Category Archives: International

El Niño Events May Tip Nations to War

El Niño Events May Tip Nations to War – ScienceNOW.

 

 

Tensions between the Peruvian government and the rebel group the Shining Path erupted into bloody clashes in 1982—the same year that an El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event scoured potato fields across the hilly nation. Doomsayers might see cause and effect, but scientists have so far struggled to connect widespread violence with global climate phenomena. Now, a new study suggests that civil strife is twice as likely to break out in many nations worldwide during El Niño years.

“More and more of the evidence is pointing toward a strong link between adverse weather or adverse climate and political violence in the world’s poor regions,” says Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in this study. “This is an important piece of evidence in that debate.”

In 2009, Miguel and colleagues published a controversial paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, arguing that spikes in temperature had played a dramatic role in igniting African civil wars. While some scientists criticized the study’s statistical methods, many questioned its basic claim, says Solomon Hsiang, lead author of the new study, who studies the confluence of political and climate science at Columbia University. The question, Hsiang says, became, “Is it at all possible that global climate can affect conflict?” Scientists, he adds, don’t have the know-how to turn the thermostat up or down on the planet and then sit back to watch how angry people get.

But the planet does flip from hot to cold naturally: every few years as waters in the tropical Pacific cool, during La Niña events, or heat up, during El Niño years. These rapid, periodic shifts in climate, Hsiang and his colleagues realized, might make a good proxy for studying how climate might impact war around the world.

So the team examined 234 clashes each claiming more than 25 lives between governments and rebel groups across the globe from 1950 to 2004. In the tropical nations most affected by ENSO swings, such as Peru, the Sudan, or India, the likelihood of civil violence erupting doubled during El Niño years, from about 3% to 6%, amounting to an extra 48 clashes, the group reports online today in Nature. In nations separated from the steep climatic shifts associated with ENSO events, including the United States, France, and China, the chances of civil strife remained at a steady low of 2%. But just how El Niño events fanned the flames in what were largely the world’s poorest nations is unclear, Hsiang says.

Such a relationship between climate swings and political instability seems, at least anecdotally, to have a long history, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, a nature and society researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada: “What we’re seeing is a modern-day manifestation of a phenomenon that goes back millennia.” The city of Angkor in modern Cambodia, for instance, known for its web of monsoon-fed irrigation canals, fell to invaders in the mid-15thcentury. A series of droughts began to dry up those famous canals during the same period in history. As Hsiang and colleagues found, those societies most at the whim of climate tended to also be the nations with economies still rooted in agriculture, Homer-Dixon notes.

But Halvard Buhaug, an international relations specialist at the Centre for the Study of Civil War in Oslo and a sharp critic of Miguel’s 2009 study, doesn’t see cause and effect just yet. “I still believe that socioeconomic and political factors are the most important, common drivers of civil wars,” he says. “But the intriguing finding … certainly deserves further scrutiny.” Without knowing how exactly climate swings can lead to violence, if at all, he says, it becomes an uphill battle for humanitarian organizations to direct preventative measures.

Earth's Future Problems (And Solutions) Will Be Global

Problems Will Be Global — And Solutions Will Be, Too – By Anne-Marie Slaughter | Foreign Policy.

Before considering the world in 2025, 14 years from now, it is worth remembering the world 14 years ago, in 1997. Back then, the United States was the sole superpower, its immensity and dominance of the international system so evident as to trigger the resentful label of “hyperpower” from the French foreign minister. The American economy was expanding fast enough to leave the country a healthy and growing surplus by the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency three years later. The European Union, then still only four years old, had just 15 members; the euro did not exist. The wars dominating the headlines were in Europe: Bosnia, Croatia, and, soon, Kosovo. The term BRICs — the Goldman Sachs label attached to the fast-growing emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India, and China — had not yet been invented. The Internet was booming, but social media did not exist.

You get the point: A lot can change in 14 years, and rarely in ways foreseen. In the spirit of proper humility, then, here’s my take on what the landscape of global diplomacy will look like a decade and a half from now:

For starters, the world will be much more multilateral. By 2025 the U.N. Security Council will have expanded from the present 15 members to between 25 and 30 and will include, either as de jure or de facto permanent members, Brazil, India, Japan, South Africa, either Egypt or Nigeria, and either Indonesia or Turkey. At the same time, regional organizations on every continent — the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, some version of the Organization of American States — will be much stronger. Each will follow its own version of economic and political integration, inspired by the European Union, and many will include representation from smaller subregional organizations. In the Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey could provide the core of a new Middle East free trade area; alternatively the European Union could be interlocked with an emerging Mediterranean Union.

Driving this massive multilateralization is the increasingly global and regional nature of our problems, combined with an expanding number of countries splitting off from existing states. National governments will remain essential for many purposes, but managing bilateral relations and engaging in successful global negotiations with nearly 200 states will become increasingly unwieldy. So we’ll negotiate territorial disputes in the South China Sea in a regional framework and deal with crises in Ivory Coast or Guinea through the African Union or even smaller subregional forums. At the global level, the speed and flexibility necessary to resolve crises require smaller groups like the G-20, while long-term legitimacy and durability still require the representation of all countries affected by a particular issue through large standing organizations.

As for individual countries, the states that will be the strongest in 2025 will be those that have figured out how to do more with less. They will be those governments that have successfully embraced radical sustainability — maintaining vibrant economies through largely renewable energy and creative reuse of just about everything. The leader will be Japan, a great civilization that has for centuries pioneered spectacularly beautiful ways of appreciating and coexisting with nature. As China’s youth seek more of everything, Japan’s are prepared to embrace a far more sustainable path. Scandinavia, Germany, New Zealand, and possibly South Korea will also be strong; many emerging or even less developed economies have real potential, if they can tap into their indigenous habits of conservation. Embracing sustainable growth will challenge the United States; its national renewal will depend on connecting its traditions of innovation, decentralization, and liberty with a narrative of protecting America’s natural bounty. Think America the Beautiful more than the Star-Spangled Banner.

But the most dramatic changes between 2011 and 2025 won’t take place at the level of statecraft and grand strategy; they are likely to happen as new technologies continue to transform businesses, civic organizations of all kinds, universities, foundations, and churches — now able to self-organize as never before around issues they care about. The American social revolution that Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early 19th century, of citizens joining groups of every conceivable kind, is about to go global, forever changing the relationship between citizens and their governments, and governments with each other. The Arab revolutions are but the first taste of this larger change.

These predictions may appear rosy. In fact, the enormous changes on the horizon will require major crises, even cataclysm, before they can materialize. It took World War I to generate the political will and circumstances necessary to create the League of Nations; it took World War II to create the United Nations; it took the worst economic crisis since the 1930s to force the expansion of the G-8 into the G-20. Just imagine what it will take to break the decades-old logjam of Security Council reform. And creating and changing multilateral organizations is child’s play next to the profound changes in public and private behavior required to move away from the more-is-better economic model to one which accepts that our resources are finite on a planetary scale.

Yet the sources of potential crises and disasters of a magnitude sufficient to force systemic change are all around us: Climate change is driving countries closer to the extremes of desert and jungle, droughts and floods, while a global pandemic or a nuclear terrorist attack would have a similar impact. This is not Malthusian gloom, however. As Robert Wright argues in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, catastrophe is terrible for individual human beings but beneficial for humanity as a whole. As the full consequences of genuinely global interconnectedness continue to make themselves felt, the world of both states and the societies they represent will have no choice but to adapt.

Is the world cracking up?

Is the world cracking up? | Daniel W. Drezner.

Posted By Daniel W. Drezner Share

[WARNING:  THE FOLLOWING IS A VERY PESSIMISTIC GLOBAL POLITICAL ECONOMY POST]

So, just to sum up the past week or so of global political economy events:

1)  U.S. government debt got downgraded by Standard & Poor;

2) Global equity markets are freaking out;

3) The eurozone appears to be unable to solve its sovereign debt problem

4) London Britain is burning;

5) The Chinese are pissed that they appear to be underwriting downgraded, debt-ridden train-wrecks… and this is on top of being pissed about their own train wrecks.

This all sounds very 2008, except that it’s actually worse for several reasons. First, the governments that bailed out the financial sector are now themselves the object of financial panic and political resentment. Second, the tools used to try and rescue the global economy in 2008 are partially to blame for what’s happening right now. Despite all the gnashing of teeth about the Fed twiddling its thumbs, it’s far from clear that a QE3 would actually stimulate anything besides a rise in commodity prices.

With both Europe and the United States unable to stimulate their economies, and China seemingly paralyzed into indecision, it’s worth asking if we are about to experience a Creditanstalt moment.

The start of the Great Depression is commonly assumed to be the October 1929 stock market crash in the United States. It didn’t really become the Great Depression, however, unti 1931, when Austria’s Creditanstalt bank desperately needed injections of capital. Essentially, neither France nor England were willing to help unless Germany honored its reparations payments, and the United States refused to help unless France and the UK repaid its World War I debts. Neither of these demands was terribly reasonable, and the result was a wave of bank failures that spread across Europe and the United States.

The particulars of the current sovereign debt crisis are somewhat different from Creditanstalt, and yet it’s fascinating how smart people keep referring back to that ignoble moment. The big commonality is that while governments might recognize the virtues of a coordinated response to big crises, they are sufficiently constrained by domestic discontent to not do all that much.

So… is this 1931 all over again?

There are three aspects of the current situation that make me fret about this. The first is the sense that developed country governments have already tapped out all of their politically feasible methods of stimulating their economies. This is the time when both politicians and voters start to ask themselves, “Why not pursue the crazy idea?”

The second is whether the Chinese government will do something to satiate their nationalist constituency. Neither Joe Nye nor James Joyner thinks this is likely, and I tend to agree that any effort at economic coercion will hurt China as much as the United States. When autocrats are up against the wall, however, then they might take risks they otherwise would never consider.

The third is this working paper on what causes societal unrest in developed economies (h/t Henry Farrell). The abstract suggests more trouble on the way:

From the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s to anti-government demonstrations in Greece in 2010-11, austerity has tended to go hand in hand with politically motivated violence and social instability. In this paper, we assemble crosscountry evidence for the period 1919 to the present, and examine the extent to which societies become unstable after budget cuts. The results show a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability. We test if the relationship simply reflects economic downturns, and conclude that this is not the key factor.

So… there are, unfortunately, numerous reasons to think that we’re headed down a bad road… which is the pretty much point of this post.

Readers are encouraged in the comments to offer counterarguments for why things aren’t as bad as 1931. I’ll be offering some thoughts about why 1931 won’t happen again later in the week.

Sea level rise more from Antarctica than from Greenland during last interglacial

Sea level rise less from Greenland, more from Antarctica, than expected during last interglacial.

Where did all that extra water come from? Mainly from melting ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, and many scientists, including University of Wisconsin-Madison geoscience assistant professor Anders Carlson, have expected that Greenland was the main culprit.

But Carlson’s new results, published July 29 in Science, are challenging that assertion, revealing surprising patterns of melting during the last interglacial period that suggest that Greenland’s ice may be more stable — and Antarctica’s less stable — than many thought.

“The Greenland Ice Sheet is melting faster and faster,” says Carlson, who is also a member of the Center for Climatic Research in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. But despite clear observations of that fact, estimates of just how much the ice will melt and contribute to sea level rise by the end of this century are highly varied, ranging from a few centimeters to meters. “There’s a clear need to understand how it has behaved in the past, and how it has responded to warmer-than-present summers in the past.”

The ice-estimation business is rife with unknown variables and has few known physical constraints, Carlson explains, making ice sheet behavior — where they melt, how much, how quickly — the largest source of uncertainty in predicting sea level rises due to climate change.

His research team sought a way to constrain where ice remained on Greenland during the last interglacial period, around 125,000 years ago, to better define past ice sheet behavior and improve future projections.

The researchers analyzed silt from an ocean-floor core taken from a region off the southern tip of Greenland that receives sediments carried by meltwater streams off the ice sheet. They used different patterns of radiogenic isotopes to identify sources of the sediment, tracing the silt back to one of three “terranes” or regions, each with a distinct geochemical signature. The patterns of sedimentation show which terranes were still glaciated at that time.

“If the land deglaciates, you lose that sediment,” Carlson explains. But to their surprise, they found that all the terranes were still supplying sediment throughout the last interglacial period and thus still had some ice cover.

“The ice definitely retreated to smaller than present extent and definitely raised sea level to higher than present” and continued to melt throughout the warm period, he adds, but the sediment analysis indicates that “the ice sheet seems to be more stable than some of the greater retreat values that people have presented.”

The team used their results to evaluate several existing models of Greenland ice sheet melting during the last interglacial period. The models consistent with the new findings indicate that melting Greenland ice was responsible for a sea level rise of 1.6 to 2.2 meters — at most, roughly half of the minimum four-meter total increase.

Even after accounting for other Arctic ice and the thermal expansion of warmer water, most of the difference must have come from a melting Antarctic ice sheet, Carlson says.

“The implication of our results is that West Antarctica likely was much smaller than it is today,” and responsible for much more of the sea level rise than many scientists have thought, he says. “If West Antarctica collapsed, that means it’s more unstable than we expected, which is quite scary.”

Ultimately, Carlson says he hopes this line of research will improve the representation of ice sheet responses to a warming planet in future Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. Temperatures during the last interglacial period were similar to those expected by the end of this century, and present-day temps have already reached a point that Greenland’s glaciers are melting.

The Science paper was co-authored by UW-Madison colleagues Elizabeth Colville, Brian Beard, Alberto Reyes, and David Ullman and Oregon State University researchers Robert Hatfield and Joseph Stoner, and supported by UW-Madison and the National Science Foundation.

Too late to turn back Rising oceans?

Rising oceans: Too late to turn the tide?.

If sea levels rose to where they were during the Last Interglacial Period, large parts of the Gulf of Mexico region would be under water (red areas), including half of Florida and several Caribbean islands. (Credit: Illustration by Jeremy Weiss)

ScienceDaily (July 18, 2011) — Thermal expansion of seawater contributed only slightly to rising sea levels compared to melting ice sheets during the Last Interglacial Period, a University of Arizona-led team of researchers has found.

The study combined paleoclimate records with computer simulations of atmosphere-ocean interactions and the team’s co-authored paper is accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters.

As the world’s climate becomes warmer due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, sea levels are expected to rise by up to three feet by the end of this century.

But the question remains: How much of that will be due to ice sheets melting as opposed to the oceans’ 332 billion cubic miles of water increasing in volume as they warm up?

For the study, UA team members analyzed paleoceanic records of global distribution of sea surface temperatures of the warmest 5,000-year period during the Last Interglacial, a warm period that lasted from 130,000 to 120,000 years ago.

The researchers then compared the data to results of computer-based climate models simulating ocean temperatures during a 200-year snapshot as if taken 125,000 years ago and calculating the contributions from thermal expansion of sea water.

The team found that thermal expansion could have contributed no more than 40 centimeters — less than 1.5 feet — to the rising sea levels during that time, which exceeded today’s level up to eight meters or 26 feet.

At the same time, the paleoclimate data revealed average ocean temperatures that were only about 0.7 degrees Celsius, or 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit, above those of today.

“This means that even small amounts of warming may have committed us to more ice sheet melting than we previously thought. The temperature during that time of high sea levels wasn’t that much warmer than it is today,” said Nicholas McKay, a doctoral student at the UA’s department of geosciences and the paper’s lead author.

McKay pointed out that even if ocean levels rose to similar heights as during the Last Interglacial, they would do so at a rate of up to three feet per century.

“Even though the oceans are absorbing a good deal of the total global warming, the atmosphere is warming faster than the oceans,” McKay added. “Moreover, ocean warming is lagging behind the warming of the atmosphere. The melting of large polar ice sheets lags even farther behind.”

“As a result, even if we stopped greenhouse gas emissions right now, the Earth would keep warming, the oceans would keep warming, the ice sheets would keep shrinking, and sea levels would keep rising for a long time,” he explained.

They are absorbing most of that heat, but they lag behind. Especially the large ice sheets are not in equilibrium with global climate,” McKay added. ”

Jonathan Overpeck, co-director of the UA’s Institute of the Environment and a professor with joint appointments in the department of geosciences and atmospheric sciences, said: “This study marks the strongest case yet made that humans — by warming the atmosphere and oceans — are pushing the Earth’s climate toward the threshold where we will likely be committed to four to six or even more meters of sea level rise in coming centuries.”

Overpeck, who is McKay’s doctoral advisor and a co-author of the study, added: “Unless we dramatically curb global warming, we are in for centuries of sea level rise at a rate of up to three feet per century, with the bulk of the water coming from the melting of the great polar ice sheets — both the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets.”

According to the authors, the new results imply that 4.1 to 5.8 meters, or 13.5 to 19 feet, of sea level rise during the Last Interglacial period was derived from the Antarctic Ice Sheet, “reemphasizing the concern that both the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets may be more sensitive to warming temperatures than widely thought.”

“The central question we asked was, ‘What are the warmest 5,000 years we can find for all these records, and what was the corresponding sea level rise during that time?'” McKay said.

Evidence for elevated sea levels is scattered all around the globe, he added. On Barbados and the Bahamas, for example, notches cut by waves into the rock six or more meters above the present shoreline have been dated to being 125,000 years old.

“Based on previous studies, we know that the sea level during the Last Interglacial was up to 8.5 meters higher than today,” McKay explained.

“We already knew that the vast majority came from the melting of the large ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, but how much could the expansion of seawater have added to that?”

Given that sea surface temperatures were about 0.7 degrees warmer than today, the team calculated that even if the warmer temperatures reached all the way down to 2,000 meters depth — more than 6,500 feet, which is highly unlikely — expansion would have accounted for no more than 40 centimeters, less than a foot and a half.

“That means almost all of the substantial sea level rise in the Last Interglacial must have come from the large ice sheets, with only a small contribution from melted mountain glaciers and small ice caps,” McKay said.

According to co-author Bette Otto-Bliesner, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., getting the same estimate of the role ocean expansion played on sea level rise increases confidence in the data and the climate models.

“The models allow us to attribute changes we observe in the paleoclimate record to the physical mechanisms that caused those changes,” Otto-Bliesner said. “This helps tremendously in being able to distinguish mere correlations from cause-and-effect relationships.”

The authors cautioned that past evidence is not a prediction of the future, mostly because global temperatures during the Last Interglacial were driven by changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun. However, current global warming is driven by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

The seasonal differences between the northern and the southern hemispheres were more pronounced during the Last Interglacial than they will be in the future.

“We expect something quite different for the future because we’re not changing things seasonally, we’re warming the globe in all seasons,” McKay said.

“The question is, when we think about warming on a global scale and contemplate letting the climate system change to a new warmer state, what would we expect for the ice sheets and sea levels based on the paleoclimate record? The Last Interglacial is the most recent time when sea levels were much higher and it’s a time for which we have lots of data,” McKay added.

“The message is that the last time glaciers and ice sheets melted, sea levels rose by more than eight meters. Much of the world’s population lives relatively close to sea level. This is going to have huge impacts, especially on poor countries,” he added.

“If you live a meter above sea level, it’s irrelevant what causes the rise. Whether sea levels are rising for natural reasons or for anthropogenic reasons, you’re still going to be under water sooner or later.”

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Is free global trade too great a threat to food supplies, natural heritage and health?

Is free global trade too great a threat to food supplies, natural heritage and health?.

ScienceDaily (June 9, 2011) — Researchers from the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme say that we face a future of uncertainty, and possible new threats to our food supplies, natural heritage, and even human health, from animal and plant pathogens. Human behaviour, travel and trade exacerbates the problem and we may need to reconsider our approach to free trade.

We face a future of uncertainty, and possible new threats to our food supplies, natural heritage, and even human health, from animal and plant pathogens, according to researchers from the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.

In a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the academics take a fresh look at infectious diseases of animals and plants, from an interdisciplinary perspective.

They conclude that increasing global trade may put us at greater risk from pathogens in the future, as more exotic diseases enter the country. This process is already happening, particularly in plant disease. Climate change is driving shifts in cropping patterns across the world and they may take pests and diseases with them. We are also seeing completely new pathogens evolve, while existing ones develop the ability to infect new hosts. During the 20th century the number of new fungal, bacterial and viral diseases in plants appearing in Europe rose from less than five per decade to over 20.

But these problems are exacerbated by human behaviour, and understanding this could be key to helping policymakers deal with risk and uncertainty.

In many cases the spread of disease is caused by increased trade, transport and travel. Trends in the international horticultural industry have been towards fewer, larger producers, supplying vast numbers of retailers. Thus, disease which begins in one location may be spread far and wide.

Changes in the livestock trade have similar effects at national level. Reduction in income per animal, and the introduction of mechanisation, means that fewer farmers manage more animals per farm, and animals are moved around more frequently. They may be born in one location but sold on and reared elsewhere. Government policy and the classification of diseases may even increase the risks. Farmers restocking to combat one disease may, unwittingly, introduce another.

Understanding the biological dimensions of animal and plant disease is important, but it is equally important to understand the role played by human beings in spreading disease. Whether the threat is from a tree disease such as Sudden Oak Death that could devastate familiar landscapes, or from zoonotic diseases such as E coli or Lyme disease that affect human health, it can only be addressed effectively if an understanding of human behaviour is part of the strategy, and people are given the information they need to reduce risks.

Director of the Relu Programme, Professor Philip Lowe said: “We live in a global economy: we have seen in the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany, how the complexity of the food chain can increase risk and uncertainty.

“Ultimately we may have to take a more precautionary approach to the movement of animal and plants, and recognise that free trade could, in some cases, pose unacceptable risks.”

Planet could be 'unrecognizable' by 2050?

Planet could be ‘unrecognizable’ by 2050, experts say – Yahoo! News.

WASHINGTON (AFP) – A growing, more affluent population competing for ever scarcer resources could make for an “unrecognizable” world by 2050, researchers warned at a major US science conference Sunday.

The United Nations has predicted the global population will reach seven billion this year, and climb to nine billion by 2050, “with almost all of the growth occurring in poor countries, particularly Africa and South Asia,” said John Bongaarts of the non-profit Population Council.

To feed all those mouths, “we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000,” said Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

“By 2050 we will not have a planet left that is recognizable” if current trends continue, Clay said.

The swelling population will exacerbate problems, such as resource depletion, said John Casterline, director of the Initiative in Population Research at Ohio State University.

But incomes are also expected to rise over the next 40 years — tripling globally and quintupling in developing nations — and add more strain to global food supplies.

People tend to move up the food chain as their incomes rise, consuming more meat than they might have when they made less money, the experts said.

It takes around seven pounds (3.4 kilograms) of grain to produce a pound of meat, and around three to four pounds of grain to produce a pound of cheese or eggs, experts told AFP.

“More people, more money, more consumption, but the same planet,” Clay told AFP, urging scientists and governments to start making changes now to how food is produced.

Population experts, meanwhile, called for more funding for family planning programs to help control the growth in the number of humans, especially in developing nations.

“For 20 years, there’s been very little investment in family planning, but there’s a return of interest now, partly because of the environmental factors like global warming and food prices,” said Bongaarts.

“We want to minimize population growth, and the only viable way to do that is through more effective family planning,” said Casterline.

WikiLeaks wars: Digital conflict spills into real life

WikiLeaks wars: Digital conflict spills into real life – tech – 15 December 2010 – New Scientist.

Editorial: Democracy 2.0: The world after WikiLeaks

WHILE it is not, as some have called it, the “first great cyberwar“, the digital conflict over information sparked by WikiLeaks amounts to the greatest incursion of the online world into the real one yet seen.

In response to the taking down of the WikiLeaks website after it released details of secret diplomatic cables, a leaderless army of activists has gone on the offensive. It might not have started a war, but the conflict is surely a sign of future battles.

No one is quite sure what the ultimate political effect of the leaks will be. What the episode has done, though, is show what happens when the authorities attempt to silence what many people perceive as a force for freedom of information. It has also shone a light on the evolving world of cyber-weapons (see “The cyber-weapon du jour”).

WikiLeaks was subjected to a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which floods the target website with massive amounts of traffic in an effort to force it offline. The perpetrator of the attack is unknown, though an individual calling himself the Jester has claimed responsibility.

WikiLeaks took defensive action by moving to Amazon’s EC2 web hosting service, but the respite was short-lived as Amazon soon dumped the site, saying that WikiLeaks violated its terms of service. WikiLeaks responded via Twitter that: “If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books”.

With WikiLeaks wounded and its founder Julian Assange in custody, a certain section of the internet decided to fight back. Armed with freely available software, activists using the name “Anonymous” launched Operation Avenge Assange, targeting DDoS attacks of their own at the online services that had dropped WikiLeaks.

With WikiLeaks wounded and its founder in custody, a section of the internet decided to fight back

These efforts have so far had limited success, in part due to the nature of Anonymous. It is not a typical protest group with leaders or an organisational structure, but more of a label that activists apply to themselves. Anonymous has strong ties to 4chan.org, a notorious and anarchic message board responsible for many of the internet’s most popular memes, such as Rickrolling and LOLcats. The posts of unidentified 4chan users are listed as from “Anonymous”, leading to the idea of a collective anonymous campaigning force.

This loose group has previously taken action both on and offline against a number of targets, including Scientologists and the Recording Industry Association of America, but the defence of WikiLeaks is their most high-profile action yet. Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for WikiLeaks, said of the attacks: “We believe they are a reflection of public opinion on the actions of the targets.”

The “public” have certainly played a key role. The kind of DDoS attacks perpetrated by Anonymous are usually performed by botnets – networks of “zombie” computers hijacked by malicious software and put to use without their owner’s knowledge. Although Anonymous activists have employed traditional botnets in their attacks, the focus now seems to be on individuals volunteering their computers to the cause.

“I think there are two groups of people involved,” says Tim Stevens of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at Kings College London. The first group are the core of Anonymous, who have the technological know-how to bring down websites. The second group are ordinary people angry at the treatment of WikiLeaks and wanting to offer support. “Anonymous are providing the tools for these armchair activists to get involved,” says Stevens.

The human element of Anonymous is both a strength and a weakness. Though the group’s freely available LOIC software makes it easy for anyone to sign up to the cause, a successful DDoS requires coordinated attacks. This is often done through chat channels, where conversations range from the technical – “I have Loic set to 91.121.92.84 and channel set to #loic, is that correct” – to the inane – “please send me some nutella ice cream”.

There are continual disagreements about who and when to attack, though new tactics also emerge from the chat, such as Leakspin, an effort to highlight some of the less-publicised leaks, and Leakflood, a kind of analogue DDoS that attempts to block corporate fax machines with copies of the cables.

These chat channels are also occasionally knocked offline by DDoS attacks. Some blame “the feds”, but could governments – US or otherwise – actually be involved? (see “Are states unleashing the dogs of cyberwar?”)

The US Department of Defense’s recently launched Cyber Command has a dual remit: to defend US interests online and conduct offensive operations. Cyber Command is meant to defend .mil and .gov web domains, but do commercial websites qualify too? “Is PayPal really that important to national security that the US military would have a role in defending it?” asks Stevens, who also teaches in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. “The US doesn’t have an answer to that particular conundrum, and they’re not alone – nobody does”.

Is PayPal so important to national security that the US military would have a role in defending it?

The difficulty comes in assessing whether DDoS attacks are an act of cyberwar, a cybercrime or more akin to online civil disobedience.

Individual LOIC users may not even be breaking the law. “All that DDoS does is send the normal kind of traffic that a website receives,” says Lilian Edwards, professor of internet law at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. “That has always been the legal problem with regulating DDoS – each individual act is in fact authorised by the site, but receiving 10 million of them isn’t.”

It’s hard to say what will happen next. Anonymous might continue its attempt to cause as much disruption as possible, but it could just as easily become fragmented and give up. With no leaders or central structure, it is unlikely to be stopped by a few arrests or server takedowns but may equally find it difficult to coordinate well enough to have an impact.

More worrying is the prospect that more organised groups may follow Anonymous’s example. If that happens, who will be responsible for stopping them – and will they be able to?

Read more: Are states unleashing the dogs of cyber war?

Pakistan floods are a 'slow-motion tsunami'

Pakistan floods are a ‘slow-motion tsunami’ – Ban Ki-moon | World news | The Guardian.

More on the colossal disaster in Pakistan

pakistan-floods A Pakistani family stand on their farm compound surrounded by flood waters Photograph: Kevin Frayer/APThe United Nations general secretary, Ban Ki-moon, has appealed for swifter aid to provide immediate relief in food, shelter and clean water for the millions affected by the worst monsoon rains on record.

“Make no mistake, this is a global disaster,” Ban told a hurriedly convened session of the UN general assembly. “Pakistan is facing a slow-motion tsunami. Its destructive powers will accumulate and grow with time,” he warned.

Weather forecasts have said there could be four more weeks of rain, which will add to the flood problems.

The UN has appealed for $460m (£295m) in aid and donors have so far given about half that figure. But the secretary-general said all of the money was needed immediately to help victims over the next three months.

The US has pledged an extra $60m in help, bringing America’s total aid to $150m.

In a video message, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton appealed to the American public to donate generously to a newly established “Pakistan relief fund”.

“The enormity of this crisis is hard to fathom, the rain continues to fall and the extent of the devastation is still difficult to gauge,” said Clinton. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost loved ones, those who have been displaced from their homes and those left without food and water.”

The US special representative for Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said “many billions” would be needed to respond to the flooding. Speaking at the Asia Society in New York, he called on other countries, such as China, to step up to the plate and said: “The water has affected everyone, It’s an equal opportunity disaster, and military operations have effectively faded away.”

The British government yesterday pledged to double its emergency payments, raising its pledge to £64.3m.

Last weekend, one of the UK’s funds for disasters – the CERF – was included in a list of items sent by DFID’s director of policy to international development secretary Andrew Mitchell as possibly expendable. His department insists the list was only a speculative part of due process, since the department, like all others, is expected to consider value for money, despite DFID being ringfenced from cuts.

But tonight Mitchell, who has recently visited Pakistan to inspect the effect British aid has had so far, told the UN general assembly in New York that the international community had to do more. He told the UN it was “deeply depressing” that the international community was “only now waking up to the true scale of this disaster”.

Mitchell will meet other development secretaries and push them to give more. He emphasised funding would only be allocated to NGOs and UN agencies which could prove they were helping people get back on their feet.

He highlighted a fund that would give farmers new seed to plant new crops to replace those destroyed by the floods as a project the UK would back.

He said: “I’ve come to New York directly from Pakistan, where I saw the dire need for more help. I saw the sheer and shocking magnitude of this catastrophe. It is clear that unless more aid is delivered now, many more people will die from disease and malnutrition. The UK is already helping more than three million people in flood-affected areas.” This doubling of our aid should now provide water and sanitation to 500,000 people; shelter to 170,000 people; help meet the nutritional needs of 380,000 people and provide enough health services to cover a population of 2.4 million people.”

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