Flirting with Armageddon: is #Ukraine leading to nuclear war?

Yesterday a Pew Research poll was released that indicated a stunning 35% of those polled, roughly equal percentages in each political party, said that the US should intervene in Ukraine even if it risked a nuclear war (link to poll). Indeed, many politicians are advocating policies that could easily lead to a nuclear confrontation with Russia such as a “no fly” zone or even direct military intervention by NATO or NATO countries individually.

I had a short discussion with Nate Hagens about this subject on his excellent podcast, “Frankly …” (link to podcast). This post is some additional background and thoughts to support that discussion. I hope you’ll give it a listen if you have time, and read on and consider that we may well be entering, and living through, the most dangerous period in human history, on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For someone who came of age in the 1980’s and studied nuclear war professionally this poll is nearly unbelievable. I am afraid that both the general public and our leadership have forgotten what the consequences of a nuclear war might be, and how one might start. Sadly this is not a uniquely American phenomena. Even the German Green Party, founded in large part as peace party opposing nuclear weapons, has essentially abandoned their opposition to nuclear weapons. Green Party co-leader (and now German Foreign Minister) Annalena Baerbock said last December “We stand by our responsibility within the framework of NATO and the EU and also for nuclear participation;” the removal of nuclear weapons from Germany is no longer a key demand.

In America I suspect three main forces are at work that have mitigated concerns over conflicts escalating into a nuclear exchange, and obscured the potential impacts of a nuclear war:

  1. Americans have been insulated from war, and are seeing the war in Ukraine as they haven’t seen recent wars, especially the impact on civilians of urban warfare. Such imagery was deliberately downplayed during US interventions in Iraq and recent wars such as Libya, Syria, Yugoslavia, or the nearly daily slaughter in Yemen taking place even today, much less the ongoing carnage of the eight year long civil war in Donbas that, according to Russia, this “Special Military Operation” is trying to bring to an end. These heartbreaking images are provoking an emotional reaction and pressure to “do something” without fully considering if that “something” is making things worse, or potentially leading to catastrophe.
  2. I suspect the leadership of this country is wrongly thinking that nuclear weapons are more manageable, and that the nuclear threshold is not a bright line, but that a nuclear exchange can be kept tactical or even limited without becoming strategic (tactical, limited, and strategic are terms of art described below). This is primarily due to the availability of lower, selectable yield weapons (even sub-kiloton devices) in concert with precision delivery systems. That, in concert with doctrines (plans) for their use, has lowered the threshold and, in the minds of US planners, created multiple thresholds that can be managed.
  3. Americans have forgotten what a nuclear war might be like. The days of movies like “The Day After” or “War Games” are 40 years ago, much less the “duck and cover” exercises of the 50’s and 60’s, and after 1991 and the “end of history” and the fall of the Soviet Union, a general nuclear war became an abstract concept. When we think of nuclear weapons at all, it is as as one-off terrorist devices or a couple from a rogue state, not a peer-on-peer conflict.

I don’t want to start another argument on how we got here, and if or how responsible the West is or isn’t for the betrayal and tragedy of Ukraine. You can read my other blog posts on that if you haven’t already, starting at this link. The first point above, that this conflict is being played up in ways comparable or worse conflicts have not, is also way too complex to delve in to here. Let’s just look at points two and three because they are the most immediate issues. I have discussed the problem of the lowering of the nuclear threshold before, and the deployment of the W-76-2 warhead on our nuclear missile submarines (link). That post also discusses the schools of thought around nuclear weapons employment (MAD and NUTS) and a critical aspect that seems to be missing from the discussion: how Russia will react. One flaw I have seen repeatedly over the last two decades of dealing with Russia (as well as other countries) is the implicit assumption that their priorities and worldview are the same as ours. Often they aren’t.

Three terms of art need to be defined here. In simple terms, a “tactical” nuclear weapon (or use of a nuclear weapon in a tactical context) means battlefield use, targeting only direct combatants. It has the potential to change the battle space fairly radically; an adversary can no longer mass forces as those become a convenient target. It also can change the geography of the battlefield with cratering and residual radiation that makes movement difficult. A “limited” nuclear exchange is generally assumed to mean somewhat wider use – strikes deeper into an adversaries territory at key logistic sites, airfields, or ports, but avoiding (as much as possible) targets where large numbers of civilians might be directly harmed, but of course “indirect” harm becomes increasingly a factor. A general or strategic exchange is what most people think of as a nuclear war – with large, 200 kiloton or greater devices employed against entire cities, with the goal of destroying the target society.

The problem is, of course, that the lines between these three general levels are pretty gray in places, especially when it comes to a theoretical US(NATO) vs Russia conflict. Very few Russian aircraft, for example, have actually entered Ukrainian airspace; they are using standoff weapons and even artillery and surface to surface missiles are firing from inside Russia itself. Consider that in order to be effective any intervention in Ukraine by the US would require striking inside Russia itself. Some of these sites would be difficult to neutralize using conventional weapons, and the temptation to use one of the new generation kiloton or smaller weapons would become enormous as US casualties mounted. Even a conventional weapons strike inside Russia would, according to Russian doctrine, trigger strikes on US bases in the US in reply (it is unreasonable to think the US could hit Russian territory without them responding in kind, yet that is what some US planners assume!). And they have a number of weapons systems capable of doing that, either conventionally or nuclear.

Shortly after becoming President, the Reagan Administration conducted a highly classified exercise that has only recently become somewhat public. Known as “Proud Prophet 1983,” it had a profound impact on President Reagan and his team. What this war game discovered was that every scenario attempting to limit a nuclear conflict ended up in a general, strategic exchange at some point. In other words, tactical use led to limited use and from there a general nuclear war ensued. It so disturbed the administration that they changed their public rhetoric around the confrontation with the Soviet Union, and ultimately help lead to the INF treaty and a stable end to the Cold War. You can read more about “Proud Prophet” and its impact here on Wikipedia. It’s a fascinating story, one that is even today not well known or told in its entirety. The point here is that it is hubris to expect we can prevent a tactical nuclear exchange from escalating into a general exchange.

Castle Bravo test, 15 Megaton thermonuclear test in March, 1954.

As for how bad a nuclear conflict might be, and why nuclear weapons are different, this summary by MIT is worth reading. Even a limited nuclear exchange would prove catastrophic for our societies, and potentially the entire planet. I fear the hard lessons of the Cold War with respect to both the impacts of nuclear wars, and how to manage conflicts in a bi-polar or multi-polar world, have been forgotten. No matter how terrible you think the situation in Ukraine has become (and make no mistake, the suffering of civilians in urban war zones is utterly horrific – I know, I’ve been in them), they pale in comparison to the impacts of even a tactical nuclear exchange. We must also consider that such an exchange would probably unravel what little stability is left in global supply chains, the financial system, international relations, and so forth. The consequences are to an extent unforeseeable – but almost certainly horrific.

In conclusion, even assuming that everything that is being said about Ukraine in the western narrative is true, our leaders should be acting in such a way as to avoid a nuclear confrontation. The consequences of even a limited nuclear exchange with Russia are just too extreme. I suspect that is why Biden has so far said a no-fly zone is off the table, but unfortunately he is playing a dangerous game by giving in to pressure (and prolonging the agony of Ukrainian civilians) by continuing to provide lower levels of weapons, support, and the hope of future intervention. If you fully accept the US version of events, or believe it is a bit more complex and nuanced doesn’t matter at this point: we have to deescalate and avoid a nuclear conflict.

Deescalation does not mean “allowing further Russian aggression”. Assuming you accept the US position and “narrative”, it makes a lot more sense to do something we never actually did in Ukraine: draw a very bright line and say “no farther,” and putting substantial US forces on the line. Of course that line already exists: the existing NATO countries, and those deployments are underway. An “Iron Curtain 2.0” will descend, with a “Cold War 2.0” along with it, and it won’t be good for either side, but strategic stability would return with it.

So as upsetting as the imagery and narrative from Ukraine is, realize a nuclear conflict is nearly infinitely worse. Make sure our leaders know that must be the priority.

Of #Maus and Men

Watching the controversy over a Tennessee school board banning the comic Maus, I find myself wishing people would spend half as much bandwidth on opposing actual F’ing Nazis as they do expressing outrage over fictional ones. Where was the outrage over scenes like this, the US Military Attache to the Embassy in Ukraine, acting in her official capacity, rendering honors at a memorial to the fallen members of a neo-Nazi militia?

What an embarrassment.

That’s not to say the school board’s actions aren’t worthy of comment and reconsideration. The “graphic novel” art form is an interesting approach that certainly will engage this upcoming generation. But a number of serious academics have criticized the work over the animal metaphor, with the depiction of various nationalities as different animals. Some of these depictions are potentially offensive, such as the use of pigs for Poles, and some argue that the work plays into the Nazi stereotype that various nationalities and religions are different species, not just variations with a common humanity. There are other adult themes and subtexts regarding family that have also been noted by critics. So like many issues in modern America, I think this controversy isn’t quite so straightforward as it seems. Given these and other factors, I would certainly want to be careful about the age of students exposed to it. High school (Juniors and Seniors) should be of an age to be able to discuss the work, and I think it could be a good part of an “interdisciplinary” approach in the Arts, English, and History classwork, especially if these other issues were discussed. But like everything in education it should be as part of a carefully structured curriculum designed to teach kids to think, and prepare them for a complex, nuanced world.

And here is where the school board apparently went off the rails: far too often administrators and politicians avoid difficult subjects and controversy by restricting or banning them rather than creating a framework for using them. I suspect that the outrage over banning Maus is overblown and this wasn’t part of, as the author alleged, an attempt to whitewash Holocaust history. I doubt the Board thought it through much beyond “Oh, bad words and nudity, this subject makes us uncomfortable, fetch the banhammer!” Not everything is about some deeper issue, and making it more than that without solid evidence is a disservice to the victims of the Nazis.

Still, it is interesting to compare this controversy to a similar one playing out in the Seattle schools this week, the dropping of “To Kill a Mockingbird” from their required reading list. In that case, the argument is remarkably similar, yet one those pushing for the use of Maus might well agree with without realizing they have switched sides. To quote from one of the members of the board,

“It’s a very difficult book and a lot of thorny subjects are raised, and we felt that some teachers may not feel comfortable guiding their students through it,” Gahagan said. “It deals not only with racism, but it reflects a time when racism was tolerated. Atticus Finch, of course, is in everyone’s memory the great hero of the book, but in fact he was kind of tolerant of the racism around him. He described one of the members of the lynch mob as a good man.”

KSL.com

Wow. In my world, that’s exactly what we call a “teachable moment.” And any teacher “not comfortable guiding their students” on this needs some retraining or another career. As I often rant, the problem with the Nazis, or KKK, or any odious group isn’t that they were some kind of alien evil, it is that they are all too human. Virtually every human organization that was what we would call evil had good and bad aspects, and typically had people who participated in them who were not irredeemably evil. With a bit of generalization, Americans love to see things in black and white. But the world isn’t that simple. Why did men who were clearly moral and ethical on many levels, like Thomas Jefferson, or Robert E. Lee, enable or support slavery? How did someone like Erwin Rommel, or Werner von Braun become a Nazi? Many of the people who were instrumental in triggering and supporting the civil rights movement were, like Atticus, complex, doing the right thing while holding views that today would be considered repugnant. Likewise, those who participated in lynch mobs were often “good” family loving people in other contexts. Why? What makes them different?

If you don’t read their works and fictional accounts that relate that complexity, and study – in context – their life and times, you will never know. And never recognize it when your own government makes common cause with evil for expedient short term gain, or your organization that is trying to do good, by either protecting children or educating them, resorts to the kind of book banning and demonization without cause that the Nazis exploited in their rise.

The first place to look for signs and symptoms of toxic ideologies like Fascism isn’t out the window. It’s in the mirror. That seems to be the real lesson here.

Why the joint statement on #NuclearWeapons doesn’t matter

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) issued a joint statement on nuclear weapons this Monday. I haven’t seen much coverage on it here in the US, but it did get coverage in Europe and Russia, and China. As readers of this blog know, I consider a geopolitical conflict leading to nuclear war to be the greatest threat facing both humanity and the environment – greater than climate change (not to minimize the threat from that). But this didn’t change things. Here’s why I think you’re still doomed with respect to this issue …

For the record this is the full text from the Kremlin, and the same from the White House. It is important to note that, contrary to the self-important title of the document (“Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapons States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races”) this does not include the more volatile nuclear states such as Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, so it’s not the leaders of all the countries with known nukes. Several of the more likely nuclear exchange scenarios involve India and Pakistan, and with Iran about to join the club a pre-preemptive strike by Israel is more likely now as well. Since even a few dozen nuclear weapons could seriously disrupt the climate in the northern hemisphere, not having these nations signing on reduces the impact of the document significantly.

But far worse is the fact that the US has been extremely hypocritical about nuclear weapons for a long time, something the vast majority of Americans are completely unaware of.

In the intelligence world, like other endeavors where you’re trying to figure out human behavior, you can break down the process in to three aspects to evaluate:
1) What do they say they are going to do;
2) What capacity do they have;
3) What are they actually doing.

From that you can try to infer “intent” with respect to future actions, and what those consequences might be. In the case of the United States, there is a big problem: while the statement said “We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” the US continues to develop weapons and doctrine that makes nuclear war easier (“lowering the nuclear threshold”, in the language of doom). So while it says it doesn’t want a nuclear conflict, the US is in fact doing a lot of things to make one easier. It is vital to realize that this is not a partisan issue: both Republican and Democrat administrations, as well as the vast majority of Congress of both parties, support these policies. Yet, again, the average American is blissfully unaware of what is being done in their name.

Edging closer to the end of civilization, one bomb at a time …

Over the last two years the US has put in to production two potentially destabilizing weapons systems. The W76-2 warhead was deployed on Trident missile carrying submarines two years ago. As I noted in this blog post (link), this move is tremendously destabilizing. Now the US has put into production the B61-12, a nuclear bomb that can be carried on a wide variety of aircraft, with the first production unit rolling off the assembly line in November. The B61 mod 12 is an especially dangerous development. If a potential adversary sees a group of aircraft approaching carrying this device, you don’t know for sure if it is a conventional or nuclear attack, and if nuclear what the yields are – tactical low yield or more significant (upwards of 50kt). The accuracy and yield are such it makes the device a first strike weapon, and expands the number of targets and situations where a US President or military leader might think they can get away with using one. For example, take a US deployment in Ukraine, where a US force is on the verge of being overwhelmed by a larger Russian attack. It would be tempting to use a small scale nuclear device to “level the playing field.” Of course, as noted in the above blog post, the problem with this theory is that the Russians have said in no uncertain terms if they are attacked with a nuclear weapon they will respond with one. These small scale weapons have also been suggested as a counterforce strike against Chinese nuclear missiles – which, of course, would force them to adopt a “launch under attack” plan, something nuclear planners know is risky because of the increased potential for accidental launch.

Again, note the bi-partisan consensus on lowering the nuclear threshold: the plans for both of these systems were started under W. Bush, developed under Obama, with the W76-2 deployed by Trump and the B61-12 under Biden. Why? Like most things it’s complicated, and largely involves money, power, and America’s distorted view of its place in the world (article by Michael Brenner, a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh).

So maybe this guy shouldn’t be in charge of nuclear weapons strategy …

Capacity is one thing, but it is the area of doctrine where the capacity (high accuracy, low yield weapons) and planning come together as to how the US intends to use these new weapons, and it’s scary. The US remains the only major power to refuse to state it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. In fact, the US has said it will use nukes in response to a variety of circumstances, some of which seem to be nothing short of insane. For example, one use proposed by the US in its Nuclear Posture Review is that the US may use nuclear weapons to respond to cyber attacks. It is hard to see how that is justified, and as noted in the link, when asked Americans are against such a low threshold. But as noted above Americans are largely unaware of these developments.

Taken together, these new systems combined with the stated US doctrine that tactical nuclear weapons can be used in a wide range of circumstances, including offensive operations and as a response to non-nuclear attacks, has significantly lowered the threshold under which nuclear weapons can be used. Again, this is especially dangerous and destabilizing when the two major potential adversaries, especially Russia – have said that once nuclear weapons are in use rapid escalation is inevitable.

So, going back to our three evaluation criteria:
1) What the US says in public is contradictory;
2) It is creating more usable tactical nuclear weapons;
3) It is lowering the nuclear threshold with doctrine to go along with those new weapons.

So, sad to say, the US signing on to the statement on nuclear weapons is for all intents and purposes not only worthless, it is being seen in the international community as further evidence of the hypocrisy of US Foreign Policy. We’d have been better off not signing; of course, it would be even better for global stability if we didn’t develop new classes of nuclear weapons, or plan to use them in situations that, to any rational mind, are a dangerous and unwarranted response.

Don’t look in the mirror …

Last night we watched the new Netflix movie “Don’t look up.” It was a bit of a surreal experience. It’s billed as a “dark comedy” or “parody”, but to me it was more than that. The critics don’t like it much, I suspect because
a) it hits too close to home; and,
b) the critics probably don’t get it.

Parody or Documentary? Marketing shot for Don’t Look Up by Netflix.

The scariest thing to me is that despite the obvious attempts to be “over the top” it was far too often “close to the mark.” I won’t do any real spoilers here, except this brief note from the first few minutes of the film: the scientists discovering an urgent threat are bundled up and flown to Washington DC to brief government officials (including the President). They they wait outside the oval office, are finally sent to stay in a hotel overnight as political stuff came up, and have to come back the next day. They are then misunderstood and ignored, and go home on the train. Been there, done that. Except I got stuck paying for my own hotel room due to a paperwork screwup.

Pick a topic: foreign policy/nuclear war, climate, resource depletion, economics, pandemic, whatever, and the attitudes in Don’t Look Up are played out in our society every day. Scientists getting hijacked by the DC/Media Culture, ratings driven “news” stories, the “if it didn’t come from the Ivy League it can’t be worth much” worldview, politicians with one eye on the polls and the other on their billionaire backers, it’s all here. And far too real.

Doomwatch give this five stars. It does for the current politics/media/high-tech-billionaire society what Dr. Strangelove did for the Cold War. A lot of people won’t like it, and certain political parties will take offense by thinking it is about them, and the “other side” will smugly make the same assumption, rather than in fact about the whole system. But give it a try, and consider if you too are “feeding the beast” and try to think of ways of changing our society to get away from this train wreck. Because even if you avoid the end of the world, you might be eaten by a Bronteroc.

Here’s DiCaprio discussing the movie …

#Ida at 11am update: clock ticking on #LA, #NOLA preparations. #ToxicStew

Those in the forecast impact zone and under warnings should really be wrapping up preparations and getting out. While a bit behind the forecast, Ida is still organizing and has every potential to be a Cat 4 at landfall. Updated Key Messages regarding Hurricane Ida (en Español: Mensajes Claves). If you’re in New Orleans (NOLA), a wobble one way or the other is the difference between some wind damage, and swimming for your life. Don’t bet on it.

It’s well known that the Louisiana coast is home to hundreds of facilities associated with the petrochemical and related industries. Modern life requires it – the amount of hazardous materials required to manufacture the things we want and drive our machines is enormous. But the extent isn’t clear until your map it out and start looking at the potential for toxic spills due to hurricane damage. This map shows the 11am forecast track and sites containing hazardous materials. Each icon indicates a facility, red is at highest risk of materials getting off-site.

Facilities containing hazardous materials at risk from Ida (11am Sat Forecast). Click to enlarge.

That’s over three hundred facilities at risk. Of course, some only have relatively small quantities, but some contain thousands of pounds or gallons of pretty toxic stuff. One of the lesser known aspects of the Katrina cleanup was the thousands of workers out in chem-suits (and think about being out in the Louisiana summer in a chemical protection ensemble) trying to sop up the mess. Although with the damage and human suffering it might be overlooked, this is another aspect of hurricane and disaster planning that is essential in the planning, response, and recovery process. Clicking on one point at random gives us America’s Styrenics LLC, with an estimated 12 percent structure damage …

The other aspect is of course economic. This morning’s post noted the potential impact on oil and gas production, but a lot of the other things like plastics that are so essential in our society are made from petrochemicals, and those are in shutdown and may not, depending on the track, come back for weeks or months. Many of these facilities are very specialized bits of engineering and the parts have to be custom made. Something else to consider …

A Blatant Lie, and the potential consequences

Unlike most hard-core partisans or overly cynical observers, I’m reluctant to accuse a politician of outright lying. Usually politicians manage to find some shred of truth in which to wrap their falsehoods, and many statements are assumption dependent, so you while you can often say something is wrong or false, you have to be careful about saying something is a lie, which goes to intent. Accusing a politician of lying is also inflammatory and doesn’t help the public discourse. But there is little room for nuance here: President Biden lied when he said Afghanistan was “never about nation building.” It was *always* about nation building, and he was an integral part of developing that policy.

The proof is easily seen in the October 2001 Bonn Agreement, which was the key legal basis for our intervention. That agreement is cited in UN Security Council Resolution 1386 and other documents authorizing the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and specifically says in the list of requests, to …

Urge the United Nations, the international community, particularly donor countries and multilateral institutions, to reaffirm, strengthen and implement their commitment to assist with the rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction of Afghanistan, in coordination with the Interim Authority;

Multi-billion dollar legislation such as The Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-327, S. 2712) that was passed by Congress on November 15, 2002 and signed by the President (Bush II) on December 4, 2002 went through Biden’s senate committee. While many of the press releases have been lost or scrubbed from official USG web sites, some are still out there in various forms such as as at this State Department release from 2003, at a reliefweb link. Note the extensive list of reconstruction and capacity building projects. Resource inventories were made, roads and buildings constructed, institutions created.

from “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan”, U.S. Dept. of Defense, June 2008

So it seems the intervention was explicitly about “Nation Building” from the very beginning. Of course it was; the problem with Afghanistan all along was that it had no functional central government that could prevent groups like Al Qaeda from using it as a base. Biden, as a Senator and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2001-2003, knew this. As Vice President during Obama he was involved in many of the additional capacity building efforts (aka “nation building”) during that period, such as the creation of a US style Central Bank system. Unless he is becoming senile (which would be a different, perhaps worse concern), there is little room to wiggle here: he lied.

Before someone points to all of Trump’s lies, that’s sort of irrelevant. He didn’t campaign on being a reality based leader. Even Trump’s followers admit he has a sometimes difficult relationship with the truth, so when he said something that was clearly false, it’s not like he ever actually promised to tell the truth. Most rational people had no hope or expectation that Trump would be truthful; and, of course, the media has been harping on Trumps “lies” for years. With Biden there may not have been a lot of hope, but there was an expectation of some level of honesty with respect to the big things. And the really sad part is Biden didn’t have to lie about this. He could (and should) have just concentrated on how the current situation got out of hand, and left the big picture of why the nation building didn’t work to a more appropriate occasion. But I guess he (or his speechwriters) just couldn’t resist trying to shift the blame. It was an opportunity to be a statesman. He failed.

I’ve been a bit surprised at the negative coverage of Biden’s performance this last week (even CNN has been harsh), we’ll see how long this new media fairness remains. But fair or not, the collapse of the US intervention in Afghanistan, and the President’s clearly self-serving and misleading statements have made a bad situation in the US worse: mistrust of politicians.

Over the last 20 years I have done numerous flights for Veterans Airlift Command (aka “Hero Flights”) taking wounded vets and their families back and forth to specialized medical treatment (since our Government can’t be bothered to do that), not to mention suffering the effects of TBI’s myself partly due to service in places like Afghanistan and Iraq nearly 40 years ago. It’s nice people say “thank you for your service,” but what those who serve in the military/foreign service/intelligence world really want and deserve is for their sacrifice to mean something. They want the world to be a better place because of what they – and more importantly those who lost their lives – went through.

The betrayed feeling among military veterans has been building, and the last 72 hours poured gas on it. Biden’s speech Monday obviously didn’t help. Will that have political and social impacts? I don’t know, but it certainly could both directly and indirectly. The Soviet involvement in Afghanistan has often been cited as one of the elements in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the bitterness of the Afgansty (Afghan Vets) were an important social factor in that collapse. The state of Afghanistan on their departure is arguable; the Soviets certainly made a better job of it than the US has. The Soviets left in 1989, the government didn’t fall for three years, whereas our client state fell before we were even out of the country. In the Soviet Union, the impacts at home due to the perceived loss of credibility and treatment of veterans, coming on top of the mistrust created by events like Chernobyl, were all factors in destroying the credibility of the Party and when the economic stress of reform hit home the system collapsed.

Is COVID America’s Chernobyl? Is Afghanistan America’s, um, Afghanistan? As Mark Twain is alleged to have said, “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.”

Somehow trust in our key political institutions must be restored. I’m not sure how that can happen given the deep endemic corruption in both political parties, fed by the ratings driven media system. But ultimately it’s up to you, the voters, to not stand for having leaders like Trump and Biden on the ballot – much less in office. Politicians won’t change until they are punished more for being misleading than they are for being honest. Demand the truth – not just from the other side, but especially from your own, and be adult enough to realize that often you won’t like it.

The Hacking Problem

Infrastructure resiliency is an important area of my research, and disruptions to infrastructure come from both natural and human actions. There is no need to mention the critical nature computers and networks play in modern society. The disruption to the essential Colonial Pipeline oil and gas distribution system got a lot of news a few weeks ago, and now the attack on the JBS food distribution company is causing disruptions and a lot of angst. Let’s look at three aspects of this: the impact of the disruptions themselves, the infrastructure security implications, and the role of both state sponsored and freelance cybercriminals.

First, the impact of the disruptions. Like with the Colonial Pipeline attacks, the JBS impacts should be transitory – but will probably end up being worse than it should be due to human behavior. Like the irrational pandemic inspired toilet paper runs last year, there will likely be a lot of spot shortages as people change their normal buying habits, creating a temporary supply shortage. Although modern logistics methods like warehousing-in-transit have reduced the safety margin, what people don’t think about is that supplies and distribution systems have slack build in to account for disruptions – and disruptions happen all the time due to maintenance, weather, and so forth. But that is all based on normal buying habits. When you horde or stockpile, you break that assumption, creating artificial shortages. Assuming the system is back online in the next day or so, price spikes and outages should be transient, but like disruptions from storms, may take a week or two to settle down. My guess is that if nothing breaks that shouldn’t, this will again have been a brief disruption.

As for the infrastructure implications, it’s an almost intransigent problem. It takes time to develop and deploy infrastructure. Even with fixed hardware, the firmware and software than runs on it takes time to develop, test, and deploy – and of course it is the ability to do remote upgrades and software changes that is the underlying cause of the problem in the first place. If you can access it to use it, much less upgrade it, you can probably hack it. The old DoD “Orange book” on computer security said the only secure computer was one that was unplugged with the hard drive removed. So while a lot can be done to improve security, ultimately there is no way to create a system that is both usable and completely secure against a determined, intelligent attacker. So like most things, the trick is to balance the two – maintain usability, but make it hard enough to keep out the amateurs, and have international standards, laws, and policies in place to deter and punish those who exploit system vulnerabilities.

And therein lies a key problem: governments use cybercriminals.

There is a love/hate, sometimes incestuous relationship between intelligence agencies, IT security companies, and cybercriminals. A not insignificant amount of the malware floating around was either developed, enhanced, or allowed to continue in play due to the action (or inaction) of intelligence agencies – including some well known episodes involving US intelligence agencies. Ironically, some of the most effective malware currently in circulation goes back to a hack of NSA and the release of their toolkit (ARS technica link). In addition, Agencies have been known to discover exploits, but because they are using them, don’t report them to operating system and software developers. IT and cyber security firms have been known to be complicit, in one at least one known case not fixing a hole until after No Such Agency had finished an operation requiring the exploit. And of course the need for computer virus protection, OS upgrades, cybersecurity consulting, etc. is a profitable business.

So it was remarkably hypocritical for President Biden to say that Russia bears responsibility for the hacks because the hackers (who in both cases seem to have only been after money) happened to be based there. Of course, President Putin didn’t really help matters when he “joked” …

Putin’s comments about hacking. Enki Research Photo, Moscow Kremlin.

“Hackers are free people, like artists: (if) they are in a good mood, they (get) up in the morning and draw. So hackers, if they wake up and read that something is happening in interstate relations and if they are patriotic, then they begin to make their contribution,” Vladimir Putin said.

Of course he went on to deny that Russia was sponsoring or exploiting hacking. While there have been cyberattacks in Russia, the security services pretty much hunts the criminals down and kills them. It is clear to these guys that if you’re going to do this, do it elsewhere. I’m not advocating that kind of quick “justice”, and the tolerance of domestic criminals who keep their crime offshore is something nations-states shouldn’t do, but in fairness it is absolutely not limited to Russia; the US is infamous for it with respect to other kinds of crimes, particularly essential and profitable but environmentally damaging enterprises.

In summary, treating cyber criminals as serious, dangerous criminals no matter where they are based or where their crimes are committed, is essential. Today one can kill with a computer by harming cyber infrastructure almost as easily as one can kill with a bomb. Therefore, as has been attempted with mixed success with nuclear weapons and biological warfare, nation-states need to put together frameworks to limit and prosecute the use of computer viruses and cyber attacks. That will be difficult – the system of international law and norms of behavior is in shambles (in no small part due to US actions over the last two decades, but that’s another story). The US, which pioneered these techniques, should take the lead in renouncing them and working with the international community to address the problem. Unfortunately, the US approach is to hypocritically scream about it in public all the while creating and using them in private, which isn’t any more productive than joking about it in public, making sure it doesn’t happen at home, but allowing it to occur elsewhere (the Russian approach).

#Climate change: which “side” is more delusional?

One of the more catastrophic artifacts of America’s sharply split political system is that instead of one side being right and one side being wrong, both parties seem to be forced by their activists in to adopting positions that are driven by fringe ideology instead of rational thought as to how to solve any given problem. The looming climate crisis (which is really a complex energy/financial system crisis) is a perfect example. Which is worse? Hard to say, but let’s take a look at the two biggest delusions: there is no climate change, and renewables will save us.

The delusions of the R’s …

I’ve been involved in climate research for over 25 years, and as a scientist it still stuns me that anyone can possible say anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, or some kind if leftist plot, or whatever. I’ve blogged about this before. The data across interlocking disciplines like meteorology, oceanography, biology, geology/geophysics, all point in the same direction. You can argue over the details, and what to do about it, but you can’t argue over the big picture: humans have changed the earth’s climate system, and it is likely to enter a period of rapid change over the next century that will most likely prove highly disruptive both to humans and the natural world. However, as someone with a background in the geopolitical world, denying human impacts on climate doesn’t surprise me a bit – in fact, given how the crisis came to light, it was inevitable.

Some of the more outspoken scientists doing early research on climate really screwed up. I understand that they feared for the future and felt they needed to raise the alarm, but they overstepped the bounds of the role of scientists. Many of them in the public eye (such as James Hansen) crossed the line between science and partisan politics by advocating specific actions based on their political leanings. By the mid to late 1990s the impression had been firmly fixed in the minds of many politicians as well as members of the public that the science was politically biased. Combined with the religious component (as I discussed in the link above), this created a circumstance where the science wasn’t trusted. While it would have been a hard job to navigate the complex energy, financial, and societal response required by human impacts on climate, this false impression of political bias in the science has created an almost intractable situation.

and the D’s aren’t any better.

The situation on the Progressive side of the spectrum isn’t any better. By any rational metric the proposals floating around for the Green New Deal are technological fantasies, and are based more on restructuring society than the realities of trying to address the climate crisis. Take one small technical detail about so-called renewable energy: solar panels and wind turbines (much less batteries) are advanced electronic devices. They take a lot of Rare Earth Elements(REE) to make, and that presents two huge problems:
1) Mining and processing REE’s is an environmentally destructive process, basically being strip mining with lots of toxic (even radioactive) waste (more so than mining Uranium), not to mention using a lot of water.
2) Depending on how you crunch the numbers, there aren’t enough known REE’s on the planet for even a third of our present energy needs.

If it wasn’t so delusional and going to end so badly it would be mildly amusing to hear people rant about how fossil fuels are limited and using them is environmentally damaging, then in the next breath preach about the cleanliness and potential for solar or wind – which are by the same measures just as resource limited and environmentally destructive.

Maybe this guy wants the job of fixing things …

So what do we do? Like most things, anyone who says they have “THE” answer is, well, delusional. This is a very complex problem that crosses so many aspects of society. It won’t be easy, and it will take time – time we are running out of if we haven’t already. As I noted above, I think for the most part scientists should keep out of the political process. However, if I were acclaimed Imperator Caesar, Princeps Senatus, Tribunicia Potestas, Pontifex Maximus (which is the only way I’d take on the job), I think I could put together an approach to start down the path to a solution. But nobody presently in power would like it. The first thing I’d do is completely rework the system of global governance. The climate crisis is ultimately a failure of governance – and it isn’t the worst threat we face in that respect (I am convinced that the worst threat to humanity – and the environment – is conflict/war and the collapse of the complex system of resource allocation/distribution needed to sustain nearly eight billion humans). As for energy and resources, there really isn’t much choice for wide scale reduction of emissions given our present technology: immediate widespread use of nuclear for electricity generation, combined with a crash program for fusion and the development of a sustainable, high energy density method of powering transportation systems. There are other complex changes that need to be made, all of which will take time and some serious rethinking of how society functions. In other words, to fix this, the technology will piss off Progressives, and the social changes will piss off the Neoconservatives. So I just don’t know how our present angry, bifurcated political system can come up with a good plan without an outside force like a benign Emperor to make the two sides behave.

Yes, climate problem is a crisis, and we’ve wasted at least 25 years we really didn’t have to start dealing with it. But we need to sort out the technology and have a clear rational, compassionate path forward before upending our economy and society. Going down the wrong path will kill as many if not more people, and be at least as destructive to the environment, as doing nothing.

Doomwatch, 13 April 2021

Lots going on today, with multiple ongoing volcanic eruptions on Saint Vincent (which is becoming a worse humanitarian disaster in part due to the response) and Iceland (which now have multiple cinder cones, are fascinating to watch without guilt as they aren’t hurting anyone at the moment – the cameras are obscured this morning due to weather) , and Cyclone Seroja made landfall in Australia leaving several small towns devastated. In the West Pacific, the second tropical cyclone of the year has already formed – but is weak, well away from land, but bears watching.

But by far the biggest concern is the potential for a major conflict to erupt in Ukraine. Despite rhetoric that on the surface seems geared towards defusing the situation (such as Biden’s offer to meet Putin), under the surface all sides are preparing for war, and all four major parties (the US, Ukraine, the DPR/LPR, and Russia) believe the situation is in their favor. Three of them are right. But we all know who loses: the average person caught up in the conflict zone … more on the situation in Donbass/Ukraine later this week.

#Fukushima Followup

There are reports that water levels in both the Unit 1 and Unit 3 reactors at the wrecked Fukushima Nuclear Plant are falling as a result of additional damage from the earthquake a few weeks ago. (Nobody really knows what is going on in Unit 2, the sensors are offline.) This is Not Good(tm), since that water is essential for keeping the damaged reactors cool during the long decommissioning process, and it indicates further damage to the primary containment system. This is requiring Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, the owners of the reactors) to pump in more water to try to keep levels up. That means even more contaminated water coming out that has to be captured and stored or otherwise dealt with, and there just isn’t any place to put it. TEPCO received preliminary permission to slowly release the contaminated water offshore (to allow for dilution), but there is fierce opposition both by local fishermen and the international community and a final decision has not been made. The problem is, that decision might well be moot with this new damage: they will have to do controlled releases, because it’s about to get out of control. And, given the roughly 1.4 million gallons already stored, any additional quakes could result in a massive uncontrolled release. It’s a classic difficult decision: do you accept small harm over a long period of time from the slow releases, or risk massive catastrophe of an uncontrolled failure while you figure out something smarter to do.

Here’s an AP article with some comforting quotes from TEPCO officials …

FILE – This Sept. 4, 2017, aerial file photo shows Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant’s reactors, from bottom at right, Unit 1, Unit 2 and Unit 3, in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan. The utility operating a wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant said Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, it has detected cooling water levels at two of its three melted reactors have fallen over the past few days apparently due to additional damage done to its reactors from a powerful earthquake that shook the area last weekend.(Daisuke Suzuki/Kyodo News via AP, File)