Afghan poppies flower again for pain?

A public health expert raises again the plan to divert Afghan opium into worlwide pain relief.

Amir Attaran, a professor of public health at Ottawa, has just published an article in a reputable epidemiology journal in support of licit opium production in Afghanistan. Short version:

  • There’s a huge unmet need worldwide for pain relief from morphine;
  • So let’s shift Afghan opium production into licit channels, rather than vainly trying to destroy it.

Basically, he makes the same case I did here two years ago (here and here), though with proper references and all. References and peer review are powerful medicine – fair enough – and this time the topic’s been picked up in the high-frequency blogosphere by Charli Carpenter and Matt Yglesias.

Attaran doesn’t cite the 2009 paper by Greenfield, Paoli, and Reuter (GPR below), criticising a similar scheme, and published in another proper academic journal edited by our own Mark Kleiman. So I’ll have a go here at a rejoinder.

From the GPR abstract (footnote):

Legal medicinal opium production is an improbable answer for at least five reasons (their numbering, my reformatting):
1. illegal production will continue;
2. diversion from the legal market to the illegal market is inevitable;
3. diversion will involve further corruption;
4. there may not be a market;
5. Afghanistan lacks the institutional capacity to support a legal pharmaceutical industry.

I have two issues with this: the framing, and a straw man fallacy under point 2 over diversion. Let’s start with the straw man (the variant is attacking a weak version of the opposing case rather than the strongest).

Continue reading “Afghan poppies flower again for pain?”

The Climate “Partnership” with India

Obama’s climate diplomacy with India is constructive, modest — and realistic.

At least that’s what the White House is calling it.  (Okay, okay: technically, the White House calls it the “Green Partnership to Address Energy Security, Climate Change, and Food Security.”). 

Does it mean anything?  Maybe.

Essentially, it provides for some technical assistance to improve governance capacity and scientific knowledge, and some new initiatives to foster R & D.  It also takes the sensible position that the developed countries will adopt emissions reductions targets while the developing countries will adopt “nationally appropriate mitigation measures.”  The White House press release states in boldface that both President Obama and Prime Minister Singh “resolved to take significant mitigation actions and to stand by these commitments.” In other words, neither side is going to insist on the other doing the politically impossible.

Perhaps the most intriguing initiative in the whole thing appears to be a series of bilateral institutions: the US-India Climate Dialogue, the US-India Energy Dialogue, and the US-India Agriculture Dialogue.  Who knows what these things mean. 

But they reflect a realism in the Obama Administration’s climate diplomacy, namely, that putting all their eggs in the Kyoto/UNFCC basket makes little sense.  These institutions might mean nothing, but one could have said the same thing about the UNFCC at the beginning.  They open up space for the two nations to start discussing ways to take reciprocal and constructive steps to reduce emissions.

Early jobs for the Climate Dialogue might be the discussion of international intellectual property rules that inhibit technology transfer.  Another role might be fostering the creation of international sectoral agreements in certain high-emissions industries such as aluminum, steel, and cement.

Obama likes to play a long game, a pattern that the media has proved itself completely incapable of recognizing.  And with climate, the game will have to be very long.  He has damped down expectations for Copenhagen, and is beginning to build more solid foundations.  I hope we have enough time.

A cap-and-trade system in India?

Has India just established a domestic cap-and-trade system? Maybe.

Well, here’s something potentially significant:

India has approved in principle new trading plans centred on energy efficiency as part of efforts to shift to a greener economy to fight climate change, opening up a potential market worth more than $15 billion by 2015.

The plan involves creating a market-based mechanism that would allow businesses using more energy than stipulated to compensate by buying energy certificates from those using less energy due to energy efficiency practices.

The government is setting up energy benchmarks for each industry sector. Companies that do not meet the benchmarks would have to buy these certificates under a reward and penalty system.

A government statement said the efficiency mission would ensure an annual saving of 5 percent of India’s total energy consumption and a cut of about 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year from its annual emissions of about 3 billion tonnes now.

This is far too sketchy to really know what it is about more: I’ll do some poking around. For example, we do not know what the energy benchmarks will be. The “5%” reduction figure must be a reduction from whatever benchmark the government would have projected in the absence of the program: any Indian government proposing a 5% reduction in consumption itself would be quickly thrown out of office. (Come to think of it, that’s true for just about any country.).

But this seems to show that the Prime Minister’s Office is committed to doing something. As with anything in India, it’s not just a matter of how it will show up in legislation, but whether anyone will pay attention to it once it becomes law. But it is quite a development.

A Muslim Attorney General

Six months after one of the most brutal terrorist attacks in its history, India has appointed a Muslim Attorney General. Could you imagine the United States doing the same under similar circumstances?

No, not in the United States: in India.

Prime Minister Singh announced a few days ago that Goolam Vahanvati, one of the nation’s most distinguished government lawyers, will become the nation’s 13th Attorney General, for a term of 3 years. Significantly, he is the first Muslim to hold the position.

In India, the AG does not run the Justice Department (or “Law and Justice Ministry,” as it is referred to here): that is the job of the Law and Justice Minister, a Cabinet member (and thus a member of Parliament). But India’s AG is a very important post, somewhat akin to an amalgam in the United States of the Solicitor General and the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel. The Attorney General’s opinions bind (or enable) the government, in much the same way that the US AG’s do (with attendant criticism about politicization), and he (or, one day, she) represents the Government in cases before the Supreme Court and other High Courts.

Vahanvati’s elevation to the position is significant not only in that he is a leading member of the Bar, but because he is a Muslim. There have literally been dozens of Muslim Solicitors General (essentially, the AG’s deputy), and despite a plethora of outstanding Muslim lawyers and advocates, none has ever been elevated to the top job. Anti-Muslim discrimination is a commonplace in this country.

I wonder how long it will be before a Muslim gets appointed in the United States.

A misleading analogy, you might say. India has the largest number of Muslims of any nation in the world, well over 150 million. (UPDATE: The blogosphere is great. Many people have pointed out that in fact Indonesia has more Muslims than India. I think the point still holds (in fact, even more so), but it’s necessary to be accurate). They have long held high government posts. And of course there is a good deal to be said for this rejoinder.

But remember also that this is a nation that just suffered a vicious terrorist attack last November 26th from Muslim extremists. A few years ago, Muslim terrorists attacked its Parliament building. It has been under perpetual assault from Muslim terrorists in Kashmir for years, perhaps even decades, now. It has fought two wars with Pakistan, a nation whose entire purpose is predicated on the notion that Muslims have no place in India, and whose intelligence service gives direct and indirect military and logistical assistance to Muslim terror groups inside India.

Put another way, India’s experience with terrorism makes 9/11 look like a speed bump. And it has a Muslim Attorney General, who has advanced to the office with general acclaim. If America had suffered as much from Muslim terrorism as India has, could you imagine a President naming a Muslim as AG?

Tehran in India: The Sound of Silence

If Mousavi supporters want sympathetic coverage from the rest of the world, they should not look to the democracy closest to their borders.

Protestors in Iran may be begging for foreign attention, but they aren’t getting it here in India. The media in the world’s largest democracy appear to be ignoring the Green Revolution.

Today’s Times of India buries Iran on page 16, although it gives coverage to the controversy. The Indian Express, perhaps the country’s best paper, reports it as a he said-she said argument between winners and losers. (These are the print editions; the web editions are beginning to give more coverage in the last few hours, but it is still quite muted.). The Hindu analyzes the story as that of western analysts missing the “silent majority” of Iranian voters who support Ahmedinejad.

Television, meanwhile, has virtually no coverage. The biggest story is India’s loss to England in the T20 cricket tournament, which will be cause for nationwide mourning. Behind this is the arrest of actor and model Shiney Ahuja for sexual assault, and then some swine flu cases. The only 24 hour news channel that I saw give coverage to Iran refers to Ahmedinejad’s “mandate”.

Why the silence? Two reasons:

1) There is no reason to expect that media in India will be any better than their counterparts in the United States. Moreover, although India has long had an active foreign policy, it stands to reason that a country without superpower status might have even less reason to pay attention to developments in other countries.

2) Indians might have a very deep skepticism toward reports in Iran of anti-government rallies. They certainly don’t lectures from westerners about the importance of democracy (Indians essentially invented the mass movement for freedom and democracy), but New Delhi and Tehran have had good relations over the past several years. Iran’s Shia rulers have no love for Pakistan’s Sunni extremists, and Tehran provides oil to India, which has enormous energy needs. And in a nation like India, where there is a significant urban-rural divide, the contention that urbanites might have very different political preferences from rural dwellers might appear to make sense.

As things develop, I’ll write up more. But if the Mousavi supporters want sympathetic coverage from the rest of the world, they should not look to the democracy closest to their borders.

UPDATE: Apologies to Turkophiles. Of course, Turkey is a democracy, and shares a border with Iran. Maybe just say that Iranians should not look to the oldest democracy in the developing world.

Foreign Policy is not Pretty: India-Pakistan Edition

Pakistan diverted American counter-terrorism assistance to buy weapons to use against India. The Bush Administration knew about it, and did nothing. And that might have been the right course.

Headlines today in the Times of India and the Deccan Chronicle with a disturbing, and to me initially outrageous story:

The Pentagon has confirmed one of South Asia’s worst kept secrets – that Pakistan has used billions of dollars of US aid to buy a mind-boggling array of conventional American weaponary to use against India.

The aid was meant for Pakistan to fight the war on terror. India has repeatedly pointed out that much of the military hardware on Pakistan’s shopping list was not suited to anti-terror operations. Now, Pentagon reports have revealed that even the money poured into Islamabad’s coffers by the Bush administration fter 9/11 specifically to fight al Qaida and the Taliban, was used to develop offensive capabilities against India.

The Pentagon reports detail the brazen diversion of funds given to Pakistan between 2002 and 2009 and the Pervez Musharraf government — often described by George W Bush as America’s “strong” ally in the “war against terror” – to acquire arms ranging from anti-tank missiles to F 16s. The arsenal was meant to blunt India’s edge in conventional weaponry

So let me get this straight. Pakistan busily supports the Taliban for several years, winks at Al-Qaeda presence in its northwest frontier provinces, and sponsors terrorism in Kashmir and Bombay. In return for this, we let them spend counterrorism funds to prepare for war against democratic India, which we are trying to develop better relations with. Who are these morons?

And then I thought about it a little more.

Pakistan isn’t going to fight a conventional war against India. It lost horribly the last time it tried, and if anything, the correlation of forces has tilted toward India since then. Islamabad has a nuclear deterrent, and in any event, it can bleed New Delhi much more effectively and cheaply by sponsoring terrorists.

“Counterrorism” im Pakistan is a predominantly a political effort, not a military one. That means we need allies within Pakistan. One potential ally is the military: the generals might become a countervailing force against Pakistani intelligence, which has tight links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda and operates outside the military chain of command.

So, the thinking might go, this military hardware is a way of buying allies in Pakistan: that weaponry thus is counter-terrorism hardware. Let the generals and admirals have their toys; they’ll realize that it makes sense to work with the US, and they can try to undermine the ISI within Pakistan.

That might work. That might not work. But nothing else has. And it’s not crazy or unreasonable. It’s just really, really ugly. Get me some Pepto-Bismol.

The Greatest Woman in the World

The greatest woman in the world is someone no one would have expected a decade ago.

After winning the War of Independence, George Washington resigned his commission and retired to Mount Vernon. George III, upon hearing the story, was incredulous: “if he does that,” the monarch is supposed to have said, “then he will be the greatest man in the world.” And the king was right: given the opportunity for power, Washington turned it down.

Well, maybe we are seeing the same thing in India. Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the victorious Congress Party, has now turned down the Prime Ministership not once but twice. After an improbable victory in 2004, the job was hers for the taking, and she refused it — instead, giving it to an incorruptible technocrat, Manmohan Singh, who probably couldn’t have even won his parliamentary seat on his own. Cynics might have ascribed that to Gandhi’s fear that the government would be unstable.

But now, she has done it again, announcing less than two hours after the results were released that Singh will stay on — and she will stay out of the government. And she also made it very clear that the new Prime Minister will not be her son, Rahul, who was the very public face of Congress during the election, and would have easily won a vote of Congress members of Parliament. This is a strong blow against corruption in a country where nepotism still remains too much the norm.

Note as well that Sonia Gandhi may have saved the Congress Party, which for all its many flaws, remains the only national party advocating secularism, tolerance and democracy. Before she assumed control of the party, Congress was widely seen as being in inevitable decline, gaining only 114 seats in the 1998 election. Now, under her leadership, it is up to 255.

I’m sure that there are backstories here, and that the real truth is less appetizing than what happens in public. But I’m sure that that was true with Washington, too. Sonia Gandhi’s success — and what she has done with it — is genuinely good news.

Two Cheers for Clean Coal

We need to invest in carbon sequestration not for our sake — but for India and China.

I think it’s terrific that the Coen Brothers are making funny, effective ads against relying on “clean coal” as part of the US energy program. But I worry that the clean energy community is really missing the boat here.

Clean coal research and development is absolutely crucial in fighting climate change not for us, but for India and China. India has the fourth largest reserves of coal in the world — most of it very dirty, with high ash content. It currently imports 70% of its oil, which will rise to 90% by 2020 (this according to Edward Luce’s fabulous book In Spite of the Gods.). China, meanwhile, is both the world’s largest producer and the largest consumer of coal power.

I want them to switch to solar and wind as much as anyone else. But I have yet to see any credible estimates that India or China can grow in the way that they want to — and justifiably expect to — purely through renewables. It’s going to be hard enough for the United States to do so, and we still rely heavily on oil.

It is thus in the US interest to push for clean coal development not for us, but for India and China. Without it, they will either continue to burn dirty coal, or start competing with the west for oil supplies. Isn’t the latter good? Don’t we want the price of oil to go up? Yes, but through a carbon tax, not through giving more money to the Saudis or the Iranians (and then borrowing from the Chinese to pay for it).

It is reasonable — and necessary — for the United States to get rid of dirty coal plants. But we can’t expect two poor countries to bear the cost of getting rid of dirty coal for a global public good like climate change mitigation. That means the United States needs to invest in carbon sequestration technology — and in a big way. It doesn’t mean that we should build more coal-fired plants, but as the MIT Future of Coal study noted, the federal government does need to substantially increase its R & D, and coordinate these efforts far better than it has done in the past.

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has noted that “the quest for energy security is second only in our scheme of things to our quest for food security.” New Delhi (and presumably Beijing) will not stop burning coal just because we want them to do so. We need to help. Rejecting a sensible investment strategy here is going in exactly the wrong direction.

Engaging India on Climate

A new development in northern India sheds some light on how to engage developing countries on climate policy.

Via the Times of India, along comes the news that the state of Himachal Pradesh, just south of Kashmir, says that it will present a plan to become a carbon-neutral state. I’ll believe it when I see it, although the state seems to have a reasonable business strategy: reforest thousands of acres and sell carbon offset credits through the Clean Development Mechanism (which gives carbon emitters the opportunity to purchase offset credits in developing countries.).

Even with implementation issues, and the well-documented corruption problems with CDM, it is good news that someone in India is moving ahead forcefully on climate. It also points to a significant problem with the standard scholarly outlook on international climate issues, which holds that 1) climate is best addressed in one fell swoop through a binding international agreement to avoid carbon leakage; and 2) this agreement should be based on binding emissions caps through a cap-and-trade system.

First, along with Gujarat’s recent issuance of a solar power policy, it is clear that in India at least, the action is occurring in the states, not at the federal level. While this might seem odd, because climate policy often entails concentrated costs and diffuse benefits, it makes sense politically in India, because of a changing political culture, where regionally-based parties are gaining strength. These parties will resist fiats from Delhi, but will have fewer problems with initiatives from the bottom up.

Second, it casts doubt on the possibility of persuading developing countries such as India and China to go immediately with binding caps. Instead, the task should be to find co-benefits of climate-friendly policies to attract developing country partners. In HP, this involves using the CDM, but the general notion is to try to use development assistance to reduce emissions. Similarly, a carbon tax might be a fiscally attractive option for Indian states, most of which are in the midst of a public finance crisis. Technical assistance to jumpstart energy efficiency is another key point.

Climate change scholars, particularly the economists, love to talk about international climate change architecture. That might work well for economists, but for the rest of us it will resemble more like a Rube Goldberg contraption. I hope that that’s good enough. It might have to be.