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Biden to Confront Putin About Amassing Troops on Ukraine’s Border

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WASHINGTON — 

President Biden expressed cautious optimism after meeting in June with Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggesting the next three to six months would reveal whether their frank face-to-face discussion in Geneva was yielding progress.

“Did the things we agreed to sit down and try to work out, did it work? Do we — are we closer to a major strategic stability talks and progress?” he said at the time.

Nearly six months later as the two leaders prepare to speak again by videoconference Tuesday, cyberattacks from within Russia appear to have slowed, but tensions are rising over Russia’s ongoing buildup of troops along its border with Ukraine.

Biden, who last spoke with Putin in July, will urge the Russian leader to de-escalate the conflict, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

“He will make clear that there will be very real costs should Russia choose to proceed, but he will also make clear that there is an effective way forward with respect to diplomacy,” the official said, noting the administration’s familiarity with the “Russian playbook” after its 2014 annexation of Crimea, when Biden was vice president. “They intensified disinformation in an effort to portray Ukraine as the aggressor and use that in an effort to justify what was a pre-planned military attack.”

The official confirmed U.S. intelligence views the mobilization of Russian forces as “consistent with the planning [for] a military escalation, but that “we do not know whether President Putin has made a decision” about following through.

In this case, Putin’s military buildup could be largely about getting the West’s attention. The Kremlin said Friday that Putin would seek binding guarantees from Biden that Ukraine won’t be allowed to join NATO, the transatlantic defense pact under which an attack on any member nation is deemed an attack against all.

Biden, who has sought to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to NATO after President Trump called the alliance “obsolete” and at one point threatened to withdraw, is unlikely to offer Putin those guarantees. In June, he said he conveyed to Putin Washington’s “unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” He then underlined the point by welcoming the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to the White House in August.

Biden, however, has not fully endorsed Ukraine’s admittance into NATO and remains hesitant to take on the additional responsibility of guaranteeing the country’s defense. “This is less about Biden personally but about the U.S and the public’s broader unwillingness to serve as global policemen,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk assessment firm. “There’s a clear lack of interest in paying for an expansion of NATO.”

Biden spoke Monday with key NATO allies to coordinate his message to Putin, according to the senior administration official. Above all, Bremmer said he believes the president “wants diplomacy to continue, and doesn’t want it broken off or to give the Russians any reason to feel their only way to change their situation is by altering the facts on the ground.”

NATO has provoked Putin’s ire by expanding its engagement with Ukraine, amping up military on-the-ground training and aerial exercises around the Black Sea, while providing additional weapons systems from a member country, Turkey, to potentially fend off a Russian onslaught.

Although Bremmer insisted a Russian invasion of Ukraine by uniformed troops is unlikely given the certainty of harsh economic sanctions against Moscow as a result, he said Putin could escalate the conflict in other, more subtle ways through cyberattacks or hybrid warfare.

“The Kremlin is highly incentivized to create ambiguity about what exactly they are doing,” Bremmer said. “It’s not at all clear how the Americans would respond to [hybrid warfare or armed conflict involving insurgents backed by Moscow]. The more Biden is able to spell that out in this phone call, the better.”

Ben Hodges, a retired three-star general who previously commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe, said Russia’s military buildup since April makes it impossible to rule out an invasion.

“It’s not inevitable, but all the pieces are in place,” said Hodges, who now holds the Pershing chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

He said Kremlin rhetoric about Ukraine appears designed to send a message to the West and its own people, to prepare them for military action.

“The language coming from the Kremlin is very specific and very threatening.”

The timing of Putin’s pressure campaign makes sense, coming at a moment of enhanced leverage.

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been Europe’s longest tenured leader and was the architect of the 2014 Minsk protocol that halted fighting in the Donbas region of Ukraine, just stepped down. And as winter begins, Putin has additional leverage over Europe through the supply of natural gas following the completion of the NordStream 2 pipeline.

“It’s the threat that they would turn it off if the West decides to act very strongly,” Hodges said.

“There will be great reluctance for European nations to do something when they see President Putin has his hand on the gas meter.”

Staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.

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Source: latimes.com

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The Senate Has a Climate Deal. Now Comes the Hard Part

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After decades of inaction on the climate crisis, the federal government is on the verge of enacting a sweeping plan to slash planet-warming pollution, with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema agreeing late Thursday to support the bill.

Now comes the hard part — or at least, the next hard part.

Phasing out coal, oil and natural gas — the fossil fuels largely responsible for the climate crisis — will require building huge amounts of clean energy infrastructure, including solar farms, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries and electric power lines. The Senate bill sets aside nearly $370 billion to support those technologies and others that could help reduce carbon emissions.

But finding good spots to put all those renewable energy projects — and contending with opposition from nearby landowners, Native American tribes and even environmental activists — could be just as challenging as getting a bill through Congress.

Across the country, local opposition has slowed or blocked many renewable energy facilities. And land-use conflicts are likely to intensify. Princeton University researchers estimate that zeroing out U.S. carbon emissions by 2050 could require installing solar panels and wind turbines across more than 225,000 square miles, an area much bigger than California.

“There’s this misperception that there’s plenty of land,” said Eric O’Shaughnessy, a renewable energy researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “That is true, but [solar and wind farms] have to go in specific places.”

The Senate deal, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, should accelerate America’s renewable energy buildout. It was the product of months of negotiations between Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), and it needs support from all 50 Senate Democrats to overcome unified Republican opposition.

Sinema, the final holdout, now says she’ll “move forward” with the bill once it overcomes a final procedural hurdle.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) outside the Capitol in May.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The bill would extend and expand tax credits for companies to build and buy climate-friendly technologies, from solar and wind power to energy storage and carbon capture. Other provisions include $4,000 tax credits for buying used electric cars and rebates for homes that replace gas boilers with electric heat pumps. The bill would establish a “green bank” with a $27-billion budget, force oil and gas companies to pay fees as high as $1,500 a ton on methane leaks and pay farmers to change their practices.

Senate Democrats say it would help cut U.S. carbon emissions 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, assuming it passes the Senate and House and is signed by President Biden. Independent analyses support that claim. Rhodium Group estimates emissions would fall 31% to 44%, compared to 24% to 35% under current policy. The research firm Energy Innovation offered a similar projection.

Those would be big cuts — but not enough to meet U.S. climate targets. President Biden pledged to slash emissions at least 50% by 2030. Steeper reductions will be needed over the following decades to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

That won’t be easy. And if policymakers fail to grapple with local opposition to solar and wind power, it might not be possible.

Two recent studies help explain the sources of that opposition — and what might be done to alleviate local concerns.

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The first study, from researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explored 53 renewable energy projects that were delayed or blocked over more than a decade. It found the most common sources of opposition were concerns about environmental impacts and land use.

California and neighboring states have seen both types of conflicts.

Some conservation groups have tried to block solar and wind farms in the Mojave Desert, citing potential harm to animals and plants such as desert tortoises, golden eagles and Joshua trees. Just this month, Ormat Technologies Inc. paused construction of a geothermal project in Nevada while federal wildlife officials study whether it would harm the endangered Dixie Valley toad.

Then there’s San Bernardino County — California’s largest by land area. Three years ago, it banned solar and wind farms on more than 1 million acres, spurred by locals who worried the sprawling projects would industrialize their rural communities.

A solar farm in California’s Kern County.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Some clean energy advocates consider that type of opposition NIMBYism at best and thinly veiled climate denial at worst.

But Lawrence Susskind, an urban planning professor and the MIT study’s lead author, said local concerns of all kinds need to be taken seriously. His research has convinced him that speeding up the clean energy transition will be possible only if developers slow down and make a good-faith effort to gather input from communities before dumping solar and wind farms on them.

Too often, Susskind said, companies exclude local residents until the last minute, then try to steamroll opposition — to their own detriment. His study cited 20 projects that were ultimately blocked, some by lawsuits or other forms of public resistance.

“If you want to build something, you go slow to go fast,” he said. “You have a conversation, not a confrontation.”

That was the thinking behind the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, an ambitious government effort to map which parts of the California desert are suitable for solar and wind farms and which parts should be protected. The plan took eight years to complete and covered more than 10 million acres — and barely survived a Trump administration attempt to scrap it.

Renewable energy companies criticized the maps as too restrictive. But they didn’t take their complaints to court, and so far the desert plan seems to be standing the test of time. The Biden administration recently approved its third clean energy facility under the plan — a 500-megawatt solar plant, with 200 megawatts of battery storage, off Interstate 10 in Riverside County.

An 11th-hour Trump administration proposal foreshadows a tough balancing act for Biden on public lands.

Stanford University researchers hope to facilitate similar compromises for the rest of the country.

Stanford’s Dan Reicher told The Times he’s convened more than 20 groups and companies — representing the solar industry, environmental advocates, Native American tribes, the agriculture industry and local governments — in an “uncommon dialogue” to discuss land-use conflicts involving large solar farms. It’s modeled after a similar dialogue that Reicher convened for the hydropower industry and conservation groups, which led to an unprecedent agreement between those long-warring factions.

Reicher hopes the solar discussions will lead to companies to make smarter decisions about where to build projects — and do a better job communicating with local residents and conservationists when they think they’ve found good locations.

“Done well, siting is a highly technical process that also lends itself to significant input,” Reicher said.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Pine Tree Wind and Solar Farm in the Tehachapi Mountains of Kern County.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

O’Shaughnessy agrees on the need for public engagement up front.

The Lawrence Berkeley researcher was lead author of the second recent study, which found that solar and wind farms typically get built in rural areas with low incomes — and those projects can be either a benefit or a burden to those communities, depending on local factors. Construction jobs and tax revenues can be a boon, while loss of agricultural land can be a big loss.

Renewable energy facilities can also destroy land held sacred by Native American tribes or disrupt treasured views.

The visual impacts of renewable energy could be one of the biggest roadblocks to fighting climate change.

The potential harms from solar and wind energy pale in comparison to the dangers of oil and gas drilling and other fossil fuel projects, which unlike renewable energy can expose nearby residents to cancer-linked chemicals and other toxins. The low-income communities of color that have born the brunt of fossil fuel pollution are also especially vulnerable to climate change consequences.

But taking steps to make sure solar and wind farms in vulnerable communities don’t worsen ongoing injustices is important, O’Shaughnessy said. And it’s a priority for the Biden administration, which has set a goal of delivering 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged neighborhoods — an initiative known as Justice40.

“There will be projects that move forward despite some degree of local opposition. That’s inevitable,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It comes back to making sure there are participation processes in place to do this as fairly and equitably as possible.”

They key question is whether enough clean energy can still be built fast enough to avert climate catastrophe.

Susskind, the MIT researcher, thinks it’s doable. He said renewable energy companies should be willing to redesign their projects to avoid sensitive lands and to offer financial compensation to people or businesses who feel they’re still being harmed.

“More stuff would get built faster,” he said.

The Solar Energy Industries Assn., an influential national trade group, agrees with that assessment.

Ben Norris, the group’s director of environmental policy, said in an interview that engaging with communities early — and giving them a real opportunity to be heard — is “the hallmark of good project development.” He said it’s an area where the solar industry is working to improve, in part through the Stanford initiative — and the Senate deal makes it more important than ever.

“This is such a historic opportunity that we’re on the cusp of that we need to get it right,” Norris said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) discusses the Inflation Reduction Act at a news conference.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Not everything in the Senate bill has been embraced by climate activists.

To win Manchin’s support, Schumer included provisions that require continued oil and gas leasing on public lands and offshore, which activists have been fighting to shut down for years. Democratic leaders also agreed to support legislation designed to speed up permitting for all kinds of energy projects — including climate-disrupting natural gas pipelines and gas export terminals.

Sempra Energy is seeking federal approval for a new proposal to ship fossil fuel overseas.

As far as Energy Innovation is concerned, the bill’s benefits far outweigh its harms. The research firm estimates that for every ton of carbon pollution caused by the fossil fuel leasing mandates, 24 tons of carbon would be avoided by other provisions.

Michael Gerrard, founder of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, also thinks the tradeoffs are worthwhile. The best way to cut down on oil and gas production, he said, is to reduce demand for the fuels — and the Senate bill does that.

The separate permitting bill could also be helpful, Gerrard said, because it could streamline approval of clean energy projects.

“Local opposition has emerged as one of the major inhibitors of [solar and wind farms],” Gerrard said. “Trying to clear away those obstacles is extremely important, even if it is at the price of making it somewhat harder to fight new fossil projects.”

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Gerrard pointed to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a possible model for speeding solar and wind development. The law prevented local governments from banning cell towers and required them to approve or reject towers within a few months.

It also prohibited local governments from rejecting cell towers because they emit electromagnetic fields, or EMFs — a type of radiation that has spurred fears of cancer and other health problems, despite a lack of strong evidence to support those fears. Gerrard thinks similar rules could be helpful for solar and wind projects dogged by misinformation over alleged health effects.

“Whether it’s wind farms or vaccines or elections, people don’t always listen to evidence,” he said.

“Going to communities early and trying to engage them — it’s helpful,” he added. “But it’s not a guaranteed silver bullet.”

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Original Source: latimes.com

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Possible Pelosi Visit Elicits Shrugs in Taiwan, Long the Focal Point of Geopolitical Standoff

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — 

On the top of Iris Hsueh’s list of concerns living in Taipei are COVID-19 restrictions, electricity prices and, if she’s being honest, the latest news on Taiwanese pop stars. Nowhere on that list is the proposed visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and the potential Chinese backlash.

“Whether she comes or not won’t really change” anything, the 37-year-old saleswoman speculated. “I think China will think it’s a provocation, but I also don’t think they will escalate any actual military behavior because of this.”

Asked how her circle of friends feels about the standoff, which has prompted the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier group to the Taiwan Strait and China to conduct live fire military drills Saturday, Hsueh said matter-of-factly, “I don’t think they really care.”

As tensions flare between the two superpowers — risking the worst crisis in the region in a quarter of a century — people in Taiwan appear by and large to be responding with a collective shrug, occupying their attention with things like the summer heat wave and local elections rather than the specter of war.

Such is life on the self-governed island of 23 million that has long served as the focal point of an explosive geopolitical standoff. The threat of Chinese military action has loomed for so long that few seem to raise an eyebrow when Beijing lashes out, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping did Thursday in warning President Biden on a call that “those who play with fire will perish by it.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi departed for Asia on Friday.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

While the invasion of Ukraine has heightened concerns around the globe about a possible Chinese assault, many in Taiwan still view Beijing’s bellicose threats as largely bluster.

“The Chinese Communist Party is playing the same old tricks,” said Yisuo Tzeng, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei. “They’re making a fuss about nothing.”

Pelosi, a frequent critic of China’s human rights abuses, left for Asia on Friday. Her itinerary includes U.S. ally countries Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. As of Saturday morning, no plans were revealed about stopping in Taiwan. Biden said the Pentagon advised against her visit.

The rancor over the trip underscores how badly the U.S.-China relationship has soured in recent years and how firmly Taiwan remains its most dangerous flashpoint. Pelosi wouldn’t be the first House speaker to visit the democratically-ruled island; Republican Newt Gingrich made the trip in 1997. But China under Xi is a much more powerful and assertive country than it was back then, and it’s determined to dominate Asia in a way befitting of a great power.

Standing immediately in its way is Taiwan, a teardrop-shaped island roughly the size of Maryland located less than 100 miles off the coast of mainland China.

Formerly known as Formosa, the island was taken over by the fleeing Chinese Nationalist government after it was defeated by the communists in 1949, in the Chinese civil war.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, more Taiwanese say they are willing to fight if attacked by China. But without firearms or sufficient military training, many wonder how to prepare.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of China, and after urging peaceful unification for years, has warned it will take the island by force if necessary — particularly if Taiwan formally declares independence.

Washington switched diplomatic relations to Communist China in 1979, adopting a “one China” policy that acknowledges Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, but doesn’t endorse it. To deter China from invading, the U.S. provides Taiwan with defensive weapons and maintains a policy called strategic ambiguity designed to leave China guessing as to whether American troops will defend the island if it is attacked.

While that approach has fostered a peaceful status quo for more than four decades, it has grown more fraught with the elevation of Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Xi has hitched Taiwan to his grand project of national rejuvenation, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party last year with a speech that described unification as “a historic mission and an unshakable commitment.”

Much of China’s military planning and modernization is geared toward an invasion of the island. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has tripled the number of sorties it’s flown around Taiwan the first half of this year compared with the same period a year ago, a tactic aimed at prodding and exhausting the territory’s air defenses.

Xi Jinping is China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
(Andy Wong / Associated Press)

In June, Beijing said the sea separating China from Taiwan, known as the Taiwan Strait, did not qualify as international waters, claiming sovereignty over the waterway and challenging the U.S. Navy’s presence there.

Beijing has also accused the U.S. of blurring its “one China” policy when Cabinet officials and Congress members visit Taiwan with growing frequency. On three occasions Biden has made remarks suggesting the U.S. had discarded strategic ambiguity by pledging to defend Taiwan with force, but the administration has walked back the comments each time.

The tension between the nations with the world’s two largest economies shows few signs of abating. Xi will be less constrained after the 20th Party Congress later this year when he’s expected to secure his third five-year term, the first Chinese leader to do so since Deng Xiaoping imposed two-term limits in 1982. Biden’s ability to maneuver is also limited by the bipartisan enmity for China, one of the few issues rival lawmakers agree on in an otherwise severely polarized political climate. The call between the two leaders Thursday offered no offramps.

Caught in the cycle of escalation is Taiwan, whose voice is often drowned out by the din of Washington and Beijing. The government led by President Tsai Ing-wen has said little about a Pelosi visit — even as analysts say her appearance provides no concrete benefit to the territory and may be more trouble than it’s worth.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. makes chips for iPhones, video game consoles and fighter jets. Now it’s being forced to choose sides.

“Taiwan’s agency in the U.S.-PRC-Taiwan triangle has varied over time, but at this moment, the drivers are the U.S. and China,” said Shelley Rigger, a leading Taiwan expert at Davidson College, using the initialism for the People’s Republic of China. “Taiwan is stuck in the middle.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the Taiwanese government is in a position to speak frankly with U.S. officials,” Rigger continued. “The U.S. is Taiwan’s primary defender, and U.S. officials have shown a lot of ego and arrogance in the relationship. Offending American leaders by pointing out the downside of their decisions is not something Taiwanese officials are really in a position to do.”

Taiwan generally views visits by high-level U.S. officials and politicians as a political boost for the ruling party and a show of much-needed international support. Beijing has diplomatically isolated Taiwan to the point where it’s recognized by just over a dozen mostly small nations. China also thwarted Taiwan’s bid to join the World Health Organization assembly during the pandemic.

A Pelosi visit “would definitely encourage the people of Taiwan, basically saying that ‘you are not alone,’” said Chen Kuan-ting, chief executive of Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a think tank politically aligned with the governing Democratic Progressive Party.

That’s important because since Russia invaded Ukraine, confidence in Washington’s willingness to send troops to defend Taiwan in an invasion scenario has waned. A survey conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation showed a 30% decline between last October and March in the number of respondents who believe the U.S. will come to the island’s aid.

Many in Taiwan say Pelosi can’t afford to back down, worrying another cancellation (she initially postponed a trip to the territory in April after testing positive for COVID-19) will send a signal to Beijing it can coerce and intimidate Washington.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has urged her country to better prepare for an invasion.
(Shioro Lee / Associated Press)

“Taiwan is a democratic country. We have the right to welcome any friend who supports” us, said Freddy Lim, a pro-independence legislator who met with Pelosi in Washington in June and urged her to visit Taiwan.

Beijing, which views a visit by Pelosi as a challenge to its sovereignty over Taiwan, said it would respond forcefully to her arrival. Analysts say China could place sanctions on the U.S. lawmaker, test missiles, or in the most provocative scenario, scramble fighters to try to turn her aircraft around. Doing nothing would make China’s leadership look weak, a problem China faces after threatening Taiwan for years.

“To have the same effect of cowing the Taiwan population, Beijing is forced to be more threatening,” said Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. “This cycle may continue until Beijing either has to follow through with its threats or its bluff is called.”

The last time tensions were this high in the region was in 1995, when then-President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan sparked a furor in Beijing by visiting the U.S., breaking diplomatic protocol. China, which also wanted to send a warning to pro-independence groups before upcoming Taiwan elections, responded by conducting a series of missile tests in the waters off the island. The standoff ended when the Clinton administration deployed more warships to the Taiwan Strait than had been assembled since the Vietnam War.

Many in Taiwan don’t expect the same muscular U.S. response — not when China’s military has advanced enough to inflict massive harm to the U.S. Navy.

But in a country where air raid sirens and military drills are a regular occurrence, few seemed fazed by the latest crisis.

“Pelosi’s visit will add to the intensity of [Beijing’s] diplomatic remarks,” said Su Liu Di-Sheng, a 23-year-old graduate student in political science at National Taiwan University. “But the military risk has always been high.”

Yang reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Pierson from Singapore.

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Source: latimes.com

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Podcast: to Be Queer in Singapore

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Just this year, Singapore’s top court upheld section 377A. That’s a British colonial-era law prohibiting consenting sex between men. And while the government says it doesn’t strictly enforce that law, anyone who breaks it could face up to two years behind bars.

Meanwhile, thousands of Queer Singaporean activists and LGBTQ allies will gather in Hong Lim Park this weekend for an annual gay pride event — and send a clear message to lawmakers that they’re done being denied their basic human rights.

Read the full transcript here.

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Article: latimes.com

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