2009 - %3, November

News From TreeHugger: Condoms to Stop Climate Change, Land Mines Thwarted by Bacteria & Political Peak Oil

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 7:00 AM EST

Editor's Note: A weekly roundup from our friends over at TreeHugger. Enjoy!

Let's Give Out Free Condoms to Stop Climate Change... Maybe Not as Daft As It Seems

The latest UN Population Fund report says that an important component in combatting climate change is limiting population growth. But will reigning in population growth really stop climate change? Quickly, in itself, no. Can it help, yes, though the situation is far more complex that a quick-grabby, twitter friendly headline can ever portray it.

Gangsters Go Green! Mafia Tied to Fraudulent Italian Wind Farms - Madagascar 'Timber Mafia' Thriving

There have been an increasing number of stories coming to light detailing how organized crime syndicates around the world have been getting their dirty little fingers into the green world. The latest: 1) Italian police have arrested two businessmen on fraud charges, linking them with Mafia in wind farm permit fixing schemes; and 2) The government of Madagascar (such as it is) appears to be tied in with what's being called a 'timber mafia', profiting from illegal wood sales largely sent to China:

Canada's Heartland - Political Peak Oil's First Refuge

Not long after Obama returns from his Asian tour, expect a lengthy state visit to Canada, with announcements to follow of nuclear power plant development (needed to extract the oil) and carbon dioxide storage tests in Alberta: at Canadian and US taxpayer expense. Then a repeat of NAFTA vows to ensure that there are no added costs for pumping the Alberta extracted crude across the border. If that doesn't work out, and if oil goes back up over US$100/barrel, it's oil shale or bust.

Photo Safaris Potentially More Damaging Than Hunting

The binary choice is a false one: Properly administered hunting is not detrimental to wildlife populations and without proper management photo safaris collectively, regardless of the individual 'greenness' of individual operations, can have adverse impacts on wildlife.

The TH Interview: Frances Beinecke, President of Natural Resources Defense Council

No matter if you're a climate activist or a firm believer in the political process, there's no getting around that the negotiations leading up to next month's COP15 conference have been tough of late. The need to keep pushing for strong and immediate climate action has never been greater -- something which NRDC President Frances Beinecke's just-released book Clean Energy, Common Sensedoes compellingly -- so, when over the weekend it was de facto officially announced that Copenhagen will just produce a framework for future binding action it seemed the perfect entrée for the latest TreeHugger interview:

Scientists Create Bacteria That Lights Up Around Landmines

It seems like something straight out of a science fiction film, but this new bacteria is very real. "Scientists produced the bacteria using a new technique called BioBricking, which manipulates packages of DNA." The bacteria is then mixed into a colorless solution, "which forms green patches when sprayed onto ground where mines are buried." The bacterial stew can also be dropped via airplane in extremely sensitive areas.

Study Shows Investing in Nature More Valuable Than Gold (Literally)

If 'moral prerogative' isn't reason enough to invest in protecting nature, here's another one: it's just been found to bring up to hundredfold return on capital. Yes, that's a potential 10000% gain--better than an investment in gold. According to a new study called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), putting money into protecting wetlands, coral reefs, and forests could be the best financial move one could ever make.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 19, 2009

Thu Nov. 19, 2009 6:57 AM EST

US Army Capt. Dustin Snare blows the Ghallarhorn, a Nordic war horn, kicking off the game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions during the viewing party on Contingency Operating Base Basra, Iraq, Nov. 15, 2009. Snare is the battle captain for the 34th Infantry Division's operations section. (US Army photo by Spc. Samuel Soza.)

Need To Read: November 19, 2009

Thu Nov. 19, 2009 6:55 AM EST

Today's must reads:

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Recycling Heat Just Got Way Cooler

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 10:06 PM EST

We waste 60 percent of all the energy we produce burning fuels and in power plants—most lost as excess heat. If we could harvest that waste heat we could use a lot less electricity.

Now a paper in the current Journal of Applied Physics suggests a new way to recycle waste heat. The process might, for instance, double the run time of cellphones and laptop computers and increase output in power plants.

Here's the current conundrum. Existing solid-state technologies that convert heat into electricity are inefficient. Existing systems that efficiently convert heat into electricity produce very little power. Your choice: high efficiency or high throughput, but not both.

On top of all that, theory predicts that energy conversion can never exceed a specific value, the Carnot Limit. Even so, modern commercial thermoelectric devices only achieve about one-tenth of the Carnot Limit.

So how to do it better?

The MIT experiments involve a different technology—thermal diodes—which suggest future efficiencies as high as 40 percent of the Carnot Limit and ultimately perhaps 90 percent.

Here's what the researchers did:

  • They started from scratch rather than trying to fix existing devices.
  • They carried out their analyses using a supersimple system that generated power with a single quantum-dot device—a kind of semiconductor confining electrical charges very tightly in all three dimensions.

Add to their efforts the results of another MIT paper showing an intermediate step towards achieving heat transfer at a rate orders of magnitude higher than predicted by theory.

The end result: heat converted into harnessable electricity at a rate promising enough that a new company, MTPV Corp (Micron-gap Thermal Photo-Voltaics), is already working on the development of a new technology based on the work described in this paper.

Co-author Peter Hagelstein tells MIT that when work began on the project in 2002 such heat-recycling devices "clearly could not be built. We started this as purely a theoretical exercise." Developments since then have brought theory much closer to reality.

I suppose someone's going to get filthy rich and powerful making a cleaner-powered world... Conundrum: Part 2?
 

Quote of the Day

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 7:51 PM EST

From Barack Obama, asked what he thinks about Afghan president Hamid Karzai:

He has some strengths, but he has some weaknesses

Obama went on to say, basically, that he didn't care much about Karzai anyway: "I'm less concerned about any individual than I am with a government as a whole that is having difficulty providing basic services to its people."  Not exactly a warm, personal relationship there, is it?

Concentrating Dynamically in Afghanistan

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 7:34 PM EST

Matt Yglesias on how we should distribute additional troops in Afghanistan:

Afghanistan is a big country. So in addition to the question of how many resources should be sent to Afghanistan, there’s the question of where they should go. Recently, the tendency has been to throw additional resources at the parts of the country where things are worse. In his latest Carnegie Endowment report “Fixing a Failed Strategy in Afghanistan”, Gilles Dorronsoro argues that this would be a big mistake. The resources being contemplated, he argues, aren’t enough to win the war in the South. Sending them there would merely guarantee that we also lose the war in the North and the East, without making much progress in the South.

Instead, he prefers to adopt a more defensive posture in the South—securing main cities where the Taliban is disliked—and focus our attention on winning what he regards as the more winnable struggles in the North and East where the Taliban is making gains but isn’t deeply intertwined with local communities.

Hmmm.  This reminds me of the crime fighting strategy Mark Kleiman outlines in When Brute Force Fails.  It's too complicated to explain the whole thing here, but basically the idea is to concentrate overwhelming force on a small fraction of the population, which then shapes up because they have zero chance of getting away with anything.  As they become better behaved, resources then move to other areas, and eventually the whole population is well behaved.

In other words, it's pretty much the crime equivalent of clear and hold, which is a counterinsurgency staple.  It's also (very roughly) what the surge did in Iraq.  The overall increase in troops from the surge was only about 20%, which seemed plainly inadequate to the task, but most of those troops were concentrated in Baghdad, and it turned out that this was enough to clean up the city.

Now, cleaning up petty crime among drug probationers is not the same thing as stabilizing Afghanistan, but some of the principles are the same.  And as I recall, whether "dynamic concentration" works depends a lot on how widespread violence is to begin with; how good your monitoring and response is; whether your resource level is high enough in the initial target areas; and how much time you have.  Those would all be excellent things to stuff into a game theoretical model to see if an additional 40,000 troops can really make a difference in Afghanistan.  As I've said before, I'm less interested in the argument over the number of troops we send there (which tends to get sterile pretty quickly) than I am in what the detailed strategy is to deploy those troops.  Still waiting on that, though.

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Heads-Up On Health Care

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 4:11 PM EST

The rest of today promises to be big for health care reform. At 5:00 p.m., Sen. Harry Reid plans to explain the Senate's merged health care bill to his Democratic colleagues at a caucus meeting. The bill will probably be unveiled to the public later in the evening, and the crucial Congressional Budget Office "score" of the bill—estimating its costs and benefits—is expected sometime today, too.

TPM's Brian Beutler reports that Reid may adhere to the 72-hour rule for public comment on legislation before trying to pass a motion to proceed with debate—something that requires 60 votes and will be the first big test for the Senate bill. Beutler also reminds readers that a Republican stunt calling for reading the entire bill aloud is likely to delay actual debate until after senators return from next week's Thanksgiving recess.

You can expect all sorts of ludicrous comments, misinformation, and silliness about the Senate bill all over cable television, the internet, and the print media starting, well, just about now.

US, China Climate Talks: Getting Warmer

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 3:50 PM EST

World leaders may have failed to lay the necessary groundwork to sign a climate treaty in Copenhagen. But some good news did emerge from President's Obama's trip to China this week. Obama's meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao on Tuesday provided a few hopeful clues that the world's two heavyweight polluters are inching toward a climate consensus.

China and the US account for roughly 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so what they decide to do about climate change will determine the success or failure of a global treaty. Following the meeting, Obama said that he and Hu had agreed that any treaty at Copenhagen should have an "immediate operational effect." He added, "We agreed that each of us would take significant mitigation actions and stand behind these commitments."

Of course, with any international negotiation the devil is in how you define vague terms like "significant mitigation actions." Obama and Hu's announcement was short on specifics, although a joint statement said they had agreed to collaborate on, among other things, designing electric and other clean-fuel vehicles, improving the energy efficiency of building stock, and developing carbon-capture-and-sequestration for coal plants, according to the New York Times.

But perhaps the most significant development was that the leaders appeared to agree that China and the US can take different paths to reducing emissions. Hu touted the acknowledgement that the two nations could have "common but differentiated responsibilities." Translation? This language allows for a scenario in which rapidly developing countries like China commit to reducing emissions—but not at the same level as developed nations.

Was Holder's KSM Decision Political?

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 3:30 PM EST

Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Justice Department's decision to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other accused 9/11 plotters in civilian courts was bound to be contentious. Senate Republicans didn't disappoint, moving quickly to accuse Attorney General Eric Holder of putting politics ahead of national security by prosecuting KSM blocks away from where the twin towers once stood. Holder stood his ground. "There was not a political component to my decision," he insisted.

It's true that at first glance, Holder's decision doesn't seem to have much to do with politics. The Justice Department's current plans—to try some terrorist suspects in the US court system but not others—are drawing fire from both liberals and conservatives. Influential commentators like the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder have argued that the decision is so politically toxic it must be non-political. "If this is politics, it's really dumb politics," Ambinder writes. "And that's why it's probably not politics."

Ambinder argues that Occam's razor—the logical principle that the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct—supports his theory. But Occam's razor suggests that Holder, like every Attorney General before him, considers the political ramifications of all his decisions before he makes them. It would be truly remarkable for any AG to do otherwise.

When you think about it, the Obama administration's decision on how to deal with terrorist suspects—upsetting both the left and the right—fits in perfectly with the Andrew Sullivan theory of Barack Obama. Sullivan believes that Obama and his team play the long game (Obama claims as much in interviews) and don't worry too much about the short-term politics of their decisions. Bringing people like KSM to trial doesn't have much public support right now (just 29 percent of Americans support this move, according to a recent Rasmussen poll). If you want to bring terror suspects to trial in the future, you're going to need to change the paradigm. But wholesale change—trying all of the Gitmo detainees in federal court—could be politically disasterous. So you start with a few, high-profile trials—provided you firmly believe they will result in convictions and ultimately bolster support for working within the US justice system to try more terrorism detainees. You take some knocks now from civil libertarians who are upset that you're only trying five people in federal court and from conservatives who are upset that you're trying anyone. But neither side is truly enraged because neither side has truly lost. Meanwhile, you're changing the only minds that matter—those of the American people.

The administration's strategy is already demonstrating its short-term political usefulness, too.  As the judiciary committee's ranking Republican member, Alabama's Jeff Sessions, interrogated Holder on Wednesday morning, the AG repeatedly brought up his decision to send Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the accused planner of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, to a military commission. In essence, Holder used the al-Nashiri decision as a shield against conservative criticism. Every time Sessions hit him for transferring KSM to federal court, Holder brought up the administration's continued use of the military commissions. You can bet that when the administration gets hit from the left over al-Nashiri, they'll bring up the KSM trial. Either way, they'll have a counterargument. Being in the middle can have its benefits. The only charge they'll have trouble rebutting is one of inconsistency.

Archives To Proceed with CSI-ish Watergate Test

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 3:14 PM EST

In July, I was the first to report that the National Archives was considering conducting high-tech forensic tests on two pages of presidential records that could provide key clues to one of the great political mysteries in US history: what was on the 18 1/2 minutes of White House tapes suspiciously erased during the Watergate scandal? Last year, Phil Mellinger, a one-time National Security Agency systems analyst and Watergate researcher, made an intriguing discovery—that meeting notes written by H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon's chief of staff, seemed to contain a gap corresponding to the gap in the recording of the infamous June 20, 1972 conversation during which Nixon and Haldeman discussed the Watergate break-in. Mellinger asked the Archives to test other pages of Haldeman notes from this meeting to determine if indented writing could be found on these pages. The goal would be to find impressions indicating what Haldeman had written on possibly missing pages that covered the part of the conversation obliterated from the tapes. On Wednesday, the National Archives announced it was proceeding with the testing Mellinger requested.

Here's the press release:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 18 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The National Archives and Records Administration announced today that it is convening a forensic document examination team to study two pages of the handwritten notes of H. R. Haldeman, a chief of staff to President Richard M. Nixon, 1969-1973. The notes are among the permanent records in the holdings of the National Archives.

The two pages of notes under investigation were purported to have been created during Mr. Haldeman's 11:30 A.M. meeting with President Nixon on June 20, 1972, in the Executive Office Building, three days after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This is the same meeting in which 18 1/2 minutes of tape-recorded conversation between Mr. Nixon and Mr. Haldeman were erased, prior to the White House tape recorded conversations being turned over to Judge Sirica in response to a subpoena from the Watergate Special Prosecution Force.

The National Archives has assembled the examination team in attempt to clarify some mysteries surrounding the June 20 meeting, of which Mr. Haldeman's notes are the only extant account. Historians and scholars have long speculated on the subject of that meeting. The team will attempt to determine whether there is any evidence that additional notes were taken at the meeting that are no longer part of the original file.

Instrumental examinations of the documents will include Hyperspectral Imaging at the Library of Congress to study the ink and to possibly reveal latent or indented images on the paper; Video Spectral Comparison (VSC) of the ink entries and paper substrates; and Electrostatic Detection Analysis (ESDA) to reveal indented images that could correspond to original handwriting on these or other pages - present or no longer present - among documents from the Haldeman files.

Team members include experts from the Library of Congress Preservation Research and Testing Division, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration Forensic Science Laboratory, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Forensic Science Laboratory.

The National Archives will announce the test results in a press availability event as soon as the testing is complete. The expected time-frame is early 2010.

My original article was headlined "CSI: Watergate." Indeed. Good luck to the real-life forensic experts working this caper.

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