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Good news! Global carbon emissions stayed flat in 2016.

The recovery effort trudges along after the Category 4 storm destroyed what Irma spared, flattening buildings and tangling power lines. More than 100,000 people live in the U.S. territory, and many of them are now waiting for power, medicine, and fuel.

“It will be a while before this place returns to a semblance of normalcy,” National Guard Chief Joseph Lengyel told Fox News.

Public school buildings are too damaged for students to attend classes, the New York Times reports. The main hospitals will have to be torn down and rebuilt. The power might not be back until December. And authorities have advised residents to boil their water before consumption, fearing contamination.

Making recovery harder is the nearly $2 billion in debt the Virgin Islands is carrying. That’s more per capita than Puerto Rico.

“The economy evaporated pretty much overnight,” one restaurant owner told the Times. Tourism makes up a third of the islands’ gross domestic product. The biggest resorts will stay closed until at least next year, meaning fewer customers for restaurants and bars and fewer jobs.

While attention is focused on the humanitarian crisis affecting millions in Puerto Rico, 40 miles to the west, the Virgin Islands remain mostly out of mind.

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Good news! Global carbon emissions stayed flat in 2016.

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In Face of Corn Boycott, Trump Decides NAFTA Not So Bad After All

Mother Jones

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Mexico is threatening to use the power of corn to fight Donald Trump’s tough talk on trade:

As President Trump threatens Mexico with drastic changes on trade, its leaders are wielding corn as a weapon. Mexico’s Senate is considering legislation calling for a boycott of U.S. corn, and the government has begun negotiating with Argentina and Brazil to import corn from those nations tax-free. The threat of a boycott is Mexico’s latest and perhaps cleverest attempt to fight back against Trump, whose threats to pull out of free trade agreements and slap a 20% import tax on Mexican products have shaken confidence in Mexico’s economy.

And apparently it’s working:

The Trump administration is signaling to Congress it would seek mostly modest changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement in upcoming negotiations with Mexico and Canada, a deal President Donald Trump called a “disaster” during the campaign.

….The draft, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, talks of seeking “to improve procedures to resolve disputes,” rather than eliminating the panels. The U.S. also wouldn’t use the Nafta negotiations to deal with disputes over foreign currency policies or to hit numerical targets for bilateral trade deficits, as some trade hawks have been urging.

….Jeffrey Schott, a trade scholar at the Peterson Institute for International Economics…noted that a number of the proposed negotiating objectives echo provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact among Pacific Rim countries. Mr. Trump campaigned heavily against the TPP.

Do not underestimate the power of corn! Alternatively, maybe corn has nothing to do with it. Maybe Trump was just blathering all along and never really had any intention of getting tough with Mexico. In the end, he’ll build a few more miles of fencing, make a few modest changes to NAFTA, and then call it the greatest boon to the working man since the Wagner Act. I’ve also read a few pieces recently about China, and apparently all those Goldman Sachs folks he hired have talked Trump into backing down on a trade war there too. I guess Goldman Sachs has to be good for something.

Anyway, having given up on Mexico and China, now Trump is going after the ultra-conservatives of the House Freedom Caucus:

I’ll bet they’re scared shitless. Trump is demonstrating that his talk may be big, but he can’t make it stick. In his first two months, he’s failed on his immigration order and his health care plan, has no chance of building his wall, and has backed down on Mexico and China. His bark is unquestionably worse than his bite.

The health care bill would have flamed out in the Senate anyway. The HFC did everyone a favor by getting it off the agenda quickly so Congress could move on to important matters like cutting taxes for the rich.

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In Face of Corn Boycott, Trump Decides NAFTA Not So Bad After All

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EU-Britain Divorce Will Get Started… Someday

Mother Jones

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Prime Minister Theresa May submitted an official notice today the Great Britain will be exiting the European Union:

Now that Prime Minister May has officially given notice to Tusk, the next step is to begin negotiations about the negotiations. In about a month, the UK and EU will formally sit down to come to terms on how the negotiations will work.

“Most of the formal stuff that will be agreed upon in the big meetings has already been penciled in,” Tim Oliver, an expert on the EU at the London School of Economics, tells me….Ultimately, Oliver believes, “nothing substantive” will be agreed upon until after the French presidential election in April and the German parliamentary election in late September. That’s because the French and Germans are, by far, the two most important EU member states. Without a firm sense of who their leaders will be in the coming years, it will be impossible to know what terms the EU might agree to.

In other words, nothing really happens for the next six months. And that’s totally OK because, hey, that still leaves 18 months to negotiate the biggest, messiest divorce in treaty history. Plenty of time. No need for any sense of urgency here.

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EU-Britain Divorce Will Get Started… Someday

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This Short Film Explains Why Businesses Should Maximize Value Over Profit

Mother Jones

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Aspiring documentary filmmaker Taylor Erickson has a theory: If businesses put the interests of their customers over short-term profits, they’ll be more successful in the long run, and society will be better off for it.

“When I was thinking about the economy, that was the first thing that came to my head,” says Erickson, 20. It’s the message at the center of his latest short film, titled “The Greatest Economics Lesson.” It recently won the grand prize in a video contest run by Econ4, a group of professors and consultants in search of a more equitable approach to economics.

In the film, Erickson recalls a time when his friend, a property investor, stopped trying to maximize profits from his properties and began to treat his tenants as partners, taking extra care to improve their houses. The result? His friend’s tenants were more satisfied with their situation, and they stayed longer and took better care of the homes—and he still made money.

“The thing that gets in the way is greed,” Erickson says in the video. “Businesses get so wrapped up in minimizing expenses and maximizing profits that they can neglect the human side of economics…Prioritize value, and you can absolutely still make money. On top of that, you’ll be making your world better by adding value to it.”

Erickson, who works at HOPE Worldwide, a faith-based community service nonprofit in Cleveland, says the lesson extends beyond the macroeconomy. The decisions parents make in spending their money, for instance, affect the wants and needs of the entire family.

And Erickson isn’t done offering lessons. For the last two months, he has channeled his interest in how society works into an attempt to make sense of how political candidates approach the prevailing issues of the election season. In a way, he says, he’s trying to spread “societal literacy,” to take a concept that’s unfamiliar and make it easy to understand. He’s working on a short film on food insecurity and hunger in Northeast Ohio.

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This Short Film Explains Why Businesses Should Maximize Value Over Profit

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Science Says This Centuries-Old Discovery Will Save the Planet

Mother Jones

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The United States leads the world in the number of electric vehicles on the road, but the count is still tiny: about 350,000. That’s less than 1 percent of all passenger cars and trucks in the country. Recent market research suggests that number will climb steadily over the next several decades. But will it climb fast enough? When it comes to fighting climate change, that could turn out to be one of the most important questions of the next few years.

On April 22, world leaders gathered in New York City to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change, in which they vowed to keep global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, a limit the world is already more than halfway toward exceeding. Meanwhile, energy experts have begun to map out the fine-grain details of what meeting that goal would actually require. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that electric vehicles have a indispensable role to play.

It turns out that one of the most immediate societal changes for average Americans in a climate-savvy future would likely be the electrification of just about everything. In other words, the hope of the planet could like in a force—electricity—we’ve known about for hundreds of years.

That might sound strange, given that electricity production is the number-one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Coal- and gas-burning power plants are still our main sources of electricity, and in some parts of the country the power grid is so dirty that electric vehicles might actually cause more pollution than traditional gas-guzzlers.

But thanks to the explosive growth of solar, wind, and other renewable energy technologies, electricity is getting cleaner all the time. Over the last decade, the share of total US electricity production from renewables (including hydroelectric dams) rose from about 9.5 percent to more than 14 percent, with year-to-year growth getting faster all the time. So there’s a good case to be made for phasing out the other types of fossil fuel use in our daily lives—particularly gasoline for cars and oil and gas for heating buildings. We should be using electricity instead—even if that means using more electricity overall.

That’s a key finding of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, an international consortium of energy researchers that produced a detailed technical study of how to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2050—the change necessary if Americans hope to do their part to stay within the two-degree limit. The report found that it’s technically possible for the US to meet that target, at an annual cost of about 1 percent of GDP, without sacrificing any “energy services.” That is, the report assumes we’ll still drive and have houses and operate factories the same as we do today. But to do so will require a major boost in electrification—which will in turn require that the US produce about twice as much electricity as it currently does—while reducing the carbon emissions per unit of energy down to just 3 to 10 percent of their current levels. In other words, at the same time we’re electrifying everything, we need to continue to clean up the electric grid and double down on energy efficiency, especially in buildings.

“You can’t get to a level of emissions that’s compatible with 2C or less unless you do all three of those things,” said Jim Williams, one of the report’s lead authors and chief scientist at the private research firm Energy and Environmental Economics.

We get energy from fossil fuels in two basic ways: Either burning it in a power plant to create electricity that gets used elsewhere, or by burning it directly where it’s needed—i.e., your car’s internal combustion engine or a gas-fueled stove. Williams’ basic idea—which has also been advanced by other leading energy economists, particularly Stanford’s Mark Jacobson—is to axe that second category as much as possible, while simultaneously “decarbonizing” the electric grid by replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar, and other renewables.

Williams’ model doesn’t assume that all fossil fuel consumption goes completely to zero. A small portion of electricity could still come from natural gas plants; some oil and gas could still be used for manufacturing and industrial purposes; and airplanes, freight trains, and ocean liners may still rely mainly on petroleum. But by the middle of the century, the total “budget” for fossil fuels will become so small that they need to be limited only to uses that are absolutely unavoidable. Everything that can run on electricity needs to do so. Cars and buildings are low-hanging fruit. And despite gradual fuel efficiency improvements in cars over the last few decades, Williams said, there’s ultimately no way to make an oil-burning internal combustion car engine efficient enough to fit in the tiny fossil fuel “budget.”

“At some point you can’t continue to do direct combustion of fossil fuels, even if it’s efficient,” he said. “There is a point where you have to get out of direct fossil fuel combustion to the maximum extent.”

Ending direct combustion of fossil fuels would take a massive bite out of greenhouse gas emissions: Put together, buildings, transportation, and industrial uses account for more than half of the country’s carbon footprint.

In practical terms, the most important element of that transition would be bringing electric vehicles off the sidelines and into the mainstream. The charts below, from the report, illustrate what that transformation would look like. It’s important to note that these charts are not a projection of what the authors think will happen, but rather a prescription for what they think should happen. In the left chart, you can see that starting in the mid-2020s, sales of gas-powered cars (blue) fall off dramatically in favor of hybrids (red) and fully electric vehicles (gold). On the right, you see that by the mid-2030s, there are more electric cars and hybrids on the road than gas-powered cars:


At the same time as this transformation is happening on the road, your gas stove will be swapped for an electric one; ditto the gas furnace in your basement. Gas stations will close and be replaced by charging stations. Machinery in factories that uses oil and gas will be largely replaced with electric equipment. Your propane or charcoal grill could be replaced by a George Foreman…you get the idea.

These are big shifts, but Williams said they probably won’t actually be very noticeable to most people. How much do you really know about what’s under your hood? Would you really notice if your basement held an electric heat pump instead of a gas furnace?

“The carbon aspect is in the guts of it that people don’t really look at,” he said. “The good news is that even if we continue to live like we’re living, we have the technology, we have what it takes to quit emitting so much CO2 to the atmosphere.”

Still, we’re not yet on pace to meet the goals laid out in the DDPP report. In a recent market forecast from Bloomberg New Energy Finance of global electric vehicle sales—a realistic picture of what the future actually holds, given current policies—global sales of electric and hybrid vehicles in 2040 are still only 35 percent of total car sales, instead of close to 100 percent in Williams’ model.

How do we get on track? Williams argues that policymakers need to start spending less energy worrying about fuel efficiency for oil-powered cars and focus instead on speeding up the transition to electric vehicles. That’s something the Obama administration has only scratched the surface of, so it could be an area of focus for the next president. Power grid operators, too, need to start planning for a future in which there could be major demand for electricity in sectors (i.e., electric cars, home heating, etc.) that are small now.

“We’re not used to having a whole lot of our electricity being used by sectors that currently don’t exist,” Williams said. “We need to already be thinking about that. If we don’t start planning now, we’ll run into dead ends.”

Have more questions about electricity? We’ve got your answers in this special podcast episode with our engagement editor Ben Dreyfuss:

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Science Says This Centuries-Old Discovery Will Save the Planet

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The Planet Just Obliterated Another Heat Record

Mother Jones

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This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

February smashed a century of global temperature records by “stunning” margin, according to data released by NASA.

The unprecedented leap led scientists, usually wary of highlighting a single month’s temperature, to label the new record a “shocker” and warn of a “climate emergency.”

The NASA data shows the average global surface temperature in February was 2.43 degrees Fahrenheit (1.35 degrees Celsius) warmer than the average temperature for the month between 1951-1980, a far bigger margin than ever seen before. The previous record, set just one month earlier in January, was 2.07 degrees F (1.15 C) above the long-term average for that month.

“NASA dropped a bombshell of a climate report,” said Jeff Masters and Bob Henson, who analyzed the data on the Weather Underground website. “February dispensed with the one-month-old record by a full 0.21C 0.38 degrees F—an extraordinary margin to beat a monthly world temperature record by.”

“This result is a true shocker, and yet another reminder of the incessant long-term rise in global temperature resulting from human-produced greenhouse gases,” said Masters and Henson. “We are now hurtling at a frightening pace toward the globally agreed maximum of 2 C (3.6 F) warming over pre-industrial levels.”

The UN climate summit in Paris in December confirmed 3.6 degrees F (2 C) as the danger limit for global warming which should not be passed. But it also agreed to “pursue efforts” to limit warming to 2.7 degrees F (1.5 C), a target now looking highly optimistic.

Climate change is usually assessed over years and decades, and 2015 shattered the record set in 2014 for the hottest year seen, in data stretching back to 1850. The UK Met Office also expects 2016 to set a new record, meaning the global temperature record will have been broken for three years in a row.

One of the world’s three key temperature records is kept by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and its director Prof. Gavin Schmidt reacted to the February GISS temperature measurements with a simple “wow.” He tweeted:

“We are in a kind of climate emergency now,” said Prof. Stefan Rahmstorf, from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research in Germany. He told Fairfax Media: “This is really quite stunning…It’s completely unprecedented.”

“This is a very worrying result,” said Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics, noting that each of the last five months globally have been hotter than any month preceding them.

“These results suggest that we may be even closer than we realized to breaching the 2 C limit. We have used up all of our room for maneuver. If we delay any longer strong cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, it looks like global mean surface temperature is likely to exceed the level beyond which the impacts of climate change are likely to be very dangerous.”

A major El Niño event, the biggest since 1998, is boosting global temperatures, but scientists are agreed that global warming driven by humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions is by far the largest factor in the astonishing run of temperature records.

Prof. Adam Scaife, at the UK Met Office, said the very low levels of Arctic ice were also helping to raise temperatures: “There has been record low ice in the Arctic for two months running and that releases a lot of heat.” He said the Met Office had forecast a record-breaking 2016 in December: “It is not as if you can’t see these things coming.”

Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading, UK, said: “It is a pretty big jump between January and February, although this data from NASA is only the first set of global temperature data. We will need to see what the figures from NOAA and the Met Office say. It is in line with our expectations that due to the continuing effect of greenhouse gas emissions, combined with the effects of El Niño on top, 2016 is likely to beat 2015 as the warmest year on record.”

The record for an annual increase of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, was also demolished in 2015.

Fossil fuel burning and the strong El Niño pushed CO2 levels up by 3.05 parts per million (ppm) to 402.6 ppm compared to 2014. “CO2 levels are increasing faster than they have in hundreds of thousands of years,” said Pieter Tans, lead scientist at NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network. “It’s explosive compared to natural processes.”


The Planet Just Obliterated Another Heat Record

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China’s greenhouse emissions might already have peaked

China’s greenhouse emissions might already have peaked

By on 7 Mar 2016commentsShare

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

China is the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, the heat-trapping pollution that is causing global warming. So what China spews into the air — how much, and when — is crucial to the planet’s future.

There might be some optimistic news on that front today.

For years, experts have expected China’s greenhouse gas emissions to continue growing over the next couple decades. But according to a new study, Chinese emissions may have actually peaked in 2014 — and could soon begin a steady decline. And if those emissions didn’t peak in 2014, researchers say, they definitely will by 2025, years ahead of China’s official 2030 goal. (Researchers say the pace and scale of change in China’s economy make it hard to pinpoint the exact year emissions will peak — or to say for sure if they already have.)

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The new findings appear in a paper released Sunday night by the U.K.’s Center for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. It was authored by Fergus Green and the famous climate change research economist, Nicholas Stern.

China’s current peak-emissions target of 2030 was enshrined in the historic U.S.-China climate agreement reached at the end of 2014. That deal paved the way for the global Paris agreement late last year.

But there has been a growing body of research suggesting that China could reach that goal much sooner. The new analysis is based on economic forecasts that take into account the shifting and contracting nature of the Chinese economy, which is moving away from energy-intensive industries like construction and steel-making and towards service-related sectors. The Chinese government has instituted a three-year moratorium on approving new coal mines, and is scrambling to alleviate the country’s air pollution crisis.

The study follows Chinese statistics published last week showing the country’s coal consumption dropping 3.7 percent in 2015, marking the second year in a row that the country has slashed coal use and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as news the country will close 1,000 coal mines this year alone.

As part of China’s 13th Five-Year Plan — a blueprint used by the Chinese government to lay out economic and social priorities — China announced last week it will attempt to reduce its carbon dioxide intensity by 18 percent between now and 2020, according to the Washington Post.

The new research is putting pressure on Chinese officials to do even more to fight climate change.

“China’s international commitment to peak emissions ‘around 2030’ should be seen as a highly conservative upper limit from a government that prefers to under-promise and over-deliver,” the report says.

China was put in an awkward position Monday when it was forced by news of Green and Stern’s report to say its emissions were, in fact, still growing, in order to defend its 2030 target as appropriate. Chinese leaders are famously sensitive about the country’s slowing economy, and fearful that scrutiny of its economic and environmental policies could lead to widespread discontent.

“You asked whether our emissions had peaked in 2014 — certainly not,” said Xie Zhenhua, the country’s top climate change envoy, according to Reuters. “In fact, our carbon dioxide emissions are still increasing.”

Last week, America’s own top climate official, Todd Stern, told reporters in Beijing that there could be international pressure if China’s targets appeared to be too easy to achieve. “It will be up to the Chinese government whether they increase their target but there will obviously be a lot of international opinion looking forward to additional measures — whether it is China or anyone else,” he said, according to Reuters.



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The Supreme Court Just Did Serious Damage to the Fight Against Climate Change

Mother Jones

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The Supreme Court dealt a blow to President Barack Obama’s climate agenda Tuesday evening by putting his flagship greenhouse gas emissions rules on hold. In a 5-4 ruling, the justices granted the stay in response to a lawsuits by coal companies and two dozen coal-reliant states. The plaintiffs have argued that by setting new limits on carbon pollution from power plants, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency is overstepping its authority to control the electricity sector.

The ruling is far from a death knell for the Clean Power Plan, as the policy is known. Rather, it allows power companies and state official to hold off on preparing for the new regulations until the courts decide whether the administration went too far. The cases will most likely end up in front of the Supreme Court sometime next year, so there’s still plenty of time before the plan’s fate is sealed.

According to Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, the Court’s track record on EPA regulations is pretty favorable for environmentalists.

“Every regulation from EPA is attacked legally,” she said. “There might be delays, but there is almost always a rule that come out the other end.”

But in the meantime, the ruling could throw a wrench in the delicate diplomacy surrounding the global climate agreement reached in Paris in December. One defining feature of the Paris summit that made it the most successful round of climate talks in two decades was the leadership of Secretary of State John Kerry and other US officials. It was the Clean Power Plan that gave other countries confidence that the US was finally willing to do something about its own massive carbon footprint. In other words, the plan was supposed to be Obama’s proof that the US would follow through on its Paris promises. Now, the trust of other big polluters—China, India, the European Union—could be shaken. That could have a chilling effect on climate action around the globe.

“I think the stay raises doubts in other countries’ minds,” said Jake Schmidt, international program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I’m already getting a lot of questions and confusion from policy analysts abroad. There will be a lot of outreach to explain what this really means.”

Their concerns may well be justified—even if the Supreme Court ultimately does rule in favor of the administration. That’s because, regardless of the case’s final outcome, yesterday’s stay will make the Clean Power Plan more vulnerable if a Republican wins the presidential election in November. All of the leading GOP candidates have vowed to roll back Obama’s climate agenda. (Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both promised to carry it forward.)

The problem is the timeline, explained Robert Stavins, director of Harvard’s Environmental Economics program. Until yesterday, state regulators and power companies were in the early stages of putting together their plans to comply with the regulation. But with the stay in place, power companies can push off the investments and upgrades required by the plan—switching coal-fired power plants to natural gas, improving efficiency on the electric grid, building more wind and solar energy, etc. That means that by the time the next president takes office, the power companies will have sunk less capital into implementing the plan, and will have less incentive to see it survive than if they had already made those investments, Stavins said. With that potential roadblock out of the way, a Republican president would have an easier time killing the plan.

“That’s a subtle chain of causality, but it’s the one that—if understood—may reasonably cause concern to other countries regarding the ability of the USA to live up to its Paris promises,” Stavins said.

Still, at least in the short term, the US doesn’t need the Clean Power Plan to follow through on its initial Paris commitments, Schmidt said. The US will be required to submit its first progress report under the agreement in 2020, a couple years before the Clean Power Plan was originally scheduled to take effect. Moreover, he said, even if countries such as China and India are spooked by the Supreme Court’s new ruling, they’re unlikely to jump ship on their own climate plans.

“When you look at what’s happened over the past couple years, it’s really hopeful that the US is moving forward,” Schmidt said. “But most countries aren’t moving forward solely on the basis of what the US is doing.”

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The Supreme Court Just Did Serious Damage to the Fight Against Climate Change

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Everything You Need to Know About the Iran-Saudi Arabia Crisis

Mother Jones

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Relations between Shiite Iran and its oil-rich Sunni neighbors across the Persian Gulf have never been warm, and the civil wars in Syria and Yemen have fueled mistrust and proxy battles between the two countries for years. But even those conflicts didn’t manage to bring about the diplomatic meltdown that occurred this weekend, when Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran and significantly ramped up tensions between two of the Middle East’s most powerful players.

What happened? Saudi Arabia rang in the new year by executing 47 prisoners on Saturday. One of them was a Shiite cleric named Nimr al-Nimr, a longtime critic of the Saudi government who was accused by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir during an interview with Reuters of “agitating, organizing cells, and providing them with weapons and money.” In response, protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Shortly thereafter Saudi Arabia ceased diplomatic relations with Iran.

Bahrain and Sudan have since joined the Saudis in cutting diplomatic ties, and the United Arab Emirates “downgraded” its relations with Iran by recalling its ambassador and reducing staff in Tehran. The Saudis also announced other steps, including cutting off flights between Iran and Saudi Arabia and banning Saudis from traveling to the Islamic Republic.

Why does it matter? Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are major players in international trade, as well as in various conflicts playing out throughout the Middle East, and outright hostility between the two countries could bleed over in many ways.

The diplomatic crisis could affect efforts to broker peace in Syria. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are deeply enmeshed in Syria’s civil war. Saudis fund Islamist rebels in Syria while Iran supplies weapons, soldiers, money, and diplomatic backing to the Syrian government along with extensive support to its close ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Both countries are also important players in any attempt at a peace process for Syria. The UN special envoy for Syria hoped to restart peace talks between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime this month, but a collapse in Saudi-Iranian relations could sink negotiations before they get going again. “We were hoping that a diplomatic solution could be found to the Syrian crisis in the next few months. Forget about it,” Fawaz Gerges, a Middle Eastern studies professor at the London School of Economics, told CNN.

It could worsen Yemen’s civil war. Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor, normally ruled by a Sunni-led government, is under the control of a Shiite rebel group called the Houthis. The Saudis launched an air campaign against those rebels in March and has been bombing Yemen ever since. While the campaign hasn’t dislodged the Houthis, it has killed more than 1,000 civilians by the United Nation’s estimate and laid waste to the capital of Sanaa. While Iran supports the Houthis, Yemen experts believe Iran hasn’t backed them in the same large-scale way as it has Hezbollah. But if tensions continue to rise with Saudi Arabia, Iran could be tempted to ratchet up its involvement in Yemen.

World powers are watching the situation closely. Russia has allied itself with Iran in Syria by sending weapons to the Assad regime and launching airstrikes against rebels. Sputnik, a Russian government-run media outlet, quoted a foreign ministry source who said Russia was “willing to play, if necessary, a role as a mediator in the settlement of existing and emerging discords between these countries.” China, a major consumer of Gulf oil, is also watching the situation and has urged both sides to calm tensions.

Uncertainty in the oil market is only rising. Iran has huge oil reserves, and it will finally be able to export that oil to the world market again this year now that Western sanctions are lifting. That could mean even more oil on the world market and another year of low prices—or tensions between Iran and Saudia Arabia could send oil prices rising again. No one’s sure which way it will go.

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Everything You Need to Know About the Iran-Saudi Arabia Crisis

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Marx and Keynes Put Economics on the Map, and They Can Take It Right Off Again

Mother Jones

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Over at PostEverything, Dan Drezner wonders why economics has managed to wield such an outsized influence within the social sciences. His strongest point—or at least the one he spends the most time on—is that economists “share a strong consensus about the virtues of free markets, free trade, capital mobility and entrepreneurialism.” This makes them catnip to the plutocrat class, and therefore the favored social scientists of influential people everywhere.

Fine, says Adam Ozimek, but what about liberal economists? “Why is Paul Krugman famous? Robert Shiller? Joe Stiglitz? Jeff Sachs? ‘To please plutocrats’ is not a good theory.” And this: “Why do liberal think tanks with liberal donors supporting liberal causes hire so many economists? To please plutocrats?”

I think Drezner and Ozimek each make good points. Here’s my amateur historical explanation that incorporates both.

The first thing to understand is that in the 19th century, economists were no more influential than other social scientists. Folks like David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus were certainly prominent, but no more so than, say, Herbert Spencer or Max Weber. What’s more, economics was a far less specialized field then. John Stuart Mill had a strong influence on economics, but was he an economist? Or a philosopher? Or a political scientist? He was all of those things.

So what happened to make economists so singularly influential in the 20th century? I’ll toss out two causes: Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.

The fight for and against communism defined the second half of the 20th century, and Marx had always identified economics as the underpinning of his socio-historical theories. Outside of the battlefield, then, this made the most important conflict of the time fundamentally a fight over economics. In the public imagination, if not within the field itself, the fight between communism and free markets became identified as the face of economics, and this made it the most important branch of the social sciences.

Then Keynes upped the ante. In the same spirit that Whitehead called philosophy a series of footnotes to Plato, economics in the second half of the 20th century was largely a series of footnotes to Keynes. Rightly or wrongly, he became the poster child for liberals who wanted to justify their belief in an activist government and the arch nemesis of conservatives who wanted no such thing. In the same way that communism was the biggest fight on the global stage, the fight over the size and scope of government was the biggest fight on the domestic stage. And since this was fundamentally a fight over economics, the field of economics became ground zero for domestic politics in advanced economies around the world.

And that’s why economists became so influential among both plutocrats and the lefty masses. Sure, it’s partly because economists use lots of Greek letters and act like physicists, but mostly it’s because that window dressing was used in service of the two most fundamental geo-socio-political conflicts of the late 20th century.

So does that mean economics is likely to lose influence in the future? After all, free market capitalism and mixed economies are now triumphant. Compared to the 20th century, we’re now arguing over relative table scraps. And, as Drezner points out, the profession of economics has hardly covered itself with glory in the opening years of the 21st century. Has their time has come and gone?

Maybe. I mean, how should I know? Obviously there’s a lot of inertia here, and economics will remain pretty important for a long time. But the biggest fights are gone and economists have an embarrassing recent track record of failure. If the rest of the social sciences want to mount an assault on the field, this would probably be a pretty good time to do it.

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Marx and Keynes Put Economics on the Map, and They Can Take It Right Off Again

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