Earth as a marble: black and blue, now and then

December 6, 2012.

Astronauts aboard Apollo 17 treated the globe to its first full view of itself on 7 December 1972, snapping the iconic Blue Marble photograph after travelling more than 32,000 kilometres in just over five hours. Very nearly 40 years later, scientists on Wednesday treated the world to its latest self portrait — this taken at night and appropriately named Black Marble — at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, California.

Blue Marble influenced a generation of scientists and environmentalists and captured the public imagination just as the environmental movement was taking hold (a retrospective from Don Wuebbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is available in the latest edition of Eos). It would be hard for a single photograph to have such an impact today (and in this case there is, in fact, no single photograph) but the inevitable buzz about Black Marble nonetheless serves as a nice reminder that such images still have the capacity to inspire curiosity.

Continue reading in Nature.


UN climate talks stumble as scientists raise alarm

December 9, 2012

University of Chicago professor Raymond Pierrehumbert traced global warming theory back to its roots in the late nineteenth century during a keynote lecture at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco, California, this week. Starting with Svante Arrenhius’s initial calculation of the warming that could be expected from increased carbon dioxide levels in 1896, he moved through the “dark ages” of the early twentieth century and into the modern era of climate science, beginning in the 1950s. Decades of work since then has refined and advanced the science, but the early results stand up remarkably well today. “We in climate science have earned a right to be listened to,” Pierrehumbert said. “The question is, ‘Is anyone actually listening?’”

As he spoke, halfway around the world in Doha, Qatar, United Nations (UN) negotiators remained mired in a geopolitical dispute that dates back more than two decades. The talks wrapped up on Saturday, producing an agreement that will by most accounts do little to advance the global-warming effort, aside from keeping the diplomatic process alive. It is yet another frustrating outcome for scientists such as Pierrehumbert, as well as legions of environmentalists, who look to countless peer-reviewed studies and reports underscoring the need for rapid action.

Continue reading in Nature.


Deforestation drops in the Brazilian Amazon (again)

August 3, 2012

The numbers just keep going down: deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has fallen 23% over the past year, according to an initial — and highly uncertain — analysis released Thursday by the Brazilian government.

Although the preliminary figures are based on coarse satellite data that are also subject to huge variability owing to cloud cover, they serve as an initial indicator that deforestation is likely to hit a fourth consecutive record low in the season that ran from August 2011 through July 2012. The latest official figures, released in December, show deforestation dropping to 6,238 square kilometres last year. It is impossible to say how well the 2012 estimate will hold up once the detailed analysis is released later this year. In 2010, the final tally came in substantially higher than the initial estimate, and Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, which runs the monitoring programme, specifically recommends against comparing different years when it comes to this particular data. But it’s so tempting…

Continue reading in Nature.


Senate panel takes up climate, just for the record…

August 1, 2012

There’s a serious discussion to be had about the link between extreme weather and global warming, particularly in light of the drought, forest fires and severe storms that have wreaked havoc throughout the United States of late.  It’s a discussion about assessing and managing risks, the language that we use and the way we frame the questions that we ask. But this is a discussion that did not take place during today’s climate hearing by the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in Washington DC.

It was not for lack of effort on the part of US ecologist Christopher Field, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s second working group on adaptation. Field made the basic scientific case for global warming and talked about scientists’ efforts to quantify the risk of extreme events. He cited studies to suggest that global warming at least doubled the risk of the European heat wave of 2003, for example, but need not be invoked to explain last year’s massive flooding in Thailand. But rather than probe questions about the scientific frontier and what policy-makers can do to address potential risks, today’s hearing merely rehashed a tired debate about whether global warming is real or a giant “hoax”. For the record, Field said that it was not. “The scientific community is as close to unified as it is on anything,” he explained in his classically calm demeanor.

Continue reading in Nature.


After Rio+20: seeds sprout on the Hill of Hope

June 28, 2012

RIO DE JANEIRO — Global leaders have departed, and the media spotlight has moved on. But in one small corner of Complexo do Alemão, an agglomeration of some of the most notorious favelas in northern Rio, the 2012 Earth Summit is just beginning to bear fruit. Or more accurately, herbs and vegetables, for now. The fruit will come later, along with tubers and, eventually, trees that could occasionally be clipped for construction wood. And one of the lucky beneficiaries, a 25-year-old who is fresh from prison and still wearing an electronic-monitoring device on his ankle, has a job tending to this new garden.

“I’m proud,” says Darlan Francisco de Carvalho, nicknamed Peu, pictured above looking down on the garden during a recent visit after Rio+20. “A lot has changed, and the community has embraced our work.”

Continue reading in Nature.


Cachoeirinha Part II: Success (and failure) with family planning in Brazil

June 22, 2012

RIO DE JANEIRO — More than a dozen or so adolescents arrived at the Cachoeirinha community centre for a sex-education class this week. They may have been outnumbered by adult visitors in town for Rio+20, many from far-away lands, with cameras, recorders, pens and notebooks, but the kids weren’t intimidated. Guided by a local educator, they talked freely about relationships and the usual suite of social pressures and youth anxieties, tinted by the realities of growing up in a favela apparently controlled by drug traffickers. Across their free programme T-shirts read the words, “How cool to know! Everybody has equal rights”.

As a result of a curious combination of factors, Brazil’s birth rate has declined from 6.5 children per woman to 1.9 since 1960, a feat that brought the nation in line with industrialized countries over the course of just two generations. But the sex-education programme focuses on youth precisely because this is where Brazil has not performed as well, says Carmen Barroso, a Brazilian who serves as regional director for the Americas at the International Planned Parenthood Federation in New York. Although women now tend to have fewer children, too often they start troublingly early. In their discussion, the adolescents universally said they had not had any sex education in schools, and many said they hadn’t even talked about these issues with their parents. Bemfam, a family-planning organization, is trying to fill that gap.

Continue reading in Nature.


Twenty years after first Earth Summit, disappointment and hope

June 21, 2012

RIO DE JANEIRO — Jilson Roberto stands in front of the community centre in Cachoeirinha, a poor favela on the west side of Rio de Janeiro, greeting all who happen by. Everybody knows him, and they all call him Feijão, meaning ‘bean’. Pictured at right with a community photo album, Feijão (pronounced fay-jow) heads the local community association, making him a kind of mayor representing perhaps a few to several-thousand residents (estimates vary). An employee at the Rio de Janeiro state legislature, he held the same volunteer post 20 years ago, when world leaders descended on Rio for the first Earth Summit; he also attended to advocate for sustainable-development aid on behalf of a collection of 52 favelas. He says that the group dubbed their proposal ‘eco-favela’.

Many commitments — social, environmental and economic — were made in 1992, and it is certainly fair to say that had they all been implemented, the world occupied by Feijão and the residents of Cachoeirinha (kie-sho-air-een-ya) would look quite different. I ask him whether anything has changed as a result of the first summit, and he pauses. “Muito pouco,” he says. “Very little.” The community is still without rubbish collection, and when the rains come, flooding is a constant problem. At the beginning of an intersection 2o metres away, two old couches block the road before it begins its ascent up a small hill, apparently marking the local drug traffickers’ territory and establishing a kind of no-go zone for police.

Continue reading in Nature.


Embattled scientists publish study linking (surprise) diesel exhaust and cancer

March 6 2012

The notion that diesel exhaust can cause the body harm — specifically cancer — hardly seems shocking. The US National Toxicology Program suggests that diesel exhaust particles can be “reasonably anticipated” to be carcinogenic, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists them as “probable carcinogens“.  The US Mine Safety and Health Administration cited cancer risks when it regulated diesel emissions in mining operations back in 2001.

So it is not entirely surprising that a landmark new study involving US miners has identified sharply higher cancer rates in workers exposed to high levels of diesel exhaust. But the study is more comprehensive and apparently robust than those that have come before, and it comes as at least one major scientific organization prepares to reassess the link between diesel exhaust and cancer. Perhaps it was the fear of this exact scenario that led a coalition of industrial interests to wage a 17-year legal and political battle against government scientists conducting the study — a battle that now appears to have outlived its purpose thanks to a 29 February ruling from the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Continue reading in Nature.


Climate negotiators huddle for a dramatic deal in Durban

December 11, 2011

On 11 December 1997 nations of the world gathered in Japan to sign a legally binding instrument intended to begin the long task of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Today, as the Kyoto Protocol celebrates its fourteenth birthday, questions about its future pushed the United Nations climate talks to the brink of complete collapse in Durban, South Africa.

The protocol’s fate as well as that of the entire UN negotiations process came down to two words – “legal outcome” – and a series of rather strange and certainly unusual public huddles (see photo, taken by yours truly standing atop a chair moments before being removed from said chair by police). We’ll get back to that, but first a little background.

Continue reading in Nature.


Yucca Mountain is dead, long live Yucca Mountain

September 12, 2011

We’ve been kicking things around for more than a year, but we simply cannot make up our mind on what to do. And since there’s no money left anyway, well, we might as well give up and shut things down. No?

That’s the gist of a surreal decision issued Friday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regarding the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. The opinion comes in response to a ruling last year by the internal Atomic Safety Licensing Board, which found that the Obama administration does not have the legal authority to simply walk away from the project (background here). Congress already wrote the law designating Yucca, the board said, and so the Energy Department must now follow science as its guide. In celebration of the fact that this is one of those rare occasions in the news business where a legal decision is in fact shorter than the stories that follow, I will hereby post the NRC’s response in its entirety.

Continue reading in Nature.


Climate science in play as US Republicans commence attack on EPA

February 10, 2011

Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee meeting yesterday was a private letter from former EPA administrator Stephen Johnson to President George W. Bush. Written in January 2008, the letter makes the case that climate science is so strong as to require regulation. The question facing Johnson at the time was whether to press forward with an “endangerment finding” formally declaring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases a threat to public health and welfare. A year earlier the US Supreme Court had issued a ruling that EPA has such authority under the Clean Air Act and needed to make a formal decision on whether to use it.

“The state of the latest climate change science does not permit a negative finding, nor does it permit a credible finding that we need to wait for more research,” Johnson wrote. Released by Democrats, the letter provides an interesting perspective on how the debate unfolded within the Bush administration, which ended up punting the issue into the next administration.

Continue reading in Nature.

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