U.S. and Russia Agree to Syrian Elections in 18 Months

Agreements regarding the fate of Syria were reached between the United States, Russia, and 17 other countries at talks held in Vienna this week. The countries called for peace talks in Syria to begin on January 1 and a ceasefire to be reached by mid-May. Free elections are to be held a year later in the war-torn country.

The talks mark the first time the United States and Russia have come to a consensus on Syria, which was not invited to the Vienna meeting.

The fate of Syrian President and Russian-ally Bashar al-Assad has yet to be discussed, however. U.S. President Barack Obama insisted that the civil war cannot be stopped if Assad is to remain in power, but Russia would likely support Assad’s bid for re-election.

Assad has stated that he opposes the international timetable for elections. In an interview with Italian state television this week, he insisted the peace process cannot begin while “terrorists” still control parts of Syria.

Both the United States and Russia consider ISIS to be a terrorist force, but no other consensus has been reached as to which of the groups fighting Assad are terrorists and which are legitimate political opposition.

Over 250,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against Assad’s government began in March 2011.

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Unending Violence, Elusive Peace

Afghanistan struggles for stability in the face of a splintered Taliban and a growing Islamic State

by Animesh Roul

The suicide attacks keep coming. A spate of violent incidents since the beginning of the year has pushed Afghanistan further into turmoil and despair. The security situation deteriorated with the announcement of the death of the Afghan Taliban’s long-standing and reclusive leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar. A leadership struggle began, and the Taliban upped its indiscriminate violence in a bid to remain relevant as the Islamic State made its appearance on the stage. The subsequent announcement of a new leader has both divided the organization and provided renewed thrust to the Taliban’s militant insurgency.

The incidence of violence is trending upwards, with the suffering of civilians reached a record high in the first six months of the year. The casualties came from suicide strikes, targeted killings, and bombings and shootouts at residential or government complexes. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the civilian fatality figures reached 1,592 in the first half of 2015, as well as over 3,300 injured.

The government, under Ashraf Ghani successfully completed one year in office on September 21. Efforts had been underway to negotiate with the Taliban leadership, with the assistance of Pakistan, but the outcome has been thrown into uncertainty. Already challenged by the withdrawal of US-NATO forces, the government must now face the Taliban’s new leadership in addition to unpredictable factionalism among the militants and the rise of the Islamic State in the region.

After the announcement of the Taliban’s new leader, the violence increased. Although the news of the death of supreme Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who was also head of the former Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, came two years after his passing, it triggered pitched battles between competing groups of Taliban and a barrage of suicide attacks against security forces across the country.

Reinforcing the Rage

August 7 was one of the bloodiest days since the new government took over in Afghanistan, with the Taliban unleashing coordinated attacks against the army, police, and the U.S. Special Forces in Kabul. Over 50 people were killed. These violent attacks were more than a lethal show of force: they signaled the renewed unity of the Taliban in the aftermath of their leadership struggle.

The suicide attacks at the Kabul Police Academy and a nearby army complex alone killed 42 people and injured over 300. Taliban militants also targeted Camp Integrity, which houses U.S. and coalition troops who help train Afghan forces; nine were killed and over 20 injured. Camp Integrity is run by U.S security contractor Academi, formerly Blackwater. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for both the police academy and Camp Integrity attacks, but refrained from claiming responsibility for the vehicle-borne IED attack on the army complex in central Kabul.

On the following day, Taliban militants …

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Facebook Snitches on Suspicious Conversations

Social media giant Facebook is now scanning user conversations for indications of potential criminal activity and reporting these to the police. The website looks for criteria including contact between members with few mutual friends or who interact with each other only rarely and scans for certain keywords. Conversations containing these keywords are then flagged for a human reviewer who decides whether or not to contact the authorities.

“We’ve never wanted to set up an environment where we have employees looking at private communications, so it’s really important that we use technology that has a very low false-positive rate,” Facebook Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan told Reuters.

The system has been set in place primarily to catch child predators, but it has also been used to gather information on possible murder suspects. In addition to privacy concerns, human rights advocates worry about the potential for abuse. Facebook may be acting as any concerned citizen would by reporting suspicious activity, but it is also the world’s largest gatekeeper of private conversations.

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Concerned Investors Pull Funds from Fossil Fuels

A new strategy to halt climate change, called the divestment movement, calls for pitting the weight of the free market against the fossil fuel industry. Over 400 institutions and 2,000 influential individuals have committed to withdrawing all investments from oil and gas companies.

The world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, two of the world’s biggest pension funds, and a large number of universities have made the pledge to divest from fossil fuels. The movement’s combined portfolio is worth over $2.6 trillion.

Renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben started the campaign only last year, and its number of signatory organizations has more than doubled in the last twelve months, jumping from 181 to 436. The list is made up primarily of pension funds and private companies, but more and more organizations are making the commitment.

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Iran Deal Going Forward

The Untied States, along with the other members of the United Nations Security Council, have reached a deal with Iran that would see many of its current sanctions lifted so long as the nation complies with measures designed to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The deal would also unfreeze billions of dollars held in overseas banks, which opponents of the negotiations fear Iran could use to expand its support for proxy terrorist organizations like Hezbollah.

The arrangement sees Iran’s number of installed centrifuges and store of enriched uranium greatly reduced, which would at last quadruple the amount of time required for Tehran to build a bomb. Inspections would be put in place to ensure the nation does not go down that path. The United States has promised to immediately reinstate the sanctions at any hint of double-dealing and to use force if necessary to prevent Iran from becoming an armed nuclear power.

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It’s all Greek to Us

Behind Greece’s economic meltdown is a legacy of bad borrowing and entrenched inertia

by Peter Bjel

The end of Greece’s political and economic turmoil may be within its grasp. The country went through snap elections at the end of this September—for the second time in just nine months—but little headway has been made in solving what has become an intractable economic crisis affecting all sectors of the country. How has Greece wound up in its current social, political, and economic conundrum? The crisis was been a long time coming, but it may be weatherable if systemic complications entrenched in the country itself can be addressed.

Election Number Two

Recent events are the latest in a series of chapters marking Greece’s long fall from E.U. success story. In August this year, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza party was replaced by a caretaker cabinet until elections could be held at the end of September. Tsipras, freshly endowed with a new economic bailout package from creditors totaling part of a massive €86 billion, resigned early to cement new support for his government. Once a champion of anti-austerity, on which he had won earlier elections in January, Tsipras said he was forced to compromise on this approach given support among Greek citizens for eurozone and E.U. membership. Such a reality could only be maintained by adopting economic solutions proposed by the country’s many creditors.

Instead of calling a confidence vote in parliament, Tsipras opted to win another mandate from the Greek electorate in order to circumnavigate a political rebellion by one-third of his government, which viewed his acceptance of a new three-year bailout in exchange for austerity as a betrayal of Syriza’s philosophy. To voters, Tsipras recalled his earlier electoral victory. “The political mandate of the 25 January elections has exhausted its limits and now the Greek people have to have their say,” he declared. “I want to be honest with you. We did not achieve the agreement we expected before the January elections.”

The current bailout is the third provided to Greece in five years. It is also the harshest, and some analysts believe Tsipras’ resignation was timed to …

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The Climate Scam

Media and policymakers are irresponsible to mislead the public on climate change

by Benjamin Hayward

Who can argue with the facts? Apparently Forbes magazine can. In February of this year, an article by James Taylor proclaimed that “record cold and snow destroy global warming claims”. Taylor referenced one single report as backup, and insisted this was enough to invalidate the thousands of scientific papers cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that have found otherwise. Along with engaging in this unscientific balderdash, Taylor neglected to mention a possible conflict of interest. Though he is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News at Forbes, he is also a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute, which is notorious for the funding it receives from oil and gas company ExxonMobil and its dissemination of climate change denialism.

The planet’s average temperature is increasing; the primary cause is greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuels. These scientific facts are a certainty to anyone who has reviewed the mounds of research on the topic, but realistically, the immense amount of data that supports these findings is incomprehensible to the average voter. That is a fact some, like James Taylor, have taken advantage of in order to intentionally sow doubt about climate change. These misinformers, complicit in global warming by blatantly denying simple reason, can only be oil-industry lackeys or ignorant ideologues of the free market.

Good Science

More and more evidence comes out every year proving climate change deniers wrong and revealing just how dangerous their campaign of misinformation has been. July was the hottest month in all of recorded temperature history. The effects of this were both deadly and costly. A heat wave in India killed 2,500 people in June. California’s drought, now in its fourth year, cost the state $2.7 billion this summer alone. These are the results of a climate that has warmed 0.85C since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and these effects are only the beginning of the extreme weather fluctuations that society is not prepared for.

We are setting a new normal for warm temperatures, and it’s only uphill from here. The sort of temperature highs that used happen once every three years—an unusually mild January or a stiflingly hot July—are now happening once or twice a year, according to a study published recently in Nature, the world’s most-cited scientific journal.

If the global average temperature rises to 2C over pre-Industrial levels, however, which was the limit set at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, those previously rare temperature highs will be the new monthly high. And if the climate is allowed to warm up to 3C, those old three-year records for the season will be hit every other week. The same study found that already one in five extreme rain events experienced globally are a result of our 0.85C temperature rise, and that when temperatures hit the 2C limit, any given area will, on average, experience 60 percent more rain storms than it does now.

More and more thorough and accurate studies keep coming out that support the same conclusions: action needs to be initiated immediately in order to limit warming to 2C, and preparations need to be made for the consequences of that warming. The problem is that more and more studies aren’t convincing the people who aren’t reading them.

Bad People

Climate change is a divisive political issue in the United States. In a January vote put forth by the Democrats to uncover the “sense of the Senate”, all but two Republican Senators indicated that they do not believe climate change is caused by humans. Burning fossil fuels is causing climate change whether the senators believe it or not, and it is chilling that these policymakers …

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Climate Gluttons

The environmental impact of our diets

by Maurice H. Alexander

When world leaders meet in Paris in November to establish a global climate agreement, they will have much to discuss. Their main targets will be carbon-fired power generation or transportation’s reliance on carbon fuels; however, there is one subject that should be near the top of their agendas. Livestock and livestock-supporting agriculture is one of the main causes of climate change due to greenhouse gases, and one that is often overlooked. Solar power and electric cars will go a long way toward stabilizing the climate, but what we choose to eat may be one of the most significant contributors to global warming—and it too may have to change.

With a rising world population and standards of living increasing in the developing world, livestock production is only set to increase. By 2050, there will be an additional 2 billion people in the world, according to the Stockholm International Water Institute. If these 2 billion more live on a meat-dependant diet, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions will be dire. Over half of the world’s pigs are in China, and as China becomes more affluent, meat production has increased even further. Between 1971 and 2010, the world population rose by 81 percent, but meat production tripled. If the trend doesn’t change, meat production will double by 2050. And meat-rich diets produce substantially more greenhouse gas emissions than vegetable-based.

A Methane Greenhouse

The principal culprit of climate change is greenhouse gases, and 18 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to livestock, according to a 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) report. A more recent report changed their estimate of the contribution from the livestock industry to between 14.5 percent and 22 percent of the total, but estimates by other agencies have placed the proportion much higher.

In particular, cattle are a significant contributor to dangerous greenhouse gas emissions due to the large amount of methane gas they release as part of digestion, as their food ferments during rumination. Methane gas is particularly worrisome as it has a warming impact up to 25 times greater than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. According to the UNFAO, animal agriculture emits 44 percent of the methane produced by human activity, and cattle are by far the leading contributor.

Including the additional industries associated with livestock, such as transportation and waste byproducts, the effect is much worse. A recent report entitled Livestock and Climate Change by the World Watch Institute found that livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. This puts the global impact of entire animal industry much …

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Autumn 2015