Iran reached a deal with China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, the US to temporarily limit the amount of uranium it enriches. Iran agreed for the next six months to stop production and dilute its stock of highly-enriched uranium, to stop installing new centrifuges, to stop work on a heavy-water reactor capable of producing plutonium, and to allow greater oversight from the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange, the six other states agreed to ease trade sanctions and unfreeze around $4 billion of revenue from Iranian oil sales held in overseas accounts. Other sanctions against Iranian oil and banking interests would remain in place. The deal is intended to be a first step toward comprehensive, long-term agreement. An arms race in the Middle East would complicate other global issues and could escalate into a larger conflict. Former US Defense Undersecretary Walter Slocombe said a fundamental change in Iranian nuclear policy would make Congress less likely to finance the anti-missile program that is a major point of contention between the US and Russia. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the deal didn’t go far enough to limit Iran’s nuclear program and called it “a historic mistake”. But it’s not clear Netanyahu would be willing to accept any deal with the current Iranian regime.
The US federal government shut down for 16 days when Congress failed to authorize funds for the 2014 fiscal year. The Centers for Disease Control furloughed two-thirds of its employees, which left it without enough staff to monitor safety procedures at high-security biolabs, watch for outbreaks of potential pandemics, or respond to a major public health emergency. During the shutdown 338 people in 18 states became ill with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella from contaminated chicken. “If there is an outbreak of something like Legionella pneumonia, we may not detect it, we may not find it, we may not stop it,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden warned when the shutdown began. “If there is an outbreak of foodborne illness that affects people in multiple states, we may not identify it properly.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report concluded after reviewing 9,200 peer-reviewed studies that there’s at least a 95% chance that global warming is primarily caused by human activities. The IPCC said in its 2007 report that there was a 90% chance global warming was caused by humans, but alternate explanations for climate change have been ruled out since then. The IPCC found that the global mean surface temperature has increased an average of 0.12 °C a decade since 1951. The report said that the evidence for the long-term warming trend is robust and attributed the fact that the mean global surface temperature has grown somewhat more slowly in recent years to natural variability caused in part by a strong El Niño in 1998. A number of recent studies have suggested that the deep oceans may temporarily be absorbing more heat as part of natural decadal climate cycle. The IPCC report found that sea levels have risen 19 cm since 1901 and that the pH of ocean water has decreased by a tenth of point—corresponding to a 26% increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions—since the before the Industrial Revolution. The report estimated that in order to have a 66% chance of limiting the global temperature change to less than 2° C we would have to limit total carbon dioxide emissions to about 1000 gigatons of carbon. As of 2011, about 531 gigatons of carbon had already been emitted. Burning all the fossil fuels in known reserves would release around 2,800 more gigatons of carbon.
California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for San Francisco County when a large wildfire on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains threatened to disrupt public utilities. Two of the three hydroelectric power stations in the region were forced to shut down. San Francisco also gets 85% of its water from the nearby Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Most of the western US is in drought and the recent increase in the number and severity of wildfires may be partly the result of climate change. Leia Guccione and James Sherwood argued that communities with smart microgrids stand the best chance of surviving a catastrophe:
Without human beings around to perform certain routine tasks, the electricity system will quickly cease to function. In regions dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation (i.e. the entire US), power plants will shut down, or “trip,” within 24 hours (or less) without continuous fuel supply. As soon as one plant trips offline, voltage at various points along the transmission system will drop below preset thresholds, spurring a domino effect as automated protection devices kick in and disconnect additional sections of the network. This cascade of trips would bring the system to a standstill, and a blackout would ensue.
Electrical infrastructure could be damaged by a fire, a hurricane, or a geomagnetic solar storm—like the 1859 “Carrington Event”—as well as by cyber and physical attacks. If the electrical infrastructure failed, among other things many communities would no longer have clean drinking water. While critical facilities like hospitals and pumping stations generally have on-site generators to provide backup power, these systems fail at high rate and cannot provide power for very long. But microgrids that generate and store electricity locally from renewable resources should be able to provide continuous power if something happens to other parts of the power system.
There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.—Marshall McLuhan (1965)
Ed Lu wants to save the world. In a talk Thursday at the University of Hawai‘i, the former astronaut recalled looking at the moon while he was aboard the International Space Station. Its craters were dramatic visual evidence of the number and size of the asteroid impacts the moon had sustained. Lu knew that the more massive Earth is hit by asteroids even more often than the moon, although the evidence of those collisions is obscured by water, weather, and vegetation.
ConceptNet, an artificial intelligence program developed by a team led by Catherine Havasi at the MIT Media Lab, performed as well as an average four-year-old on the information, vocabulary, and word reasoning portions of standard intelligence test. The program uses a crowdsourced semantic network—a database of statements of basic facts—to answer questions. Miles Brundage explained in Slate that the program did well on “precisely the parts of the test that one would expect computers to excel at,” but that it did poorly compared to a four-year-old on the comprehension portion of the test. Brundage wrote that
things we humans think of as hard (playing chess, winning Jeopardy!) have been conquered by researchers, but things we think of as easy (recognizing a chess board and moving pieces around it without knocking other ones over, walking around the set of Jeopardy!) remain unsolved.
For that reason, the program’s success may not say much about how close we are to developing computer programs that can compete with human intelligence.
“Every pandemic emergence seems to be a law unto itself.” David Morens, Jeffrey Taubenberger, and Anthony Fauci wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine that there’s no evidence viruses that develop one mutation that could lead them to becoming pandemic will necessarily develop any others. In fact, it’s an open question whether any bird flu virus could develop the mutations associated with pandemicity in humans and remain viable. Considering how often humans are exposed to bird flu, the fact that it rarely adapts to humans—and that just a handful of subtype combinations seem to be capable of adaptation—suggests that the barriers to human-to-human transmission of bird flu must be high. In addition, the sporadic appearance of the H5N1 and H7N9 strains in humans suggest that they both may infect only humans who are particularly susceptible to them. Nevertheless, the article’s authors argue that we need to prepare for the worst, because “we cannot know whether or under what circumstances the highly unusual H7N9 virus might be able to become pandemic.”
Assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not—if we look into the future—the permanent problem of the human race.—John Maynard Keynes (1)
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote that the solution to “the economic problem” of scarcity was within reach. Keynes pointed out that even as the Great Depression was beginning the US and Europe were far richer than they had been before the Industrial Revolution. If the world economy grew at just 2% a year, we would be nearly 8 times richer by 2030. That would be enough, Keynes thought, to finally free the human race from the “struggle for subsistence.”
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reported that for the first time the daily mean atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa Observatory was higher than 400 parts per million. The concentration of CO2 has grown at an increasing rate since the observatory began taking measurements in 1958. The concentration of CO2 is generally believed to be 40% higher than it was before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It may be higher now than at any other time in the last 3 million years. Because CO2 remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years, CO2 levels are not likely to drop naturally any time in the near future.
Review of Scatter, Adapt, and Remember by Annalee Newitz
Life on this earth has often been disturbed by terrible events. Countless living beings have been the victims of these catastrophes. Some inhabitants of dry land saw themselves swallowed up by floods. Others that lived in the bosom of the waters dried up when the bottom of the seas lifted suddenly. Their very races came to an end forever and leave in the world for the naturalist only a few barely recognizable remains.—Georges Cuvier (1)
Richard Leakey called it “the sixth extinction.” (2) At least five times before a substantial portion of life on Earth has gone extinct over a relatively short period of time. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out most of the dinosaurs—and more than 70% of all species—roughly 65 million years ago is only the most recent of these mass extinctions. The Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago, in which some 90% of marine species died out, was even more severe. Based on the rate species are disappearing, scientists believe we may now be on the leading edge of a new mass extinction event of our own making. (3) We could even become one of its victims.
Annalee Newitz believes we can survive a sixth extinction. In her new book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, Newitz sees in this history of extinction not only the fragility of life, but also its resilience. After all, some creatures have survived each catastrophe. We ourselves may have rebounded from the brink of extinction once already in our short history. We are arguably the most adaptable species on the planet. We eat a wide variety of food and can live almost anywhere. Although we reproduce and evolve relatively slowly, our intelligence gives us the ability to adapt to changing circumstances in ways that other species cannot.