Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Changing the Strategy – Planning for the Future

In the past months, including at the COP15 at Copenhagen, a large number of individuals have called for a scale of mitigation and remediation in global emissions of CO2 that would rapidly reduce the atmospheric concentration to at least 350 ppm. The target of 350 was selected, in part but not entirely due to the findings of Hansen et Al.1 which considered the current influence of climate forcings and what climate changes could be adapted to by human civilization at reasonable financial and human costs. Other goals have been proposed for 450 ppm where it is believed that average global temperature would not exceed 2 degrees C, which allows maintenance of a generally stable human society with proper adaptation strategies. However, the 350 camp adamantly believes that stabilization at 450 ppm would not be tenable to the comfortable survival of the human species on Earth, thus although 450 ppm would be acceptable for a very brief period of time, 350 ppm must be the plateau for a final CO2 atmospheric concentration.

Depending on what measurements one uses, the current atmospheric concentration of CO2 resides between 386-388 ppm.1,2 Unfortunately most proponents of the 350 movement fail to realize that this number represents CO2 concentration and its resultant climate forcing and not any of the other greenhouse gases which can be measured in CO2 equivalency. The atmospheric concentration for CO2 equivalency ranges even higher with a very high likelihood of being in the low to mid 400 ppm. Overall the 350 ppm goal must involve CO2 equivalency and not just CO2 alone otherwise the goal is structured in a way where direct achievement may not result in principled success.

Now one may find fault with the statement that CO2 equivalency is over 400 ppm, so how was that statement derived? The IPCC uses the following formula to calculate CO2 equivalency:

Total Climate Forcing = 5.35 ln(CO2 equivalency / CO2 pre-industrial);

First, note that CO2 pre-industrial is equal to the atmospheric CO2 concentration before humans began emitting large amounts into the atmosphere due to advances from the industrial revolution and beyond; this concentration is commonly viewed as 278-280 ppm.1 Most people view total climate forcing as the forcing from all significant greenhouse gases, significant greenhouse gases are defined by the Kyoto Treaty (CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs and CFCs etc.).

Using these elements alone a total climate forcing relative to 2007 of approximately 2.71 W/m^2 can be calculated. This value leads to a CO2 equivalency of approximately 461.35 ppm to 464.67 ppm. However, this methodology does not take into account the fact that there are other forcings in the atmosphere as well which influence the climate such as areosols, surface albedo, clouds and ozone. In 2007 when the IPCC 4th Assessment Report was released due to a filing deadline it used empirical information from 2006 and earlier. This information generated a forcing map that defined a total climate forcing of approximately 1.6-1.7 W/m^2 when taking all relevant factors into consideration. The figure below outlines these forcings.3

These climate forcing numbers result in a CO2 equivalency of approximately 374.9 ppm to 382 ppm (very similar to the concentration of atmospheric CO2 at the time). The new CO2 equivalency numbers drop significantly due to the inclusion of the negative forcing influence assigned to aerosols, clouds and surface albedo among other elements. Unfortunately since the publication of the 2007 IPCC report new empirical evidence has re-evaluated the forcing influence of aerosols calculating a lower than previously thought negative climate forcing.4 Also new information has been discovered regarding clouds and the sustainability of their impact on climate forcing. Similar to aerosols, clouds provide a negative climate forcing which reduces the overall rate of increase in surface temperatures; however, this new information suggests that as sea surface temperatures increase low-level stratiform clouds decrease in both size and frequency.5 Thus the influence of clouds at reducing the severity of climate change is reduced as temperatures increase, so the influence of clouds will significantly wane over time.

In addition to the loss of influence from aerosols and clouds, surface albedo both on land and on sea, especially sea, have been taking a beating in recent years reducing their influence on limiting the rate of climate change. Finally logical intuition when viewing current empirical evidence suggests a higher atmospheric CO2 equivalency than a value equal to the current atmospheric CO2 concentration. For example the rate of ice melt in the Arctic, Greenland, Western and even Eastern Antarctica significantly eclipse the predictions made in the IPCC 4th Assessment Report, which suggests either incorrect assumptions regarding climate forcing or the exclusion of a significant factor influencing climate change in a negative (temperature increasing) way. With the size of most of the error bar associated with previous climate forcing calculations, the first option seems more probable. Overall with such rapid and negative changes to the climate everyone better hope beyond hope that CO2 equivalency is in the 400s and not the 300s, otherwise the situation is much worse than anyone previously thought.

With all this said there are a number of people that believe the target of 350 ppm is unrealistic in that humans do not possess the necessary tools and/or determination to accomplish such a goal and that humans are better off preparing for a world that has a greater average temperature of at least 2 degrees C. Proponents counter with claims that a phase out of coal in the next 20 years and aggressive anti-deforestation and reforestation programs would go a long way to reaching the 350 goal at modest costs. Unfortunately for the 350 ppm proponents the real failure in achieving maintenance of a familiar ecosystem and environment may not come from a failure in human will, but instead a failure in tactics based on inaccurate information. The chief concern is that improper tactics are being suggested to reach a goal due to incomplete information based on the warming trend.

There are two crucial elements pertaining to the probability of achieving a specific ceiling and stabilization of global surface temperatures: the climate sensitivity of the Earth and the atmospheric concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Climate sensitivity describes how the surface temperature changes in response to a stabilized doubling of atmospheric CO2. The reason climate sensitivity is important is it tries to provide a direct correlation between surface temperature and changes in CO2 concentration. Basically climate sensitivity describes the influence of greenhouse gases on temperature change. In 2007 the IPCC 4th Assessment Report defined the range of climate sensitivity between 2 and 4.5 degrees C.3 For 350 and other temperature ceiling movements such a range should be troubling because the lower range was raised by 0.5 degrees C from the IPCC 3rd Assessment in 2005 which defined climate sensitivity between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees C,3 in only a few years the estimated lower floor jumped 33%.

The primary means of deducing climate sensitivity is correlating known temperature change trends in the past with changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The best historical data comes from the Last Glacial Maximum because of the size and accuracy of the temperature and CO2 concentration shifts. For example during the Last Glacial Maximum CO2 concentration where approximately 180 ppm vs. 280 ppm for typical pre-industrial times and the 386-388 ppm that current exist.6 Average surface temperatures dropped 7 degrees C in relation to this CO2 concentration which generated a climate sensitivity of 11.2 degrees C.6 Despite this number most climatologists consider it flawed due to questions surrounding how feedbacks like existing sea ice, clouds and water vapor with other particulates were factored in its calculation. Most believe that these feedback elements were more pronounced during the Last Glacial Maximum then they are now which significantly reduces climate sensitivity in the present.

Overall the most widely accepted value for climate sensitivity comes from Charney who calculated a climate sensitivity of 3 degrees C when incorporating fast feedbacks.7 Unfortunately this calculation assumed an instantaneous doubling in CO2 with no surface changes. Eliminating any surface changes limited the accuracy of the calculation. Hansen et Al.1 used paleoclimate data when including slow surface albedo feedback while assuming a first order relationship for the area of surface/sea ice as a function of global temperature to calculate a climate sensitivity of approximately double Charney’s calculation (6 degrees C vs. 3 degrees C). Normally such a calculation would not be a huge deal because slow feedbacks operate over centuries to millennium, but these operational ranges were only experienced through natural cycles, not with humans dumping hundreds of gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Thus, it is difficult to rule out these slower feedbacks exerting an influence after decades instead of centuries. Empirical evidence especially demonstrates significance for these slower feedbacks because of the rapidly melting surface ice in the Arctic.

Determining a reasonable climate sensitivity is important because it is a principle element in how predictions are made regarding future changes in surface temperature and the overall climate in general. The principle elements that allow predictions on the future climate come from many different climate models and current empirical observations. Modeling the climate is incredibly complicated requiring thousands of different variables as well as the inclusion of hundreds to thousands of interactions between those variables to generate results that can even only be considered ‘in-the-ballpark’. The application of these interactions and variables creates a tremendous demand on time and energy for the computers involved in the modeling. Therefore, to ensure that the generation of a single result does not take weeks/months, certain elements are removed from consideration in the final results. In addition there are some gaps in knowledge regarding how certain variables interact with other variables and in an attempt to ensure some level of accuracy, these types of interactions are also removed or estimated as best as one can and modeled accordingly.

Unfortunately these omissions create inaccuracy in the ability of the model to predict how the climate will change relative to how it actually changes. It is in these omissions where most climate skeptics have attacked with the claim that because x model is potentially inaccurate then the very essence of climate change is wrong. Of course any rational person realizes that such claims are utter nonsense as all of the valid empirical evidence still demonstrates that climate change is occurring almost entirely due to the actions of humans and the lack of a completely accurate model, something that probably will never be generated in the first place, does nothing to taint that evidence. However, in the past few people have considered that the predictions made by climate models were incorrect on the other side of the coin, that they are underestimating the rate of climate change. Due to new empirical evidence, largely surrounding the much more rapid ice and glacier melt in the Arctic,8 more individuals are questioning whether the results of the 4th Annual IPCC report were inaccurate, predicting too slow of a surface temperature shift.

When predicting future temperature changes climate models tend to generate either a linear or a quasi-exponential change in the increase in average global air temperature over future years. For example after modeling four distinct scenarios of human action for the future, the 4th Annual IPCC report illustrated surface temperature changes as shown in the graph below.3

At first glance such predictions may seem practical based largely on how much CO2 and other greenhouse gases humans continue to emit into the atmosphere through future action. However, when considering all of the potential environmental feedback elements that could trigger during warming such results seems less and less plausible. The more noteworthy feedback factors that have a high probability of playing a role in additional future temperature increase include: increased water evaporation leading to more water vapor in the atmosphere,9,10 CO2 and methane release from melting permafrost,11,12 nitrous oxide release from peat sources,13 increased ocean albedo due to Arctic ice melt,3 new cloud synthesis or disappearance at different altitudes,5,14 increased rainforest dry season reversing sink to source behavior,15,16 and increased ocean temperatures resulting in conversion from sink to source. Although all of the previously listed feedback elements demand concern, permafrost melt and ocean out-gassing demand the most concern due to the sheer amount of CO2 that either process could eventually release into the atmosphere. Both of these problems have previously been addressed on this blog at the following links:


Ocean Out-Gassing:

It must be noted that the IPCC report identifies the potential inaccuracy in its conclusions due to feedback processes that were not included in the modeling. The decision to exclude most of the feedback information seems to stem from the lack of conclusive and accurate empirical information pertaining to those feedback processes. Basically the mindset of ‘some inaccuracy by not including feedback process A is better than gross inaccuracy through interpreting the feedback process incorrectly.’

Even though the potential inaccuracy is discussed, sadly enough it appears that increased water vapor was the only significant one attempted with varied results.3 A discussion was also given regarding the potential reduction of land and oceanic sinks due to surface temperature increases, but no direct comments regarding sink to source transformation were made. The inaccuracy of the IPCC used models and some of its conclusions have become quite evident most notably in the rapid pace of ice melt in the Arctic and new conclusions that the Arctic may be completely free of summer ice by only 2015-2020 instead of 2080-2100. The most unfortunate element in all of this seems to be the fact that most climate proponents themselves do not incorporate the potential feedback elements into their strategies with regards to limiting surface temperature increases to a certain boundary ceiling. Overall with the inclusion of feedback elements future average global surface temperature increases will more than likely follow a more severe trend than shown in the above graph.

The assumption of a more severe trend in temperature warming finds support when one considers the influence of the ocean in the carbon cycle. In large respects the ocean can be viewed as a dynamic replenishing buffer of some sorts. Various denizens of the ocean, most notably phytoplankton, are able to absorb CO2 either directly from the atmosphere or in the ocean for photosynthesis. When these organisms die, the CO2 that was used in photosynthesis is typically confined to the bottom of the ocean in sediment. After confinement to sediment the capacity of the ocean to absorb CO2 increases. In short due to the interaction of oceanic organisms the ocean is able to continually and consistently increase or at least maintain its ability to draw CO2 from the atmosphere.

Unfortunately buffers can only neutralize pH changes to certain concentrations. When a counter-agent (acid or base) is added at a high enough concentration the buffer collapses and the pH shifts. Such is also true for the ocean and its ability to absorb CO2. As the concentration of CO2, largely due to human driven activities, increases the ocean continues to absorb that CO2, but the rate of absorption is faster than the action of the pathway responsible for burying CO2 in sediment. Thus, concentrations of CO2 in the ocean build-up both by reducing the ability of the ocean to absorb further CO2 from the atmosphere as well as decreasing the efficiency of the CO2 removal pathway by limiting the available organisms responsible for that CO2 removal. The number of organisms is limited due to increases in acidity which result in less available calcium carbonate for certain food chain critical organisms to construct calcium carbonate infrastructure. When these creatures, like coral, are unable to create calcium carbonate shells it negatively affects large portions of the oceanic food chain including organisms that aid in CO2 removal. Eventually this process will conclude at a concentration equilibrium point where the ocean will no longer be able to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere eliminating its CO2 sink capacity.

Now while the loss of the ocean as a sink is bad enough, there is a very real possibility that the ocean will eventually become a source for increasing atmospheric CO2 instead of a sink. Most of the warming due to the excess CO2 in the atmosphere has not occurred on land, but in the ocean. This warming is important because gas solubility in a liquid decreases as temperature increases because increasing temperature increases available kinetic energy which increases molecule movement. Greater molecule movement increases the probability of bond breaking which reduces the ability of the gas to remain in solution. Therefore, as the ocean continues to warm its maximum capacity for CO2 storage in a dynamic equilibrium with the atmosphere will decrease causing it to release CO2 into the atmosphere until it is able to establish a new lower storage equilibrium. Although it is unclear how much CO2 could be released as a result of a negative gas solubility shift in the ocean, the fact that the ocean has increased in CO2 concentration by 118 +- 19 gigatons in the last 200 years17 and absorbs approximately 8-10 gigatons of CO2 a year from the atmosphere paints a dreary picture. Overall although out-gassing would be horrible, the loss of the ocean as a CO2 sink would be far worse over the course of decades.

Tie in the feedback resultant loss of the ocean as a CO2 sink with the potential of out-gassing to the prospect of a continual release of CO2 and methane from the potential 1,672 gigatons of carbon storage load in permafrost18,19 and those two feedback elements alone could create a huge shift in surface temperatures regardless of what humans emit in the decades to come.

Suppose one rejects the above contention of rapid severe warming due to these feedback effects? Even if such warming is rejected and such a rejection turns out to be correct in reality, those wishing to hold temperature increases at a ceiling of 2 degrees C still have the problem of ‘backwash warming’, warming that has yet to catch up with the influence of the current level of climate forcings. Basically the amount of climate forcing that has currently been applied to the environment has not been fully compensated for through change in average surface temperature largely due to slow feedbacks. That is to say that if all human based CO2 emissions were ceased tomorrow, the average global temperature would still increase another x degrees. Although it is not clear how much actual warming will occur through this ‘backwash’, Hansen et Al.1 estimate an additional global temperature increase of approximately 1.4 degrees C. Add that increase to the current increase from pre-industrial times of 0.6 to 0.9 degrees C (depending on what track information is used) and an increase of 2 degrees C is extremely probable regardless of what actions humans take. The graph used by Hansen et Al.1 to illustrate this additional future warming is shown below.

However, regardless of these concerns there is still time to successfully derail significant climate change, but only if the proper strategy is taken. Although the hot topic, the more trendy and popular geo-engineering strategies are unlikely to prove useful in short-term because of two significant flaws. First, they do relatively little, if anything, to alter the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere instead they work to mask some percentage of the warming driven by this CO2 concentration. Second, they do nothing to change the concentration of CO2 in the ocean, which maintains ocean acidity and limits the ability of the ocean to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Therefore, if geo-engineering is to be utilized the strategy must attack one of these two issues otherwise it would lack usefulness. Strategies like reforestation or bio-char would be useful, but would also fall far short of drawing out the required CO2. Also it is unlikely that exportation of CO2 into the upper atmosphere and eventually space would prove useful or even viable.

Reduction or mitigation of future emissions is an important element for limiting the total amount of temperature increase, but it is clear that the governments of the world are unwilling to create the cuts that allow mitigation to be an independent strategy that lacks further technological intervention. Currently despite the cries and curses from the environmentalist moment, it is unlikely that enough viable trace/zero emission energy can be generated to compensate for the draw down from coal and natural gas at the speeds required. Also regardless of how some environmentalist spin it, like Joe Romm of Climateprogress, China issuing a non-binding pledge to reduce carbon intensity is rather meaningless because reducing carbon intensity (with the economic growth still to available for China) instead of doing nothing is like getting a 32% on a test instead of a 19%, it is still failure. As it currently stands if the required cuts to avoid significant increases in surface temperature (2-3 degrees C) were to be made it would be a significant detriment to the overall global economic output due to less available energy. The energy gap that is created through emission mitigation for the United States was previous discussed in detail here:

So if mitigation is not occurring rapidly enough and generic geo-engineering tactics are basically worthless, what is to be done? The principle action beyond mitigation must be to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere via technological means. Technology must be harnessed solely because natural methods are just not fast enough. Not only are current carbon sinks becoming compromised due to current warming,20 but it is highly unrealistic that enough trees can be planted in the near-future to enhance land sink capacity especially when REDD, the most promising anti-deforestation proposal, has yet to expand in any significant capacity. Soil strategies using various tilling methods or bio-char may increase sink capacity by very minute amounts, but nothing to the level that is required. Thus, technology must be used.

In short all research funds that individuals want direct towards point-source carbon capture (a.k.a. clean coal) must instead be directed to non-point-source carbon capture (a.k.a. air capture). This blog has previously discussed the outstanding concerns with air capture and they are significant, but realistically the only way humans stop an increase in average surface temperature of even 3 degrees C without a miracle occurring is a combination of reducing carbon emissions and some form of air capture. Finally the development of a technology that could draw CO2 from the ocean would be an exceptionally useful tool in furthering mitigation by increasing the sink capacity of the ocean.

Overall the environmentalist movement needs to shift gears; it is somewhat humorous in that its members vent frustration at the portrayal of the question of global warming like it is a legitimate debate, yet these same individuals do the same by continuing to talk to species annihilators (global warming deniers) in a context of trying to convince them. At this point in time the debate is over; anyone who believes that humans are not the driving force behind climate change will not change his/her opinion regardless of what facts and evidence are highlighted, it is not worth wasting more time trying to convince them. The only thing that will convince these individuals are negative climate events that directly affect them, nothing which can be provided by environmentalists. In addition further discussion and proposition of foolish and inefficient boycotts of high emitters bad guys like Exxon should cease because truly such a strategy would be ineffective and just take time away and personnel away from more meaningful and effective endeavors. Instead it is time to move into research and innovation mode.

Solutions and strategies need to be prepared for when they are needed in the future. An honest assessment of what energy technologies will be needed to replace coal and natural gas will need to be identified. Just a quick note for those wind supporters, wind will not even come close to providing the necessary energy for global growth or even growth in the United States, especially if wind speeds continue to fall. Is nuclear really that expensive, preventing its widespread adoption, or is the expense only contingent on using 2nd generation technology over 3rd or 4th generation? What new energy strategies will need to be researched? There are many more questions beyond the few mentioned above that demand discussion and attention. Also these discussions cannot be broad based with weak statements like ‘oh all sorts of trace emission energy sources like wind, solar, nuclear and geothermal will be needed for the future’. No, these discussions must be full of details and specifics, so businesses and researchers know exactly what the future markets demand and expect.

In the end although mitigation is important, remediation is also important because the environment has reached a point where nature cannot restore the balance on its own. There are important questions to be asked regarding remediation and it is time for the environmental movement to start focusing in on those questions rather than lamenting or championing the latest meaningless poll regarding the public’s view of global warming, clean energy or whatever else is the subject of the poll de jour.

1. Hansen, James, et, al. “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2008, 2, 217-231.

2. Tans, Pieter. NOAA/ESRL (

3. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

4. Myhre, Gunnar. “Consistency Between Satellite-Derived and Modeled Estimates of the Direct Aerosol Effect.” Science. June 18, 2009. DOI: 10.1126/science.1174461.

5. Clement, Amy, Burgman, Robert, and Norris, Joel. "Observational and Model Evidence for Positive Low-Level Cloud Feedback." Science. July 24, 2009. 325: 460-464. DOI: 10.1126/science.1171255

6. Kohler, Peter, et, Al. “What caused Earth’s temperature variations during the last 800,000 years? Data-based evidence on radiative forcing and constraints on climate sensitivity.” Quaternary Science Reviews. 2009. 1–17. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.09.026

7. Charney J. “Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment.” National Academy of Sciences Press: Washington DC 1979. 33.

8. Hawkins, Richard, et, Al. “In Case of Emergency.” Climate Safety. Public Interest Research Centre. 2008.

9. Santer, B, et, Al. “Identification of human-induced changes in atmospheric moisture content.” PNAS. 2007. 104: 15248-15253.

10. Dessler, A, et, Al. “Water-vapor climate feedback inferred from climate fluctuations, 2003-2008.” Geophysical Research Letters. 2008. 35: L20704.

11. Åkerman, H, and Johansson, M. “Thawing permafrost and thicker active layers in sub-arctic Sweden.” Permafrost and Periglacial Processes. 2008. 19: 279-292.

12. Jin, H.-j, et, Al. “Changes in permafrost environments along the Qinghai-Tibet engineering corridor induced by anthropogenic activities and climate warming.” Cold Regions Science and Technology. 2008. 53: 317-333.

13. Dorrepaal, E. et, Al. “Carbon respiration from subsurface peat accelerated by climate warming in the subarctic.” Nature. 2009. 460: 616-619.

14. Booth, B, et, Al. “Global warming uncertainties due to carbon cycle feedbacks exceed those due to CO2 emissions.” Geophysical Research. 2009. 11: 4179.

15. Cook, K, and Vizy, E. “Effects of Twenty-First Century Climate Change on the Amazon Rain Forest.” Journal of Climate. 2008. 21: 542-560.

16. Phillips, O, et, Al. “Drought sensitivity of the Amazon rainforest.” Science. 2009. 323: 1344-1347.

17. Sabine, C, et, Al. “The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2.” Science. 2004. 305: 367-371.

18. Schuur, E, et Al. “Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: Implications for the global carbon cycle.” BioScience. 2008. 58: 701-714.

19. Tarnocai, C, et Al. “Soil organic carbon pools in the northern circumpolar permafrost region.” Global Biogeochemical Cycles. 2009. 23: GB2023.

20. Canadell, J, et, Al. “Contributions to accelerating atmospheric CO2 growth from economic activity, carbon intensity, and efficiency of natural sinks.” PNAS. 2007. 104: 18866-18870.

The Value of Economic Sanctions

The administration of economic sanctions by a country or group of countries against another country as a means to induce certain policy changes has been a staple of foreign policy for decades. The use of sanctions is popular because it is viewed as a viable alternative to taking costly and frequently unpopular military action. One powerful preconceived notion involving economic sanctions seems to be that it offers the greatest probability of success for the lowest possible cost. Decades ago there was a significant probability that economic sanctions could be utilized as an effective means to influence policy or strategy change because the global economy was still reliant on a small number of countries. However, due to globalization and the emergence of a significant number of new economic players, it is much more difficult to influence policy change through economic sanctions. The biggest problem with modern economic sanctions is their structure and execution did not evolve as the global economic and political community evolved. This lack of evolution has left economic sanctions that may have worked in the 1950s and 60s flawed and with a much lower chance for success in present day. The continued use of economic sanctions with little alteration in application demonstrates a large disconnect between theory and reality for those responsible for the administration of these sanctions.

Improperly designed economic sanction policies actually have a greater probability of doing more harm than good; creating a greater divide in the relationship between the sanctioning and the sanctioned countries further reducing the probability of success in future diplomatic engagements. This possibility is one of the reasons the application of economic sanctions can be detrimental because they frequently act as an accelerant in conflict between two countries. Typically economic sanctions are levied by one country against another country because the sanctioned country is taking an action, be it economic, political or militarily, that the sanctioning country disapproves of and possibly believes to be dangerous. In large part economic sanctions can be regarded as the last step before a military conflict/intervention, so clearly when a country uses economic sanctions that country normally does not currently have a quality diplomatic relationship with the sanctioned country where rationality and even quid pro quo diplomacy can be utilized.

Unfortunately when friction exists between two countries the governments of those countries use political propaganda to further increase distrust of the opposing country in their citizens. This propaganda can facilitate a nationalist response when faced with economic sanctions from a country viewed as the enemy where instead of capitulating to the threat of or actual economic sanctions, the citizenry of the sanctioned country unites in defiance with their leaders. Such an attitude is characterized by those citizens digging in even harder rather than be characterized as weak, which would establish a precedence that they can be pushed around at the sanctioning country’s whim.

The two most notable historic examples illustrating the failure of economic sanctions are between the United States and Cuba and the United States and Iraq. For over 40 years economic sanctions have been the policy of the United States towards Cuba and yet a Castro still remains in power (Fidel to Raul) and the economic system is still socialist (those who refer to the economic system of Cuba as Communism need to actually research the definition of Communism). Realistically there are only two reasons economic sanctions remain on Cuba. First, for simple vengeance as the initial reason for enacting economic sanctions was due to Fidel Castro illegally seizing U.S. property and assets in Cuba when he seized power. Clearly those in power who owned those assets did not look upon such an action favorably. Second, a fanatical anti-Castro movement by Cuban-Americans in Florida and other places around the U.S. continues to provide heavy political pressure on the federal government to continue the economic sanctions; ironically pressure which the government caves to for no real legitimate reason because the voting power of these individuals as a whole is rather pathetic.

Economic sanctions on Iraq lasted for over a decade and still did nothing to induce revolution to overthrow Saddam Hussein or change Saddam’s policy towards his own citizens or the rest of the world. Instead military force was used to remove Saddam from power. In both situations all economic sanctions really did was hurt the citizens of those sanctioned countries as well as hurt the economy of the United States. Most free-market proponents believe that utilizing capitalism and free trade would have influenced the desired political change much faster and efficiently by providing incentives to maintain a positive relationship through the purchase of goods. Basically if Country A sells Country B a lot of product x and product x is valued Country B will have a more friendly relationship with Country A. So why do policy makers skill believe that economic sanctions under their current design are a viable strategy for inducing foreign policy changes?

Why has the generic blueprint for the general economic sanction remained the same for over six decades with the only improvement being the advent of ‘smart sanction’, which has had mixed results at best? One possible explanation is that in the early post-World War II period economic sanctions, most initiated by the United States, were successful a vast majority of the time. Unfortunately that early success turned out to be a negative influencer for future results, convincing U.S. authorities that economic sanctions would frequently work and that the structure of those post-war sanctions was the proper structure to achieve success. In addition most of these successful economic sanctions were unilateral further fostering confidence in the superiority of the U.S. economic system and its influence aboard. Interestingly enough this mindset has yet to truly change despite significant failures of unilateral U.S. economic sanctions to generate change from the late 1970s to the present.

Overall there appears to be no good explanation for why the basic structure and methodology behind economic sanctions has not changed significantly. The sad reality is that even when economic sanctions are successful they rarely induce long-term significant change; instead the successes derived from economic sanctions are short-term, typically single event victories. So realistically economic sanctions can only achieve moderate goals in the first place and even those goals have become less attainable in modern society. Perhaps the reality of the situation is that world leaders have concluded that any variation in the economic sanction design will not significantly change the low probability of success, so they have elected to not waste time and resources by modifying the old strategy. Instead economic sanctions are viewed as a policy designed to make the public believe that something is being done about country A that is perceived to be threat for given reason B when in reality nothing of significance is being done. Of course if this is true, economic sanctions are a rather harmful ‘do nothing’ policy for they are detrimental to U.S. based exporters and in some respects U.S. based importers.

If economic sanctions are ever going become a viable alternative to military action its failings must be identified and corrected. The chief problem with economics sanctions is that originally there was motivation to facilitate such sanctions through the United Nations; in fact that facilitation was part of the motivation for establishing the United Nations where the sanctions would have multi-national support, but such a strategy was never really established; therefore most economic sanction strategies became unilateral or at best a small network of countries seeking a common goal. Through most of the 20th century, especially after World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had the economic clout to influence policy through the use of economic sanctions, but globalization has increased the number of effective economies in the global trading game reducing the overall influence of each single economy. Now unilateral sanctions regardless of who imposes them have a much smaller probability of success.

Unilateral sanctions are difficult to successfully administer on two different counts. First, the country being sanctioned needs to have a strong economic relationship with the country that initiates the sanction or the sanction will have little to no effect. Second, the sanctioned country must not be able to acquire a significant amount of resources to neutralize the effect of the sanction. Failure in this second criterion is why most unilateral sanctions fail as even though a powerful economy may elect to cut trade ties with a country only in the rare situation of a global product monopoly will the sanctioned country not be able to receive necessary resources from another country. Countries, like individuals, tend to look out for their own interests first and there is no reason for these other trading partners to agree explicitly with the policies suggested by the sanctioning country without analyzing how such a policy change would influence them. It is irrational for the countries pushing for the sanctions to expect other trading partners to abide by the proposed sanctions because their desired policy is righteous and correct.

Additionally if the first parameter is met, the sudden depression in supply to certain resource sectors of the sanctioned economy can create new opportunities for existing and possible future trade partners to capitalize on the product shortfall. Instead of adhering to the sanction these countries could look to make-up the lost supply carving out a new piece of a foreign market that might not have been otherwise available. Understanding these realities lead to the reasonable conclusion that the goal of the sanction will rarely succeed if it is politically unilateral. The best way to circumvent the economic advantages that non-sanctioning countries receives by not adhering to the sanction is to convince the non-sanctioning countries that the policy the sanction seeks to change is critical for their own national interest. Basically the sanctioning countries should try to convince other possible trading partners that without a policy change in the sanctioned country the future detriment will exceed any short-term economic gain.

If the policy that the sanctioned country wants changed is not critical for the additional trading partners or it is, but they cannot be convinced of such, then the best way to establish policy change is for the sanctioning country to remove a sufficient number of the other potential trading partners from the equation by offering them a better deal. To eliminate the possibility that other countries trade with the sanctioned country, the sanctioning country should negotiate short-term trade agreements with those other partners under the condition that they will not trade with the sanctioned country. These trade agreements should have similar structures and product movement that would be seen between the partner in question and the sanctioned country. Note that only enough trading partners need to be neutralized so that the sanctions will negatively affect the economy of the sanctioned country. Of course such trade agreements will probably increase the total cost of the sanctions for the sanctioning country as well, so the policy change that is being targeted must continue to exceed these costs in overall benefit. Fortunately these trade agreements also may mitigate some of the job loss and capital loss from ceasing trade with the sanctioned country.

In the end even if the proper allies are created, the overall policy change goal when considering the ramifications of the economic sanctions must be rational. A good example of an irrational goal is a portion of the goal involving the economic sanctions placed on Iraq by the United States. Part of the reasoning behind the economic sanctions was to induce rebellion in the Iraqi populous in order to overthrow Saddam; however, such a revolution is improbable when your rebels are sick and dying because they are not getting enough food and medicine because of the economic sanctions placed on their country. Remember that product distribution regarding economic sanctions will typically go from top to bottom. The have-nots will be hurt more often and more severely than the haves. Hence planners need to keep these realities in mind when determining goals for economic sanctions.

Overall before embarking on a proposal to engage economic sanctions against another country it would be wise to consider the following factors:

1. Make sure the eventual policy change goal of the economic sanction is rational and attainable;
2. Ensure enough economic clout to negatively affect the economy of the target country;
3. Neutralize other possible trading partners by convincing them that it is in their best interest to join the sanction or by entering into short-term trade agreements to neutralize the economic gain from trading with the sanctioned country;
4. Immediately cease trade with the sanctioned country as the faster and more forceful the disconnect the greater the probability that the sanction will work at a reasonable cost to the sanctioning country;
5. Do not be afraid to negotiate with the sanctioned country after a fixed period of time under the sanction, the policy change goal does not need to be all or nothing;

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Brief Discussion about Change

An old cliché is that change is not easy, which like most clichés is true because unfortunately there are significant obstacles to transformation especially in either behavior or thinking. First, an individual has to believe that there is a problem with their behavior or thought process that demands change. Belief in such a reality is a complicated issue because of different perspectives regarding how one should think. Also one must also take into consideration the absolute level of change demanded for a particular individual, for some individuals simply may not be able to think to an advanced stage due to limitations beyond one’s control, not everyone in life is a philosopher.

However, the biggest obstacle to overcoming this condition is the simple fact that most people do not like to admit when they are wrong about something, even when presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There are two basic options to defeat such a psychological imperative: first tap into personal pride. Sticking to one’s ‘guns’ even when wrong should be viewed as a poor light, not revered like it tends to be. Basically an individual should feel shame for being wrong and resolve to correct those error(s). The second option is to penalize the individual for being wrong. Thinking that 2 + 2 = 5 should come with a huge financial or personal penalty because if an individual is not going to have enough pride to accept when he/she is wrong then society must correct that behavior not through incentive, but through punishment.

Second, the participants have to have the capacity for change. Change typically requires strength of will, a characteristic that is not common place in most individuals. There is something that can be said for blind faith being a driver of change, but the general outcomes generated by blind faith are more randomized than typically desired. The reason strength of will is required is because change demands, as previously mentioned, admitting that the current course of action or behavior is wrong. Humans tend to shun the prospect of confirming that they are wrong about something, thus one must have a psychological means to overcome this distaste and the cognitive dissidence defense mechanism hence the strategy of tapping into personal pride.

Third, even if an individual is aware of their superficial or inappropriate behavior and/or erroneous thought process it may be by design. For example the individual could have tried to be him/herself at one point in time and was just unhappy for some reason, either he/she did not like him/herself or society did not like him/her and behaving in a disingenuous manner is a mechanistic attempt at creating happiness. Of course an argument can be made that such happiness is simply a lie, but that leads to the deeper question: is it better to live a happy lie or an unhappy truth?

The second rationality for behaving against one’s true nature may be to advance in a particular social or occupational infrastructure. It cannot be intelligently argued that human society does not favor certain characteristics and attitudes over others; although society claims to desire diversity, reality paints a different picture. Thus, an individual may think the best course of action is to change behavior to represent something society or a potential mate may want instead of who they truly are. Unfortunately such action seems rather detestable in that to achieve such a standing a person has to destroy the sense of self. What is worse an individual behaving/thinking in a despicable manner or an individual play-acting in a despicable manner solely to advance in society?

Such a question is interesting in that some could argue that clearly the former is worse because if one is clever enough to realize how a certain aspect of society is exploitive and chooses to exploit that aspect to his/her own advantage that individual should be praised. However, the thought of such praise leaves a bad taste in the mouth because such action does not change the fundamental flaw in the system instead it indirectly supports that flaw.

For example one is reminded of the verbal confrontation between John Stewart and Tucker Carlson on the now defunct CNN show “Crossfire” in 2004. Mr. Stewart opened the question and answer portion of the show involving him with an unexpected significant criticism regarding the validity of "Crossfire" as a genuine debate and information source. In response Mr. Carlson criticized the seriousness and usefulness of the news commentary provided by "The Daily Show", which Mr. Stewart hosted at the time and still currently hosts. Mr. Stewart appeared to view this criticism as comical because "The Daily Show" was supposed to be satirical and comedic in nature; bolstering this point Mr. Stewart cited that at the time puppets making crank phone calls was slotted right before "The Daily Show" whereas CNN claimed, and still does, to be the most trusted name in news and Mr. Stewart’s criticism was directly related to not living up to such a boast.

By Mr. Carlson criticizing "The Daily Show" instead of defending "Crossfire" he was basically telling the public that both "The Daily Show" and "Crossfire" were ill equipped to properly disseminate and analyze the news, thus limiting the quality of either show. Mr. Carlson should have instead defended "Crossfire" in effort to demonstrate its importance in the news community and simultaneously hurting Mr. Stewart's credibility to lodge future criticism of similar nature. Although one can somewhat understand the attack strategy as the criticism of "Crossfire" could have been viewed by Mr. Carlson as a criticism of him because of his direct involvement with "Crossfire", such an emotional response seems to be typically more detrimental than beneficial. This example relates back to the exploitation situation in that society as a whole is better served if the exploitation is brought to light instead of kept in the shadows because a particular individual wants to use it to his/her advantage. Basically a wrong should be corrected, not defended through manipulation or citing wrong in that which is trying to correct the wrong.

The fourth barrier to behavioral change is the knowledge of change. One may want to build a better clock, but if one does not know how to build clocks that desire to build a clock is wasted. The knowledge could come from the individual, but not all individuals have the experience or intelligence to know what needs to be done to change. Therefore, if an individual is to change a means to initiate that change must be outlined to the given individual otherwise how will change occur?

Environmentalists have this problem in that they frequently suggest that individuals cut their carbon footprints in effort to derail the prospects of serious global warming. Some even go into more specifics on how to achieve a reduction like improving the energy efficiency of their homes. Unfortunately that is where almost all of them stop, failing to realize that improving energy efficiency is still a rather complicated endeavor when factoring in which contractors to use, how to get started, rates of return on investment, etc. Perhaps more people would pursue energy efficiency if someone created almost a step-by-step guide. Paging the authors of the ‘for dummies’ books, the environmentalists need you.

Due to these four elements a simple ‘call to arms’ type statement for change, again something commonly used by environmentalist, will more than likely be ineffective. Each of these elements must be dealt with effectively if any real and lasting change in behavior is to occur. Logic seems to dictate that the second and third barrier make up the principle reasons individuals behave/think in a certain way. Unfortunately such a situation creates a significant problem. Regarding the third barrier, the individual is playing a disingenuous role that creates a net advantage in existence over acting in a genuine manner. It makes no logical sense for an individual to exhibit his/her genuine character if the individual can effectively manage life as that fake person. Therefore, the only means to initiate change in those individuals is to remove the greater benefit from the false persona.

The problem with fostering change when faced with the first aspect of the third barrier is the psychological phenomenon of inclusion. Recall that although individuals say the politically correct things, in reality life and society do not like diversity (otherwise most of the issues involving ethnicity and race would have ended a long time ago), instead they are like chemistry: like dissolves like. People prefer dealing with people that do not exist outside of the realm of their own expectations. Interacting with those that do makes them uncomfortable and typically drives them away from those individuals towards safer and more familiar pastures.

Equally influential is the prospect of being alone which is a powerful negative force that again only the strong can truly neutralize as a mover in their life. Humans by evolutionary nature are social beings. If one acts in such a way that limits the potential for social interaction, it is understandable although unfortunate, that the individual would readily abandon true self to ensure positive social interaction. Tying the issue of change to the field of relationships, despite fairy tales to the contrary, there is not someone out there for everyone and a vast number of individuals do not recognize ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ as their personal theme song. In short it is difficult to be you when life kicks you in the teeth for being you.

In large context conquering the third barrier may be simple relative to conquering the second barrier. The third barrier involves balancing any differential rewards to a given personality or mindset regardless of factual or empirical correctness. One particular mindset cannot be rewarded beyond another particular mindset with regards to a given issue without empirical evidence demonstrating factual superiority on that given issue. Basically being right and logical needs to be the driver in how a particular mindset is rewarded. The problem is prying away enough power from those that prefer to be wrong that such a change can occur. For the second problem people must be instilled with a level of personal pride where they rebuke anyone that does not accept them for themselves within the context of social norms and the legal system.

Make no bones about it change is indeed a tall order. However, the second barrier cannot be fully conquered until society as a whole can understand the unique offerings of each individual and how they can contribute positively to society. Otherwise the probability of any successful mass unmasking of those hiding behind facades unfortunately remains low. Thus steps must be taken to facilitate and nurture this potential for a new mindset. Overall society must demand that individuals focus on casting aside those elements that are statistically false, which will involve change for many, in order to optimize not only present benefits, but future benefits as well.