Monday, February 28, 2011

The criticality of raw materials

The realities of living on a finite planet where more and more people are being encouraged to adopt an economic system/philosophy based on crass consumerism and waste are being brought into sharp focus as China continues to exert its global influence. For a sobering analysis of what could unfold read "Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict" by Michael Klare. Klare analyzes the most likely cause of war in the century just begun: demand by rapidly growing populations for scarce resources. (GW)

Raw materials: Are they truly scarce?

28 February 2011

The EU should not restrict itself to China-bashing over rare earth supplies and instead focus on access to all raw materials and emphasise recycling and substitution, experts say.


In November 2008, the European Commission presented a new integrated strategy for raw materials, suggesting three pillars for the EU's policy response to different challenges related to access to global resources:

Since then, an EU expert group has identified 14 raw materials seen as "critical" for EU high-tech and eco-industries and suggested that the bloc’ global diplomacy should be geared up to ensure that companies gain easier access to them in future.

For the experts, the "criticality" of these raw materials relates to their production, which is concentrated in a handful of countries – mainly China, Russia, Congo and Brazil. It also relates to difficulties in substituting them with more commonly available materials and to their low recycling rates.

Since then, attention has focused on rare earths, a group of metals featured in the list as critical to EU industry. China, which accounts for 97% of global production, has imposed a steep decrease of export quotas on a number of rare metals since 2005 and is mulling a full export ban as of 2015.

Rare earths are seen as critical for European businesses, as these materials are widely used by high-tech and eco industries, for example in laptops, solar panels and batteries for electric cars.

A long-awaited European Commission paper on raw materials, tabled on 2 February, has failed to raise enthusiasm among EU businesses and other stakeholders.

Many described the paper as a mere repetition of a previous 2008 initiative and called for better prioritisation of its three pillars of action – trade, domestic mining and recycling (see 'Background').

German centre-right MEP Karl-Heinz Florenz (European People's Party), president of the raw materials group in the European Parliament, said he could not see "any new initiative" in the proposal and lamented the lack of "clear weighting between the pillars".

The majority of stakeholders also seem to have rejected the inclusion of a whole new chapter on financial and commodity markets, saying these should be dealt with separately.

The European Parliament's raw materials group, which was set up two weeks ago to work on an EU strategy, is not even going to address these markets.

The new chapter was added to the Commission paper at the last minute at the request of France, which has vowed to take on commodity speculators as part of its G20 presidency.


Concerns over scarcity and supplies of raw materials have emerged as the global population continues to grow and the world's poor continue to lift themselves out of poverty.

The rapid industrialisation of emerging economies, such as Brazil, China and India, has intensified competition for raw materials, pushing up prices on world commodity markets.

However, some scientists are now challenging this widely accepted view. "We are not running out of minerals, at least not any time soon," Professor Roderick Eggert of the Colorado School of Mines told a European Parliament hearing in January.

Speaking in Brussels, Eggert, a geochemistry graduate who holds a PhD in mineral economics, challenged such perceptions and said businesses and policymakers should focus instead on "costs, geography and timeframes".

By cost, Eggert referred to both the economic cost of extraction and recycling, "which varies significantly from one location to another". He also drew attention to broader, "less quantifiable" environmental and social costs associated with those two methods of production.

For the European Commission, the "criticality" of a raw material primarily relates to the concentration of production in a handful of countries. But Eggert disputed this claim and argued that "geographically concentrated production cannot be a risk factor in terms of access to raw materials".

In his view, geographic concentration and dependency on imports are simply not the same thing. And in many cases import dependency can even be good if foreign sources are better and available at lower cost than domestic ones, he said.

Eggert also stressed the difference between short and long-term supply issues. In the short term, the real issue is "the reliability of producers and the risks associated with availability," which depend on existing production capacities and are strongly influenced by investment decisions and past government policies.

Long-term issues are very different and are linked to geological availability, the evolution of production techniques and the role that public policy plays in facilitating them, the professor went on.

The Commission's new strategy also calls on member states to draw up "national minerals policies," draft land-use planning policies for minerals, and ease the authorisation process for mineral exploration and extraction.

Even regarding rare earths, Eggert believes that non-Chinese sources of supply will ultimately come on to the market, as a result of "miner mania" – the expected boom in exploration for deposits that contain rare earth elements.

Despite their name, rare earths are actually not that rare, with a third of the world's known reserves located in Greenland and deposits existing in the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa and even Sweden, according to Reinhard Bütikofer, a Green MEP.

Had it not been all too easy in the past to rely on China to supply Europe's high-tech industries with rare earths, policymakers would not have fallen asleep at the wheel, he wrote in a recent op-ed for EurActiv.

"Within the next couple of years, production is already expected to come online in the United States and particularly Canada. As such, others argue that their supply risk is more of a medium to long-term issue," Bütikofer said.

Available, but at what price?

If, like Eggert and Bütikofer suggest, raw materials are not really scarce, the EU could decide to boil down its strategy to ensuring that industry access is maintained at a competitive price.

The European Commission says the 2002-2008 price boom was marked by surging demand from emerging countries and that the trend will continue with further industrialisation of China, India and Brazil.

As European demand for materials remains relatively stable compared to the surge in China, the Old Continent is losing buying power on world markets to emerging economies, and is forced to gear up its raw materials diplomacy via trade agreements or attacks against China at the WTO.

But rare earths are not the only a case in point. In sectors such as steelmaking, market concentration has also played a big role in pushing up prices, the Commission says. While reserves of iron ore are abundant, supplies have tended to concentrate into the hands of a smaller number of global companies, such Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, British-Australian firm Rio Tinto and Brazil's Vale.

Last month, Bloomberg analysts estimated that the three companies were set for record profits totalling $52 billion, representing an average 66% jump in annual earnings last year compared to 2007. In contrast, the largest publicly-traded steelmakers, including ArcelorMittal, may have seen an average slump in profits of 30%t over the same period, the analysts predicted.

The European steel industry, represented by Eurofer, said it was "outraged" by recent increases in iron ore prices of nearly 100%. The confederation warned of its "significant impact on steel prices and as such on the whole manufacturing and construction value chain, and ultimately on the European consumer".

Cutting-edge R&D

Yet industry and lawmakers alike acknowledge that potential raw material supply risks should be seen as an opportunity to direct the EU economy towards a more resource-efficient model.

Reducing consumption of materials while pushing for more recycling and substitutions are seem as key to reducing the bloc's dependency on imports and steering the Union towards a more resource-efficient economy.

And with proper investment in research and development into new recycling technologies and substitution materials, Europe can secure a leading position in this knowledge area and create new green jobs, proponents argue.

Stéphane Arditi from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an NGO, noted however that "legal drivers" such as ambitious targets for recycling need to be put in place to provide the recycling industry with incentives to invest in R&D and new plants.

The European Commission is currently preparing a roadmap to a resource-efficient Europe, due in June. According to Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, the map, which will also address raw materials, might introduce resource-efficiency targets for member states.


Next Steps

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Tea Party's take on sustainability

Here's the problem: for years now, too many environmentalists and liberal-to-progressive politicians have been quoted as saying that they don't fully understand what's meant by sustainable development ("I can't define it, but I know it when I see it" a prominent environmentalist once told me).

Well, if we can't define it, who can?
The Tea Party for one. They have no problem filling the void and letting the world know that sustainable development is nothing less than an attempt "to transform American society from the bottom up into a socialist ward of UN global governance.."

Wisconsin is the tip of an enormous iceberg. (GW)

Agenda 21 Part III: Maryland County Abolishes Agenda 21 – Now it’s Your Turn

Posted By James M. Simpson
Big Government
February 26, 2011

The November elections marked a sea change in the political landscape at every level of government nationwide. Right now, all eyes are focused on the Wisconsin standoff [1] between Governor Scott Walker and the public employee unions. But under the radar, completely overlooked by the mass media, is the unprecedented move recently taken by newly-elected Carroll County [2], Maryland Commissioners Richard Rothschild [3], Robin Frazier [4], Haven Shoemaker [5], Dave Roush [6] and Doug Howard, [7] who abolished the County’s Office of Sustainability. They then voted unanimously to drop out of the UN’s International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI [8]). They are the first governmental organization to do so. [9]

For those unfamiliar with the sustainable development agenda, this might not seem like much, but it is huge. If you have been following my recent series [10] on the subject, you will know that local Sustainability offices, under the auspices of the ICLEI’s Local Governments for Sustainability [11], are the tiny, visible tip of the monstrous Agenda 21 [12] sustainable development iceberg, the ultimate goal of which is to transform American society from the bottom up into a socialist ward of UN global governance. As of today, there are approximately 600 local governments [13] in the US who have signed on to this Trojan Horse.

Minus one.

All the commissioners are to be commended for this bold decision. Predictably, the left is up in arms. The commissioners have already been challenged to a debate on their decision and the other side wants to bring in heavy hitters from the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment in an attempt to discredit the commission’s earth shattering (figuratively) move.

I think the commissioners took some skin.

Richard Rothschild led the charge. He campaigned [3] on this issue, framing it, appropriately, as a matter of private property rights. In an American Thinker article [14] he co-wrote last summer with Scott Strzelczyk [15], he explained that: “Sustainability has less to do with the environment, and everything to do with economics. It is an attack on capitalism, and an attack on America’s middle class lifestyle.”

Rich recently discussed Agenda 21 in a radio address. Listen here [16]. This is the kind of leadership that has been sorely lacking at all levels of government and hopefully his example and that of his fellow commissioners will embolden more such individuals to step forward before it is too late.

Following the election, Carroll County’s sustainability director saw the writing on the wall and opted for early retirement. He then began taking pot shots at the new commissioners in the local paper. After being party to the biggest attempted land grab in the county’s history under the “Smart Growth” banner, this clown had the gall to wonder aloud how anyone could believe a UN planning document marketed as “Smart Growth” could affect Carroll County. I have a suggestion for him: read the documents.

Rich responded to these attacks with an in-depth explanation [17] of Sustainable Development published in the local paper:

Sustainability invokes government power to enforce activists’ views of environmentalism. They want to replace farmers’, ranchers’ and other landowners’ concept of stewardship with government-centric control. It merges environmentalism and socialism to expand government into every aspect of our lives, including land use, food production, housing, transportation, manufacturing, energy rationing and even health care.

He identifies the ICLEI for what it really is:

…an organization with extreme beliefs on global warming that promotes United Nations’ big-government socio-economic policies. The UN Millennium Papers caution activists not to mention the UN Agenda because of potential American backlash, and instruct, “So, we call our process something else, such as comprehensive planning, growth management, or smart growth.”

Rich cites egregious examples of “sustainability” in practice:

Sustainability disciples use euphemistic terms like “environmental justice,” and collude with government to enforce oppressive regulations at any cost. Don’t believe me? Google “EPA TMDL lawsuits” and see the list of activists that sue the EPA and obtain federal court opinions that embolden oppressive regulations.

Why does the EPA advertise these lawsuits on its website? Ironically, every time the EPA loses to an environmental group, it grows stronger as courts direct the EPA to enforce. The courts have become unwitting accomplices to government overreach. One Maryland county faces $1.8 billion in regulatory mandates, possibly enough to push them to the brink of insolvency.

In another bid for expansion, government auctions off imaginary carbon credits. The 2008 northeast auction raised $600 million in hidden taxes that are passed on to struggling families through higher utility costs.

The words “sustainable development” deceitfully suggest environmental conservation, and people who focus on the slogans without reading the fine print come up with simplistic conclusions like “it’s all about the environment.” In reality, Agenda-21 based sustainability programs seek government control of land, labor and capital in order to promote “social justice”.

As documented in Part I [18] of this series, buzzwords for socialism like “social justice,” “collective,” “equity,” and “redistribution,” are used throughout Agenda 21 texts. If you study the documents that spawned Agenda 21, most formulated by prominent socialist leaders [19] from around the world, it is clear that their key concerns are: 1. abolishing private property and redistributing it according to socialist goals worldwide, and 2. herding humans into small urban communities where, stripped of freedom and mobility, we will live and work according to government diktat.

For example, the Millennium Project [20] calls for a global tax on all countries to provide monies for developing and third world countries. “Environmental sustainability” is only one of eight Millennium Development Goals [21]. The rest are a laundry list of anti-poverty and health programs; laudable goals maybe, but nothing to do with Chesapeake Bay pollution to say the least. Furthermore, these countries have received billions in aid from the U.S. and elsewhere for decades, but because they are usually run by corrupt dictators of one form or another, such aid serves only to prop them up, thereby perpetuating the problem rather than solving it. But they’re socialists, so it’s okay.

More to the point, Dr. Michael Coffman’s famous Agenda 21 “Wildlands” map reveals the endgame of Agenda 21:

Dr. Michael Coffman's Wildlands Map

Agenda 21 is being implemented throughout the U.S., as the quiet work of the ICLEI finds its way into state law and county code. The video [23] below reveals how it was pushed in rural Richland County, South Carolina, sold as a “Comprehensive Plan” called “Vision 20/20”. Explained by state legislator Joe Neal [24] – a Democrat – the video provides a diagram chillingly similar to the Wildlands map, limiting development to small urban centers and leaving rural communities to die on the vine.

VIDEO: South Carolina & Comprehensive Planning [23]

If Rep. Neal’s sincere appeal in this four minute video doesn’t convince you, his full two hour presentation is available here [25].

The Comprehensive Plan stalled in 2003 due to citizen resistance but passed in 2009 [26]. It calls for creation of “Urban Villages… in contrast with suburban sprawl and inefficient land use.” Note the negative associations with “suburban sprawl.” They will fix that.

The Plan directs that, “Throughout the suburban areas infill development (emphasis added) should be a focus in residential, commercial and industrial areas, complementing and connecting the existing sprawl pattern. Housing should be varied at 4-8 units per acre… Underutilized commercial strips and big-box retail parcels can be divided and redeveloped into smaller blocks with street extensions and pedestrian-friendly designs.”

So if you moved to the suburbs to get some room, avoid urban crime and get better schooling for your kids, forget it. They’re going to tell you how and where to live, because they deem single family suburban homes “unsustainable”. The Richland County plan is similar to the description for “20 Minute Neighborhoods [27]” advocated by the Mayor of Portland, Oregon. The official map [28] is also eerily similar to Dr. Coffman’s.

The state of Virginia has gone all out in a similar effort. Virginia House Bill 3202 [29], signed into law by Democrat governor Tim Kaine in 2007 with bi-partisan support, requires 67 counties [30] and cities to create “Urban Development Areas” based on decennial population growth criteria. The UDAs must be able to accommodate that growth and must include features like “pedestrian friendly” design, mixed use housing and minimum housing densities that presume an urban landscape and encourage low-income subsidized housing. The buzzwords change, but the description is virtually identical to Richland County, South Carolina, Portland, Oregon, and countless other towns throughout America.

The despotic nature of these mandates undermines the entire concept of private property, a key goal stated prominently in Agenda 21 documents. It removes decision making latitude from both property owners and local governments, and ruins property values, while completely changing the complexion and character of rural counties. Add to this the sheer lunacy of requiring vast new housing projects when mortgage foreclosures are just beginning [31] to recover from all time high rates. Construction companies like the guaranteed business these mandates insure, a big reason why they enjoy bi-partisan support. But at what cost to our communities, our Constitution, our very way of life?

Finally, there is another even more pernicious factor that may underline politicians’ motivations to support this wholesale assault on private property. UDAs are supposed to accommodate ten to twenty years of population growth within each designated county. According to the Census Bureau, between 1990 and 2010, Virginia’s population grew by about 2 million people. Over 25 percent of that population growth was due to an influx of Hispanics. The Hispanic population represented a mere 3 percent of Virginia’s population in 1990, but since then has grown 300 percent, from 160,000 people to 632,000!

In some cases, Hispanic population growth dwarfs all else. In Prince William County for example, in 1990 the Hispanic population was a modest 4 percent of the population: 9,662 people. Today it stands at 81,460, accounting for almost 40 percent of total population growth in the county! Between 2000 and 2010 Chesterfield County grew by 56,000 people. Of that total, 15,247, almost 30 percent, were Hispanic. For comparison, the white population only increased by 16,507 people. Whites represented 77 percent of the total population in 2000, Hispanics only 3 percent. The Hispanic population growth rate in Chesterfield County between 1990 and 2010 was over 800 percent.

These growth rates cannot be accounted for by births. Nationwide, the Hispanic population has grown by about 25 million since 1990. There are at least 12 million illegals [32] in the U.S. currently, mostly Hispanics [33]. So at a minimum, about half of the growth rate in the U.S. Hispanic population since 1990 is due to illegals.

By demanding UDAs in counties with high population growth rates, the Virginia legislature is pandering to illegal immigrants. Doing so will change not only the character, but the voting preferences of its rural counties. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who will get the majority of those votes if the Democrats manage to pass an amnesty law. With the various vote fraud strategies [34] being employed by leftists nationwide, amnesty may not even be necessary. If they succeed here, redistricting will become irrelevant.

This is another covert strategy embedded in Agenda 21, perhaps the most dangerous of all, that has so far flown completely under the radar. Although Carroll County’s actions were not related to illegal immigration, the threat of dense low-income urbanized development around their rural towns in order to promote “social equity” was a factor.

Rothschild said, “They talk about sustainability promoting ‘healthier and better balanced’ neighborhoods. But “healthy and better balanced” in the sustainable development context means equally distributed. The practical result is that the county is burdened with people with no pattern of personal responsibility, people who do not share the values of the community, who have done nothing to contribute to its character or development and thus no vested interest, all for the sake of ‘equity.’ The true underlying purpose, however, is to shift voting patterns from right to left.”

The Carroll County commissioners have taken a bold step in publicly calling out the ICLEI and Agenda 21, but their work has just begun. “We have our own rural agricultural diversity and it is on the endangered species list.” Rothschild quipped.

This is an issue custom made for Tea Parties. Agenda 21 is being implemented at the state and local level, where citizen activists have the most leverage. Tea Parties nationwide need to get behind this effort and bring the dangers of Agenda 21-based planning dogma to the attention of state and local governments everywhere. It is critical to educate, support and encourage sympathetic legislators at all levels of government and work furiously to oust legislators and bureaucrats who, for whatever reason, refuse to abandon this evil agenda.

Note: Part III was going to discuss the de-population movement, but this breaking story took precedence. De-population will be covered at a later date.

Article printed from Big Government:

URL to article:

URLs in this post:

[1] Wisconsin standoff:
[2] Carroll County:
[3] Richard Rothschild:
[4] Robin Frazier:
[5] Haven Shoemaker:
[6] Dave Roush:
[7] Doug Howard,:
[8] ICLEI:
[9] Image:
[10] series:
[11] Local Governments for Sustainability:
[12] Agenda 21:
[13] approximately 600 local governments:
[14] American Thinker article:
[15] Scott Strzelczyk:
[16] here:
[17] in-depth explanation:
[18] Part I:
[19] prominent socialist leaders:
[20] Millennium Project:
[21] Millennium Development Goals:
[22] Image:
[23] video:
[24] Joe Neal:
[25] here:
[26] passed in 2009:
[27] 20 Minute Neighborhoods:
[28] official map:
[29] House Bill 3202:
[30] 67 counties:
[31] just beginning:
[32] at least 12 million illegals:
[33] mostly Hispanics:
[34] vote fraud strategies:
[35] Image: #

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Concentrating on more efficient solar energy

New Materials Make Photovoltaics Better

A startup says it can beat the performance of the most efficient solar cells on the market today.

By Kevin Bullis
Technology Review
February 23, 2011

A startup called Solar Junction says its pilot manufacturing plant is producing solar cells units that are more efficient than the best ones on the market today. The advance, based on new semiconductor materials that the company has developed, could help make a type of solar power system called concentrated photovoltaics a far more attractive way to generate electricity from the sun.

Concentrated photovoltaic systems account for a small fraction of total solar power today—with only several megawatts of production capacity installed, compared to many gigawatts of capacity for conventional solar panels. They're limited to very sunny areas, where they compete with solar thermal, the cheapest form of solar power today, which uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight for the purpose of generating steam for steam turbines. Advances in solar cell efficiency have only recently made concentrated photovoltaic systems economical in some areas.

Craig Stauffer, cofounder of Solar Junction, based in San Jose, California, says his company's new cells could bring the price of solar power to below 10 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 16.5 cents per kilowatt hour or more for typical solar panels. Solar Junction's cells require fewer layers than many other ultra-efficient solar cells and are better matched to the solar spectrum.

Solar Junction's cells are designed for photovoltaic systems that use mirrors or lenses to concentrate sunlight 1,000 times. Concentrating sunlight improves the efficiency of most solar cells, but solar cells designed for use under such high concentrations—called multi-junction cells--do particularly well because they incorporate two or three semiconductor layers for absorbing different colors of sunlight, rather than the single semiconductor layer used in conventional solar panels.

Concentrated solar power has been held back by the difficulty of finding semiconductors that divide up the spectrum in the optimal way, but that also have matching crystalline structures, which makes the cells easy to fabricate. Solar Junction's technology tackles the problem for the infrared end of the spectrum, the part that's proven the most challenging for multi-junction cell developers. In conventional multi-junction cells semiconductor materials designed for this part of the spectrum either absorb light that's too far into the infrared or aren't compatible with the other semiconductors in the cell, and so require costly buffer layers.

Stauffer says that his company's new materials have neither of those problems. He isn't disclosing details about what the materials are made of, but he says that their crystalline structure is compatible with other semiconductor materials used in multi-junction cells, and they can be modified to absorb different wavelengths to optimize efficiency. (The company calls them Adjustable Spectrum Lattice Matched materials).

The new cells, which use one of the new materials, convert 41 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity, compared to 38 to 39 percent for other multi-junction cells on the market. (World record efficiencies are higher than this, but researchers have achieved such levels with one-off cells made in the lab, not on a production line.) A jump of two percentage points can make a big difference in the price of solar systems, especially with concentrated photovoltaics, where only about 20 percent of the cost is the cells. Increasing power output from the cells reduces the number of lenses, metal frames, tracking systems, and other components that account for 80 percent of costs.

Stauffer says that the company has also made two more novel semiconductors that, when added to future cells, could bring efficiencies up to 50 percent. Because the materials can all be easily grown on top of each other, these five-layer devices can be made for the same cost as three-layer devices. He anticipates that the company can produce such cells within five years.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they get to 50 percent, but the question is when, and how much they will cost," says Jerry Olson, a principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. He says that the implementation will likely take longer than the company thinks, since the solar cells are complex.

Even at less than 10 cents per kilowatt hour, concentrated photovoltaics will still produce power at rates that are far more expensive than fossil fuel power, which often costs less than six cents per kilowatt hour, and has the considerable advantage of working day and night. Olson says that while concentrated photovoltaics are still relatively uncommon, they have the potential to be the cheapest type of solar photovoltaics, because high concentrations of sunlight reduce both the amount of land and expensive semiconductor material needed.

Copyright Technology Review 2011.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Farmers forced to adapt to climate change

As Bill McKibben points out in his book "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet" our planet has been forever changed. Now we will have to learn how to live on the transformed Earth and hope that we avert the worst-case climate change scenario wherein even adaptation is not an option. (GW)

Research helps farmers adapt to climate change

By Peter Mutai
February 25, 2011

Nairobi (Xinhua) -- Kenya’s smallholder farmers are taking steps to adapt to climate change, and key investments could help the country to reduce the threat to food security and economic development posed by increasingly variable and severe weather, according to new research published on Thursday.

The study led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) says more than eight in 10 farm households say they have been struck by drought at least once in the past five years.

Agriculture generates about 26 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product and employs almost three-fourths of its labor force.

Because only 2 percent of cultivated area is equipped for irrigation, almost all farmers must rely on rain to grow their crops.

Unfortunately, Kenya will experience country-wide losses in the production of staple crops as predicted gains from increased rain in some locations are offset by increased temperatures and rainfall variability, according to the findings of “Adaptation of Smallholder Agriculture to Climate Change in Kenya,” a research project that is the subject of a Feb. 24-25 gathering of researchers and policymakers hosted by the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI).

“Climate change has and will increasingly affect agricultural livelihoods and food security in Kenya, making adaptation essential,” said Barrack Okoba, national research coordinator for soil and water management at KARI.

“This research can support the development of better programs and policies to assist farmers in adapting to global warming.”

Drought is the key climate-related shock. Researchers expect the frequency to increase even more, possibly causing irreversible decreases in livestock numbers in some regions.

Researchers surveyed 710 farm households in seven sites spanning temperate, humid, arid, and semi-arid agroecological zones.

IFPRI, KARI, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and the University of Georgia conducted the research in 2009 and 2010 with funding from the World Bank.

Of farmers surveyed, 88 percent said rainfall had decreased over the past 20 years and 94 percent said average temperatures had risen.

Of those who reported seeing these effects of climate change, 81 percent said they had taken adaptive measures.

The most common ones included changing crop variety (33 percent of respondents), changing planting dates (20 percent), and changing the crops cultivated (18 percent).

Households in temperate and humid project sites were far more likely to adapt to climate change than those in the arid site, where climate conditions are already harsh and strategies available for adaptation are limited.

Households with access to extension services, credit, off-farm sources of income, climate information, land, and irrigation were more likely to adapt.

“Our research shows that, through careful planning and sound investments, Kenya can ease the burden of climate change on poor rural households and succeed in fighting hunger and achieving prosperity,” said Claudia Ringler, senior research fellow at IFPRI.

Almost half of all farm households listed irrigation as the most desired adaptive measure, followed by planting trees (39 percent).

They identified the lack of money, credit, and access to water as major obstacles to improved adaptation.

Researchers have outlined a strategy in which government, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) all have roles to play in supporting adaptation.

For example, in the case of irrigation, government would create the enabling conditions (through governance of water use, basic investments including roads leading to and from irrigation systems, and extension) while the private sector would be involved in the design and construction of irrigation infrastructure and the extension of credit.

NGOs, the public sector, and businesses would further support adaptation through investments in complementary rural services such as education and health services.

Investments in education and technical training, in particular, provide opportunities for farm households to diversify their livelihoods outside of agriculture.

Researchers found that communities are working together to sink boreholes, construct earthen dams, and protect springs.

They recommended more such collective action, including sharing information about the effectiveness of different adaptive strategies, sharing seeds and other technologies, and collective income generation. In addition to enhancing resilience to climate change, many adaptation strategies also increase farm productivity and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change in the first place.

However, it appears that Kenyan farmers do not always recognize this. They are well aware of the connection between planting trees and climate change, for example, but less so about the mitigation and productivity potential of using a combination of fertilizer, manure and mulch.

Researchers recommended that decision makers promote this and other less well-known practices.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

High Wire Fishing

BBC Science and Environment

During monsoon season the Mekong swells to 20 times its normal volume which brings more fish but makes them harder to catch. Sam Niang built a tightrope to reach the best fishing perch.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Is nuclear really an option?

Opponents of onshore and offshore wind energy projects are effectively closing the window of opportunity for renewables and opening the door for nukes to walk right in. (GW)


By Jim Ferland
EnergyBiz Magazine
January/February 2011

UNLIKE MANY OTHER SECTORS OF THE U.S. economy, the nuclear energy industry is growing. In fact, it's beginning to boom, with the potential to help the United States reduce its carbon footprint while also making a major and positive impact on the U.S. economy over both the near and long term.

In spite of the recent economic downturn, energy demand has risen fairly steadily over the past several decades, while investments in new electric generating capacity have lagged. To keep pace with the rising demand for energy and to remain competitive in the global economy, the country will need to add significant new electric generating capacity.

America's fossil fuel-based generating capacity is aging. Replacing the existing infrastructure and adding new capacity to meet growing demand will also have to meet the demand for green energy, helping to reduce greenhouse gases and the use of carbon-based fuels. But sources such as solar and wind account for less than 10 percent of our electricity supply, and for these sources to meet future demand would not be feasible in many parts of the country.

The growth in overall U.S. electricity demand is expected to increase by as much as 30 percent over the next 25 years. To meet that demand and replace those aging fossil fuel plants, the electric utility industry may need to invest as much as $2 trillion in new generation and transmission during that time period. What's more, it must add this new capacity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Today, there are 104 nuclear power stations in the country, which supply 20 percent of our electricity needs while producing zero emissions of any harmful greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides. Together, nuclear and renewables represent the 27 percent of America's total electricity supply that comes from clean energy sources, and nuclear power produces three-quarters of it, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Clearly, the best way forward is to expand the role of nuclear energy in our domestic energy supply. Although renewable sources clearly have an important role to play in America's energy future, the cost and physical limitations of solar and wind are currently both prohibitive and impractical. Still, America requires new sources of clean and carbon-free sources of baseload energy to fuel economic growth.

From an economic perspective, these operating nuclear plants are already making a major contribution to the U.S. economy through direct spending in local communities and in tax payments to federal, state and local governments. Building new nuclear plants will only increase this already significant economic stimulus.

For example, construction of each single unit nuclear power plant will create 1,400 to 1,800 on-site construction jobs and hundreds of additional support jobs during the construction period. Once a plant is operational, an additional 400 to 700 permanent operational jobs will be created at salaries that are typically 36 percent higher than the average in communities and towns that are home to nuclear plants.

As with existing plants, every new nuclear plant will also produce approximately $430 million annually in sales of goods and services in the local community, creating or sustaining hundreds of long-term, peripheral support jobs while also providing annual state and local tax revenue of, on average, more than $20 million to benefit schools, roads and other state and local infrastructure projects. And the Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that federal tax payments from each plant amount to approximately $75 million annually.

New nuclear plants will also provide a large economic stimulus to the U.S. supply chain through purchases of commodities such as steel, concrete and thousands of electrical components. For example, construction of each new Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear power plant in the United States will require procuring approximately 30,000 cubic yards of concrete, 22,500 tons of rebar, 15,000 metric tons of steel and 300 modules and assemblies.

Presently, 22 new nuclear power plants have been announced for the United States, with six under contract and four in the early stages of construction.

The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that private investment in new nuclear power plants has already created an estimated 14,000 to 15,000 American jobs and many of these are at Westinghouse. This recent job creation is just the beginning as the number of new jobs created will likely increase dramatically after 2013 when the first wave of new nuclear plant construction begins in earnest.

The local benefits of a nuclear energy plant are significant, particularly when weighed against the overwhelming safety record of the current U.S. fleet of plants and the reliability of the current generation of plant design. Over the past 30 years, more than 100 existing commercial reactors in the United States have continued to operate safely and efficiently without a single incident. As a result, Americans now support the use of nuclear power for electricity generation more than at any point in history. According to a study commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute, 70 percent of Americans favor the use of nuclear power, whereas the country was evenly divided on this question just 20 years ago.

A nuclear renaissance has arrived and it presents an extraordinary opportunity to help the U.S. economy rebound. We should embrace this historic chance to achieve energy independence and, at the same time, provide the United States with the clean electricity it needs to support robust economic growth well into the future.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A step towards reducing asthma-related deaths?

We've probably all seen someone suffering from an asthma attack. It can be very scary -- obviously more so for the person being afflicted. Nothing beats being prepared. I'm sure asthma sufferers welcome this kind of innovation. (GW)

Early Warning for Asthma Sufferers

A new handheld breath sensor could signal that an attack is coming, even if it's a day away.

By Erica Westly
Technology Review
February 22, 2011

Asthma is a chronic disease, much like diabetes. But while diabetics can keep track of their symptoms with glucose meters, asthma patients have little to go by beyond their own judgment. As a result, asthma causes more than a million emergency room visits each year in the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A new handheld device could reverse that trend by helping patients catch asthma attacks hours before they happen.

The device, manufactured by Siemens, detects the early signs of airway inflammation by measuring nitric oxide in a patient's breath. Physicians already use similar technology to diagnose asthma in the clinic, but the new device is small enough to be portable, which would make it easy for patients to monitor themselves.

Adults are more likely to miss the early signs of asthma attacks, say experts, which may explain why about 3,000 adults die from asthma each year in the U.S. "What makes these deaths particularly tragic is that, in many cases, they are completely preventable," says Linda Rogers, a pulmonologist at the asthma clinic at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Adults may ignore warning signs, such as coughing and chest tightness, and by the time they realize they're in trouble and take out their rescue inhalers, it can be too late.

The Siemens sensor can alert patients of a possible asthma attack up to 24 hours in advance, giving them ample time to take preventive medications or call their doctors. The Siemens asthma sensor is not only half the size of the model that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved for clinical use just three years ago, it's also five times more sensitive, detecting nitric oxide at one part per billion.

In order to be portable, though, the sensor had to be faster than existing models, too. "The ones used in the clinic are very slow," explains Maximilian Fleischer, the physicist in charge of the Siemens project. "The breath has to be stored for a long time, which isn't possible with a portable device that's moving around." Chemical modifications to the dye that traps the nitric oxide on the sensor turned out to be the key to increasing detection speed without losing accuracy.

The real test, of course, will come after the new sensor is made available to patients. Siemens hopes to market the device directly to consumers, which could bypass government regulations in some countries. Still, most physicians will want to see clinical data before recommending the sensor to patients. Nicola Hanania, director of the asthma clinical research center at Baylor College of Medicine, says he is very interested in the technology. "Personal exhaled nitric oxide monitoring is innovative and could be useful if it makes a difference in patient outcomes," he says.

Copyright Technology Review 2011.

Monday, February 21, 2011

States are serious about offshore wind

The 28 U.S. coastal states consume 78% of the nation's electricity. The Atlantic east coast states produce none of the electricity used by their ratepayers. Meanwhile the country's largest untapped source of energy lies just miles off their coasts. (GW)

O'Malley's proposal to ramp up offshore wind power is a jobs generator

By Brandi Colander
Washington Post
Monday, February 21, 2011; 17

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley wasn't tilting at windmills when he recently announced a plan to ramp up offshore wind power. He was mapping a course to clean the air we breathe, fight climate change, create jobs, reduce health costs and bring industry to the state all at the same time. And he's doing it in the perfect time and place: The number of unemployed Marylanders now tops 219,000, and the state is suffering disproportionately high health impacts because of its reliance on dirty fuels.

O'Malley (D) revealed a forward-looking business proposal, the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act, under which state utilities would provide their customers with energy produced at wind farms slated for development off the state's coast, by entering into long-term contracts with the facilities.

Offshore wind would put Marylanders to work in good jobs that can't be sent overseas. Labor leaders have demonstrated early support of the bill, noting that it would not only create jobs at the facilities, but give Maryland the opportunity to become a hub for the supply chain of the industry. With the United States well positioned to become a competitive global leader in the field, we can start in Maryland's waters and attract manufacturers of the many precision parts used in the assembly and construction of offshore wind farms to the state. With employment estimates at about one job created per megawatt and O'Malley's plan exploring the development of a 400- to 600-megawatt wind farm, that could mean 400 to 600 upfront jobs for Marylanders, and thousands of jobs to support this industry over time.

Next door in Virginia, offshore wind jobs are already getting off the ground and companies are investing because they believe in the return. On Feb. 10, Gamesa Technology Corp. and the shipbuilding operations of Northrop Grumman launched an Offshore Wind Technology Center in Chesapeake. Their plans include developing America's first offshore wind turbines by late next year and they've already hired 50 engineers to start. This is tangible proof that clean energy can put Americans to work while merging the technologies of the future with those we've depended on for generations.

The environmental benefits of this also would be great. A single medium-sized offshore wind farm can reduce climate change pollution by almost a million tons per year, the equivalent of taking more than 150,000 cars off the road, and can slash emissions of air pollutants that cause respiratory and heart disease by 2,000 tons. And there is enormous potential for this clean energy source in the state -- one recent study by the University of Delaware found that Maryland has the potential to meet nearly 70 percent of its electricity needs with wind power generated off its shores.

O'Malley's proposal would end the cycle of escalating electricity bills Maryland has seen in recent years -- doubling from 1999 to 2009 alone. While the governor's office estimates it will add $1.61 to monthly bills beginning in 2016, using a Delaware offshore wind project as a model and not accounting for price suppression impacts, rates are projected to actually decline every year after. This relatively small upfront increase would ensure we have access to even cheaper energy in the future. That's because wind is free, while fossil fuel prices will only continue to climb and remain volatile.

Developing Maryland's offshore wind power potential is common sense. By taking concrete steps to cost-effectively transition from deadly coal to clean, appropriately located offshore wind energy, O'Malley can put Marylanders back to workand make the world safer for our children. That's a win for everyone.

Brandi Colander is attorney in the Air & Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Entomological stew

Potluck meals were a very common occurrence at the New Alchemy Institute where I had the pleasure of working in the early 1980's. A particularly memorable one happened one summer when Mick Greene brought a delicious dip that everyone scooped up eagerly with their pita bread -- that is until they learned that it was made from puréed worms. (GW)

The Six-Legged Meat of the Future

Insects are nutritious and easy to raise without harming the environment. They also have a nice nutty taste

By Marcel Dicke and Arnold Van Huis
Wall Street Journal
February 19, 2011

At the London restaurant Archipelago, diners can order the $11 Baby Bee Brulee: a creamy custard topped with a crunchy little bee. In New York, the Mexican restaurant Toloache offers $11 chapulines tacos: two tacos stuffed with Oaxacan-style dried grasshoppers.

Could beetles, dragonfly larvae and water bug caviar be the meat of the future? As the global population booms and demand strains the world's supply of meat, there's a growing need for alternate animal proteins. Insects are high in protein, B vitamins and minerals like iron and zinc, and they're low in fat. Insects are easier to raise than livestock, and they produce less waste. Insects are abundant. Of all the known animal species, 80% walk on six legs; over 1,000 edible species have been identified. And the taste? It's often described as "nutty."

The vast majority of the developing world already eats insects. In Laos and Thailand, weaver-ant pupae are a highly prized and nutritious delicacy. They are prepared with shallots, lettuce, chilies, lime and spices and served with sticky rice. Further back in history, the ancient Romans considered beetle larvae to be gourmet fare, and the Old Testament mentions eating crickets and grasshoppers. In the 20th century, the Japanese emperor Hirohito's favorite meal was a mixture of cooked rice, canned wasps (including larvae, pupae and adults), soy sauce and sugar.

Will Westerners ever take to insects as food? It's possible. We are entomologists at Wageningen University, and we started promoting insects as food in the Netherlands in the 1990s. Many people laughed—and cringed—at first, but interest gradually became more serious. In 2006 we created a "Wageningen—City of Insects" science festival to promote the idea of eating bugs; it attracted more than 20,000 visitors.

Over the past two years, three Dutch insect-raising companies, which normally produce feed for animals in zoos, have set up special production lines to raise locusts and mealworms for human consumption. Now those insects are sold, freeze-dried, in two dozen retail food outlets that cater to restaurants. A few restaurants in the Netherlands have already placed insects on the menu, with locusts and mealworms (beetle larvae) usually among the dishes.

Insects have a reputation for being dirty and carrying diseases—yet less than 0.5% of all known insect species are harmful to people, farm animals or crop plants. When raised under hygienic conditions—eating bugs straight out of the backyard generally isn't recommended—many insects are perfectly safe to eat.

Meanwhile, our food needs are on the rise. The human population is expected to grow from six billion in 2000 to nine billion in 2050. Meat production is expected to double in the same period, as demand grows from rising wealth. Pastures and fodder already use up 70% of all agricultural land, so increasing livestock production would require expanding agricultural acreage at the expense of rain forests and other natural lands. Officials at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently predicted that beef could become an extreme luxury item by 2050, like caviar, due to rising production costs.

Raising insects for food would avoid many of the problems associated with livestock. For instance, swine and humans are similar enough that they can share many diseases. Such co-infection can yield new disease strains that are lethal to humans, as happened during a swine fever outbreak in the Netherlands in the late 1990s. Because insects are so different from us, such risks are accordingly lower.

Insects are also cold-blooded, so they don't need as much feed as animals like pigs and cows, which consume more energy to maintain their body temperatures. Ten pounds of feed yields one pound of beef, three pounds of pork, five pounds of chicken and up to six pounds of insect meat.

Insects produce less waste, too. The proportion of livestock that is not edible after processing is 30% for pork, 35% for chicken, 45% for beef and 65% for lamb. By contrast, only 20% of a cricket is inedible.

Worms, crickets, dung beetles -- to most people they're just creepy crawlers. To Brooklyn painter and art professor Marc Dennis, they're yummy ingredients for his Bug Dinners.

Raising insects requires relatively little water, especially as compared to the production of conventional meat (it takes more than 10 gallons of water, for instance, to produce about two pounds of beef). Insects also produce far less ammonia and other greenhouse gases per pound of body weight. Livestock is responsible for at least 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Raising insects is more humane as well. Housing cattle, swine or chicken in high densities causes stress to the animals, but insects like mealworms and locusts naturally like to live in dense quarters. The insects can be crowded into vertical stacked trays or cages. Nor do bug farms have to be restricted to rural areas; they could sprout up anywhere, from a suburban strip mall to an apartment building. Enterprising gourmets could even keep a few trays of mealworms in the garage to ensure a fresh supply.

The first insect fare is likely to be incorporated subtly into dishes, as a replacement for meat in meatballs and sauces. It also can be mixed into prepared foods to boost their nutritional value—like putting mealworm paste into a quiche. And dry-roasted insects can be used as a replacement for nuts in baked goods like cookies and breads.

We continue to make progress in the Netherlands, where the ministry of agriculture is funding a new $1.3 million research program to develop ways to raise edible insects on food waste, such as brewers' grain (a byproduct of beer brewing), soyhulls (the skin of the soybean) and apple pomace (the pulpy remains after the juice has been pressed out). Other research is focusing on how protein could be extracted from insects and used in processed foods.

Though it is true that intentionally eating insects is common only in developing countries, everyone already eats some amount of insects. The average person consumes about a pound of insects per year, mostly mixed into other foods. In the U.S., most processed foods contain small amounts of insects, within limits set by the Food and Drug Administration. For chocolate, the FDA limit is 60 insect fragments per 100 grams. Peanut butter can have up to 30 insect parts per 100 grams, and fruit juice can have five fruit-fly eggs and one or two larvae per 250 milliliters (just over a cup). We also use many insect products to dye our foods, such as the red dye cochineal in imitation crab sticks, Campari and candies. So we're already some of the way there in making six-legged creatures a regular part of our diet.

Not long ago, foods like kiwis and sushi weren't widely known or available. It is quite likely that in 2020 we will look back in surprise at the era when our menus didn't include locusts, beetle larvae, dragonfly larvae, crickets and other insect delights.

Recipe: Crispy Crickets

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Strip the antennae, limbs and wings (if any) from 20 to 30 clean, frozen adult crickets, or 40 to 60 cricket nymphs. Spread the stripped crickets on a lightly oiled baking sheet and place in oven. Bake until crickets are crisp, around 20 minutes. Yield: one cup.

Sprinkle these on salads or put them through a coffee grinder to turn them into bug "flour." You could even combine the crickets with Chex Mix for a protein-rich snack.

From "The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook" by David George Gordon (Ten Speed Press)

—Mr. Dicke and Mr. Van Huis are professors of entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Are there any limits on what humans can do?

Check out an article in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic entitled "Enter the Age of Anthropocene: Age of Man".
Anthropocene is a new name for a new geologic epoch - one defined by our own massive impact on the planet. Ten years ago Dutch Chemist Paul Crutzen was attending a scientific conference. The conference chair kept referring to the Holocene, the epoch that began at the end of the last ice age, 11,500 years ago, and that - according to the chair - continues to this day.

"Let's stop it," Crutzen recalls blurting out. "We are no longer in the Holocene. We are in the Anthropocene." (GW)
It's time Man stopped to consider Earth's health

By Michael McCarthy
The Independent
February 18, 2011

Are there any limits on what humans can do? Asked rhetorically, the question invites the smiling, triumphant answer, No!, complete with happy-clappy exclamation mark. But to ask it the other way – that is, to ask it simply, in all seriousness – seems to me something that doesn't happen any more. In fact, the absence of this question seems to be a great gap at the heart of our current creed, which we might term liberal secular humanism, as we approach one of the climaxes of human history, which is the coming clash between humans as a species, and the Earth which is our only home.

I wrote about this three weeks ago, asking how much room there will be in the 21st century world for non-human creatures, using as an example the future fate of insects, which may well have to be sacrificed wholesale, if intensive farming has to be doubly intensified to feed nine billion people by 2050. I wasn't suggesting for a second that anyone should go hungry; but I was suggesting there will be serious consequences for the planet of this intensification, and of many other aspects of the exploding scale of the human enterprise, as it threatens to overwhelm the Earth's natural systems in the decades to come. There was an animated reader response to this, so I should like to return to it.

Climate change is only the most dramatic (and controversial) of these consequences. There are many others visible already, about which there is no dispute, ranging from the worldwide collapse of fish stocks to the disappearance of wildlife abundance from the British countryside. Liberal secular humanism certainly acknowledges these disturbing trends; it is greatly concerned about them, shakes its head sadly and strives to prevent them; but what it does not do, is put the whole picture together.

It does not allow the conclusion to which the rapidly increasing degradations of the natural world are all pointing: that a fundamental conflict is looming between the Earth and Man (I use the term in the biological sense of the species Homo sapiens).

This failure to recognise the fundamental nature of the clash will, at the very least, greatly handicap our response to it. I think it arises from our current creed's greatest failing, its deficit of spirituality, by which I mean a failure to see existence as anything other than human-centred. Liberal secular humanism, which you could argue has been our belief system since the Second World War, has a single, honourable aim: to improve human welfare. It wants people everywhere to be happy, and free from want and fear and disease, and to live fulfilled lives.

What it doesn't do is allow that there might just be a problem, an intrinsic problem, with people as a species. That is absolute anathema.

You can understand why: poverty is terrible enough without suggesting that people as a whole are in some way flawed. Yet for the Greeks, the founders of our culture, this idea was central to their morality.

There was a continual problem with Man. Man was glorious, almost God-like, and continually striving upwards; yet only the Gods were actually Up There, and if Man tried to get too high, as he often did, the Gods would destroy him. The Gods represented Man's limits.

The principal fault of Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, remember, was not that he murdered his father and married his mother; those were incidentals of his fate. His real fault was that he thought he knew everything, he had answered the riddle of the Sphinx, he was Mr Clever. The Gods showed him that he wasn't (and in the greatest of all tragic ironies, he puts out his eyes to punish himself for having been blind to his true situation, which now he can see).

In the modern consensus, in liberal secular humanism, this spiritual view of Man of having limits, of not being able to do everything he chooses, and of potentially being a problem creature, is missing entirely. There is no trace of it whatsoever. Still less, of course, is there any trace of the more recent, Christian version of it, which is Original Sin. Just the opposite: in our current creed, Man is not Fallen, Man is Good; so, as they used to say of General Motors and America, what's Good for Man is necessarily Good for the Planet.

Except that it isn't. What's Good for Man may wreck the planet, and with the mushrooming expansion of humans numbers, increasingly seems likely to. Yet so forceful is our creed that it stamps on the very formation of the thought that Man may be the Earth's problem child. Suggest it and you will be met with a sigh, and a knowing chuckle; or even more likely, indignant confrontation. So the fundamental conflict which is coming between Us and the Earth, this major moment of history, which evidence everywhere increasingly points to, is not recognised in our dominant belief system; and thus is not addressed.

We humans have always thought ourselves different in kind from other creatures, principally for our use of language and our possession of consciousness. There is another reason, which is becoming clearer; we are the only species capable of destroying our own home (which you might think of as Original Sin in its ecological version).

It seems to me that moral account needs to be taken of this, in the heart of what we believe and understand about ourselves; all the indignant denial of it – as the noble struggle continues to raise so many people from misery to decent life – will not prevent it from being so.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The 7% factor

Talk about the unintended consequences of climate change. I wonder when insurance companies will feel the need to distinguish between human-induced extreme climate events and "natural weather disasters". Who'll be liable for the former? (GW)

Heavy Rains Linked to Humans

By Justin Gillis
New York Times
February 16, 2011

An increase in heavy precipitation that has afflicted many countries is at least partly a consequence of human influence on the atmosphere, climate scientists reported in a new study.

In the first major paper of its kind, the researchers used elaborate computer programs that simulate the climate to analyze whether the rise in severe rainstorms, heavy snowfalls and similar events could be explained by natural variability in the atmosphere. They found that it could not, and that the increase made sense only when the computers factored in the effects of greenhouse gases released by human activities like the burning of fossil fuels.

As reflected in previous studies, the likelihood of extreme precipitation on any given day rose by about 7 percent over the last half of the 20th century, at least for the land areas of the Northern Hemisphere for which sufficient figures are available to do an analysis.

The principal finding of the new study is “that this 7 percent is well outside the bounds of natural variability,” said Francis W. Zwiers, a Canadian climate scientist who took part in the research. The paper is being published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Nature.

The paper covers climate trends from 1951 to 1999 and therefore does not include any analysis of last year’s extreme precipitation, including catastrophic floods in Pakistan, China and Australia as well as parts of the United States, including Tennessee, Arkansas and California. However, the paper is likely to bolster a growing sense among climate scientists that events like the 2010 floods will become more common.

Indeed, an increase of weather extremes has been a fundamental prediction of climate science for decades. Basic physics suggests that as the earth warms, precipitation extremes will become more intense, winter and summer, simply because warmer air can carry more water vapor. Weather statistics confirm that this has begun to happen.

Scientists have long been reluctant to attribute any specific weather event to global warming, but a handful of papers that do so are beginning to appear in the scientific literature. One such installment is being published on Thursday in Nature as a companion piece to the broader paper. It finds that severe rains that flooded England and Wales in 2000, the wettest autumn since record-keeping began there in 1766, were made substantially more likely by the greenhouse gases released by human activity.

In that analysis, scientists at the University of Oxford used computer time donated by the public to analyze the climate of Britain in 2000 as it actually existed and to compare that with a hypothetical climate in which the Industrial Revolution never happened and few greenhouse gases were released.

The computers found that the chances of those memorable floods, which sent geese swimming through city streets, were roughly doubled in a climate with the greenhouse gases.

That it took a decade to come to that conclusion illustrates one of the major problems of climate science at the moment. Researchers are barraged with questions about weather extremes like the recent winters in Europe and the United States and the heat waves and droughts of last summer.

Yet, even when adequate weather statistics are available for an affected region, the scientists need years to run computer analyses of any specific event and calculate whether it was made more or less likely by global warming.

In a briefing for reporters, a leading climate scientist for the British government, Peter A. Stott, acknowledged a need for more rapid analysis of weather extremes and said that researchers were working to develop this capability.

The problem is becoming more than theoretical. Billions of dollars have been pledged by rich countries to help poor countries adapt to climate change.

“Because that money is on the table, it’s suddenly going to be in everybody’s interest to be a victim of climate change,” said Myles R. Allen, a University of Oxford researcher whose group ran the British flood study. “We need urgently to develop the science base to be able to distinguish genuine impacts of climate change from unfortunate consequences of bad weather.”

The analyses being published on Thursday can be expected to draw fire from climate-change contrarians, who have long scoffed at computer simulations of the climate. They point out that such programs cannot fully capture the complexity of the real world.

Mainstream scientists acknowledge that point to a degree but contend that the programs are becoming more accurate. They also note that the programs are the only tools available to answer questions about how much humans are influencing the climate.

“In the future, it won’t be enough for your weather service to predict the weather,” Dr. Allen said. “They’ll have to explain it as well.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Roundup-ready" food

Virtually everything about Monsanto's approach to food production is damaging to human and animal health and to the environment. In case it slipped your mind, Monsanto also has engineered a full-court press to get dairy farmers to inject their cows with bovine growth hormone - a substance that agricultural activist Gus Schumacher once referred to as "crack for cows".

Monsanto engineers herbicide-resistant crops for the sole purpose of increasing the use of their herbicides and profits. (GW)

Feds Approve Monsanto Herbicide-Resistant Crops

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved plantings of three genetically engineered (GE) crops in as many weeks, including Monsanto Co.'s Roundup Ready sugar beets and alfalfa that are engineered to tolerate Roundup Ready weed-killing herbicide.

The USDA on February 11 also legalized, without restriction, the world's first GE corn crop meant for biofuel production. Biotech giant Syngenta's Event 3272 seed corn will simplify ethanol production and is not meant to feed animals or humans.

The approvals flew in the face of legal and regulatory challenges posed by GE crop opponents and members of the agricultural industry. Opponents fear the GE crop varieties could contaminate conventional food crops and promote the overuse of herbicides like the glyphosate-based Roundup and more toxic chemicals used to kill glyphosate-resistant weeds.

Monsanto won a victory on February 4 when the USDA partially deregulated Roundup Ready sugar beets. A federal court in August 2010 temporarily banned the beets and ordered the USDA to re-review the environmental impacts of the Roundup Ready sugar beets as the result of a lawsuit filed by farmers and environmental groups.

Plaintiff attorney Paul Achitoff from the environmental group Earthjustice said the USDA's decision to allow plantings of the sugar beets under "lax conditions" violates federal law. However, the USDA said the beets pose no "plant pest risk" and farmers can start planting them before a final Environmental Impact Statement is issued in 2012.

Roundup Ready alfalfa was legalized without any restrictions on January 27 after nearly five years of legal battles that pitted farmers and GE critics against the USDA and Monsanto.

The USDA disappointed GE critics again last week when it fully deregulated Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta's Event 3272 GE corn. The corn is genetically engineered to produce an enzyme that converts starch to sugar, making it easier to process the corn and turn it into the biofuel ethanol.

The North American Millers Association (NAMA), a normally pro-biotech organization that represents 170 agricultural mills in 38 states, is concerned that Event 3271 kernels could accidentally mix with corn meant for food processing and damage the quality of food products like snacks and breakfast cereals.

"USDA has failed to provide the public with sufficient scientific data on the economic impacts of contamination on food production, or information on how USDA will ensure Syngenta's compliance with a stewardship plan," said NAMA President Mary Waters.

The USDA is counting on a "closed loop system" created by Syngenta to prevent Event 3272 corn from contaminating the food supply and is encouraging dialogue between Syngenta and the food industry, according to a release. The USDA is aware that some millers and food processors are concerned about Event 3272 and is promoting participation in an industry advisory council sponsored by Syngenta to review the "closed loop system."

Bill Freese, GE critic and policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety (CFS), said that the USDA should to take a closer look at Syngenta's track record.

A 2004 investigation conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that Syngenta had illegally distributed GE seed corn engineered to produce an unregistered pesticide on over 1,000 occasions to farmers in the US, South America and Europe.

The EPA fined Syngenta $1.5 million in 2006 for distributing the seed corn, which produced a then unregistered pesticide called Bt 10.

The USDA did not classify Event 3272 corn as a crop grown to produce an industrial compound during its review of Syngenta's petition to legalize the corn, and NAMA argues that the agency would have completed a more thorough scientific review of the product if it regulators classified it as industrial.

A USDA spokesperson told Truthout that Event 3272 is not considered an industrial product crop because its extra genetic traits turn starch into sugar, not ethanol itself.

Syngenta's own recently released data shows Event 3272 would have "adverse impacts" on food quality if it entered the conventional corn supply, according to NAMA.

NAMA spokesperson Terri Long said the millers' association is concerned about food product quality and not Syngenta's past violations.

Freese said that Event 3272 is supposed to be used for domestic ethanol production, but Syngenta has applied for import approvals for Event 3272 in nations where the US exports corn. Freese said Syngenta is trying to avoid liability in case Event 3272 does contaminate the domestic corn supply.

Freese and CFS helped represent plaintiffs in the lawsuits against the USDA that challenged initial approvals of Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets.