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The Chronicle March-April 2014

The Chronicle

By Alice Loyd (through April 30, 2014)


Story 1: IPCC Working Group Reports on Adaptation to and Mitigation of Climate Change Released

Perhaps the most important news event of spring 2014 was the release of two new reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Working Group II (Adaptation – this group assesses the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, negative and positive consequences of climate change, and options for adapting to it) published an update in March, and the report from Working Group III (Mitigation – this group assesses options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing activities that remove them from the atmosphere) was released in April. These followed on the Working Group I (Science – this group assesses the physical scientific aspects of the climate system and climate change) report, which was issued in September 2013. Together these reports detail the impacts of climate change to date, the future risks from a changing climate, and opportunities for effective action to reduce risks. See http://www.ipcc.ch/.

Ottmar Edenhofer, Co-Chair of Working Group III, the 2000-page report of which was adopted on April 12, 2014, offered this comment: “Global emissions continue to rise further and this is in the first place due to economic growth and to a lesser extent to population growth. To achieve climate protection, fossil power generation without CCS [(carbon capture and storage)] has to be phased out almost entirely by the end of the century. The mitigation of climate change constitutes a major technological and institutional challenge. But: It does not cost the world to save the planet.”

This remark is included in a guest commentary on the RealClimate website at Summary Working Group III. Writer Brigitte Knopf states,

For the first time, a detailed analysis was performed of how the 2-degree [Celsius] limit can be kept, based on over 1200 future projections (scenarios) by a variety of different energy-economy computer models. The analysis is not just about the 2-degree guardrail in the strict sense but evaluates the entire space between 1.5 degrees Celsius, a limit demanded by small island states, and a 4-degree world. The scenarios show a variety of pathways, characterized by different costs, risks and co-benefits. The result is a table with about 60 entries that translates the requirements for limiting global warming to below 2-degrees into concrete numbers for cumulative emissions and emission reductions required by 2050 and 2100.

Another point the new report makes concerns the rate of growth that can be expected with appropriate mitigation. It estimates that instead of a growth rate of about 2% per year, we would see a growth rate of 1.94% per year. Thus, the Working Group concluded that economic growth could continue at a slightly slower pace.

The sobering and practical IPCC Working Group reports elicited a variety of responses, as might be expected. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), with a membership of 121,200 scientists and science supporters around the world, plans a broad outreach campaign to make the science understandable for policy makers and the public.

“We’re the largest general scientific society in the world, and therefore we believe we have an obligation to inform the public and policymakers about what science is showing about any issue in modern life, and climate is a particularly pressing one,” said Dr. Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS. “As the voice of the scientific community, we need to share what we know and bring policymakers to the table to discuss how to deal with the issue.” SeeAAS-Initiative. The report emphasizes that the experts have come to a consensus, with only a few dissenters. “Based on well-established evidence, about 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.” At the heart of the AAAS Initiative is the What We Know report and videos, which are currently available

Seventy large companies joined the call to step up efforts to tackle climate change, among them Unilever, Shell, BT, and EDF Energy. The companies, which have a combined turnover of $90bn, say the world needs a “rapid and focused response” to the threat of rising global carbon emissions and the “disruptive climate impacts” associated with their growth. The communique issued through The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group was addressed to governments across the globe.

Exxon Mobil was not among the seventy. Instead, the corporate office issued a statement denying that climate change would pose any risk to company profits. While the press release acknowledges the need to adopt policies to address climate change, it states that because oil and gas are so critical to global development and economic growth, governments are “highly unlikely” to adopt policies that cut emissions so sharply that fossil fuel consumption would be severely restricted.

Leading climate activist and educator Bill McKibben called that response “consummate arrogance.” Writingin The Guardian three days later, McKibben classified the Exxon Mobil statement as “probably at least as important in the ongoing battle over the future of the atmosphere” as the IPCC report.

Head of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim called foractivists and scientists to work together to form a coherent plan in the fight against climate change. Predicting that battles over water and food will erupt within the next five to 10 years as a result of climate changes, he urged those campaigning against global warming to learn the lessons of how protesters and scientists joined forces in the battle against HIV.

Not surprisingly, on March 31, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) issued its own report. As quoted in an opinion editorial in Forbes, that document states, “Flood frequency and severity in many areas of the world were higher historically during the Little Ice Age and other cool eras than during the twentieth century. Climate change ranks well below other contributors, such as dikes and levee construction, to increased flooding.” For a critique of a past effort of the NIPCC, click here.


Story 2: US Supreme Court Upholds Authority of the EPA to Regulate Cross-State Coal Emissions

On April 29 the Supreme Court “upheld the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the smog from coal plants that drifts across state lines from 28 Midwestern and Appalachian states to the East Coast.” The 6-to-2 ruling allows the EPA to enforce regulations based on provisions in the Clean Air Act.

Industry and pro-business lawmakers, fighting aggressively to undo the rules, have characterized the policy as a “war on coal.” The industry has waged an aggressive legal battle to undo the rules. It can be seen as a serious setback for those interests, since, as stated in a New York Times article, “the decision, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, signals that the Obama administration’s efforts to use the Clean Air Act to fight global warming could withstand legal challenges.”

The EPA is expected to propose sweeping new Clean Air Act regulation to cut emissions of carbon dioxide in June 2014. Coal plants are the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Story 3: Fourth Anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

April 20 marked the fourth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. An editorial in the Pensacola News Journal reads, “Dolphins still die and lie on Mississippi shores. Fishermen’s catches are brought in bearing strange lesions. Men and women from oil spill cleanup crews still claim dermatological and respiratory suffering. Barefooted beach-goers still find tarballs and tar mats on the shores and shallows of Pensacola Beach. Scientists are showing, under the unflinching gaze of microscopes, that BP’s oil slows, sickens and kills some of the Gulf’s smallest and most fragile species, racking the Gulf Coast down to the depths of its food chain.”

Story 4: New BP Oil Spill in Lake Michigan

On March 24, 2014, BP announced a much smaller but nevertheless significant oil spill, 39 barrels or 1,638 gallons of oil that went into Lake Michigan. The source of the spillage was a Whiting, Indiana, distillation unit that came online in July 2013. An article in the Chicago Tribune called the unit “the centerpiece of a nearly $4 billion overhaul that enabled the nation’s seventh-largest refinery to process more heavy Canadian oil from the tar sands region of Alberta.”

BP said the unit performs one of the first steps in the refining of crude oil into gasoline and other fuels. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk expressed concern about the long-term safety and reliability of BP’s new, expanded production at Whiting. Durbin and Kirk wrote in a letter to John Minge, the top US official for the London-based oil company, “It is in all of our best interests … to ensure that this greater processing capacity will do no harm to Lake Michigan.”

Story 5: Progress or Delay or Deception on the Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill in the Dan River?

Following the coal ash spill on the Dan River in February, it appeared that Duke Energy would be required to take immediate action to clean up its North Carolina coal ash ponds. The state’s Governor, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Attorney General and legislative leaders all came forward in support of public health and even public pocketbooks, placing responsibility on the giant energy corporation. But the actions that have followed their words, taken together, create a tangle that may postpone the cleanup for years to come.

An April 21 article by Senior Staff Writer John Downey in the Charlotte Business Journal states that N.C. Governor Pat McCrory’s proposed legislation to tighten coal ash regulation “could blunt or even gut a recent court order that requires Duke Energy to immediately stop groundwater contamination from its ash ponds.”

The new legislation was developed by DENR and characterized by Gov. McCrory as a tightening of regulation, closing loopholes in current law regarding coal ash waste. While it would eliminate the practice of storing coal ash in waste ponds like the one that leaked at Duke’s Dan River Steam Station, the article says it contains “provisions that appear to conflict with the March court order on groundwater leaks. Those provisions would write into the law several steps that had been the practices of DENR and the Environmental Management Commission that Judge Paul Ridgeway ruled against. He said those practices circumvented the state’s clear legal requirement that leaks be stopped once they are discovered.”

A story by Bruce Henderson in the Charlotte Observer adds to the complex picture by describing the widespread storage of dry ash—the same coal waste but in dry form. State records don’t reveal the full extent of these ash-fill sites in North Carolina, partly because some were built before 1994, when the state began regulating them as solid waste. What the records do show is that 11 million cubic yards of ash has been buried in 77 structural fills throughout North Carolina since 1994.

Much of the dry ash was taken from ponds, sold by Duke from the early 1990s, “when ash began to accumulate in the ponds where it had settled for decades. Most of the ash disposed outside its power plants was in dry form, said spokeswoman Lisa Hoffmann. State records of the 23 Charlotte-area sites include photos of badly eroded fill sites and uncovered ash deposits. Solid-waste inspectors reported a stream running through one site and an undisclosed well at another. Their reports don’t show any follow-up action.”

The article states that DENR recommended stronger standards for fill sites in 2010, as the Environmental Protection Agency began evaluating the first federal standards for coal ash—new rules due to be released by EPA in December.

Paul Crissman, a former state solid-waste director, is quoted as saying the fills deserve more attention and the public more notice. He attributes the relative lack of regulation of structural fills to “the power of a coal industry that pretty much could get its way and an agency that couldn’t do any more work than it was already doing.”


 Threat to net neutrality, bulk information collection by NSA, and gaps in internet security almost force users of mass communications technologies to take note. Most readers of CES Musings, like those who write in it, are so dependent on the web and our phones that news in March and April pertaining to information access seems an appropriate topic for us to discuss in this issue.

Story 6: Threats to Net Neutrality

On April 24 Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler defendedthe practice of allowing tech companies to pay for a “fast lane” to consumers’ homes, as reported by The Guardian. The FCC proposes to allow services that take up a large amount of bandwidth to pay for preferential treatment, but in a blog post Wheeler is quoted as writing: “To be very direct, the proposal would establish that behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the internet will not be permitted.”

Wheeler’s defense rests on three proposals he said would ensure that consumers were protected: (1) All ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network; (2) No legal content may be blocked; (3) ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.

Consumer advocates fear that internet giants such as Netflix, Google and Facebook will be able to out-compete startups because they can pay to ensure faster connections and clearer, uninterrupted video. The result could be higher prices for consumers.

Story 7: Overhaul of the NSA’s Domestic Phone Records Surveillance Program

Ten months after Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency was collecting US telephone records in bulk, the Obama administration is preparing to unveil a legislative proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of the National Security Agency’s once-secret bulk phone records program in a way that, if approved by Congress, would end the aspect that has most alarmed privacy advocates since its existence was leaked last year.

On March 27 Reuters outlined key points in the Administration’s plan. “Instead of telephone metadata being collected and stored in bulk from telephone companies by the National Security Agency, companies themselves would hold the data and be required to respond to specific, court-approved queries about it from the NSA.” The article states that officials familiar with current laws and regulations governing how telephone companies handle such data said that Obama’s plan raises, but does not answer, significant practical questions about how companies would collect and store such data.

Story 8: Internet Privacy – NSA

Andrea Mitchell aired an interview with former President Jimmy Carter on “Meet the Press” on March 24.

Andrea Mitchell: There’s been a lot of criticism about (President Obama’s) policy regarding drones and the NSA surveillance. And the NSA, it has argued that this kind of intelligence gathering is critical to try to protect the American homeland.

President Jimmy Carter: That is being extremely liberalized. And I think abused by our own intelligence agency. . . . As a matter of fact you know, I have felt that my own communications were probably monitored. And when I want to communicate with a foreign leader privately, I type or write the letter myself, put it in the post office and mail it.

Andrea Mitchell: Old fashion snail mail.

President Jimmy Carter: Yes, because I believe if I send an email it would be monitored.

Story 9: Internet Privacy – Commercial and Other

Internet privacy is another concern related to communications. According to the Pew Research Center, half of Americans—up from 33% in 2009—are worried about the amount of personal data on the Internet. And according to the same Pew survey, 86% have taken steps to prevent inspection of their online behavior. The study is mentioned by Elizabeth Dwoskin in theonlineWall Street Journal dated March 23. The article’s focus is on tools that let people “cover their footsteps online or let them know who’s watching them.” Dwoskin offers the following list:

  • Ad-blocking tools, which keep ads off your screen and prevent the ad companies from getting data about you
  • AVG PrivacyFix, a free program that pings users with a small red exclamation point if their privacy settings are weak and sends an alert when a website users have visited in the past 50 days makes relevant changes to its privacy policies
  • Privowny, a free privacy toolbar for Firefox and Chrome, that can show users which companies have their credit card, phone number and email
  • Abine Inc.’s $129 DeleteMe software that can remove someone’s public profile and contact and personal information from leading sites that gather data about people from around the Web
  • The monitoring of cookies, the tiny files that marketing companies place on sites and browsers to track people’s interests and habits, some of which gets sent to firms that maintain lists of people who fit marketing patterns
  • Programs that monitor and manage cookies for the user, downloaded by 8% of all Internet users, according to the Forrester survey, have downloaded.
  • Encrypted and so-called ephemeral messaging—texts that disappear seconds after you send them—that have become explosively popular among teens, and have long been used by security professionals
  • WhisperSystems’ free encrypted messaging service, which reports a 3,000% surge in installs since the Snowden revelations. The service scrambles users’ communications so their Internet carrier—and the messaging service—can’t read them.

Because Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones are beaming people’s location to any number of companies that track how they move, and smartphone apps collect reams of personal information, in recent weeks, a new crop of phones designed to keep user data away from the prying eyes of government and corporations have come on the market. The $189 FreedomPop Privacy phone encrypts a person’s text messages and emails, and blocks companies from tracking Web browsing and searches. The Wi-Fi signal is also automatically turned off.

Microsoft has tightened up its privacy policy after admitting to reading emails from a journalist’s Hotmail account while tracking down a leak. (Microsoft’s Hotmail has now been replaced with Outlook.com.) The new rules prevent the company from snooping on customers’ communications without first convincing two legal teams, independent of the internal investigation, that they have evidence sufficient to obtain a court order were one applicable. The company did not apologize for the search.

Microsoft has also revealed a securitygapin Internet Explorer that could allow an attacker to take complete control of a computer if the user clicks on a malicious link. The vulnerability affects versions 6 through 11 of the Web browser. Microsoft Corp. said Saturday that it was aware of “limited, targeted attacks” that tried to exploit the security gap. The company is working on a fix which it plans to provide in a software update on May 13.

The same article reports that AOL admits a security breach may have exposed the private information of a “significant number” of its email users’ accounts. The company said Monday that the email addresses, postal addresses, address books, encrypted passwords and encrypted answers to security questions of users may have been exposed, along with some employee information. AOL believes spammers used this contact information to send “spoofed” emails. Spoofing is a tactic used by spammers to make an email look like it is from someone the recipient knows to trick him or her into opening it.

Yahoo has announced major steps to encrypt its users’ data, according to Alex Stamos, Yahoo’s recently appointed chief information security officer.

The company set out details of its moves in a blog post. They include:

  • Traffic moving between Yahoo data centers is now fully encrypted.
  • Yahoo has enabled encryption of mail between its servers and other mail providers.
  • The Yahoo homepage and all search queries that run on it have https encryption enabled by default.
  • Yahoo News, Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Finance, and Good Morning America on Yahoo can be encrypted by typing “https” before the site URL in their web browser.
  • A new, encrypted, version of Yahoo Messenger will be deployed within months to stop mass government spying on webcam chats.

Let’s cap this discouraging discussion by including a problem with an attention-getting name: Heartbleed. Heartbleed is a flaw found in OpenSSL, an open-source tool that is “used by so many website owners and hardware makers that it has become the de facto spine of Internet encryption,” according to the website CNET. OpenSSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is used by websites and hardware manufacturers to protect the data transfer of important customer information such as usernames, passwords, Social Security numbers, and credit card numbers. Hence the “https” in the URL of SSL-enabled sites like Gmail, instead of simply “http.”

In response, the Linux Foundation has organized the Core Infrastructure Initiative to address the problem. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Rackspace, Cisco, Dell, Fujitsu, IBM, Intel, NetApp, and VMware are all contributing money and expertise to open-source projects such as checking code for security. The hope is that the new level of attention will prevent future bugs. Code libraries are largely maintained by unpaid volunteers.


Story 10: How the World Looks in Proportion

The Mercator-projection world map seen on classroom walls, in books and even on Google Maps has come to be almost ubiquitous since its creation by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. But according to an article in The Guardian entitled google-maps-gets-africa-wrong, the main reason Mercator’s projection became so popular was because of its navigational usefulness. Straight lines represent lines of constant compass bearing. In manipulating the map to make it navigationally helpful, though, “the sizes of countries become hugely distorted. In particular, the southern hemisphere appears much smaller than it is in reality.”

Here’s how the world looks using the Gall-Peters equal projection map, giving the correct proportion of land mass to the continents

Story 11: The International Court of Justice Rules Against Japan’s Annual Slaughter of Whales

The International Court of Justice has ordered a temporary halt to Japan’s annual slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean after concluding that the hunts are not, as Japan claims, conducted for scientific research.

The UN court’s 12-4 decision threatens Japan’s controversial whaling program and marks a victory for the Australian government, “whose four-year campaign to ban the hunts rested on whether it could convince the court that Japan was using scientific research as a cover for commercial whaling.”

Story 12: Little Things Mean a Lot – Turn Your Computer Off

According to experts quoted on the website dailyfinance.com, “The sleep mode on your computer is designed to keep the machine on while drawing a small amount of power. This only costs about $50 more per year on your electric bill, which seems low, but the true cost of leaving it in this mode may actually be higher. You shouldn’t leave your computer on standby if you’re going to be away for more than an hour.”

Because the memory is still fully functioning, overheating may result, reducing the life expectancy of the machine. We are assured that “turning your computer on and off won’t cause damage. These days, laptops and desktops are designed to withstand 40,000 power-ups and shutdowns before failure. That’s the equivalent to turning your computer on and off 15 to 22 times per day for up to 7 years.”

A bit less coal may be burned when the computer is off, too.