Archive | October, 2013

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Nibbling at Solutions to Climate Change

Posted on 25 October 2013 by Jerry

Last month the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Gina McCarthy released a proposed requirement for new coal-fired power plants in the U.S.  This coincided with an announcement by the Norwegian government that it was closing its Mongstad project, a one billion dollar demonstration project to prove the feasibility of large scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.  It joins numerous other tests around the world that have been cancelled.  And yet, the U.S. requirements are based on this same group of technologies that have so far proven unfeasible or too expensive.  There are still a number of projects around the world that will continue.

After hints of radical change within society to control climate change, so far we are just nibbling around the edges.  Given the as yet unproven hypothesis and cost of CCS this recent announced requirement will only force power companies to switch their planned future power plants to natural gas-fired plants.  This is because falling natural gas prices have made this a more economical alternative and gas-fired plants already meet the new emission requirements.

Barack Obama at the beginning of his second term announced that, without cooperation from the House of Representatives, he would use his executive powers to order the EPA to issue new emission requirements for existing and newly built coal-fired power plants (see a 6/30/13 post on this blog entitled “Good, Bad & Ugly of Obama’s Climate Speech”).  With the EPA not issuing requirements for existing plants these regulations take care of the smallest part of the problem. They do however fulfill a small fraction of Obama’s commitment.

Even as small an impact as these new requirements will have, they will be tied up in the courts for many months or years.  In October of 2013 the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources such as power plants.

This issue of regulating emissions of coal-fired power plants fits into a long running controversy about how best to limit the climate change effects of different types of emissions.  The question is whether it is better to attack short-term emissions that do not last for extraordinarily long periods of time, such as methane and black carbon, or whether we should work on the more serious sources of emissions, such as carbon dioxide, which are more long lasting in the atmosphere.

A recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted by researchers at MIT offers an answer that will not please people looking for an easy way to combat rising temperatures.  The study estimated the different effects of dealing with short-lived pollutants first with the more serious emissions to follow.  The researchers concluded that dealing with the former, although somewhat easier, has a negligible effect on the temperature rise between now and 2050.  They estimated there would be only a modest effect of 0.28 degree Fahrenheit (0.16 degree Celcius).

Once again hopes for an easy out of climate change or relatively simple solutions to the problem of increasing temperatures have proven not feasible or effective.  This leaves the more radical societal changes identified by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and others as our only alternatives.  Given our status as the biggest contributor to climate change, the world is waiting for our Congress to “man-up” to its responsibilities and provide worldwide leadership.  It goes without saying that the longer we wait we will be forced to select ever more drastic alternatives.

Use the following links to obtain more information or read the source documents for this article:

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Can We Survive a Trip to Mars?

Posted on 24 October 2013 by Jerry

The short answer is yes.  If it is a round-trip the answer may be barely.  But most people do not know the harms to human health from prolonged space travel.  And yet there are a number of advocates that believe we should colonize the planet Mars.  This is because we almost have the technology to do it and for many it represents the next frontier.

Some, like the Paragon Space Development Corporation and eccentric millionaire Dennis Tito, want one man and woman to go on a round-trip, with no landing, as a demonstration project.  In his new book “Mission to Mars” Buzz Aldrin, the second man to land on the moon, argues we should establish a permanent colony on Mars.  Mars would be colonized by people who would be permanent parties with no expectation of return to Earth.  Of course these people join people the employees of the NASA Space Program where no project without Mars in its title has any chance of even being considered.

Getting to Mars at its most basic level is a ratio between fuel, weight, and time.  More people and more shielding against the effects of radiation increase the weight of the craft.  As weight rises, the amount of fuel required to maintain a certain speed goes up.  The speed that can be maintained determines how long trip will take.  This also does not recognize that Mars is a moving planet that has periods when it is closer to or farther from Earth.  This is taken into account as well.  The duration of a one-way trip with appropriate shielding and multiple people is estimated to be 200 – 300 days.  We should double this for a round-trip.

Beyond the low level physical effects of prolonged weightlessness which include motion sickness, fatigue, dehydration, loss of appetite and back pain there is an acute concern about the loss of muscle mass.  Astronauts have found that any stay in a weightless condition that lasts more than six months causes a dangerous loss of muscle tone and mass.  Scientists from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin observe that people making the trip to Mars are estimated to lose up to half the power in key muscles.  This means a person between the ages of 30 and 50 would return home with the muscles of an 80 year old.

The biggest travel threat to the health of Mars settlers however would be radiation.  There are two types of radiation to which people in space are subject.  A new study was released in the May 31, 2013 issue of Science magazine entitled Measurements of Energetic Particle Radiation in Transit to Mars on the Mars Science Laboratory.   The study measured actual radiation in the Curiosity rover vehicle during its 253 day, 560-million-kilometer (~348-million-miles) trip to Mars beginning in November of 2011.

Researchers used metrics for the actual trip that looked at chronic low-dose exposure to galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) and solar energetic particles (SEPs) during a period of relatively low solar activity.  They indicated that the GCRs which are very energetic, highly penetrating particles were of greatest concern since shielding is much more effective against SEPs.  The study’s bottom line was that an astronaut experiencing a round-trip to Mars would receive radiation equivalent to 662 millisieverts (mSv).

This is compared to the 1000 mSv or less the National space agencies recommend for an astronaut’s entire career.  The NASA limit corresponds to about a 5% risk of exposure-induced death from cancer.  This number could rise significantly if the trip took place during a period of heightened solar flares or big blobs of plasma thrown off the sun during coronal mass ejections.

We don’t yet know the dangers of staying on the planet’s surface in a habitat of our construction.  On Earth we do not have much experience with galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) because we are shielded by Earth’s atmosphere and consequently have limited data to study.  Since there is a very thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide on Mars, we would have a significant challenge to construct radiation barriers to protect human beings from GCRs.  We still do not know the full impact of prolonged exposure to these rays.

We are all optimists where technology and the future are concerned.  Many of us are certain the obstacles will be overcome and humans will one day visit Mars.  This is borne out by the fact that over 78,000 people have asked to be put on a waiting list for a one-way trip to Mars in 2022.

The book, Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, discusses the incredible distances of space.  For instance, a trip to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, going at the fastest speed man has achieved so far of 150,000 miles per hour is a pittance compared to the speed of light at 186,000 miles per second.  The conclusion is that at our top speed it will take 18,000 years to travel to the nearest star that is 4.2 light years away.

There was a post on this blog on October 6, 2011 entitled Focused Space Exploration that endorses a worldwide effort to put a human colony on Mars.  The difference is our belief that the process of completing that mission will not develop a place for large numbers of humans to go but would cause us to develop technology that would be helpful for survival in hostile environments, which may eventually occur on planet Earth. This remains our view.

Use the following links to obtain more information or access to source documents.


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Are There Cracks in the GM Armor?

Posted on 19 October 2013 by Jerry

Below the surface there are cracks in Monsanto’s armor and storm clouds threaten its future.  If we only look at Monsanto’s results for 2013 things are going great.  Sales are up to $14,861 billion while gross profit and net income are at $7,653 billion and $2.482 billion respectively.  Their total seeds and ‘genomics’ (genetically modified products which includes almost all seeds) generated $10,340 billion.  In addition, Monsanto hired the new lobbying firm, the Lincoln Policy Group, of ex-Senator Blanche Lincoln, who for two years was the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

But 2013 was not as positive as it seems.  Events in the European Union have been so negative that Monsanto has announced it will no longer seek approvals for its GM crops in the E.U.  Activists and governments continued to block approval of Monsanto’s applications for genetically modified crops.

While the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has deemed eight genetically modified crops as safe beginning as far back as 2005, they and five other crops are still under study and have been effectively blocked.  European governments have stopped implementation of the EFSA’s approved crops due to political pressure of activists and continued scientific disagreement.  Monsanto announced instead that its focus in the E.U. would be on its traditional seed business.

Also reflecting the rejection of GM products in the E.U. in 2012, BASF Plant Sciences announced they would abandon the development and sale of their European Union product Amflora.  Amflora is a high starch GM potato designed for industrial applications like the production of paper.  BASF instead moved their development and sales resources for this product to a much more supportive United States.

Indicative of the hostility to GM products in the E.U. the Swiss government has announced it will create a permanently protected federal research area for genetically modified crops.  This is to help control the increase of vandalism and the costs it is experiencing.  It is estimated Swiss GM researchers spend 78% of their research funds on security.  Because of this, the government approved an annual expense of €600,000 (~$822,000) for a secure field test site of approximately 3 hectares (~7.4 acres).  In 2008 masked activists threatened researchers and destroyed about 1/3 of the GM plants grown at another location.

Even in the U.S., the home of genetic engineering and the biggest crops from GM grains, there are signs of eventual labeling of GM crops.  Connecticut became the first state to pass legislation requiring labeling of GM foods.  Unfortunately, given the small size of the state, the bill only goes into effect after a number of other states in the Northeast follow suit.

Almost half of the  states have introduced legislation or ballot initiatives requiring mandatory labeling.  The biggest battle that is raging is in the state of Washington where once again the GM industry has brought its big wallet to the fray.  So far opponents of the legislation, the GM industry, have raised over $17 million compared to the $5 million raised by the backers of the initiative.  We will know how this initiative fares by the end of the year.

While labeling is being hotly contested in the U.S., labeling requirements have been embraced by over 64 countries in the world.  These include Australia, Brazil, China, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, and all of the countries of the European Union.  We can only hope the GM crop industry decides its state-by-state approach is too costly.

Rumors abound about secret negotiations at the federal level.  President Obama committed to mandatory labeling of GM food in his second term.  This commitment will require we hold the Obama Administration’s feet to the fire to require legislation with real teeth to accomplish the labeling.  Toothless legislation is the House and Senate’s tradition when big business is involved.   This continues the uphill struggle.

Use the following links to obtain more information on these topics or to see source documents.


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Water: You Only Think About It If You Can’t Get Any

Posted on 10 October 2013 by Jerry

There is a discovery of five new water sources, aquifers, in the largely desert area of Kenya.  Estimates are these aquifers represent 17% of Kenya’s known water reserves or some 250 billion cubic meters of water.  Based on a breakthrough in satellite sensing technology this then must take care of Kenya and sets the stage for the rest of Africa.  Right? Not so fast.

The search, use, and ownership of the world’s drinkable water is controversial and an ever growing picture of profit in scarcity.  Water disputes abound and as businesses seek to portray that there is really no problem they can’t handle for a price, the problems continue to grow.

The issue with water in Kenya is not really its scarcity but rather the absence of access to it or its distribution.  The water that was discovered is buried deep underground, more than 100 meters down.  A water borehole for a community hand pump costs roughly $1,300 apiece.  Unfortunately it can only accommodate sources of water at less than 50 meters of depth in order to maintain an adequate flow rate.  The new sources of water are between 100 to 250 meters in depth which require a pump whose cost starts at $130,000 and goes up from there.

Unfortunately Kenya is identified as a “very poor country”, with a per capita annual income of around $1700, or between $1001 and $2000, as characterized by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  This income level puts the average cost of a water pump beyond what is affordable for most towns and villages in Kenya.  Funds to make up the difference would have to come from international charities or loans to the government from the IMF or from businesses in exchange for ownership of the water sources.

The fact that affordable water is out of reach for poor areas does not stop business interests such as agriculture and government officials, corrupt and well meaning, from fighting with their neighbors for a bigger share of available water.  The following are three descriptions of the ongoing disputes between upstream and downstream nations over who gets how much water.  They are representative of many disputes that include those between India and Bangladesh, China and India, and Jordan and Israel.

  • Ethiopia and Sudan are upstream from Egypt.  All three are angling for a greater share of the water of the Nile and its contributing tributaries, the Blue Nile and White Nile.  Ethiopia is building the Grand Renaissance Dam that will become the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa generating more than 6,000 megawatts of power.  Egypt is afraid the mile long damn and the 74 billion cubic meter reservoir it creates will siphon off water necessary for Egypt.  Egypt, that receives almost no rainfall, depends on the Nile for 97% of its annual renewable water supply.
  • Pakistan is fighting its upstream neighbor to maintain its share of the Indus River system that carries Himalayan water from the mountain glacier valleys through India to Pakistan.  India, which has 40% of its people off any power grid, has been planning the construction of the Kishenganga Dam along with several others to produce hydroelectric power for India.  Even though there is a long standing treaty signed in 1960 that guarantees 80% of the Indus River system water for Pakistan, it fears its historic upstream rival will have concentrated its ability to shut off all water to Pakistan and its large agricultural region.
  • The Euphrates and Tigris rivers flow from the mountains of Turkey through Syria, Iraq and into the Persian Gulf.  Turkey has used the water from these and other rivers to build a large water and power infrastructure.  With running water to 85% of the Turkish homes it compares well to the 75% average among Middle Eastern countries.  It only uses 41% of its annual water flow and has constructed over 670 large dams and 650 small ones distributed among its 25 hydrological basins.   It has historically been very proprietary about its water resources.  This has caused unending friction with its separatist Kurdish region and with Syria and Iraq.  Both neighboring countries have long complained that Turkey is not adequately sharing its water resources.  These frictions continue today.

Last but not least, water is fueling growth for a burgeoning water industry.  While there are hundreds if not thousands, of small companies competing for a piece of the water pie, the market is dominated by international conglomerates.  Many people participate in making drinkable water available around the world but some of them are voicing fears of what the future may hold.

Maude Barlow, chairperson, of the Council of Canadians and a former senior advisor to the U.N. General Assembly has long been an advocate of citizen rights to water around the globe.  She recently warned that international business is calling for increased privatization of water with businesses taking over ownership and provision of water.

She quotes Nestles as saying that 1.5% of the world’s water should be set-aside for the poor and rest should be put on the open market.  A recent report published in IPS News quotes Ms. Barlow as stating that if Nestle and other businesses prevail “There will one day be a water cartel similar to big oil, making life and death decisions about who gets water and under what circumstances every day.”

The international conglomerates she is concerned about include Nestle, Coca Cola, Suez, and the Veolia Corporation.  Each of these is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that are actively lobbying around the world and leading the charge on privatization.  They offer cities, counties, and countries financing, infrastructure and other assistance with their water needs for a price.

There are some notable examples of how some of these companies have done business over the years.  Many politicians around the world were bribed to insure positive contract awards, regulatory rulings or active support for privatization.

It has often been said that water will someday be more valuable than oil.  Rising temperatures, shrinking glaciers, and rising seas are rapidly diminishing the supply of pure drinking water.  At the same time the world’s population is growing especially in developing countries, many of which have never had an abundance of water.

The long-term problem is one of appropriate management of the world’s water resources to insure it is distributed fairly to the world’s citizens.  This can only happen as long as water is a public good, available to everyone on a non discriminate basis.  This means there must be increasing aide from the developed world to make water more plentiful and available.

Privatization is not the answer.  Putting water resources in the hands of businesses that are driven by the profit motive only insures continued waste by wealthy nations and greater poverty and thirst in the developing world.

Use the following links to obtain additional information or look at source documents:


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