Olympics, Oxfam, SpaceX: what do they have in common?

In order to grasp the ethical relationship between the on-going PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Oxfam, an international partnership of charitable organizations fighting poverty, and the recent launching of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, now the world’ most powerful privately-developed space launch vehicle, it is important to have some background, as follows:

Russian athletes banned in 2018 PyeongChang Olympics

Beset by continued allegations that their athletes are taking performance-enhancing drugs, Russia is enduring unfounded allegations (remember the photo that spread in social media pitting top world tennis players Serena Williams, who’s obviously well-muscled, against the demure and slim Maria Sharapova back in 2016) of prohibited drug use for its participants in the PyeongChang Olympics games. Also note that this unsuccessful but damaging wholesale ban of Russian athletes was first seen in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Aid agency Oxfam employees hired sex workers in Haiti

One of the world’s most prestigious anti-poverty organizations, Oxfam has been caught in a major sex scandal involving employees hiring and even exploiting sex workers in Haiti during the organization’s relief efforts after a major earthquake struck and killed 220,000 people in 2010. Now there are talks that the non-profit organization, which raked-in some $44 million in government funds and donations last fiscal year, might lose such funding if this outrage is not rectified.

Private space launch company SpaceX successfully tests world’s most powerful rocket

What should have been a triumph for humanity, SpaceX’s spectacular and history-in-the-making test of the world’s most powerful rocket at the moment has had its share of envy-driven criticism from the mainstream media. In an article published in The Guardian, Harvard professor, writer, and accomplished author Nathan Robinson argued that the immense effort and financial commitment to put the rocket, and Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster to space en route to Mars, should have been spent fighting Earthly problems (pun intended) such as ending the war in Syria, or fighting disease. He wrote the piece like it is the visionary billionaire who caused the world problems in the first place.

Now what connects these three bits of news?

The word ‘double standard’ is described in the dictionary as “a set of standards that applies differently and usually more harshly to one group of people or circumstances than to another”, while ‘envy’ is defined as “painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.”

For the Olympics, what should have been a sporting event to celebrate human physiological achievements has turned into the latest battle ground the West is asserting against its enemies, particularly Russia. Here are some examples of Western double standards: Lance Armstrong, the legendary American professional road racing cyclist who have won numerous world championships including the esteemed Tour de France, and the Olympics, have confessed to engaging in long-term doping offenses in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013; American comedian Jimmy Kemmel’s prank-turned-into-serious-news-by-US-mainstream-media wolf in Sochi, Russia incident where a wolf was seen casually walking in a hotel in Sochi but was actually in an ABC News studio in California; Russian athletes at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics having been forced to represent neutral in the sporting event, which means participants “competing as neutrals without a national team means that athletes will not take part in the opening ceremony, and their country’s anthem will not be played if they win any medals”, and that the Russian Olympic Committee, alleged by the International Olympic Committee to have allowed “state-sponsored” doping of the athletes must pay $15 million that would “cover the costs of the investigations” while forgetting that its most prominent athletes such as Venus and Serena Williams have been “specially allowed” to use drug enhancements that are “within the limits of the Olympic rules.”

For its part, sex allegations against Oxfam continue to pile up against not only its employees stationed abroad but also its management. The relief organization now has to face investigation after The Times reported that aid workers, and then country director Roland van Hauwermeiren brought in underage sex workers to an Oxfam office which it converted to a makeshift brothel. This complete betrayal of trust spanks in the face of those who are donating, the government included, to combat poverty and respond to calamities in other countries. In their website, Oxfam’s purpose include challenging structural causes of injustice, but with news that the organization has been aware of the wrong-doings back then and secretly gave its country director a dignified exit is a form of injustice.

In his article about the historic launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket to space, Harvard commentator Nathan Robinson articulated that there is “no better way to appreciate the tragedy of 21st-century global inequality than by watching a billionaire spend $90m launching a $100,000 car into the far reaches of the solar system.” He added that “a mission to Mars does indeed sound exciting, but it’s important to have our priorities straight. First, perhaps we could make it so that a child no longer dies of malaria every two minutes. Or we could try to address the level of poverty in Alabama…perhaps once violence, poverty and disease are solved, then we can head for the stars.”

Such depiction of a remarkable science achievement is indeed depressing. The author clearly missed the root causes of inequality in the first place, when Western empires consumed entire countries and continents for slave labor during the Industrial Revolution, or when black Americans were not treated equal status as human beings before the human rights movement of the 1960s, or when the 2007-2008 financial crisis (which itself was caused by brutal financial speculation among America’s elite) hurt ordinary people around the world. Having expressed his article as if Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, Tesla, founder of PayPal, and business magnate, is the sole billionaire who has intentionally overlooked the problems of the world, and that his space projects should be considered as a form of petty ego-trip undertakings.

He has failed mention that such endeavors as Tesla cars helping alleviate climate change by going electric, and helping explore other worlds that humans might migrate to in the future be worthy endeavors that transcend politics of the world today. On the contrary such existential matters as global warming and space exploration will probably be the problems that future generations will have to contend with if we fail to at least take small steps to tackle them today. Indeed the politics of today will eventually come to pass, but our continued survival will be a nagging issue for generations to come.


US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change accord should not be a surprise


Early last month, US President Donald Trump announced that the United States will be withdrawing from the 2015 Climate Change accord, which was signed by 195 countries in December 2016 to help address global warming.

Trump cited that the climate deal imposed unfair environmental standards on American businesses, calling it a “draconian” international pact. Although many met this announcement as a surprise and an insult to international cooperation, how Trump and the United States in general acted with arrogance should not be a surprise.

To cite America’s involvement in the affairs of other countries, for instance its unwelcome and illegal involvement in Syria, as the only example of its braggadocio is an understatement. Many have forgotten that Washington is non-signatory to other major international accords. In other cases it has been hostile and has repealed landmark international deals for its aggrandizement, immunity and benefit.

For one, the United States is not party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which governs the rights and obligations of nations on the use of the world’s oceans. UNCLOS is signed by 162 countries, including the European Union, yet the US refuses to ratify the treaty because it “infringes on its sovereignty as a state” and hence it should remain “independent from any international interference on international maritime matters.

Despite that, while the US is not party to UNCLOS, it is using that jurisdiction in order to subvert the interests of other nations, such as in the case of the South China Sea, when it actively lobbied for the Philippines, its ally in the region, to use UNCLOS to claim the country’s stake against China in the disputed waters.

Another noteworthy case is Washington’s hostility towards the International Court of Justice (ICJ) treaty, which is the principal judicial court of the United Nations (UN). The US government’s refusal to sign the treaty stems from its avoidance of liability if and when US military personnel and political leaders misbehaved overseas, thus giving them immunity from persecution.

In addition to avoiding the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the United States has been actively undermining the global standard of justice, including when it threatened to withdraw from peacekeeping missions in Europe and South East Asia if US personnel were not given complete immunity from persecution. This is under the auspices of the relatively recent American Servicemember’s Protection Act (ASPA), which was passed by the Congress and signed by former President George Bush in the early 2000s. In addition, the US actively sought to sign bilateral agreements with other nations which required countries not to surrender American nationals to the jurisdiction of the ICC.

In the realm of nuclear arms control, the United States also withdrew from the landmark Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, which imposed limits on the US and Russia (then the Soviet Union) regarding the deployment of defensive weapons. The treaty was signed in order to reduce the need to develop new anti-ballistic missile systems putting each country vulnerable and denying them any advantage of a first-strike nuclear capability. Despite Russia’s opposition, the United States withdrew from the treaty in June 2002.

As for the landmark Paris Climate accord, the US government’s refusal to be part of the global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions that will lead the world to its human-induced destruction speaks volumes about America’s behavior against being a responsible nation. President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris treaty also includes halting contributions to the UN Green Climate Fund (to help poorer countries adapt to climate change policies) as well as refusing to report on its carbon emissions.

The reaction across the world was expected, with major powers in Europe expressing their “regret” about Washington’s decision, and while Trump spoke of “renegotiating the treaty to benefit America”, leaders in France, Germany, and the UK said the Paris Climate Treaty is non-negotiable.

Bleaker than Ever: World Will Miss 2050 Temperature Targets

In its 2011 estimate, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that in 2010, the world emitted some 30.6 gigatonnes of harmful CO2 gasses into the atmosphere, thus making the target of limiting global temperature increase of 2ºC a bleak prospect.

On the one hand, emissions actually reduced in 2009, when the global economic meltdown of 2008 allowed for lower manufacturing and demand for energy. However, in 2010, as the economy recovered slowly, emissions once again increased to 5% than in the previous levels. This went against sympathetic scientists’ expectations of a ‘breathing space’ while demand for energy is low and gives policy makers more time to ‘negotiate’ and contemplate a well-positioned climate policy.

In a statement, IEA chief economist Dr Fatih Birol said that “This significant increase in CO2 emissions and the locking in of future emissions due to infrastructure investments represent a serious setback to our hopes of limiting the global rise in temperature to no more than 2ºC”.

For some time now, it has been a consensus among scientists and policy makers that the world must at all cost avoid a temperature increase of 2ºC through to 2050, if we are to avoid catastrophic and irreversible weather consequences. To achieve this goal, the world should emit no more than 5% of CO2 emissions in 2020 compared with 2000 levels, and even less after 2020. This also means that the world should not emit more than 32 gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere by 2020, or rise less than the total increase in emissions from 2009-2010.

Thanks to last year’s 30.6 gigatonnes of emissions, the world is now in an even more difficult situation to meet the 32 gigatonnes limit emissions by 2020; too bad some 80% of the emissions in the next decade is now locked-in, meaning that 80% of emissions will come from presently under-construction powerplants thus adding to the predicament.

However, as with previous climate talks in the past ten years, climate talks have been hampered by the unwillingness of advanced economies to commit more for the climate than developing countries, not to mention economically struggling economies.  It all boils down to the capitalist system of business as usual and gaining geo-strategic advantage over other countries as well as baby-sitting greedy corporations.

Although scientists still are not sure what a 2ºC global rise in temperature brings, nevertheless, they are predicting mass extinctions, deforestation, desertification, more extreme weather events, as well as rise in sea level which will greatly threaten low-lying countries and thus pave the way for mass migration and conflict.

Quite predictably, imperialist powers are not busy tackling dramatic steps toward a friendlier emissions targets; tensions are actually building up as fight for new sources of resources slowly becomes the new agenda: with the melting of the Arctic, vast oil and gas reserves become economically viable to tap while new sea lanes open as well. Arctic countries including Denmark, Canada, Russia, and even the US and UK now are scrambling for control of this new exploitable expanse of the globe.

Also, efforts to forge a free-market out of CO2 emissions have failed as capitalist leaders can’t agree on how to cash in. On the one hand, developing countries and the lesser ones argue that developing a market that takes advantage of this climate danger is not the path at all to solving this unprecedented challenge; those who caused this in the first place should be the ones who should be more diligent, responsible, and empathetic.

In addition to governments, transnational corporations represent a real obstacle to any advances in green technologies; anything that presents a threat to their profits should be side-placed, if not thrown to the waste bins.

On the one hand, the economic resources needed to tackle climate change is not as gigantic as most think it is; it is just a matter of the right allocation of resources. For instance, the IEA estimates that spending US$10-$100 billion annually can help tackle 2020 emissions targets. That figure translates less than what the US military will spend in Afghanistan this  year. Even more startling, that amount is less than one-third of the combined wealth of the ten richest individuals in the US alone.

To effectively tackle global emissions, developed nations should be more serious in developing new strategies including pursuing the path to greener energy generation, rethinking of industrial and agricultural practices, as well as making transportation more efficient. It is never been more important to move away from a profit-based way of life, but more toward to a world where social needs are met, and not on excessive consumption, wanton exploitation, and business as usual.

Nuclear Power and Meltdown 101: In light of Japan’s Nuclear Crisis

Although not yet in a full meltdown status, nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi station in Japan is now at a very critical status. Japanese officials rated earlier the accident as a level 4 “accident with local consequences” as per the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale’s (INES) 7-tier nuclear crisis scale.

Nuclear energy is basically an upscale water boiling process, where a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction sustains heat to boil water, driving steam turbines and then electricity. Japan has 54 nuclear reactors, making it the third-largest user of nuclear power in the world, only after the US and France. Six of these reactors are housed in the Fukushima Daiichi station, which was commissioned in the 1970s.

Since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi station are considered seriously crippled: explosions occurred at Unit 1 and 3 which destroyed exterior walls, most probably due to buildups of hydrogen gas produced by the zirconium in the fuel rods reaction with coolant water at extremely high temperatures. As of March 15, a third explosion has occurred at reactor No. 2, which seems that the containment vessel had been seriously breached.

How do you turn off a nuclear reaction?

Nuclear reactors work by harnessing the process of nuclear fission: the splitting of an atom into two smaller atoms, which also yields heat and send neutrons flying. Another atom absorbs one of the neutrons, which itself becomes unstable and releases more heat and more neutrons. To stop this process, the runaway neutrons must be intercepted. Control rods made of materials that absorb neutron do this interception.

Once the reactor is stopped, it still exhibits an enormous amount of heat, especially due to the by-then split uranium atoms those themselves give off so much heat. In the case of Japan, the disaster caused blackouts that cut off the externally sourced AC power for the reactor’s cooling system. The facility’s backup diesel generators also failed after the blackout, exposing the reactor to untamed heat and in serious situation of overheating.

Because of these dangerous developments, the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant now ranks as the second most serious nuclear power plant accident after Chernobyl (Soviet Union 1986).

Effects on human health

Humans are exposed to radiation on a daily level, albeit in low levels. They occur naturally in sunlight, as well as human-made like X-rays, cancer treatment, nuclear weapons, and nuclear power plants.

Exposure to radiation starts to be dangerous with the amount and duration of exposure. Over a short period, significant exposure can cause burns or radiation sickness. Symptoms include nausea, weakness, hair loss, skin burns and reduced organ function.

Long term effects include skin cancer, cataract, mutation of human fetuses or unborn children which when born will have smaller brain and head size, abnormal eyes, slow growth, and mental retardation.