Canada’s 2023 fires

Oliver Milman writes in The Guardian:

The impact upon the world’s climate will be even more significant than this. According to data from the European Union’s satellite monitoring service, more than 1.7bn tons of planet-heating gases have been released this year by the enormous fires – about three times the total emissions that Canada, a major fossil fuel-producing nation, itself produces each year.

Such huge emissions, eclipsing in a single year any measure, however ambitious, to cut pollution from cars or factories by a country like Canada, are a major drag upon efforts to stem the climate crisis. The majestic boreal forests, much like the Amazon rainforest that now emits as much carbon as it sucks up and is tipping towards becoming a savannah, suddenly appear to be a danger to the world’s climate rather than a key safeguard.

The world has ignored the imperative to stop worsening climate change through fossil fuel use for at least three decades now. The planet is starting to gravely reflect that mistreatment, and doing so in ways that worsen future disruption.

Life in an inhospitable future

Because you’re going to need shelter — and people don’t give their homes away. They barricade themselves in.

So, sooner or later, exhausted and desperate, you may have to make the decision to give up and die — or, to make somebody else give up and die because they won’t accept you in their home voluntarily.

And what, in your comfortable urban life, has ever prepared you for that decision?

From episode 1 of James Burke’s 1978 TV series “Connections”, entitled: “The Trigger Effect“.

Lives of spies

One genre which I enjoy reading is non-fiction about espionage and counterespionage.

Recently released Cuban spy in the USA Ana Montes is an interesting story from several perspectives, including ideological motivation, tradecraft, and the challenges in countering insider attacks against the intelligence services.

Related:

Satellite to satellite espionage and warfare

One inescapable but confounding element of trying to understand politics, international relations, and history up to the present day is that we don’t have access to what governments are doing in secret. We will need to re-write the history of these times decades from now, if circumstances and freedom of information laws permit historians to learn about the skullduggery of this era.

One potentially important example is happening now in space. Satellites have become crucial to everything from time synchronization for high precision activities to navigation and communication. They also can’t really be hidden. Perhaps there are satellites with optical stealth that are hardly or never visible, but even top secret spy satellites of the conventional design can have their orbits determined by civilians with stopwatches and binoculars.

That is why we know that Russia, among others, has been experimenting with satellites that approach others and can potentially disrupt or destroy them, or monitor their activity. An article on China’s program includes the intriguing phrasing: “non-cooperative robotic rendezvous” between spacecraft. Russia’s Cosmos 2542 is known to have approached USA 245: an American spy satellite believed to be one of the largest things in space.

One can only speculate on how such capabilities are influencing world politics and the unfolding of events.

Arithmetic of power and plutonium

The first pile at Hanford generated 250 million watts—250 megawatts or MW—of thermal power and produced each year about a hundred kilograms of plutonium. A rule of thumb is that a megawatt of fission heat in a natural uranium reactor accompanies the production of about a gram of plutonium-239 per day. About six kilograms were sufficient to make a bomb.

Garwin, Richard L. and Charpak, Georges. Megawatts and Megatons: The Future of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons. University of Chicago Press, 2002. p. 33

Why public promises are often irrelevant to politics

“So accept the favours, sway the key blocs, and you will get into power — ruling with actions that look contradictory and stupid to those who don’t understand the game: privately helping a powerful industry you publicly denounced, or passing laws that hurt a bloc that voter for you. But your job isn’t to have a consistent understandable ruling policy, but to balance the interests of your keys to power big and small. That is how you stay in office.” (9:48)

Russia’s threshold for nuclear weapon use

Christopher Chivvis has an article in The Guardian about the danger of escalation to the use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine crisis:

There are possible other paths toward further escalation, but they all eventually lead toward the nuclear threshold. Scores of war games carried out by the United States and its allies in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine make it clear that Putin would probably use a nuclear weapon if he concludes that his regime is threatened. It is hard to know exactly what turn of events would scare him enough to cross the nuclear threshold. Certainly a large Nato army entering Russian territory would be enough. But what if events in Ukraine loosened his grip on power at home? Indeed, achieving regime change in Russia indirectly by making Putin lose in Ukraine seems to be the logic behind some of those who are pushing for escalation today.

Moving across the nuclear threshold wouldn’t necessarily mean an immediate, full-force nuclear exchange – in other words, global thermonuclear war. But it would be an extremely dangerous, watershed event in world history.

The nuclear option that has been most frequently discussed in the past few days involves Russia using a small nuclear weapon (a “non-strategic nuclear weapon”) against a specific military target in Ukraine. Such a strike might have a military purpose, such as destroying an airfield or other military target, but it would mainly be aimed at demonstrating the will to use nuclear weapons, or “escalating to de-escalate”, and scaring the west into backing down.

Some analysts have questioned Russia’s ability to actually carry out such an operation, given its lack of practice. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only or even the most likely option available to the Kremlin. Based on war games I ran in the wake of Putin’s 2014 invasion, a more likely option would be a sudden nuclear test or a high-altitude nuclear detonation that damages the electrical grid over a major Ukrainian or even Nato city. Think of an explosion that makes the lights go out over Oslo.

Those war games indicated that the best US response to this kind of attack would be first to demonstrate US resolve with a response in kind, aimed at a target of similar value, followed by restraint and diplomatic efforts to de-escalate. In most games, Russia still responds with a second nuclear attack, but in the games that go “well”, the United States and Russia manage to de-escalate after that, although only in circumstances where both sides have clear political off-ramps and lines of communication between Moscow and Washington have remained open. In all the other games, the world is basically destroyed.

The more elevated the crisis, the greater the risks of misunderstandings and panicked decisions.

Putin’s war in Ukraine and nuclear energy

Theoretically, nuclear fission could play a big role in providing energy-rich lifestyles to people around the world without climate change.

At the same time, there are severe economic, social, and political headwinds to even maintaining existing capacity, much less building more.

Now, I fear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will add further causes for concern. Ukraine has four nuclear plants and 15 operating reactors — any of which could be damaged intentionally or unintentionally by combat, or which could experience a station blackout if the electricity grid goes down.

Russia’s actions are calling into question longstanding assumptions about global stability. If conflict will again be a feature of life in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia then potentially nuclear operators who already have public acceptance and cost competitiveness against other forms of energy generation as major concerns will have another reason to be wary of reactors. If an incident actually occurs at a Ukrainian nuclear facility, those public and elite concerns will be far more salient.

The nocebo effect

Everyone is aware of the placebo effect, in which a mock or inert intervention like a sugar pill in a clinical trial will nonetheless produce what seem like real effects to the people who receive it. The nocebo effect is the opposite: where people exposed to something harmless can experience apparent ill effects because they believe it is harmful.

A recent study found nocebo effects to be widespread with the COVID-19 vaccines: “the ‘nocebo effect’ accounted for about 76% of all common adverse reactions after the first dose and nearly 52% after the second dose.”

This is a reminder about the humility we need to maintain when interpreting our own medical experiences. Just because something came after something else doesn’t mean the first thing caused the second, and just because an effect seems psychologically or emotionally connected to a cause does not mean there is an empirical or causal connection.