Category Archives: EARTH WATCH

Why We Stink at Tackling Climate Change

By David P. Barash – What’s wrong with us? Not us Democrats, Republicans, or Americans. Rather, what’s wrong with our species, Homo sapiens?

If human beings are as Hamlet suggested, “noble in reason, infinite in faculty,” then why are we facing so many problems?

In many ways, people are better off than ever before: reduced infant mortality, longer lifespans, less poverty, fewer epidemic diseases, even fewer deaths per capita due to violence.

And yet global threats abound and by nearly all measures they are getting worse: environmental destruction and wildlife extinction, ethnic and religious hatred, the specter of nuclear war, and above all, the disaster of global climate change.

For some religious believers, the primary culprit is original sin. For ideologues of left, right, and otherwise, it’s ill-functioning political structures.

From my biological perspective, it’s the deep-seated disconnect between our slow-moving, inexorable biological evolution and its fast-moving cultural counterpart—and the troublesome fact we are subject to both, simultaneously.

It seems inevitable that as these cultural skills developed and provided leverage over the material and natural world—not to mention over other human beings, less adroit at these things—natural selection favored those individuals most able to take advantage of such traits. Up to a point, our biological and cultural evolution would have been mutually reinforcing. We are now past that point.

There is no reason for our biological and cultural evolution to proceed in lockstep, and many reasons for them to have become disconnected. more>

Updates from ITU

Earth observation for weather prediction – solving the interference problem
By ITU News – “Today, several dozen satellites contribute to the accumulation of critical knowledge about the Earth’s system, enabling scientists to describe specific links between a major natural disturbance in the upper atmosphere, and changes in the weather thousands of miles away,” says Mario Maniewicz, Director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau.

“As accurate weather predictions need to start from the best possible estimate of the current state of the atmosphere, it is crucial that meteorologists have real-time, accurate global observations about what is happening in the Earth’s atmosphere over land and oceans. And for this, they rely on space sensing.”

Space sensing relies on the deployment of sensors to obtain data critical for Earth observation from space. Active sensors are radar systems on spaceborne platforms. They obtain data through the transmission and reception of radiowaves. Passive sensors, meanwhile, are very sensitive receivers that measure the electromagnetic energy emitted and scattered by the Earth, and the chemical constituents in the Earth’s atmosphere. They require protection from radio-frequency interference.

Spaceborne sensors measure the background natural radiative emission floor, therefore any man-made signal (e.g. communications, radars) that rises above this natural emission floor will likely interfere with the measurements. This interference can be tolerated only if its energy is well below the sensor sensitivity. more>

Related>

‘We Can’t Recycle Our Way Out of This Problem’: Ben & Jerry’s Bans Single-Use Plastics

By Lorraine Chow – Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s announced major efforts on Monday to quickly curb its use of single-use plastics.

All together, the move is expected to prevent 2.5 million plastic straws and 30 million plastic spoons from being handed out each year, Jenna Evans, Ben & Jerry’s Global Sustainability Manager, said in a press release.

“We’re not going to recycle our way out of this problem,” she said. “We, and the rest of the world, need to get out of single-use plastic.”

In response to the initiative, Greenpeace praised the brand for setting clear, short-term targets and for acknowledging that recycling alone is not enough to solve the world’s mounting plastic problem.

We’ve all been taught that recycling is an important environmental responsibility, but of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste generated since the 1950s, only 9 percent has been recycled, according to one recent study. What’s more, recycling plastics only perpetuates the use of fossil fuel-based polymers. more>

Globalization at a Crossroads

By Gordon Brown – Whether or not one realizes it, 2018 may have been a historic turning point. Poorly managed globalization has led to nationalist “take-back-control” movements and a rising wave of protectionism that is undermining the 70-year-old American-led international order. The stage is set for China to develop its own parallel international institutions, auguring a world divided between two competing global-governance systems.

Whatever happens in the next few years, it is already clear that the 2008-2018 decade marked an epochal shift in the balance of economic power.

Whereas around 40% of production, manufacturing, trade, and investment was located outside the West in 2008, over 60% is today.

For decades after its formation in the 1970s, the Group of Seven (G7) – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the US – essentially presided over the entire world economy. But by 2008, I and others had begun to discern a changing of the guard. Behind the scenes, North American and European leaders were debating whether it was time to create a new premier forum for economic cooperation that would include emerging economies.

These debates were often heated. On one side were those who wanted to keep the group small (one early US proposal envisioned a G7+5); on the other side were those who wanted the group to be as inclusive as possible. To this day, the results of those earlier negotiations are not fully understood.

The current trade conflict between the United States and China is symptomatic of a larger transition in global financial power. On the surface, the Trump administration’s confrontation with China is about trade, with disputes over currency manipulation thrown in for good measure. But from Trump’s speeches, one gathers that the real battle is about something bigger: the future of technological dominance and global economic power.

While Trump at least detects the growing threat to American supremacy, he has ignored the most obvious strategy for responding to it: namely, a united front with US allies and partners around the world. Instead, Trump has asserted a prerogative to act unilaterally, as if America still rules over a unipolar world. As a result, a trail of geopolitical ruin already lies in his wake. more>

Overcoming The Trust Deficit

By Dimitris Avramopoulos – A prosperous, secure and united Europe will not be delivered to us on a silver platter. We will have to fight for it more than ever – with facts, with authenticity, with courage. It will not be enough to have the right solutions on offer – our citizens will have to be willing to trust and accept them too.

Citizens in Europe and across the world today are experiencing a growing deficit of trust. While the world is increasingly becoming globalized, interconnected, digitized and information-saturated, citizens are having trouble discerning what is fact and what is fancy – and most importantly: who to turn to and who to trust. Our citizens are looking for clear and straightforward answers and solutions, in a reality that is becoming all the more complex.

Populists and nationalists are experiencing heydays in times like these. What they tell citizens and their electorate no longer has to be true, as long as it is simple and appealing. We have seen very recently how in the absence of an actual crisis or problem, an imaginary one is created instead and how the seeds of distrust, confusion and fear are sown daily.

Today, there is no single, coherent enemy or threat: terrorism, cybercrime or hybrid threats constitute a particularly toxic and interchangeable cocktail of risks that we need to face on a daily basis, with the same unity in our approach. The cooperation between Member States was enhanced especially in the field of exchange of information between law enforcement authorities, crucial to fight terrorism, organized crime and cybercrime. more>

Are We Living Through Climate Change’s Worst-Case Scenario?

By Robinson Meyer – The year 2018 was not an easy one for planet Earth.

In the United States, carbon emissions leapt back up, making their largest year-over-year increase since the end of the Great Recession. This matched the trend across the globe. According to two major studies, greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide shot up in 2018—accelerating like a “speeding freight train,” as one scientist put it.

Many economists expect carbon emissions to drop somewhat throughout the next few decades. But maybe they won’t. If 2018 is any indication, meekly positive energy trends will not handily reduce emissions, even in developed economies like the United States. It raises a bleak question:

Are we currently on the worst-case scenario for climate change?

When climate scientists want to tell a story about the future of the planet, they use a set of four standard scenarios called “representative concentration pathways,” or RCPs. RCPs are ubiquitous in climate science, appearing in virtually any study that uses climate models to investigate the 21st century. They’ve popped up in research about subjects as disparate as southwestern mega-droughts, future immigration flows to Europe, and poor nighttime sleep quality.

Each RCP is assigned a number that describes how the climate will fare in the year 2100. Generally, a higher RCP number describes a scarier fate: It means that humanity emitted more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during the 21st century, further warming the planet and acidifying the ocean. The best-case scenario is called RCP 2.6. The worst case is RCP 8.5.

“God help us if 8.5 turns out to be the right scenario,” Jackson told me. more>

Updates from Georgia Tech

Growing Pile of Human and Animal Waste Harbors Threats, Opportunities
By Josh Brown – As demand for meat and dairy products increases across the world, much attention has landed on how livestock impact the environment, from land usage to greenhouse gas emissions.

Now researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are highlighting another effect from animals raised for food and the humans who eat them: the waste they all leave behind.

In a paper published November 13 in Nature Sustainability, the research team put forth what they believe is the first global estimate of annual recoverable human and animal fecal biomass. In 2014, the most recent year with data, the number was 4.3 billion tons and growing, and waste from livestock outweighed that from humans five to one at the country level.

“Exposure to both human and animal waste represent a threat to public health, particularly in low-income areas of the world that may not have resources to implement the best management and sanitation practices,” said Joe Brown, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “But estimating the amount of recoverable feces in the world also highlights the enormous potential from a resource perspective.” more>

Related>

The World Order Is Starting to Crack

By Stewart Patrick – When Donald Trump was first elected U.S. president, foreign observers hoped that he would moderate his more outrageous campaign positions as the practicalities of governing socialized him to adopt more conventional stances. Failing that, they hoped to contain the damage until the U.S. electorate returned to its senses. Trump’s scythe has sliced through these thin reeds.

For a onetime chaos candidate, Trump has been remarkably methodical in his efforts to destroy the liberal international order.

Stunned U.S. allies are now adapting to their new normal by taking steps previously unimaginable. They are hedging their bets in dawning recognition that the America of old may never return, regardless of who succeeds Trump. They are pursuing strategic autonomy, seeking to decouple from an unpredictable United States. And they are considering how to restore some semblance of international cooperation in a world left rudderless in the wake of the U.S. abdication of global leadership.

Collectively, Trump’s actions have sent U.S. allies reeling, shaking their long-standing faith in the West as a community of shared values, interests, and institutions. In response, they are working with China to safeguard globalization, expanding their own strategic autonomy vis-à-vis Washington, and grasping to defend what remains of the open world from the depredations of its erstwhile creator.

Trump’s trade protectionism has done the seemingly unimaginable. It has allowed mercantilist China—which flagrantly steals intellectual property, restricts foreign investment, and protects entire sectors from foreign competition—to portray itself as a bastion of multilateral trade. more>

Anthropic arrogance

By David P Barash – Welcome to the ‘anthropic principle’, a kind of Goldilocks phenomenon or ‘intelligent design’ for the whole Universe. According to its proponents, the Universe is fine-tuned for human life.

The message is clearly an artificial one and not the result of random noise. Or maybe the Universe itself is alive, and the various physical and mathematical constants are part of its metabolism. Such speculation is great fun, but it’s science fiction, not science.

It should be clear at this point that the anthropic argument readily devolves – or dissolves – into speculative philosophy and even theology. Indeed, it is reminiscent of the ‘God of the gaps’ perspective, in which God is posited whenever science hasn’t (yet) provided an answer.

Calling upon God whenever there is a gap in our scientific understanding may be tempting, but it is not even popular among theologians, because as science grows, the gaps – and thus, God – shrinks. It remains to be seen whether the anthropic principle, in whatever form, succeeds in expanding our sense of ourselves beyond that illuminated by science. I wouldn’t bet on it. more>

How evil happens

BOOK REVIEW

Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, Author: Noga Arikha.
Eichmann in Jerusalem, Author: Hannah Arendt.
The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Author: Simon Baron-Cohen.
Home Fire, Author: Kamila Shamsie.

By Noga Arikha – The ‘sapiens’ in Homo sapiens does not fully describe our species: we are as violent as we are smart.

This might be why we are the only Homo genus left over in the first place, and why we have been so destructively successful at dominating our planet. But still the question nags away: how are ordinary people capable of such obscene acts of violence?

Today, biology is a powerful explanatory force for much human behavior, though it alone cannot account for horror. Much as the neurosciences are an exciting new tool for human self-understanding, they will not explain away our brutishness. Causal accounts of the destruction that humans inflict on each other are best provided by political history – not science, nor metaphysics. The past century alone is heavy with atrocities of unfathomable scale, albeit fathomable political genesis.

The social neuroscientist Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig in Germany defines empathy as the ability to ‘resonate’ with the feelings of the other. It develops from babyhood on – as imitation at first, then joint attention – into the ability to adopt the point of view of another, along with a shift in spatial perception from self to other, as if one were literally stepping into another’s shoes.

This requires an ability to distinguish between self and other in the first place, an aspect of the so-called ‘theory of mind’ that one acquires over the first five years of life.

But while empathy ensures the cohesion of a group or a society, it is also biased and parochial. Revenge thrives on it. more>

Related>