Colm McCarthy: 'Punishing Ireland will only send carbon emissions higher still'

Irish livestock farmers and Chinese steel producers have something in common. Both are successful exporters, both generate substantial greenhouse gas emissions and both are in the firing line in the debate on climate policy.

The world has outsourced some of its carbon emissions to China, whose internal consumption of carbon-intensive goods falls short of domestic production, much of which goes for export.

In the same manner the rest of the world has outsourced production of dairy products to Ireland.

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The Chinese government is not shy about reminding steel importers to lay off the blame game. Irish livestock farmers are not so lucky.

China is not a member of the European Union, which has adopted production-based emission limits for each member state.

If it were, it would face fines resulting from the export success of its heavy industries.

Ireland is a dutiful member of the EU, has agreed to tight emission targets and is scrambling to meet them. The situation calls out for a fall guy and the farmer, responsible for about 30pc of national greenhouse gas emissions, is a plausible candidate.

In the Irish edition of the Sunday Times last week, Conor Brady did not spare the lash, saying: “Much of the agricultural sector will have to be reinvented to enable the state to meet its obligations to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions. To do that, much of what has been built up over generations, economically and socially, will have to be deconstructed.”

The world may be using too much steel and eating too much cheese but it does not follow that China is the best place to shut steel plants or Ireland the best place to cull dairy herds.

The source of this misdirected blame-game is the unwillingness of the world’s governments to discourage the consumption of carbon-intensive goods and services, wherever produced. The planet shares just one atmosphere and there will be no effective climate policy until a universal emission-charging regime is instituted.

Europe is not the worst offender: per-capita emissions are lower than other prosperous parts of the world and there is a more pro-active policy stance, including heavy carbon-reducing taxes on motoring and road freight.

But the EU’s enthusiasm for production-based national emission quotas has led worldwide climate policy astray and their enforcement is encouraging costly and ineffective policies in Ireland.

Outside Europe, responsible for just 11pc of worldwide emissions, national production-based emission quotas, the preferred policy since the Kyoto agreement in 1995, are voluntary and aspirational.

And they have failed, as attested in the persuasive reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Their failure is unsurprising: everyone is incentivised to let everyone else make the effort and only Europe has made headway.

Saudi Arabia produces oil, which is consumed in Ireland. The carbon emissions are counted as part of the Irish total.

Ireland produces dairy products which it sells to Saudi Arabia. The carbon emissions, you would imagine, count as part of the Saudi total. And you would be wrong. They also count as part of the Irish total, so there is pressure to constrain the livestock industry in Ireland.

It would be foolish to count the carbon emissions from oil products as part of the Saudi total, demanding reductions in Saudi output.

Saudi Arabia is just about the cheapest place there is to produce oil and it would be nuts to constrain production there, diverting it to places where the costs are higher.

The same goes for Irish dairy farming: if you believe Ireland is a low-cost producer, it makes no sense to divert output to places where costs, including carbon costs, will be higher.

Irish livestock products are actually “carbon-efficient”, in the sense that emissions per unit of output are lower in temperate regions which employ grass-fed production systems.

If oil from Saudi Arabia had lower carbon emissions per litre there would be a case for encouraging rather than constraining its share of world output. Butter and cheese from some countries and regions pass this test – the associated emissions of greenhouse gases are lowest in the countries with the most suitable soil, climate and production systems. According to the European Union’s Joint Research Centre this is precisely the position with Irish livestock farming. If emissions of greenhouse gases associated with a unit of product in Ireland amount to 1 kilo, the European average is 1.4.

Any restraint on Irish output substituted by increased output elsewhere in the EU will likely result in rising Europe-wide emissions. This perverse outcome is always a risk with national production-based emission targets.

This risk was pointed out by economists 30 years ago when the first steps were being planned towards an agreed, worldwide policy to address climate change.

The science of climate change is ferociously complex but the economics straightforward: if the consumption of certain goods and services entails damaging emissions, these should be measured, and reflected fully, in the price charged. This sends the right signal to consumers but does not distort the geographical pattern of production.

Create new technology with lower emissions and you will enjoy a cost advantage. Technological solutions and carbon taxes are not alternatives, they are complements.

There is no coherent worldwide policy designed to inhibit consumption of the products and services which cause emissions.

In Europe, where no more than one-tenth of worldwide emissions are likely to originate in the decades ahead, national production-based targets are deployed instead.

The remaining nine-tenths will arise in China, the USA and the rest of the world, where emission control is voluntary.

Even if Europe were to do everything possible, failures elsewhere would be enough to court disaster. For every tonne of greenhouse gases emitted in Ireland, about 830 tonnes arise somewhere else.

The earth has just one shared atmosphere but has close to 200 governments. Can you imagine a universe in which all 200 countries would have the right incentives to adopt sensible policies independently? It would consist of 200 separate planets, each with its own atmosphere, spinning through space with no trade between them. Failure would guarantee extinction, planet by planet, and the benefit of emission reduction would accrue entirely to those making the effort.

The Irish government accepted demanding EU targets for 2020 greenhouse gas emissions in 2009 and may fail to meet them. Of the 27 countries covered, 12 were invited to increase emissions by amounts ranging from 1pc (Portugal) up to 20pc (Bulgaria).

The remaining 15 were expected to cut emissions, on average by about 14pc. Three countries accepted the highest target reduction of 20pc – Ireland, Denmark and Luxembourg. This approach fails, by design, to identify the least-cost path of containing climate change and of Europe’s contribution to that objective. Only a universal carbon charging system on consumption will lead to the least-cost solution.

In the meantime, the Irish government could do better than tinker with farming.

It could end subsidies for high-emission peat-fired electricity generation, pursued alongside corporate welfare for intermittent and increasingly inefficient wind-farms. And it could campaign for European carbon taxes on air and maritime transport, currently exempt from VAT and excise.

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Israel's Leumi to complete sale of credit card unit February 26

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s Bank Leumi said on Sunday it would complete the sale of its credit card unit to U.S. private equity firm Warburg Pincus on Feb. 26.

Leumi, which owns 80 percent of Leumi Card, and property developer Azrieli Group, which holds 20 percent, announced in July they had agreed to sell the business to the Warburg Pincus for 2.5 billion shekels ($691 million), subject to regulatory approval, receipt of which had held up the deal by a number of weeks.

Since the conditions for the sale have been met, the bank said in a statement on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange that the sides agreed to complete the transaction on Feb. 26.

Israeli regulators, in a bid to increase competition, have instructed the country’s top two banks, Leumi and Hapoalim, to sell off their credit card companies by early 2020.

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Opinion | The King of Pop — and Perversion

When Dan Reed ordered up a score for his documentary, he asked the composer to evoke the image of a shimmering sprite leading two boys deeper and deeper into an enchanted forest. The boys don’t notice that the trees grow menacing. And suddenly, the sprite turns into a monster.

As “Leaving Neverland” shows, Michael Jackson spent his life shape-shifting from best pal, father figure and beneficent idol into cruel, manipulative rapist.

It was apparent for decades that Jackson’s cotton-candy lair was sulfurous. But as with other monsters — Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Woody Allen, Jeffrey Epstein and Bryan Singer — many turned a blind eye.

Celebrity supersedes criminality. How can you see clearly when you’re looking into the sun? How can an icon be a con?

It was easier to ignore a landscape designed as a spider web for child sexual abuse than to give up the soundtrack of our lives, the catchy songs that coursed through memories of weddings, bar mitzvahs and other good times.

“With Michael Jackson, you can see how grotesquely his fame, and our worship of fame, distorts and excuses and enables evil — to the point mothers fail to protect their children and literally throw them in harm’s way,” says Maureen Orth, who did groundbreaking stories in the ’90s for Vanity Fair about both Jackson and Allen.

Indeed, the most harrowing part of the new documentary about the shredded lives of two of Jackson’s victims is the complicity of their mothers. Jackson spent as much time grooming the mothers as the sons, to the point where the women saw nothing wrong in letting their children share a bed with a grown man. (The documentary, which left the audience stunned at Sundance last month, premieres on HBO next month.)

Reed is a Brit who made several documentaries about terrorism. He says he became practiced at leading victims gently back to their traumas, so they could use their minds as cameras to bring key moments to life, letting their faces and voices tell the stories.

And that is how the tragedies of James Safechuck and Wade Robson unfold, through the pain in their eyes and the confusion in their voices and the moments where they tear up or swallow hard.

Safechuck, who works as a computer programmer, was raised in Simi Valley. He met Jackson when he was a 10-year-old child actor in 1987, starring with the singer in a Pepsi commercial. Jackson promised to make the boy the next Spielberg.

Robson, a dance teacher who did choreography for Britney Spears and ’N Sync, grew up on the other side of the world in Brisbane. He spent all his time dressing and dancing like Jackson. He won a dance contest in 1990 and got to meet Jackson, who was on tour in Australia, and dance onstage. Soon, he was ensnared in the warped fantasy, a 7-year-old being initiated into sex at Neverland by the 31-year-old Jackson.

The mothers, Stephanie Safechuck and Joy Robson, knew that Jackson was ensorcelling their sons, even as he lured the mothers out of the frame with luxurious enticements. But they were stage mothers and fans, so they chose to believe Michael was a kind, lonely little boy at heart, not a heartless pedophile, and they did not dig deeper when their sons said nothing bad was going on.

“He flies you first class, you have a limo waiting for you at the airport, amazing, you know, it’s a life of the rich and famous,” Mrs. Safechuck gushes in the film, adding: “I got to meet Sean Connery. That was big for me. It was like, ‘Oh my God, Sean Connery!’” She also loved Neverland: “He had a beautiful wine cellar, really good wines, champagne, that was just something I enjoyed — it was a fairy tale every night.” After all, as she says, he was a genius and they were “just nobodies.” Jackson bought them a house after James testified on the singer’s behalf in a trial involving another boy.

It somehow made sense to James’s mother when she was told that she couldn’t be near the hotel rooms her son and Michael shared in Europe because the nicer suites she would prefer were farther away.

As Wade Robson puts it, “What you’d think would be standard kind of instincts and judgment seemed to go out the window.”

His mother left Australia and his father and moved to L.A. with Wade and her daughter to be closer to Michael; the father later committed suicide. After Wade finally told a therapist and his wife and family what had happened, he was alienated from his mother for a time. Like James, Wade — who lied in court twice to protect the man he loved — had symptoms of trauma that intensified with the birth of his son. James’s hands shake as he shows a diamond ring that Jackson gave him for a private mock wedding. Wade had a nervous breakdown and stopped dancing for a time.

“I had one job” and messed it up, Mrs. Safechuck says. “My son had to suffer for me to have this life.”

Even with this shocking documentary, the Michael Jackson estate is still demonizing the victims and planning to bring a musical about Jackson’s life to Broadway in 2020.

Reed says he is “agnostic” about it: “Am I going to campaign to have Michael’s name removed from classrooms and his statues removed from shopping malls? No. Is this the right time to celebrate Michael as a legitimate good person you might want to emulate? Possibly not.”

And that is what’s known as British understatement.

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Opinion | The Limp Caudillo

In Barack Obama’s second term, with his legislative agenda dead in a Republican-controlled Congress, the president turned to executive unilateralism on an innovative scale. On climate regulation and health care he used the presidential pen to pursue policies denied him by Congress, and on immigration he made a more dramatic leap — claiming a power he himself had previously abjured, and offering a provisional legal status to about half the illegal-immigrant population.

At the time I called this “caesarism” — an attempt to arrogate to the imperial presidency the kind of power over domestic policy that it already claims over foreign and military affairs. And because the decay of republics is an iterative process, where each faction builds on the norm-breaking of its rivals, it was fairly obvious — well, to me, if not to his supporters — that Obama’s caesarism helped stoke the caudillo appeal of Donald Trump, who promised a cruder version of the same impatient executive ambition.

Now, that caudillo spirit is taking legal form in Trump’s most serious power grab to date: the attempt to use a “national emergency” declaration — a power whose chronic abuse by presidents Congress has never bestirred itself to check — to build the border fencing that the Democratic Party and his own political impotence have denied him.

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

On the merits, anyone who opposed Obama’s moves should oppose this one as well. The scale of the policy change is smaller, but the defiance of Congress is more overt; the legal foundation might be slightly firmer (as Jell-O is slightly firmer than a pudding) but the bad faith involved in the “emergency” claim is more extreme.

And in general, serious conservatives are opposing Trump. Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias recently snarked about right-wing pundits who got “overheated about ‘Caesarism’ and ‘caudillos’” in the Obama era, mentioning myself and National Review editor Rich Lowry as examples. But Lowry has written sharply against the emergency declaration, and I’ll happily endorse his point: If Obama was abusing his powers, then clearly so is Trump.

But in terms of the general lure of presidential rule, the general declension of republican norms into imperial habits, I also think Trump’s caudillo act is substantially less dangerous than what his predecessors did.

Here I differ not only from liberals who misremember Obama as a punctilious norm-respecter, but also from those conservatives fretting that Trump is establishing a precedent for a future liberal president to impose a Green New Deal by fiat. Not that they won’t be so tempted — but I just can’t imagine anyone looking at the political train wreck of Trump’s unilateralism and seeing a precedent worth invoking.

For presidential power to meaningfully expand, it is not enough for a president to simply make a power grab. That grab needs to unite his party (ideally it would also divide the opposition), it needs to be cloaked in enough piety and deniability to find support from would-be referees, it needs to appear to be politically successful, and finally it needs to be ratified by the other branches of government, if only by their inaction.

This mostly happened with the post-9/11 war powers claimed by George W. Bush’s administration: There was pushback and resistance, but many Democrats went along, Bush won re-election, and much of his war-on-terror architecture was adopted and expanded by the Obama administration.

Obama’s attempt to play Caesar in domestic policy had more mixed results, since the immigration power grab was tied up by the courts until Trump’s election rendered some of it a dead letter. But Obama at least persuaded Democrats and the media to go along with his caesarism, and he established precedents that a President Hillary Clinton would have undoubtedly embraced.

With Trump, though, the only clear precedent being set is one of deplorable incompetence. He’s taking unpopular action that divides his party and unites the opposition, he’s doing so with a combination of brazen hypocrisy and nonsense rhetoric that makes the power grab impossible to cloak, he’s guaranteeing himself an extended legal battle — and he isn’t even accomplishing any obvious goal (there’s a reason real immigration restrictionists are against this plan) except the personal one of saving a tiny bit of face.

This spectacle will not prevent some future president from abusing an emergency declaration more effectively. But the idea that Trump’s grab enables future abuses more than the moves that Bush and Obama made is extremely dubious. If anything, precisely because his contempt for constitutional limits is so naked and his incompetence so stark, Trump has (modestly, modestly) weakened the imperial presidency by generating somewhat more pushback than his predecessors.

So the emergency declaration is not itself a constitutional emergency. Rather, as often in the Trump presidency, it’s a moment that illuminates how a more dangerous would-be autocrat might someday act. It’s a weird foretaste, not the main event. A warning, not a crisis. A clownish interlude in the republic’s decline, not the Rubicon itself.



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Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author of several books, most recently, “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.”

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Opinion | A Better Way to Attract Amazon’s Jobs

When Amazon abandoned its plans to build a new headquarters in New York, the foes of corporate greed declared victory. Yet, should all the outrage be aimed at Amazon?

Certainly, in an era of concentrated wealth, taxpayers in big cities and small towns like Elwood, Ill., are rightly fed up with companies for accepting tax incentives in exchange for investments they most likely would have made anyway or that result in empty job promises. Amazon faced blistering criticism for pitting cities against one another in a bidding war for such incentives, and even more criticism for accepting a $3 billion subsidy package from the winner of that bidding war, New York.

But the role of public officials in this controversy deserves more scrutiny. Too often, they agree to economic development deals that fail to protect the interests of their constituents and negotiate through a process that is closed door and top down. State and local officials continue to hand out goodies even though evidence suggests that such subsidies have little effect on jobs.

In New York, the governor and mayor structured an agreement with Amazon using policy tools already established in the law. Amazon received “as-of-right” incentives, which are given automatically when a company wants to expand or relocate its facilities. New York’s as-of-right incentives, which are available to any company in a priority industry for the state that goes to a borough outside Manhattan, have been widely criticized as flawed and outdated. The amount of incentives offered ballooned to billions of dollars because of the proposed job count. Additionally, the city and state agreed that Amazon would not need to go through a local land-use review process, prompting the City Council to cry foul. Soon, a vocal minority of elected officials, labor leaders, and community activists revolted against the deal.

And yet, these same constituents continue to hope companies will be the ones to change.

Sure, we all want good corporate citizens, but companies will always put self-interest and shareholders before the needs of communities, no matter how much they receive in incentives. A recent study examining public incentives records in Texas found that companies frequently hide behind public records laws to renegotiate economic developments commitments in secrecy, often without a commensurate reduction in tax benefits. Foxconn and Carrier are investing in labor-saving technologies that will displace workers in the industrial Midwest after receiving incentive packages.

The burden of making sure that economic development deals reflect the values and needs of a community falls on state and local officials, whose job is to represent the public.

The Amazon deal in Virginia shows that a different approach is possible.

Virginia offered Amazon $550 million in job-creation grants, which the company will receive only after delivering the proposed 25,000 jobs, with additional subsidies available if the company creates as many as 37,850 jobs. Virginia’s relatively small offer to Amazon reflected the state’s very few as-of-right incentives.

Virginia threw into the package more than $1 billion in additional taxpayer funds to build a pipeline of technical workers and improve transportation. This portion of the “subsidy” will not go directly into Amazon’s pockets but into Virginia schools, universities, and local agencies. It is nearly twice the amount offered to Amazon, a signal that investing in the local work force is more important than offering sweeteners to Amazon.

Finally, the governor’s office, key state legislators and city and county council officials worked together to address anticipated concerns from their constituency, whether from rural areas or in the neighborhoods surrounding National Landing, the proposed site for the new Amazon facility.

As in New York, residents in Northern Virginia have expressed concerns around housing affordability and how local residents will benefit. Yet Virginia’s approach has muted the criticism. Amazon, like any employer in the area, got a functioning partnership with the city and state, predictability and a commitment to producing engineers and other skilled workers, all of which matter more to companies than the size of a subsidy.

In the absence of national policy to rationalize the corporate-subsidy game, states and cities can impose caps on as-of-right subsidies, demand full transparency and accountability from individual companies and make incentives more inclusive, so they support businesses that pay salaries that can support families and invest in training workers.

This type of deal-making will come increasingly under civic and political scrutiny. Rather than being spellbound by our feelings about the world’s biggest companies, American cities need to find ways to build local economies in a way that works for everyone.

Amy Liu is vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

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Opinion | No Engagement Ring

To the Editor:

Re “$1.30 Engagement Ring? ‘Gem of an Idea’” (news article, Feb. 14):

I will never understand the fascination with gems. My father gave my mother a beautiful cedar-lined mahogany “hope chest” as an engagement gift, far more practical and lovely. I inherited it and I love it.

I asked my husband to spend the money on our honeymoon instead of on an engagement ring. He obliged, and we not only had three fabulous weeks in Europe, but we also spent each anniversary reviewing wedding and anniversary photos sharing a bottle of wine.

Happy memories. No engagement ring and no regrets.

Eileen Bach
Ithaca, N.Y.

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Coty forms special panel to evaluate JAB's offer to raise stake to 60 percent

(Reuters) – Coty Inc said on Friday it has formed a special committee to evaluate shareholder JAB Holding Co’s offer to raise its stake in the cosmetics maker to 60 percent.

The board will not move forward with approving or recommending the offer or any other transaction with the German conglomerate unless it is approved by the special committee, Coty said.

The panel will consist of three independent directors.

The private holding company of Germany’s Reimann family, which is already the largest shareholder in Coty with a 40 percent stake, earlier this week offered a premium of about 21 percent to buy out some minority shareholders.

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Opinion | Is Nancy Pelosi a Climate Skeptic?

Is Nancy Pelosi a climate skeptic? Of course not — and I would know. But you might be excused for thinking so, given the curt wave-off the House speaker delivered to the liberally ballyhooed, legislatively stillborn Green New Deal.

“The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?” That was Pelosi talking about the deal as if it were a grandchild’s latest video game obsession. The San Francisco Democrat is nothing if not a political realist, and that kind of realism means that no Congress is going to mobilize the country to fight climate change as if it were an alien invasion, as my colleague Farhad Manjoo recently suggested.

Higher mileage standards, more subsidies for wind and solar, signing the Paris climate deal? Those are the sorts of policies Nancy Pelosi believes in, and would happily endorse if stars align under a future Democratic president.

But obtaining 100 percent of America’s power needs through renewable energy, “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States” to meet “maximal” efficiency standards, and dealing with the issue of cow flatulence by reducing meat consumption, as the Green New Deal proposes? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Then again, if climate change is a potentially humanity-wrecking event, why shouldn’t we treat it as an alien-invasion equivalent? Let’s assume the most dire predictions are right and we don’t have a moment to lose in substantially decarbonizing the global economy, no matter what the financial cost or political pain. In that case, isn’t Pelosi’s incrementalist approach to climate absurdly inadequate?

Isn’t it, in fact, like trying to put out a forest fire with a plant mister?

Marxists of old liked to talk about the fundamental contradictions of capitalism. Today we should also reckon with the contradictions of climate policy. Are we dealing with a problem so severe that it requires the political and economic equivalent of war socialism? Or should we think of climate change roughly the same way we think about global poverty — a serious problem we can work patiently to solve without resort to extreme measures like ending capitalism or depriving equally serious priorities of the attention they deserve?

If it’s the former, then another windmill subsidy or carbon-trading scheme won’t do. We need to take extreme measures: to declare a national emergency, strictly ration every citizen’s carbon footprint, raise taxes on the rich and middle class alike to fund trillions of dollars in green infrastructure projects worldwide, and even impose economic sanctions on China and India if they don’t stop building new coal plants.

If the latter, however, then can we at least end the apocalyptic talk, especially since we aren’t prepared to take more than piecemeal steps?

So far, activists have been able to elide this contradiction, claiming both that climate change is a World War III-level challenge, and that we can deal with it relatively easily. That may do wonders for public awareness — do your part and bike to work! — but it is self-deceiving, if not dishonest. Whatever else might be said of it, the Green New Deal blows the lid off that delusion. It’s a remarkably honest attempt to offer a massive answer to what its authors see as an epochal problem.

Yet its virtue is also its undoing. The Green New Dealers may want to spend trillions on a climate moonshot (and trillions more on their other policy hobbyhorses). Most people don’t even want to spend pennies, at least if it’s their own money. In November, voters in Washington rejected a carbon fee by a margin of 12 percentage points. That’s a blue state. Endorsements of the Green New Deal may have rolled in from Democratic presidential hopefuls, but the chances of them enacting any of it if they take office are about as great as Scott Pruitt being elected to the board of the Sierra Club. Even Barack Obama didn’t endorse a gas tax when he had a chance to do so in 2009.

All of this means that climate activists should get wise to a central fact: If Pelosi is skeptical of their policies, where do they imagine the rest the country is? Those who believe climate change will become irreversible, uncontrollable and catastrophic in a few years should get to work on their fallout shelters. The E.P.A. won’t be coming to the rescue.

By contrast, those who think climate change is a real but manageable problem would do well to say as much, too. Climate change means change, not doom. It shouldn’t be hard to make the case, even to conservatives, for large-scale investments in climate resilience, such as better coastal defenses. It shouldn’t be hard, either, to make the case even to liberals that dynamic market economies are essential for creating the kind of wealth that makes environmental protections affordable, along with the innovations that make environmental fixes possible.

Pelosi’s seal clap sealed the fate of the Green New Deal. Now it’s time to move climate policy beyond impractical radicalism and feckless virtue-signaling to something that can achieve a plausible, positive and bipartisan result.

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Bret L. Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. @BretStephensNYT Facebook

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Martina Devlin: 'As Brexit nears endgame, it's up to the people north and south on this island to make it clear that the Good Friday Agreement is ours and not for tampering with'

Come back Stormont, all is forgiven. Compared with the fog and obfuscation at Westminster, relentless Tory infighting and the writhing of a shambolic political system, quarrels in the Northern Assembly look petty. Nothing was ripped that can’t be sewn up again.

Meanwhile, a Stormont-shaped hole gapes through the Brexit debate. Devolved government has been missing and missed for the past two years. As soon as B-Day passes on March 29, a push should be made by Dublin and London to kickstart the Belfast institutions.

It won’t be easy. Compromise is required. The DUP needs to surrender its attachment to the Petition of Concern, machinery it used repeatedly to block legislation that had cross-party majority backing. As for Sinn Féin, it will have to drop its support for marriage equality, abortion reform or an Irish language act. I don’t mean to suggest those are trivial issues, far from it, but something has to be conceded. Workarounds for progress on those matters can be found once the Assembly is operational.

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At least Northern voices (other than the DUP’s) were heard on the Brexit question at Dublin Castle yesterday, when MLAs spoke at the fifth All-Island Civic Dialogue and reiterated the importance of the backstop. By and large, their voices have been absent from the debate, deprived of their platform.

Unfortunately, unionism was a no-show at the event, with neither UUP nor DUP politicians willing to participate. This is a loss for all of us, not least their own communities, and some carrot must be found to make public engagement with the Republic palatable to them.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said this week he believed that if it wasn’t for Brexit, the Northern institutions would be back in business. There is logic to such a viewpoint. However, once Brexit happens, focus and energy can be redirected towards giving Stormont a new lease of life.

Meanwhile, brinkmanship continues to play out at Westminster and we are no further forward towards an agreed solution. Rather, a zombie-like drive towards crash-out is gaining momentum. Leo Varadkar told the Dublin Castle audience that Ireland is intensifying preparations for no deal.

Theresa May whirls about, giving the appearance of activity – shuttling between EU leaders and her own hardliners – yet nothing of substance is taking place behind the smoke and mirrors. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the prime minister is running down the clock, as Labour’s Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer suggested in Dublin this week.

The logjam in her Withdrawal Agreement is the backstop, which has acquired totemic status, with neither side ready to be seen giving way on it. But the backstop is about the Border and that’s concerned with more than tariffs on goods or customs regulations – it goes to the heart of human relationships, family and community life. An open Border protects the peace, safeguards normal life – a hard Border compromises them.

Magic technological solutions for a frictionless frontier don’t yet exist, although perhaps they will in the future. Until they do, the British parliament’s “alternative arrangements” kite won’t fly. Brussels is adamant it won’t alter the Withdrawal Agreement, as Mrs May knows perfectly well, but where wriggle room exists is for some words of comfort about the backstop to be added to the political declaration.

Will such a fudge prove acceptable to a House of Commons’ majority? The answer will only be apparent when a real meaningful vote is held, as opposed to that succession of pantomime votes enacted in recent weeks. In the last week of March, as close to B-Day as possible, Mrs May will present the House of Commons with a stark deal or no-deal choice.

Will a hard Border result from that vote? Mr Ahern this week gave evidence before a Westminster group, the cross-party Exiting the European Union Committee. When asked whether Irish people expected a Border, he replied: “The Irish Government doesn’t want it, the British government doesn’t want it, Europe doesn’t want it – I think most Irish people take from that ‘then we’ll definitely have it’.” A spine-chilling analysis, all told.

Committee member Sammy Wilson didn’t seem to care. Yet there are signs that the DUP is starting to soften its stance on a customs union with the EU. And Arlene Foster may not be averse to a resumption of Stormont, although her party has been the main obstacle to progress there since its focus shifted to Westminster. After all, her role as party leader has been diminished since Stormont’s collapse.

Ironically, Mrs May is reliant on Remainers to leave the EU with a deal, according to Dr Katy Hayward, from Queen’s University Belfast, speaking at a panel discussion this week at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin. She said it was one of the illogical truths of Brexit – that responsible pro-European politicians would have to help the prime minister avoid a cliff-face departure.

At the same Countdown to Brexit event, Daithí O Ceallaigh, former Irish ambassador to Britain and later the UN, urged Irish negotiators to keep their nerve despite crash-out anxiety. “We have to hold our position and we shouldn’t put our toe in the water until the UK government knows what it wants,” he said. He expressed concern at the potential negative impact of Brexit on Irish-British relations, with officials no longer having regular meetings through common membership of the EU.

In the post-Brexit universe, diplomatic efforts must be undertaken to improve the relationship between Ireland and Britain. The current British government has behaved disappointingly in breaking the spirit, if not the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement; it has shown bad faith by compromising the agreement for selfish ends. Some say they can no longer be regarded as credible co-guarantors. But bridges will need to be built because they remain our nearest neighbours and our fortunes are bound up in one another.

That said, it is up to representatives of the Irish people, North and south, to insist that this peace treaty, lodged with the UN, belongs to us and we won’t have it tampered with. Not by the Tories, nor by its DUP ally.

Currently, the DUP is punching above its weight, determining much of what happens to Northern Ireland as regards Brexit – with repercussions particularly in the Border region, but elsewhere in the Republic as well. This is not just unfortunate but regressive. Hardline unionism, where ideology is the measure rather than what’s best for people economically and socially, is taking far-reaching decisions which will affect future generations.

Stormont is one potential way to counteract the DUP’s voice. The vacuum of the past two years cannot and must not continue.

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Opinion | An Intrepid Explorer of Mars Falls Silent

Opportunity, formally known as Mars Exploration Rover B but as Oppy to its many friends and admirers, was pronounced dead on Wednesday after a final round of beamed commands, and a farewell broadcast of Billie Holiday’s rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” failed to elicit a response. Oppy was 5,352 Martian days old, a bit more than 15 Earth years, and had worked tirelessly through its long and productive life, despite bouts of amnesia in its later years, before succumbing to an epic summer dust storm last June.

“I learned this morning that we had not heard back,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told a hushed news conference. “It is therefore that I am standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude that I declare the Opportunity mission as complete.”

Scientists who had spent many years working with Oppy hugged one another and wept while the rover’s many friends posted tributes on social media. A friend called StillMe spelled out “Godspeed Oppy” in the binary code the rover spoke, adding, “Yes, I’m crying.” Tanya Harrison, a member of Opportunity’s science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tweeted:

Spent the evening at JPL as the last ever commands were sent to the Opportunity rover on #Mars. 💔

There was silence. There were tears. There were hugs. There were memories and laughs shared.#ThankYouOppy #GoodnightOppy pic.twitter.com/JYRPtKZ8T5

“Don’t be sad it’s over, be proud it taught us so much,” tweeted Barack Obama.

About the size of a golf cart and vaguely resembling a flightless bird with a long neck, six wheels and a spindly claw, Opportunity was a robot version of “The Little Engine That Could,” the storybook locomotive that never stopped trying. Launched on July 7, 2003, it zipped around the red planet way past its anticipated life span of 90 Martian days and its intended range of 1,100 yards. The 28 miles over nearly 15 years that it logged across rock-strewn plains, sandy dunes and deep craters, through dust storms and brutal extremes of temperature, were far more than any other space vehicle had ever traveled on the surface of another planet or moon, a testament to its resilience and to the talents and ingenuity of the scientists, engineers and managers at NASA.

Along the way, it changed the way Earthlings see their extraterrestrial neighbor, sending back countless stunning images, including remarkable pictures of “dust devils” of swirling sand; an unexpected meteorite; scores of craters and signs that water had flowed over Mars billions of years ago, possibly nourishing life. At Endeavour Crater, the biggest Oppy explored, it came upon ancient bedrock containing clays formed eons ago in drinkable water. So this was a planet that may have been habitable until volcanic eruptions turned the water acidic and then dried it up altogether.

Opportunity was not the first rover on Mars, and not the last. NASA’s Sojourner explored the planet for about three months in 1997, and three weeks before Opportunity arrived, its identical twin, Spirit, landed on the other side of Mars. Spirit was doing a good job until it got stuck in soft sand and went silent in 2010. Another American rover, Curiosity, landed in 2012 and is now exploring a crater once filled with water. Three landings are planned for 2020, by NASA, China and a joint European-Russian group.

But Oppy won a special place in the hearts of space buffs by its sheer spunk. Like its sibling, it got stuck in sand, but it managed to rock its way out. It had some problems with its wheels and its arm, but it overcame them. It survived brutal winters by hibernating with its wings turned to the sun. In later years it developed a touch of amnesia in its flash memory, as any aging robot would, but that, too, didn’t slow it down. It just kept humming along: “I think I can, I think I can.”

Oppy finally came to a rest on the edge of Endeavour Crater, in a place known as Perseverance Valley. It may be that in its last days it could still hear, just couldn’t answer. So maybe the last message it heard from Earth was Billie Holiday singing this final refrain:

I’ll find you in the morning sun
And when the night is new
I’ll be looking at the moon
But I’ll be seeing you.


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