News & Current Affairs

September 4, 2008

Palin takes battle to Democrats

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Palin takes battle to Democrats

John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, has made a stinging attack on Democratic presidential runner Barack Obama at the US Republican convention.

She gave her first major campaign speech to an enthusiastic crowd at the convention in St Paul, Minnesota.

Defending her small-town roots, she attacked Mr Obama as having talked of change, but done nothing of substance.

Mr McCain made a surprise appearance on stage, with her family, saying: “Don’t you think we made the right choice?”

The Arizona senator has been formally nominated as the party’s presidential candidate in a roll call vote by state delegations. He is expected to accept the nomination on Thursday.

I’ve learned quickly… , that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone
Sarah Palin

In a speech designed to rally the party base, she spoke of her family, including her elder son, who is about to be deployed to Iraq in the US Army, and her younger son, who has Down’s Syndrome.

The mother-of-five highlighted her background as a small-town “average hockey mom” and stressed that she was not part of the “Washington elite”.

In a salvo directed at media commentators who have questioned her qualifications, she said she was “not going to Washington to seek their good opinion” but to serve the people.

Mrs Palin praised the “determination, resolve and sheer guts” of Mr McCain and said she was honoured to help him.

Mrs Palin also attacked Mr Obama’s “change agenda” and suggested he was more interested in idealism and “high-flown speech-making” than acting for “real Americans”.

“In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers,” she said.

Justin Webb
I liked the parliamentary-style jabs at Obama
BBC North America editor Justin Webb

“And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.”

She also targeted Mr Obama’s experience as a community organiser and remarks he made earlier this year when he spoke of “bitter” working-class people “clinging to guns or religion”.

“I guess that a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer’, except that you have actual responsibilities,” she said.

“I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening.”

Mrs Palin – who supports drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – said that while drilling “will not solve all of America’s energy problems”, that is “no excuse to do nothing at all”.

Democrats under fire

Former Governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee opened the night by hailing Mr McCain and attacking the Democrats.

Mr Romney, a one-time rival of Mr McCain for the Republican nomination, used his speech to hammer the Democrats over their “liberal” agenda.

“We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington – throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain,” the former Massachusetts governor said.

He also lauded Mr McCain’s national security credentials, saying he was the presidential contender who would defeat “evil” radical Islam.

Mr Huckabee, also a former rival of Mr McCain, joked that he had hoped to be giving the speech on Thursday night – when Mr McCain will accept the party’s nomination to run for president in November’s election.

But, he said, he was delighted to be speaking for his second choice, Mr McCain – “a man with the character and stubborn kind of integrity that we need in a president”.

He defended Mrs Palin against criticism from the media, saying its coverage had been “tackier than a costume change at a Madonna concert”, and attacked the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Rudy Giuliani speaks at the Republican convention in St Paul, 3 Sept
You need to face your enemy in order to defeat them. John McCain will face this threat and bring victory to this country
Rudy Giuliani

“I am so tired of hearing about her lack of experience. She got more votes running for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, than Joe Biden got running for president of the United States,” he said, referring to Mr Biden’s performance in the Democratic primaries.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani followed Mr Huckabee on stage, calling the 2008 presidential election a “turning point” for the people of the US.

He charged the Democrats with being in denial about the threat from terrorism and said Mr McCain had the foreign policy, national security and leadership experience that counted.

“The choice in this election comes down to substance over style,” he said. “John has been tested. Barack Obama has not. Tough times require strong leadership, and this is no time for on the job training.”

Vetting questions

The Alaska governor’s speech comes amid scrutiny of her record and after two days dominated by the news her daughter Bristol, 17, is pregnant.

Mrs Palin and her family, including Bristol and her boyfriend, greeted Mr McCain at the airport as he arrived in Minnesota on Wednesday.

Ahead of her address, senior McCain campaign adviser Steve Schmidt issued a statement saying that media questions over how thoroughly Mrs Palin was vetted should end.

It has also been revealed that an attorney has been hired to represent Mrs Palin in an Alaska state ethics investigation involving alleged abuse of power.

Mrs Palin told US network CNBC she had “nothing to hide”. Her deposition is expected to be scheduled soon.

There have also been reports that Mrs Palin sought special financial favors for her city and state – something the McCain campaign is against.

She was elected governor of Alaska in 2006 and before that was mayor of the small town of Wasilla, Alaska.

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September 3, 2008

Major ice-shelf loss for Canada

Major ice-shelf loss for Canada

Ice drifts away from the Ward Hunt ice shelf in northern Canada

Ward Hunt is the largest of the remnant ice shelves

The ice shelves in Canada’s High Arctic have lost a colossal area this year, scientists report.

The floating tongues of ice attached to Ellesmere Island, which have lasted for thousands of years, have seen almost a quarter of their cover break away.

One of them, the 50 sq km (20 sq miles) Markham shelf, has completely broken off to become floating sea-ice.

Researchers say warm air temperatures and reduced sea-ice conditions in the region have assisted the break-up.

“These substantial calving events underscore the rapidity of changes taking place in the Arctic,” said Trent University’s Dr Derek Mueller.

“These changes are irreversible under the present climate.”

Satellite images of ice loss

Satellite images show the loss of the Markham Ice Shelf over the last year

Scientists reported in July that substantial slabs of ice had calved from Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, the largest of the Ellesmere shelves.

Similar changes have been seen in the other four shelves.

As well as the complete breakaway of the Markham, the Serson shelf lost two sections totaling an estimated 122 sq km (47 sq miles), and the break-up of the Ward Hunt has continued.

Cold remnants

The shelves themselves are merely remnants of a much larger feature that was once bounded to Ellesmere Island and covered almost 10,000 sq km (3,500 sq miles).

Over the past 100 years, this expanse of ice has retreated by 90%, and at the start of this summer season covered just under 1,000 sq km (400 sq miles).

Much of the area was lost during a warm period in the 1930s and 1940s.

Melt water on ice shelf

“Long meltwater lakes” were imaged on the Markham shelf in 2005

Temperatures in the Arctic are now even higher than they were then, and a period of renewed ice shelf break-up has ensued since 2002.

Unlike much of the floating sea-ice which comes and goes, the shelves contain ice that is up to 4,500 years old.

A rapid sea-ice retreat is being experienced across the Arctic again this year, affecting both the ice attached to the coast and floating in the open ocean.

The floating sea-ice, which would normally keep the shelves hemmed in, has shrunk to just under five million sq km, the second lowest extent recorded since the era of satellite measurement began about 30 years ago.

“Reduced sea-ice conditions and unusually high air temperatures have facilitated the ice shelf losses this summer,” said Dr Luke Copland from the University of Ottawa.

“And extensive new cracks across remaining parts of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf mean that it will continue to disintegrate in the coming years.”

Loss of ice in the Arctic, and in particular the extensive sea-ice, has global implications. The “white parasol” at the top of the planet reflects energy from the Sun straight back out into space, helping to cool the Earth.

Further loss of Arctic ice will see radiation absorbed by darker seawater and snow-free land, potentially warming the Earth’s climate at an even faster rate than current observational data indicates.

Profile: Sarah Palin

Profile: Sarah Palin
Palin considers herself a “maverick” politician, like McCain [GALLO/GETTY]

Sarah Palin, the youngest and first female governor of Alaska, has emerged from relative obscurity to become John McCain’s choice as his running-mate for the Republican presidential nomination.Palin, who describes herself as an “American Thatcher” in reference to the former British prime minister, calls herself a “maverick” reformer rather than a traditional Republican.

She cut her political teeth as mayor of the small town of Wasilla, Alaska from 1996-2002.

And while she has no national or international political experience, she has made headlines by pushing for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The mother-of-five has also angered environmentalists further by opposing the listing of the polar bear as an endangered species.

She is a loyal member of the National Rifle Association who enjoys hunting and supports the construction of a pipeline to move natural gas across the state.

Conservative appeal

Palin beat Frank Murkowski, the state’s Republican incumbent governor, in a primary poll two years ago, despite having little money and little backing from the political establishment.

In focus

In-depth coverage of US election

She has also distanced herself from two senior Republican politicians in Alaska, Ted Stevens and Don Young, who are both undergoing federal corruption investigations.But her anti-corruption reputation has been questioned after an investigation was recently launched by a legislative panel into whether she dismissed Alaska’s public safety commissioner because he would not fire her former brother-in-law from the state police.

The governor, who studied journalism and is a former sports television reporter, will also help attract conservative support for McCain’s campaign.

“When you look closer at Sarah Palin, she’s very very conservative on virtually all of the issues,” says Bill Bradley, a political analyst.

“She has a very compelling and interesting story but she is much more to the right than where the country is today.”

Palin is strongly opposed to abortion, and stands in favour of the death penalty.

She is married to Todd Palin, a part-Eskimo former commercial fisherman who now works in Alaska’s oil fields and who is a four-time winner of the daunting Alaska Iron Dog snowmobile competition.

August 30, 2008

Energy-hungry Europe warms to Norway

Energy-hungry Europe warms to Norway

Amid frantic newspaper headlines about the possibility of a new Cold War, more and more governments around Europe are talking about their need for “energy security”.

What most of them actually mean is that they are not sure whether or not to trust the Russians.

A gas platform off the coast of Norway

Norway remains one of only two major fossil fuel exporters in Europe

There are only two big exporters of fossil fuels in Europe: Russia and Norway, so the choice – for countries without energy reserves of their own or fast depleting them – is limited.

And, undiplomatic as it is to admit it, the Norwegians stand to do very well out of the current political situation.

Officially, a healthy and productive competition exists between the two countries who share a border well above the Arctic Circle.

“We are also partners,” says Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, “because both Russia and Norway have an interest in the development of the European oil and gas market.

“And we welcome them into the market, because the market will be bigger if there are several suppliers.”

Mr Stoltenberg was speaking at the opening of an international conference about offshore energy in Stavanger, southern Norway.

Transparency

And, alongside the reassurances to his Russian neighbours, he did hint at his country’s trump card, when asked why the rest of Europe should take Norway as its energy supplier of choice.

Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

Norway offers a reliable energy supply and a stable democracy

“We are a reliable supplier. And we have proved that over many years. And we have a very transparent, open energy sector.”

The head of the conference, ONS Director Kjell Ursin-Smith, was prepared to go even further.

“The situation is very interesting for Norway, of course. We are looked upon as a stable nation, whereas Russia still has a tainted reputation in that respect. So I think we will try to prove that we are a stable producer of oil and gas for Europe.”

The proof of the UK’s commitment to Norway as a gas provider of the future is a massive new pipeline – the biggest engineering project of its kind in the world – known as Ormen Lange.

The pipeline, whose name means “giant serpent” in old Norse will stretch from the Norwegian North Sea fields to Easington on the East Yorkshire coast.

Further afield

Some 745 miles of steel tubing have been painstaking laid up and down the canyons of the seabed, designed to deliver about 20% of the UK’s domestic gas needs for the next 50 years. It came on stream late last year.

The Ukraine issue sent a shiver down the European energy spine and Georgia is a recent episode which will focus a lot of minds.
Malcolm Wicks, UK energy minister

The days when Britain could rely on its own reserves to be self-sufficient in oil and gas are long gone – with a current annual depletion rate of about 8% a year – so there is no choice but to look abroad.

Britain has always made a virtue of its lack of political interference in the energy market, preferring to make deciding on a supplier a matter of pure economics and stress the need for “diversity of supply”.

But things might be changing.

“We’re aware of what’s going on now”, says the UK Energy Minister, Malcolm Wicks.

He still stresses the need to source from more than one country, more than one route.

High stakes

But, he adds, referring to the incident in 2006 when Russia turned off gas supplies to its neighbor in order to force higher prices: “The Ukraine issue sent a shiver down the European energy spine and Georgia is a recent episode which will focus a lot of minds.

Map

“I think we have to be – how can I put it? – streetwise, when it comes to issues around energy security. Norway is a great partner to have. It’s a very sophisticated democracy with a great record when it comes to human rights. So the new pipeline is a good piece of democratic politics.”

The proportion of its energy western Europe has to import is likely to rise to about 70% in the coming decades, so the market is guaranteed and the stakes are high.

It remains to be seen whether the big two suppliers – Norway and Russia – will clash or co-operate when it comes to developing what is a potential El Dorado of the North – vast swathes of Arctic territory, largely in the Barents Sea, which new technology is opening up to oil and gas exploitation for the first time.

The disputes have already begun as to who owns what territory. Vast amounts of money are to be made.

Norway has known great wealth for nearly 40 years now, mostly thanks to its fossil fuel resources.

Russia, with an average per capita income still about a tenth the size of that of its tiny Scandinavian neighbor, has not.

And in these days of ‘new’ Russia rediscovering its confidence, reasserting its power in the world, observers of geo-politics can almost certainly expect fireworks.

August 21, 2008

Rebels push to sever Georgia ties

Rebels push to sever Georgia ties

Pro-independence rally in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 21 Aug 08

Russian TV showed a huge crowd at the rally in Abkhazia

The separatist leaders of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have urged Russia to recognize their independence, at mass rallies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow’s response to their pleas would depend on the conduct of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Russia says it will keep troops in a security zone around South Ossetia.

The zone will stretch several km into Georgia proper. Russia also plans to reinforce its South Ossetia force.

“Tomorrow, eight checkpoints will be established in the security zone in which 500 peacekeepers will be deployed, no more than that,” said Mr Lavrov, quoted by Reuters news agency.

It is still not clear to what extent Russian military forces have withdrawn from Georgia, despite Moscow’s promise to pull out most of its troops by the end of Friday.

Russian troops on Abkhazia/Georgia border

Russian troops moved far into Georgia from the breakaway regions

Russian news agencies say an armored column, consisting of more than 40 vehicles, has passed through South Ossetia, on its way to the Russian border.

A correspondent in the Georgian village of Igoeti, just 35km (21 miles) from the capital Tbilisi, said he saw the Russian military pulling back towards South Ossetia early on Thursday afternoon. Russian forces were also reported still to be dug in around Georgia’s main Black Sea port of Poti.

Russia poured troops into Georgia after Georgian forces tried to retake South Ossetia on 7 August. Russian-led peacekeeping troops had been deployed there since a war in the early 1990s.

Thousands of people attended pro-independence rallies in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi and war-ravaged South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on Thursday.

The world-renowned conductor Valery Gergiyev – himself an Ossetian – plans to give a concert in South Ossetia with his St Petersburg orchestra on Thursday.

Chill in NATO-Russia ties

Meanwhile, Russia says it is reviewing its co-operation with NATO, which has insisted that Moscow pull its troops out of Georgia, in line with a French-brokered ceasefire agreement.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Nato said on Tuesday there could be no “business as usual” with Moscow.

At an emergency meeting, NATO suspended formal contacts with Russia because of the Russian military presence in Georgia.

“Relations with NATO will be reviewed,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency on Thursday.

“This will apply to the military co-operation programme,” he said.

Nato has accused Russia of failing to respect the truce, which requires both Russian and Georgian forces to pull back to the positions they held before heavy fighting erupted in South Ossetia.

On Wednesday, Norway’s defence ministry said Russia had informed Norwegian diplomats that it was planning to freeze co-operation with Nato.

Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper said Oslo was trying to establish exactly what impact the Russian decision would have on existing co-operation, such as joint rescue operations and border controls. Norway shares a border with Russia in the Arctic.

A statement from the Norwegian defence ministry said: “Norway notes that Russia has decided that for now it is ‘freezing’ all military co-operation with Nato and allied countries.

“We expect that this will not affect planned activities in the areas of coastguard operations, search and rescue and resource management, because on the Russian side these are handled by civilian authorities.”

Russia has not yet given Norway formal written notification about its suspension of co-operation, a ministry spokesperson said.

Russia’s permanent envoy at Nato headquarters in Brussels, Dmitry Rogozin, has been recalled to Moscow for consultations, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reports.

He said that in light of Nato’s position on the Georgia conflict, relations with Nato “really cannot remain as before”, but he added that “there will not be a cold war”.

A state secretary in Norway’s defence ministry, Espen Barth Eide, said “there’s no doubt that our relationship to Russia has now chilled”.

Georgia map

August 6, 2008

Arctic Map shows dispute hotspots

Arctic Map shows dispute hotspots

VIEW THE MAP
Durham University)
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British scientists say they have drawn up the first detailed map to show areas in the Arctic that could become embroiled in future border disputes.

A team from Durham University compiled the outline of potential hotspots by basing the design on historical and ongoing arguments over ownership.

Russian scientists caused outrage last year when they planted their national flag on the seabed at the North Pole.

The UK researchers hope the map will inform politicians and policy makers.

“Its primary purpose is to inform discussions and debates because, frankly, there has been a lot of rubbish about who can claim (sovereignty) over what,” explained Martin Pratt, director of the university’s International Boundaries Research Unit (IBRU).

“To be honest, most of the other maps that I have seen in the media have been very simple,” he added.

“We have attempted to show all known claims; agreed boundaries and one thing that has not appeared on any other maps, which is the number of areas that could be claimed by Canada, Denmark and the US.”

Energy security is driving interest, as is the fact that Arctic ice is melting more and more during the summer
Martin Pratt,
Durham University

The team used specialist software to construct the nations’ boundaries, and identify what areas could be the source of future disputes.

“All coastal states have rights over the resources up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline,” Mr Pratt said. “So, we used specialist geographical software to ‘buffer’ the claims out accurately.”

The researchers also took into account the fact that some nations were able to extend their claims to 350 nautical miles as a result of their landmasses extending into the sea.

Back on the agenda

The issue of defining national boundaries in the Arctic was brought into sharp relief last summer when a team of Russian explorers used their submarine to plant their country’s flag on the seabed at the North Pole.

A number of politicians from the nations with borders within the Arctic, including Canada’s foreign minister, saw it as Moscow furthering its claim to territory within the region.

Mr Pratt said a number of factors were driving territorial claims back on to the political agenda.

“Energy security is driving interest, as is the fact that Arctic ice is melting more and more during the summer,” he told BBC News. “This is allowing greater exploration of the Arctic seabed.”

Data released by the US Geological Survey last month showed that the frozen region contained an estimated 90 billion barrels of untapped oil.

Mr Pratt added that the nations surrounding the Arctic also only had a limited amount of time to outline their claims.

“If they don’t define it within the timeframe set out by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, then it becomes part of what is known as ‘The Area’, which is administered by the International Seabed Authority on behalf of humanity as a whole.”

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