The Iranian Spark That Could Start a War

A former British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, once warned that sudden squalls could blow into major storms and often from unexpected places. Not very long afterwards, the Argentinians began to make bellicose noises towards the British ruled Falkland Islands, which they claimed as the Islas Malvinas. This was 1978, and the situation was speedily resolved without a shot being fired, but with the Argentinians being quietly warned that a Royal Navy nuclear submarine was on patrol in the area. Callaghan had never expected trouble to emerge from this neglected and forgotten outpost. His successor, Margaret Thatcher however did not have the foresight to learn from the earlier incident, and announced the withdrawl of HMS Endurance from Falkland waters, and for good measure awarded the islanders with new, not so British, passports. The Argentinians took their cue and the rest of course is history.Today, more thoughtful officials at the United Nations in New York are looking nervously at a small, forgotten outpost in the middle of Iraq as being a possible source of greater conflict. There are just over 1350 Kurdish Iranian refugees living near Irbil in Northern Iraq, where they have been since the fall of the Shah. One upon a time they could count on the shelter of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni backers, but today with the old enemies of Iraq and Iran closer than they have been for decades, the Kawa Camp risks turning into a flash point. The Iraqis say it is time for them to return to Iran, while the refugees says that if they do, they will be tortured. Their cause has been championed by amongst others, US Republicans and by Democrats such as Howard Dean. Their plight becomes even more relevant when seen thought the prism of Iran’s nuclear programme and the response of the West, and in particular by Israel.This week’s report by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Authority) put that nuclear programme under much sharper analysis, drawing howls of outrage from Tehran. The IAEA report barely made the headlines in Europe, beset as it is with more immediate problems. But crucially it claimed that Iran “has worked to design nuclear bombs”. This does not mean that Iran actually has the nuclear bomb, but that it is likely striving to achieve having one. The Iranians have of course indignantly dismissed any claim that this is the path that they are on, and have continued to allow inspectors in to the country under the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty, of which it is a signatory.Israel, which is a nuclear power, with nuclear weapons, but which is not a member of the NPT and does not allow IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities, has reacted strongly. Israeli hawks are though to favour a surgical strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, while the Iranians have threatened to respond to any Israeli attack, by wiping Israel off the map. Two weeks ago it was revealed in The Guardian newspaper that the British Ministry of Defence had been engaged in contingency planning to join with, if necessary, any American led response to come to the aid of Israel.It would be tempting to write off all of this as typical sabre rattling. The problem is that this time the IAEA have gone further than ever before, while Israel and Iran sound more bellicose than ever before. Both the US and Israel have refused to rule out any option to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Marry this to a deeply alarming economic situation in the West, and the potential for all of this to get out of hand is very great. Especially when you have an issue as vexatious as the Kawa refugee camp moving to the centre of the web, much as the Archduke Ferdinand unwittingly did in Sarajevo in the early years of the last century.Wiser counsel at the United Nations is urging caution, and in the shape of Secretary General Ban ki moon are urging a “diplomatic solution to the nuclear stand-off”. While calling for Iran to observe Security Council resolutions and saying that the onus is now on Iran to prove the peaceful nature of its programme, Ban ki moon and the UN are clear; that negotiated, rather than a military solution is the only way to resolve the issue. Wise counsel such as this was largely ignored in the run up to the war in Iraq, and such were the consequences that few thought such blundering would ever occur again. There is of course a tendency for lessons to be heeded by the international community as it suits differing agendas. But this time, the World and the potential protagonists have been warned, and this time by a UN Secretary General with a very real moral authority. They should listen.

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How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

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  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

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Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe

(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.