Digest: 25 August 2013

Abstract

Sea levels are affected by global warming in two ways: first, polar and mountain ice melts and runs off into the sea, and second, through thermal expansion of ocean water; predictions made in the past about sea-level rise seem now to have underestimated what we can expect. –  Elon Musk’s idea for high speed rail is reminiscent of science fiction, consisting of passenger pods whizzing through a near vacuum in tubes raised above roads on pylons. — Developments in financial services regulation include the regulatory risk to insurance companies of being subject to rules developed for systemically important banks without due regard for the differences between banks and insurers. —  The massive increase in wildfires in recent years is now thought to be the result of warming climate conditions, and firefighting resources are stretched to the limit. —  Hurricane Sandy caused $65 billion in damages but these damages must be considered a hint of what we can expect in the future on an ongoing basis, the electrical grid must still be made more robust and disaster sensitive building codes must be better enforced. — The biggest extinction in history was probably caused by a meteorite causing a massive release of methane into the atmosphere causing instant global warming resulting in the extinction of 80% of life on earth. – A secret ruling chastised the NSA for a pattern of misrepresentation by NSA officials in their submissions to the FISA Court and exposes the extent to which the NSA could not be relied upon to govern itself in accordance with its secret mandate, and of the insufficiency of the FISA Court to act as a check on the NSA because of its reliance on the NSA’s submissions. – The development of a face recognition system called BOSS was transferred from the Defense Department to the Department of Homeland Security in 2010 for domestic use by police departments, it is time for the government to set some guidelines. – Cities will be the engines of global economic growth in the 21st century, and it will be increasingly vital that cities embrace this role. — We should embrace the possibility of a paradigm shift in our understanding of the leadership required to face the issues of today which will take for their solution many leaders all around the world. —  Current reform movements are fundamentally ruining education for millions by focusing on memorization, conformity, passivity, and high stakes testing, and offer only the empty ideological seduction of consumerism as the ultimate form of citizenship and learning.

Highlight

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In Rising Seas, Tim Folger (for National Geographic) discusses our current understanding of rising global sea levels. Our continuing use of fossil fuels has meant that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached levels last seen three million years ago when sea levels were 65 feet higher than they are today.  The warming of the planet causes melting of permafrost in the global north which increases the release of methane, a gas which strongly accelerates the greenhouse effect. Sea levels are affected by global warming in two ways: first, polar and mountain ice melts and runs off into the sea, and second, through thermal expansion of ocean water. Predictions made in the past about sea-level rise seem now to have underestimated what we can expect – accelerated melting of the Greenland ics sheets have lifted estimates for the year 2100 to 6 feet from 2-3 feet.  But even these estimates may be too small – recent mapping projects in Antarctica show that a high undersea ridge keeps the massive Thwaites Glacier in place, but warming water might unmoor it causing it to slip into the sea which, according to best estimates, would raise sea levels by as much as 10 feet.

Economic

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In The Future of Transport: No Loopy Ideas, The Economist discusses Elon Musk’s ideas for the development of high-speed rail in California. While California already has plans for a high-speed rail system, it will be expensive to develop and probably will not be as fast as advertised.  Musk’s idea is reminiscent of science fiction – it would consist of passenger pods whizzing through a near vacuum in tubes raised above roads on pylons.  He believes it could be created for a fraction of the cost of the more conventional train already planned, and would be far faster and more efficient – indeed it would take 30 minutes to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles and would run on solar power.

In Globally Systemic Insurers: Premium Members, The Economist discusses developments in financial services regulation, specifically the threat to systemically important insurance companies of being subject to rules developed for banks without due regard for the differences between the business of banks and that of insurers.  The Economist points out that regulators are more interested in the non-insurance activities of insurance companies – such as the subprime mortgage investment activities of AIG’s Financial Products division that would have caused AIG’s failure in 2008 were it not for a $182 billion government bailout.  Increased regulatory costs might make it preferable for insurers to spin off their non-core insurance activities – a course that not all insurers will welcome in light of their reliance on investment activities to meet insurance liabilities.

Environmental 

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In NASA Scientists Link Climate Change with Increase in Wildfires, and in US Wildfire Costs Top $1 Billion for 2013, Philip J. Victor and Al Jazeera America discuss the state of wildfires in the US, specifically the massive increase in wildfires in recent years now thought to be the result of warming climate conditions.  In the US, firefighting resources are stretched to the limit.  This year alone 33,000 fires have been reported to have burned 3.4 million acres of land.  With increased development of areas subject to wildfires the costs of the fires increases.  Since the 1990s summers have been increasingly hot and dry in states such as California, Colorado, and Idaho. The harms from the fires are not limited to burning alone – the smoke from the fires rains down on ice contributes to its melting.  The current ten year average for land burned by wildfires is more than twice what it was 40 years ago.

In The Next Hurricane, and the Next, The Editorial Board of The New York Times discuss how Hurricane Sandy caused $65 billion in damages, and how those damages must be considered a hint of what we can expect in the future on an ongoing basis.  As reported by a presidential task force, in the last year, 11 climate related disasters have caused $110 billion in damages.  The report has found that responses to Hurricane Sandy have been materially insufficient – for example, the electrical grid must still be made more robust, and disaster sensitive building codes must be better enforced.  The post-storm costs of building in high risk areas should not have to be born by taxpayers.

In Mass Extinctions: Small But Deadly, The Economist discusses how the biggest extinction in history was probably caused by a meteorite causing a massive release of methane into the atmosphere causing instant global warming.  The time was 252.3 million years ago at the end of the Permian period.  Scientists believe they may now have found the crater left by the culprit, but what was perhaps particularly interesting is the nature of the ground into which it struck – rock shale.  The impact would have vaporised the hydrocarbons in the rock causing a massive gaseous release and thousands of earthquakes – as The Economist puts it, “it would have been the biggest fracking operation in history, releasing oil and gas from the shattered rock in prodigious quantities.” The resulting climactic warming wiped out 80% of life on earth.

Political

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In Secret Court Rebuked N.S.A. on Surveillance, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane (for The New York Times) discuss a secret ruling which chastises the NSA for a pattern of misrepresentation by NSA officials in their submissions to the FISA Court.  The existence of the rebuke by Judge John D. Bates, Chief Judge on the FISA Court at the time, demonstrates that one judge at least was not overawed by the NSA’s influence. On another front though it is telling for what it says of the extent to which the NSA could not be relied upon to govern itself in accordance with its secret mandate, and of the insufficiency of the FISA Court to act as a check on the NSA because of its reliance on the NSA’s submissions.

In Facial Scanning is Making Gains in Surveillance, Charlie Savage (for The New York Times) discusses the development and employment of a facial recognition system developed to recognise suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Efforts to develop the system, called Biometric Optical Surveillance System, or BOSS for short, was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security in 2010 for domestic use by police departments.  Although the system is not yet ready for full deployment, it is thought that it will be in about five years’ time. Five years goes by quickly, and considering the privacy implications, some privacy advocates are suggesting it is about time the government started the process of establishing guidelines for its use. The concern is that while it was developed to identify terrorists in a hostile environment, and while in the domestic police capacity it might be used to identify criminals, it could easily drift to other applications.  The thought of efforts to track the whereabouts of anyone and everyone through, for example, a database of driver’s license photographs will not be attractive to many even law-abiding citizens – and nor from a cautionary perspective should it be.

Social

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In The 10 Traits of Globally Fluent Metro Areas, Brad McDearman, Greg Clark, and Joseph Parilla (for The Brookings Institution) discuss the importance of cities as engines of global economic growth in the 21st century.  In light of this importance, it will be increasingly vital that cities embrace and develop this role.  Their report focuses on ten traits necessary to the embodiment of this role:  leadership with a world-view, global orientation, specialisation with global reach, adaptability, knowledge and innovation, opportunity and appeal, international connectivity, ability to secure investment, ability to enable local firms to go global, and development of a global identity.

In Can We Pull the Planet from the Brink of Catastrophe?, Rebecca Solnit introduces an essay by Bill McKibben (for Tom’s Dispatch via AlterNet) which discusses the importance of the development of a global network of leaders to confront the massive problems we face. McKibben discusses in particular how we must change our understanding of the leadership required.  We have become used major social change movements as requiring a Leader (with a capital ‘L’) – consider Martin Luther King, Gandi, etc. If we wait for a comparable leader in the present we may be disappointed – our current challenges are perhaps better faced by a network of many leaders, and this is in fact not incompatible with prior movements which despite having highly prominent single leaders, many have always been involved – likeminded people who support the movement, build it, communicate its ideas… The issues we face today – whether energy, environment, wealth discrepancy – are sufficiently significant and sufficiently global that it will take more than one leader to solve them, and we should embrace the possibility of a paradigm shift in our understanding of the leadership required.

In How Schools Have Become Dead Zones of the Imagination, Henry A. Giroud (for AlterNet) discusses the state of education reform in the United States.  He describes how current reform movements led by “right-wing billionaires and apostles of corporate power” are  fundamentally ruining education for millions. He vehemently argues that the school systems promoted by these interests, which focus on memorization, conformity, passivity, and high stakes testing, “offer the empty ideological seduction of consumerism as the ultimate form of citizenship and learning.”  This approach places a low value on the role of education as the foundation for social responsibility and civic engagement.  Acknowledging this role for education requires a different approach, an appreciation for the development of critical thinking skills in students.  Only through such skills is it possible to effectively bridge the gap between learning and everyday life, “how knowledge is related to the power of both self-definition and social agency.”