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Israel’s shadowy role in Guatemala’s dirty war

By Gabriel Schivone. The Electronic Intifada

Israel’s well-documented role in Guatemala’s Dirty War that left more than 200,000 dead has not been met with justice. William Gularte Reuters

Last year was a busy one for Guatemala’s criminal justice system.

January 2016 saw the arrests of 18 former military officers for their alleged part in the country’s dirty war of the 1980s. In February last year, two ex-soldiers were convicted in an unprecedented wartime sexual slavery case from the same era.

Such legal proceedings represent further openings in the judicial system following the 2013 trial and conviction of former head of state General Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity. Although the Guatemalan Constitutional Court very quickly annulled the trial (finally restarted in March after fitful stops and starts, but currently stalled again), a global precedent has been set for holding national leaders accountable in the country where their crimes took place.

And in November, a Guatemalan judge allowed a separate case against Ríos Montt to proceed. The case relates to the 1982 massacre in the village of Dos Erres.

Ríos Montt was president from 1982 to 1983, a period marked by intense state violence against the indigenous Mayan peoples. The violence included the destruction of entire villages, resulting in mass displacement.

Mayans were repeatedly targeted during the period of repression that lasted from 1954 – when the US engineered a military coup – to 1996. More than 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala during that period, 83 percent of whom were Mayans.

The crimes committed by the Guatemalan state were carried out with foreign – particularly US – assistance. One key party to these crimes has so far eluded any mention inside the courts: Israel.

Proxy for US

From the 1980s to today, Israel’s extensive military role in Guatemala remains an open secret that is well-documented but receives scant criticism.

Discussing the military coup which installed him as president in 1982, Ríos Montt told an ABC News reporter that his regime takeover went so smoothly “because many of our soldiers were trained by Israelis.” In Israel, the press reported that 300 Israeli advisers were on the ground training Ríos Montt’s soldiers.

One Israeli adviser in Guatemala at the time, Lieutenant Colonel Amatzia Shuali, said: “I don’t care what the Gentiles do with the arms. The main thing is that the Jews profit,” as recounted in Dangerous Liaison by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn.

Some years earlier, when Congressional restrictions under the Carter administration limited US military aid to Guatemala due to human rights violations, Israeli economic and military technology leaders saw a golden opportunity to enter the market.

Yaakov Meridor, then an Israeli minister of economy, indicated in the early 1980s that Israel wished to be a proxy for the US in countries where it had decided not to openly sell weapons. Meridor said: “We will say to the Americans: Don’t compete with us in Taiwan; don’t compete with us in South Africa; don’t compete with us in the Caribbean or in other places where you cannot sell arms directly. Let us do it … Israel will be your intermediary.”

The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather program attempted to explain the source of Israel’s global expertise by noting in 1983 that the advanced weaponry and methods Israel peddled in Guatemala had been successfully “tried and tested on the West Bank and Gaza, designed simply to beat the guerrilla.”

Israel’s selling points for its weapons relied not only on their use in the occupied West Bank and Gaza but also in the wider region. Journalist George Black reported that Guatemalan military circles admired the Israeli army’s performance during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Their overseas admiration was so unabashed that rightists in Guatemala “spoke openly of the ‘Palestinianization’ of the nation’s rebellious Mayan Indians,” according to Black.

Military cooperation between Israel and Guatemala has been traced back to the 1960s. By the time of Ríos Montt’s rule, Israel had become Guatemala’s main provider of weapons, military training, surveillance technology and other vital assistance in the state’s war on urban leftists and rural indigenous Mayans.

In turn, many Guatemalans suffered the results of this special relationship and have connected Israel to their national tragedy.

Man of integrity?

One of the most haunting massacres committed during this period was the destruction of the El Petén district village named Dos Erres. Ríos Montt’s Israeli-trained soldiers burned Dos Erres to the ground. First, however, its inhabitants were shot. Those who survived the initial attack on the village had their skulls smashed with sledgehammers. The bodies of the dead were stuffed down the village well.

During a court-ordered exhumation in the village, investigators working for the 1999 UN Truth Commission cited the following in their forensics report: “All the ballistic evidence recovered corresponded to bullet fragments from firearms and pods of Galil rifles, made in Israel.”

Then US President Ronald Reagan – whose administration would later be implicated in the “Iran-Contra” scandal for running guns to Iran through Israel, in part to fund a paramilitary force aiming to topple Nicaragua’s Marxist government – visited Ríos Montt just days before the massacre.

Reagan praised Ríos Montt as “a man of great personal integrity” who “wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.” Reagan also assured the Guatemalan president that “the United States is committed to support his efforts to restore democracy and to address the root causes of this violent insurgency.” At one point in their conversation, Reagan is reported to have embraced Ríos Montt and told the Guatemalan president he was getting “a bum rap” on human rights.

In November 2016, however, judge Claudette Dominguez accepted the Guatemalan attorney general’s request to prosecute Ríos Montt as intellectual author of the Dos Erres massacre, pressing him with charges of aggravated homicide, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Among the 18 arrested this year was Benedicto Lucas García, former army chief of staff under his brother Romeo Lucas García’s military presidency. Benedicto, who was seen by some of his soldiers as an innovator of torture techniques for use on children, described “the Israeli soldier [as] a model and an example to us.”

In 1981, Benedicto headed the inauguration ceremony of an Israeli-designed and financed electronics school in Guatemala. Its purpose was to train the Guatemalan military on using so-called counterinsurgency technologies. Benedicto lauded the school’s establishment as a “positive step” in advancing the Guatemalan regime to world-class military efficiency “thanks to [Israel’s] advice and transfer of electronic technology.”

In its inaugural year alone, the school enabled the regime’s secret police, known as the G-2, to raid some 30 safe houses of the Revolutionary Organization of People in Arms (ORPA).

The G-2 coordinated the assassination, “disappearance” and torture of opponents to the Guatemalan government.

While Guatemalan governments frequently changed hands – through both coups and elections – during the 1980s, Israel remained Guatemala’s main source of weapons and military advice.

Belligerence at the border

The Israeli military-security complex casts a long, intercontinental shadow over Guatemalans who are still fleeing the consequences of the dirty war.

In some areas along the US-Mexico border, such as in Texas, the numbers of migrants hailing today from Central America (but only from the countries combusted by US intervention – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) – has begun to outpace the number coming from Mexico.

According to information provided to this author by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office in Arizona, many Guatemalans who have perished while crossing these desert borderlands originated from among the indigenous Mayan areas hit hardest by the 1980s genocide: El Quiché, Huehuetenango, Chimaltenango.

Southern Arizona has also seen a spike in undocumented Guatemalan migration. US firms and institutions have been collaborating with Israeli security companies to up-armor Southern Arizona’s border zone.

The Israeli weapons firm Elbit won a major government contract to provide 52 surveillance towers in Southern Arizona’s desert borderlands, beginning with the pilot program of seven towers currently placed among the hills and valleys surrounding Nogales, a border town split by the wall.

More towers are slated to surround the Tohono O’odham Nation, the second largest Native American reservation in the US. Already the number of federal forces occupying permanent positions on Tohono O’odham lands is the largest in US history.

Alan Bersin, a senior figure in the US Department of Homeland Security, described Guatemala’s border with Chiapas, Mexico, as “now our southern border” in 2012. That “southern border” was heavily militarized during Barack Obama’s eight years as US president.

We can safely expect that militarization to continue during Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s anti-migrant rhetoric during the presidential election campaign suggests it is likely to be intensified.

During the dirty war, tens of thousands of Guatemalans fled over this border into Southern Mexico. Today, Israel assists the Mexican authorities in Chiapas with “counterinsurgency” activities largely targeting the indigenous Maya community.

Though media reporting on Guatemala’s connection with Israel has dissipated, Israel’s enterprising efforts in the country have never diminished. Today, Israel’s presence in Guatemala is especially pronounced in the private security industry which proliferated in the years following the so-called Guatemalan peace process of the mid-1990s.

Ohad Steinhart, an Israeli, relocated to Guatemala at this opportune moment, originally working as a weapons instructor. Roughly two years after his 1994 move to Guatemala, he founded his own security firm, Decision Ejecutiva.

Steinhart’s modest 300-employee company is small compared with the colossal Golan Group, Israel’s largest and oldest private security conglomerate in Guatemala.

Founded by ex-Israeli special forces officers, the Golan Group has also trained Department of Homeland Security immigration agents along the US-Mexico border. The Golan Group has employed thousands of agents in Guatemala, some of whom have been involved in repressing environmental and land rights protests against mining operations by Canadian firms. The company was named in a 2014 lawsuit by six Guatemalan farmers and a student who were all shot at close range by security agents during a protest the previous year.

Guatemala’s use of Israeli military trainers and advisers, just as in the 1980s, continues. Israeli advisers have, in recent years, been assisting the current “remilitarization” of Guatemala. Journalist Dawn Paley has reported that Israeli military trainers have shown up once again at an active military base in Coban, which is the site of mass graves from the 1980s. The remains of several hundred people have so far been uncovered there.

The mass graves at Coban serve as the legal basis for the January arrests of 14 former military officers. This past June a Guatemalan judge ruled that the evidence is sufficient for eight of those arrested to stand trial. Future arrests and trials are likely to follow.

Scholars Milton H. Jamail and Margo Gutierrez documented the Israeli arms trade in Central America, notably in Guatemala, in their 1986 book It’s No Secret: Israel’s Military Involvement in Latin America. They worded the title that way because the bulk of the information in the book came from mainstream media sources.

For now, Israel’s well-documented role in Guatemala’s dirty wars passes largely without comment. But Guatemalans know better than most that the long road to accountability begins with acknowledgment.

Yet it is unclear how long it will be before we hear of Israeli officials being called to Guatemala to be tried for the shadowy part they played in the country’s darkest hours.

Gabriel Schivone is writing a book on US policy towards Guatemala.

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At site of 1936 sit-down strike: UAW Members Resisting Honeywell Lockout, Now in 8th Month

By Frank Hammer.

“You brought a breath of fresh air!” That’s how two UAW Local 9 officers summed up the impact of solidarity activists who converged on South Bend, IN on January 5, 2017 to show support for Honeywell workers locked out of their jobs for over 8 months.  More than a dozen UAW autoworkers, retirees and allies drove from Chicago and Detroit despite snow gusts and sub-freezing temperatures to bring encouragement and donations to the 320-member local.

The Local 9 members at a Honeywell Aerospace factory in South Bend, Indiana and the 42 workers at their sister plant in Green Island, NY (members of UAW Local 1508) have been locked out since May 9, 2016 over a contract dispute.  They make braking systems and wheels for commercial and military aircraft, including the Boeing 737, the Boeing B-52, and Lockheed Martin F-35. The average wage was $21.83 per hour.

The dispute is not over their wages.  It’s Honeywell that’s demanding deep concessions in their new 5-year contract, including the elimination of cost-of-living increases and pensions for new workers, cuts in overtime pay, subcontracting out work, restricting representation rights, and more.

Workers rejected Honeywell’s demands by a 90% margin two days before the lockout, and again by 70% on November 23, 2016, even though unemployment benefits were running out.  The locked out workers draw $200/week payments from the Union’s strike fund (and health insurance), plus donations flowing in from a variety of sources including community groups and other union locals which is keeping their food pantry stocked.  Some have found other employment; many have seen their savings depleted.  Six days before the December holidays Honeywell demanded another vote on the identical (modified) proposal presented in November, but local leaders Todd Treder and Bryan Rodgers told Honeywell via a UAW representative, “no dice.”

“They want to bust our union”

In an interview with Treder and Rodgers on the day of the solidarity action, the local reps said the number one objection by the membership was not monetary, but instead about union seniority and other quality of work life rights won over decades of negotiations.  They were even willing to make some concessions on increased co-pays and deductibles in their health care, but the company insists on the right to unilaterally change health coverage, premiums and deductibles.

According to Treder, Vice President and spokesperson for the Local, “3 weeks before the previous contract was set to expire, the company made their proposal by presenting our 2011 contract, with lots of red lines across all the contract language they wanted taken out.  It’s clear to our membership; they want to bust our union.  The company knew full well what it was doing.”  The November vote occurred on nearly the same day that, 80 years ago, workers staged a successful 8-day sit-down strike that forced the then-Bendix Corporation to recognize their UAW local.  , The South Bend plant occupation was a precursor to the 44-day sit-down strike initiated on December 30, 1936 at GM factories in Flint, Michigan.

Honeywell ‘s history with lockouts

Honeywell was prepared to play hardball. Long before the contract vote, they began outsourcing work and shuttling in replacement workers hired by Strom Engineering who followed UAW members around, attempting to learn their jobs.  Strom Engineering markets itself as providing temporary workers – otherwise known as scabs – “to ensure consistent production in the event of a labor disruption.”

“The steps followed by Honeywell,” Rodgers said, “follow a very definite script of not one but two other lockouts waged in 2011 and 2015 against United Steelworkers Local 7-669 at a Honeywell uranium conversion plant in Metropolis, Ill.”  Treder added, “The lockouts there lasted 8 and 13 months.  When Metropolis plant manager Dean Palmer was reassigned to South Bend months before our contract was set to expire, we knew something was up.”  Rodgers said, “The tactic backfired, and unified the local.”

Honeywell says it needs to rein in costs because the aviation industry has hit some “turbulence.”  Yet industry sources report new multi-billion dollar contracts for hundreds of new aircraft, including India’s Spice Jet airlines.  Honeywell International is highly profitable; its stock price quadrupled over the past ten years to $115 per share. CEO David Cote was paid $34.5 million in 2015 and cashed in another $36 million in stock options.  He is in line for a $168 million pension when he retires in March.  The company had record profits of $4.77 billion in 2015.

In a “dear colleague” letter to the locked out workers after the second contract rejection, Honeywell executives expressed “extreme disappointment” with the South Bend Local.  “Our offer is fair, reasonable and consistent with what other U.S. unions within Honeywell have already approved, including another UAW local in Michigan and your colleagues in Green Island (UAW Local 1508, which voted to ratify the company’s offer, but failed to offset the large no vote in South Bend).  We worked hard to provide the union with our best offer and it will not get richer.”

Then-Indiana Governor Pence undermines locked out workers

According to labor journalist Mike Elk, “While President-Elect Donald Trump has tweeted out denunciations of defense contractors for cost overruns associated with producing F-35s, he has yet to call out  Honeywell for asking the Department of Defense for reimbursements from the cost overruns of the cost of hiring and training scab replacement workers, who make brakes for the F-35 and F-18.

“In fact, his Vice President-elect Mike Pence, as the Governor of Indiana, attempted to block the workers from receiving unemployment benefits. Although workers locked out from their jobs in union disputes, are entitled to unemployment benefits, Pence personally intervened to slow down the process of Indiana resident receiving the benefits; thus delaying the workers from receiving benefits for nearly two months.”

“Return to Our Roots”

UAW officials have lent support to the locked-out workers, facilitating donations received by the local, and filing unfair labor practices charges with the NLRB (which is dragging its feet).  Last year they helped with rallies in South Bend and in Albany, NY – where they protested a government decision to award Honeywell an $18.3 million contract for brakes for the Navy’s F/A-18 plane.  However, when the local leaders arranged the second ratification vote in November (with no recommendation),  UAW officials advocated a “yes” vote.  The UAW website has been mum on the lockout since.

The Autoworker Caravan, in conjunction with UAW Local 9 and St. Joseph Valley Project/Jobs with Justice (Indiana), will hold a “Return to Our Roots” solidarity rally in South Bend on Saturday, February 11, 2017 to mark the 80th Anniversary of the UAW Flint Sit-down strike. Unionists and allies are urged to support the courageous Honeywell workers, and to join in!

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The New Leader of The Revolution? Nina Turner Gives Rousing Sermon at MLK Jr. Monument

by Sydney Robinson. The Ring of Fire Network.

On a grey Saturday afternoon, former Bernie Sanders surrogate Nina Turner addressed an assembled crowd in front of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., calling on them to act in the spirit of the civil rights leader and take inspiration from his struggle for the fight ahead.

Sounding an awful lot like a reverend herself, Turner inspired all who listened with encouragements about the future, spreading a message of unity. She called on progressives to come together, with one hand reaching forward to climb above the struggle, with the other hand reaching behind, to pull those still struggling further skyward.

To Turner, though we feel we are facing dark times ahead, it is just a reminder of where we have been.

“The mountain might be higher, but we’ve been here before. The valley may be lower, but we’ve been here before.”

And just like we have done before, we will face the seemingly insurmountable obstacles ahead, ever fighting, ever reaching, for the things we as a united people deserve.

‘And guess what, sisters and brothers? We can’t have a testimony without a test, and we are being tested right now for whether or not we’ve got courage enough, hope enough, fight enough, love enough to do what is necessary.”

Watch.

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Raising Kobanî from Rubble

By Manisha Ganguly. This article was first published on Real Media.

It’s been two years since the liberation of Kobanî in Syria from the Daesh (ISIS) stronghold. The area, lying on the Turkish-Syrian border, was of strategic importance to Daesh, due to the direct access it provides to continental Europe. In September 2014, Daesh had surrounded Kobanî, which had caused thousands of civilians to flee into Turkey. With the rising civilian death toll, the Kurdish resistance had retaliated to recover territory. On the 27th of September, 2014, US-led coalition air strikes began in the area, accompanied by the advancing Kurdish fighters. Finally, on the 26th of January, 2015, the YPG Commander, Polat Can announced: “Congratulations to humanity, to Kurdistan, and the people of Kobanî for the liberation of the city of Kobanî!”

Since then, however, the struggle in Kobanî, one of the three cantons in the autonomous region of Rojava, continues on a new forefront. Following the defeat of Daesh, the job of reconstruction was assigned to the newly-formed Kobanî Reconstruction Board. The Board was faced with the insurmountable task of not only clearing the tonnes of rubble from smashed buildings, but also of navigating mines and booby-traps left behind by occupying Daesh forces. Added to this was the increasing necessity of restoring 80% of the city’s infrastructure destroyed in the air-strikes and battle, as dispossessed civilians who were left without access to food, water, healthcare, returned to the war-torn town. But first, it was necessary to assess the level of damage before the rebuilding was initiated.

Hawzhin Azeez (32), who had moved to Kobanî from Australia in October 2015 to help with the rebuilding process as member of the European Kobanî Reconstruction Board, says, “The lack of information emerging from Kobanî made it essential that we have someone on ground to compile the data, reports and statistics needed for the European Kobanî Board to support the rebuilding process. But difficult border issues, and the ongoing embargo from Turkey and northern Iraq into Rojava, made it unable for me to leave. Besides, when I arrived in Kobanî I realised that the amount of work required far outweighed what I had assumed would be the scope of my work.”

Rebuilding: From Minefields to Hospitals

Hawzhin is from south Kurdistan herself, and was tasked with compiling reports which ranged from healthcare, water, electricity, to a list of mines and unexploded ordinances in the town. She was also part of the massive archival project undertaken by the Kurds, to document the rebuilding process. “We believed strongly that the rebuilding of the city was a historical task that required detailing for future generations. As someone who has a PhD with specialisation in rebuilding in post-conflict and war torn societies I can attest that the degree of rebuilding of the city was unprecedented.”

The five-stage rebuilding process by the Board, involved securing basic necessities like shelter, food and water for the returning civilians, followed by clearance of the rubble for easier transportation. The third stage involved building of plants and factories to supply the construction materials needed for the rebuilding process, followed by the rebuilding of infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals itself. The final and most critical stage, which is still pending, is local economic development necessary for recovery of the community.

At the heart of this process, she says, lies the three pillars of the Rojava Revolution: democratisation, gender liberation and ecological sustainability. “For instance, we built a bakery with the aim of creating jobs for women. The bakery is now being run with the help of a Christian organisation on the ground called AVC International and women are working in the bakery.”

The rebuilding process has seen remarkable success, considering the paucity of resources available and the embargoes imposed on the region. Over 70% of damaged roads have been restored, two hospitals have been rebuilt and another two added, including a health clinic. The 15 schools rebuilt now host over 50,000 students, and another school for the orphaned children of Kobanî is being set up in cooperation with the Free Women’s Association of Rojava (WJAR). The Tishreen dam, liberated from ISIS on the 26th of December, 2015, provides round the clock electricity to the region.

The Rebuilding Process

However, a lot of NGOs have been hesitant to provide aid to the Kobanî Reconstruction Board, which, being an official institution of the Canton, is linked to the PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party founded by Abdullah Ocalan). In response, Hawzhin co-founded the Hêvî Foundation (hêvî is Kurdish for hope) to cater to the medical needs of the civilians. “We believed we can bypass some of the restrains the Board faced. Recently Hêvî was able to transfer 20 tons of urgently needed medicine including much needed Polio Vaccination, insulin and antibiotics to Kobanî. An ambulance catering specifically to gynaecological health, donated by the Christian organisation AVC International, was also delivered by us to Kobanî’s hospitals. Another 20 tons of medicine is also on the way and will arrive in Kobanî soon.”

The Board, composed of engineers, doctors, architects, and other professionals, is formed of two halves: the European section, and the Kobanî one. The former includes Kurdish and non-Kurdish activists and experts, with offices in European countries such as Germany, Holland, England, Sweden, Netherlands, Italy, to help with fundraising. While the European Board has an even sex ratio, the Kobanî Board was mostly male-dominated. “I was the only female on the Kobanî Board because the people on the board were either architects or engineers, construction workers or people who maintained the large number of heavy building machinery and equipment that we had- all unfortunately still male dominated work, especially in a place like Syria where women have been traditionally barred from these types of work”, explains Hawzhin.

The transition from a European lifestyle to living in a war-ravaged city had been particularly difficult for her. “I remember when I initially arrived during winter, due to lack of water, electricity and heating gas I would shower once every two weeks which was very hard. Not only were there differences in language, but there was still significant tribal and patriarchal values that existed on the ground. Navigating the space between being an insider-outsider, the language barriers, my feminist values within a male dominated, construction environment was incredibly difficult.”

She admits, however, that these factors conferred upon her privileges unavailable to local women, that helped her negotiate. “I used these privileges to set up regular weekly meetings with the women in the office. For instance, I was shocked to realise that the women and girls who had been working for a year had no idea what their legal rights to maternity leave, holiday and sick leave was. We promptly invited the Women’s Board (the Women’s Ministry) who were responsible for disseminating this information.” In post-war Rojava, where most of the households are now female-led due to male deaths on the frontline or conscription in the police force, mothers are legally given one hour off work to check on their children.

Escalating Conflict: Embargoes and New Offensives

The escalating conflict with the liberation of new areas from Daesh control, with the added lack of aid and resources in liberated areas which are being diverted to help these new areas, has created a significant problem for the Board. In addition, the embargo from Turkey and northern Iraq has made access to humanitarian aid even more difficult. Newly liberated cities such as Manbij have resources sent from Kobanî and Cezire cantons (liberated), which leaves the donor cantons with barely enough to sustain themselves with.

The Kobane Reconstruction Board [Hawzhin is lower right of the flag]

With the impending Raqqa (Daesh capital) operation and the constant influx of civilians from bombed areas such as Aleppo and Azaz, the situation is expected to worsen over time. “This is a massive influx for a completely embargoed population, yet efforts are being made to support, house and feed the displaced population, because there is no alternative but humanity- in contrast to Europe’s literal billion dollar deals to sell off refugees to Turkey which has one of the worst human rights records in the region, especially in relation to its treatment of refugees”, says Hawzhin.

“During my time in Kobanî there has been numerous times where refugees have been shot point blank for seeking safety. More disturbingly, Turkish border guards often shoot at passing innocent civilians who are not getting close to the border and who are simply going about their day, driving or opening their store”, she continues.

To combat the embargo, the people of Kobanî organised themselves into agricultural and dairy co-operatives to sustain themselves. However, the lack of media attention on their struggles has presented a significant problem for fundraising.

“As Kurds we are familiar with blanket media silence of the massive oppressions, violences and massacres that our people experience across all four parts of Kurdistan. Currently, the murder, extra judicial killings of activists and civilians, the imprisonment of democratically elected HDP party members, the destruction of homes and villages, and offices of our representatives across Bakur of Kurdistan is occurring openly and with vile transparency on the part of the AKP government. There has been little to basic references to human rights violations by the Western media”, she says angrily.

However, the trajectory of Kobanî over the past two years, despite being fraught with difficulties, has presented unique possibilities for self-organised democracy along feminist lines, on principles of cooperation and mutual aid. “We have imagined and tried to create a society different from the status quo, which had defined the relations between different ethnic and religious groups as those based on survival and resource wars. Ours has evolved to include co-operation, and mutual co-existence. It has involved a gender revolution. A democratic revolution.”

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‘A cat in hell’s chance’ – why we’re losing the battle to keep global warming below 2C

By Andew Simms.This article was first published on The Guardian.

A global rise in temperature of just 2C would be enough to threaten life as we know it. But leading climate scientists think even this universally agreed target will be missed. Could dramatic action help?

Under threat: a polar bear tries its weight on thin sea ice in the Arctic. Photograph: Mario Hoppmann/AFP/Getty Images

It all seemed so simple in 2008. All we had was financial collapse, a cripplingly high oil price and global crop failures due to extreme weather events. In addition, my climate scientist colleague Dr Viki Johnson and I worked out that we had about 100 months before it would no longer be “likely” that global average surface temperatures could be held below a 2C rise, compared with pre-industrial times.

What’s so special about 2C? The simple answer is that it is a target that could be politically agreed on the international stage. It was first suggested in 1975 by the environmental economist William Nordhaus as an upper threshold beyond which we would arrive at a climate unrecognisable to humans. In 1990, the Stockholm Environment Institute recommended 2C as the maximum that should be tolerated, but noted: “Temperature increases beyond 1C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.”

To date, temperatures have risen by almost 1C since 1880. The effects of this warming are already being observed in melting ice, ocean levels rising, worse heat waves and other extreme weather events. There are negative impacts on farming, the disruption of plant and animal species on land and in the sea, extinctions, the disturbance of water supplies and food production and increased vulnerability, especially among people in poverty in low-income countries. But effects are global. So 2C was never seen as necessarily safe, just a guardrail between dangerous and very dangerous change.

To get a sense of what a 2C shift can do, just look in Earth’s rear-view mirror. When the planet was 2C colder than during the industrial revolution, we were in the grip of an ice age and a mile-thick North American ice sheet reached as far south as New York. The same warming again will intensify and accelerate human-driven changes already under way and has been described by James Hansen, one of the first scientists to call global attention to climate change, as a “prescription for long-term disaster”, including an ice-free Arctic.

Nevertheless, in 1996, a European Council of environment ministers, that included a young Angela Merkel, adopted 2C as a target for the EU. International negotiators agreed the same in 2010 in Cancun. It was a commitment repeated in the Paris Climate Accord of 2015 where, pushed by a new group of countries called the Climate Vulnerable Forum, ambitions went one step further, agreeing to hold temperature rises to “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5C”.

François Hollande and Ban Ki-moon at Paris climate accord in 2015

French president François Hollande (right) and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon (second left) celebrate the Paris climate accord in 2015. Photograph: Francois Mori/AP

Is it still likely that we will stay below even 2C? In the 100 months since August 2008, I have been writing a climate-change diary for the Guardian to raise questions and monitor progress, or the lack of it, on climate action. To see how well we have fared, I asked a number of leading climate scientists and analysts for their views. The responses were as bracing as a bath in a pool of glacial meltwater.

Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies has an important place in the history of climate-change research. Hansen was its director from 1981 until 2013. Donald Trump is set to strip the institute of funding for climate research. Its current director, Dr Gavin Schmidt, is categoric that we are no longer likely to stay below 2C. “The inertia in the system (oceans, economies, technologies, people) is substantial and … so far the efforts are not commensurate with the goal,” he says.

Sabine Fuss, of Germany’s Mercator Research Institute, on Global Commons and Climate Change says emissions are currently “not aligned” with the 2C target and will need to “come down more quickly”. Joanna Haigh, co-director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment, thinks there is “no chance whatsoever at current levels of carbon emissions”, and her Grantham Institute colleague, Prof Sir Brian Hoskins, is not “confident” that temperature rises can be held below 2C.

Prof Andrew Watkinson of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia thinks it “unlikely” and Prof John Shepherd, a physicist at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, calls it “not very likely at all”. Stuart Haszeldine of the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh says we have “very little chance”, and Prof Piers Forster, director of the Priestly International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds calls it, “on the fanciful edge of plausible”. Glen Peters, senior researcher at Norway’s leading climate change centre, Cicero, is unambiguous, saying: “We have emitted too much already.” And these sentiments are echoed by Prof Alice Larkin, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University, and Dr Chris Vernon, a glaciologist and former scientist at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Science. Only one influential scientist preferred their comments to remain anonymous, but they too said we were off-target, because the “international negotiating process is disconnected from national policymaking”.

In short, not a single one of the scientists polled thought the 2C target likely to be met. Bill McGuire, professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, is most emphatic. “My personal view,” he says, “is that there is not a cat in hell’s chance.”

The most positive response came in the guarded words of Chris Jones, head of the Earth system and mitigation science team at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, who says that current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “don’t preclude” successfully achieving the target. Prof Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, would “only confirm that it is still possible to keep global warming below 2C”. The last point, however, is contentious, for precisely the reason the target exists. Namely, to prevent global warming from feeding off itself by triggering long-term, potentially irreversible environmental domino effects, such as ice loss and forest die-back, and the weakening ability of things such as our oceans to absorb carbon. “The open question for me is not whether we will breach the 2C target,” says Prof Barry McMullin of Dublin City University, “but how soon.”

In addition, the temperature target is a global average, and local variations matter. In November 2016, the Arctic was already experiencing extraordinary anomalies. Temperatures were 20C above normal. A global average rise of 2C implies higher temperatures still for the Arctic, sufficient to push long-term ice loss and trigger other potentially uncontrollable climate changes. At the other end of the world, a development more bizarre than extraordinary is touching the Antarctic. Gambling with our future used to be largely a metaphor, but it is now possible to place bets on when the next giant iceberg will detach itself from the Larsen C ice shelf. At the time of writing, betting company PaddyPower is offering odds of 7/2 in February 2017 or 12/1 in August.

Hoskins says: “We have no evidence that a 1.9C rise is something we can easily cope with, and 2.1 is a disaster.” But Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, one of the countries most vulnerable to warming, warns in stark terms of the failure to stick to a much lower target: “The consequences of failing to keep the temperature below 1.5C will be to wilfully condemn hundreds of millions of the poorest citizens of Earth to certain deaths from the severe impacts of climate change.”

A rift in the Antarctic peninsula’s Larsen C ice shelf

A Nasa photograph of a massive rift in the Antarctic peninsula’s Larsen C ice shelf, observed in November 2016. Photograph: Nasa/EPA

“I think we actively chose to forgo the carbon budgets for a likely chance of 2C many years ago,” says Kevin Anderson, currently professor of climate change at Uppsala University in Sweden. “Judging that rate at which our emissions would need to be reduced was too politically challenging to contemplate.”

The one thing agreed by all the climate scientists was the need for immediate and dramatic transition to a low-carbon economy, at a scale and speed we have not yet remotely approached. And the truly striking thing is that a huge number of the actions we need to take are things that bring enormous economic, social and environmental benefits. Rationally, we would be choosing to do them anyway. Where there are challenging shifts in behaviour required, they mostly affect only a small, wealthy proportion of society. Take flying, for example: 70% of all flights by UK residents are accounted for by just 15% of the population.

So, what scale of change are we looking at to stay below 2C? Being optimistic about what might be achieved in terms of saving forests from being cut down and cleaning up industry, especially the production of steel and cement, Anderson estimates globally we can afford to emit around 650bn tonnes of carbon dioxide in total from energy systems. Currently, the world pumps out about 36bn tonnes every year alone. Starting from today, and assuming that poorer and industrialising nations see a peak in the emissions from energy use by 2025 and go zero carbon by 2050, Anderson calculates that this leaves a rich country such as the UK with the challenge of cutting its emissions by around 13% per year.

Chris Goodall charts the remarkable rise of renewable energy and its equally dramatic falling costs. But renewables have to substitute for fossil fuels, not merely add to overall energy supply. In the meantime, it matters as much that we reduce our total energy use. You will hear a lot of talk about technologies to capture carbon from the burning of fuel and prevent it entering the atmosphere. Most of the climate models used to project what will happen to our atmosphere rely heavily on the assumption that they will be used at large scale. While most climate scientists see these so-called “negative emissions technologies” for carbon capture and storage (CCS) as essential parts of the toolkit to tackle climate change, many are sceptical of hope being placed in them. It is easier not to burn the carbon in the first place.

“There is no guarantee that CCS will work at a sufficiently global scale,” says Dr Hugh Hunt, a Cambridge specialist on climate engineering. “These technologies will take decades to reach any meaningful scale.” Tellingly, as an engineer, he argues that our top priorities are to stop burning fossil fuels and for the biggest consumers to live less extravagantly. And, it seems, moderate shifts by the most profligate could yield huge climate dividends. Currently about half of all global emissions are the responsibility of just of just one in 10 of the global population.

Traffic on a Los Angeles freeway

Climate threat: traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

If just this group reduced their carbon footprints to that of the average, barely impoverished European, argues Anderson, global emissions would be cut by around one-third.

There are many ways to reach a 2C world, according to Prof Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, of the Central European University. “Their common characteristic is that they all require rapid and transformational action,” she says. Small, incremental changes won’t do it.

Retrofitting existing buildings in rich countries can save 70-90% of the energy used to heat and cool them, she adds. And such a move also tackles fuel poverty, creates local jobs and reduces deaths from cold. Switching transport from fossil fuels to electricity power by renewables cuts emissions but also removes the air pollution that is responsible for an epidemic of lethal respiratory disease. In Europe alone, about half a million people suffer premature deaths each year due to air pollution.

In November 2016, many, mostly low-income countries, from Bangladesh to Tanzania and Guatemala, committed to switching entirely to renewable energy by 2030-50 at the latest. Costa Rica, aided by favourable geography, has already managed to power itself for extended periods, relying just on renewables. Portugal has managed the same for shorter periods. But great leaps forward are happening elsewhere, too. China is installing more new wind energy capacity in a single year than the UK has in total.

So, adding to the prevailing global strangeness, the edifice of international climate policy rests on a target that no one believes it is likely can be met. And some think even that insufficiently ambitious. Yet, among climate scientists, there is a consensus that swift action is vital, and with it the target remains, at least, possible.

With the amount of carbon burned by humans, we have now created a climate not experienced on Earth since the Pliocene era, 2m-5m years ago. We are daily rolling the climate dice with the odds stacked against us. But we are also clever, quick and innovative when we want to be. Now that we understand the game better, the question we face is whether we will choose to change it, fast and enough, so that we can all have better lives.

Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, author of Cancel the Apocalypse and a research fellow on rapid transition at the University of Sussex.

 

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