Category Archives: ALL SCIENCE

Engineers can build a low-carbon world if we let them

Engineers can build a low-carbon world if we let them – opinion – 26 September 2011 – New Scientist.

The engineering solutions to combat climate change already exist. Politicians must be brave enough to use them before it’s too late

One word sums up the attitude of engineers towards climate change: frustration. Political inertia following the high-profile failure of 2009’s Copenhagen climate conference has coupled with a chorus of criticism from a vocal minority of climate-change sceptics. Add the current economic challenges and the picture looks bleak. Our planet is warming and we are doing woefully little to prevent it getting worse.

Engineers know there is so much more that we could do. While the world’s politicians have been locked in predominantly fruitless talks, engineers have been developing the technologies we need to bring down emissions and help create a more stable future.

Wind, wave and solar power, zero-emissions transport, low-carbon buildings and energy-efficiency technologies have all been shown feasible. To be rolled out on a global scale, they are just waiting for the political will. Various models, such as the European Climate Foundation’s Roadmap 2050, show that implementing these existing technologies would bring about an 85 per cent drop in carbon emissions by 2050. The idea that we need silver-bullet technologies to be developed before the green technology revolution can happen is a myth. The revolution is waiting to begin.

Climate call

The barriers preventing the creation of a low-carbon society are not technological but political and financial. That’s why at a landmark London conference convened by the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 11 national engineering institutions representing 1.2 million engineers from across the globe, under the banner of the Future Climate project, made a joint call for action at December’s COP17 climate change conference in Durban, South Africa.

The statement calls on governments to move from warm words to solid actions. They need to introduce legislation and financial support to get these technologies out of the workshop and into our homes and businesses and onto our roads. Targeted regulation and taxation will also drive innovation. This will require bold politics, and spending at a time when money is scarce. It is far from unaffordable, however. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change, which advises the British government, continues to support the view of the Stern reportMovie Camera – an assessment of the climate change challenge in the UK – that the move to a low-carbon society will cost no more than 1 per cent of GDP by 2050.

Resistance to wind turbines and the power lines they feed, nuclear power and electric cars, as well as the economic costs, all make public opinion a powerful brake on change. However the alternative seems certain to be worse. It is not only the challenges of a deteriorating climate: with inaction comes a great risk to our economy in the long term. The green technology revolution, just like the industrial revolution before it, will give jobs to those countries which have created the right conditions for it to flourish.

China in front

Which countries these will be is still an open question. India, Germany, Australia and the UK were among the nations signed up to the Future Climate statement, whereas the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters – China and the US – were not. When it comes to investment in clean technology, however, that’s not the whole story.

Although China is continuing to build coal-fired electricity plants at an alarming rate to power its rapid economic growth, the UN Environment Programme confirmed last month that it is now by far the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy. Last year, China’s wind, solar and biomass power industries received $49 billion of new investment, a third of the global total, and it now has the largest installed wind capacity in the world. When predicting who the front runner in this next great technological revolution will be, it is difficult to see past the emerging superpower to the east.

The US is going in the opposite direction. A natural gas rush driven by the development of controversial “fracking” techniques over the past decade has echoes of the oil rush that transformed Texas a century ago. The Financial Times reports that just one company, BHP Billiton, is investing as much as $79 billion in US shale gas fields – over three times the amount invested in all US renewables in a year. This will secure cheap energy in the short term, but it is a finite resource and ultimately a dead end. In due course we could face the interesting prospect of the US turning to China to acquire its wind turbine technology.

Nuclear elephant

Investment in renewable energy is vital for a prosperous, low-carbon society. However, decision-makers cannot ignore the elephant in the room – nuclear power. The enormous cost of implementing 100 per cent renewable power is not realistic for most nations, so nuclear offers our best chance of making a low-carbon society achievable and affordable. Yet the incident at Fukushima earlier this year has reinforced some long-standing concerns.

Unlike road use or smoking, nuclear power stirs anxieties in many of us that are out of proportion with its true risks. This is not to be complacent about the potential danger of a nuclear plant, but it is striking that nuclear power has killed fewer than 5000 people in its entire history. Compare that with coal mining, which in just one year and in one country – China in 2006 – killed 4700.

Germany’s decision to phase out all nuclear power as a result of Fukushima will most likely have unintended consequences. The Association of German Engineers has estimated that it will cost €53 billion every year in Germany to close down its nuclear generation and switch to 100 per cent renewable energy. It will be interesting to see how public opinion, now so clearly against nuclear power, responds as the economic costs become apparent.

Any technological revolution requires two crucial ingredients – engineers to design, develop and manufacture the technology, and politicians to help create the legislative, behavioural and societal environment that allows change to happen. Today’s engineers have fulfilled their side of the bargain. It is time for our politicians to show their mettle.

Colin Brown is director of engineering at the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Scientists Start Effort to Determine What Weather Events Result from Climate Change

Heavy weather : Nature : Nature Publishing Group.

Nature
477,
131–132
(08 September 2011)
doi:10.1038/477131b
Published online
07 September 2011

Severe storms make the public think of climate change. Scientists must work to evaluate the link.

Extreme weather makes news, as was demonstrated last month by the blanket coverage of the devastation caused to the east coast of the United States by Hurricane Irene. But was the prominence of the story a feature of modern media hype in a rolling-news world? Hardly. According to a New York Times analysis, when Hurricane Andrew made landfall in Florida in 1992 and killed 22 people, it received twice the traditional news coverage that Irene did.

What is new is that coverage of extreme weather is now often accompanied by a question: is this a consequence of climate change? This question was raised frequently after Hurricane Katrina smashed through New Orleans in 2005. Most climate scientists responded equivocally, as scientists do: climate is not weather, and although all extreme weather events are now subject to human influence, global warming driven by greenhouse gases cannot be said to ’cause’ any specific manifestation of weather in a simple deterministic sense.

“Most people associate the climate with the weather that they experience, even if they aren’t supposed to.”

Is that response enough? The question, after all, seems fair, given the dire warnings of worsening weather that are offered to the public as reasons to care about global warming. It may irritate some scientists, but in fact the question can be seen as a vindication of their efforts to spread the message that the climate problem is a clear and present danger. Most people associate the climate with the weather that they experience, even if they aren’t supposed to. And they are right to wonder how and why that experience can, on occasion, leave their homes in pieces.

Given the growing interest, it is a good sign that scientists plan to launch a coordinated effort to quickly and routinely assess the extent to which extreme weather events should be attributed to climate change (see page 148). The ambitious idea is in the early stages, and its feasibility is yet to be demonstrated. It will require funding, access to climate data from around the world and considerable computer time. Funding agencies and climate centres must provide the necessary support.

As operational climate-attribution systems develop, it is important that they do not remain purely an academic exercise. To reach out to the public, attribution scientists could do worse than to ally themselves with meteorologists — including commercial providers of weather forecasts — to explain how climate change affects the risk of extreme weather. There is, after all, a lot of scope for the makers and presenters of daily weather reports to inform their listeners and viewers more solidly about consequences of climate change than they have chosen to do in the past.

Climate scientists, too, have an obligation to provide more coherent answers to queries (or doubts) as to how global warming influences our weather. An attribution system with ample resources, running in near real time, could prevent scientists’ answers to those questions seeming either too cautious or too alarmist and speculative. It could also prevent the public from getting the (false) impression that climate research is confined to the virtual world of climate models and has little to offer when it comes to current reality, or that climate science is a quasi-experimental field that yields scary but mostly unverifiable results. The service’s broad integration into people’s daily lives, through the old and new mass media, would be a good way to seed greater acceptance of climate scientists’ actual services to society and the problem of climate change.

There are constraints here. Attribution is only as good as the models and statistics that power it — and the various existing climate models project different trends in future extremes in some regions. There is a lack, or poor availability, of long-term observational records, and of climate data with high spatial and temporal resolution. And however it develops, climate attribution will remain rooted in probabilities. Not even the most thorough study can work out with absolute confidence the exact fingerprint of global warming in a given weather event.

What about Irene, then? A concerted attribution effort should help to resolve, in the not-so-distant future, the ongoing controversy over the effect of climate change on hurricane formation. Whatever the result, if the exercise can prevent people from building houses along the most vulnerable coastlines, it will be worth the effort.

US science cuts pay for war – and we all suffer

US science cuts pay for war – and we all suffer – opinion – 26 July 2011 – New Scientist.

Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the horrendous cost of pursuing the “war on terror” may give his followers cause for celebration

WHEN Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this year, many commentators saw it as a turning point in the war on terror. However, a host of measures suggest that bin Laden’s goal – to strike a long-lasting blow to the system of government of the US and to the health and well-being of its citizens – may have been achieved.

Last month, the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, released a report entitled “Costs of War“, which estimates the cumulative cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be up to $4 trillion.

What has this vast amount of money achieved? Both Iraq and Afghanistan continue to rank low in political freedom, warlords continue to control much of Afghanistan, and gender and ethnic segregation in Iraq are now worse than they were before 2001.

At the same time, the US economy is in trouble. Unless the country’s debt ceiling is raised by 2 August, the US will default on several of its major financial commitments. Many of the key programmes that contribute to the quality of life of most Americans are under threat.

From a scientific perspective, the appropriations bills now before Congress suggest that the US’s dire fiscal straits will inflict long-term damage to its technical leadership.

The House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space and Technology has recommended cancelling the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the fabulously successful Hubble Space Telescope, because of a cost overrun of $1.6 billion. If this project is cancelled, once Hubble reaches the end of its working life in 2014 we will lose our chance to witness the first moment in cosmic history when the sky lit up with stars, less than a billion years after the big bang.

Beyond the direct loss to science, we need to ask what the next generation of bright minds will lose. The remarkable images captured by Hubble have inspired a generation of people to dream about the universe and its myriad possibilities, and have doubtless inspired youngsters to consider a career in science.

For those of a more practical bent, funding for energy efficiency and renewables could be cut by a whopping 27.3 per cent. It is hard to imagine an applied research programme that is more relevant and important to the health and security of our society.

Cutting that funding is likely to have economic consequences too. In this highly competitive world, the country that leads the research and development in these areas will gain a huge advantage. One only has to consider the fraction of the US’s gross domestic product that resulted from R&D a generation or two ago into technologies ranging from the transistor to the microchip.

If, as a consequence of a decade of unprecedented military spending, we are prepared to give up our grandest intellectual dreams while at the same time cutting efforts to solve the chief technological challenges we face, have we not lost far more than we may have we won?

Lawrence Krauss is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University in Tempe. His most recent book, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s life in science was published in March (W. W. Norton & Co)

9 Out of 10 Climate-Change-Denying Scientists Have Ties to Exxon

Nine Out of Ten Climate Denying Scientists Have Ties to Exxon Mobil Money – Environment – GOOD.

If you spend any time at all browsing comments on articles about climate change (and bless you if you’ve managed to avoid it), you’ve likely read the same handful of long-debunked arguments against the reality of anthropogenic global warming (or “man-made” global warming). Recently, you’ve also almost definitely seen links to this website—”900+ Peer-Reviewed Papers Supporting Skepticism of “Man-Made” Global Warming (AGW) Alarm”—created by the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The problem is, of the top ten contributors of articles to that list, nine are financially linked to Exxon Mobil. Carbon Brief, which examined the list in detail, explains:

Once you crunch the numbers, however, you find a good proportion of this new list is made up of a small network of individuals who co-author papers and share funding ties to the oil industry. There are numerous other names on the list with links to oil-industry funded climate sceptic think-tanks, including more from the International Policy Network (IPN) and the Marshall Institute.

Compiling these lists is dramatically different to the process of producing IPCC reports, which reference thousands of scientific papers. The reports are thoroughly reviewed to make sure that the scientific work included is relevant and diverse.

It’s well worth reading the rest of the Carbon Brief analysis. According to the GWPF, the purpose of the post is to “provide a resource for peer-reviewed papers that support skepticism of AGW or AGW Alarm and to prove that these papers exist contrary to widely held beliefs.” It’s true that supporters of real climate science too often trot out the “peer-review” argument. While an essential cornerstone of science, peer-review “is not foolproof,” as the founders of Real Climate explained a long while back.

Unfortunately, exposes like this one don’t seem to matter much. Nearly four years ago, Newsweek ran a bombshell of a feature (the image above is from the issue’s cover) that broke down exactly how fossil fuel companies—and specifically Exxon Mobil—were funding the climate denial machine. A couple years ago, Climate Cover Up gave a much deeper, book-length look at exactly that. Last year, Naomi Oreskes and and Erik Conway released Merchants of Doubt, that looks at how the very same tactics (and in some cases, the very same scientists) are being used in the anti-climate science field now as were used by those who denied the health risks of cigarettes half a century ago.

Anyone paying close attention knows that Exxon Mobil and others who profit from selling fossil fuels are underwriting “science” that calls the reality of climate change into question. But the money shapes the messaging that pollutes the minds of those who aren’t paying quite as close attention.

House Science Panel Spars With Lubchenco Over Climate Service

House Science Panel Spars With Lubchenco Over Climate Service – ScienceInsider.

The science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives this week criticized steps that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has taken to create a National Climate Service, telling NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco that she is ignoring congressional language intended to block its implementation. The dispute is part of a larger battle between the Obama Administration and House Republicans over how to address climate change.

In February 2010, NOAA announced its intention to create a parallel entity to its National Weather Service that would issue long range climate forecasts about future weather conditions such as severe storms, floods, and droughts. The proposed climate service would enable NOAA to answer the increased number of requests for climate change data, Lubchenco told the committee, and would strengthen science across the agency by integrating three data centers, two laboratories, and the Climate Prediction Center. Veteran NOAA climatologist Thomas Karl, director of one of the data centers, serves as transition director, and Lubchenco has hired six new regional climate service directors.

Those actions don’t sit well with the Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which on Wednesday held an oversight hearing on the activity, for which NOAA has requested $346 million in 2012. “My objection to this proposal has been the concern that the focus to create a climate service will severely harm vital research at NOAA by transferring resources away from fundamental science to mission-oriented research and service-driven products,” said the chair of the committee, Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX). “More than half the resources of NOAA’s research enterprise would be moved into a climate service. This proposal appears to contradict the notion that fundamental research must not be driven by operational demands.”

One big sticking point for legislators is language in this spring’s final 2011 spending bill that averted a government shutdown, which states that “none of the funds made available by this division may be used to implement, establish, or create a NOAA Climate Service.” Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said the appointment of Karl and the hiring of six regional directors appear to have ignored those instructions. He quipped that NOAA was “living in climate sin,” a reference to Karl’s statement during an interview in December 2010 with ClimateWire that “we’ve moved in, … we’re waiting for the marriage certificate, but we’re acting like we have a climate service.”

Lubchenco defended her actions, saying that her appointments were “smart” and merely “good planning.” She said their salaries are drawn from “existing funds” and that legislation dating back to the National Climate Program Act of 1978 describes providing climate services as part of NOAA’s mission. She responded to Hall’s concerns that the climate service would take away from NOAA’s other activities by saying, “It’s good government to reorganize periodically.” She also referred to its economic potential, citing the $1 billion industry that has emerged around the National Weather Service.

Speaking with ScienceInsider after the hearing, she made it clear that NOAA intends to push ahead. “This is an idea whose time has come.”

World's oceans move into 'extinction phase'

World’s oceans move into ‘extinction phase’ – Telegraph.

Maybe a dupe of something V posted….

A preliminary report from an international panel of marine experts said that the condition of the world’s seas was worsening more quickly than had been predicted.

The scientists, gathered for a workshop at Oxford University, warned that entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs, could be lost in a generation.

Already fish stocks are collapsing, leading to a risk of rising food prices and even starvation in some parts of the world.

The experts blamed the increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for pushing up ocean temperatures, boosting algae so there is less oxygen and increasing acidity of the water.

The conditions are similar to every previous mass extinction event in the Earth’s history.

Dr Alex Rogers, scientific director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) which convened the panel with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said the next generation would suffer if species are allowed to go extinct.

“As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the ocean the implications became far worse than we had individually realised,” he said.

“This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level.

“We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime and, worse, our children’s and generations beyond that.”

The marine scientists called for a range of urgent measures to cut carbon emissions, reduce over-fishing, shut unsustainable fisheries, create protected areas in the seas and cut pollution.

Higher density means world forests are capturing more carbon

Higher density means world forests are capturing more carbon.

 

ScienceDaily (June 6, 2011) — Forests in many regions are becoming larger carbon sinks thanks to higher density, U.S. and European researchers say in a new report.

In Europe and North America, increased density significantly raised carbon storage despite little or no expansion of forest area, according to the study, led by Aapo Rautiainen of the University of Helsinki, Finland, and published in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE.

Even in the South American nations studied, more density helped maintain regional carbon levels in the face of deforestation.

The researchers analyzed information from 68 nations, which together account for 72 percent of the world’s forested land and 68 percent of reported carbon mass. They conclude that managing forests for timber growth and density offers a way to increase stored carbon, even with little or no expansion of forest area.

“In 2004 emissions and removals of carbon dioxide from land use, land-use change and forestry comprised about one fifth of total emissions. Tempering the fifth by slowing or reversing the loss of carbon in forests would be a worthwhile mitigation. The great role of density means that not only conservation of forest area but also managing denser, healthier forests can mitigate carbon emission,” says Rautiainen.

Co-author Paul E. Waggoner, a forestry expert with Connecticut’s Agricultural Experiment Station, says remote sensing by satellites of the world’s forest area brings access to remote places and a uniform method. “However, to speak of carbon, we must look beyond measurements of area and apply forestry methods traditionally used to measure timber volumes.”

“Forests are like cities — they can grow both by spreading and by becoming denser,” says co-author Iddo Wernick of The Rockefeller University’s Program for the Human Environment.

The authors say most regions and almost all temperate nations have stopped losing forest and the study’s findings constitute a new signal of what co-author Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller calls “The Great Reversal” under way in global forests after centuries of loss and decline. “Opportunities to absorb carbon and restore the world’s forests can come through increasing density or area or both.”

To examine how changing forest area and density affect timber volume and carbon, the study team first focused on the United States, where the U.S. Forest Service has conducted a continuing inventory of forest area, timberland area and growing stock since 1953.

They found that while U.S. timberland area grew only 1 percent between 1953 and 2007, the combined national volume of growing stock increased by an impressive 51 percent. National forest density increased substantially.

For an international perspective, the research team examined the 2010 Global Forest Resources Assessment compiled by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which provides consistent figures for the years 1990 to 2010.

The data reveal uncorrelated changes of forest area and density. Countries in Africa and South America, which lost about 10 percent of their forest area over the two decades, lost somewhat less carbon, indicating a small rise in forest density.

In Asia during the second decade of the study period, density rose in 10 of the region’s 21 countries. Indonesia’s major loss of density and sequestered carbon, however, offset any gain in carbon storage in other Asian nations.

Europe, like the U.S., demonstrated substantial density gains, adding carbon well in excess of the estimated carbon absorbed by the larger forested area.

Says study co-author Pekka Kauppi, of the University of Helsinki, Finland, “With so much bad news available on World Environment Day, we are pleased to report that, of 68 nations studied, forest area is expanding in 45 and density is also increasing in 45. Changing area and density combined had a positive impact on the carbon stock in 51 countries.”

Geoengineering: Scientists Debate Risks Of Sun-Blocking And Other Climate Tweaks To Fight Warming

Geoengineering: Scientists Debate Risks Of Sun-Blocking And Other Climate Tweaks To Fight Warming.

CHICHELEY, England — To the quiet green solitude of an English country estate they retreated, to think the unthinkable.

Scientists of earth, sea and sky, scholars of law, politics and philosophy: In three intense days cloistered behind Chicheley Hall’s old brick walls, four dozen thinkers pondered the planet’s fate as it grows warmer, weighed the idea of reflecting the sun to cool the atmosphere and debated the question of who would make the decision to interfere with nature to try to save the planet.

The unknown risks of “geoengineering” – in this case, tweaking Earth’s climate by dimming the skies – left many uneasy.

“If we could experiment with the atmosphere and literally play God, it’s very tempting to a scientist,” said Kenyan earth scientist Richard Odingo. “But I worry.”

Arrayed against that worry is the worry that global warming – in 20 years? 50 years? – may abruptly upend the world we know, by melting much of Greenland into the sea, by shifting India’s life-giving monsoon, by killing off marine life.

If climate engineering research isn’t done now, climatologists say, the world will face grim choices in an emergency. “If we don’t understand the implications and we reach a crisis point and deploy geoengineering with only a modicum of information, we really will be playing Russian roulette,” said Steven Hamburg, a U.S. Environmental Defense Fund scientist.

The question’s urgency has grown as nations have failed, in years of talks, to agree on a binding long-term deal to rein in their carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N.-sponsored science network, foresees temperatures rising as much as 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, swelling the seas and disrupting the climate patterns that nurtured human civilization.

Science committees of the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress urged their governments last year to look at immediately undertaking climate engineering research – to have a “Plan B” ready, as the British panel put it, in case the diplomatic logjam persists.

Britain’s national science academy, the Royal Society, subsequently organized the Chicheley Hall conference with Hamburg’s EDF and the association of developing-world science academies. From six continents, they invited a blue-ribbon cross-section of atmospheric physicists, oceanographers, geochemists, environmentalists, international lawyers, psychologists, policy experts and others, to discuss how the world should oversee such unprecedented – and unsettling – research.

An Associated Press reporter was invited to sit in on their discussions, generally off the record, as they met in large and small groups in plush wood-paneled rooms, in conference halls, or outdoors among the manicured trees and formal gardens of this 300-year-old Royal Society property 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of London, a secluded spot where Britain’s Special Operations Executive trained for secret missions in World War II.

Provoking and parrying each other over questions never before raised in human history, the conferees were sensitive to how the outside world might react.

“There’s the `slippery slope’ view that as soon as you start to do this research, you say it’s OK to think about things you shouldn’t be thinking about,” said Steve Rayner, co-director of Oxford University’s geoengineering program. Many geoengineering techniques they have thought about look either impractical or ineffective.

Painting rooftops white to reflect the sun’s heat is a feeble gesture. Blanketing deserts with a reflective material is logistically challenging and a likely environmental threat. Launching giant mirrors into space orbit is exorbitantly expensive.

On the other hand, fertilizing the ocean with iron to grow CO2-eating plankton has shown some workability, and Massachusetts’ prestigious Woods Hole research center is planning the biggest such experiment. Marine clouds are another route: Scientists at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado are designing a test of brightening ocean clouds with sea-salt particles to reflect the sun.

Those techniques are necessarily limited in scale, however, and unable to alter planet-wide warming. Only one idea has emerged with that potential.

“By most accounts, the leading contender is stratospheric aerosol particles,” said climatologist John Shepherd of Britain’s Southampton University.

The particles would be sun-reflecting sulfates spewed into the lower stratosphere from aircraft, balloons or other devices – much like the sulfur dioxide emitted by the eruption of the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo in 1991, estimated to have cooled the world by 0.5 degrees C (0.9 degrees F) for a year or so.

Engineers from the University of Bristol, England, plan to test the feasibility of feeding sulfates into the atmosphere via a kilometers-long (miles-long) hose attached to a tethered balloon.

Shepherd and others stressed that any sun-blocking “SRM” technique – for solar radiation management – would have to be accompanied by sharp reductions in carbon dioxide emissions on the ground and some form of carbon dioxide removal, preferably via a chemical-mechanical process not yet perfected, to suck the gas out of the air and neutralize it.

Otherwise, they point out, the stratospheric sulfate layer would have to be built up indefinitely, to counter the growing greenhouse effect of accumulating carbon dioxide. And if that SRM operation shut down for any reason, temperatures on Earth would shoot upward.

The technique has other downsides: The sulfates would likely damage the ozone layer shielding Earth from damaging ultraviolet rays; they don’t stop atmospheric carbon dioxide from acidifying the oceans; and sudden cooling of the Earth would itself alter climate patterns in unknown ways.

“These scenarios create winners and losers,” said Shepherd, lead author of a pivotal 2009 Royal Society study of geoengineering. “Who is going to decide?”

Many here worried that someone, some group, some government would decide on its own to conduct large-scale atmospheric experiments, raising global concerns – and resentment if it’s the U.S. that acts, since it has done the least among industrial nations to cut greenhouse emissions. They fear some in America might push for going straight to “Plan B,” rather than doing the hard work of emissions reductions.

In addition, “one of the challenges is identifying intentions, one of which could be offensive military use,” said Indian development specialist Arunabha Ghosh.

Experts point out, for example, that cloud experimentation or localized solar “dimming” could – intentionally or unintentionally – cause droughts or floods in neighboring areas, arousing suspicions and international disputes.

“In some plausible but unfortunate future you could have shooting wars between your country and mine over proposals on what to do on climate change,’ said the University of Michigan’s Ted Parson, an environmental policy expert.

The conferees worried, too, that a “geoengineering industrial complex” might emerge, pushing to profit from deployment of its technology. And Australian economist-ethicist Clive Hamilton saw other go-it-alone threats – “cowboys” and “scientific heroes.”

“I’m queasy about some billionaire with a messiah complex having a major role in geoengineering research,” Hamilton said.

All discussions led to the central theme of how to oversee research.

Many environmentalists categorically oppose intentional fiddling with Earth’s atmosphere, or at least insist that such important decisions rest in the hands of the U.N., since every nation on Earth has a stake in the skies above.

But at the meeting in March, Chicheley Hall experts largely assumed that a coalition of scientifically capable nations, led by the U.S. and Britain, would arise to organize “sunshade” or other engineering research, perhaps inviting China, India, Brazil and others to join in a G20-style “club” of major powers.

Then, the conferees said, an independent panel of experts would have to be formed to review the risks of proposed experiments, and give go-aheads – for research, not deployment, which would be a step awaiting fateful debates down the road.

Like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, John Shepherd is a fellow of the venerable Royal Society, but one facing a world those scientific pioneers could not have imagined.

“I am not enthusiastic about these ideas,” Shepherd told his Chicheley Hall colleagues. But like many here he felt the world has no choice but to investigate. “You would have a risk-risk calculation to make.”

Some are also making a political calculation.

If research shows the stratospheric pollutants would reverse global warming, unhappy people “would realize the alternative to reducing emissions is blocking out the sun,” Hamilton observed. “We might never see blue sky again.”

If, on the other hand, the results are negative, or the risks too high, and global warming’s impact becomes increasingly obvious, people will see “you have no Plan B,” said EDF’s Hamburg – no alternative to slashing use of fossil fuels.

Either way, popular support should grow for cutting emissions.

At least that’s the hope. But hope wasn’t the order of the day in Chicheley Hall as Shepherd wrapped up his briefing and a troubled Odingo silenced the room.

“We have a lot of thinking to do,” the Kenyan told the others. “I don’t know how many of us can sleep well tonight.”

Plot thickens? Dead birds found in Sweden, Kentucky

Plot thickens? Dead birds found in Sweden, Kentucky – U.S. news – Environment – msnbc.com.

It isn’t easy being a bird.

First, New Year’s Eve fireworks were blamed in central Arkansas for making thousands of blackbirds confused, crashing into homes, cars and each other. Then 300 miles to the south in Louisiana, power lines likely killed about 450 birds, littering a highway near Baton Rouge.

On Wednesday, Kentucky wildlife officials said several hundred grackles, red wing blackbirds, robins and starlings were found dead last week in the western part of the state.

It’s almost certainly a coincidence the events happened within days of each other, Louisiana’s state wildlife veterinarian Jim LaCour said Tuesday. “I haven’t found anything to link the two at this point.”

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To add to the mystery, 50-100 jackdaws, a bird species in the crow family, fell dead in central Sweden late Tuesday night, English-language Swedish news website The Local reported Wednesday.

“We do not know what the cause is,” Skovde police commander Tomas Ahlgren said. The birds fell in the city of Falkoping, which is southeast of Skovde.

Mass bird deaths aren’t uncommon. The U.S. Geological Service’s website listed about 90 mass deaths of birds and other wildlife from June through Dec. 12.

There were five deaths of at least 1,000 birds, with the largest near Houston, Minnesota, where parasite infestations killed about 4,000 water birds between Sept. 6 and Nov. 26.

Mystery remains
In Louisiana, the birds died sometime late Sunday or early Monday in the rural Pointe Coupee Parish community of Labarre, about 30 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.

The birds — a mixed flock of red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, grackles and starlings — may have hit a power line or vehicles in the dark, LaCour said. Two dozen of them had head, neck, beak or back injuries.

Video: Second deluge of dead birds falls in Southeast (on this page)

About 50 dead birds were near a power line 30 or 40 feet from Louisiana Highway 1. About a quarter-mile away, a second group of 400 or more stretched from the power line and across the highway, he said.

Dan Cristol, a biology professor and co-founder of the Institute for Integrative Bird Behavior Studies at the College of William & Mary, said the Louisiana birds may have been ill or startled from their roost, then hit the power line.

“They don’t hit a power line for no reason,” he said.

In Beebe, New Year’s revelers spent the holiday weekend cleaning up dead red-winged blackbirds.

Some speculated that bad weather was to blame. Others said one confused bird could have led the group in a fatal plunge. A few spooked schoolkids guessed the birds committed mass suicide.

Video: Ark. birds died in mid-air, says official (on this page)

Officials acknowledged, though, they may never know exactly what caused the large number of deaths.

Cristol was skeptical of the fireworks theory, unless “somebody blew something into the roost, literally blowing the birds into the sky.”

Wildlife officials in both Arkansas and Louisiana sent carcasses to researchers at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. and the University of Georgia.

LaCour said he didn’t expect results for at least two or three weeks.

E. coli?
In 1999, several thousand grackles fell from the sky and staggered about before dying in north Louisiana. It took five months to get the diagnosis: an E. coli infection of the air sacs in their skulls.

“I hope things go faster than that,” said Paul Slota, branch chief for the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. He said necropsies of the Arkansas birds began Tuesday afternoon.

“If it isn’t strictly trauma, it may take more time to get results back,” he said. “When nothing shows up, you run the tests longer and let it incubate longer.”

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is also trying to determine what caused the deaths of up to 100,000 fish over a 20-mile stretch of the Arkansas River near a dam in Ozark, 125 miles west of Beebe. The fish were discovered on Dec. 30.

Video: Massive fish kill deepens dead bird mystery (on this page)

The commission expects results on the fish tests in probably a month. Disease may be the culprit, since almost all the fish were one species — bottom-feeding drum, the commission said.

Keith Stephens, a commission spokesman, said the events do not appear to be related. Both that section of the river and the air at the site of the bird deaths were tested for toxins, Stephens said.

As for the dead birds in Sweden, a county veterinarian would not speculate on the cause of their death, The Local reported. He was traveling to the site Wednesday to investigate.

“We will work quietly and methodically,” he said.

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources spokesman Mark Marraccini says someone called police about the discovery in Kentucky, and they alerted state officials.

Marraccini says tests performed on the birds ruled out diseases or poisons. He said the deaths could have been caused by weather or another natural event.

How Much Is Left? The Limits of Earth's Resources

If the 20th century was an expansive era seemingly without boundaries—a time of jet planes, space travel and the Internet—the early years of the 21st have showed us the limits of our small world. Regional blackouts remind us that the flow of energy we used to take for granted may be in tight supply. The once mighty Colorado River, tapped by thirsty metropolises of the desert West, no longer reaches the ocean. Oil is so hard to find that new wells extend many kilometers underneath the seafloor. The boundless atmosphere is now reeling from two centuries’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions. Even life itself seems to be running out, as biologists warn that we are in the midst of a global extinction event comparable to the last throes of the dinosaurs.

The constraints on our resources and environment—compounded by the rise of the middle class in nations such as China and India—will shape the rest of this century and beyond. Here is a visual accounting of what we have left to work with, a map of our resources plotted against time.

(rest of article behind Paywall)

via How Much Is Left? The Limits of Earth’s Resources: Scientific American.