November 23, 2012

The people Money has saluted over the past year for improving others’ finances have some more help to offer: sound advice for you.


Snowpocalypse or Not, 2013 Was One of the Warmest Years on Record

As I write this, I can see snow falling heavier and heavier outside my office window in midtown Manhattan. Up to 14 inches (36 cm) are projected to accumulate by Wednesday morning, part of major winter storm that’s spreading from South Carolina to Maine. Temperatures are predicted to stay well below normal for the rest of the week, as we all remember what winter used to be like. In short, it’s going to be cold, snowy and brutal, and Americans might feel as if warm weather will never return.

But don’t worry—on a global climatic scale, the heat is still on. That’s the takeaway from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual analysis of global climate data, which was released Tuesday. The red-hot numbers:

  • 2013 ties with 2003 as the fourth-warmest year globally since records began in 1880.
  • The annual global combined land and ocean surface temperatures was 58.12 degrees Fahrenheit (14.52 degrees Celsius), 1.12 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average (the warmest year on record is 2010, which was 1.19 degrees Fahrenheit (0.66 Celsius) above the average.
  • 2013 was the 37th consecutive year that the annual global temperature was above the average, which means that if you were born any year after 1976, you’ve never experienced a year when the global climate was average, let along cooler.
  • Including 2013, 9 of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st century, and just one year in the 20th century—1998—was warmer than 2013.

(MORE: Climate Change Might Just Be Driving the Historic Cold Snap)

The NOAA report, coming out in the middle of a major snowstorm and during a U.S. winter that’s been marked by the polar vortex, is a reminder that climate isn’t about the day-to-day changes in the weather (Note: NASA came out with its own report on 2013, using a different calculating method than NOAA, and found 2013 to be slightly cooler, but still the seventh-warmest year on record). It’s about the very long-term, as Gavin Schmidt, the deputy director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon:

The long-term trends in climate are extremely robust. There is year-to-year variability. There is season-to-season variability. There are times such as today when we can have snow even in a globally warmed world but the long-term trends are very clear. They’re not going to disappear.

Not only is climate change a long-term phenomenon, it’s also a global one, though it’s easy to get lost in our weather. Case in point: the average temperature in the continental U.S. in December was 30.9 F (-0.6 C). That’s 2.0 F (1.1 C) below the 20th century average. That’s the 21st coldest winter on record for the U.S. You weren’t just a wimp—December really was chilly for much of the U.S.

But the globally the picture was very different. The worldwide average temperature in December was 55.15 F (12.84 C), which is 1.15 F (0.64 C) above the 20th century average. While the U.S. was shivering, on a global scale December 2013 was the third warmest December on record. That’s global warming.

And 2014, despite the snowy and chilly start in the U.S., could be even hotter. Scientists now say that an El Nino seems likely to develop later this year, which is likely to push temperatures up in 2014 and 2015, since El Nino years tend to be warmer. So enjoy the snow while you can—it will likely be a faint memory by time Americans are sweating in July.

(MORE: Arctic Blast: The Northern Air Mass Bringing Record-Breaking Cold to the U.S.)


Split


30-Second Tech Trick: How to Unsend Email with Gmail

If you don’t have 30 seconds to watch the above video, here’s how to do it:

1. Launch Gmail.

2. Click the gear icon in the upper-right corner, then Settings.

3. Click the Labs tab.

4. Find Undo Send and click Enable.

5. Scroll down and click Save Changes.

The next time you send an email, you’ll have 10 seconds to undo it. That’s all she wrote.

Other tech tricks:


Meet The Women in Hillary Clinton's Inner Circle

Hillary Clinton has had a successful and trailblazing career as First Lady, New York senator, and Secretary of State. Over the past 25 years, she has been surrounded by a fierce circle of female advisers who make up a large part of her team.

Who are the women who have helped Hillary become Hillary? And how will their roles change if she runs for President in 2016?

From Huma Abedin, the political staffer who has been an integral part of the Clinton team since she started as a White House intern in 1996, to Cheryl Mills, a savvy political insider who is often described as the gatekeeper to Hillaryland, here’s a closer look at some of the women in Hillary Clinton’s inner circle who have been advising, handling and image checking Clinton for the past two decades.

(MORE: Hillary Clinton’s Unapologetically Hawkish Record Faces 2016 Test)


Scholarships for students

©2012 Kelvin Ma

Irving Fradkin

Founder, Scholarship America

“If you believe in something, ask for money. You don’t ask, you don’t get. Ask for $1. Everyone can afford that.”


Thai State of Emergency Throws Polls Into Fresh Doubt

Anti-government protesters wave national flags as they block the street in front of the Office of the Defence Permanent Secretary during a rally in Bangkok on Jan. 22, 2014
AFP / Getty Images

A state of emergency was declared in Bangkok from Wednesday, as embattled Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra attempted to tackle antigovernment rallies that have ensnared the world’s most visited city for almost two weeks.

“The cabinet decided to invoke the emergency decree to take care of the situation and to enforce the law,” said Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul.

The carnival atmosphere that characterized the start of Operation Bangkok Shutdown on Jan. 13 has quickly dissipated amid a marked escalation in violence. Since Friday, one person has been killed and scores injured as three grenades were hurled at antigovernment rallies in the Thai capital.

On Wednesday, a progovernment Red Shirt leader was shot with outside his home in northeastern Udon Thani province and now lies in a critical condition. Witnesses saw a gunman spray 20 rounds from an AK47 before speeding away in a pick-up truck.

Despite the bloodshed, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has scoffed at the 60-day emergency decree and vowed to fight on. “I know about this [decree] well,” he told reporters. In 2010, Suthep used the same provision to order a crackdown on Red Shirt demonstrators that led to around 90 deaths and 2,000 injuries.

Of course, back then the burly 64-year-old was less sympathetic to demonstrators besieging state institutions and haranguing civil servants. “If they violate the laws, such as blocking roads and intruding into government offices, we will have to disperse the protesters,” Suthep said in March 2010, while serving as Deputy Prime Minister for the now-opposition Democrat Party.

“The situation is larded with massive ironies on all fronts,” says Anthony Davis, Bangkok-based analyst for defense-and-security-intelligence firm IHS-Jane.

For almost two weeks, tens of thousands of protesters have tried to topple Yingluck’s administration, claiming that she is a stooge for her brother, exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is a polarizing figure treated with adoration by the rural poor of the north and northeast, but opprobrium by royalists and voters in Bangkok and southern provinces. Protesters want to purge Thailand of Thaksin’s influence, believing this panacea will allow the country to be “reset” and started afresh.

To this end, they want democracy suspended for up to two years while a unelected people’s council carries out nebulous reforms. Given that Thaksin-backed parties have won all five elections since 2001, the opposition has no interest in contesting the snap poll Yingluck has called for Feb. 2 in order to reassert her popular mandate.

According to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, the emergency decree is “designed to make the government appear it is control. But I’m not sure it is.” Nevertheless, any crackdown is extremely likely; amid turmoil on the streets, the police — understood to be pro-Thaksin — have remained largely invisible.

Yingluck is simply “banging a drum” after criticism that she sits torpid while mayhem unfurls around her, says Davis. “This is not a prelude to a crackdown, but they are trying to dispel the notion that they are losing control of the situation before the elections,” he tells TIME.

Pavin agrees, warning that Yingluck “would lose the moral authority” and possibly spur the powerful military into taking sides by trying to disperse the protests.

The government already has the necessary tools to crush the protests, says Davis, pointing to how the Internal Security Act has been in place in Bangkok since late November. Nevertheless, “major areas of the capital have been disrupted and taken over, people are setting up stages and doing essentially whatever they want with absolutely no let or hindrance from the police.”

Despite the unlikelihood of confrontation, concerns remain. Yingluck has “jumped the gun” by declaring a state if emergency that amounts to a “blank check for abuses,” warns Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Thailand. The decree means that officials “shall not be subject civil, criminal or disciplinary liabilities arising from the performance of functions” and it should only be implemented when there is a threat against the survival of the nation. Hence, “there is no legitimate justification” at the present time, adds Sunai.

Already the Feb. 2 ballot faces challenges from the Democrat Party boycott and disruptions to candidate registration. In addition, “the state of emergency undermines the very concept of free and fair elections,” says Sunai, citing censorship and restrictions on assembly, expression and association. “How can we see election campaigns and the communication of platforms in the media?” he asks.

Although this might provide another opportunity for the establishment-leaning Election Commission (EC) to challenge the result, most observers believe the polls will proceed. Aside from the EC, the National Anti-Corruption Commission is investigating Yingluck and 308 MPs, mainly from her Pheu Thai party, over a raft of alleged offenses, with yet more possible charges in the pipeline. “There’s all sort of potential impediments immediately before, during and after [the elections],” says Davis. “It’s going to be messy.”

Observers believe a key indicator will be whether advance and absentee ballots are filed on Jan. 26. Thailand experiences huge labor migration from rural areas to cities and famed tourist resorts, and if these voters face significant disruption then it is unlikely that the Feb. 2 vote can proceed. If so,“we could see Thailand falling deeper into crisis for many more months to come,” warns Pavin.


Thai State of Emergency Throws Polls Into Fresh Doubt

A state of emergency was declared in Bangkok from Wednesday, as embattled Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra attempted to tackle antigovernment rallies that have ensnared the world’s most visited city for almost two weeks.

“The cabinet decided to invoke the emergency decree to take care of the situation and to enforce the law,” said Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul.

The carnival atmosphere that characterized the start of Operation Bangkok Shutdown on Jan. 13 has quickly dissipated amid a marked escalation in violence. Since Friday, one person has been killed and scores injured as three grenades were hurled at antigovernment rallies in the Thai capital.

On Wednesday, a progovernment Red Shirt leader was shot with outside his home in northeastern Udon Thani province and now lies in a critical condition. Witnesses saw a gunman spray 20 rounds from an AK47 before speeding away in a pick-up truck.

Despite the bloodshed, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has scoffed at the 60-day emergency decree and vowed to fight on. “I know about this [decree] well,” he told reporters. In 2010, Suthep used the same provision to order a crackdown on Red Shirt demonstrators that led to around 90 deaths and 2,000 injuries.

Of course, back then the burly 64-year-old was less sympathetic to demonstrators besieging state institutions and haranguing civil servants. “If they violate the laws, such as blocking roads and intruding into government offices, we will have to disperse the protesters,” Suthep said in March 2010, while serving as Deputy Prime Minister for the now-opposition Democrat Party.

“The situation is larded with massive ironies on all fronts,” says Anthony Davis, Bangkok-based analyst for defense-and-security-intelligence firm IHS-Jane.

For almost two weeks, tens of thousands of protesters have tried to topple Yingluck’s administration, claiming that she is a stooge for her brother, exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is a polarizing figure treated with adoration by the rural poor of the north and northeast, but opprobrium by royalists and voters in Bangkok and southern provinces. Protesters want to purge Thailand of Thaksin’s influence, believing this panacea will allow the country to be “reset” and started afresh.

To this end, they want democracy suspended for up to two years while a unelected people’s council carries out nebulous reforms. Given that Thaksin-backed parties have won all five elections since 2001, the opposition has no interest in contesting the snap poll Yingluck has called for Feb. 2 in order to reassert her popular mandate.

According to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, the emergency decree is “designed to make the government appear it is control. But I’m not sure it is.” Nevertheless, any crackdown is extremely likely; amid turmoil on the streets, the police — understood to be pro-Thaksin — have remained largely invisible.

Yingluck is simply “banging a drum” after criticism that she sits torpid while mayhem unfurls around her, says Davis. “This is not a prelude to a crackdown, but they are trying to dispel the notion that they are losing control of the situation before the elections,” he tells TIME.

Pavin agrees, warning that Yingluck “would lose the moral authority” and possibly spur the powerful military into taking sides by trying to disperse the protests.

The government already has the necessary tools to crush the protests, says Davis, pointing to how the Internal Security Act has been in place in Bangkok since late November. Nevertheless, “major areas of the capital have been disrupted and taken over, people are setting up stages and doing essentially whatever they want with absolutely no let or hindrance from the police.”

Despite the unlikelihood of confrontation, concerns remain. Yingluck has “jumped the gun” by declaring a state if emergency that amounts to a “blank check for abuses,” warns Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Thailand. The decree means that officials “shall not be subject civil, criminal or disciplinary liabilities arising from the performance of functions” and it should only be implemented when there is a threat against the survival of the nation. Hence, “there is no legitimate justification” at the present time, adds Sunai.

Already the Feb. 2 ballot faces challenges from the Democrat Party boycott and disruptions to candidate registration. In addition, “the state of emergency undermines the very concept of free and fair elections,” says Sunai, citing censorship and restrictions on assembly, expression and association. “How can we see election campaigns and the communication of platforms in the media?” he asks.

Although this might provide another opportunity for the establishment-leaning Election Commission (EC) to challenge the result, most observers believe the polls will proceed. Aside from the EC, the National Anti-Corruption Commission is investigating Yingluck and 308 MPs, mainly from her Pheu Thai party, over a raft of alleged offenses, with yet more possible charges in the pipeline. “There’s all sort of potential impediments immediately before, during and after [the elections],” says Davis. “It’s going to be messy.”

Observers believe a key indicator will be whether advance and absentee ballots are filed on Jan. 26. Thailand experiences huge labor migration from rural areas to cities and famed tourist resorts, and if these voters face significant disruption then it is unlikely that the Feb. 2 vote can proceed. If so,“we could see Thailand falling deeper into crisis for many more months to come,” warns Pavin.


british_virgin_islands_0122

A bird’s eye view of the entrance to Cane Garden Bay, Tortola’s most popular beach, British Virgin Islands


No, There’s Not a Marijuana Pet Poisoning Epidemic

A report Tuesday indicated that marijuana poisonings among pets are on the rise, but pot-smoking animal lovers shouldn’t freak out just yet.

The Animal Poison Control Center, which is part of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), says it received approximately 320 calls about marijuana poisoning in 2013. Compared to the 213 calls received in 2009, that’s quite a spike—about 50 percent, and NBC News proclaimed that “this is your dog on drugs.” But even despite the rise, 320 is still a very low number in the grand scheme of things. The Animal Poison Control Center handled about 180,000 animal poisoning cases in 2013, so the calls about marijuana poisoning amount to about 0.18 percent of the total—hardly cause for bong-induced alarm.

That’s not to discount the damage marijuana can do to a pet, of course. Dr. Tina Wismer, the director of the Animal Poison Control Center, told NBC that when an animal consumes marijuana, symptoms can range from sedation to increased agitation, distress, and high heart rates. Most poisoned dogs will become incontinent, she said.

But while marijuana consumption in pets may be rising incrementally, other substances should be of far greater concern. The most common single item that causes pet poisoning is chocolate, according to the Animal Poison Control Center, followed by human medications like pills or pain killers or allergy medications. Pets are also at a risk of consuming insecticides.


Hey Dove, Don't 'Redefine' Beauty, Just Stop Talking About It

Dove is famous for making two things: soap, and long-winded advertisements aiming to “redefine beauty” in the name of selling soap.

Their latest ad, titled “Selfie,” debuted Monday at Sundance, like a real-live movie. It’s a heartwarming tale of a bunch of normal-looking girls who have absolutely no discernable interests in anything except how they look. They all thought they were ugly until Dove told them they were beautiful, and then the world was illuminated with their beaming smilies, because they are beautiful, and feeling beautiful makes you happy, according to Dove. Also, smelling good!

Here’s Dove’s “groundbreaking” indie film:

Dove’s not the only culprit. Pantene had an ad late last year that equated shiny hair with respect at work, they even provided a hashtag, #shinestrong. And American Eagle’s Aerie brand recently debuted a lingerie campaign featuring “real unphotoshopped girls” to encourage customers to “embrace their own beauty,” as a brand representative described it on Good Morning America. After years of marketing outer beauty, it looks like inner beauty is the hot new thing.

But I’m sending back the soup on this “redefining beauty” stuff, especially when it’s used by cosmetics companies. Whether they’re selling shampoos or bras or search engines (Bing also came out with a feminist-inspired ad recently,) the companies who think they can sell their product by tricking feminist writers into promoting their ads for them are pretty crafty, I have to admit. They’ve got our number. They know that there are a bunch of lady-writers out there, just like me, who tend to write about things that have to do with women. There are whole blogs devoted to lady issues, and many online magazines have women’s-issues sections, and all of those writers need to write about something besides Miley Cyrus, and a statement about “redefining beauty” is basically internet catnip. An anti-beauty ad can launch a thousand think pieces (just like this.)

And even non-writers love to share these feel-good ads among their friends, so these videos usually end up going viral– the Dove “Sketches” ad was the most watched viral ad of all time a month after it debuted in 2013. Advertising dressed as a PSA literally sells itself. Bravo, corporate masterminds, that mustache-twirl is well-deserved.

But marketing conspiracy aside, I just think the conversation about “redefining beauty” is a misguided one at best. Because “redefining beauty” is still talking about beauty, and we need our girls to be thinking and talking about things other than the way they look. Making girls suddenly feel beautiful is all well and good for the purposes of selling soap and moisturizers, but it’s not real progress. Real progress would be if that conversation in the gym were about climate change, not hair.

MORE: American Eagle Ditches Photoshop For New Lingerie Campaign

Forgive the personal anecdote, but now is when I’ll tell you about my own awkward phase. Fairly or not, I considered myself a “super-ugly” girl. I had braces until I was 18, and my high school yearbook picture has that tight-lipped Mona Lisa smile hiding a mouth full of wires instead of the secret of the Renaissance. My braces had gaps and pulleys and bunched-up rubber bands stuck in random places that looked like permanent blobs of food. I had a tooth growing in the middle of the roof of my mouth that had to be anchored and pulled to shore like the Costa Concordia. Even if I could get control of my frizzy hair or get my hands on an Abercrombie shirt, being beautiful was out of the question. I felt like the Man in the Iron Mask.

Seeing a picture of another girl with braces in a sentimental ad wasn’t going to make me feel beautiful, because nothing could make me feel beautiful. But that doesn’t mean I spent all day taking selfies and crying about it. Granted, I was very fortunate that I wasn’t regularly bullied over my looks, so I had it easier than some. So I wasn’t beautiful. I got over it.

There is a difference between feeling beautiful and feeling good. And that is the central conflation here, the reason these ads are so awful. The Dove ad says that our self esteem problem exists only in the realm of beauty, that if we make everyone feel beautiful, then everyone will be happy. The message is that if you can get to a place where you feel beautiful, you will be stronger, more confident, more powerful. But anyone who’s ever seen a picture of Lindsay Lohan knows that’s a load of bull.

The thing that helped me through my awkward phase wasn’t the idea that I was beautiful even with my braces, which I knew was a blatant lie (nice try, mom). What helped was doing other things, evaluating myself on other criteria. I discovered that even if I was not beautiful, I could still do well in class. I could play an old lady in the school musical. I could do a good impression of my Chemistry teacher. ( I still could not play volleyball, though. Ever).

“Redefining beauty” is just another way to keep talking about beauty, which is what companies want but is the last thing girls need. Let’s put a lid on it. Maybe if we focus on teaching girls about viral marketing instead of “ways to think you’re beautiful,” some of them might grow up to be the kind of shrewd marketing execs that started all this in the first place.

MORE: Dear Beauty Brands: Stop Using Feminism as Your Marketing Strategy


Bill Gates Talks to TIME About the Three Myths of Global Aid

Bill Gates
Michael Gottschalk / Photothek / Getty Images

It’s easy to get fed up when you’re trying to save the world. Progress can be slow, setbacks are constant and few people appreciate exactly what you’re doing. Bill Gates understands that better than most. Having spent the past 13 years battling poverty, hunger and disease around the world through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he has a right good record of success to point to, but public misconceptions persist.

In their 2014 annual letter, both Bill and Melinda Gates take on what they call the three great global-aid myths: that poor countries will always be poor; that foreign aid is a waste, with money inevitably vanishing into the pockets of corrupt officials or being misspent by inept bureaucracies; and that saving lives in the developing world will only lead to overpopulation.

The myths persist despite the fact that Africa is experiencing something of a boom time. Demographers document a paradoxical reduction in population in countries where child mortality goes down. As families can be more confident their babies will survive, they will have fewer of them. And as for corruption: yes, it exists, but the incidence has plummeted — thanks in part to the results-based way the Gates Foundation and others administer their programs — and try to name a country in the world that doesn’t have at least a few corrupt officials.

(MORE: Melinda Gates Launches Global Crusade for Contraception)

“Four of the past seven governors of Illinois have gone to prison for corruption,” Bill Gates wrote in his letter, “and to my knowledge, no one has demanded that Illinois schools be shut down or its highways be closed.”

Gates elaborated on these and other ideas in a conversation with TIME this morning. As his answers show, he remains both optimist and realist.

You seem hopeful about our ability to lift nations out of poverty permanently. That’s an awfully bold position given how intractable the problem has always been. What evidence do you have that we’re winning the war?
Look at the numbers. If you go back to 1800, everybody was poor. I mean everybody. The Industrial Revolution kicked in and a lot of countries benefited, but by no means everyone. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, most countries were very poor. India, China, Africa, everyone but the West was living on less than $2 a day per capita. But the curve is shifting and incomes are rising and now most of those countries have $5- to $10-a-day-type incomes. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s per person not per family and the key thing is purchasing power, which can be quite high on $10 per day in a country in which things cost much less. Living on $6 a day means you have a refrigerator, a TV, a cell phone, your children can go to school. That’s not possible on $1 a day.

How does the kind of global aid the Gates Foundation often provides — vaccine development and delivery, say — help countries get richer?
When you invent the vaccines that make kids healthy, you remove a burden from the countries’ health care and social systems. Aid creates health and nutrition, and health and nutrition creates wealth. Healthy children can go to school and work and contribute to their country’s economy. Yes, it’s hard to see the benefits right away and that often misleads people. Health improvements pay off a generation down the line.

(MORE: Why the London Vaccine Summit Is a Triumph for Global Health)

What about the dependency issue? Don’t recipient countries come to rely on aid?
Mexico was once a recipient country. So was Brazil and so was China and now they’re all donor countries. The key is the kind of aid you provide. When you invent seeds that produce heartier crops in diverse climates, you help farmers become more productive, for example, and that has perhaps the biggest impact on a developing country. Clearly, having stability, having a capitalist economy helps too. China adopted a capitalist system in the 1980s, and they went from a 60% poverty rate to 10%.

No one ever advocated simply letting countries with high infant-mortality rates suffer, but most did believe that reducing deaths would mean exacerbating overpopulation. Now we’re finding the opposite is true. How did that happen?
Actually demographers were seeing drops in population rates as kids stopped dying some time ago. The people who did population projections went year after year tracking this, and by the 1990s this idea was pretty well-known but only in certain circles. It was only recently, as we started working with contraception, that I understood it myself. Families in wealthier, healthier countries have fewer children because the odds are better that the ones they have will survive infancy. Vietnam and Costa Rica really got their act together in this regard and built primary-health-care systems, which reduced mortality. More recently, Ethiopia and Rwanda have been doing the same. The Rwandan Health Minister put together 15,000 health centers staffed by two women each. Ghana, relative to its income, runs a pretty good health system, while Nigeria runs a poor one relative to its wealth. There’s quite a bit of variance in Africa.

Still, you say you’re optimistic about Africa overall.
Over the past half-decade, 7 out of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa. By the 1990s, life span had doubled in Africa and child mortality has dropped by a third compared to just a few years ago. Globalization has made copper and other minerals more valuable, and Ghana and Kenya have recently discovered mineral resources. The question is, Does the wealth that’s generated get used the right way to fund infrastructure and schools? African nations are still poorer than us, yes. But improvements in the human condition have laid the foundation for improvements in their entire societies.

PHOTOS: The Global Reach of the Gates Foundation


Syria

A Free Syrian Army fighter offers evening prayers beside a damaged poster of Syria’s President Bashar Assad during heavy clashes with government forces in Aleppo, Syria, on Dec. 8, 2012.


Evidence of War Crimes In Syria But No Prospect of Trials

The trove of horrific photos that surfaced Monday purporting to document systematic torture, starvation and execution of prisoners by Syrian authorities is exactly the kind of evidence prosecutors look for when seeking to bring charges of crimes against humanity in international courts. Yet legal experts say any such trial is highly unlikely.

“The obvious route of justice here would be the International Criminal Court,” says Reed Brody, an expert on international justice at Human Rights Watch. The ICC was created in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2002 to prosecute exactly the kind of outrages the report lays out in the sort of chilling bureaucratic detail seen in previous war crime trials, from the prosecution of Nazi officers at Nuremberg onward. And even though Syria is not among the 122 nations that have made themselves accountable to the ICC its officials still could be referred to The Hague by a vote of the United Nations Security Council.

“And we believe obviously that that’s what should happen, considering the evidence that serious crimes have been committed in Syria,” Brody says. “The problem is the Russian nyet.”

As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia can veto any action there. And as a backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Moscow has repeatedly blocked condemnations of human rights violations in the country — which would include appalling atrocities attributed to assorted rebel groups arrayed against the central government. The thwarted demands for justice included a letter signed by 58 nations a year ago to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.

Russia – along with China, which frequently objects on principle to outside scrutiny of a state’s behavior toward its own people – also is in a position to prevent establishment of a U.N. court specifically devoted to prosecuting war crimes in Syria, as were established after wars in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

There may be one other option: Under the legal concept of “universal jurisdiction,” courts in other nations sometimes prosecute severe human rights abuses. In 1998, Gen. Augusto Pinochet was arrested in Britain for a warrant issued in Spain charging the former Chilean ruler with torturing Spanish citizens while in power. “But this is also a long shot, because many countries that have universal jurisdiction legislation place conditions on its use,” says Yuval Shany, an expert on international law at Hebrew University Law School, where he is dean.

And then there’s the question of the strength of the evidence – some 55,000 photos showing 11,000 bodies, nearly 10 percent of the death toll of the entire war – first published by The Guardian and CNN. Would it help convict Assad, or other senior Syrian officials, if a case were brought?

“This is horizontal evidence of the crime base, as opposed to vertical evidence that links the people on top to the crime,” says Brody, who spoke en route to Senegal, where he is supporting the prosecution in a special court of Hissene Habre on charges of systematic torture and executions when he ruled Chad. “Obviously Assad didn’t kill any of these people, but at a certain point things become so overwhelming it becomes hard to imagine that the leader didn’t know about this.”

Shany was less confident. He did not question the veracity of the report, which was prepared by three highly respected experts on war crimes, nor its funding by Qatar, a Gulf state supporting rebels in the Syrian civil war. The problem, Shany says, is legal precedents emerging in recent judgments, specifically the 2012 acquittal on appeal of two Croatian generals earlier convicted of targeting Serb civilians by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

“It’s tough, and it’s becoming tougher” to convict senior officials for war crimes, says Shany. The Croatia case “raised the bar for command responsibility – from a negligence to an awareness standard.”

At the ICC, the only head of state convicted so far of war crimes is former Liberian President Charles Taylor, now serving a sentence of 50 years. But then, as incumbent Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has complained in his own trial, so far only Africans have faced prosecution before the ICC. That appears to be partly because so many African countries – 33 – have submitted themselves to its jurisdiction. But Shany says it may also reflect the “geopolitical reality” that African countries are less likely to have a protector on the Security Council.


U.S. Oil Demand Grew Faster Than China's in 2013. That Won't Last

Oil demand grew faster in the U.S. than anywhere else in 2013
Photo by Scott Olson / Getty Images

The oil production boom in the United States is old news, something we covered in a special section just a few months ago. Improved hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling has helped unlock vast new tight oil supplies, mostly in Texas and North Dakota. But I don’t think everyone has realized just how much boom is in this boom.

New numbers from the International Energy Agency (IEA) might change that. Crude oil production in the U.S. rose by 990,000 barrels a day (bbd) last year, a increase of 15% from the year before. That’s the fastest such absolute annual growth of any country in 20 years. And it’s not just production: The IEA reports that in 2013, U.S. demand for oil grew by 390,000 bbd, or about 2%, after years of decline. For the first time since 1999, U.S. demand for oil grew faster than China’s demand, which rose by 295,000 bbd, the weakest increase in six years. So not only is the U.S. producing a gusher of oil, but it’s also consuming more crude.

(MORE: North Dakota Derailment Shows Dark Side of America’s Oil Boom

That increase in domestic demand could a good sign for the economy, if not for the environment. Growth in oil demand was mostly steady in the U.S. from the early 1980s on, before plateauing a couple of years before the financial crisis of 2008. Since then it’s mostly dropped. Average consumption in the U.S. was 18.8 million bbd between 2009 and 2012, compared to 205 million bbd between 2005 and 2008. Economic growth and energy demand have historically gone together—more businesses using more energy, more workers driving to the office—so last year’s unexpected increase in oil demand could mean the U.S. is rebounding, as Antoine Heff, head of oil market research at the IEA, told the Financial Times:

It is clear that the US economy is rebounding very strongly thanks to its energy supplies. Sometimes oil is a lagging indicator, but sometimes it is the opposite and shows that an economy is growing faster than thought.

According to the IEA, much of that growth has been in the petrochemical industry, which has taken advantage of burgeoning domestic oil supply. U.S. exports overall hit a record high in November, cutting the trade deficit to its lowest level since 2009. And much of that export growth came not from manufactured goods but from diesel and gasoline, with the U.S. exporting $13.3 billion worth of petrochemical products in November. With oil companies forbidden from exporting crude from the U.S.—though they’ve been lobbying lately to get that changed—refineries have taken up the slack, benefiting from the fact that domestic oil is often sold at a discount (they’ve also benefited from low natural gas prices, thanks to shale drilling). It’s not for nothing, as Mitchell Schnurman noted in the Dallas Morning News, that the oil capital of Houston led the nation in exports in 2012, ahead of the New York area.

(PHOTO: Black Rock Rush: Working the Oil Fields of North Dakota)

But even if the U.S. economy does rebound—and boom times in the petrochemical industry don’t necessarily translate to the rest of the country—don’t expect the U.S. to go all the way back to its gas guzzling days. There are other reasons besides a declining economy that explain why U.S. oil demand fell so much over the past several years. Cars are now more fuel-efficient than ever, thanks to tougher fuel economy standards and growing consumer preferences for lighter, smaller cars and hybrids. But we’re also driving less. An analysis by Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that 9.2% of U.S. households in 2012 were without a vehicle, compared to 8.7% in 2007. Vehicle miles traveled has largely plateaued over the last several years, indicating the U.S.—like other developed countries—may have reached something like “peak car.”

That’s arguable—the drop in the percentage of households with cars could well have more to do with high unemployment and slugging economic growth than anything else. But while the boom in domestic oil production has helped stabilize gas prices—a gallon cost an average of $3.32 a gallon in 2013, just a little more than in 2012—the days of cheap gas are almost certainly over. The future of oil demand is going to be in the developing world—especially China, where consumers bought over 20 million cars in 2013, compared to 15.6 million in the U.S. 2013 will likely turn out to be a blip in that epochal shift.

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