Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Climate change and the wealth of nations

Environmental economist Matthew Kahn. ucla.edu

August 31, 2010, 6:00 am

The pressing needs of a great recession crowd out interest in global warming. The environmental economists Matthew Kahn and Matthew Kotchen have found that a higher state unemployment rate is associated with a decrease in Google searches for the term “global warming” and a lower “probability that residents think global warming is happening.” But I hope enough readers can tear themselves away from the current downturn to look at Professor Kahn’s engaging and provocative new book, Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future.

Professor Kahn has been one of my favorite economists and co-authors since we studied urban economics together 20 years ago. He made his name working on the intersection of urban and environmental economics, on topics like the silver lining of the Rust Belt’s decline. The improvement of air quality in deindustrializing places like Pittsburgh seems to have attracted skilled people and boosted the local economy. He has done important work with his wife, Dora Costa, on the correlates of cowardice during the Civil War, and he now maintains one of the more enjoyable economics blogs.

Professor Kahn isn’t skeptical about global warming, but he is (quite reasonably) skeptical about our ability individually and collectively to reduce carbon emissions: “attempts to reduce or reverse our carbon output — to mitigate the damage that we’ve already done — aren’t going so well” and “evidence shows that very few individuals have cut back on their carbon-producing activities at all.” Consequently, he predicts, “the world is going to get hotter.”

But while this would lead many people to doomsday scenarios, Professor Kahn is an optimist who believes “that we will save ourselves by adapting to our ever-changing circumstances.” He says this salvation will come from “a multitude of self-interested people armed only with their wits and access to capital markets.” In short, the same economic system that led to global warming will rescue us from it.

Professor Kahn emphasizes that “migration is crucial for reducing the costs we incur from a given shock,” that moving from places that have become less unbearably hot to places that have become more pleasant — “the ability to ‘vote with your feet’ and migrate to other cities” — acts as an insurance policy. If hot places become unbearable, then once unfashionably icy places will boom. That seems reasonable to me, although there will be plenty of social loss if we abandon cities where we have invested billions in infrastructure. …

Climate Change and the Wealth of Nations

Slowing urban sprawl, adding forests curb floods and help rivers

QuickBird Natural Color Image of an Urban Sprawl - Copyright © 2001-2009 Satellite Imaging Corporation

By Brian Wallheimer
August 18, 2010

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Controlling urban growth and increasing forested land are the most effective ways to decrease future water runoff and flooding, according to a Purdue University study.

Bryan Pijanowski, an associate professor of forestry and natural resources, used a model to simulate Michigan's Muskegon River watershed runoff rates from 1900 through the present and forecast them 30 years into the future. Several scenarios, including forest regrowth, urbanization, and buffers between development and streams, were analyzed to estimate their impact on rivers and streams.

"Changes in the land's surface feed back to runoff. Urban sprawl and impervious surfaces are the biggest culprits," Pijanowski said. "If you're able to control development, it is the most effective way to save our river ecosystem."

Pijanowski said urban areas in the United States would double in 20 years at the current rate. In the model predictions, doubling the urban area in the Muskegon River watershed would increase runoff by 1 1/2 times.

Excess runoff can have several consequences, including flooding, increases in agricultural nutrients and urban pollutants entering nearby water and affecting aquatic life, increases in water temperature in rivers and streams that can affect aquatic life, and changes in the apportionment of water to wetlands and groundwater.

Pijanowski's findings, published in the early online version of the journal Environmental Management, suggest that slowing the rate of urban sprawl would be the most effective way to reduce or control runoff. Adding forest near rivers and streams and requiring buffer zones between those waterways and development also could help. …

Slowing urban sprawl, adding forests curb floods and help rivers

Thursday, August 26, 2010

IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri cleared of financial misdealings or conflict of interest -- UK Telegraph apologizes for smearing him

Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

By Joe Romm
August 26, 2010

No evidence was found that indicated personal fiduciary benefits accruing to Pachauri from his various advisory roles that would have led to a conflict of interest.

That’s the finding of a detailed report by KPMG on the finances of Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

A great many U.S. reporters and bloggers owe an apology to Pachauri (see “N.Y. Times and Elisabeth Rosenthal Face Credibility Siege over Unbalanced Climate Coverage“).

Let’s see if they own up to it as the UK’s Telegraph finally did:

On 20 December 2009 we published an article about Dr Pachauri and his business interests. It was not intended to suggest that Dr Pachauri was corrupt or abusing his position as head of the IPCC and we accept KPMG found Dr Pachauri had not made “millions of dollars” in recent years. We apologise to Dr Pachauri for any embarrassment caused.

In fact, suggesting Pachauri was corrupt or abusing his position was the whole point of the story, which has been removed from their website but which you can easily find on right-wing websites by googling the title:  “Questions over business deals of UN climate change guru Dr Rajendra Pachauri” by Christopher Booker and Richard North. …

KPMG review finds IPCC chief Pachauri innocent of financial misdealings or conflict of interest, UK Telegraph apologizes for smearing him

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

German scientist hands Putin frosty climate rebuke

Putin visits fire site 

Moscow (AFP) Aug 23, 2010 - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin queried Monday whether man was to blame for climate change on a visit to the remote Russian Arctic, only to find himself bluntly contradicted by a German scientist.

Putin, known for his tough-guy visits to his country's most far-flung areas, went by helicopter to a Russian-German research station on an island at the mouth of the Lena River in the Far Eastern Yakutia region on the Arctic Ocean.

Wearing a black jacket to protect against the wind on the Samoilovsky Island off the settlement of Tiksi, Putin was shown ice said to be up to 3,000 years old and handled bones from a now extinct mammoth.

"Does climate change happen because the earth is breathing, living, giving off gas, methane, or is it due to the influence of human activity?" mused Putin as he sat down to tea with the scientists in their hut.

He noted that "10,000 years ago, the mammoths started to die out. This was linked to a warming of the climate, a rise in sea levels, a reduction of pastures."

"All this happened without human influence," he said in comments broadcast on state television. …

A German female scientist working at the station however showed no fear in making her opinion clear to the Russian strongman.

"The burning of various kinds of fuel has a far greater effect on climate than these methane emissions," said Inken Preuss quoted by Russian news agencies.

"Climate change has never happened like now and mankind is making a large impact," she added. …

German scientist hands Putin frosty climate rebuke

Monday, August 23, 2010

Good riddance to overfishing: New management can end unsustainable practices

 JUST TOO TASTY: Bluefin tuna populations are dropping fast because of overfishing. OpenCage

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of online exclusives about natural phenomena and human endeavors we'd like to see come to an end. They are connected with the September 2010 special issue of Scientific American called "The End".

The meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES (pronounced "sight-eez") this past March was a decided defeat for the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Delegates voted 72 to 43 not to restrict fishing and international trade of the tuna so prized for its sushi that stocks are estimated to be at 15 percent of their historic levels. Although dismayed, conservationists remain upbeat, because they have at their disposal other management tools that could save the species.

Those strategies belong to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which actually has the job to manage tuna and tunalike species (a point argued by Japan and other opponents of a CITIES trade ban). Conservationists had forged ahead with a CITES effort anyway, because "we felt that a CITES ban would be a useful part of a package of tools to help reduce incentives for going over the quota," says Rebecca Lent, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of International Affairs and U.S. commissioner for ICCAT.

ICCAT, one of many regional fishery management organizations around the world, used a different tool to rebuild Atlantic swordfish populations (pdf) last September—namely, quotas. "The most important thing was setting the quotas at the appropriate level," Lent says, so that both the fish and the fishery economy can be sustained. To help enforce those limits, ICCAT tracked international trade to find countries that were catching (and selling) more fish than they reported. And domestically, the U.S. prohibited fisheries from waters where juvenile swordfish were getting killed as bycatch.
Still, getting countries to adhere to quotas is "the hardest challenge internationally," Lent says. Catch share programs, in which regional fishery councils divvy up quota shares to fishermen, could help ease this burden. Instead of creating a "struggle over a shrinking pie, you make [fishermen into] stakeholders, and that generates an incentive to be better stewards," says Frank Alcock, director of the Marine Policy Institute at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, the program helped cut halibut fishing levels by one quarter. …

Good Riddance to Overfishing: New Management Can End Unsustainable Practices

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Global firms applaud new greenhouse gas yardsticks

Greenhouse gas counter

BusinessGreen.com staff, BusinessGreen, Friday 20 August 2010 at 00:15:00

More than 60 companies complete road testing of new global standards for measuring carbon footprint of products and supply chains

More than 60 leading global firms have finished testing two new greenhouse gas (GHG) reporting standards, taking industry a step closer to a universal approach for measuring and managing emissions.

Sixty-two firms from 17 countries, including household names such as 3M, Deutsche Telekom and IKEA, tested blueprints for two new GHG protocol reporting and accounting standards.

The first protocol, dubbed "Product Lifecycle", provides a standardised approach for measuring the greenhouse gas emissions associated with individual products, while the second protocol, known as "Scope 3 (Corporate Value Chain)" , covers emissions from a business's supply chain.

The standards were developed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), which said the new benchmarks should help firms and public sector organisations measure, analyse and manage GHG emissions through their wider value chains.

"Companies, policymakers and individuals are looking for ways to reduce their contribution to climate change, but do not always have the tools they need to make informed decisions," the partners said. "Increasingly, companies are looking beyond their own boundaries and developing strategies to reduce emissions in their supply chains and in the products they make and sell."

According to WRI and WBCSD, the majority of firms involved in the testing encountered little difficulty when using the protocols and were able to produce reports detailing their supply chain, or Scope 3, emissions. …

Global firms applaud new greenhouse gas yardsticks

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

More evidence for indigenous microfossils in carbonaceous meteorites

Microfossils in the Orgueil meteorite in morphology and size consistent a Microcoleus sp. (multiple trichomes within a common sheath) and Phormidium  sp. (uniseriate trichome) mat. These two genera of cyanobacteria often grow together forming mats at the bottom of ice-covered lakes and permafrost in Siberia and Antarctica. via panspermia.org

By Brig Klyce
15 August 2010

At the Astrobiology XIII session, 3-5 August 2010, of this year's SPIE conference in San Diego, NASA scientist Richard Hoover showed more images that add weight to the case for fossilized cyanobacteria in meteorites. The fossils are found in carbonaceous meteorites of several types, including CI1 (example: Orgueil) and CM2 (example: Murchison). Here we present some typical and previously unpublished images from those meteorites.

The fossils are biological.

That the microfossils are the remnants of biological, once-living organisms is apparent from looking at them. Most resemble well-studied and recognizable filamentous cyanobacteria which are aquatic organisms long known as the "blue-green algae." These life-forms are among the dominant photosynthetic life forms in the oceans and lakes, but they also inhabit the polar ice caps as well as permafrost, geysers and volcanic fumaroles. These abilities make cyanbacteria ideal as potential life forms that could conceivably grow in the permafrost of Mars, the ice of Europa or in liquid water veins beneath the jet-black crusts of comets as candidate microbes that could conceivably be distributed throughout the cosmos by the agency of panspermia.

Chemical mapping shows that carbon and other life-critical bio-elements are distributed in the forms as appropriate for biological fossils, but the filaments are also infilled with Epsomite (hydrated magnesium sulfate), which was deposited in the hollow sheaths after the organisms died. Amino acids, nucleotides, and other life-critical biomolecules are found in the same carbonaceous meteorites that contain the fossils. The excess of L-amino acids, a property of the proteins in all living organisms known, is consistent with life — and with no known explanation by abiotic production processes (which yield equal numbers of the D- and L- forms). Clearly, the fossils found in the meteorites are biological.
Are they recent contaminants?

The major question is — were the microfossils present in the meteorites when they entered the Earth’s atmosphere, or were they left by modern microorganisms that entered the stones after they landed on Earth? …

More Evidence for Indigenous Microfossils in Carbonaceous Meteorites

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Genome of ancient sponge reveals origins of first animals, cancer

This is an adult sponge of the species Amphimedon queenslandica living with an octocoral off Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Maely Gauthier

The sponge, which was not recognized as an animal until the 19th century, is now the simplest and most ancient group of animals to have their genome sequenced.

In a paper appearing in the August 5 issue of the journal Nature, a team of researchers led by Daniel Rokhsar of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (JGI), report the draft genome sequence of the sea sponge Amphimedon queenslandica and several insights the genome gives into the origins of both the first animals and cancer.

All living animals are descended from the common ancestor of sponges and humans, which lived more than 600 million years ago. A sponge-like creature may have been the first organism with more than one cell type and the ability to develop from a fertilized egg produced by the merger of sperm and egg cells – that is, an animal.

"Our hypothesis is that multicellularity and cancer are two sides of the same coin," said Rokhsar, program head for computational genomics at JGI and a professor of molecular and cell biology and of physics at UC Berkeley. "If you are a cell in a multicellular organism, you have to cooperate with other cells in your body, making sure that you divide when you are supposed to as part of the team. The genes that regulate this cooperation are also the ones whose disruption can cause cells to behave selfishly and grow in uncontrolled ways to the detriment of the organism."

As part of the new analysis, the team looked in the sponge genome for more than 100 genes that have been implicated in human cancers and found about 90 percent of them. Future research will show what roles these genes play in endowing sponge cells with team spirit.

Sponges are often described as the "simplest" living animals, while humans are considered relatively "complex," but how this differential complexity is encoded in the genome is still a major question in biology The new study shows that, while the sponge genome contains most of the gene families found in humans, the number of genes in each family has changed significantly over the past 600 million years. By analyzing which gene families were enriched or depleted in different groups of animals, the authors identified groups of gene functions that are associated with morphological complexity.

"The genome raises questions of what it means to be an animal," said first author Mansi Srivastava, a former UC Berkeley graduate student who now is a post-doctoral associate at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. …

"This incredibly old ancestor possessed the same core building blocks for multicellular form and function that still sits at the heart of all living animals, including humans," said coauthor Bernie Degnan, a professor of biology at the University of Queensland, Australia, who collected the sponge whose genome was sequenced from the Great Barrier Reef. "It now appears that the evolution of these genes not only allowed the first animals to colonize the ancient oceans, but underpinned the evolution of the full biodiversity of animals we see today." …

Genome of ancient sponge reveals origins of first animals, cancer

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New solar energy conversion process discovered by Stanford engineers could revamp solar power production

A small PETE device made with cesium-coated gallium nitride glows while being tested inside an ultra-high vacuum chamber. The tests proved that the process simultaneously converted light and heat energy into electrical current. Courtesy of Nick Melosh


Stanford engineers have figured out how to simultaneously use the light and heat of the sun to generate electricity in a way that could make solar power production more than twice as efficient as existing methods and potentially cheap enough to compete with oil.

Unlike photovoltaic technology currently used in solar panels – which becomes less efficient as the temperature rises – the new process excels at higher temperatures.

Called "photon enhanced thermionic emission," or PETE, the process promises to surpass the efficiency of existing photovoltaic and thermal conversion technologies.

"This is really a conceptual breakthrough, a new energy conversion process, not just a new material or a slightly different tweak," said Nick Melosh, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, who led the research group. "It is actually something fundamentally different about how you can harvest energy."

And the materials needed to build a device to make the process work are cheap and easily available, meaning the power that comes from it will be affordable.

Melosh is senior author of a paper describing the tests the researchers conducted. It was published online Aug. 1 in Nature Materials.

"Just demonstrating that the process worked was a big deal," Melosh said. "And we showed this physical mechanism does exist; it works as advertised." …

"What we've demonstrated is a new physical process that is not based on standard photovoltaic mechanisms, but can give you a photovoltaic-like response at very high temperatures," Melosh said. "In fact, it works better at higher temperatures. The higher the better." …

New solar energy conversion process discovered by Stanford engineers could revamp solar power production

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bold rainforest idea makes good: Ecuador secures trust fund to save park from oil developers

The harpy eagle, the world's largest, is one of over 600 birds recorded in Yasuni. This individual is from Belize. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

By Jeremy Hance, www.mongabay.com
August 03, 2010

In what may amount to a historic moment in the quest to save the world's rainforests and mitigate climate change, Ecuador and the United Nations Development Fund (UNDF) have created a trust fund to protect one of the world's most biodiverse rainforests from oil exploration and development. The fund will allow the international community to pay Ecuador to leave an estimated 850 million barrels of oil in Yasuni National Park in the ground instead of extracting it. This first-of-its-kind agreement, known as the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, will allow the rainforest protected area to remain pristine: preserving one of the most species-rich places on Earth, safeguarding the lives of indigenous people, and keeping an estimated 410 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

"We welcome this long sought after final step to protect an important part of Yasuni National Park," said Kevin Koenig, the Ecuador Coordinator with Amazon Watch. "This is a big win for Ecuador, and the world. Now we need more countries to contribute, and for [Ecuadorian] President Correa to keep his word."

Ecuador is asking for $3.6 US billion from international donors over the next ten years to keep the oil in the ground; the amount is half of what Ecaudor expected to receive if it developed the park. Oil is Ecuador's biggest exporter and the nation's economy remains largely dependent on the fossil fuel. But oil has also brought the nation trouble with pollution, disease, forest destruction, and conflict with indigenous people.

To date, a number of European nations have stepped forward with promises of pledges, although only Germany has put forward a hard number: $838 US million. It has been reported that Spain is likely to put in around a quarter billion, while France, Sweden, and Switzerland are also expected to contribute hefty donations each. In all, approximately half of the $3.6 US billion has already been raised. …

Bold rainforest idea makes good: Ecuador secures trust fund to save park from oil developers

Monday, August 2, 2010

‘Wind Lens’ turbines could boost energy generation 3X

wind lens turbine, kyushu university, yokohama, wind power, wind energy, green design, sustainable design

Forget about traditional tri-blade wind turbines — the ultra-efficient turbine of the future might look completely different if Kyushu University professor Yuji Ohya has anything to say about it. Ohya and his team recently unveiled the Wind Lens, a honeycomb-like structure that purportedly triples the amount of wind energy that can be produced by offshore turbines. …

“Wind Lens” Turbines Could Boost Energy Generation 3X

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New insights into how stem cells determine what tissue to become

This is an image taken with a scanning electron microscope of a human mesenchymal stem cell growing on a plate of long microposts approximately 13 microns in length. After one day of culturing, this cell exerts centripetal force, which can be seen in the bending of the microposts. This cell will differentiate into a fat cell. Credit: Jianping Fu (University of Michigan)

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Within 24 hours of culturing adult human stem cells on a new type of matrix, University of Michigan researchers were able to make predictions about how the cells would differentiate, or what type of tissue they would become. Their results are published in the Aug. 1 edition of Nature Methods.

Differentiation is the process of stem cells morphing into other types of cells. Understanding it is key to developing future stem cell-based regenerative therapies.

"We show, for the first time, that we can predict stem cell differentiation as early as Day 1," said Jianping Fu, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering who is the first author on the paper.

"Normally, it takes weeks or maybe longer to know how the stem cell will differentiate. Our work could speed up this lengthy process and could have important applications in drug screening and regenerative medicine. Our method could provide early indications of how the stem cells are differentiating and what the cell types they are becoming under a new drug treatment."

In this study, Fu and his colleagues examined stem cell mechanics, the slight forces the cells exert on the materials they are attached to. These traction forces were suspected to be involved in differentiation, but they have not been as widely studied as the chemical triggers. In this paper, the researchers show that the stiffness of the material on which stem cells are cultivated in a lab does, in fact, help to determine what type of cells they turn into.

"Our research confirms that mechanical factors are as important as the chemical factors regulating differentiation," Fu said. "The mechanical aspects have, until now, been largely ignored by stem cell biologists."

The researchers built a novel type of stem cell matrix, or scaffold, whose stiffness can be adjusted without altering its chemical composition, which cannot be done with conventional stem cell growth matrices, Fu said.

The new scaffold resembles an ultrafine carpet of "microposts," hair-like projections made of the elastic polymer polydimethylsiloxane---a key component in Silly Putty, Fu said. By adjusting the height of the microposts, the researchers were able to adjust the rigidity of the matrix.

In this experiment, the engineers used human mesenchymal stem cells, which are found in bone marrow and other connective tissues such as fat. The stem cells differentiated into bone when grown on stiffer scaffolds, and into fat when grown on more flexible scaffolds. …

New insights into how stem cells determine what tissue to become

Study: Could gut germs underlie Western allergies?

Life in a rural village of Burkina Faso. (A) Village of Boulpon. (B) Traditional Mossi dwelling. (C) Map of Burkina Faso (modified from the United States ClA’s World Factbook, 34). (D) Millet and sorghum (basic components of Mossi diet) grain and flour in typical bowls. (E) Millet and sorghum is ground into flour on a grinding stone to produce a thick porridge called Tô. De Filippo et al. 2010

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor; editing by Alan Elsner
WASHINGTON | Mon Aug 2, 2010 3:03pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Germs living in the gut may cause higher rates of allergies, chronic stomach upsets and even obesity among children living in rich industrialized countries, researchers reported on Monday.

They compared intestinal bacteria between European Union children and young villagers in remote Burkina Faso, and found enough differences to help explain disparities in chronic disease and obesity.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may support the development of probiotic products to help restore the ancient balance and keep humans leaner and healthier, the researchers said.

"Our results suggest that diet has a dominant role over other possible variables such as ethnicity, sanitation, hygiene, geography, and climate, in shaping the gut microbiota," Paolo Lionetti of the University of Florence in Italy and colleagues wrote.

"We can hypothesize that the reduction in richness we observe in EU compared with Burkina Faso children, could indicate how the consumption of sugar, animal fat, and calorie-dense foods in industrialized countries is rapidly limiting the adaptive potential of the microbiota."

The study builds on a body of evidence that human health relies heavily on the trillions of microorganisms living in and on our bodies. Only a fraction cause disease directly -- many more help digest food, affect other bacteria and may influence hundreds of biological functions.

Several recent studies have found that certain bacteria cause inflammation that can affect appetite as well as inflammatory bowel conditions like Crohn's disease and colitis, including a study published in Science in March. …

Lionetti's team studied the DNA of the gut bacteria of children in Burkina Faso, who are breast-fed up to age two and eat a diet likely similar to stone-age humans, rich in whole grains such as millet, legumes such as black-eyed peas, and vegetables. They eat very little meat.

The Western diet, in contrast, is heavy in meat, processed grains, sugar and fat.

The Italian team found the African children had many bacteria that help break down fiber, but the European children were lacking these microbes. The ratios were similar to studies comparing the gut bacteria of lean people to obese people. …

Study: Could gut germs underlie Western allergies?

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