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Top 10 Doomsday Prophecies

HowStuffWorks “Top 10 Doomsday Prophecies”.

It seems like every few years, someone comes out with a new doomsday prophecy. The latest apocalyptic craze places Earth’s final day on Dec. 21, 2012 — the end of the Great Cycle in the Mayan calendar. But whether the supposed agent of doom is aliens, asteroids, floods or earthquakes, the outcome is always the same — the Earth manages to endure. Such predictions are nothing new. After Jesus’ rumored ascension to heaven in the first century A.D., early Christians believed he would soon return, bringing an end to life as they knew it, as described in Mark 13:24-26: “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. And they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.”

Since then, there has been no shortage of apocalyptic forecasts. But why? Why do people continue to predict the end of the world, and why do others insist on believing them? Perhaps some zealots feel the need to justify their preconceived worldviews through revelations about the latest celestial event or natural disaster. And maybe those who trust such doomsayers are simply hopeful for an escape from a world that seems cruel or chaotic. Whatever the case, you’re sure to enjoy our list of 10 doomsday prophecies.

10: The Seekers, Dec. 24, 1955

In December 1954, a headline in the Chicago Tribune read, “Doctor Warns of Disasters in World Tuesday — Worst to Come in 1955 He Declares.” The doctor, Charles Laughead, was a follower of Dorothy Martin, a 54-year-old housewife from Oak Park, Ill. Martin believed that aliens from the planet Clarion had beamed down messages informing her that a massive flood would soon destroy the planet. Her wild prophecies attracted a small group of followers known as the “Seekers,” many of whom had quit their jobs and sold their belongings in anticipation of the end. They gathered at Martin’s home on Christmas Eve, 1955, singing Christmas carols while they waited to be saved by the aliens in their flying saucers. As the night wore on, Martin’s followers became increasingly impatient. Finally, at 4:45 a.m. on Christmas Day, Martin announced that God had been so impressed by their actions that he would no longer destroy the Earth.

This story has a side note that is almost as interesting as the prophecy itself. A small group of psychologists and students organized by University of Minnesota social psychologist Leon Festinger infiltrated the Seekers in an effort to study and better understand apocalyptic cults. Festinger revealed his findings in the 1956 book, “When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World.” This work was an early exploration of the psychologist’s now-famous theory of “cognitive dissonance,” a term that refers to the human tendency to rationalize when one’s thoughts and actions are in disagreement.

9: Mayan Calendar, 2012

The 2009 movie, “2012,” is a 158-minute showcase of apocalyptic eye candy, with enough death and destruction to bring up the question, “What’s so bad about 2012?” It depends on who you ask. The fear is based on the way some people interpret the Mayan Long Count calendar, which is divided into Great Cycles lasting approximately 5,125 years. One of these cycles ends on Dec. 21, 2012, giving some doomsdayers the ammunition they need to declare the impending apocalypse. They also have numerous theories about how exactly the world will end. Some claim that a mysterious planet known as Nibiru, Planet X or Eris, or a large meteor, will collide with Earth. Another popular theory is that the Earth’s magnetic poles will reverse, causing the planet’s rotation to reverse as well.

Scientists have already dismissed these theories as laughable. They contend that if a celestial body were on a crash course with Earth, they would have already noticed it. And while astronomers recognize that the magnetic poles do reverse every 400,000 years or so, they insist that this event does not affect the Earth’s rotation and will not harm life on Earth. Perhaps the most interesting part of this whole apocalyptic fad is that the Mayans themselves don’t expect that the world will end in 2012, rather, they expect it to be a time of great celebration and luck when the planet completes the current Great Cycle.

8: Harold Camping, May 21, 2011

The Bible is pretty clear about doomsday prophecies: “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father,” reads Mark 13:32. But that hasn’t stopped some believers from trying to make predictions anyway. One such man is Harold Camping, a retired engineer who believes that the Bible is a numerical code book that can be deciphered to reveal clues about the end times. Camping, the founder of the independent ministry Family Radio International first predicted that the world would end in September 1994. But when the apocalypse failed to materialize, he attributed the error to incomplete research.

Camping recently gained additional attention for his latest doomsday prediction: May 21, 2011. In an interview with New York Magazine on May 11, 2011, the 89-year-old was brimming with confidence, saying, “God has given sooo much information in the Bible about this, and so many proofs, and so many signs, that we know it is absolutely going to happen without any question at all.” Camping was so certain that his ministry spent millions of dollars plastering the Judgement Day message on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 recreational vehicles as a warning to the general public. When May 21 came and went without interruption, Camping did what any good doomsayer would — he blamed the mistake on a mathematical error and moved the date back to October 21.

7: William Miller, 1843-1844

William Miller and the Millerites may sound like a good name for a 1960s pop act, but in the 1840s, they were a fairly successful doomsday cult. That is, if you measure success by the number of followers, not the eventual occurrence of the predicted apocalypse.

Miller was a product of the Second Great Awakening, a period of intense religious revival from which several modern denominations were born, including the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists. A farmer-turned-preacher, Miller crested this wave of spiritual fervor with his prediction that Jesus would return to Earth in March 1843. He derived his prophecy from a complex system of mathematical calculations and promoted it by giving sermons and passing out pamphlets during the 1830s and early 1840s. Scholars estimate that of the some 1 million people who heard his message, about 100,000 actually chose to follow him. As March 1843 neared, many of these believers sold all of their possessions, donned white robes, and climbed to the tops of mountains and hills to await their rapture into heaven. When nothing happened, Miller moved the date to October 1844, which also proved to be a bust, leading some to label the non-event “The Great Disappointment.” Most of the preacher’s followers then abandoned him, and some went on to form the Adventist Church.

6: Halley’s Comet, May 1910

A unique astronomical event is a surefire way to inspire a doomsday prophecy. Enter Halley’s Comet, a ball of icy dust that is visible from Earth every 76 years. When this celestial body was scheduled to make a pass in 1910, the claims of impassioned astronomers at Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory inspired fear in a surprising number of people. They insisted that the comet’s tail was made of poisonous cyanogen gas, and when Earth passed through it on May 18, the toxic fumes would cause widespread death. Some opportunists tried to profit from the hysteria, selling “comet pills,” masks and bottled oxygen intended to help people survive the noxious Armageddon.

As the deadly date approached, some concerned citizens stuffed towels under their doors and covered their keyholes with paper to protect themselves from the gas cloud. Others refused to go to work, choosing instead to stay at home with their families or seek refuge in their churches. Conversely, those not taken by the apocalyptic predictions watched the night pass without incident at rooftop “comet parties” held across the United States.watch full Legend 2015 film online

5: Large Hadron Collider, 2009-2012

To anyone without a particle physics degree, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) may seem like a scary piece of advanced machinery. The massive particle accelerator’s circular tunnel, located just outside of Geneva, Switzerland, measures 17 miles (28 kilometers) in total circumference. It can send hydrogen protons crashing in to one another nearly of the speed of light, allowing scientists to discover new elements and particles that may shed light on the creation of the universe. That is, if everything goes as planned.

Some theorists suggest that the massive energies created during such collisions could potentially form black holes capable of engulfing the entire planet. These fears came to a head in March 2008 when Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court to stop the LHC from beginning operation until scientists produced a safety report and environmental assessment. While most scholars acknowledge the possibility of black holes, they dismiss the danger, insisting that any such anomaly would only last a matter of seconds — hardly long enough to swallow the earth. Despite the controversy, researchers fired up the LHC in 2009 and have accomplished some remarkable feats, including the creation of a soupy mass of matter thought to resemble the conditions of the universe just after the Big Bang. By the end of 2010, no black holes had been detected in the LHC but according to doomsayers, that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. Something could always happen before scientists conclude the project in 2012.

4: Shoko Asahara, 1997-2000

Why wait for the apocalypse if you can make it happen yourself? This was the mindset of the Japanese doomsday prophet Shoko Asahara. Born Chizuo Matsumoto in 1955, Asahara was completely blind in one eye and partially sightless in the other. His rise as a cult leader began after he was arrested in 1982 for selling fake cures from his traditional Chinese apothecary business. The would-be prophet was reportedly crushed by the incident, which left him embarrassed and bankrupt.

In 1984, Asahara opened a yoga studio, boasting that he had achieved satori, a Japanese term for enlightenment, and claiming that he could levitate. He established the Aum Shinrikyo religion in 1987, a name derived from a sacred Hindu symbol and a Japanese word that translates as “supreme truth.” He soon gained more than 10,000 followers in Japan and 30,000 to 40,000 in Russia, and even produced several candidates to run in the 1990 Japanese legislative elections [source: Onishi]. As Asahara’s success increased, his behavior became increasingly peculiar. He began encouraging his followers to drink his bathwater and blood, and claimed that he could save them from the apocalypse, which he believed would occur after a poison gas attack sometime between 1997 and 2000. Perhaps in an effort to speed along this process, Aum members boarded five trains on March 20, 1995, releasing toxic sarin into three subway lines. The attack killed 12 people and injured another 5,500 [source: Onishi]. Asahara was soon arrested by Japanese authorities and sentenced to death in February 2004.

3: Heaven’s Gate, 1997

Marshall Applewhite, with his piercing, wide-eyed stare, looks like a man who was destined to lead a doomsday sect. He was the leader of Heaven’s Gate, a cult founded in Texas during the early 1970s. The group soon moved to the American southwest where Applewhite began to preach about a spaceship that would spare true believers from the apocalypse and take them to the heavenly “Level Above Human.” After two decades proselytizing in the desert, Heaven’s Gate moved to California where they started a Web consulting business called “Higher Source” to fund their activities. There they lived in a sprawling Spanish-style house and reportedly watched episodes of “X-Files” and “Star Trek” religiously.

Heaven’s Gate took a grim turn in 1997, the year that the comet Hale-Bopp shined brightly in the night sky. It all started on Nov. 14, 1996, when Applewhite and his followers were listening to Art Bell’s “Coast to Coast,” a radio show dedicated to UFO topics. During the program, an amateur astronomer called in and claimed to have photographed a mysterious object hiding in Hale-Bopp’s tail. This was all the evidence that Applewhite needed to confirm his spaceship prophecy from the 1970s. He and his group soon began preparations to board the UFO through the execution of a mass suicide. When police entered the California compound on March 26, 1997, they found 39 bodies dressed in black tunics with a cloth draped over their heads. They had killed themselves with a cocktail of vodka and barbiturates, or by smothering themselves with plastic bags.

2: Y2K, 2000

The year 2000 sparked a number of doomsday scares, but none was more prominent than the supposed Y2K computer glitch. The problem was this: When computer codes were first written, dates were abbreviated to two digits in order to save memory; for example, “1998” would simply be written as “98.” This system worked just fine until 2000, when the date code “00” threatened to cause inaccurate calculations. A 1998 feature story from Microsoft offers an excellent example to illustrate the perceived problem:

“For example, say you buy a new refrigerator in 1999 with a credit card. The bank will run into problems in 2000 when it tries to calculate the interest owed and subtracts the transaction date (99) from the current date (00). The computer is going to come up with the number -99” [source: Crawford].

Some people believed that this glitch would cause apocalyptic consequences. According to these gloomy predictions, at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, airplanes would drop from the sky, elevators would plummet from the tops of skyscrapers, and the world economy would come to a screeching halt. In response to these fears, the U.S. government and American corporations spent a total of $108.8 billion on Y2K computer fixes [source: Karl]. In the end, nothing fell from the sky, but the world’s computers did manage to disrupt some credit card terminals in Britain and send out some bills supposedly due in 1900. To the relief of billions, civilization survived almost completely unscathed.

1: The Sun Becomes a Red Giant, 7.6 billion years from now

Not all apocalyptic predictions are steeped in religious fervor or science fiction; some are based solidly upon respected science. Most scholars agree that 7.6 billion years from now, the sun will enter its red giant phase when it has converted all of its hydrogen into helium. This will cause the sun to expand to a size 20 percent greater than that of Earth’s orbit and shine 3,000 times brighter [source: Appell]. Once this stage is complete, the sun will then collapse into a white dwarf.

Whether this process will actually destroy the planet is a topic of debate in the scientific community. If Earth were to stay in its current orbit, it would undoubtedly be engulfed and vaporized by the expanding sun. However, as the sun swells it will also lose mass, meaning that Earth will drift further away from it and perhaps escape total destruction. Either way, this process would destroy life as we know it, that is, if there were any life left to destroy.

An Impeccable Financial Disaster

An Impeccable Disaster – NYTimes.com.


On Thursday Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank or E.C.B. — Europe’s equivalent to Ben Bernanke — lost his sang-froid. In response to a question about whether the E.C.B. is becoming a “bad bank” thanks to its purchases of troubled nations’ debt, Mr. Trichet, his voice rising, insisted that his institution has performed “impeccably, impeccably!” as a guardian of price stability.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Paul Krugman

Readers’ Comments

Indeed it has. And that’s why the euro is now at risk of collapse.

Financial turmoil in Europe is no longer a problem of small, peripheral economies like Greece. What’s under way right now is a full-scale market run on the much larger economies of Spain and Italy. At this point countries in crisis account for about a third of the euro area’s G.D.P., so the common European currency itself is under existential threat.

And all indications are that European leaders are unwilling even to acknowledge the nature of that threat, let alone deal with it effectively.

I’ve complained a lot about the “fiscalization” of economic discourse here in America, the way in which a premature focus on budget deficits turned Washington’s attention away from the ongoing jobs disaster. But we’re not unique in that respect, and in fact the Europeans have been much, much worse.

Listen to many European leaders — especially, but by no means only, the Germans — and you’d think that their continent’s troubles are a simple morality tale of debt and punishment: Governments borrowed too much, now they’re paying the price, and fiscal austerity is the only answer.

Yet this story applies, if at all, to Greece and nobody else. Spain in particular had a budget surplus and low debt before the 2008 financial crisis; its fiscal record, one might say, was impeccable. And while it was hit hard by the collapse of its housing boom, it’s still a relatively low-debt country, and it’s hard to make the case that the underlying fiscal condition of Spain’s government is worse than that of, say, Britain’s government.

So why is Spain — along with Italy, which has higher debt but smaller deficits — in so much trouble? The answer is that these countries are facing something very much like a bank run, except that the run is on their governments rather than, or more accurately as well as, their financial institutions.

Here’s how such a run works: Investors, for whatever reason, fear that a country will default on its debt. This makes them unwilling to buy the country’s bonds, or at least not unless offered a very high interest rate. And the fact that the country must roll its debt over at high interest rates worsens its fiscal prospects, making default more likely, so that the crisis of confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And as it does, it becomes a banking crisis as well, since a country’s banks are normally heavily invested in government debt.

Now, a country with its own currency, like Britain, can short-circuit this process: if necessary, the Bank of England can step in to buy government debt with newly created money. This might lead to inflation (although even that is doubtful when the economy is depressed), but inflation poses a much smaller threat to investors than outright default. Spain and Italy, however, have adopted the euro and no longer have their own currencies. As a result, the threat of a self-fulfilling crisis is very real — and interest rates on Spanish and Italian debt are more than twice the rate on British debt.

Which brings us back to the impeccable E.C.B.

What Mr. Trichet and his colleagues should be doing right now is buying up Spanish and Italian debt — that is, doing what these countries would be doing for themselves if they still had their own currencies. In fact, the E.C.B. started doing just that a few weeks ago, and produced a temporary respite for those nations. But the E.C.B. immediately found itself under severe pressure from the moralizers, who hate the idea of letting countries off the hook for their alleged fiscal sins. And the perception that the moralizers will block any further rescue actions has set off a renewed market panic.

Adding to the problem is the E.C.B.’s obsession with maintaining its “impeccable” record on price stability: at a time when Europe desperately needs a strong recovery, and modest inflation would actually be helpful, the bank has instead been tightening money, trying to head off inflation risks that exist only in its imagination.

And now it’s all coming to a head. We’re not talking about a crisis that will unfold over a year or two; this thing could come apart in a matter of days. And if it does, the whole world will suffer.

So will the E.C.B. do what needs to be done — lend freely and cut rates? Or will European leaders remain too focused on punishing debtors to save themselves? The whole world is watching.

Media Complicit in Humanity's Demise?

Duane Elgin: The Last Taboo on Television.

Virtually every forbidden topic imaginable has been covered on television, except for one. The last taboo on television is television itself — and how it is profoundly biased toward high consumption lifestyles that the earth cannot sustain. In the U.S. the average person sees more than 25,000 commercials a year on TV. Commercials represent far more than a pitch for a particular product; they are also advertisements for the attitudes, values and lifestyles that surround the consumption of that product. Mass entertainment is being used to capture a mass audience that is then appealed to by mass advertising to promote mass consumption that, in turn, is devastating the Earth’s biosphere. By programming television for commercial success, the television industry is also programming the mindset of civilizations for ecological failure.

Nearly all of the world’s problems are, at their core, communication problems. Therefore, the future of the world will depend largely on the quality and depth of human communication. I agree with Lester Brown, author of the respected State of the World book series, who said that to respond to the global ecological crisis, “The communications industry is the only instrument that has the capacity to educate on a scale that is needed and in the time available.” At the heart of the communications industry is television. In the U.S. 98% of all homes have a TV set and the average person watches approximately four hours per day. Television has become our primary window onto the world: most of the people get most of their news about the world from television. Like it or not, television has become the central nervous system of modern society. The question then becomes, how well is our “social brain” responding to the immense challenge of sustainability?

The unrelenting consumerist bias of television distorts our view of reality and social priorities, leaving us entertainment rich and knowledge poor. Television may be our window onto the world, but the view it provides is cramped and narrow. Television may be the mirror in which we see ourselves as a society, but the reflection it gives is often distorted and unbalanced. Our evolutionary intelligence is being tested by how well we use this powerful vehicle to communicate collectively about our future.

Just how urgent our situation has become was made clear nearly two decades ago by a 1992 Warning to Humanity that was signed by over 1600 scientists, including a majority of the living Nobel laureates in the sciences. They said that “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course” and that, “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it, is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” If the future of human civilization is now at stake, then what is the mass media doing? Currently, the communications industry is actively participating in the “irretrievable mutilation” of the planet by aggressively promoting a lethal addiction — obsessive consumerism.

World leaders are wrestling with how to stabilize the planet’s population and achieve sustainable development. In an historic bargain, poor countries are being urged to curb their birth rates and rich countries are being urged to curb the rate at which they use up the world’s resources and pollute the planet’s environment. Yet, how can we in the wealthy nations be expected to consume less when the media that dominates our consciousness continuously tells us to buy ever more?

This linkage is one of the paramount political and social issue of our time, and yet it is rarely mentioned. Television almost never turns its cameras around to look at itself and its unrelenting consumerist bias. Building a sustainable future requires at least two major changes:

  • Viewer Feedback Forums — We need to create publicly sponsored, televised forums that hold the mass media accountable in the court of public opinion. Using live polling and citizen feedback in both local and national “feedback forums,” citizens can use the power of moral persuasion and public opinion to promote a more mature and balanced diet of programming.
  • Earth Commercials — To balance the onslaught of aggressively pro-consumerist commercials, we need “Earth commercials.” These could be ads for other species of animals, the rain forests, appeals from our great-great grandchildren, and so on. They could be done with humor, creativity, playfulness and intelligence to awaken our awareness of the web of life and the needs of future generations.

Most people understand that our planet is in trouble and that we will soon have to make dramatic changes in our manner of living, working and consuming if we are to live in harmony with the Earth. Never before in human history have so many people been called upon to make such sweeping changes in so little time. If a problem recognized is a problem half-solved, then we can make an enormous leap forward by breaking the last taboo on television and taking back a portion of the public’s airwaves for purposes of mature conversation about our common future.

Can Tech Make the Desert Bloom Again? | Epicenter | Wired.com

Can Tech Make the Desert Bloom Again? | Epicenter | Wired.com.

SDE BOGER, Israel – The archeological remains of Avdat seem like a strange place to study farming.

The site — a camel caravan stop built by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago in the Negev Desert — sits in the middle of a vast, dry desert. Hard brown loess lightly sprinkled with stunted shrubs and bleak weeds stretches for miles.

The only substantial greenery is clustered at a farm irrigated by desalinated water piped miles away from the coast and a roadside McDonald’s. It looks like Arizona on a bad day.

But Hendrik Bruins, a professor of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research and the Swiss Institute for Dryland Environmental Research, implores observers to take a closer look. Some of those scraggly shrubs grow in straight lines. Notice the random, low wall peeking out of the crust.

Nearly half of the world’s population lives in dry lands, and deserts are expanding. What can be done to reverse the tide?

Soon, it becomes apparent. This isn’t pristine desert. The bush geometry in the region is a remnant of an extensive terraced agricultural system. Growing grapes or wheat in the region requires a minimum of 300 millimeters of water and Avdat only gets 85 millimeters of rain a year. The terraced walls stood 300 millimeters tall, just enough to support the local ancient wineries.

Could the system, or some element of it, be revived?

“This started as experimental archeology, but it has become practical,” Bruins said.

Continued reading …

Learning how to live in a parched environment could become the next export for Israel. Approximately 45 percent of the people in the world live in dry lands, defined as regions that get 600 millimeters or less of rain a year, according to Alon Tal, a professor at Ben-Gurion University, which oversees the Blaustein Institutes.

Deserts, moreover, are on the march. About 15 percent of the world’s lands have been degraded in recent decades though salinity, overexploitation, rapid population growth and soil loss.

“Desertification has been left behind because it is perceived as an African issue, but there is not a challenge that is easier to overcome than desertification,” Tal said. “You aren’t going to plant the same crop in a hyper-arid zone as an arid zone. You can’t plant the same kind of trees [in regions that get] 270 millimeters of rain.”

Climate change further exacerbates the problem. For example, Sde Boqer, a small Negev town where the three Blaustein Institutes are based, usually gets around 40 to 90 millimeters of rain a year. In 2010, only 30 millimeters fell and nearly everyone can tell you the dates (January 15 and December 24) off the top of their heads.

The research spans the gamut of dry: hydroponics, plant breeding, demographics, solar technology. Evyatar Erell, for instance, has a number of projects underway on desert architecture and urban planning. (The urban heat island, he informs me, was actually first identified in England in the early 1800s.)

David Faiman, meanwhile, oversees the National Solar Energy Center, another part of the umbrella. Some of the intellectual property behind concentrator companies like ZenithSolar has come out of here. The Center also lets private companies like HelioFocus test prototypes.

Is desert research an economic opportunity or a tool for diplomacy? Both, actually. Researcher Yair Kaufman at the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research (one of the organizations inside Blaustein) is developing a desalination membrane powered by aquaporins, a protein in human and animal cells that purifies water.

Ideally, aquaporin desalination could cut the amount of energy required for desalination by 50 percent and the ultimate cost by one-third. A Danish company, appropriately called Aquaporin, is racing toward the same goal.

Meanwhile, Professor Zeev Weisman and a team of researchers want to optimize olive strains for food production and fuel. Approximately 5 percent to 7 percent of the total olive mass, however, can be converted to biodiesel. The olive stone can also serve as a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol. In other words, two fuels (and food)  from one plant. He’s also working to optimize pomegranates for medicinal use. Either crop could become a money spinner for farmers.

Another idea that could go commercial: a solar thermal hot water heater that helps ensure that warm water will be available early in the morning by manipulating liquid flows and pressure in a novel manner. Professor Dan Blumberg likens it to virtualization for solar hot water.

At the same time, projects and initiatives seem calculated to win friends, too. A few grad students hail from Jordan and Ghana. A prototype system for inland desalination — which relies on brackish swamps rather than seawater — will go live this year in Jordan.

“As [water] stressed as Israel is, Jordan is even more stressed. In Amman, not everyone has water,” said Jack Gilron, the CTO at Rotec, the company commercializing tapered flow, and a professor at the Zuckerberg Institute.

Jordan may also become the locale of a large-scale desal plant that will dump its brine into the Dead Sea via a link billed as the Peace Conduit. Others are examining how to preserve gerbils and other native animal species. Others, meanwhile, are making an argument for water conservation: reliance on desalination could lead to a need for nuclear power in a region already known for fractured politics.

Bruins, who also serves as a consultant to the United Nations and other organizations as a food security specialist, adds that this work — or failure to continue this work — will have global consequences. Droughts and desertification lead to humanitarian crises, which can turn into border conflicts and refugee migrations.

The margin for error, moreover, has become thin.  Back in the ’70s, banks convinced agribusiness conglomerates to cut costs by eliminating silos and storage facilities. Biofuels consume a small portion of harvested crops, but have a disproportionate impact on pricing due to razor-thin supplies.

“Because of that, for the first time ever, there are no food stocks. In a good year, there is barely enough,” he said. If China were to experience a major crop failure, all of the food exports in the world couldn’t make up the difference.

“Soil is very precious,” he said. “You should stop thinking about it as dirt.”

Will Climate Change Cause Crop Shortfalls by 2020?

Will Climate Change Cause Crop Shortfalls by 2020?: Scientific American.

Earth may be 2.4 degrees Celsius warmer by 2020, potentially triggering global scrambles for food supplies, according to a new analysis.

Work from the Universal Ecological Fund, the U.S. branch of Argentina-based nonprofit Fundación Ecológica Universal (FEU), sketches a somber portrait for world hunger by the end of the decade.

Rising temperatures will slash yields for rice, wheat and corn throughout the developing world, exacerbating food price volatility and increasing the number of undernourished people, the report warns.

It projects that food demand will substantially dwarf available supply.

The group drew upon existing climate and food production data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Meteorological Organization and other U.N. agencies to draw its conclusions.

Chief among its findings, UEF said, is that if the planet continues on a business-as-usual path, temperatures may rise at least 2.4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — or 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit — by 2020. Crossing a 2-degree-Celsius climate threshold is commonly considered dangerous.

The level of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, which was 284 parts per million in the preindustrial era, tallies more than 385 ppm today. By 2020, it could reach 490 ppm, cautions the report. Carbon concentrations that high are associated with a global temperature rise of 2.4 degrees Celsius, according to IPCC estimates.

Potential timing gap
Still, it’s not certain how quickly the planet would heat up if the planet had that concentration, said climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel, with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“If you look at Earth as an oven, by hitting 490 you turn the dial, but it could take a while for the oven to reach the temperature,” she said.

Climate scientist Osvaldo Canziani served as the scientific adviser on the study, going over it “line by line,” said Liliana Hisas, the executive director of the Universal Ecological Fund and author of the report. Canziani was unavailable for comment.

While not every part of the planet is expected to experience adverse effects of climate-linked impacts on agriculture, the report’s numbers suggest that by 2020 there will be a 14 percent deficit between wheat production and demand, global rice production will stand at an 11 percent deficit, and there will be a 9 percent deficit in corn production. Soybeans, however, are expected to have a 5 percent surplus.

To meet the needs of a world that is expected to have an additional 890 million people by 2020, the global community would need to increase food production by about 13 percent, the report states.

Josef Schmidhuber, a senior policy analyst at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, questioned some of the underlying assumptions for regional production figures and said that this UEF study also fails to consider other external factors that could affect these results.

“The only rationale for this to hold would be for climate change to have such a strong impact on the non-agricultural economy that people would lose purchasing power and thus would be so poor they couldn’t afford the food they need to meet the requirements,” Schmidhuber said. “Food security is much more than a production problem — it reflects above all a lack of access to food and a lack of income,” he said.

Schmidhuber contends that looking at food security purely in the context of the impacts of food production will lead to overstatements of hunger estimates.

Click here to read the study.

Eco-ruin 'felled early society'

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Eco-ruin ‘felled early society’.

One of Western Europe’s earliest known urban societies may have sown the seeds of its own downfall, a study suggests.

Mystery surrounded the fall of the Bronze Age Argaric people in south-east Spain – Europe’s driest area.

Data suggests the early civilisation exhausted precious natural resources, helping bring about its own ruin.

The study provides early evidence for cultural collapse caused – at least in part – by humans meddling with the environment, say researchers.

Archaeologists are convinced that something happened in the ecological structure of the area just prior to the collapse of the Argaric culture
Jose Carrion, University of Murcia

It could also provide lessons for modern populations living in water-stressed regions.

The findings were based on pollen preserved in a peat deposit located in the mountains of eastern Andalucia, Spain.

The researchers drilled a sediment core from the Canada del Gitano basin high up in Andalucia’s Sierra de Baza region.

Canada del Gitano. Image: Jose Carrion.

Sediment cores were drilled from peat deposits

By studying the abundances of different pollen types – along with other indicators – preserved in sedimentary deposits, researchers can reconstruct what kind of vegetation covered the area in ancient times.

They can compile a pollen sequence, which shows how vegetation changed over thousands of years. This can give them clues to how human settlement and climate affected ecosystems.

Copper axe. Image: Jose Carrion.

Copper objects like this axe were common until the Argaric era

The Argaric culture emerged in south-eastern Spain 4,300 years ago. This civilisation, which inhabited small fortified towns, was one of the first in Western Europe to adopt bronze working.

But about 3,600 years ago, the culture mysteriously vanished from the archaeological record.

“Archaeologists are convinced that something happened in the ecological structure of the area just prior to the collapse of the Argaric culture,” said Jose Carrion, from the University of Murcia, Spain.

“But we previously lacked a high-resolution record to support this.”

Environmental change

Before the appearance of the Argaric civilisation, the slopes of Sierra de Baza were covered with a diverse forest dominated by deciduous oaks and other broad-leaved trees.

High mountain site in the Sierra de Baza. Image: Jose Carrion.

The area’s tree cover was rapidly removed

But about 4,200 years ago – just after this civilisation emerges – significant amounts of charcoal appear in the pollen sequence. According to the study’s authors, this is a sign Bronze Age people were setting fires to clear the forests for mining activities and grazing.

Not long afterwards, about 3,900 years ago, the diverse forest ecosystem disappears, to be replaced by monotonous and fire-prone Mediterranean scrub.

What astonished the researchers was the speed of this change. This ecological transformation is very abrupt, appearing to have taken place in little more than a decade.

About 300 years after this ecological transformation, the Argaric civilisation disappeared.

Climatic effect

Map (BBC)

Professor Carrion said the term “ecocide” was too strong to apply in this case. Climate must also have played a part, he explained.

There is evidence conditions were becoming progressively arid from about 5,500 years ago onwards. This is indicated by a broad reduction in forest cover, the appearance of plants adapted to dry conditions and a drop in lake levels.

But Jose Carrion added: “The climatic influence began millennia prior to the appearance of the Argaric culture.

“It’s not critical to the change in the landscape we see about 3,900-3,800 years ago. What appears to be critical is the evidence of burning, which in our opinion is man-made.”

Pine trees in the Sierra de Baza. Image: Jose Carrion.

Some isolated patches of pine forest still remain today

The degradation of soils and vegetation could have caused the collapse of agriculture and pastoralism, the foundation of the Argaric economy.

This would have led to massive depopulation of the area.

The findings were outlined at the recent Climate and Humans conference in Murcia, Spain, and appear in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Roman rise and fall 'recorded in trees'

BBC News – Roman rise and fall ‘recorded in trees’.

An extensive study of tree growth rings says there could be a link between the rise and fall of past civilisations and sudden shifts in Europe’s climate.

A team of researchers based their findings on data from 9,000 wooden artifacts from the past 2,500 years.

They found that periods of warm, wet summers coincided with prosperity, while political turmoil occurred during times of climate instability.

The findings have been published online by the journal Science.

“Looking back on 2,500 years, there are examples where climate change impacted human history,” co-author Ulf Buntgen, a paleoclimatologist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape, told the Science website.

Ring record

The team capitalised on a system used to date material unearthed during excavations.

Start Quote

Distinct drying in the 3rd Century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire”

End Quote Ulf Buntgen

“Archaeologists have developed oak ring width chronologies from Central Europe that cover nearly the entire Holocene and have used them for the purpose of dating artefacts, historical buildings, antique artwork and furniture,” they wrote.

“Chronologies of living and relict oaks may reflect distinct patterns of summer precipitation and drought.”

The team looked at how weather over the past couple of centuries affected living trees’ growth rings.

During good growing seasons, when water and nutrients are in plentiful supply, trees form broad rings, with their boundaries relatively far apart.

But in unfavourable conditions, such as drought, the rings grow in much tighter formation.

The researchers then used this data to reconstruct annual weather patterns from the growth rings preserved in the artefacts.

Once they had developed a chronology stretching back over the past 2,500 years, they identified a link with prosperity levels in past societies, such as the Roman Empire.

“Wet and warm summers occurred during periods of Roman and medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from 250-600 AD coincided with the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period,” the team reported.

“Distinct drying in the 3rd Century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire marked by barbarian invasion, political turmoil and economic dislocation in several provinces of Gaul.”

Dr Buntgen explained: “We were aware of these super-big data sets, and we brought them together and analyzed them in a new way to get the climate signal.

“If you have enough wood, the dating is secure. You just need a lot of material and a lot of rings.”

WikiLeaks wars: Digital conflict spills into real life

WikiLeaks wars: Digital conflict spills into real life – tech – 15 December 2010 – New Scientist.

Editorial: Democracy 2.0: The world after WikiLeaks

WHILE it is not, as some have called it, the “first great cyberwar“, the digital conflict over information sparked by WikiLeaks amounts to the greatest incursion of the online world into the real one yet seen.

In response to the taking down of the WikiLeaks website after it released details of secret diplomatic cables, a leaderless army of activists has gone on the offensive. It might not have started a war, but the conflict is surely a sign of future battles.

No one is quite sure what the ultimate political effect of the leaks will be. What the episode has done, though, is show what happens when the authorities attempt to silence what many people perceive as a force for freedom of information. It has also shone a light on the evolving world of cyber-weapons (see “The cyber-weapon du jour”).

WikiLeaks was subjected to a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which floods the target website with massive amounts of traffic in an effort to force it offline. The perpetrator of the attack is unknown, though an individual calling himself the Jester has claimed responsibility.

WikiLeaks took defensive action by moving to Amazon’s EC2 web hosting service, but the respite was short-lived as Amazon soon dumped the site, saying that WikiLeaks violated its terms of service. WikiLeaks responded via Twitter that: “If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books”.

With WikiLeaks wounded and its founder Julian Assange in custody, a certain section of the internet decided to fight back. Armed with freely available software, activists using the name “Anonymous” launched Operation Avenge Assange, targeting DDoS attacks of their own at the online services that had dropped WikiLeaks.

With WikiLeaks wounded and its founder in custody, a section of the internet decided to fight back

These efforts have so far had limited success, in part due to the nature of Anonymous. It is not a typical protest group with leaders or an organisational structure, but more of a label that activists apply to themselves. Anonymous has strong ties to 4chan.org, a notorious and anarchic message board responsible for many of the internet’s most popular memes, such as Rickrolling and LOLcats. The posts of unidentified 4chan users are listed as from “Anonymous”, leading to the idea of a collective anonymous campaigning force.

This loose group has previously taken action both on and offline against a number of targets, including Scientologists and the Recording Industry Association of America, but the defence of WikiLeaks is their most high-profile action yet. Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for WikiLeaks, said of the attacks: “We believe they are a reflection of public opinion on the actions of the targets.”

The “public” have certainly played a key role. The kind of DDoS attacks perpetrated by Anonymous are usually performed by botnets – networks of “zombie” computers hijacked by malicious software and put to use without their owner’s knowledge. Although Anonymous activists have employed traditional botnets in their attacks, the focus now seems to be on individuals volunteering their computers to the cause.

“I think there are two groups of people involved,” says Tim Stevens of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at Kings College London. The first group are the core of Anonymous, who have the technological know-how to bring down websites. The second group are ordinary people angry at the treatment of WikiLeaks and wanting to offer support. “Anonymous are providing the tools for these armchair activists to get involved,” says Stevens.

The human element of Anonymous is both a strength and a weakness. Though the group’s freely available LOIC software makes it easy for anyone to sign up to the cause, a successful DDoS requires coordinated attacks. This is often done through chat channels, where conversations range from the technical – “I have Loic set to and channel set to #loic, is that correct” – to the inane – “please send me some nutella ice cream”.

There are continual disagreements about who and when to attack, though new tactics also emerge from the chat, such as Leakspin, an effort to highlight some of the less-publicised leaks, and Leakflood, a kind of analogue DDoS that attempts to block corporate fax machines with copies of the cables.

These chat channels are also occasionally knocked offline by DDoS attacks. Some blame “the feds”, but could governments – US or otherwise – actually be involved? (see “Are states unleashing the dogs of cyberwar?”)

The US Department of Defense’s recently launched Cyber Command has a dual remit: to defend US interests online and conduct offensive operations. Cyber Command is meant to defend .mil and .gov web domains, but do commercial websites qualify too? “Is PayPal really that important to national security that the US military would have a role in defending it?” asks Stevens, who also teaches in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. “The US doesn’t have an answer to that particular conundrum, and they’re not alone – nobody does”.

Is PayPal so important to national security that the US military would have a role in defending it?

The difficulty comes in assessing whether DDoS attacks are an act of cyberwar, a cybercrime or more akin to online civil disobedience.

Individual LOIC users may not even be breaking the law. “All that DDoS does is send the normal kind of traffic that a website receives,” says Lilian Edwards, professor of internet law at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. “That has always been the legal problem with regulating DDoS – each individual act is in fact authorised by the site, but receiving 10 million of them isn’t.”

It’s hard to say what will happen next. Anonymous might continue its attempt to cause as much disruption as possible, but it could just as easily become fragmented and give up. With no leaders or central structure, it is unlikely to be stopped by a few arrests or server takedowns but may equally find it difficult to coordinate well enough to have an impact.

More worrying is the prospect that more organised groups may follow Anonymous’s example. If that happens, who will be responsible for stopping them – and will they be able to?

Read more: Are states unleashing the dogs of cyber war?

Is He Trying to Tell Us Something?

Is He Trying to Tell Us Something? – By Maria Kornalian | Foreign Policy.

An Israeli man watches the smoke from the wildfires that hit Haifa, Israel earlier this month, killing 42 people and consuming some 12,000 acres. But Israel is not the only country in the Middle East that has experienced extreme weather in the last few months. All across the region, Middle Eastern cities have been the victim of floods, fires, and snow storms.

Israeli firefighters put out flames that destroyed a house in the village of Ein Hod, near the city of Haifa. On Dec 14, Israeli officials canceled a ceremony that was scheduled to honor Palestinian firefighters who helped put out the fire, after three of the firefighters were refused entry into Israel to attend the event.

A civilian helps hose off the remains of a burnt house in Ein Hod, during the  worst forest fire in the country’s existence. Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority were among those who offered aid.

An Israeli woman, holding the keys to her house, takes a photo of the flames overtaking Israel’s Carmel Mountain. The fires displaced nearly 15,000 civilians and severely damaged 250 homes.

Last month’s heavy rains in Saudi Arabia left pilgrims rushing through flooded streets in the holy city of Mecca during the Hajj. Nearly 2.8 million Muslims from all over the world participated in the pilgrimage this year.

Cars drive through a fog-covered Cairo in Egypt, where heavy sandstorms and gusts of wind have swept the country. A factory collapse in Alexandria, which was blamed on the bad weather, killed at least three people.

Two Lebanese men duck for cover as waves crash up against a wall in a promenade in the Lebanese city of Sidon.

Syrian teenagers build a snowman after a snow storm hit Damascus this week, after several months of drought. Syrian authorities also closed the port of Tartous due to high winds.

A massive storm hits the eastern Mediterranean, sending waves smashing into the port of Caesarea in Israel.

A man looks toward the Lebanese village of Fatri, north of Beirut, which was damaged by one of the 120 fires that broke out in the country earlier this month. Heavy rainfall eventually helped extinguish the fires.

Can China Survive without Coal?

The Carbon Trap: Can China Survive without Coal?: Scientific American.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Watt’s book, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind–or Destroy It.

Cold, dark, silent. Close to death. Buried in the depths of a collapsed, illegal coal mine, Meng Xianchen and Meng Xianyou knew they had been given up for dead.

The rescue effort had been abandoned. The two brothers could no longer hear the sound of mechanical diggers, drills and spades above their heads. Dismayed and exhausted, they had stopped yelling frantically for help.

How long had it been? Hours, days, weeks? There was no way of knowing. When their mobile phone batteries died, they lost all track of time.

And place. With the silence and the darkness came disorientation. They were unsure which way led to the surface and which led deeper into the mountain. They had little evidence that they were even still alive. It was like being lost inside a tomb.

Above ground, their families were already preparing a funeral. In accordance with tradition, relatives had started burning ‘ghost money’ for the two brothers to spend in the other world. Negotiations had begun with the local authorities about compensation. Yet down below, the Mengs stubbornly refused to die.

Driven by a powerful instinct to survive, they fought against the earth and the darkness, against death itself. The brothers started digging. They hacked and shovelled, using a single pick and their bare hands. They were only a few dozen metres from the surface, but despite twenty years of mining experience, they were so panicked and confused by the darkness that they started to worry they were tunnelling deeper into the mountain. They changed direction once, twice, three times, before deciding to head straight up.

With every hour that passed they grew wearier and more depressed. It grew harder to dig, exhausting even to crawl. They filled water bottles with urine. The taste was so foul, they could only drink in small sips and felt like crying after they swallowed. Desperately hungry, Xianchen took to nibbling finger-sized pieces of coal, not knowing it had zero nutritional value. Yet they kept digging. Their companionship was a source of comfort and strength. They slept in each other’s arms to stave off the cold and told jokes about their wives to maintain morale. ‘My wife will be happy after I die. She can find a rich husband in Shenyang to replace me,’ mused Xianchen out loud, then laughingly contradicted himself. ‘But then again, she is an ugly woman with two children so it will be hard for her to remarry.’ Humour does not get much blacker than laughter in a collapsed coal mine. But it kept them going for six days, until finally, miraculously, they scratched their way to the surface.

Weak and close to starvation, they emerged blinking into the light, then staggered to the village where they were met with a hero’s welcome and incredulous joy that the dead could rise from their tombs. They were carried off to hospital, where the doctors treated their damaged kidneys and journalists bombarded them with questions. The mine owner, meanwhile, was on the run. Aware that the standard bribes would not protect him from a deadly accident investigation, he had fled as soon as he heard of the collapse.

The survival of the magnificent Meng brothers made front-page headlines in Beijing. Their experience captured the Chinese zeitgeist of the past thirty years—gritty, poor, dirty, illegal, dangerous, willing to go to almost any lengths to get ahead, ill as a result, but surviving long after being written off. They had been trapped in a carbon hell in which they dug, ate, inhaled and were almost suffocated by coal, yet they had lived to tell the tale.

China finds itself in a similar predicament in the first decade of this century. Demand for energy continues to grow and most of it comes from underground. The economy is utterly dependent on coal. It provides 69.5 per cent of the country’s energy, a greater degree of reliance than that of any other major nation. This, more than anything, explains why China is so cautious in setting carbon targets in international climate talks such as the 2009 summit in Copenhagen. Cheap coal generates electricity for Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, fires the steel mills of Huaxi, powers the production lines of Guangdong, and allows consumers in the West to buy Chinese goods at a knockdown price. No other fuel has such an impact on the environment.

Collieries destroy arable land and grazing pastures, erode topsoil, worsen air and water pollution, increase levels of river sediment (raising the risk of floods), and accelerate deforestation (especially if the coal is used to make charcoal). The country’s most pressing environmental problems—acid rain, smog, lung disease, water contamination, loss of aquifers and the filthy layer of black dust that settled on many villages—can all be traced back in varying degrees to this single cause.

Then there are the losses caused by global warming. In 2007 China overtook the US as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases because it was so dependent on this fossil fuel. For each unit of energy, coal produces 80 per cent more carbon dioxide than natural gas, and 20 per cent more than oil. This does not even include methane released from mines, for which China accounts for almost half the global total.

Coal is compressed history, buried death. Geologists estimate the seams of anthracite and bituminate in northern China were formed from the Jurassic period onward. Within them are the remains of ferns, trees, mosses and other life-forms from millions of years ago. Though long extinguished on the surface world, they still—like ghosts or the Meng brothers—possess form and energy. Consider coal with a superstitious eye and foul air might seem a curse suffered for disinterring pre-ancient life. Described with a little poetic licence, global warming is a planetary fever caused by burning too much of our past. But whether we prefer these archaic formulations or modern science, the conclusion is the same: the more we dig and burn, the worse we breathe.

Given the low priority the Chinese coal industry places on ecological and health concerns, it is little surprise that safety standards are also appalling. The country’s collieries are the most dangerous in the world. Since the start of economic reforms, the equivalent of an entire city of people has died underground.

More than 170,000 miners have been killed in tunnel collapses, explosions and floods, a death rate per tonne at least thirty times higher than that in the United States. Countless more will perish prematurely of pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, because there is little or no protection from the dust in the enclosed tunnels. Mine deaths are so frequent that if the Meng brothers had been less stubborn about surviving, the collapse at their pit could easily have gone unreported. All that is unique in their story is that they emerged to tell the tale.

With 20 per cent of the world’s population and a fast growing econ- omy, China needs huge amounts of fuel.

Deposits of oil and gas are small relative to the country’s size, but coal is abundant. Unfortunately, it is mostly of low quality and inconveniently located in the northwest, the opposite end of the country from where it is most needed: the manufacturing belt of the southeast.

The cleanest solution would be to transform the fuel into electricity or gas near the source and transfer it via power lines or pipes. But this would mean the mining provinces receiving even less economic benefit. So the coal has to be transported by train, barge and ship at huge extra cost to the economy and the environment. Coal accounts for 40 per cent of the freight on China’s railways. On the track from Shanxi through Beijing to the southeast, I counted in astonishment as double locomotives pulled a train of more than two hundred cars each loaded high with more than 60 tonnes of coal and ash. There was another ten minutes later. Then another. A million tons could pass along a single line in a day.

Millions of dollars flow in the other direction. China’s spectacular economic rise can be tracked by the volume of coal mined, freighted and burned. During the Mao era, colliery production was held back by centralised price restraints that turned coal into red ink. But after the market reforms of the late 1970s and early 1980s, digging mines suddenly became the quickest way to get rich. The wealth of Shanxi’s colliery bosses was notorious.

The problems caused by coal were not entirely their fault—the state’s control over extraction rights and frequent crackdowns encouraged mine owners to cash in as quickly as possible and with minimum concern for safety. But mine owners were a reviled group, who were accused of having blood on their hands, ruining the land and being the epitome of bad taste. Young people who drove flashy cars, wore loud clothes and treated people badly were taunted as being “like the child of a Shanxi mine own- er.” The image was not helped by the forty Porsches seen at the ostentatious wedding parade of one of these children.

Pan Yue, the deputy environment minister, described the bosses as little more than parasites. “Coal-mine owners from Shanxi province indiscriminately extract coal and dig up the land, creating pollution. As a result they become extremely wealthy. Once they have polluted Shanxi, however, they do not stay there. Instead they move to Beijing, where they buy luxury villas and push up house prices. They have also pushed up property prices in all the coastal regions of north China. If these areas then become polluted, they will no doubt move to the US, Canada or Australia and cause inflation there too. They create pollution, but are removed from its consequences. They take all the benefits of polluting industries, but pay nothing towards the clean-up costs.”

The true cost of the mines never shows up on balance sheets. For the mining provinces, it is a curse. They receive far from a fair market price because the mines are owned by the state and the colliery owners get the rights to profit from extraction. The prosperity of cities like Shanghai and Beijing is based on cheap energy from provinces like Shanxi and Shaanxi, which are left with the environmental and health costs. One influential study estimates the environmental and social costs associated with China’s use of coal at about 7.1 per cent of the nation’s GDP in 2007.

Industry forecasters say it can’t go on. Without a long-term strategic plan, the country’s reserves will be exhausted before the end of the century. The government has responded with a drive for more efficiency, the key focus of president Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development.” It has closed small private mines and opened automated mega-collieries. It has replaced small old thermal plants with supercritical and ultra-supercritical generators equipped with scrubbers and other technology to reduce emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide (though it has not always been properly used). Policymakers are studying the possibility of a carbon tax. More public funds and utility cash are being invested in “clean coal” technology. Along with the tightening of safety standards, this has begun to drive up the cost of domestic coal, as has Shanxi’s introduction of an ecological restoration fund.

Indeed, as prices soared in 2008, many factories in the southeast started importing from Australia and elsewhere. Abandoning coal completely is not, of course, an option, as I learned in a discussion with Xiao Yunhan, an energy visionary at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Nobody likes coal, even in China. But do you have a better solution for our energy supply problems?” he said. He expected consumption of coal to double over the following ten years. For at least another two decades, China would be trapped in a coal-dependent economy.

“Even if China utilises every kind of energy to the maximum level, it is still difficult for us to produce enough energy for economic development. It’s not a case of choosing coal or renewables. We need both,” the senior scientist said. “We have to use coal so the best thing we can do is make that use as efficient as possible.”

Unlike the Meng brothers, people will not be expected to eat lumps of anthracite, but industrialists are expected to find new ways to consume carbon. In addition to installing newer and more efficient power plants, China is also ahead of other nations in developing and adopting Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology that turns coal into gas, removes impurities, maximises efficiency and can capture carbon. In the future, Xiao predicted plants will be able to turn coal into gas and diesel, capturing and eventually sequestrating carbon dioxide emissions. Some of the technology is at an advanced stage of development.

“That’s my idea. At Shanxi and Shaanxi, coal-to-oil and IGCC will be integrated into one system. In this regard, China is ahead of other nations. The US is only talking about this,” he told me matter-of-factly over a cup of green tea.

The technology is expensive, but Xiao estimated that China could build and operate IGCC plants for about a third of the price of the US. In the near future, he predicted China would have to choose whether to invest primarily in supercritical plants, which burn coal efficiently, or IGCC facilities that dealt more effectively with carbon. The latter are more expensive, but price is not the only consideration. “The uncertainty of climate change constraints is a factor in deciding which plants we build,” he said. “If we don’t need to worry about CO2 emissions, then supercritical plants make more sense. But if we are concerned about carbon dioxide, then IGCC is the best. This is the big decision we must make in the next five to ten years . . . Sequestration will be the final solution for carbon dioxide control. But before that we should try other things.”

Isn’t the priority in the long term to reduce demand?” I asked.

He shrugged and smiled. “We cannot deny people a happy life. But we also must not deny future generations a happy life,” I said.

“True,” he replied.

From When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind–or Destroy It by Jonathan Watts. © 2010 Jonathan Watts. Reproduced by permission of Scribner.

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