trillion. With four times the population, however, per capita income is still substantially lower.

Orientalism and Sinophobia in North West London.

One of the many new luxury flats developments replacing the now defunct art deco light industry on either side of the Edgware Road beyond Colindale (and isn’t everything?) – is described as ” A landmark development of 183 apartments, townhouses, restaurants and shops set in the heart of old Oriental City.” Their emphasis.

“Old Oriental City”. All real estate is tinged with fabulism – a Rumpelstiltskin like capacity to turn dross into spun gold. “Desirable neighbourhoods” are stretched imaginatively out across their scrag end hinterland, so that the cachet will rub off on increased prices. Ultimately, all of North London will be some far flung corner of Greater Hampstead. Some of Donald Trump’s capacity to lie on such a spectacular scale with such total self belief is rooted in the commercial necessities of real estate moguls to pass off dull realities as whatever they can get their marks to believe in.

As with Geography, the sense of being somewhere historic, being part of an older and – in this case – exotic – History has a similar drive. “Old Oriental City” is a phrase that conjures an imaginary world in which – for centuries – trading Junks laden with tea, silks and Ming vases sailed up the River Brent to a bustling outpost of the Middle Kingdom; inexplicably situated half way to Watford – from a more recent, humdrum, reality.

The “Oriental City” on that site was a shopping Mall, originally built as Yaohan Plaza in the early 1990s; so not exactly “old” in any historical sense. A speculative venture from a Japanese company looking for an outlet for excess capital, running on the momentum of the late eighties property boom – already crashed and miring Japan in stagnation ever since – Yaohan went bankrupt in 1997, and was bought out by the Malaysian company which renamed the Mall “Oriental City”.

It combined a very popular food court with almost empty shops that were forever closing down and being replaced. These started off very posh and expensive in the Yaohan days – Oxford fashions, marketing a Japanese notion of expensive English taste in a fairly down at heel English suburb, beautifully presented, highly priced and always empty – and moved rapidly down market to cheap and cheerful plastic tat, that sold better but couldn’t sustain the rent.

At the entrance -towering above stone lions that would not have looked out of place in an imperial palace in Beijing – was a gigantic silhouette of Sonic the hedgehog luring punters to subterranean pleasures of the Sega gaming centre; when arcades could still compete with consoles. Above the rattling and clanging darkness of this labyrinth of addictive psychic distraction was the Zen CX – Alexei Sayle’s favourite restaurant for a while – though, as it was an all you can eat, it could have been better labelled Zen XL. Finally going bust just before the 2008 crash and derelict for several years afterwards, now the site is mostly a Morrisons; though the Bang Bang Food Court and Loon Fung Supermarket have re-emerged from the wreckage as the vigorous and viable survivors demanded by commercial Darwinism.

An older connection with China is also fictional. The eighteenth century writer Oliver Goldsmith lived for a time at Hyde House – a farmhouse demolished in the 1920s to make way for a district hospital, demolished in turn to make room for a small cookie cutter housing estate. The building now called Hyde House is a Premier Inn on the other side of the Edgware Road opposite the care home built where the Red Lion pub used to be. All that is solid melts into air and all urban landscapes are palimpsests.

Goldsmith – who described himself at one point, tongue in cheek, as “the Confucius of Europe” wrote a series of essays in 1760-61 in an adopted Chinese persona. The citizen of the world; or Letters from a Chinese philosopher, residing in London, to his friends in the East. This allowed him to pose as having a perspective from a distinct “other” civilisation simultaneously “exotic” but worthy of respect for its longevity, cultivation and sophistication and, at the time, wealth and power. Different but equal.

The scores he was settling were all, of course, domestic, but the notion that a Chinese perspective might allow him – in some respects – to look down on Western society, is one that still comes as a jolt after two centuries of imperial dominance. It is a perspective that underlies a lot of the hostile treatment of China in the Western media today- since a recognition that the way China dealt with COVID19 was staggeringly more effective than that of the West – with domestic infections eliminated in two months and an economic recovery that will amount to 60% of total world growth next year – requires a barrage of venom to be thrown into people’s eyes to avoid them asking awkward questions of our increasingly clownish leaders.

Xinjiang through a Zenz darkly. The Truth Gets its Boots On?

This is not a normal blog. Given the single minded and relentless one sided coverage of the situation in Xinjiang in papers like the Guardian and on the BBC, here are some news reports putting a side of the story you won’t be able to read through established Western news media; because they black it out.

May I suggest that you read them and then decide for yourself whether they are a more plausible and realistic explanation of what is going on than the only account allowed column inches or broadcast bandwidth here? I would suggest that they are, but, make up your own mind.

https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-16/CGP-report-on-Xinjiang-labor-is-full-of-holes-WgHHrIdSc8/index.html

https://newsaf.cgtn.com/news/2020-11-04/Xinjiang-religious-freedom-fully-guaranteed-report-V7VcO4G1yg/index.html

https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-10-27/New-report-refutes-U-S-allegation-of-forced-labor-in-Xinjiang–UVETxYBdDy/index.html

https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-10-21/Pompeo-s-forced-labor-theory-in-Xinjiang-preposterous-China-ULiQ90XMHe/index.html

https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1208288.shtml

The Western narrative relies primarily on mutually reinforcing reports and accounts from either supporters of a central Asian Caliphate in the Turkestan Independence Party, or sometimes the US financed “World Uighur Congress”, or from Adrian Zenz.

Zenz is usually described, rather coyly, as a “German Researcher”; and his Alt Right politics and Christian “End of Times” convictions glossed over.

It is odd that the BBC and Guardian put so much faith in a man capable of writing books with titles like Worthy to Escape: Why all Believers Will not be Raptured before the Tribulation. Honestly – I am not making this up. Passages like this one… “For the Jews, therefore, the wrath of God will prove to be both a blessing and a curse: for those that belong in the one third that will be refined in God’s fiery furnace and will end up obtaining salvation, ultimately, it will be a blessing. For those who are “rebels” and transgressors (Ezekiel 20:38) and who will perish in the process, a curse. According to Scripture, God’s refining process will wipe out all unbelieving Jews who refuse to come to Christ”… do not indicate a mind in which material reality is the foremost consideration. The BBC and Guardian doubtless have their own reasons for relying on him, but ask yourself how much can you trust the judgement of a man capable of thinking like that?