My Thoughts on Bucking the Paris Agreement

For what it is worth, it seems to me that most opposition to the Paris Agreement is predicated on mere ignorance to its contents and a visceral, categorical rejection of anything multilateral or international in nature, regardless of the details and benefits. (And given the considerable support for it by a broad range of stakeholders – from national security figures to big corporations, including major energy companies – the usual argument that such policies are inherently anti-business, or favor only idealistic environmentalists, simply do not wash.) It is anti-globalism for anti-globalism’s sake.

If folks actually read the Agreement – which most people had never heard of or had forgotten about until recently – they would find that it is explicitly nonbinding and hands-off with regards to how nations can go about mitigating climate change. In fact, it stipulates “nationally determined contributions” whereby every nation individually sets their own goals and how to reach them, whether through the free market, government programs, etc. Unlike its predecessors, the Paris Agreement furthermore places emphasis on “bottom up” solutions that favor working with private sector and civil society groups, something that opponents ostensibly favor. Ironically, these provisions were included in part to win over skeptics like the U.S. who criticized the binding nature of prior agreements such as the Kyoto Protocols.

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Don’t Mess With Mexico

Following the now-official proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — and to force Mexico to pay for it — Foreign Policy reminds us not to undervalue our relationship with our southern neighbor.

Among other considerations, Mexico’s economy is the 11th or 15th largest in the world, depending on the metric. It is our third largest trading partner, accounting for 6 million U.S. jobs and $1.5 billion worth of commerce daily, and anywhere between 2-4 percent of U.S. GDP. More American citizens live in Mexico than anywhere else in the world, and it is the most popular tourist destination.

Perhaps most importantly, Mexico contributes 80 percent of avocados consumed in the U.S. (I am being facetious of course, although the fruit’s popularity here is no joke.)

To save some time, I’ll also reiterate my own post from 2015 about Mexico’s probable was a major economic power in its own right:

Mexico is actually doing far better than most people realize, despite its many pressing social and political problems. Following the recession, the Mexican economy has grown twice as fast as America’s, and was among the fastest growing in the world in some years (albeit from a much lower base) … [It] is predicted by groups like Goldman Sachs and the World Bank to become the fifth to seventh largest economy by 2050 – around the level that France, Germany, and the U.K. are at today.

A few analysts have gone even further by suggesting that Mexico could become an influential global power in its own right. This is not as far fetched as it may initially sound: in many areas, such as infrastructure and business climate, the country is at least comparable, if superior, to Brazil, China, India, Russia, and other identified emerging powers; it has even earned coveted classification as one of several economic powerhouses to look out for — see the MINT group or the Next Eleven.

These accolades are well deserved. Since the mid-1990s, the majority of Mexicans have joined a rapidly growing middle-class, warranting the county’s official classification as a newly industrialized nation (NIC), a distinction only a handful of developing countries have achieved. Mexico’s average life expectancy and poverty rate is comparable to the U.S. (thanks in part to its universal healthcare system), while one-third of Mexican states have a violent crime rate equal to or even less than that of many U.S. states.

Mexico does of course have its problems, and its power dynamic with the U.S. makes it by far the junior partner in this bilateral relationship. But contrary to popular perception (at least among Americans) Mexico is far from a failed state. In spite of all its struggles, it has managed to become one of the world’s most robust economies, and has the potential to be a significant player in international affairs.

While the U.S. can still do a lot of damage to the country (far more than the other way around, to be sure) it is still insensible — not to mention immoral — to disrupt our relations with one of only two neighbors, a country whose interests and people are deeply intertwined with our own. As it is, the proposed 20 percent tax on Mexican imports to fund the border wall (since Mexico stands firmly opposed to funding it) will only end up transferring the costs onto American consumers — to the tune of $15 billion.

 

Germany, The World’s Moral Leader

The Economist observes how the refugee crisis has highlighted the German nation’s exemplary moral leadership, starting with this poignant statistic:

Whereas most nations struggle to accept even a handful of refugees, the Germans seem broadly enthusiastic about the idea, owing in part to their history. Continue reading

How to Help Victims of the Refugee Crisis

For those of you as morally devastated by the migrant crisis as I am, The Independent has compiled a list of charities, humanitarian organizations, grassroots movements, and other ways in which you can help the thousands of refugees desperately fleeing sociopolitical disasters across Africa and the Middle East. See it here.

From donating funds to giving away well needed supplies to joining advocacy groups, there are plenty of options for those who may lack the time or resources.

Additionally, I recommend you check out U.S.-based CharityNavigator.comwhich can help you choose the reliable and effective charities to support. It also has a section dedicated to the Syrian crisis here, as well as another list of charities involved in the largely overlooked but equally catastrophic Yemen crisis (click here).

Do whatever you can, and remember that no amount of assistance is too small for a tragedy this desperate.

A Professor Weighs in on the Trigger Warning Debate

I haven’t the time nor inclination to get into this increasingly fraught topic (it has been too rough a day to give the apparently big issue its due focus and assessment); let’s just say I was a bit on the fence about the issue.

But the following excerpt of a New Republic article by  offers what I think to be a pretty sensible and balanced take on the matter.  Continue reading

The Horrific Cost of Qatar’s World Cup Bid

The recent $150 million scandal involving several senior FIFA officials has once again brought to light the international soccer body’s renowned culture of corruption and malfeasance (indeed, the tepid response among most soccer fans towards this revelation speaks volumes about what little regard there is towards the institution that governs the world’s largest sport).

But the more disturbing and sobering evidence of FIFA’s utter lack of human decency, at least as of late, can be best seen in the following chart, courtesy of the Washington Post: Continue reading

Iran, A Future Global Power

Given its rich historical legacy as a prominent center of power and civilization, perhaps it is fitting that modern Iran retains considerable economic, social, and scientific potential — if it is better governed and made fully a part of the global community.

Al Jazeera makes this point in the context of the continuing nuclear deal with the West, which among other things would lead to the lifting of the decades-long sanctions that have crippled the economy and left the country largely as an international pariah. Despite these external challenges, and years of mismanagement by a venal and authoritarian government, Iran has had a lot to show for itself:

Compared with other developing countries, especially considering the damage of war and sanctions, Iran performs decently on measures of human development. Its average life expectancy increased dramatically, from 54 in 1980 to 74 in 2012; 98 percent of 15-to-24-year-olds are literate; and according to the United Nations, Iran’s overall human development index has improved by 67 percent in the last decade.

Despite sanctions, Iran is one of the world’s top 20 economies. For the first decade of the 21st century, annual growth rates hovered around 5 percent, sometimes reaching as high as 7 percent. The 2010 round of sanctions were devastating, but the government has recently announced the return of positive growth. According to an International Monetary Fund forecast, the Iranian economy will grow 2 percent in 2015, an impressive reversal from the 5 percent contraction that occurred in 2012.

Iran, which invests more in scientific research than any other Middle Eastern nation, has seen rapid growth in its high-tech sector. Its elite technical universities are ranked among the top in the world. Sharif University of Technology — Iran’s MIT — was hailed by a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford as the the finest university in the world preparing undergraduate electrical engineers. Iran also stands among the leading countries in cutting-edge sciences such as stem cell research and nanotechnology.

While the Iranian economy is still largely dependent on oil exports, it has also seen significant industrial development. In 2009, Iran’s auto industry became the 11th largest in the world, producing more than 1.4 million vehicles (more than the United Kingdom or Italy). Auto is the second-largest sector, after oil, and offers vast employment opportunities to young workers in Iran. The country boasts significant development in high-tech industries such as machinery, automotive, steel, petrochemicals and medical technology.

Though Iran’s complex, authoritarian, and theocratic framework of government remains firmly entrenched, the current administration is, by historic standards, quite progressive; for example, its cabinet employs more graduates of prestigious American Ph.D. programs than its U.S. counterpart.

So while Iran struggles from a range of political problems at home and abroad, its people have lived up impressively to their proud historical legacy. If the country has managed to come this far in everything from human well-being to scientific research, imagine what it can do for itself and the world when freed from its present sociopolitical predicament.

Time will tell, and at this rate hopefully quite soon. The much-beleaguered, yet persevering, people of Iran deserve that much.

How to Help Nepal Most Effectively

As most readers likely know, Nepal was the victim of a massive earthquake that has thus far resulted in over 5,100 confirmed fatalities, with many more people feared dead, and has left tens of thousands homeless. Overall, over 8 million of the country’s 26 million people have been affected.

Unfortunately, like so many other developing countries that tend to fall prey to natural disaster, impoverished Nepal is struggling to mobilize rescue efforts and distribute aid; international support is barely trickling in, due both to apathy and the country’s poor and now damaged infrastructure. It is a sadly familiar story.

Needless to say, the people of Nepal need all the help they can get. As the devastation unfolds, many of us naturally want to do whatever we can to help, namely by donating to the humanitarian organizations on the ground.

If you want to make the most of every dollar, consider donating to the following trustworthy relief agencies, which have earned high ratings by Charity Navigator for efficiency and accountability (you can learn more about the charity reviewer and its methodology here).

AmeriCares

AmeriCares is an emergency response and global health organization. They have sent an emergency response team from their offices in Mumbai to Nepal and are “preparing shipments of medical aid and relief supplies for survivors.”

CARE

CARE describes itself as a humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. It has a long-established presence in Nepal, and told USA Today that it was “coordinating with other agencies to assist up to 75,000 people.”

Catholic Relief Services

Catholic Relief Services is the international humanitarian agency of the Catholic Church in the United States. It maintains field offices in Nepal and has started its relief effort by “procuring emergency relief materials such as tarpaulins/shelter kits and water, sanitation and hygiene material.”

Direct Relief is a nonprofit that specializes in providing international medical assistance. It is in the process of coordinating with local partners in Nepal and will focus its relief efforts on the “valley around Kathmandu, where medical facilities are overflowing with patients seeking care.”

GlobalGiving

GlobalGiving is a charity fundraising website that has set up a fund specifically for Nepal relief efforts. The money collected will go to “help first responders meet survivors’ immediate needs for food, fuel, clean water, hygiene products, and shelter. Once initial relief work is complete, this fund will transition to support longer-term recovery efforts” run by vetted local organizations, according to a post on the GlobalGiving site.

International Relief Teams

International Relief Teams is a humanitarian organization that specializes in disaster relief, and also has a four-star rating. They have “ordered a shipment of emergency medicines to be airlifted to Nepal as soon as possible,” as part of their initial response.

Operation USA

Operation USA, an LA-based international relief agency, has had operations in Nepal since the mid-1980s and has a four-star rating on Charity Navigator.

“We are arranging to send replacement equipment to hospitals in Nepal to restore capacity as soon as possible,” Richard Walden, CEO of  Operation USA said in a statement. “Donations, especially bulk in-kind materials from corporate partners, are critical at this time — not only to deliver aid quickly, but also to ensure a long-term commitment to the people of Nepal who face a long and challenging road ahead as they pick up the pieces in the earthquake’s aftermath.”

Save the Children

Save the Children is an international NGO dedicated to promoting children’s rights and providing relief and support to children in developing countries. It has set up a Nepal fund to “protect vulnerable children and provide desperately needed relief to families.” Ten percent of the funds collected will go to prepare for the next disaster.

Seva Foundation

The Seva Foundation is a US-based nonprofit known for its work treating blindness. It has a long-running presence in Nepal and has set up an emergency relief fund.

World Help

World Help is Christian faith based humanitarian organization that works in the developing world, and has a four star rating on Charity Navigator. According to a post on their  site detailing their Nepal Earthquake Disaster Relief, they have a “broad network of partners” and a team on the ground that is focused on delivering urgent aid, including water, food, bedding and medical supplies.

UNICEF

The United Nation program dedicated to helping children in developing countries, is currently “mobilizing an urgent response to meet the needs of children” affected by the disaster, and is working to deliver water purification tablets, hygiene kits and nutrition supplies to those in need.

Oxfam

A confederation of NGOs, currently has “aid workers … on the ground, preparing to launch a rapid response to ensure food and water reaches” survivors, according to its site.

“We are focusing on providing clean water and sanitation to thousands of those affected,” says Lauren Hartnett, the Humanitarian Press Officer for Oxfam America. “These services are vital for basic health and also prevent the potential second crisis of illnesses like cholera and diarrhea.”

If you want to support charities that are local to the region — which typically have more experience and knowledge with the area — TIME mentions two major groups to consider:

Friends Service Council Nepal

FSCN is a Nepalese NGO with over 20 years of experience in supporting disaster relief efforts for disasters in Nepal. They are based in Kathmandu and have about 50 volunteers. Chairperson Surya Bahadur Thapa tells TIME that since the earthquake they have been rushing money, food and tents to people in need.

If you want to give directly to a local charity, get in contact and Thapa or a volunteer will explain how best to transfer money to them.

Goonj

Goonj is an Indian relief agency with 11 offices and more than 300 employees. They have set up Nepal-specific donation centers in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Rishikesh, founding director Anshu Gupta told TIME.

Currently, Goonj is readying two trucks of relief material to transfer to Nepal, with more urgent supplies going by air. Gupta will be leading team to Nepal tomorrow. Find out more about their operations here.

For more information about how to donate, visit their website.

I currently donate monthly to Direct Relief, and I can vouch for its effectiveness. Aside from its stellar ratings, the organization sends out a detailed and topical newsletter that highlights its various projects, goals, and milestones.

Other organizations I would add to the list based on both their high reviews and their responsiveness to the earthquake (of course you are free to research them yourself),

Charity Navigator maintains an up-to-date list of the top charities responding to the crisis, and offers this useful tip to keep in mind when donating to any humanitarian group:

But before you give to one of these charities, first decide what you want your donation to accomplish and select the charity offering that specific type of aid. To do this, simply use Charity Navigator’s website to view a charity’s rating page. Once you are satisfied with its rating, then you can jump to the charity’s website to learn more about the type of assistance the charity is providing in relation to this disaster. For more tips on giving in times of crisis, please review our Tips for Giving in Times of Crisis here.

Whichever charities you choose to support, please be on the lookout for con artists seeking to exploit the goodwill of others. As despicable and wanton as this scam is, such crimes are a common problem following almost every crisis (especially the most high profile). The Better Business Bureau (BBB), another prominent charity reviewer, issues the following warning view the Charlotte Observer:

The group advises giving to charities that are experienced at working with disaster victims to avoid “unscrupulous people who will attempt to take advantage of your generosity.”

“In the face of any disaster, people will immediately make donations to help the victims”, Tom Bartholomy, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Piedmont in Charlotte, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, scammers will also try to take advantage of generous donors”.

Following disasters, look-alike and sound-alike charities appear on the Internet, the group said, so donors should look out for fake charities that imitate the names of well-known organizations. Donors should also be wary of emotional appeals that don’t detail how the charity will provide aid to victims.

The Better Business Bureau advises giving to tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) charities to ensure donations are tax deductible.

Donors also shouldn’t send cash or money via wire transfer, the bureau said, nor give their credit card numbers or other personal information to a telephone solicitor or in response to an email solicitation.

The business group’s website provides detailed reports on relief organizations for those interested in seeing if the charity meets the standards for charitable giving.

In short, be vigilant and prudent, whether it is finding the most effective charity to support, or making sure your dollars are going to an actual humanitarian organization.

Meanwhile, Claire Bennet of The Guardian warns well-intentioned humanitarians not to be too hasty in providing assistance on the ground:

One of the biggest problems with relief work is that it is a free-for-all. Anyone who wants to, and who is privileged enough to afford a plane ticket, can pitch up. Unlike doctors or engineers, who need to train for years to gain qualifications that prove they probably know what they’re doing, no such qualification exists for aid workers.

What Nepal needs right now is not another untrained bystander, however much her heart is hurting. Nepal has one international airport for the entire country, which has itself sustained damage. That airport needs to be used for emergency supplies, immediate aid for the victims, and qualified, professional relief workers. My trip back to commiserate with loved ones can wait a few weeks.

With that said, she offers the following advice to keep in mind:

Remember that it is not about you. It is not about your love for the country and its people. Your feelings of guilt and helplessness may be difficult to deal with, but you may not be what is needed right now. Do not rush to go there, at least for the next couple of weeks while the country is reeling. The exception to this is if you are a qualified professional with much-needed skills to offer. If you are, join up with an international relief agency that can place you in a position where you are needed most.

Do not donate stuff. Secondhand goods are difficult to distribute in a disaster area and are hardly ever what is actually needed. It is easier, and often in the long run cheaper, for organisations to procure goods themselves and distribute based on need. If you want to give away things you no longer need, sell them and donate the money to the relief fund. Or give them to a local charity shop, which can convert them into cash on your behalf.

Give money. More than your plane ticket or your collection of old T-shirts, what is most needed in Nepal right now is money. Donate what you can, to a reputable relief organisation, and do research to find out where your money will go. If you can, compare a few organisations with aid appeals and ensure that you agree with their approach.

In the short term, handouts are necessary. I have previously questioned this as a method of long-term development. However, in the immediate wake of such devastation, handouts are necessary to give victims the essentials for survival.

In the long term, rebuild sustainably. If in the coming months you want to contribute to the rebuilding efforts and the longer-term development of the country, consider sustainability as a factor. There will be many programmes to repair and rebuild destroyed houses. Nepal is an earthquake-prone country, so the buildings most likely to withstand another quake are not those that are cheapest, or those made by foreign volunteer labourers for “free”.

And if you do decide to go … Please look at the resources we have produced on the Learning Service website before you get on the plane. I am not against volunteering; I am imploring you to wait a while and think carefully about where to use your skills. Volunteering can have a wonderful impact on the world, when done mindfully. But it is not easy or automatically beneficial. Before signing up for a programme, spend time learning about Nepal and the complex nature of its recovery and development, and continue to be open to learning during your time there.

Finally, another writer at The Guardian, Shaheen Chughtai, brings attention to how Nepal’s entrenched poverty and underdevelopment, which was worsened by a decades-long civil war and continuing political paralysis, has made it especially vulnerable to disasters like earthquakes.

I remember looking at the thousands of flimsy shacks and hovels lining Kathmandu’s dusty slums and the sturdier, but still precarious, multi-tiered family homes, the cheaply built apartment blocks and ornate temples that collectively give the city its colourful, distinctive appearance. We all understood and feared what a big earthquake would surely do there.

But it’s not just its violent geology that made Kathmandu fundamentally flawed. More than a million people are crammed inside it. Even before this latest earthquake, half of Nepal’s 28 million population didn’t have access to improved sanitation and lived below the poverty line, around one in three of them in severe poverty. Their ability to cope with a major disaster is crippled by the lack of economic and social infrastructure that people in richer nations take for granted. Many thousands of Nepalese are going to need a great deal of help.

Nepal has long been desperate for a huge, sustained investment to strengthen its physical infrastructure and keep its people safer, and to develop its economy and services so that local communities and the state have enough assets to fall back on. The challenge now will be to invest the outpouring of international aid – which certainly will come – into a rescue, recovery and eventual reconstruction effort that will do exactly that.

This is the sort of big picture view we need to keep in mind when crises like these emerge. Were it not for its widespread poverty and lack of public investment, Nepal may have been better able to weather this disaster and respond effectively to the needs of survivors. But like most countries that tend to frequently fall victim to large scale catastrophes, the country suffered doubly for being poor, misgoverned, and neglected.

While it needs as much immediate help as possible, Nepal — and the many other countries that are dealt a bad hand by geography and history — needs longer-term solutions and support that go beyond ad hoc responses to crises. For now, let us focus on giving its beleaguered people what we can, whether it is funds, volunteers (when or if required), and/or raising awareness.

Update: If you are looking for another way to help beyond donating or volunteering, CityLab has reported on an interesting crowdsourcing project that will give much needed support to frustrated relief efforts:

Go help out the good efforts at OpenStreetMap, the open-source mapping platform powered by citizen cartographers all over the world. Members of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) have been updating Nepal’s earthquake-affected regions since Saturday, tracing and checking “roads, buildings, and open spaces (for helicopter landing)” so people on the ground can get where they need to go with accuracy.

You don’t need to be in Nepal to lend a hand (the OSM platform uses fresh satellite imagery to help you update their map), and you don’t need to be a professional cartographer, either. It helps if you’ve used OSM before, even if only to play around with mapping your own neighborhood. But if you haven’t, learning the basics isn’t too hard. Here are two step-by-stepguides that will show you how to do HOT remote mapping, and here’s a specific list of tasks that the HOT team is prioritizing in Nepal.

It is great to see people tap into their creative energies, as well as into financial and technological resources, to help others in need on the other end of the world.

UPDATE: Fellow secular humanists may want to consider donating to the Foundation Beyond Belief, which is raising funds on behalf of the The Women’s Foundation Nepal. Since it is a local group, and one focused on an especially vulnerable demographic, it is an ideal choice. Plus, we humanists need to do more to be visible and active in charitable causes far and wide. Hat tip to reader Helen Clark for letting me know about this!

Two Tragic Blows To Freedom Of Conscience

Over the past weekend, two prominent figures in activism and politics were killed.

On February 26, Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American engineer, writer, columnist, and secular activist, was hacked to death by extremist Islamists while he and his wife were riding home from a book fair in the country’s capital, Dhaka (his spouse survived).

Roy founded and wrote for Mukto-Mona, an Internet community for freethinkers, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent. He was a prominent advocate of free expression in Bangladesh and human rights, coordinating international protests against government censorship and imprisonment of bloggers. He had long received death threats for his taboo works.

The following day, Boris Nemtsov, one of the few major opposition leaders and critics of the Putin administration, was shot in the back by unknown assassins while walking on a bridge near the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow.

A physicist with a storied political career since the tumultuous 1990s, at the time of his death, Nemtsov was working to organize a rally against Russian involvement in the war in Ukraine and the country’s financial crisis. He was working with Russian journalist Kseniya Sobchak on a report proving the presence of Russian military in eastern Ukraine.

A long-time organizer of protests against the government, Nemtsov came into conflict with the government several times over issues of corruption, human rights violations, and policy abuses. In the weeks before his death, he expressed fear that Putin would have him killed, yet continued with plans to hold the rally. His last tweet called for Russia’s divided opposition to unite for an anti-war march.

The Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold

When Will You Marry?, an 1892 oil painting by French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, was recently sold for an estimated $300 million, the highest price ever paid for an artwork.

When Will You Marry (Paul Gaugin)

On loan to the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland for nearly five decades, the painting was sold privately by the family of Rudolf Staechelin to an unknown buyer, possibly Qatar Museums, the Qatari government’s main cultural body (and the buyer of the previous record-holder, Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players”, which was purchased in 2011 for around $260 million).

The sale is all the more remarkable considering that Gauguin, like van Gogh, received little attention or acclaim for his artwork during his lifetime. His talent remained unrecognized until after his death, which came in 1903 at the age of 54 from a morphine overdose.

Gauguin’s legacy lives on not only through this valuable piece, but through his influence on great 20th century artists like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Henri Matisse.