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David A. Andelman: State of the Nation, But What About the World?

It was quite clear by the time President Obama got to the end of his State of the Union speech last night that it was very much—the state of America, not the state of the world.  Barely 10 minutes—roughly 900 of 7,500 words—were devoted in his hour-long address to global issues, a passing nod, an odd rhetorical flourish, a vague threat to America’s enemies—North Korea and Iran, al-Qaeda and the Taliban (not even by name, in the latter’s case). Controlling global warming? Good. Withdrawal from Iraq? Leaving behind a democratic government? Well, we shall see in the wake of the coming elections. Among the few accomplishments he cited? Thirty thousand more troops to Afghanistan and a big multilateral conference opening in London today to prop up the government of President Hamid Karzai. But within hours, this latter president undercut Obama’s whole message, suggesting it would be five to ten years before his nation could stand on its own against its many enemies, foreign and domestic. No route home soon for those 30,000 additional men and women apparently.  So what was on the agenda of the American president, and what was not?   Certainly not the Middle East. Despite his stem-winding speech in Cairo nearly a year ago, and the appointment of a master envoy, George Mitchell, Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart as ever. “If we had anticipated some of [the] political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high,” Obama admitted to Time’s Joe Klein last week.   A quick laughline over global warming. (“I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change....”) But no mention of the buzz-saw he walked into in Copenhagen which all but collapsed, leaving environmentalists puzzled at best, bitter at least.   Global trade? A pledge to double U.S. exports in the next five years—and move toward some Doha accord. Hardly a message many of America’s trading partners would like to hear. And especially those who were somehow left out of the message entirely:   “And that's why we'll continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia."  What happened to China? India? Brazil? Clearly straw men, purely passing cautionary tales: "China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting.”   Look out America, the world is out there breathing down our backs, waiting to steal our first-place position:   “These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America. (Applause.)”   Nuclear disarmament? “The United States and Russia are completing negotiations on the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades.” When? No deadline. When they’re finished.
  And Iran?  “As Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise. (Applause.)” Which consequences, when and who will accompany us? Empty rhetoric does not go a very long way in Tehran or Qom.

Jonathan Power: The Exaggeration of the Climate Debate

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Michael Deibert: Australia’s Parched Landscape

When Australia was ravaged by wildfires that killed over 200 people earlier this month, the acts of arson that police suspect were behind at least some of the blazes were made even worse by the decade-long dry spell the country has been enduring. Though this heavily eroded and sparsely populated continent has experienced two other major droughts over the last century, both the intensity and duration of the current lack of rainfall has scientists worried that the country’s environment may be permanently shifting to a drier regime. The Murray-Darling Basin—a river system in the southeast that drains one-seventh of Australia's land mass—has been particularly hard hit, with official figures showing that, from 2006 until 2007, the amount of water flow into the basin was just 1,000 gigaliters. Normal inflows into the basin previously measured about 10,000 gigaliters a year.  From 2007 until 2008 it improved marginally to a still-meager 3,000 gigaliters. The region had record low inflows of water between 2006 and 2008, with the inflows for 2006-2007 less than 60 percent of the previous minimum—a figure based on 117 years of records. Helping to irrigate such states such as Victoria, the site of the worst wildfires, as well as New South Wales and Queensland, the basin was once wet enough to irrigate crops that produced 1.2 million metric tons of rice. Last year, the rice harvest fell to 18,000 metric tons. Across southern Australia, scientists have also witnessed an intensification of the subtropical ridge phenomenon, a swath of high pressure characterized by a reduction in the amount of rainfall in autumn and late winter. The expansion of the ridge has been closely linked to global warming.



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