June 2008


We are now firmly ensconced in the Age of Extreme Weather.

According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, there have been more than four times as many weather-related disasters in the last 30 years than in the previous 75 years. The United States has experienced more of those disasters than any other country.
Just this month, a swarm of tornadoes shredded the central states.

California and Florida have been scorched by wildfires, and a crippling drought in the Southeast has forced Georgia to authorize plans for new reservoirs.

Who do we have to thank for all this? Probably ourselves.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued reports concluding that “human influences” (read greenhouse-gas emissions) have “more likely than not” contributed to this increase.

The United States is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Furthermore, a White House report about the effect of global climate change on the United States issued Thursday (years late and under court order) reaffirmed that the situation will probably get worse: In addition to temperature extremes, “precipitation is likely to be less frequent but more intense.

It is also likely that future hurricanes will become more intense, with higher peak speeds and more heavy precipitation … .”
This increase is deadly and disruptive — and could become economically unbearable.

According to the National Hurricane Center, 10 of the 30 costliest American hurricanes have struck since 2000, even after adjusting the figures for inflation and the cost of construction.

In 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina, the estimated damage from storms in the United States was $121 billion. That is $39 billion more than the 2005 supplemental spending bill to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

About $3 billion has been allocated to assist farmers who suffer losses because of droughts, floods and tornadoes among other things.

And, a recent report in The Denver Post said the Forest Service plans to spend 45 percent, or $1.9 billion, of its budget this year fighting forest fires.

This surge in disasters and attendant costs is yet another reason we need to declare a coordinated war on climate change akin to the wars on drugs and terror. It’s a matter of national security.

By the way, hurricane season begins Sunday.

*Text By CHARLES M. BLOW; May 31, 2008

WILL the food crisis that is menacing the lives of millions ease up — or grow worse over time? The answer may be both. The recent rise in food prices has largely been caused by temporary problems like drought in Australia, Ukraine and elsewhere. Though the need for huge rescue operations is urgent, the present acute crisis will eventually end. But underlying it is a basic problem that will only intensify unless we recognize it and try to remedy it.

It is a tale of two peoples. In one version of the story, a country with a lot of poor people suddenly experiences fast economic expansion, but only half of the people share in the new prosperity. The favored ones spend a lot of their new income on food, and unless supply expands very quickly, prices shoot up. The rest of the poor now face higher food prices but no greater income, and begin to starve. Tragedies like this happen repeatedly in the world.

A stark example is the Bengal famine of 1943, during the last days of the British rule in India. The poor who lived in cities experienced rapidly rising incomes, especially in Calcutta, where huge expenditures for the war against Japan caused a boom that quadrupled food prices. The rural poor faced these skyrocketing prices with little increase in income.
Misdirected government policy worsened the division. The British rulers were determined to prevent urban discontent during the war, so the government bought food in the villages and sold it, heavily subsidized, in the cities, a move that increased rural food prices even further. Low earners in the villages starved. Two million to three million people died in that famine and its aftermath.

Much discussion is rightly devoted to the division between haves and have-nots in the global economy, but the world’s poor are themselves divided between those who are experiencing high growth and those who are not. The rapid economic expansion in countries like China, India and Vietnam tends to sharply increase the demand for food. This is, of course, an excellent thing in itself, and if these countries could manage to reduce their unequal internal sharing of growth, even those left behind there would eat much better.

But the same growth also puts pressure on global food markets — sometimes through increased imports, but also through restrictions or bans on exports to moderate the rise in food prices at home, as has happened recently in countries like India, China, Vietnam and Argentina. Those hit particularly hard have been the poor, especially in Africa.

There is also a high-tech version of the tale of two peoples. Agricultural crops like corn and soybeans can be used for making ethanol for motor fuel. So the stomachs of the hungry must also compete with fuel tanks.
Misdirected government policy plays a part here, too. In 2005, the United States Congress began to require widespread use of ethanol in motor fuels. This law combined with a subsidy for this use has created a flourishing corn market in the United States, but has also diverted agricultural resources from food to fuel. This makes it even harder for the hungry stomachs to compete.

Ethanol use does little to prevent global warming and environmental deterioration, and clear-headed policy reforms could be urgently carried out, if American politics would permit it. Ethanol use could be curtailed, rather than being subsidized and enforced.

The global food problem is not being caused by a falling trend in world production, or for that matter in food output per person (this is often asserted without much evidence). It is the result of accelerating demand. However, a demand-induced problem also calls for rapid expansion in food production, which can be done through more global cooperation.

While population growth accounts for only a modest part of the growing demand for food, it can contribute to global warming, and long-term climate change can threaten agriculture. Happily, population growth is already slowing and there is overwhelming evidence that women’s empowerment (including expansion of schooling for girls) can rapidly reduce it even further.

What is most challenging is to find effective policies to deal with the consequences of extremely asymmetric expansion of the global economy. Domestic economic reforms are badly needed in many slow-growth countries, but there is also a big need for more global cooperation and assistance. The first task is to understand the nature of the problem.

* By AMARTYA SEN;Cambridge, Mass. (May 28, 2008)
Amartya Sen, who teaches economics and philosophy at Harvard, received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998 and is the author, most recently, of “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.”

 

 

 

 

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Nibbling doughnuts and wrestling with computer code, the workers at G.ho.st, an Internet start-up here, are holding their weekly staff meeting — with colleagues on the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

They trade ideas through a video hookup that connects the West Bank office with one in Israel in the first joint technology venture of its kind between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Start with the optimistic parts, Mustafa,” Gilad Parann-Nissany, an Israeli who is vice president for research and development, jokes with a Palestinian colleague who is giving a progress report. Both conference rooms break into laughter.

The goal of G.ho.st is not as lofty as peace, although its founders and employees do hope to encourage it. Instead G.ho.st wants to give users a free, Web-based virtual computer that lets them access their desktop and files from any computer with an Internet connection. G.ho.st, pronounced “ghost,” is short for Global Hosted Operating System.

“Ghosts go through walls,” said Zvi Schreiber, the company’s British-born Israeli chief executive, by way of explanation. A test version of the service is available now, and an official introduction is scheduled for Halloween.

The Palestinian office in Ramallah, with about 35 software developers, is responsible for most of the research and programming. A smaller Israeli team works about 13 miles away in the central Israeli town of Modiin.

The stretch of road separating the offices is broken up by checkpoints, watch towers and a barrier made of chain-link fence and, in some areas, soaring concrete walls, built by Israel with the stated goal of preventing the entry of Palestinian suicide bombers.

Palestinian employees need permits from the Israeli army to enter Israel and attend meetings in Modiin, and Israelis are forbidden by their own government from entering Palestinian cities.

When permits cannot be arranged but meetings in person are necessary, colleagues gather at a rundown coffee shop on a desert road frequented by camels and Bedouin shepherds near Jericho, an area legally open to both sides.

Dr. Schreiber, an entrepreneur who has already built and sold two other start-ups, said he wanted to create G.ho.st after seeing the power of software running on the Web. He said he thought it was time to merge his technological and commercial ambitions with his social ones and create a business with Palestinians.

“I felt the ultimate goal was to offer every human being a computing environment which is free, and which is not tied to any physical hardware but exists on the Web,” he said. The idea, he said, was to create a home for all of a user’s online files and storage in the form of a virtual PC.

Instead of creating its own Web-based software, the company taps into existing services like Google Docs, Zoho and Flickr and integrates them into a single online computing system.

G.ho.st also has a philanthropic component: a foundation that aims to establish community computer centers in Ramallah and in mixed Jewish-Arab towns in Israel. The foundation is headed by Noa Rothman, the granddaughter of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister slain in 1995.
“It’s the first time I met Palestinians of my generation face to face,” said Ms. Rothman, 31, of her work with G.ho.st. She said she was moved by how easily everyone got along. “It shows how on the people-to-people level you can really get things done.”

Investors have put $2.5 million into the company so far, a modest amount. Employing Palestinians means the money goes farther; salaries for Palestinian programmers are about a third of what they are in Israel.
But Dr. Schreiber, who initially teamed up with Tareq Maayah, a Palestinian businessman, to start the Ramallah office, insists this is not just another example of outsourcing.
“We are one team, employed by the same company, and everyone has shares in the company,” he said.

At G.ho.st’s offices in Ramallah, in a stone-faced building with black reflective glass perched on a hill in the city’s business district, employees say they feel part of an intensive group effort to create something groundbreaking. Among them are top young Palestinian programmers and engineers, recruited in some cases directly from universities.

The chance to gain experience in creating a product for the international market — a first for the small Palestinian technology community — means politics take a backseat to business, said Yusef Ghandour, a project manager.

“It’s good we are learning from the Israeli side now,” Mr. Ghandour said. The Israelis, he said, “are open to the external world, and there is lots of venture capital investment in Israel, and now we are bringing that to Palestine.”

The departure of educated young people mostly to neighboring Jordan and the Persian Gulf states is a major problem for the Palestinian economy and has been especially damaging to its technology industry. Since the Oslo peace process broke down in 2000, a wave of Israeli-Palestinian business ties have crumbled as well.

Political tensions make it somewhat unpopular for Palestinians to do business with Israelis, said Ala Alaeddin, chairman of the Palestinian Information Technology Association. He said the concept of a technology joint venture across the divide was unheard-of until G.ho.st opened its doors. A handful of Palestinian tech companies handle outsourced work for Israeli companies, but most focus on the local or Middle Eastern market.

“It’s much easier to have outsourcing than a partnership,” Mr. Alaeddin said. “A joint venture is a long-term commitment, and you need both sides to be really confident that this kind of agreement will work.”
Benchmark Capital, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm with offices in Israel, invested $2 million in G.ho.st. Michael Eisenberg, a general partner at the firm, said Benchmark was “in the business of risky investments,” but that G.ho.st presented entirely new territory.
Recalling his discussions with Dr. Schreiber, Mr. Eisenberg said: “Frankly, when he first told me about it I thought it was ambitious, maybe overly ambitious. But Zvi is a remarkable entrepreneur, and I started to feel he could actually pull this off.”

The video hookup runs continuously between the offices. Chatting in the Ramallah conference room, two Palestinian programmers wave hello to Israeli colleagues conferring over a laptop in the Modiin office.
“We are doing something across cultures and across two sides of a tough conflict,” Dr. Schreiber said. “I was prepared for the possibility that it might be difficult, but it hasn’t been.”

* By DINA KRAFT;The New York Times (May 29, 2008)

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