Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Prophet’s Cousin and the Ice in Antarctica

Everything is both cause and effect of everything else, said the Buddha. Everything is interdependent with everything else. Let’s take, for example, two issues that have arisen more than thousand years apart. On the one hand, we have the succession to the leadership or of , according to the intention of . On the other hand, we have the current disintegration of the at the . Now, can you connect those two dots? I can.

The two branches of Islam split apart shortly after the death of the Prophet as a result of a succession crisis. According to the , Mohammed did not name any . According to the (who are only ten percent of the Muslims in the world, but a majority in Iraq and Iran), Mohammed did appoint a successor: his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. This dispute is the only significant difference between the two Islamic communities; theologically there is no controversy. However, the split has gone on for so long that there is no hope of reconciling the groups. The best that can happen is to induce their leaders to cooperate and share their contested resources.

But a genie was released in the Middle East by invasion of Iraq and it is causing trouble. With the overthrow of the secular tyrant that had repressed their historic conflicts, the Sunni and Shia communities are on the verge of civil war. For its part, the strategy of the Bush administration has been to try to manage both groups by playing them off against each other. The downside of this strategy is that it may be impossible to induce both sides to share power in the new democracy. And this danger is growing. A few days ago on of the most sacred Shia mosques — golden shrine at , Iraq (see photo) — was destroyed by a bomb. Even Bush is acknowledging now that the country may fall deeper into civil war.

But of course the Sunni versus Shia cleavage is not the only important one in the Arab world. There is also the split within the Sunni community between the and similar groups — and the elites that have profited by cooperating with the United States. Until recently, the jihadists have refrained from destroying the oil or its processing plants or transportation arrangements, but now they are stepping up their attacks. A few days ago an al Qaeda group tried, but failed, to wreck an oil processing plant in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia. It is not clear how far they are willing to go in destroying such a valuable resource, nor is it apparent that they can succeed anyway. According to Stratfor’s expert , it cannot be done easily. But even if oil exports cannot be stopped by al Qaeda’s sabotage efforts, a civil war between Sunni and Shia Iraqis will reduce the availability of oil and increase its world price.

Which, paradoxically, may confer some advantages on . The higher the price of oil, the more people will cut back. Indeed, it may have been Bush’s anticipation of a reduction of oil imports to the United States that induced him to propose that the country overcome its oil addiction and develop alternative fuels. The surest way would be to impose a , but no politicians are ready to take such a risky initiative, so any reduction of oil consumption must probably result from other causes, such as the strife in Iraq.

Yet it may already be too late for that to save the situation, considering the connection between and the use of fossil fuels. Chris Rapley, head of the British Antarctic Survey, claims that the huge west Antarctic ice sheet may be starting to disintegrate. If that occurs, we must expect the sea levels around the world to rise by five meters. Scientists are not able to predict just how much melting will take place, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which will release its next report soon, will suggest that Earth’s temperature is increasing above the highest levels previously predicted. In three previous reports, the IPCC’s computer models projected an increase in average global temperature of between 1.5 and 4.5 C. Some scientists lately have been foreseeing possible increases as high as 11C. This extreme range will not be mentioned in the report because it is considered unlikely. In any case, the revised predictions by the IPCC will force governments to take seriously some devastating possibilities. According to one expert, Dr. Peter Cox, “The most probable thing is not the most important thing to worry about. The upper end is where the big problems are, because the impact rises as the temperature does.”

Anyway, my far-fetched connection can be established. An old dispute among Arabs over the proper authority of Mohammed’s cousin now influences the availability of oil and hence the levels of in the atmosphere, which in turn influences the disintegration of the Antarctic ice sheet. Everything is connected to everything else.


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