Ozone Hole Revisited

Head scratching gorilla
Head scratching gorilla / photo: amuderick, flickr

Forget the complexity of global warming and the diffuse threat posed by global terrorism. Back in the day, problems faced by the international community seemed so much more manageable. During the Cold War, we knew who the bad guys were and where the threats came from. Environmental degradation became an important issue in the 1980s, but the problems we faced still seemed pretty straightforward: to halt de-forestation and soil erosion, we have to stop cutting trees without replacing them; to prevent the whole-sale extinction of endangered species, we have to stop hunting them.

Relatively straightforward also was the first man-made atmospheric problem humankind faced back in the ’80s: the ozone hole.

The culprit, as scientists were able to convincingly show, was a single chemical substance: the ozone-depleting hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), widely used as coolants in refrigerators, air conditioners and aerosol cans.

The international community got together in Montreal and agreed to phase out the use of this ozone-depleting substance. The result was the Montreal Protocol, which entered into force in 1987 and was touted by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as ” perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

Since January 1 of this year, developed states are bound by the treaty to cut HCFC consumption and production by 75 percent. The ozone hole is now slowly on the mend and scientists expect the hole to close within 50 to 100 years.

But as all our problems seem to be getting more and more complex in the 21st century, so does the good old ozone hole saga.

According to a recent piece in the New Scientist, the ozone hole over Antarctica is slowing down the warming of Antarctica (and thus the rising of sea levels). This is so because the thinning of the ozone layer is strengthening circumpolar winds that have a cooling effect on Antarctica. Once the ozone hole is closed up, the theory goes, it will trap more hot air and accelerate the melting of Antarctic glaciers.

It almost sounds as if global warming has turned the environmental success story of the 1980s into a no-win.

Or perhaps not? A scientist at Canada’s University of Waterloo, Professor Qin-Bin-Lu, now argues that the straightforward ban of HCFC in fact was more of a silver bullet to man-made atmospheric changes than we could have possibly imagined back in the ’80s.

Indeed, he argues that HCFC, and not CO2, is to blame for global warming all along. His satellite and balloon measurements show that HCFC is tens of thousands of times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 on a molecule per molecule basis.  Hence, Lu expects the global phase-out of HCFCs to eventually allow global temperatures to revert back to pre-HCFC levels.

It is an interesting theory, but to me it simply sounds too good to be true. As a member of generation X, I’m used to problems being more complex than that, and I have been taught that there simply is no silver bullet or straightforward solution to the complex global threats out there.

Besides, cutting our CO2 emissions and not burning down our forests still seem like pretty good ideas to me.

Dubai’s Woes, Iran’s Headache

Aspirin tablets / Photo: wikimedia commons
Aspirin tablets / Photo: wikimedia commons

Dubai has celebrated the opening of the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Dubai, with a spectacular – not to mention costly – fireworks display. But the 10,000 fireworks did not blind us from the fact that the city and those who have put their hopes and money into Dubai are hurting. We all know who the main losers are:

    • The all-too-credulous investors willing to give cheap loans to Dubai World and Nakheel assuming their loans were guaranteed by the governments of Dubai and Abu Dhabi: A significant amount of this debt is believed to be bad debt (read: not backed by viable assets) – Moody’s has put the figure at about USD25 billion.


    • The city of Dubai itself, whose debt load – depending on whose estimates you are referring to – amount to between 100 and 200 percent of Dubai’s USD82 billion GDP: And it is not over yet – real estate prices in Dubai are expected to decline even further in 2010 as investors are abandoning their construction projects.


  • Dubai’s political independence within the UAE’s loose federation: Dubai has been enjoying special sovereign rights, such as control of customs, over parts of the judiciary and of its stock market. The UAE’s oil-rich capital Abu Dhabi’s offer to partially bail out its broke neighbor will most likely come at a political price. It is likely that Dubai will have to relinquish some of its sovereign powers to federal authorities.

Yet another loser, less talked-about but most significant in geopolitical terms, could be Iran.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Dubai was one of three UAE emirates that leaned more toward Iran, and it has continued to maintain the closest ties to the country among all UAE emirates. Iran is one of Dubai’s major trading partners. Both benefit tremendously from this relationship. As one observer states, “The trade between Iran and Dubai is one of the principal sources of Tehran’s confidence that it can survive US-led sanctions. Iranian investment in Dubai amounts to about US $14 billion each year.”

Some banks have been accused by the US government of indirectly doing business with Iran through Dubai-based institutions. Vice versa, Tehran has been accused of circumventing sanctions by doing business through Dubai based front companies.

Abu Dhabi has long resented Dubai’s ties to Iran. The UAE fears Iran’s regional ambitions and nuclear program, and it still has a territorial dispute over three UAE islands currently occupied by Iran. Besides, Dubai’s closeness to Iran is an embarrassment to the UAE in its close relationship with the US.

Dubai’s financial crisis is putting Abu Dhabi into the enviable position of being able to attach strings to its bailout offer. Although the US has kept mum about it in public, no doubt Washington encourages Abu Dhabi to make bailout money dependent on Dubai severing commercial ties with Iran.

And as Dubai is tightening its belt, Iran may find it just a little harder to circumvent international sanctions.

Melting Expectations

Iceberg, Alaska, photo: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton/flickr
Iceberg, Alaska, photo: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton/flickr

With the Copenhagen conference on climate change only two weeks away, it remains doubtful whether a legally binding agreement on climate change will emerge.  Here a run-down of the (mostly vague) pledges made by key greenhouse gas emitters in the wake of the conference:

Government as Superman?

Photo: woodwalker/wikimedia commons
Photo: woodwalker/wikimedia commons

In late July, Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd set out for a hike in the mountainous border region between Iraq and Iran. The three hikers had been warned not to hike in this area, as the border between the two countries is not clearly marked. The hikers went anyway – and they were promptly detained by Iranian border guards when they unintentionally crossed into Iran.

The trio’s recklessness played into the hands of the Iranian government. The three Americans have become a kind of cheap trump card for Tehran, which claims that the hikers are ‘spies’ sent by the reviled US. The incident gave the Iranian government a convenient pretext to distract from domestic problems and divert popular attention toward a common outside enemy.

Meanwhile, there is the story of the adventurous British yachting couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, who set out on a dangerous voyage in the pirate-infested waters of East Africa. They had also been warned. The manager of the yacht club in the Seychelles from where the Chandlers disembarked had strongly advised them against undertaking their planned journey to the African mainland due to pirate activity. They went anyway. And the pirates caught them.

For the pirates, the two Brits are a valuable prize – they are citizens of a wealthy country in exchange for whom a lucrative ransom can be expected.

Adventure tourism is in vogue. Perhaps life has become too predictable, too mundane, too pedestrian inside the protected cocoon of western consumer societies. So at least in our spare time, some of us like to go for the real adventure and smell real danger.

But what if something goes wrong? What if you get caught or kidnapped?

No worries. Your government will do everything within its power to bail you out.

Living the Dream?

Photo: Marcus Obal / Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Marcus Obal / Wikimedia Commons

A young, poverty-stricken woman with no career prospects, living in a cramped apartment together with her extended family, dreams of a wealthy prince who would take her with him and allow her to live a comfortable life on his side. A fifty-something man in the West, so far unlucky with women but with a good job and a decent salary, dreams of getting married to a young, exotic beauty, undemanding and subservient. Seems like a match made in heaven? Well, it’s complicated…