Monthly Archives: January 2019

HyperSonic Gliders: Arms Race at the Speed of Sound

Hypersonics are like missiles that travel at over five times the speed of sound, but are able to manoeuvre in mid-flight, making them much harder to track and intercept than traditional projectiles.  France is the fourth of the five permanent UN Security Council members to join the so-called “stealth by speed” contest, after China, Russia and the United States.  “We have decided to issue a contract for a hypersonic glider”–V-MaX (Experimental Manoeuvering Vehicle)–that can travel at over 6,000 kilometres per hour, Defence Minister Florence Parly said last week, promising a test flight by the end of 2021.

In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned Western military analysts – and many in Russia – by unveiling plans for a new arsenal of hypersonic weapons which he said would render missile defence systems obsolete….A few months later US President Donald Trump threatened to walk away from a key arms control treaty with Moscow.

Hypersonic gliders would be carried to the end of the earth’s atmosphere by a launch vehicle and would then “glide” back to a target on the ground. “The goal is high-speed manoeuvrability. That’s how it differs from a ballistic trajectory,” the French government’s defence procurement and technology agency (DGA) said.  “Once the initial speed is reached, we can play with speed and altitude to move up and down, to the left and to the right, creating a trajectory that is more difficult to intercept,” it said…

In December 2018, the Kremlin touted the capabilities of its new hypersonic glider, aptly named “Avanguard”.  The Kremlin said that in tests, the intercontinental projectile reached 27 times the speed of sound – 33,000 kilometres per hour, or Mach 27.  “At this speed, not a single intercepter missile can shoot it down,” Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov boasted.  China has also reportedly carried out several successful tests since 2014 of a glider that can reach speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10.

Excerpts from Race for ‘hypersonic’ weapons heats up as France joins fray, Agence France Presse, Jan. 29, 2019

Shut-out, Cut-off and Suicidal: Aliens v. America

The United States leads the world in punishing corruption, money-laundering and sanctions violations. In the past decade it has increasingly punished foreign firms for misconduct that happens outside America. Scores of banks have paid tens of billions of dollars in fines. In the past 12 months several multinationals, including Glencore and ZTE, have been put through the legal wringer. The diplomatic row over Huawei, a Chinese telecoms-equipment firm, centres on the legitimacy of America’s extraterritorial reach.

America has taken it upon itself to become the business world’s policeman, judge and jury. It can do this because of its privileged role in the world economy. Companies that refuse to yield to its global jurisdiction can find themselves shut out of its giant domestic market, or cut off from using the dollar payments system and by extension from using mainstream banks. For most big companies that would be suicidal.

But as the full extent of extraterritorial legal activity has become clearer, so have three glaring problems.  First, the process is disturbingly improvised and opaque. Cases rarely go to court and, when they are settled instead, executives are hit with gagging orders. Facing little scrutiny, prosecutors have applied ever more expansive interpretations of what counts as the sort of link to America that makes an alleged crime punishable there; indirect contact with foreign banks with branches in America, or using Gmail, now seems to be enough. Imagine if China fined Amazon $5bn and jailed its executives for conducting business in Africa that did not break American law, but did offend Chinese rules and was discussed on WeChat.

Second, the punishments can be disproportionate. In 2014 bnp Paribas, a French bank, was hit with a sanctions-related fine of $8.9bn, enough to threaten its stability. In April ZTE, a Chinese tech firm with 80,000 employees, was banned by the Trump administration from dealing with American firms; it almost went out of business. The ban has since been reversed, underlining the impression that the rules are being applied on the hoof.

Third, America’s legal actions can often become intertwined with its commercial interests. As our investigation this week explains, a protracted bribery probe into Alstom, a French champion, helped push it into the arms of General Electric, an American industrial icon. American banks have picked up business from European rivals left punch-drunk by fines. Sometimes American firms are in the line of fire—Goldman Sachs is being investigated by the doj for its role in the 1mdb scandal in Malaysia. But many foreign executives suspect that American firms get special treatment and are wilier about navigating the rules.

America has much to be proud of as a corruption-fighter. But, for its own good as well as that of others, it needs to find an approach that is more transparent, more proportionate and more respectful of borders. If it does not, its escalating use of extraterritorial legal actions will ultimately backfire. It will discourage foreign firms from tapping American capital markets. It will encourage China and Europe to promote their currencies as rivals to the dollar and to develop global payments systems that bypass Uncle Sam…. Far from expressing geopolitical might, America’s legal overreach would then end up diminishing American power.

Excerpts from Tackling Corruption: Judge Dread, Economist, Jan. 19, 2019

The Space Rat Race

India, Japan and other space-faring countries are waking up to a harsh reality: Earth’s orbit is becoming a more dangerous place as the U.S., China and Russia compete for control of the final frontier…New Delhi is nervous because China has made no secret of its desire for influence in the Indian Ocean. China set up a naval base in Djibouti, a gateway to the ocean at the Horn of Africa. It secured a 99-year lease to the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. It is deeply involved in development projects in Maldives.

India has established itself as a player in the budget satellite business. It even put a probe into orbit around Mars in 2014, in a U.S.-assisted project that cost just $76 million. But it is scurrying to enhance its ability to monitor China’s activities, and the partnership with Japan is part of this.  Another sign that space is becoming a defense focus for India came on Dec. 19, when the country launched its third military communications satellite, the GSAT-7A. The satellite will connect with ground-based radar, bases and military aircraft, along with drone control networks.

China’s success in landing a craft on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3, 2019 came as a fresh reminder of its growing prowess. In late December, China also achieved global coverage with its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. Only the U.S., Russia and the European Union had that capability.China aims to launch a Mars explorer in 2020 and complete its own Earth-orbiting space station around 2022.  In the back of Indian and Japanese officials’ minds is likely a stunning test China conducted in 2007. Beijing successfully destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a weapon, becoming only the third nation to pull off such a feat, after the Soviet Union and the U.S.

In December 2018, President Donald Trump ordered the Department of Defense to create a Space Command, widely seen as a precursor to a full-fledged Space Force.  There were 1,957 active satellites orbiting Earth as of Nov. 30, 2018 according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit U.S. advocacy group. America had the most by far, with 849, or 43% of the total. China was No. 2, with 284, followed by Russia with 152.  Japan and India had a combined 132 — 75 for the former and 57 for the latter.

Excerpts fromNUPUR SHAW India and Japan awaken to risks of superpower space race, Nikkei Asian Review, Jan. 8, 2019

How to Discover an Illegal Logger

Tropical forests nearly the size of India are set to be destroyed by 2050 if current trends continue causing species loss, displacement and a major increase in climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.  Prior to the launch of the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) alerts, researchers would have to manually track images of logging in specific areas.

The new process, developed by scientists at the University of Maryland and Google, uses an algorithm to analyze weekly updates of satellite images and sends automatic notifications about new logging activity.”This is a game changer,” said Matt Finer from the Amazon Conservation Association, an environmental group.

His organization tracks illegal logging in Peru, sending images of deforestation to policymakers, environmentalists and government officials to try and protect the Amazon rainforest.  In the past, he would rely on tips from local people about encroachment by loggers, then look at older satellite images to try and corroborate the claims.

“With this new data we can focus on getting actionable information to policy makers,” Finer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.  “We have seen how powerful these images can be,” he said, citing a case where his group brought pictures of illegal gold miners cutting down trees to the Peruvian government, who then removed the miners.

Excerpt from  CHRIS ARSENAULT, New satellite program aims to cut down illegal logging in real time, Reuters, Mar. 2, 2016

Caring for the Third Pole

The Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding mountains [the Himalayas], often termed the Third Pole, contain more ice than anywhere outside the Arctic and Antarctic. This region is also the source of the nine largest rivers in Asia, providing fresh water, food, and other ecosystem services to more than 1.5 billion people…In recent decades, air temperature at the Third Pole has warmed significantly faster than the global average…Meanwhile, intensive anthropogenic activities, such as overgrazing, deforestation, urbanization, and expansion of infrastructure projects such as construction of roads, dams, and electrical grids, are causing widespread landcover changes within the region.

Together, these changes are altering the Third Pole’s biogeochemical cycles and pushing the fragile ecosystem toward degradation and possible collapse, which would cause irreversible harm on a regional and global scale. To avoid this, all nations must meet the standards laid out in the Paris Agreement. At the regional level, we strongly urge the relevant nations (including Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Tajikistan) to cooperate in addressing these impending threats through systematic changes to management policies. Rapid and unprecedented coordination will be necessary, including a regional cooperation treaty and formation of a cross-border biodiversity conservation plan for the Third Pole region. Meanwhile, any infrastructure projects undertaken must be environmentally sustainable, and a practicable grazing management policy should be adopted.

Excerpts from Jie Liu, Protect Third Pole’s Fragile Ecosystem, Science,  Dec. 21, 2018

Saving the Scarlet Macaw

“Apu Pauni” is the name for the scarlet macaw in the indigenous Miskitu language.  This brightly coloured parrot is the national bird of Honduras. It is said that it once traveled the skies throughout the country and that its song was heard by the ancient Mayans.

Today, the largest wild population of macaw in the country is believed to be in the eastern region of ​​La Moskitia, …The “Apu Prana” (“the beauty of the scarlet macaw” in theMiskitu language) Community Association responsible for the initiative and the centre received training in hospitality, eco-tourism and business management….Although most of the bird monitoring processes are carried out by men, who walk up to six hours into the forest on the edge of the community, it is the women are responsible for caring for the birds in the rehabilitation centre.  “This is where we bring the captured scarlet macaws*, those that do not have wings, those that are sick, even abandoned chicks.

The Mavita community has been recognized internationally by the Mesoamerican Society for Biology and Conservation for its efforts in the conservation….The “La Moskitia” project was implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Excerpts from Guardians of the scarlet macaw, UN Development Program, Press Release,  May 9, 2018

*Poachers climb trees where the parrots nest and pinch the chicks before they learn to fly. People in China, Australia and Middle East pay $6 000 online. In 2014 not one newborn parrort reached adulthood in its native land, Economist, Jan. 12, 2019, at 30

Killer Robots: Your Kids V. Theirs

The harop, a kamikaze drone, bolts from its launcher like a horse out of the gates. But it is not built for speed, nor for a jockey. Instead it just loiters, unsupervised, too high for those on the battlefield below to hear the thin old-fashioned whine of its propeller, waiting for its chance.

Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) has been selling the Harop for more than a decade. A number of countries have bought the drone, including India and Germany. …In 2017, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (sipri), a think-tank, the Harop was one of 49 deployed systems which could detect possible targets and attack them without human intervention. It is thus very much the sort of thing which disturbs the coalition of 89 non-governmental organisations (ngos) in 50 countries that has come together under the banner of the “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots”.

The Phalanx guns used by the navies of America and its allies. Once switched on, the Phalanx will fire on anything it sees heading towards the ship it is mounted on. And in the case of a ship at sea that knows itself to be under attack by missiles too fast for any human trigger finger, that seems fair enough. Similar arguments can be made for the robot sentry guns in the demilitarised zone (dmz) between North and South Korea.

Autonomous vehicles do not have to become autonomous weapons, even when capable of deadly force. The Reaper drones with which America assassinates enemies are under firm human control when it comes to acts of violence, even though they can fly autonomously…. One of the advantages that MDBA, a European missile-maker, boasts for its air-to-ground Brimstones is that they can “self-sort” based on firing order. If different planes launch volleys of Brimstones into the same “kill box”, where they are free to do their worst, the missiles will keep tabs on each other to reduce the chance that two strike the same target.

Cost is also a factor in armies where trained personnel are pricey. “The thing about robots is that they don’t have pensions,”…If keeping a human in the loop was merely a matter of spending more, it might be deemed worthwhile regardless. But human control creates vulnerabilities. It means that you must pump a lot of encrypted data back and forth. What if the necessary data links are attacked physically—for example with anti-satellite weapons—jammed electronically or subverted through cyberwarfare? Future wars are likely to be fought in what America’s armed forces call “contested electromagnetic environments”. The Royal Air Force is confident that encrypted data links would survive such environments. But air forces have an interest in making sure there are still jobs for pilots; this may leave them prey to unconscious bias.

The vulnerability of communication links to interference is an argument for greater autonomy. But autonomous systems can be interfered with, too. The sensors for weapons like Brimstone need to be a lot more fly than those required by, say, self-driving cars, not just because battlefields are chaotic, but also because the other side will be trying to disorient them. Just as some activists use asymmetric make-up to try to confuse face-recognition systems, so military targets will try to distort the signatures which autonomous weapons seek to discern. Paul Scharre, author of “Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War”, warns that the neural networks used in machine learning are intrinsically vulnerable to spoofing.

The 2017 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons has put together a group of governmental experts to study the finer points of autonomy. As well as trying to develop a common understanding of what weapons should be considered fully autonomous, it is considering both a blanket ban and other options for dealing with the humanitarian and security challenges that they create.  Most states involved in the convention’s discussions agree on the importance of human control. But they differ on what this actually means. In a paper for Article 36, an advocacy group named after a provision of the Geneva conventions that calls for legal reviews on new methods of warfare, Heather Roff and Richard Moyes argue that “a human simply pressing a ‘fire’ button in response to indications from a computer, without cognitive clarity or awareness” is not really in control. “Meaningful control”, they say, requires an understanding of the context in which the weapon is being used as well as capacity for timely and reasoned intervention. It also requires accountability…

The two dozen states that want a legally binding ban on fully autonomous weapons are mostly military minnows like Djibouti and Peru, but some members, such as Austria, have diplomatic sway. None of them has the sort of arms industry that stands to profit from autonomous weapons. They ground their argument in part on International Humanitarian Law (IHL), a corpus built around the rules of war laid down in the Hague and Geneva conventions. This demands that armies distinguish between combatants and civilians, refrain from attacks where the risk to civilians outweighs the military advantage, use no more force than is proportional to the objective and avoid unnecessary suffering…Beyond the core group advocating a ban there is a range of opinions. China has indicated that it supports a ban in principle; but on use, not development. France and Germany oppose a ban, for now; but they want states to agree a code of conduct with wriggle room “for national interpretations”. India is reserving its position. It is eager to avoid a repeat of nuclear history, in which technological have-nots were locked out of game-changing weaponry by a discriminatory treaty.

At the far end of the spectrum a group of states, including America, Britain and Russia, explicitly opposes the ban. These countries insist that existing international law provides a sufficient check on all future systems….States are likely to sacrifice human control for self-preservation, says General Barrons. “You can send your children to fight this war and do terrible things, or you can send machines and hang on to your children.” Other people’s children are other people’s concern.

Excerpts from Briefing Autonomous Weapons: Trying to Restrain the Robots, Economist, Jan. 19, 2019, at 22

Unwanted Fish: Another Waste

Long before fillets reach your dinner plate, lots of seafood is thrown away. Overboard, actually. As fishing crews sort through their catches, they toss unwanted fish back into the sea—as much as 20% of the global catch. The vast majority die. On 1 January, 2019 the wasteful practice became illegal in waters of the European Union. Scientists believe the policy will lead to more efficient fisheries and eventually boost stocks, while incentivizing more selective fishing gear and strategies. But in the short term it could mean hardship for the industry and perhaps even compromise fisheries data, if hidden cheating becomes widespread.

Few expect all fishing vessels to obey the discard ban. “Put yourself in the boots of a fishermen who can see he will run out of quota for a species. If he does, he would have to tie up for the rest of the year. He might have to sell the boat, or sell the house,” says Barrie Deas, CEO of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in York, U.K. “What’s he going to do?”  Scofflaws could jeopardize not just fish stocks, but also data about how they are faring. Researchers, who suggest catch levels to regulators, get their discard data largely from independent observers on just a few boats—less than 1% of the EU fleet. Observed boats are now likely to discard much fewer fish than other vessels, leaving an official undercount of the discard rate and a falsely rosy picture of how heavily stocks are fished, says Lisa Borges, a fisheries biologist who runs a consultancy called FishFix in Lisbon. “It could bring about a very big, negative change,” Borges says. “I get very worried about European fisheries management.”

Environmentalists want to toughen up enforcement by installing cameras on ships, the practice in New Zealand and a few other places with discard bans. But Voces de Onaindi says this is impractical on some vessels and raises privacy concerns. Countries where discard bans have succeeded, including Norway and Iceland, have gradually introduced incentives and controls to develop the economic use of unwanted fish and create a culture of regulatory compliance. Those steps, Andersen says, lessen conflict but can take decades to achieve.

Ships banned from throwing unwanted fish overboard
Erik Stokstad

Climate Change: the Costs of Deep Decarbonization

Nuclear is already the largest source of low-carbon energy in the United States and Europe and the second-largest source worldwide (after hydropower). In the September 2018 report of the MIT Energy Initiative, The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World shows that extending the life of the existing fleet of nuclear reactors worldwide is the least costly approach to avoiding an increase of carbon emissions in the power sector. Yet, some countries have prioritized closing nuclear plants, and other countries have policies that undermine the financial viability of their plants. Fortunately, there are signs that this situation is changing. In the United States, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York have taken steps to preserve their nuclear plants as part of a larger decarbonization strategy. In Taiwan, voters rejected a plan to end the use of nuclear energy. In France, decisions on nuclear plant closures must account for the impact on decarbonization commitments. In the United Kingdom, the government’s decarbonization policy entails replacing old nuclear plants with new ones. Strong actions are needed also in Belgium, Japan, South Korea, Spain, and Switzerland, where the existing nuclear fleet is seriously at risk of being phased out.

What about the existing electricity sector in developed countries—can it become fully decarbonized? In the United States, China, and Europe, the most effective and least costly path is a combination of variable renewable energy technologies—those that fluctuate with time of day or season (such as solar or wind energy), and low-carbon dispatchable sources (whose power output to the grid can be controlled on demand). Some options, such as hydropower and geothermal energy, are geographically limited. Other options, such as battery storage, are not affordable at the scale needed to balance variable energy demand through long periods of low wind and sun or through seasonal fluctuations, although that could change in the coming decades.

Nuclear energy is one low-carbon dispatchable option that is virtually unlimited and available now. Excluding nuclear power could double or triple the average cost of electricity for deep decarbonization scenarios because of the enormous overcapacity of solar energy, wind energy, and batteries that would be required to meet demand in the absence of a dispatchable low-carbon energy source.  One obstacle is that the cost of new nuclear plants has escalated, especially in the first-of-a-kind units currently being deployed in the United States and Western Europe. This may limit the role of nuclear power in a low-carbon portfolio and raise the cost of deep decarbonization. The good news is that the cost of new nuclear plants can be reduced through…modular construction shifting  labor from construction sites to productive factories and shipyards…and seismic isolation to protect the plant against earthquakes, which simplifies the structural design of the plant.

Excerpts from John Parsons, A fresh look at nuclear energy, Science, Jan. 2019

The Bloody Hunt: Whale-Meat Hunger

Japan’s 26 December 2018 announcement that it will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and resume commercial whaling in its own waters and unabandon large-scale whaling ion the high seas under the mantle of scientific research triggered fierce criticism around the world.

In March 2014, the International Court of Justice sided with the critics in a suit brought by Australia, ordering Japan to halt its Antarctic whaling research. (The case did not address Japan’s North Pacific research programs.) Japan canceled its Antarctic research cruises for a year, then resumed them under new programs it deemed compliant with the court’s ruling.

In its scientific programs, Japan has harvested thousands of minke whales and smaller numbers of other species. Numbers have fallen, in part because demand for whale meat has dropped, and may fall further when whaling is limited to a commercial hunt in coastal waters.  The International Whaling Commission (IWC) concedes that the current population of several hundred thousand minke whales in the Antarctic is “clearly not endangered.” But the fight is no longer just about sustainability; whaling opponents say the bloody hunt for the majestic mammals is simply inhumane. IWC rejected the Japanese proposal, and the meeting adopted a resolution emphasizing that IWC’s purpose is to ensure the recovery of cetacean populations to preindustrial levels and reaffirming the moratorium on commercial whaling. That one-two punch triggered Japan’s December announcement.

Now Japan’s whaling efforts will shift to its own coastal waters and the 320-kilometer exclusive economic zone around them. Whether whales there will now be at risk is a subject of debate. The Northern Hemisphere minke population as a whole “is not threatened,” says Cooke, but waters near the Koreas and Japan are home to an “unusual and possibly unique” population, called the J-stock, that breeds in the summer instead of the winter, he says.  Japanese fishers already catch about 100 minke whales each year in these waters, Komatsu says. (Rather than the traditional harpoons, they use nets, which is allowed under the IWC moratorium.) But increasing the harvest with harpoon whaling could put pressure on the J-stock. Japan’s December  2018 announcement said catch limits will be set “to avoid negative impact on cetacean resources” but provided no details.

Shifting consumer tastes and a growing environmental awareness have already led to a steep decline in Japanese whale meat consumption, from 203,000 tons in 1965 to just 4000 tons in 2015. Three major fishing companies appear to have no interest in commercial whaling. Cooke suspects Japan will go the way of Norway, where “a niche operation is feeding a niche market but with decreasing interest in the market and decreasing interest in going whaling.”…Although Japan intends to continue to participate in IWC as an observer, it will no longer contribute to the group’s budget. (In 2017, it provided about 6% of IWC’s $2.7 million total income.)

Excerpts from , ennis NormileWhy Japan’s exit from international whaling treaty may actually benefit whales, Science, Jan. 10, 2018

Your Biometric Data in Facebook

A federal judge has dismissed a class action lawsuit against Facebook after the California-based social media site claimed there was a lack of personal jurisdiction in Illinois.The plaintiff in the case, Fredrick William Gullen, filed the complaint alleging violations of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. Gullen is not a Facebook user, but he alleged that his image was uploaded to the site and that his biometric identifiers and biometric information was collected, stored and used by Facebook without his consent. The Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, implemented in 2008, regulates the collection, use, and storage of biometric identifiers and biometric information such as scans of face or hand geometry. The act specifically excludes photographs, demographic information, and physical descriptions….

In the Facebook case, no ruling has been made on whether the information on Facebook counts as biometric identifiers and biometric information under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. Instead, the judge agreed with Facebook that the case could not be tried in Illinois.

However, the company is currently facing a proposed class action in California relating to some of the same questions….How the California class action will play out remains to be seen. California does not yet have a clear policy on biometric privacy.A bill pending in the state’s legislature would extend the scope of the data security law to include biometric data as well as geophysical location, but it has not yet become law.  The question of privacy in regards to biometric information is one that has garnered increasing attention in recent months. On Feb. 4, 2016 the Biomterics Institute, an independent research and analysis organization, released revised guidelines comprising 16 privacy principles for companies that gather and use biometrics data.

Excerpts from Emma Gallimore, Federal judge boots Illinois biometrics class action against Facebook, Legal Newswire, Feb. 22, 2016, 12:15pm

See also the case (pdf)

Making a Fortune from Climate Change

Eleven years ago Dharsono Hartono, a former JPMorgan Chase & Co. banker, spotted what he thought was a new way to make a fortune: climate change.The plan was to snap up rainforest in Borneo, preserve it from logging and sell carbon credits to big polluting companies in the developed world. The earth’s temperature was rising, and this was a way to profit by confronting the problem.  Investors around the world have poured money into assets like once-frozen farmland in Canada and groundwater basins in California, betting that warming temperatures will raise their value.  Another bet has been on what some investors hope will be the most profitable outcome of a warming climate: government regulation of carbon emissions. Those who correctly anticipate future government responses to climate change are likely to reap profits.

Mr. Hartono went in big. His company’s rain forest, a humid and swampy expanse home to orangutans and clouded leopards, is twice the size of New York City and has one of the largest carbon stores of any such project in the world.  Mr. Hartono has sold just 20% of his credits to environmentally conscious corporations voluntarily buying credits, and has lost around $20 million, burning through $5 million to $10 million a year in recent years. Other investors in Indonesia and Latin America who made similar bets, including one backed by Australian bank Macquarie Group , failed to sell credits and abandoned their rain-forest projects…

Only after actor Harrison Ford visited the project to shoot a documentary on climate change, and raised the issue with Indonesia’s forestry minister, did final approval come for most of the concession in October 2013. For an initial payment of around $3 million to the Indonesian government, Mr. Hartono’s company gained the rights to the forestland for 60 years.  By then, however, some environmentalists were questioning private carbon-selling projects like Mr. Hartono’s. They argued that buying up and preserving rain forest to sell credits wouldn’t decrease net deforestation, since palm-oil barons would simply work around the few protected plots in the forest.  U.S. legislation that would have put a price on carbon failed during the Obama administration. The European Union’s carbon market doesn’t include tropical forests amid worry that low-cost credits generated there would make it affordable to pollute…

The Paris climate accords are expected to lead to an international carbon market after 2020, where countries that exceed emissions targets can purchase offset credits from countries that reduce emissions beyond their targets, potentially opening up new opportunities for Mr. Hartono.

Excerpts fom One Man’s Money Draining Bet on Climate Change, WSJ, Dec. 27, 2018

Keeping up with the Joneses: Nuclear Power

Worried the U.S. may be falling behind rivals in nuclear-power technology, the Energy Department plans to spend $115 million to help develop advanced fuels for next-generation reactors.  Under a three-year pilot project announced, the money would go to an Ohio company to produce a more energy-dense uranium, which the nuclear industry has been asking for to support a budding industry of smaller reactors.  Department officials say they plan to award the contract to American Centrifuge Operating, a unit of Centrus Energy Corp. , unless rival companies can make a compelling case by Jan. 22, 2019.

The U.S. nuclear industry is at a crossroads that has jeopardized its workforce in the U.S. and helped fuel the rise of U.S. rivals abroad. The industry, faced with safety concerns, expensive regulations and competition from other fuels, is pushing to reinvent its core technology to be simpler, cheaper and often much smaller….China has become one of the few countries building nuclear-power capacity, and Russia has taken a dominant position in developing projects elsewhere…Russia is the only country capable of producing the higher-enriched uranium the Energy Department’s new program would produce. Without it, the U.S. risks being left out of the global industry’s next stage, said Dan Brouillette, Deputy Energy Secretary.

Excertps from Timothy Puko, New Effort to Develop Advanced Nuclear Fuel, WSJ, Jan. 7, 2018

A Botanical Treasure: Congo

Situated along the banks of the Congo River, the Yangambi Research Station was in its heyday a booming scientific hub, revered for its invaluable work in the Congo Basin throughout the midcentury.

It wasn’t to last. War, political instability and budget cuts were to hamper the center’s survival after Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) gained independence from its colonial ruler, Belgium, in 1960. The following decades would see skilled staff numbers dwindle, the jungle reclaim its buildings, and the center’s science work come to a stop.  But inside these crumbling walls lay a botanical treasure-trove. Yangambi’s herbarium holds Central Africa’s largest collection of dried plants. In fact, 15% of its 150,000 specimens are so rare, that they can only be found here….

Efforts from the Congolese Institute for Agronomy Research (INERA) could not keep the center running alone.   It was in 2017 that a ‘game changing’ opportunity arrived. INERA and the Meise Botanic Garden partnered with FORETS, a project coordinated by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)and financed by the European Union…Now, the herbarium has benefitted from a facelift – including a new roof, windows and doors, and a water cistern – soon its staff will be trained in modern preservation techniques and new technologies…Digitization of specimens will enable access to researchers around the world.

Excerpts from AHTZIRI GONZALEZ, Protecting Congo’s botanical treasures, CIFOR Press Release, Jan 11, 2019

What to Do with 56 000 Drums of Nuclear Waste: Japan

At least 1.9 trillion yen ($17.12 billion) will be needed for the planned scrapping of 79 nuclear facilities, including the failed Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, according to the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA).

However, the JAEA’s estimate, released on Dec. 26, 2018 does not include maintenance expenses for the facilities nor costs to deal with leftover uranium and plutonium, meaning the actual tally could increase by hundreds of billions of yen.  State subsidies account for the bulk of the JAEA’s budget, so taxpayers will likely foot most of the bill.  The agency plans to shut down 79 of its 89 nuclear facilities, including research reactors and test buildings, over 60 to 70 years due to aging and the huge costs needed for their continued operations under stricter safety standards.

According to the JAEA’s estimate, the cost to decommission the Tokai spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Ibaraki Prefecture will be 770 billion yen.  But the overall cost would reach nearly 1 trillion yen if expenses on dealing with highly radioactive liquid waste, which is left after plutonium is extracted from spent fuel rods at the plant, are included.

The problem-plagued Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, cost taxpayers more than 1 trillion yen ($8.82 billion) despite running for only 250 days during its two-decade operation. ..But the JAEA currently has no plan on how to handle plutonium stored at the facilities. In addition, no decision has been made on what to do with radioactive waste from the 79 facilities that could fill more than 560,000 200-liter drums.

Excerpt JAEA: Closing 79 nuclear facilities will cost at least 1.9 trillion yen
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN, Dec. 27 2018

Planting Electronics in Brains

 An implantable brain device that literally melts away at a pre-determined rate minimizes injury to tissue normally associated with standard electrode implantation, according to research led by a team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. …Thin, flexible neural electrode arrays with fully bioresorbable construction based on patterned silicon nanomembranes (Si NMs) as the conducting component.

“Dissolvable silicon electronics offer an unprecedented opportunity to implant advanced monitoring systems that eliminate the risks, cost, and discomfort associated with surgery to extract current devices used for post-operative monitoring,” said senior co-author Brian Litt, MD,….“This study tested the usefulness of temporary, dissolvable monitoring systems capable of providing continuous streams of data for guiding medical care over predetermined periods of time — from days to months — before dissolving.”

The device is made of layers of silicon and molybdenum that can measure physiological characteristics and dissolve at a known rate, as determined by its thickness. For example, the team used the device to record brain waves in rats under anesthesia, as well as voltage fluctuations between neurons (EEGs), and induced epileptic spikes in intact live tissue. A separate experiment demonstrated a complex, multiplexed array made from these materials that could map rat-whisker sensing capabilities at high resolution.

These electrophysiological signals were recorded from devices placed at the surface of the brain cortex (the outer layer of tissue) and the inner space between the scalp and skull. Chronic measurements were made over a 30-day period, while acute experiments demonstrated device operations over three to four hours.

The type of neurophysiologic features measured by the new device are commonly used for diagnosing and treating such disorders as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, depression, chronic pain, and conditions of the peripheral nervous system. “….

This work was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Penn Medicine Neuroscience Center,  and others.

See Next-Gen Electrodes: Proof-of-Concept Animal Study Shows that Flexible, Dissolvable Silicon Electronic Device Holds Promise for Brain Monitoring , Press Release, May 5, 2016

See also Nature Materials

The US Military and the Peripheral Nervous System

How the Shipping Industry Gets its Way: pollution from ships

Do not give the regulated power over the regulators, unless you want consumers to lose out and producers to game the system. ..That lesson has been learned in many places around the world. National regulators are increasingly independent of the firms they regulate. But international ones still have further to go—and none further than the specialised agencies of the United Nations, such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for shipping where the interests of the shipping industry are upheld d in several ways. The first is the distribution of voting rights between countries. At the IMO, for example, Panama and Liberia, with populations of just 4m and 4.8m respectively, can automatically get seats on its decision-making body as they have the world’s biggest merchant fleets.

The second is the assignment of those voting rights by individual countries. Remarkably, many governments have handed voting rights to private-sector firms… At the IMO least 17 countries have assigned their voting rights to flag registries operated by private firms, reckons Transparency International, an anti-corruption group; that adds up to about a tenth of delegates. At an IMO environmental-committee meeting in 2017, almost a third of countries were represented, at least in part, by business interests.

The third way in which producer interests are protected is through a spectacular lack of transparency. The agenda of the IMO’s council in November 2018 in London is available only to those with a password. Journalists are forbidden to report what delegates say or how they vote. There are no rules on the suitability or conflict of interests of delegates. In 2014 St Lucia appointed a Saudi billionaire without previous shipping experience as its IMO representative; a court in London judged in 2016 that the appointment was obtained in order to gain diplomatic immunity against divorce proceedings. There are no limits on the amount of gifts that can be showered on representatives. Goodies put on top of desks at an IMO assembly meeting last year were so heavy that they broke 137 sets of headphones underneath.

Such swampiness matters. The IMO is responsible for limiting emissions from ships, which were excluded from the Paris climate deal.   Some countries are interested in reform. At the imo council meeting this week Australia proposed allowing journalists to report on its meetings as a first step. The Marshall Islands has taken back some of its votes from the private firm that runs its flag registry. But more radical change is needed. Countries should send civil servants, not private actors, as their representatives. The un’s rules on conflicts of interest should be imposed. And voting rights should be allocated with the interests of consumers in mind. These lessons have been widely absorbed within borders. They ought to cross them, too

Excerpts from UN Regulatory Bodies: Agency Problems, Economist, Nov. 24, 2018, at 15

How to Hide Nuclear Bombs in the Ocean: Nuclear Submarines

The INS Arihant’s India’s nuclear submarine inaugural voyage in November 2018 was a triumphal step forward in India’s long, often tortuous quest to deploy atomic weapons at sea…  Hiding missiles in the ocean solves these problems, giving India more confidence that its forces could survive a nuclear attack from China or Pakistan, and hit back.But managing such weapons is not easy. One difficulty is ensuring that a submarine can receive orders without giving away its location. India has been building low-frequency radio stations, which use large antennas to propel signals underwater, for this purpose. Yet these are also vulnerable to attack, which is why some nuclear-armed states use airborne transmitters as well.

A second hitch is that the k-15 missiles aboard the Arihant can only fly a puny 750km, which means that the submarine would have to park itself dangerously close to China’s coastline to have a hope of striking big cities. Longer-range missiles, which could be fired from the safety of Indian waters, are in the works. But bigger missiles, and more of them, necessitate a bigger hull. That, in turn, requires that the nuclear-powered subs be fitted with bigger reactors—a fiendish technical challenge.

A third problem is keeping the Arihant safe. Nuclear submarines can only do their job if they can slip silently out of port and into the oceans. They are typically chaperoned by leaner attack submarines. But admirals complain that the navy, whose share of the defence budget has dwindled to 15%, has just 13 of these. The delivery of new French attack subs has been delayed.

Meanwhile India’s nuclear arsenal is swelling. A recent report by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a research organisation, estimates that it has 130-140 nuclear warheads, with enough fissile material for 60-70 more. The stockpile, though smaller than Pakistan’s and half the size of China’s, has roughly doubled since 2010. Many of the new warheads will go to sea. A second nuclear submarine, the Arighant, is nearing completion, and a third is in the works.

India’s Nuclear Submarines, Economist,  Nov. 17, 2018, at 44

Who to Blame for Climate Change? the Carbon Majors

 Whether the damage caused by extreme weather events can be linked to human emissions of greenhouse gases is one of the hottest topics in climate science. And that debate leads directly to another: if this link can be established, who bears the responsibility?  Both of these questions are at the center of an inquiry by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, whose latest hearings took place in London in November 2018. It is the first time a human-rights commission has heard evidence on whether large emitters violate basic human rights by causing climate change

 Where the hearings become more unusual is in investigating the link between the damage caused by climate change and the behaviour of large industrial companies. This is predicated on recent efforts to trace greenhouse-gas emissions back to large corporate and state-owned producers of fossil fuels and cement, dubbed the “carbon majors”. The latest analysis by cdp (formerly the  Carbon Disclosure Project), a non-governmental organisation that works with companies, cities and states to measure their environmental impact, published in 2017, found that 100 of them had produced just over half of emissions since the Industrial Revolution.

The Philippine hearings will come to a close in December in Manila. The commission does not have the power to compensate victims of typhoons or to sanction emitters of carbon dioxide. According to Roberto Cadiz, one of the commissioners, that isn’t even the point. His wish is to open a dialogue about possible solutions to climate change that includes the industrial emitters. So far, however, only one side of the story is being heard. The emitters have declined to participate.

Excerpts from Climate Change: The Blame Game, Economist, Nov. 17, 2018

Saving the Sea of Galilee

The water level of the Sea of Galilee, on which Jesus supposedly walked, is a national obsession in Israel. Newspapers report its rise and fall next to the weather forecast. Lately the sea, which is actually a freshwater lake, has been falling. It is now a quarter empty. Small islands have emerged above its shrinking surface. 

For the past five years Israel has experienced its worst drought in nearly a century. That has reduced the flow of the Jordan river and other streams that feed into the Sea of Galilee. Less turnover in the lake’s water is leading to increased salinity and the spread of cyanobacteria (sometimes called “blue-green algae”, despite not being algae). As the pressure from fresh water eases, it allows in more salt water from subterranean streams. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these problems, perhaps one day making the lake water undrinkable.

Israel can probably cope. For most of its history the Sea of Galilee was its largest source of drinking water. But over the past decade the country has invested heavily in desalination plants and projects that allow it to reclaim effluents and brackish water. Since 2016 well over half of the water consumed by households, farms and industry has been “man-made”. Less than 70m cubic metres of water will be pumped out of the Sea of Galilee this year for consumption, down from 400m in the past. Some 50m will go to Jordan, which is also suffering from a severe drought.

In Jun 2018e the Israeli government authorised a billion-shekel ($270m) plan to pump desalinated sea water, mostly from the Mediterranean, into the Sea of Galilee. Work on a new pipeline began last month. A freshwater lake has never been replenished in this way, but the scientists monitoring the plan believe it will work similarly to rainfall and will not harm the lake’s unique ecosystem.  By 2020 the new pipeline is expected to pump enough desalinated water into the Sea of Galilee to stabilise its level. 

Excerpts from The Sea of Galilee: Walking on Desalinated Water, Economist,  Dec. 1, 2018

Genetically Modified Crops in Africa: opponents

According to the acting director, Andrew Kigundu,  of Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO): “The idea of work on genetically engineered bananas is a result of many years of testing of Banana production.” The experiments started in 2005 and work is still ongoing to improve on the content of the fruit and resistance to parasites….The East African country is the first African country to turn toward GM to improve its production of bananas. An option which should make the country remain the first producer in the world .

The adoption of restrictive policies across Africa has been pursued under the pretext of protecting the environment and human health. So far there has been little evidence to support draconian biosafety rules. It is important that the risks of new products be assessed. But the restrictions should proportionate and consistent with needs of different countries.

Africa’s needs are different from those of the EU. There are certain uniquely African problems where GM should be considered as an option.   The Xanthomonas banana wilt bacterial disease causes early ripening and discoloration of bananas, a staple crop for Uganda. This costs the Great Lakes region nearly US $500m annually in losses. There is no treatment for the disease, which continues to undermine food security.  Ugandan scientists at Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute have developed a GM approach but their efforts to further their research in the technology are hampered by opposition to it. Those opposed to the technology advocate the adoption of an EU biosafety approach that would effectively stall the adoption of the technology. In fact, some of opponents using scare tactics against the technology are EU-based non-governmental organizations.

Genetically modified bananas solve Uganda’s productivity problems, AllAfricanews, May 24, 2016; See also Excerpt FromHow the EU starves Africa into submission,” by Calestous Juma, a professor of the practice of international development at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government:  “EU policy undermines African agricultural innovation …in the field of genetically modified (GM) crops. The EU exercises its right not to cultivate transgenic crops but only to import them as animal feed. However, its export of restrictive policies on GM crops has negatively affected Africa.”

The Most Highly Polluted Mammals: Killer Whales

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are among the most highly polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)–contaminated mammals in the world, raising concern about the health consequences of current PCB exposures.  Until they were recognized as highly toxic and carcinogenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were once used widely. Their production was banned in the United States in 1978, though they are still produced globally and persist in the environment. Persistent organic compounds, like PCBs, magnify across trophic levels, and thus apex predators are particularly susceptible to their ill effects. Desforges et al. looked at the continuing impact of PCBs on one of the largest marine predators, the killer whale. Using globally available data, the authors found high concentrations of PCBs within killer whale tissues. These are likely to precipitate declines across killer whale populations, particularly those that feed at high trophic levels and are the closest to industrialized areas.

Jean-Pierre Desforge, Predicting global killer whale population collapse from PCB pollution, Science, Sept. 28, 2018

How to Stop the Chemical Wars of the Future

Stark illustrations of the dangers from chemical weapons can be seen in attacks using toxic industrial chemicals and sarin against civilians and combatants in Syria and toxic industrial chemicals in Iraq, as well as more targeted assassination operations in Malaysia and the United Kingdom, employing VX and novichok nerve agents, respectively. . With the parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) convening a Review Conference to address such issues beginning 21 November 2018, we highlight important scientific aspects .

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a multilateral treaty in effect since 1997 that proscribes the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons “under any circumstances” and requires their destruction within a specified time period. The CWC allows the use of toxic chemicals for a range of industrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical, or other peaceful purposes, including law enforcement, as long as the “types and quantities” of chemicals employed are “consistent with such purposes.” …The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is the implementing body of the CWC, comprises the 193 State Parties and a Technical Secretariat that provides technical assistance to States, routinely inspects relevant State and commercial industrial facilities, and monitors activities to ensure compliance. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for overseeing and facilitating the verified destruction of most of the declared chemical weapons stocks produced in the last century—to date totaling more than 96% (69,750 metric tons) of the declared stockpiles of chemical agents.

Although the CWC includes three schedules of toxic chemicals for the application of verification measures, the scope of the CWC is not constrained to these schedules but by its General Purpose Criterion (GPC), which prohibits misuse of toxic chemicals based on intent rather than on this limited list of chemicals.  [This GPC makes it possible to widen the authority of the OPCW. More, specifically issues to consider include]:

1) Riot control agents (RCAs). The CWC defines RCAs—such as tear gas and pepper spray—as “any chemical not listed” in one of its three schedules that can produce “rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.”…However, a recurring concern documented by the medical community and human rights monitors has been the widespread misuse of RCAs by police and security forces in excessive quantities, including in hospitals, prisons, homes, and automobiles, where targeted individuals cannot disperse. In such situations, serious injury or death can result from toxic properties of chemicals or from asphyxiation… [It is important to clarify] the nature and scope of “law enforcement” activities and develop guidance as to “types and quantities” of RCAs that can legitimately be used in such circumstances

2) Delivery systems… capable of delivering far greater amounts of RCAs (and potentially other toxic chemicals) over wider areas or more extended distances than current standard law enforcement delivery mechanisms, such as handheld sprays, grenades, and single launched projectiles. Such new systems include large-capacity spraying devices, automatic grenade launchers, multibarrel projectile launchers, large-caliber RCA projectiles, and unmanned ground or aerial vehicles capable of carrying spraying devices or projectile launchers. ..

3) Incapacitating chemical agent (ICA) weapons. Although the CWC permits use of appropriate types and quantities of RCAs for law enforcement, certain countries have conducted research into weapons employing other distinct toxic chemicals, so-called ICAs. Not separately defined under the CWC, ICAs can be considered as a range of toxic chemicals—only one of which [3-quinuclidinyl benzilate (BZ) and two of its immediate precursors] is currently scheduled—including anesthetics and other pharmaceutical chemicals that are purportedly intended to act on the body’s core biochemical and physiological systems, notably the central nervous system (CNS), to cause prolonged but nonpermanent disability. Such CNS-acting chemicals can produce unconsciousness, sedation, hallucination, incoherence, disorientation, or paralysis…An aerosolized mixture of two anesthetics—carfentanil and remifentanil—employed by Russian security forces to end the Moscow theatre siege of October 2002 caused the deaths of 125 of the 900 hostages

Other chemical production facilities (OCPFs) are chemical plants that do not currently produce, but are capable of manufacturing, chemical warfare agents or precursors. At present, a small fraction of declared OCPFs are selected for verification by the OPCW; the Review Conference should consider authorizing a substantial increase in OCPF inspections per year. …Biological and biologically mediated processes for production of discrete organic chemicals  Some products and processes used by the biomanufacturing industry are as relevant to the CWC as those used by other OCPF facilities  The OPCW should  build on the considerable progress made toward developing a network of designated laboratories for the analysis of biomedical and biological samples. Advances in other fields could also facilitate more effective evidence collection, for example, exploring the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles to support reconnaissance, detection, and chain of custody.

Excerpts from  Michael Crowley at al., Preventing Chemical Weapons as Sciences Converge, Science, Nov. 16, 2018

By Hook or By Crook: Harvesting DNA of Indigenous Peoples

Tensions between Western scientists and Indigenous communities around the world. (“Indigenous” is an internationally inclusive term for the original inhabitants, and their descendants, of regions later colonized by other groups.) Scientists have used Indigenous samples without permission, disregarded their customs around the dead, and resisted returning samples, data, and human remains to those who claim them. Indigenous communities have often responded by severely restricting scientists’ sampling of their bodies and their ancestors, even as genomics has boomed, with increasing relevance for health….

The  Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING) aims to train Indigenous scientists in genomics so that they can introduce that field’s tools to their communities as well as bring a sorely needed Indigenous perspective to research. Since Malhi helped found it at UI in 2011, SING has trained more than 100 graduates and has expanded to New Zealand and Canada. The program has created a strong community of Indigenous scientists and non-Indigenous allies who are raising the profile of these ethical issues and developing ways to improve a historically fraught relationship…

Some Indigenous communities, such as the Navajo Nation, decline to participate in genetic research at all. And many tribes don’t permit research on their ancestors’ remains. Such opposition can feel like a hostile stumbling block to Western scientists, some of whom have gone to court to gain or maintain access to Indigenous samples. Not being able to study at least some early samples would “result in a world heritage disaster of unprecedented proportions,” the American Association of Physical Anthropologists said in 2007 in a debate over an amendment to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

To understand why so many Indigenous people distrust Western scientists, consider how intertwined science has been with colonialism, says SING co-founder Kim TallBear, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate in North and South Dakota. “While the U.S. was moving westward, stealing land, and massacring Indians, you had contract grave robbers coming out onto the battlefields and immediately picking up the dead—Native people—and boiling them down to bone, and sending their bones back east,” she says. Many of those skeletons were displayed and studied in museums by researchers who used them to argue for the biological inferiority of Indigenous people. Some of those skeletons are still there.  “Science was there, always. It’s part of that power structure,”

Many Indigenous communities see echoes of this painful history reverberating in the 21st century. In 2003, the Havasupai Tribe in Arizona discovered that samples taken for a study on diabetes had been used for research projects they had never consented to, including on population genetics and schizophrenia. They sued Arizona State University in Tempe, which eventually returned the samples and paid $700,000 to the tribe (Science, 30 April 2010)…

Researchers working for the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), a major international effort, were collecting samples from around the world to build a public database of global genetic variation. The project publicly emphasized the importance of collecting DNA from genetically isolated Indigenous populations before they “went extinct.”  That rationale “was offensive to Indigenous populations worldwide,” Gachupin says. “Resources for infrastructure and for the wellbeing of the community were not forthcoming, and yet now here were these millions and millions of dollars being invested to ‘save’ their DNA.” The message from the scientific establishment was, she says, “We don’t care about the person. We just want your DNA.” Some activists dubbed the HGDP “the Vampire Project,” believing the only beneficiaries would be Western scientists and people who could afford costly medical treatments.

Excerpts from Lizzie Wade, Bridging the Gap, Science,  Sept. 28, 2018