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This is where we excerpt articles from the media that take a historical approach to events in the news.
SOURCE: Toronto Star (7-30-12)
Paul Hockenos, a writer based in Berlin, is the author of Free to Hate: The Rise of the Right in Post-Communist Eastern Europe.
SOURCE: Lee Ruddin (7-30-12)
Lee Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN. He lives in England.
Readers of the Guardian may be forgiven for thinking that its editors were now big advocates of the Anglo-American “special relationship” after the newspaper ran a fascinating feature on Emma Sky, ‘the British peacenik who became the key to the US military.’ Granted, its chief political correspondent (Nicholas Watt) derided Mitt Romney on his recent trip to London and scolded the Republican presidential challenger for an advisor’s comment relating to his ‘Anglo-Saxon heritage.’ Yet it sounded almost proud of the fact that a civilian (one opposed to the war in Iraq) advised an American commander (namely General Raymond T. Odierno) on the dusty plains of Mesopotamia and that her ideas were later reflected in General David Petraeus’s successful counter-insurgency doctrine.
Fiercely opposed to the “occupation,” the broadsheet – again, proudly, it must be noted – illuminated how Sky, an Englishwoman, represented the US military during negotiations on the “Status of Forces Agreement” concerning the continued presence of coalition personnel. The UN resolution was due to expire at the end of 2008 and Sky, as part of a small team under the US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, worked tirelessly to prevent a power vacuum. Sky’s diplomatic skills impressed Americans and Iraqis to such an extent that she was deployed on a key ambassadorial assignment. We cannot say for certain whether Prime Minister Maliki would not have traveled to Camp Victory – the seat of the “occupation” – had Sky not woke him upon hearing the news that President Obama could not travel to the Green Zone. But what we do know is that a British “Arabist” helped to inject a bit of “specialness” into the burgeoning American-Iraqi relationship by arranging for the two leaders to meet.
Such an influence is nothing new, though, as Richard Aldous illustrates in his latest book, Reagan and Thatcher:The Difficult Relationship. The ‘Soviets seemed to have calculated that [Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher was’, her private secretary, Charles Powell recalled, “somebody who could both persuade President [Ronald] Reagan to deal with them and in a sense help explain them to [the Commander-in-Chief].”’ The above referenced quote is not, rest assured, an isolated one. Indeed, while some reviewers may (rightly) question Norton publishers’ decision to bill Aldous’s work as one of historical revisionism (since it will fail to supplant Geoffrey Smith’s 1991 pioneering study, Reagan and Thatcher – a text also published by Norton), the Eugene Meyer Professor of British History and Literature at Bard College, New York, intelligently (if indirectly) revises the “poodle” thesis.
Denis Healey once remarked that “When President Reagan says, ‘Jump,’ Mrs. Thatcher asks, ‘How high?’” The then-Shadow Foreign Secretary’s comment, and referral to the PM as the C-in-C’s “obedient poodle”, never became tomorrow’s chip paper after hitting the headlines because he continued to peddle the one-liners in symposia reflecting upon the Cold War Years. But as Aldous now illuminates to – for want of a better word – the poodle peddlers, what Neil Kinnock said about Thatcher being “supine in her support for the American President” was anything but the case. Indeed, Aldous’s account of Thatcher (in the words of reviewer John O’Sullivan) ‘blowing into Washington, blowing up, and blowing out again’ destroys any credibility of the then-Leader of the Opposition when it comes to the process(es) of foreign-policy decision-making.
Thatcher, unlike Kinnock, had authority – all of it in her relationship with Reagan. She was also more of an attack dog than a poodle, as evidenced by her actions at the G-7 summit (at Montebello, Ottawa, in 1981) when she confronted France’s Francois Mitterrand and Canada’s Pierre Trudeau as they endeavored to corner the recently-inaugurated 40th President of the United States to “discuss” his economic policies. Administration officials never forgot this incident and principals utilized Thatcher to great effect for eight years during the Eighties. Two examples of a principal-like, poodle-lite Thatcher – in 1982 and 1984 – stick out and warrant further discussion.
The American policy of sanctions against the Siberian pipeline (in response to the Communist government in Poland imposing martial law in December 1981) did not garner much allied support; Thatcher was livid with Reagan and his unilateral approach (in June 1982), believing that the US declaration of economic war on the USSR would have dire consequences for European allies. ‘[A]t a time when she was often accused of being Reagan’s poodle, this was an occasion when she seemed determined to show both bark and bite,’ Aldous records. So much so, the author asserts, it explains ‘why immediately after losing the debate, [Secretary of State Alexander] Haig wanted to get Thatcher into the Oval Office – and why [National Security Advisor William P.] Clark tried to keep her out. For within the western alliance there was no more robust opponent of these sanctions than Thatcher.’
Policy debates surrounding the Strategic Defense Initiative followed a similar pattern. Reagan had rejected Mutually Assured Destruction but Thatcher believed that the SDI (comprising the weaponization of space and commonly referred to as “Star Wars”) was, well, MAD. Despite the realist PM believing that the idealist C-in-C’s dream of a nuclear-free world was an unattainable one, she agreed to publicly support his Administration’s research initiative. In private, however, like at Camp David (in December 1984), Thatcher launched into a tirade, distinguishing between SDI as a research initiative and as a deployed system. ‘“Nuclear weapons,” she reminded Reagan when emphasizing détente over defense, “have served not only to prevent a nuclear war, but they have also given us forty years of unprecedented peace in Europe. It would be unwise to abandon a deterrence system that had prevented both nuclear and conventional war.”’
Secretary of State George Shultz shared Thatcher’s concerns but he was outnumbered in the Administration and thus not confident that such reservations would be raised in the coming disarmament talks at Geneva. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, meanwhile, was in agreement with the C-in-C and both were extremely confident that SDI would not form part of the negotiations with the Soviets. ‘Thatcher’s visit’, however, Aldous informs the reader, ‘had offered [Shultz] an opportunity to ensure that his view prevailed’ and that SDI would ‘at least be on the table.’ As the author concludes, ‘State Department officials had worked directly with the British to produce the document that emerged from Camp David. “It was an excellent statement,” the Secretary judged; “it differentiated between research and deployment of space-based defense and gave me some running room in Geneva.”’
Richard Perle, a principal arms negotiator for Reagan at Reykjavik, similarly took took heart from Thatcher challenging Reagan’s ‘non-nuclear creed’. “Some of us, learning that Mrs. Thatcher was coming,” David Dimbleby and David Reynolds, authors of An Ocean Apart: The Relationship Between Britain and America in the Twentieth Century, quote Perle as saying, “were rather pleased at the prospect that some of the more intemperate and visionary views of the President might be modified, as indeed they were. So many of us regarded her as a voice of calm reason, and a much needed one, in particular on this issue of a world without nuclear weapons, which is dangerous nonsense. The President gives expression to it too frequently, but never in close proximity with a visit from Mrs. Thatcher. So we get a brief respite from that rubbish when she comes.”
The aforementioned examples are classic instances of how members of the Reagan Administration used Thatcher as one of the President’s principals to gain leverage during internal policy disputes. Given what transatlantic expert Ritchie Ovendale, author of Anglo-American Relations in the Twentieth Century, says about Thatcher’s role in the making of ‘American foreign policy’ and ‘the way a telephone call from her could lead to Reagan discarding State Department recommendations,’ you can understand why Jeane Kirkpatrick, former US ambassador to the UN, asked: “Why not disband the State Department and have the British Foreign Office make our policy?”
SOURCE: New Republic (7-26-12)
Jonathan Rauch is an opinion columnist for National Journal.
Pundits and, for that matter, the Obama campaign were right to ding Mitt Romney’s foreign policy address Tuesday for banging the table instead of putting anything substantive on it. But what could Romney do? Obama has given him almost nothing to work with. Foreign affairs won’t decide the 2012 election, but, if it did, President Obama would win walking away.
Replying to Romney’s speech, Robert Gibbs, an Obama adviser, said this: "It’s widely accepted that President Obama has an exceptionally strong record on national security issues, and I think, quite frankly, Mitt Romney is having a hard time making an argument against President Obama on these issues." It pains me, as a supposedly crankily skeptical journalist, to agree with a partisan spin doctor, but here goes: Gibbs is right.
I never drank the Obama Kool-Aid in 2008. The then-candidate’s promise of "a new kind of politics," I wrote in National Journal at the time, "borders on chicanery." Replace partisanship with pragmatism? Set aside ideology to take the best solutions from both parties and ease the country out of its mess? Fat chance, I said. Well, for the record, I hereby eat half a crow. Whatever you may think of Obama’s domestic and economic records (which we can debate some other time), on foreign policy he has delivered the post-partisan, pragmatic, and generally successful policy he promised.
Two major surprises have marked his presidency, one negative, one positive...
SOURCE: Daily Star (Lebanon) (7-25-12)
Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by The Daily Star.
This has been a bad publicity week for the Baath Party that ruled Iraq and Syria for much of the past half-century. Consider the two following lead paragraphs from two news stories from the Associated Press Tuesday.The first was datelined Damascus: "After a bloody, weeklong siege in the Syrian capital, residents who stayed behind are facing hourslong lines for gasoline and bread, stinking piles of garbage in the streets and scenes of destruction unimaginable in a city that had long been spared the worst ravages of the country’s uprising. It’s a gruesome turn for the distinguished Middle Eastern city of Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a sign that Syria’s civil war appears doomed to escalate."
The second was datelined Baghdad: "A startling spasm of violence shook more than a dozen Iraqi cities Monday, killing over 100 people in coordinated bombings and shootings and wounding twice as many in the country’s deadliest day in more than two years. The attacks came only days after Al-Qaeda announced it would attempt a comeback with a new offensive against Iraq’s weakened government."
What should we make of the fact that the two countries where the Arab Socialist Baath Party ruled for many decades are now poster children for wrecks of modern Arab statehood that have descended into urban warfare? Syria and Iraq are not only sad places today for the suffering their people endure in conditions of rampant violence. They are sad also for their modern legacy as police states that demeaned their people so grievously that they provoked several popular uprisings the regimes tried to put down with brute force...
SOURCE: Politico (7-23-12)
Bennett Ramberg served as a policy analyst in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration.
By late Tuesday, we could see the restart of the ticking clock that can lead to military action against Tehran’s atomic program. These are the stakes should the second round of the European Union-Iran technical nuclear talks in Istanbul fail to make progress. Breakdown could make impossible any resumption of these stalled plenary negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran.
Though sanctions have yet to play out, deadlock makes force increasingly plausible. However, many analysts and government officials in the United States and elsewhere have taken a glum view about the practicality of such a step. Airstrikes, they argue, may set Tehran back only a few months, and instead energize the government’s efforts to get the bomb.
Policymakers sound stumped. But they shouldn’t be. If the decision to apply force were made, the international community can prevent an Iranian nuclear rebirth through inspectors who have the authority to destroy remaining nuclear contraband.
SOURCE: Foreign Policy (7-24-12)
Mark Leonard is co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the first pan-European think tank.
John McCain may have called Barack Obama the biggest celebrity in the world, but the place that has held the U.S. president closest to its collective heart has always been Europe. When he took to the stage in Berlin on July 24, 2008, a crowd of 200,000 Germans abandoned their usual reserve to flood screaming and cheering into the Tiergarten.
They came to see an aspiring American president give flesh to all of Europe's fantasies about American leadership: multiethnic and multilateral; pragmatic and peacefully minded; social democratic in his goals and so eloquent in their expression. Obama promised to purge the sins of George W. Bush and give new impetus to the alliance for a new century. "America has no better partner than Europe" he said.
The paradox is that while Obama successfully healed the transatlantic rift, he may also be the American president who presided over the end of the West as a political community.
Four years on from Berlin, Obama would still trade his approval ratings in any European country with those in his native United States. In June, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey showed that nine out of 10 voters in France (92 percent) and Germany (89 percent) would like to see him reelected, as would large majorities in Britain (73 percent), Spain (71 percent), Italy (69 percent) and the Czech Republic (67 percent). And at a tactical level, Europeans and Americans are cooperating more closely -- on a range of issues from Iran to Syria -- than they have for many years. Even when they disagree, they do so with civility and a surprising absence of rancor.
But Obama's stellar personal ratings in Europe hide the fact that the Western alliance has never loomed smaller in the imagination of policymakers on either side of the Atlantic...
SOURCE: WSJ (7-24-12)
Ms. Shelton is senior fellow at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the author of Money Meltdown (Free Press, 1994) and The Coming Soviet Crash (Free Press, 1989).
Many in America today fear that our nation is going the way of Europe—becoming more socialist and redistributionist as government grows ever larger. But the most disturbing trend may not be the fiscal enlargement of government through excessive spending, but rather the elevated role of monetary policy.
Our central bank, the Federal Reserve, uses its enormous influence over banking and financial institutions to channel funds back to government instead of directing them toward productive economic activity. For evaluating the damaging effects of this unhealthy symbiosis between banking and government, the more instructive model is the Soviet Union in its final years before economic collapse.
We can draw lessons from the fact that the Soviet Union went bankrupt even as its fiscal budget statements affirmed that government revenues and expenditures were perfectly balanced. Under Soviet accounting practices, the true gap between concurrent revenues generated by the economy and the expenditures needed to sustain the nation was obscured by a phantom "plug" figure that ostensibly reflected the working capital furnished by the Soviet central bank, Gosbank...
SOURCE: New Republic (7-24-12)
William A. Galston is a contributing editor for The New Republic.
The emerging conventional wisdom among many Democrats takes the form of two equations: 2012 = 2004, and Bain = Swift Boats. There’s also a supporting narrative: The negative campaign against John Kerry fatally weakened his candidacy, securing the victory of an incumbent who could not have won based on his own record. And so, the idea goes, a president whose performance the public doesn’t much like can power his way to a narrow, less than pretty win by eviscerating his challenger.
But the evidence in favor of all of these propositions is remarkably thin. The basic structure of the 2004 campaign differed fundamentally from the one we’re now enduring. The available evidence suggests that even in the short-term, the attacks on Romney have been measurably less successful than were those on Kerry. And Obama’s supporters seem to have forgotten that the reason Bush prevailed was because enough Americans ended up approving of his record and leadership in the areas they cared about the most.
In 2012, there is a single dominant issue—the economy. The people are trying to decide whether Obama has managed our economic challenges well enough to deserve another four years and, if not, whether Romney’s economic experience and plans make him an acceptable alternative.
In 2004, by contrast, there was no single dominant issue...
SOURCE: National Review (7-25-12)
Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.
Republicans relish the tempting thought of history repeating itself: an incumbent Democratic president, widely perceived as a disappointment or a failure, heads into an election with seven out of every ten Americans believing the "country is in deep and serious trouble." After dismissing his Republican challenger as an unserious joke, the hubristic incumbent loses the popular vote by a wide margin and the Electoral College by a landslide.
And just think, Republicans have been comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter since 2008.
While Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is sure to enjoy the comparisons of this year’s presidential election with the one 32 years ago, Republicans shouldn’t fool themselves about the difficulty of the task before them. While it’s possible that Romney could win big, any serious examination of this race should recognize several enormous changes that have taken place in our national political environment in the past three decades, shifts that work against a repeat of Reagan’s rout of Carter....
SOURCE: NYT (7-24-12)
Gary Alan Fine is a professor of sociology at Northwestern University and the author of “Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept and Controversial.”
On Monday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association made a remarkable — and disturbing — decision. As one of the sanctions against Pennsylvania State University, it determined that all of Penn State’s football victories from 1998 to 2011 were to be “vacated.” Whoosh! As a result, Joe Paterno no longer holds the major college coaching record for career wins. Someone else now has that honor. George Orwell would be amused.
In his magnificent dystopia, “1984,” Orwell understood well the dangers of “history clerks.” Those given authority to write history can change the past. Those sweat-and-mud victories of the Nittany Lions — more points on the scoreboard — no longer exist. The winners are now the losers.
One might wonder whether the N.C.A.A.’s rush to judgment — a rush that ignored its own procedures of examining each case through the sanctions committee — was truly necessary. And one might question a set of sanctions whose human victims were not involved in the crimes. But let us put aside these niceties. Surely Penn State the institution deserves sanctions for the deplorable actions of authorities. Sometimes organizations are treated as people....
SOURCE: The Atlantic (7-24-12)
Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
Circa 1912, it would've been a phenomenal feat to predict the events and outcome of Word War I, and impossible for anyone on earth to anticipate the rise of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, the Axis alliance, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the events of World War II, and America's subsequent place in the world. Nor could any person in pre-World War I America imagine the partition of Europe by Soviet communists, the nuclear arms race, the Cold War or its end. Neither could the British nor the French nor the Germans nor the Japanese nor the Russians nor the Poles anticipate the respective courses they would take over the ensuing nine decades.
So it's especially inane pandering for President Obama to say, while speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, "If anyone tries to tell you our greatness is past, that America is in decline, you tell them this. Like the 20th century, the 21st century will be another great American century. We are Americans, blessed with the greatest form of government ever devised by man."
Statements like that are politically popular. And when it comes to jingoistic nonsense repeated ad nauseum, there's no one more prolific than Mitt Romney. It is nevertheless important to remind ourselves that these men are lying to us, for it would be foolish to act as if what they say is true. Perhaps America will remain the most powerful country in the world nine decades hence. I hope so, and insofar as it's possible I think we ought to continue to have the strongest military in the world. But operating as if a superior form of government guarantees we'll remain the most powerful country is idiotic. The American century owed as much to Old World self-immolation as New World triumph. And history is rife with inferior forms of government conquering their betters....
SOURCE: The Atlantic (7-24-12)
Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.
[O]ne might have expected great movement when Valentina Tereshkova left the Earth's atmosphere on June 16, 1963 to become the first woman in space. After all, Tereshkova spent three days in space, completed 48 orbits around Earth, and logged more time in orbit than all the Americans (three) who had been in space to that point. She'd proven that a woman was physically capable of withstanding the rigors of spaceflight. Surely, the Americans would rush to get a woman into space! Rosie the Riveter, perhaps, dusting herself off after her stint as a factory laborer in the successful war effort? But no, there was no Tereshkova moment. In fact, one NASA official who declined to give his name to a reporter, said it made him "sick to his stomach" to think of women in space. Another called Tereshkova's flight "a publicity stunt."...
The truth is: the sexism of the day overwhelmed the science of the day. Because NASA already knew that women were capable of spaceflight, and Tereshkova's success confirmed that. A later space-agency review of possible physiological problems in spaceflight admitted that women appeared to be great candidates for flight....
The participants of the Women in Space Program experienced tremendous success. "Nineteen women enrolled in WISP, undergoing the same grueling tests administered to the male Mercury astronauts," Brandon Keim wrote in 2009. "Thirteen of them -- later dubbed the Mercury 13 -- passed 'with no medical reservations,' a higher graduation rate than the first male class. The top four women scored as highly as any of the men."...
SOURCE: Pakistan Observer (7-24-12)
The writer is Lahore-based senior journalist.
SOURCE: Financial Times (UK) (7-23-12)
The writer is a political commentator and a two-time candidate for the Republican nomination for president.
SOURCE: WaPo (7-20-12)
Chris Cillizza writes the political blog The Fix for The Washington Post and is the author of The Gospel According to The Fix.
SOURCE: National Review (7-24-12)
Daniel Pipes is President of the Middle East Forum and Taube Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
SOURCE: Daily Star (Lebanon) (7-21-12)
Joseph S. Nye, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, is a professor at Harvard University and the author of The Future of Power. The Daily Star publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).
SOURCE: Daily Star (Lebanon) (7-21-12)
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by The Daily Star.
SOURCE: NYT (7-23-12)
Early in the morning of Sept. 4, 1913, Ernst Wagner murdered his wife and four children in the town of Degerloch, Germany. Then he went to Mühlhausen, where he feared the townsmen were mocking him for having sex with an animal. He opened fire and hit 20 people, killing at least nine.
This is believed to be one of the first spectacular rampage murders of the 20th century. Over the next 60 years, there was about one or two of these spree killings per decade. Then the frequency of such killings began to shoot upward. There were at least nine of these rampages during the 1980s, according to history Web sites that track such things, including the 1982 case of a police officer in South Korea who massacred 57 people.
In the 1990s, there were at least 11 spectacular spree killings. Over the past decade, by my count, there have been at least 26 rampages. These include Robert Steinhäuser’s murder of 16 people in Germany, Seung-Hui Cho’s murder of 32 at Virginia Tech, Anders Breivik’s shooting spree at a summer camp in Norway in which 69 died, and the killing of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., last week....
SOURCE: TomDispatch (7-24-12)
William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of seven books, most recently A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford, 2011). He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico.
Dire fire conditions, like the inferno of heat, turbulence, and fuel that recently turned 346 homes in Colorado Springs to ash, are now common in the West. A lethal combination of drought, insect plagues, windstorms, and legions of dead, dying, or stressed-out trees constitute what some pundits are calling wildfire’s “perfect storm.”
They are only half right.
This summer's conditions may indeed be perfect for fire in the Southwest and West, but if you think of it as a “storm,” perfect or otherwise -- that is, sudden, violent, and temporary -- then you don’t understand what’s happening in this country or on this planet. Look at those 346 burnt homes again, or at the High Park fire that ate 87,284 acres and 259 homes west of Fort Collins, or at the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire in New Mexico that began in mid-May, consumed almost 300,000 acres, and is still smoldering, and what you have is evidence of the new normal in the American West.
For some time, climatologists have been warning us that much of the West is on the verge of downshifting to a new, perilous level of aridity. Droughts like those that shaped the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and the even drier 1950s will soon be “the new climatology” of the region -- not passing phenomena but terrifying business-as-usual weather. Western forests already show the effects of this transformation.
If you surf the blogosphere looking for fire information, pretty quickly you’ll notice a dust devil of “facts” blowing back and forth: big fires are four times more common than they used to be; the biggest fires are six-and-a-half times larger than the monster fires of yesteryear; and owing to a warmer climate, fires are erupting earlier in the spring and subsiding later in the fall. Nowadays, the fire season is two and a half months longer than it was 30 years ago.
All of this is hair-raisingly true. Or at least it was, until things got worse. After all, those figures don’t come from this summer’s fire disasters but from a study published in 2006 that compared then-recent fires, including the record-setting blazes of the early 2000s, with what now seem the good old days of 1970 to 1986. The data-gathering in the report, however, only ran through 2003. Since then, the western drought has intensified, and virtually every one of those recent records -- for fire size, damage, and cost of suppression -- has since been surpassed.
New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains are a case in point. Over the course of two weeks in 2000, the Cerro Grande fire burned 43,000 acres, destroying 400 homes in the nuclear research city of Los Alamos. At the time, to most of us living in New Mexico, Cerro Grande seemed a vision of the Apocalypse. Then, the Las Conchas fire erupted in 2011 on land adjacent to Cerro Grande’s scar and gave a master class in what the oxygen planet can do when it really struts its stuff.
The Las Conchas fire burned 43,000 acres, equaling Cerro Grande’s achievement, in its first fourteen hours. Its smoke plume rose to the stratosphere, and if the light was right, you could see within it rose-red columns of fire -- combusting gases -- flashing like lightning a mile or more above the land. Eventually the Las Conchas fire spread to 156,593 acres, setting a record as New Mexico’s largest fire in historic times.
It was a stunning event. Its heat was so intense that, in some of the canyons it torched, every living plant died, even to the last sprigs of grass on isolated cliff ledges. In one instance, the needles of the ponderosa pines were not consumed, but bent horizontally as though by a ferocious wind. No one really knows how those trees died, but one explanation holds that they were flash-blazed by a superheated wind, perhaps a collapsing column of fire, and that the wind, having already burned up its supply of oxygen, welded the trees by heat alone into their final posture of death.
It seemed likely that the Las Conchas record would last years, if not decades. It didn’t. This year the Whitewater Baldy fire in the southwest of the state burned an area almost twice as large.
Half Now, Half Later?
In 2007, Tom Swetnam, a fire expert and director of the laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, gave an interview to CBS’s 60 Minutes. Asked to peer into his crystal ball, he said he thought the Southwest might lose half its existing forests to fire and insects over the several decades to come. He immediately regretted the statement. It wasn’t scientific; he couldn’t back it up; it was a shot from the hip, a WAG, a wild-ass guess.
Swetnam’s subsequent work, however, buttressed that WAG. In 2010, he and several colleagues quantified the loss of southwestern forestland from 1984 to 2008. It was a hefty 18%. They concluded that “only two more recurrences of droughts and die-offs similar or worse than the recent events” might cause total forest loss to exceed 50%. With the colossal fires of 2011 and 2012, including Arizona’s Wallow fire, which consumed more than half-a-million acres, the region is on track to reach that mark by mid-century, or sooner.
But that doesn’t mean we get to keep the other half.
In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast a temperature increase of 4ºC for the Southwest over the present century. Given a faster than expected build-up of greenhouse gases (and no effective mitigation), that number looks optimistic today. Estimates vary, but let’s say our progress into the sweltering future is an increase of slightly less than 1ºC so far. That means we still have an awful long way to go. If the fires we’re seeing now are a taste of what the century will bring, imagine what the heat stress of a 4ºC increase will produce. And these numbers reflect mean temperatures. The ones to worry about are the extremes, the record highs of future heat waves. In the amped-up climate of the future, it is fair to think that the extremes will increase faster than the means.
At some point, every pine, fir, and spruce will be imperiled. If, in 2007, Swetnam was out on a limb, these days it’s likely that the limb has burned off and it’s getting ever easier to imagine the destruction of forests on a region-wide scale, however disturbing that may be.
More than scenery is at stake, more even than the stability of soils, ecosystems, and watersheds: the forests of the western United States account for 20% to 40% of total U.S. carbon sequestration. At some point, as western forests succumb to the ills of climate change, they will become a net releaser of atmospheric carbon, rather than one of the planet’s principle means of storing it.
Contrary to the claims of climate deniers, the prevailing models scientists use to predict change are conservative. They fail to capture many of the feedback loops that are likely to intensify the dynamics of change. The release of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost, an especially gloomy prospect, is one of those feedbacks. The release of carbon from burning or decaying forests is another. You used to hear scientists say, “If those things happen, the consequences will be severe.” Now they more often skip that “if” and say “when” instead, but we don’t yet have good estimates of what those consequences will be.
Ways of Going
There have always been droughts, but the droughts of recent years are different from their predecessors in one significant way: they are hotter. And the droughts of the future will be hotter still.
June temperatures produced 2,284 new daily highs nationwide and tied 998 existing records. In most places, the shoe-melting heat translated into drought, and the Department of Agriculture set a record of its own recently by declaring 1,297 dried-out counties in 29 states to be “natural disaster areas.” June also closed out the warmest first half of a year and the warmest 12-month period since U.S. record keeping began in 1895. At present, 56% of the continental U.S. is experiencing drought, a figure briefly exceeded only in the 1950s.
Higher temperatures have a big impact on plants, be they a forest of trees or fields of corn and wheat. More heat means intensified evaporation and so greater water stress. In New Mexico, researchers compared the drought of the early 2000s with that of the 1950s. They found that the 1950s drought was longer and drier, but that the more recent drought caused the death of many more trees, millions of acres of them. The reason for this virulence: it was 1ºC to 1.5ºC hotter.
The researchers avoided the issue of causality by not claiming that climate change caused the higher temperatures, but in effect stating: “If climate change is occurring, these are the impacts we would expect to see.” With this in mind, they christened the dry spell of the early 2000s a “global-change-type drought” -- not a phrase that sings but one that lingers forebodingly in the mind.
No such equivocation attends a Goddard Institute for Space Studies appraisal of the heat wave that assaulted Texas, Oklahoma, and northeastern Mexico last summer. Their report represents a sea change in high-level climate studies in that they boldly assert a causal link between specific weather events and global warming. The Texas heat wave, like a similar one in Russia the previous year, was so hot that its probability of occurring under “normal” conditions (defined as those prevailing from 1951 to 1980) was approximately 0.13%. It wasn’t a 100-year heat wave or even a 500-year one; it was so colossally improbable that only changes in the underlying climate could explain it.
The decline of heat-afflicted forests is not unique to the United States. Global research suggests that in ecosystems around the world, big old trees -- the giants of tropical jungles, of temperate rainforests, of systems arid and wet, hot and cold -- are dying off.
More generally, when forest ecologists compare notes across continents and biomes, they find accelerating tree mortality from Zimbabwe to Alaska, Australia to Spain. The most common cause appears to be heat stress arising from climate change, along with its sidekick, drought, which often results when evaporation gets a boost.
Fire is only one cause of forest death. Heat alone can also do in a stand of trees. According to the Texas Forest Service, between 2% and 10% of all the trees in Texas, perhaps half-a-billion or so, died in last year’s heat wave, primarily from heat and desiccation. Whether you know it or not, those are staggering figures.
Insects, too, stand ready to play an ever-greater role in this onrushing disaster. Warm temperatures lengthen the growing season, and with extra weeks to reproduce, a population of bark beetles may spawn additional generations over the course of a hot summer, boosting the number of their kin that that make it to winter. Then, if the winter is warm, more larvae survive to spring, releasing ever-larger swarms to reproduce again. For as long as winters remain mild, summers long, and trees vulnerable, the beetles’ numbers will continue to grow, ultimately overwhelming the defenses of even healthy trees.
We now see this throughout the Rockies. A mountain pine beetle epidemic has decimated lodgepole pine stands from Colorado to Canada. About five million acres of Colorado’s best scenery has turned red with dead needles, a blow to tourism as well as the environment. The losses are far greater in British Columbia, where beetles have laid waste to more than 33 million forest acres, killing a volume of trees three times greater than Canada’s annual timber harvest.
Foresters there call the beetle irruption “the largest known insect infestation in North American history,” and they point to even more chilling possibilities. Until recently, the frigid climate of the Canadian Rockies prevented beetles from crossing the Continental Divide to the interior where they were, until recently, unknown. Unfortunately, warming temperatures have enabled the beetles to top the passes of the Peace River country and penetrate northern Alberta. Now a continent of jack pines lies before them, a boreal smorgasbord 3,000 miles long. If the beetles adapt effectively to their new hosts, the path is clear for them to chew their way eastward virtually to the Atlantic and to generate transformative ecological effects on a gigantic scale.
The mainstream media, prodded by recent drought declarations and other news, seem finally to be awakening to the severity of these prospects. Certainly, we should be grateful. Nevertheless, it seems a tad anticlimactic when Sam Champion, ABC News weather editor, says with this-just-in urgency to anchor Diane Sawyer, “If you want my opinion, Diane, now’s the time we start limiting manmade greenhouse gases.”
One might ask, “Why now, Sam?” Why not last year, or a decade ago, or several decades back? The news now overwhelming the West is, in truth, old news. We saw the changes coming. There should be no surprise that they have arrived.
It’s never too late to take action, but now, even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted immediately, Earth’s climate would continue warming for at least another generation. Even if we surprise ourselves and do all the right things, the forest fires, the insect outbreaks, the heat-driven die-offs, and other sweeping transformations of the American West and the planet will continue.
One upshot will be the emergence of whole new ecologies. The landscape changes brought on by climate change are affecting areas so vast that many previous tenants of the land -- ponderosa pines, for instance -- cannot be expected to recolonize their former territory. Their seeds don’t normally spread far from the parent tree, and their seedlings require conditions that big, hot, open spaces don’t provide.
What will develop in their absence? What will the mountains and mesa tops of the New West look like? Already it is plain to see that scrub oak, locust, and other plants that reproduce by root suckers are prospering in places where the big pines used to stand. These plants can be burned to the ground and yet resprout vigorously a season later. One ecologist friend offers this advice, “If you have to be reincarnated as a plant in the West, try not to come back as a tree. Choose a clonal shrub, instead. The future looks good for them.”
In the meantime, forget about any sylvan dreams you might have had: this is no time to build your house in the trees.
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