Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The connected car has finally arrived

It is time to completely re-think our notion of transportation. We need an automotive Steve Jobs. Lacking that, our friends at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are pretty good at tackling these kind of challenges. For example, take a peek at "Reinventing the Automobile".

Beyond the Personal Automobile

Information technology means we can rethink transportation

By Dan Sturges
Technology Review
January 31, 2012

The connected car has finally arrived. Our smart phones sync up with our dashboards, and soon vehicle-to-vehicle communication could make car crashes a thing of the past. Ford recently announced it's working on a "smart seat" that will detect when a driver is having a heart attack. What could be better?

How about using technology to allow millions of us to move beyond car ownership? You won't hear large automobile companies talk about it, but information technology gives society the greatest chance in decades to rethink transportation. Instead of cars equipped with medical sensors, I would like to see fewer cars and more room for bike paths. A little exercise will make our hearts stronger.

In America, nearly all of us has a personal automobile, available at our doorstep at all times. This is immensely convenient. It provides access to work and opportunity. But it brings familiar problems: billions of dollars sent each year to the Middle East, growing carbon dioxide emissions, traffic, noise pollution, and paving over of green space. Only a quarter of us can get to work using public transportation in 90 minutes or less. About 50 percent of urban land is dedicated to transportation. In Denver, where I live, the average car has 1.1 occupants. When I see someone driving with nothing but a hat on the passenger seat, I feel as though I am looking backward in time at an early steam engine or some other immensely inefficient contraption.

Urban density is an important consideration when thinking about what a different transportation system could look like. New York City, Boston, and downtown Chicago have a high urban density and can be considered "thick" cities, while most of Phoenix, Atlanta, and Denver have lower densities, making them "thin" cities. It's our thick cities where it is easiest to live without a car. In these cities, "multimodal" transportation is already a reality. It's easy to swing from one mode to another like Tarzan swinging across a jungle by vines. People walk, take the subway, grab a cab, and walk some more.

Now we're seeing the beginning of what's called intelligent multimodal transportation. Smart phones allow us to instantly rent a bike, carpool with someone just a mile up the road, find a bus, and even "ping a ride" with a car service or cab to get where we are going. Car-sharing services like Zipcar are viable businesses today in our thickest cities, because users can easily reach a shared car on foot after pulling up its location on their phone. In thick cities, technology is rapidly making it even more convenient to live without owning a car.

In our thin cities and suburban areas, it is far more difficult to reach transit, and so most people still own their own automobile. There's not much of a jungle yet. Can we move beyond the personal automobile in such areas?

I think any transition would have to start with the roughly 70 million commuters in the United States. The recipe for making car ownership less necessary for them requires three main ingredients. First, we need express "trunk line" transit services (trains, buses, vans, or carpools) from residential neighborhoods to areas where people work. Next, people will need local, short-distance transportation in the form of a bike, low-cost taxi, shuttle, or small personal vehicle to get to and from the trunk line service. Finally, car-sharing services—like Zipcar or peer-to-peer services like Getaround or RelayRides—need to be available near both work and home so people can have access to a car when they need one.

I call the transfer points where local transportation meets the trunk line services "GoPoints." These points would be located every three or four miles across the suburban area surrounding a metropolitan region. Our current train, light rail, and bus rapid transit stations are already GoPoints, but we would need many more (a flag in a shopping mall's parking lot could serve as one). And we would need thriving regional and local transportation services connecting to them.

The system would be similar to our national airport network. It would require users to have both easy access to their local GoPoint and a convenient "last mile" service to let them reach their final destination. Who would want to fly to an airport in another city that did not offer car rental, taxis, or shuttles for that purpose? Technologies like GPS and smart phones are critical in organizing our movement around such hubs and finding the fastest, most convenient transportation home.

Beyond helping commuters, the GoPoint system would enable millions of seniors and youth to get where they need to go across their city or region without needing to own a car. We have an opportunity to integrate piecemeal mobility innovations into meaningful solutions for consumers in both thick and thin cities. Seizing that opportunity will reduce the footprint of our transportation system and allow us to convert a portion of our roadways and parking areas into bike and pedestrian paths.

Dan Sturges is former GM car designer, inventor of the GEM neighborhood vehicle, and a member of the Transportation Research Board. His work on sustainable mobility reform can be found at www.wheelchange.us.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Pesticides: subtle and malicious

Pesticides are big business. Companies like Monsanto that produce them and other agri-chemicals are joined at the hip with industrial farms whose unsustainable "pharming" practices have resulted in their chemical addiction (see the graphic at the bottom of this post for a depiction of the products produced by Monsanto).

Similar to their fossil fuel counterparts, pesticide manufacturers are not responsible for the"externalities" their products cause. You and I pay for that. Now it would appear, so are the bees. (GW)

Pesticides blamed for bee decline

New formulas make colonies more prone to disease, research finds. Jonathan Owen reports

By Jonathan Owen
The Independent
29 January 2012

Compelling new evidence from the US government's top bee expert that modern pesticides may be a major cause of collapsing bee populations led to calls yesterday for the chemicals to be banned.

A study published in the current issue of the German science journal Naturwissenschaften, reveals how bees given minute doses of the widely used pesticide imidacloprid became more vulnerable to infections from a deadly parasite, nosema.

Bee experts described this as clear evidence of the role pesticides play in the plight of bees. Although research into the furry insects may seem like a very academic exercise, bees are vital to human survival. More than 70 of the 100 crops that provide 90 per cent of the world's food are pollinated by bees, and Albert Einstein once predicted that if bees died out, "man would have no more than four years to live."

The study, led by Dr Jeffrey Pettis, the head of the US Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory, says: "We believe that subtle interactions between pesticides and pathogens, such as demonstrated here, could be a major contributor to increased mortality of honey bee colonies worldwide."

Researchers found that bees deliberately exposed to minute amounts of the pesticide were, on average, three times as likely to become infected when exposed to a parasite called nosema as those that had not. The findings, which have taken more than three years to be published, add weight to concern that a new group of insecticides called neonicotinoids are behind a worldwide decline in honey bees, along with habitat and food loss, by making them more susceptible to disease.

Buglife, the invertebrate conservation charity, is calling for a ban on the controversial pesticides. Its director, Matt Shardlow, said yesterday: "The science is now clear, bees poisoned by neonicotinoid pesticides are much more likely to die from disease, gather less food and produce fewer new bees." He added: "Buglife's 2009 review of the science of environmental impacts from neonicotinoid pesticides showed that there was serious cause for concern. We called for a ban then, and as subsequent research has only added to concerns, including the revelation that neonicotinoids make bees prone to a diseased death, we are repeating our call for these toxins to be banned."

The Government needs to take urgent action, said Tim Lovett, of the British Beekeepers Association. He backs the findings of the new research: "Their conclusions are right ... here is some data that would appear to suggest links between widely used pesticides and pathogens."

Imidacloprid is the bestselling neonicotinoid made by Bayer CropScience, earning the company hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Neonicotinoids are "systemic" pesticides. Instead of spraying plants they are used to treat seeds – effectively becoming part of the plant, including the pollen and nectar that bees and other pollinating insects carry away. Concern over their effects on bees has led to restrictions on their use in Germany, Italy, France, and Slovenia.

Dr Julian Little, a spokesman for Bayer CropScience, sought to dismiss the new findings yesterday: "The key issue here is that Jeff Pettis's studies were carried out in the laboratory and not the open air." He added: "Bee health is really important, but focusing on pesticides diverts attention away from the very real issues of bee parasites and diseases – that is where Bayer is focusing its effort."

But Professor Simon Potts, of the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research at the University of Reading, disagrees: "Most reports of direct impacts of pesticides on bee mortality are usually due to the incorrect application of pesticides on farmland,," he said. "However, the Pettis study should be taken as a warning that we may need to look much more carefully at the indirect effect of pesticides."

What Monsanto Makes (click on image to enlarge)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

What, me worry?

Within weeks of the Environmental Protection Agency's report that identifies fossil fuel-burning power plants as the major source of greenhouse gas emissions, the Wall Street Journal rounds up a group of climate change deniers and absolves the Koch brothers and their cronies of doing anything that even borders on being irresponsible. (GW)

No Need to Panic About Global Warming

There's no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to 'decarbonize' the world's economy.

Wall Street Journal
January 27, 2012

Editor's Note: The following has been signed by the 16 scientists listed at the end of the article:

A candidate for public office in any contemporary democracy may have to consider what, if anything, to do about "global warming." Candidates should understand that the oft-repeated claim that nearly all scientists demand that something dramatic be done to stop global warming is not true. In fact, a large and growing number of distinguished scientists and engineers do not agree that drastic actions on global warming are needed.

In September, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ivar Giaever, a supporter of President Obama in the last election, publicly resigned from the American Physical Society (APS) with a letter that begins: "I did not renew [my membership] because I cannot live with the [APS policy] statement: 'The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth's physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.' In the APS it is OK to discuss whether the mass of the proton changes over time and how a multi-universe behaves, but the evidence of global warming is incontrovertible?"

In spite of a multidecade international campaign to enforce the message that increasing amounts of the "pollutant" carbon dioxide will destroy civilization, large numbers of scientists, many very prominent, share the opinions of Dr. Giaever. And the number of scientific "heretics" is growing with each passing year. The reason is a collection of stubborn scientific facts.

Perhaps the most inconvenient fact is the lack of global warming for well over 10 years now. This is known to the warming establishment, as one can see from the 2009 "Climategate" email of climate scientist Kevin Trenberth: "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't." But the warming is only missing if one believes computer models where so-called feedbacks involving water vapor and clouds greatly amplify the small effect of CO2.

The lack of warming for more than a decade—indeed, the smaller-than-predicted warming over the 22 years since the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began issuing projections—suggests that computer models have greatly exaggerated how much warming additional CO2 can cause. Faced with this embarrassment, those promoting alarm have shifted their drumbeat from warming to weather extremes, to enable anything unusual that happens in our chaotic climate to be ascribed to CO2.

The fact is that CO2 is not a pollutant. CO2 is a colorless and odorless gas, exhaled at high concentrations by each of us, and a key component of the biosphere's life cycle. Plants do so much better with more CO2 that greenhouse operators often increase the CO2 concentrations by factors of three or four to get better growth. This is no surprise since plants and animals evolved when CO2 concentrations were about 10 times larger than they are today. Better plant varieties, chemical fertilizers and agricultural management contributed to the great increase in agricultural yields of the past century, but part of the increase almost certainly came from additional CO2 in the atmosphere.

Although the number of publicly dissenting scientists is growing, many young scientists furtively say that while they also have serious doubts about the global-warming message, they are afraid to speak up for fear of not being promoted—or worse. They have good reason to worry. In 2003, Dr. Chris de Freitas, the editor of the journal Climate Research, dared to publish a peer-reviewed article with the politically incorrect (but factually correct) conclusion that the recent warming is not unusual in the context of climate changes over the past thousand years. The international warming establishment quickly mounted a determined campaign to have Dr. de Freitas removed from his editorial job and fired from his university position. Fortunately, Dr. de Freitas was able to keep his university job.

This is not the way science is supposed to work, but we have seen it before—for example, in the frightening period when Trofim Lysenko hijacked biology in the Soviet Union. Soviet biologists who revealed that they believed in genes, which Lysenko maintained were a bourgeois fiction, were fired from their jobs. Many were sent to the gulag and some were condemned to death.

Why is there so much passion about global warming, and why has the issue become so vexing that the American Physical Society, from which Dr. Giaever resigned a few months ago, refused the seemingly reasonable request by many of its members to remove the word "incontrovertible" from its description of a scientific issue? There are several reasons, but a good place to start is the old question "cui bono?" Or the modern update, "Follow the money."

Alarmism over climate is of great benefit to many, providing government funding for academic research and a reason for government bureaucracies to grow. Alarmism also offers an excuse for governments to raise taxes, taxpayer-funded subsidies for businesses that understand how to work the political system, and a lure for big donations to charitable foundations promising to save the planet. Lysenko and his team lived very well, and they fiercely defended their dogma and the privileges it brought them.

Speaking for many scientists and engineers who have looked carefully and independently at the science of climate, we have a message to any candidate for public office: There is no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to "decarbonize" the world's economy. Even if one accepts the inflated climate forecasts of the IPCC, aggressive greenhouse-gas control policies are not justified economically.

A recent study of a wide variety of policy options by Yale economist William Nordhaus showed that nearly the highest benefit-to-cost ratio is achieved for a policy that allows 50 more years of economic growth unimpeded by greenhouse gas controls. This would be especially beneficial to the less-developed parts of the world that would like to share some of the same advantages of material well-being, health and life expectancy that the fully developed parts of the world enjoy now. Many other policy responses would have a negative return on investment. And it is likely that more CO2 and the modest warming that may come with it will be an overall benefit to the planet.

If elected officials feel compelled to "do something" about climate, we recommend supporting the excellent scientists who are increasing our understanding of climate with well-designed instruments on satellites, in the oceans and on land, and in the analysis of observational data. The better we understand climate, the better we can cope with its ever-changing nature, which has complicated human life throughout history. However, much of the huge private and government investment in climate is badly in need of critical review.

Every candidate should support rational measures to protect and improve our environment, but it makes no sense at all to back expensive programs that divert resources from real needs and are based on alarming but untenable claims of "incontrovertible" evidence.

Claude Allegre, former director of the Institute for the Study of the Earth, University of Paris; J. Scott Armstrong, cofounder of the Journal of Forecasting and the International Journal of Forecasting; Jan Breslow, head of the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism, Rockefeller University; Roger Cohen, fellow, American Physical Society; Edward David, member, National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences; William Happer, professor of physics, Princeton; Michael Kelly, professor of technology, University of Cambridge, U.K.; William Kininmonth, former head of climate research at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Richard Lindzen, professor of atmospheric sciences, MIT; James McGrath, professor of chemistry, Virginia Technical University; Rodney Nichols, former president and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences; Burt Rutan, aerospace engineer, designer of Voyager and SpaceShipOne; Harrison H. Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. senator; Nir Shaviv, professor of astrophysics, Hebrew University, Jerusalem; Henk Tennekes, former director, Royal Dutch Meteorological Service; Antonio Zichichi, president of the World Federation of Scientists, Geneva.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

“Landscape of Slavery"

We live in a world of contradictions. More often than not there are disconnects between our intellectual beliefs and the way we actually live our lives. Climate change presents us with such a dilemma today. Many of our nation's "Founding Fathers" lived with a major contradiction. Was Thomas Jefferson conflicted or was he a hypocrite? (GW)

Life, Liberty and the Fact of Slavery

By Edward Rothstein
New York Times
January 26, 2012

WASHINGTON — The astounding thing about American slavery is not that it existed — the enslavement of one people by another may be one of history’s universals — but that it persisted. It lasted into an era when its absence could be imagined and its presence could become an outrage.

That was one of the chilling peculiarities of slavery in the United States: As revolutionary ideas of human rights and liberty were being formulated, slavery was so widely accepted that contradictions between the evolving ideals and the brutish reality of enslavement were overlooked or tolerated.

We look back now, shocked at the cognitive and moral perversity. And that is one reason why a prevalent reaction has been to assert that the champions of those revolutionary ideals were hypocrites, including 12 of the first 18 American presidents, who were slave owners.

But that too-familiar judgment brings us to the most challenging example of all: Thomas Jefferson. And two new exhibitions come to a far more subtle and illuminating assessment of the past. Jefferson’s relationship to slavery is the subject of an important exhibition opening on Friday at the National Museum of American History here, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” It was created by the nascent National Museum of African American History and Culture in conjunction with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Jefferson’s extraordinary plantation, Monticello, as a historical home and museum in Charlottesville, Va.

The Washington exhibition will have a permanent counterpart opening next month at Monticello itself, where Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, kept as many as 130 slaves. Expanding the already significant examination of slavery at the estate, “Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello,” will consist of outdoor displays mounted alongside sites of labor uncovered through archeological digs.

Such research has been going on for two generations, disclosing the material lives of both hired and enslaved workers: their demolished dwellings and work houses are revealed through Jefferson’s notes, stone foundations, kitchen utensils, shattered pottery, belt buckles and other artifacts. Monticello’s outdoor exhibition is also part of a major transformation over the past two generations; once a sacral architectural monument to Jefferson’s genius, Monticello has evolved into a more complex reflection of the man and the 5,000-acre plantation that he owned.

These projects are difficult and ambitious, not just for Monticello but also for the African-American museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015. Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s director, emphasized in a conversation that the Washington show is part of the institution’s attempt to explore how slavery might ultimately be presented.

Could any example pose a greater challenge? Jefferson didn’t just embrace the new nation’s ideals; he gave voice to our conception of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What does it mean that such a man not only held slaves but also devoted considerable attention to their status, their mode of life and, yes, their profitability? What was the connection between his ideals and the blunt reality? These are not just biographical questions; they are national ones.

It is to the credit of the Washington exhibition’s creators — Rex Ellis, associate director of the African-American museum and Elizabeth Chew, a curator at Monticello — that we are not given the answers but are given enough information and perspective to begin to think about the issues, helped along by objects from Monticello as well as the new museum’s growing collection.

We enter the show’s 3,000-square-foot space seeing a life-size statue of Jefferson (created by StudioEIS in Brooklyn), standing in front of a red panel on which are inscribed the names (when known) of some 600 slaves who worked on his estates during his lifetime. In front of the display is the lap desk on which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, a desk that was probably constructed by John Hemmings, Jefferson’s enslaved cabinetmaker (who used that spelling of his name), part of the now-renowned Hemings family (one of whom, Sally, is thought by many historians to have had a special relationship with Jefferson and borne him children).

The contradictions in notions of liberty could not be more graphically presented. The intention is not to turn a great man into a villain but rather to examine just how those contradictions expressed themselves. Jefferson called slavery an “abominable crime,” we are told, but also felt unable to extricate himself from what he called its “deplorable entanglement.”

We learn of his practical efforts to restrict slavery, including his introduction of a Virginia law in 1778 prohibiting the importation of slaves, and signing, as president, a national version of that law in 1807, just weeks before Britain outlawed the slave trade. We read too that in 1788, he wrote, “Nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice” in order to abolish slavery.

Clearly, though, he was not so willing. He also harbored some condescending racial views (partly contradicted by other writings). And Jefferson inherited his father’s plantation and slaves; at one point he was one of the wealthiest men in Virginia (though to pay his enormous debts after his death, Monticello and “130 valuable negroes” — as the advertisement put it — were auctioned).

As the exhibition also emphasizes, he was a man of the Enlightenment represented by his books (Homer, Livy, Shakespeare), his scientific apparatus (including a telescope) and his devotion to the powers of reason and the value of skepticism (his inkwell here is in the shape of Voltaire’s head).

But we do not learn of these passions in order to have them dismissed. Gradually, as we work through the central gallery, we see them haltingly, falteringly applied, affecting the enslaved communities at Monticello. Displays are organized around a series of slave families, many of whom were at the estate for generations — the Hemingses, of course (as many as 70 family members were at Monticello), but also the Fossett family, the Grangers and the Hubbard brothers. (Perhaps no other plantation has such extensive documentation of its slaves.)

As the historian Lucia Stanton points out in an invaluable new companion book (“ ‘Those Who Labor for My Happiness’: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello”), Jefferson paternalistically referred to the slave community as part of his family. He encouraged marriages within the Monticello world and tried to keep families together; the exhibition points out that “slave marriage was illegal in Virginia,” but that at Monticello “enduring unions were the norm.” Some slaves were also taught to read and write by the Jeffersons.

There is no idealization here of course. Each family became associated with particular kinds of labor, represented here by archeological artifacts. We see the products, for example, of the “nailery” that Jefferson had set up in order to turn a profit on the manufacture of nails. There is acknowledgment too of cruelty, of overseers who overstepped, of ideals put aside.

But there is also a growing sense that within a system of corrupting ideas and Jefferson’s crippling self-interest a struggle was going on for some other vision of humanity, not just within Jefferson but also among the enslaved.

The most remarkable phenomenon is evident in the last gallery: Many descendants of Monticello slaves became community leaders. A project interviewing them began at Monticello in 1993; it discovered, we are told, a tradition of dedication to education, faith, family and freedom.

Peter Fossett, a descendant of the blacksmith Joseph Fossett , for example, became a minister active in the Underground Railroad and founded the First Baptist Church in Cumminsville, Ohio, in 1870. Another Fossett descendant, William Monroe Trotter, founded the Niagara Movement with W. E. B. Dubois in 1905, declaring that “all men were created free and equal, with certain inalienable rights.” One of the Hemings descendants, Frederick Madison Roberts, became the first black member of the California legislature.

This suggests that there was something distinctive about this community, but also that Jefferson’s own ideals must have had an impact, surviving even the debilitating and humiliating institution of slavery.

This is something that comes through at Monticello as well. Its senior curator Susan R. Stein has made it clear that in Jefferson’s day, Monticello wasn’t a temple on a hill (though it is so beautiful, one warms to worship) but a miniature city in the countryside with its central home just yards from Mulberry Row, where the sounds of small industry — textile making, blacksmithing, woodworking — must have mixed with voices of laborers in the fields and where the lives of the enslaved were enmeshed with the life of their master. But this does not undercut our sense of Jefferson’s genius.

Yes, there are times when the balance teeters a bit. Just as Monticello must be seen whole so too must Jefferson’s achievements, and right now the exhibitions need a more deliberate elaboration of his ideas and life. There are times when the Washington exhibition also seems to push too far; it begins by observing that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence “did not extend ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’ to African-Americans, Native Americans, indentured servants, or women.” This is political boilerplate; each of those cases needs different qualifications and examinations. They distract from the subject.

But the fates of Monticello descendants suggest that alongside the tragic consequences of American slavery there is something else: a growing belief in clearly defined rights and promised possibilities. If slavery was, throughout global history, the rule, the exception was the last 200 years of gradual worldwide abolition. And Jefferson, for all his “deplorable entanglement,” helped make it possible.

Friday, January 27, 2012


"Just over 5 years ago, the scientific community turned its attention to a courtroom in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Eleven parents sued their Dover, Pennsylvania, school board to overturn a policy explicitly legitimizing intelligent design creationism. The case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, followed a familiar script: Local citizens wanted their religious values validated by the science curriculum; prominent academics testified to the scientific consensus on evolution; and creationists lost decisively. Intelligent design was not science, held the court, but rather an effort to advance a religious view via public schools, a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause (1). Many scientists cheered the decision, agreeing with the court that the school board displayed “breathtaking inanity” [p. 765 (1)]. We suggest that the cheering was premature and the victory incomplete."

From "Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom"

Oklahoma bill attacks evolution and climate change

National Center for Science Education News
Senate Bill 1742 (document), prefiled in the Oklahoma Senate, is apparently the sixth antievolution bill of 2012, following on the heels of two bills in New Hampshire, two bills in Missouri, and one bill in Indiana. The bill would, if enacted, require the state board of education to assist teachers and administrators in promoting "critical thinking, logical analysis, open and objective discussion of scientific theories including, but not limited to, evolution, the origin of life, global warming, and human cloning" upon request of the local school district. The bill also provides that teachers "may use supplemental textbooks and instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner."

SB 1742 is evidently modeled in part on the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act, passed and enacted in 2008 as Louisiana Revised Louisiana Revised Statutes 17:285.1; indeed, the bill itself declares, "This act is modeled on a Louisiana law which has not been invalidated by the highest court of the State of Louisiana or a federal district court," adding, "Legal challenges to academic freedom bills have historically alleged that such bills are intended to allow the teaching of creationism or intelligent design. This bill does not propose that schools teach creationism or intelligent design, rather, it is the intent to foster an environment of critical thinking in schools including a scientific critique of the theory of evolution."

The sole sponsor of SB 1742 is Josh Brecheen (R-District 6). In 2011, Brecheen introduced Senate Bill 554, which combined a different version of the "academic freedom language" — referring to "the scientific strengths [and] scientific weaknesses of controversial topics ... [which] include but are not limited to biological origins of life and biological evolution" — with a directive for the state board of education to adopt "standards and curricula" that echo the flawed portions of the state science standards adopted in Texas in 2009 with respect to the nature of science and evolution. SB 554 apparently died in committee on February 28, 2011, when a deadline for senate bills to be reported from committee passed.

Before Brecheen filed SB 554, he announced his intention to file antievolution legislation in a column in the Durant Daily Democrat (December 19, 2010): "Renowned scientists now asserting that evolution is laden with errors are being ignored. ... Using your tax dollars to teach the unknown, without disclosing the entire scientific findings[,] is incomplete and unacceptable." In a subsequent column in the newspaper (December 24, 2010), he indicated that his intention was to have creationism presented as scientifically credible, writing, "I have introduced legislation requiring every publically funded Oklahoma school to teach the debate of creation vs. evolution using the known science, even that which conflicts with Darwin's religion."

Oklahomans concerned about SB 1742 are urged to get in touch with Eric Meikle at NCSE and the grassroots organization Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education.

SENATE BILL 1742 By: Brecheen


An Act relating to school curriculum; creating the Oklahoma Science Education Act; providing short title; providing legislative intent; providing for the assistance of teachers in teaching scientific curriculum; promoting critical thinking; allowing for open discussion of scientific theories; directing teachers to teach certain material; allowing supplemental material to be taught; prohibiting the promotion of a particular belief system; directing the State Board of Education to adopt rules; providing for codification; providing for noncodification; providing an effective date; and declaring an emergency.


SECTION 1. NEW LAW A new section of law to be codified in the Oklahoma Statutes as Section 11-103.12 of Title 70, unless there is created a duplication in numbering, reads as follows:

This act shall be known and may be cited as the "Oklahoma Science Education Act".

SECTION 2. NEW LAW A new section of law not to be codified in the Oklahoma Statutes reads as follows:.

Recognizing the importance of critical thinking, logical analysis and objective discussion in education it is the intent of the Legislature to foster an environment in public schools where such learning occurs. This act is modeled on a Louisiana law which has not been invalidated by the highest court of the State of Louisiana or a federal district court. Legal challenges to academic freedom bills have historically alleged that such bills are intended to allow the teaching of creationism or intelligent design. This bill does not propose that schools teach creationism or intelligent design, rather, it is the intent to foster an environment of critical thinking in schools including a scientific critique of the theory of evolution.

SECTION 3. NEW LAW A new section of law to be codified in the Oklahoma Statutes as Section 11-103.13 of Title 70, unless there is created a duplication in numbering, reads as follows:

A. The State Board of Education, upon the request of a school district board of education, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and school administrators in creating an environment within the public school system that promotes critical thinking, logical analysis, open and objective discussion of scientific theories including, but not limited to, evolution, the origin of life, global warming, and human cloning. Assistance shall include support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied, including those enumerated in this subsection.

B. A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard science textbook and may use supplemental textbooks and instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.

C. This act shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine or set of religious beliefs.

D. The State Board of Education shall adopt rules to implement the provisions of this act.

SECTION 4. This act shall become effective July 1, 2012.

SECTION 5. It being immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety, an emergency is hereby declared to exist, by reason whereof this act shall take effect and be in full force from and after its passage and approval.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"climatic debt"

OK, I promise to resume posting more positive stories soon. For now, I am on a mission to convey a sense of urgency around climate change. The subtle and not-so-subtle signs that something very serious is happening are all around us.

Some species are already finding it difficult to keep up with changing environments and habitats. What will happen if the system "hiccups" and flips to a new regime? The answer is that humans will likely be added to that list. (GW)

Animals can't keep up with climate change

Study of 11,000 bird and butterfly species shows many are at risk

By Paul Bignell
The Independent
January 22, 2012

Animal and insect species in Europe are losing the fight to keep up with rapid changes in climate in a new phenomenon dubbed "climatic debt", according to an international study.

More than 11,000 bird and butterfly species were analysed over 20 years by scientists in the largest study of its kind. Releasing some of the data for the first time, scientists reveal how species are failing to keep up as warmer temperatures move north. The findings saw birds lag behind their normal climate zones, on average by 212 kilometres and butterflies by 135km.

Some birds, such as the black and white pied flycatcher, are unable to adapt to the encroaching warmth and are not naturally moving north to cooler areas, according to experts writing in the journal Nature.

Numbers of the pied flycatcher have halved in the UK since 1995 – researchers believe the birds are not breeding as prolifically as they used to because of rising temperatures. Others, like the golden plover, are in danger of extinction as traditional food sources disappear. The plover's main food source – the cranefly – cannot survive in warmer temperatures.

Experts believe the species at risk are just the tip of the iceberg. Some 9,400 bird and 2,100 butterfly species were monitored. Birds and butterflies were selected because of the vast amount of data that already exists on them – British butterfly records have been kept since the 15th century. The scientists believe other animal species are suffering in similar ways.

Scientists also found a growing gap between birds and butterflies which is having an adverse affect on birds' food supplies because many bird species depend on caterpillars as a staple food.

It was previously thought that bird and butterfly species would swiftly react to changes in climate because of their ability to fly large distances. It is not yet known how the phenomenon will affect the greater ecosystem.

Tom Brereton, head of monitoring at Butterfly Conservation, said: "All animals live in a space in which the climate is suitable. That is moving north at the moment. What we're finding is we're losing species that are associated with cooler temperatures from our butterfly communities."

Experts are now suggesting some threatened species should be moved to new climate spaces, before they become extinct.

"It's something that's never been an issue before," said Mr Brereton. "Do we let the species become extinct or could we play God a bit and move them into places they've never occurred before?"

James Pearce-Higgins, principal ecologist for climate change at the British Ornithological Society, said: "There are species which can suffer when the temperatures are warm, particularly some of the species that may suffer from drought. Some insects can suffer if winters are too mild – for example, if they're hibernators as adults. If it's cold and damp they can get mouldy and die. It varies very much from species to species. What this work does is very much look at a broad, overall pattern. This is the first time it has been done across Europe."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"climate-smart" agriculture

It seems as if everyone is getting 'smarter' about climate change with the exception of Congress. Agriculture may very well be the sector most vulnerable to climate change. That should worry us all. It should also be a call to action. (GW)

Scientists urge countries to adopt ‘climate-smart’ agriculture

By Jenny Marusiak
January 23,2012

Agricultural experts, frustrated with the slow progress on food security issues in climate talks, have called on scientists to aggressively promote rapid, global action on sustainable agriculture.

In the wake of limited success on international agriculture-related climate policy at December’s United Nations climate talks in Durban, scientists writing in the 20 January issue of Science magazine urged their peers to give policy-makers the scientific evidence needed to implement effective policies on agriculture and food security.

The scientists argued for policies that would not only ensure more efficient and environmentally friendly agricultural methods, but also stop the large-scale food wastage that occurs in both developing and wealthy countries.

Such policies would include convincing wealthier countries to reduce food waste and improve health at the same time by promoting healthier, less wasteful purchasing and eating habits. The policies would also entail an overhaul of inefficient distribution systems to reduce food spoilage and unnecessary carbon emissions.

“Scientists have a responsibility to show decision makers what we mean by ‘climate-smart agriculture’ and ‘sustainable intensification,’ and how these strategies are crucial to the success of any global climate change adaptation and mitigation effort,” said Dr Adrián Fernández Bremauntz in a statement. Dr Fernandez is sustainability advisor at the Metropolitan University in Mexico and one of the writers of the article, entitled “What Next for Agriculture After Durban?”

Agriculture has been identified by scientists as both a significant contributor to global warming and a sector that is likely to experience severe impacts from climate change. Those impacts include increased floods and droughts, soil degradation, water shortages and possible increases in destructive pests and diseases.

Dr Fernández and several other authors of the article served on the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, which presented a set of seven policy recommendations in Durban at an event on agriculture and rural development.

The recommendations from the commission included integrating food security and sustainable agriculture into global and national policies, a substantial increase in global investment in sustainable agriculture and a rapid rise in production levels with reduced negative environmental impacts.

The commission also advised policy-makers to target the people and places most vulnerable to climate change and food insecurity through initiatives such as funds for disaster-stricken areas.

To help policy-makers implement effective policies, the commission called for the establishment of transparent global systems for sharing information on sustainable agriculture and food systems.

While the Science article’s authors acknowledged some progress at the Durban talks – such as the gathering of evidence for evaluation by UN scientists by March, they note that the pace is not nearly fast enough to cope with the rising threats of food insecurity.

“The window of opportunity to avert a humanitarian, environmental and climate crisis is rapidly closing and we need better information and tools for managing tradeoffs in how we grow our food and use our resources,” said Professor Molly Jahn of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who also contributed to the article.

This improved information will begin with the scientists targeted by the Science article, who have been urged to ‘lay the groundwork for more decisive action’ when the world’s leaders meet at the United Nations Rio+20 environment summit in Brazil in June.

Another signatory of the article, Professor Bob Scholes of South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, said, “There are clearly major opportunities this year for scientists to provide the evidence required to rapidly generate new investments and policies.”

He added that those investments and policies can ensure that the agricultural sector both adapts to climate change impacts and reduces the greenhouse gas emissions it produces.

The agricultural sector is threatened by more than climate change, note scientists.

In recent months, researchers have been warning that farming suffers from what Sir John identified in his Durban presentation as ‘three lost decades of agricultural research’, which have led to unsustainable farming practices that threaten global food security and natural resources.

He noted that in less than 15 years the global food system will be expected to feed an additional one billion people.

But scientists are warning that not only will the agricultural sector struggle to increase the amount of food it produces; it may face a decline due to widespread degradation of farmland.

According to the commission, the world loses an estimated 12 million hectares of agricultural and to degradation each year.

A study [1] published last August by the UN Environment Programme found that current agricultural trends are destroying the world’s natural resources, particularly its water supplies. Reversing this trend would require integrated land-use planning that coordinates decision-making for farming, biodiversity, water management and air pollution, according to the study.

Another report from the UN – its latest World Economic and Social Survey, found that to stop deteriorating land conditions and depleting natural resources, the world would have to move away from large-scale, intensive agricultural systems as they exist today. Instead, smaller scale farms in developing countries should be improved and expanded using ‘green’ technology that minimised the use of water, energy and chemicals, noted the report.

Asia’s developing countries have a number of projects underway to address sustainable agriculture.

Online news provider Manila Bulletin reported earlier this month that the secretary of the Philippines Department of Agriculture, Proceso J. Alcala, had ordered that climate change adaptation measures be integrated into all departmental programmes and projects this year.

And in Vietnam, where according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation more than half of the labour force works in agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Planning is drafting a new national agricultural strategy. The strategy is aimed at reducing emissions from agriculture by two per cent, as well as improving agricultural productivity and its economic benefits for the rural poor.

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture had advocated for initiatives such as these to be supported and informed by internationally integrated efforts and policies.

“Policy makers and scientists need to work together, quickly, to chart a course toward a sustainable global food system,” said the UK’s Sir John Beddington.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Will a smart grid make us smarter?

The smart grid is a concept whose time has definitely come. It would represent a real commitment to dramatically increase society's efforts to use electricity more efficiently - saving resources, money while enhancing environmental quality.

But the real unanswered question is, will the existence of a smart grid automatically make us more responsible consumers? Will relatively small individual savings be enough to create a significant collective impact? (GW)

ComEd’s Smart Grid Begins With a Promise for the Future

by Bridget O'Shea and James O'Shea
Chicago News Cooperative
January 23, 2012

Substation No. 505 in Oak Park, with its nondescript cluster of bulky transformers and web of power lines, seems an unlikely place for Commonwealth Edison to start the $2.6 billion smart grid it says will prepare the region’s antiquated power system for the digital age.

Arguments raged over legislation, approved last year over Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto, that authorizes ComEd’s 10-year investment in the grid. ComEd says that the project will ultimately save customers more than it costs them. Quinn said he felt the legislation allowed power companies to circumvent a century-old process of setting rates, and thereby weaken oversight by the Illinois Commerce Commission.

Often lost amid the disagreements, however, is the question of how the grid should work and whether it will improve how consumers use electricity. The legislation places Illinois and ComEd squarely in the evolving national movement toward a smart grid.

The Oak Park substation is a pilot project approved in 2009 and is meant to test new technology and the savings it can generate. As ComEd’s first “intelligent” substation, No. 505 is outfitted with scores of state-of-the-art electronic sensors that monitor the flow of electricity. The sensors can analyze up to 1,500 pieces of information every two seconds and alert ComEd managers when — or even before — a problem happens.

Microprocessors can almost instantly switch a troubled line to an alternative power source and minimize outages, said Rich Gordus Jr., a smart grid manager at ComEd.

Val Jensen, a vice president at ComEd, said the current grid was “relatively dumb, meaning that we put power into the grid at the plant and then it flows according to the law of physics through all of those wires.”

The system, he said, “can’t tell when a power line goes down, when you lose power at your house, when a substation is overloaded or overheated.” ComEd investigates outages only after customers call to complain.

Smart-grid technology, Jensen said, can tell operators whether a fan has malfunctioned, if the system is losing coolants or why a substation is overheating. “Otherwise,” he said, “the only way we could tell is if we sent a person out there to check and then went in and started looking at a bunch of gauges.”

The electric grid extends from the power plant to the meter on individual houses. Bill Kautz, a smart grid expert and petroleum marketing manager at Tellabs, a telecommunications company in Naperville, said upgrading the system into a smart grid typically involved two elements.

The first, he said, is updating transformers, substations and transmission lines. “Anything with power being carried over some form of copper cables degrades over time. The insulators degrade over time so upgrading them is one of the key factors in this.”

Anne Pramaggiore, ComEd’s chief executive officer, estimated that about half of the $2.6 billion cost of the project involved these upgrades. Officials say the upgrades will make the system more efficient and reliable.

Kautz said the second element involves installation of communication systems — technology added to the upgraded system that can alert a network control center of problems over fiber optic cables. Pramaggiore estimated the communication improvements would cost $1.3 billion.

ComEd says that the bill approved last year contains a rate-setting process that protects consumers. The legislation, which ComEd says will initially add about $3 a month to the average utility bill, imposes financial penalties on the company if it fails to deliver on promised savings in the future.

Smart grid advocates say they hope to achieve savings by giving consumers the ability to buy more power at off-peak hours, when electricity costs ComEd less and therefore costs its customers less. Skeptics say there is not much evidence that consumers will take advantage of the technology.

Smart grid advocates often talk of so-called smart meters attached to houses, which are capable of automatically monitoring power usage. They also say appliances outfitted with computer chips can be programmed to run at a time of day when power costs less.

“Now, when you want to dry a load of clothes, you turn on the clothes dryer in your basement and you’re probably not that concerned about when your clothes will be dry,” said David M. Nicol, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But suppose that dryer was smart enough — and dryers are a high-energy user — that you put your load in and it was programmed to say, well I want this done within 12 hours but choose a time when energy is cheaper, and so you just leave it to the computer.”

Nicol said smart dryers were not yet on the market, but he said the technology exists. Unfortunately, he said, no one really knows how widely consumers will use smart appliances or use power when it is less expensive.

Nicol cited studies that showed consumers did not capitalize on the technology because the relative cost of energy was not high enough. The studies suggest people do not behave different to save only $2 a day.

“People just don’t do that,” Nicol said. “So the way to take advantage of this stuff is to automate if possible but that gets you into a whole raft of other issues. So if you ask me, the jury’s still out.”

Nicol said that if smart devices changed consumer behavior, electric power markets might change as well, and that could affect the price. Power markets are now relatively static — they know how power will be used based on historical yardsticks maintained by utility companies.

But if new devices automatically tell your dryer when it’s cheapest to dry the clothes, he said, then the price of electricity could start to change dynamically according to the time of the day it is used. And that, in turn, would change equations on power markets.

Under this logic, if a utility company knows that it must supply a certain level of power at a certain time of day, it can acquire the electrical capacity on auction markets to make sure that it can supply its customers’ power needs. If, however, the need is constantly changing, demand for power will be less predictable and the utility company will have to adjust its buying patterns, thereby affecting the price.

“When you change the way energy is going to be used by consumers,” Nicol said, “that’s going to affect the markets and it’s going to affect the way people buy and sell power.” The question remains whether those changes will save consumers money or cost them more.

Some watching the nascent development of the smart grid think the industry should push ahead regardless of doubts or challenges. The potential for energy efficiency and environmental benefits, they say, is simply too great.

AARP Illinois backed Quinn’s veto of the smart grid legislation, but Scott Musser, the group’s associate director, said the organization was not completely opposed to the new technology. “It’s who pays for it and what’s the benefit and how is it done,” he said. “Those are things that the legislation didn’t answer. We just know the consumers will be paying for it in the next decade.”

The AARP, he said, will be watching.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Who Will Control the Green Economy?

I've had numerous conversations with friends who suggest that the best way to establish renewable energy technologies, sustainable agriculture and other "green" industries is to make them more attractive to corporations. However, the problem with a strict, linear interpretation/implementation of "green capitalism" is that you end up trying to force the proverbial square peg in a round hole.

For a variety of reasons, a truly green economy is not compatible with capitalism. Among the biggest fundamental discrepancies are capitalism's dependence on growth and consumption and the existence of an "underclass". Consequently attempts at a synthesis runs the risk of providing an opening for the green economy being co-opted by the powers that be. (GW)

The Green Economy, Boon or Menace?

By Emilio Godoy
Nation of Change
January 21, 2012

The development of the green economy is the subject of pitched debate among specialists. While some believe it will deepen social inequalities and increase corporate control over natural and biological resources, others highlight its potential role in protecting the environment and creating employment.

"The green economy does not challenge current systems of production, such as the agro-alimentary industry, nor does it aim in any way to change patterns of consumption," stressed Silvia Ribeiro, the Latin America director of the non-governmental Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group).

Ribeiro told Tierramérica that some of the most troubling aspects of the green economy include "the massive use of biomass for fuel production, and the use of new technologies like synthetic biology, which can generate high levels of toxicity."

In its study "Who Will Control the Green Economy?", published Dec. 15, 2011, the ETC Group argues that the development of a green economy will primarily benefit large corporations, unless changes are made to the current models of production and consumption of goods and services and international governance.

It reveals that large transnational corporations in the energy, pharmaceutical, food and chemical industries are already forming alliances to exploit biomass and grab control of natural resources like land and water.

The study takes a specific look at a range of different sectors, including synthetic biology, bioinformatics and genome data generation, marine and other aquatic biomass, seeds and pesticides, plant gene banks, fertilizer and mining industries, forestry and paper, the animal pharmaceutical industry and livestock genetics.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) defines the green economy as "a system of economic activities related to the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services that result in improved human wellbeing over the long term, while not exposing future generations to significant environmental risks and ecological scarcities."

The green economy will be a central theme at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), taking place Jun. 20- 22 in the southern Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, 20 years after the first Earth Summit held in the same city in 1992.

The objective of the conference is to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and address new and emerging challenges.

Rio+20 will focus specifically on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development.

UNEP has actively promoted the green economy since 2008, although it acknowledges the validity of some of the concerns raised around it.

"The green economy is an imperative. One of its goals is social equity and human wellbeing. The environment is recognized as a source of wealth," U.S. economist Steven Stone, chief of UNEP's Geneva-based Economics and Trade Branch, told Tierramérica.

Stone visited Mexico last week for the presentation of a national prospective study on the green economy, co-produced by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) andTecnológico de Monterrey, a private university.

"The real question is whether those who do the greatest damage to the environment are truly contributing to what needs to be done," commented the director of the School of Economics at the public National Autonomous University of Mexico, Roberto Escalante.

"That is why there is a risk that greening the economy will deepen existing inequalities, so that those who have the least will bear the greatest costs of the environmental impacts," he told Tierramérica.

Escalante is conducting a research study, which he expects to complete during the first quarter of this year, on the effects of agriculture and deforestation on the environment, commissioned by SEMARNAT.

In the run-up to Rio+20, civil society organizations in Latin America are promoting a reworking of sustainable development with an emphasis on social and ecological aspects and a new economy to confront poverty and the concentration of wealth.

The World Economic and Social Survey 2011, published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, recommends the investment of 1.9 billion dollars annually in green technologies over the next 40 years to combat the effects of climate change.

UNEP believes green investment should contribute to reducing the energy and water demands and carbon footprint of the production of goods and services.

"There are many alternatives, and the most convincing is the peasant farming economy, which already accounts for 70 percent of world food production," noted Ribero, whose organization focuses on the environmental, social and economic impacts of new technologies.

The ETC Group study calls for the establishment of antitrust regimes to prevent monopoly control over resources and highlights the central importance of agriculture and food sovereignty.

It also emphasizes the need for greater international awareness around the proposed "techno fixes" which "are not capable of addressing systemic problems of poverty, hunger and environmental crises."

"One of the key issues is the value of nature, which is not taken into account," said Stone. "It is not included in economic calculations. These services need to be valued with limits and regulations."

For his part, Escalante, whose research aims at offering alternatives for low-carbon agricultural production, advocates the use of new technologies, the participation of university institutions, and the formulation of integrated public policies.

"Environmental issues are essentially financial issues. This will be a key subject of discussion at Rio+20. A new vision should prevail, incorporating the prices of the environment in the world of the economy and establishing a scheme that guarantees equity," he stressed.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Greatest Pirates

The greatest pirates in the history of the world have been given free reign to undermine democracy and the Earth's ecological integrity by the U.S. Supreme Court. (GW)

We must stop this corporate takeover of American democracy

Unless we can reverse the supreme court's dreadful Citizens United decision, US politics will become a plutocrats' plaything

By Bernie Sanders


January 20, 2012

David Koch and Charles G Koch: the US supreme court's Citizens United decision has enabled the industrialists to fund conservative groups to the tune of $200m already in this electoral cycle.

The corporate barbarians are through the gate of American democracy. Not satisfied with their all-pervasive influence on our culture, economy and legislative processes, they want more. They want it all.

Two years ago, the United States supreme court betrayed our Constitution and those who fought to ensure that its protections are enjoyed equally by all persons regardless of religion, race or gender by engaging in an unabashed power-grab on behalf of corporate America. In its now infamous decision in the Citizens United case, five justices declared that corporations must be treated as if they are actual people under the Constitution when it comes to spending money to influence our elections, allowing them for the first time to draw on the corporate checkbook – in any amount and at any time – to run ads explicitly for or against specific candidates.

What's next … a corporate right to vote?

Don't laugh. Just this month, the Republican National Committee filed an amicus brief in a US appeals court contending that the natural extension of the Citizens United rationale is that the century-old ban on corporate contributions directly to candidates and political parties is similarly unconstitutional. They want corporations to be able to sponsor candidates and parties directly while claiming with a straight face this would not result in any sort of corruption. And while, this month, they take no issue with corporations being subject to the existing contribution limits, anyone paying attention knows that eliminating such caps will be corporate America's next prize in its brazen ambition for absolute control over our elections.

The US Constitution has served us very well, but when the supreme court says, for purposes of the first amendment, that corporations are people, that writing checks from the company's bank account is constitutionally-protected speech and that attempts by the federal government and states to impose reasonable restrictions on campaign ads are unconstitutional, our democracy is in grave danger.

I am a proud sponsor of a number of bills that would respond to Citizens United and begin to get a handle on the problem. But something more needs to be done – something more fundamental and indisputable, something that cannot be turned on its head by a rightwing supreme court.

That is why I have introduced a resolution in the Senate (introduced by Representative Ted Deutch in the House) calling for an amendment to the US Constitution that says simply and straightforwardly what everyone – except five members of the United States supreme court – understands: corporations are not people with constitutional rights equal to flesh-and-blood human beings.

Corporations are subject to regulation by the people. Corporations may not make campaign contributions – the law of the land for the last century – or dump unlimited sums of money into our elections. And Congress and states have broad power to regulate all election spending.

I did not introduce this lightly. In fact, I have never sought to amend the Constitution before. The US Constitution is an extraordinary document that, in my view, should not be amended often. In light of the supreme court's Citizens United decision, however, I see no alternative. The ruling has radically changed the nature of our democracy. It has further tilted the balance of power toward the rich and the powerful at a time when the wealthiest people in this country have never had it so good.

At a time when corporations have more than $2tn in cash in their bank accounts, make record-breaking profits and swarm Washington with their lobbyists 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the highest court in the land to suggest that there is just not enough corporate "speech" in our system defies the bounds of reason and sanity. The ruling already has led to plans, for example, by industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch to steer more than $200m – potentially much more – to conservative groups ahead of election day 2012. Karl Rove has similar designs.

Does anybody really believe that that is what American democracy is supposed to be about?

I believe that the Citizens United decision will go down as one of the worst in our country's history – and one that demands an amendment to our Constitution in order to restore sovereign power to the people, as our nation's founders intended.

If we do not reverse it and the culture of corporate dominance over our elections that it has exacerbated, there will be no end to the impact that corporate interests have on our campaigns and our democracy.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Whole lotta shakin' goin' on

The closer you look at our options for reducing our dependency on foreign sources for energy , the better wind looks. Factor environmental concerns (including, but not limited to climate change) into your considerations and you end up scratching your head and wondering: "What the frack are we doing?"

Fracking Quakes Shake the Shale Gas Industry

Well shutdowns prompted by fracking-induced seismicity may inspire technology tweaks.

By Peter Fairley
Technology Review
January 20, 2012

Geophysicists are increasingly certain that expanding production of shale gas is responsible for a spate of minor earthquakes that have upset some communities and prompted authorities in Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, and the U.K. to shut down some natural-gas operations. The question now, say the experts, is whether the underground operations causing the trouble should be scaled back or more closely monitored to minimize future quakes—and whether the relatively small quakes may yet have the potential trigger truly destructive ones.

At least one shale gas producer is already talking change: U.K.-based Cuadrilla Resources, whose first project set off quakes near Blackpool last year.

Shale gas operations generate microseismicity in two ways. One is through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the underground blasts of water, sand, and chemicals used to release the natural gas trapped within shale deposits. Fracking is how Cuadrilla caused a quake that measured 2.3 on the Richter scale last April, according to an analysis by the firm's geophysical consultants.

Similarly, a fracking operation that injected 2.4 million gallons of fluid into an Oklahoma well over six days last January is a likely cause of the 43 earthquakes that followed, according to a state geologist's report. The 1.0-to-2.8-magnitude quakes began on the second day of injection, and most were centered within 3.5 kilometers of the well. These small quakes were felt on the surface and disturbed nearby residents, but they caused no structural damage.

A second source of shaking from shale gas operations is common to many oil and gas fields: the subsurface disposal of wastewater and of naturally occurring brines that surface with the desired hydrocarbons. Deep-injection disposal wells were probably behind a string of quakes in Arkansas that began in 2010, as well as more recent tremors around Youngstown, Ohio, that culminated in a magnitude 4.0 shake this New Year's Eve. "There's no doubt that those Youngstown earthquakes are directly associated with the disposal well there," says Arthur McGarr, a geophysicist and induced-seismicity expert with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Fracking and disposal wells create quakes that can be felt at the surface when shock waves or fluids release strain on a preëxisting fault. For example, high-pressure fluid can squeeze into and push apart a planar fault, freeing adjacent rock formations to slide past one another.

Such induced fault slips probably occurred at Youngstown, says Thomas Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. But Stewart says induced quakes are rare events because well operators deliberately avoid drilling near known faults. Ohio's other 180 oil and gas wastewater wells have prompted few complaints, he notes. He adds that the Youngstown shakes hurt no one other than local gas producer D&L Energy, whose well was shut down by state regulators. "This guy's probably going to lose a $3-4 million investment," says Stewart.

Cuadrilla Resources' geomechanical consultants also downplay the risk that its operations could induce damaging quakes greater than magnitude 3.0. Nevertheless, their report, authored by senior researchers at German geophysical consultancy Q-con and Dutch consultancy StrataGen Delft, recommends that Cuadrilla initiate fracking operations with less fluid than it employed at Blackpool. In addition, they call for underground seismometers to identify any problems early. Cuadrilla says it plans to implement the proposals.

McGarr at USGS says an early warning system is a good idea, and one in keeping with the seismic risk assessment protocol for well-blasting operations employed by geothermal-energy producers. He is less sanguine, however, about estimates of the maximum severity that earthquakes triggered by fracking and injection wells can reach, saying this question needs more science. That means the risk of anthropogenically inducing large, deadly quakes cannot be ruled out.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

"Virtually every part of the country was affected"

So just what are the true costs of continuing to burn fossil fuels? (GW)

USDA Announces $308 Million in Aid to States

The nation's top agriculture official is expected to announce Wednesday more than $300 million in emergency assistance to 33 states and Puerto Rico to help them recover from an unusually intense year for natural disasters across the U.S.

Utah and Missouri will receive the most disaster aid, together taking in $109 million, or more than one-third of the $308 million in aid from Department of Agriculture watershed and conservation emergency funds, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Associated Press ahead of a formal announcement later Wednesday.

Flooding last spring in Utah inundated thousands of acres of farmland, costing farmers tens of millions of dollars lost to damaged and destroyed crops or delayed planting. Utah will receive $60 million in watershed money for repair work and preventative measures in 13 cities and counties hit by floods within the last 13 months, said Bronson Smart, state conservation engineer for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

He said his agency requested that amount to deal with two rounds of flooding, including flash flooding in southern Utah in December 2010 and flooding last spring in northern and central Utah caused by a record snowpack.

Missouri suffered months of flooding along the Missouri River after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized unprecedented releases from reservoirs in the northern river basin all summer to deal with unexpectedly heavy rain in May and above-average mountain snowpack. Farmers in the Missouri Bootheel, meanwhile, saw their crops swamped when the Army Corps of Engineers exploded a levee to relieve water pressure on an upriver town in Illinois. The intentional breach sent water cascading over thousands of acres of prime farmland.

Missouri will receive around $49 million, of which $35 million will come from the watershed program and the rest from the Farm Service Agency's Emergency Conservation Program.

Vilsack said disaster funds will be used for financial and technical assistance to help rebuild and repair land damaged by flooding, drought, tornadoes and other natural disasters.

"There have been years that have had more intensive damage in a particular geographic area, but what's unique about last year is that virtually every part of the country was affected," Vilsack told the AP. "It was different in every part of the country. We've not seen tornadoes as devastating as last spring. Flooding on the Missouri River, because of the longstanding nature of the flooding — not a two- or three-week situation — was unique. Fires in the southwest part of the country were historic in magnitude. It's been a tough year."

Slightly more than $215 million of the aid comes from the Emergency Watershed Program, about $80 million will come from the Emergency Conservation Program and nearly $12 million is from the FSA's Emergency Forest Restoration Program. Texas, for instance, will receive nearly $6 million after wildfires charred the southern part of the state.

The watershed funds will go toward public safety and restoration efforts on private, public and tribal land, Vilsack said. Projects funded by that money will include removing debris from waterways, protecting eroded stream banks, reseeding damaged areas and, in some cases, purchasing floodplain easements on eligible land.

New York trails only Utah in the amount of watershed protection money received, at $37.8 million.

In addition to flooding, 2011 was a big year for tornadoes, including record outbreaks in the South and a monster storm that leveled a large portion of Joplin, Mo.

Alabama is scheduled to get nearly $7 million in assistance for tornado recovery, followed by nearly $4 million in Georgia. Missouri, at the other end of the spectrum, is to receive only $130,000 to fix damage to agricultural land by tornadoes.

In addition to keeping U.S. agriculture profitable and helping communities rebuild, the disaster money also will spark job growth, Vilsack said.

"The beauty of this resource is that it generates job opportunities, to hire contractors and buy supplies at local hardware stores," he said. "Folks are in the process of planning what they're going to be doing this spring. We're hoping by this announcement they will be able to plan more effectively."

The conservation program funds will go to producers to help remove debris from farmland, restore livestock fences and conservation structures, provide water for livestock during periods of extreme drought, and grade and shape farmland damaged by natural disasters, he said.

The forest money will help eligible owners of nonindustrial private forest land take emergency measures to restore areas damaged by disasters.

Vilsack said the emergency money is being used to help agricultural interests beyond what is covered by crop insurance. He said the USDA paid out $8.6 billion in crop insurance payments last year, and $17.2 billion over the past three years.