Science and Technology

A New World Beckons

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Historically, the transition from one energy system to another, as from wood to coal or coal to oil, has proven an enormously complicated process, requiring decades to complete. In similar fashion, it will undoubtedly be many years before renewable forms of energy — wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and others still in development — replace fossil fuels as the world’s leading energy providers. Nonetheless, 2015 can be viewed as the year in which the epochal transition from one set of fuels to another took off, with renewables making such significant strides that, for the first time in centuries, the beginning of the end of the Fossil Fuel Era has come into sight.

This shift will take place no matter how well or poorly the deal just achieved at the U.N. climate summit in Paris is carried out. Although a robust commitment by participating nations to curb future carbon emissions will certainly help speed the transition, the necessary preconditions — political will, investment capital, and technological momentum — are already in place to drive the renewable revolution forward. Lending a hand to this transformation will be a sharp and continuing reduction in the cost of renewable energy, making it increasingly competitive with fossil fuels. According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), between now and 2040 global investments in renewable power capacity will total $7 trillion, accounting for 60% of all power plant investment.

Fossil fuels will not, of course, disappear during this period. Too much existing infrastructure —refineries, distribution networks, transportation systems, power plants, and the like — are dependent on oil, coal, and natural gas, which means, unfortunately, that these fuels will continue to play a prominent role for decades. But the primary thrust of new policies, new investment, and new technology will be in the advancement of renewables.

Breakthrough Initiatives

Two events on the periphery of the Paris climate summit were especially noteworthy in terms of the renewable revolution: the announcement of an International Solar Alliance by India and France, and the launching of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition by Bill Gates of Microsoft, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and a host of other billionaires.

As described by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the International Solar Alliance is meant to mobilize private and public funds for the development and installation of affordable solar systems on a global scale, especially in developing countries. “We intend making joint efforts through innovative policies, projects, programs, capacity-building measures, and financial instruments to mobilize more than 1,000 billion U.S. dollars of investments that are needed by 2030 for the massive deployment of affordable solar energy,” Modi and French President François Hollande indicated in a joint statement on November 30th.

According to its sponsors, the aim of this program is to pool financing from both public and private sources in order to bring down the costs of solar systems even further and speed their utilization, especially in poor tropical countries. “The vast majority of humans are blessed with sunlight throughout the year,” Modi explained. “We want to bring solar energy into their lives.”

To get the alliance off the ground, the Indian government will commit some $30 billion for the establishment of the alliance’s headquarters in New Delhi. Modi has also pledged to increase solar power generation in India by 2,500% over the next seven years, expanding output from 4 to 100 gigawatts — thereby creating a vast new market for solar technology and devices. “This day is the sunrise of new hope, not just for clean energy, but for villages and homes still in darkness,” he said in Paris, adding that the solar alliance would create “unlimited economic opportunities” for green energy entrepreneurs.

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition, reportedly the brainchild of Bill Gates, will seek to channel private and public funds into the development of advanced green-energy technologies to speed the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. “Technology will help solve our energy issues,” the project’s website states. “Scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs can invent and scale the innovative technologies that will limit the impact of climate change while providing affordable and reliable energy to everyone.”

As Gates imagines it, the new venture will seek to bundle funds from wealthy investors in order to move innovative energy breakthroughs from the laboratory — where they often languish — to full-scale development and production. “Experience indicates that even the most promising ideas face daunting commercialization challenges and a nearly impassable Valley of Death between promising concept and viable product,” the project notes. “This collective failure can be addressed, in part, by a dramatically scaled-up public research pipeline, linked to a different kind of private investor with a long-term commitment to new technologies who is willing to put truly patient flexible risk capital to work.”

Solar panels

Solar technology, among other green technologies, is a rapidly expanding field.

Joining Gates and Bezos in this venture are a host of super-rich investors, including Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, the Chinese internet giant; Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chairman of Facebook; George Soros, chairman of Soros Fund Management; and Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of India’s giant Tata Sons conglomerate. While seeking to speed the progress of green technology, these investors also see a huge potential for future profits in this field and, as the venture claims, “will certainly be motivated partly by the possibility of making big returns over the long-term, but also by the criticality of an energy transition.”

While vast in their ambitions, these two schemes are not without their critics. Some environmentalists worry, for example, that Modi’s enthusiasm for the International Solar Alliance might actually be a public relations device aimed at deflecting criticism from his plans for increasing India’s reliance on coal to generate electricity. A report by Climate Action Tracker, an environmental watchdog group, noted, for instance, that “the absolute growth in [India’s] coal-powered electric generating capacity would be significantly larger than the absolute increase in renewable/non-fossil generation capacity” in that country between 2013 and 2030. “Ultimately, this would lead to a greater lock-in of carbon-intensive power infrastructure in India than appears necessary.”

The Gates initiative has come under criticism for favoring still-experimental “breakthrough” technologies over further improvements in here-and-now devices such as solar panels and wind turbines. For example, Joe Romm, a climate expert and former acting assistant secretary of energy, recently wrote at the website Climate Progress that “Gates has generally downplayed the amazing advances we’ve had in the keystone clean technologies,” such as wind and solar, while “investing in new nuclear power, geo-engineering technologies, and off-the-wall stuff.”

Despite such criticisms, the far-reaching implications and symbolic importance of these initiatives shouldn’t be dismissed. By funneling billions — and in the end undoubtedly trillions — of dollars into the development and deployment of green technologies, these politicians and plutocrats are ensuring that the shift from fossil fuels to renewables will gain further momentum with each passing year until it becomes unstoppable.

The Developing World Goes Green

In another sign of this epochal shift, ever more countries in the developing world — including some oil-producing ones — are embracing renewables as their preferred energy sources. According to the IEA, the newly industrialized countries, spearheaded by China and India, will spend $2.7 trillion on renewable-based power plants between 2015 and 2040, far more than the older industrialized nations.

This embrace of renewables by the developing world is especially significant given the way the major oil and gas companies — led by ExxonMobil and BP — have long argued that cheap fossil fuels provide these countries with the smoothest path to rapid economic development. Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson has even claimed that there is a “humanitarian imperative” to providing the developing world with cheap fossil fuels in order to save "millions and millions of lives."

In accordance with this self-serving rhetoric, Exxon, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and other energy giants have been madly expanding their oil and gas distribution networks in Asia, Africa, and other developing areas.

Increasingly, however, the targets of this push are rejecting fossil fuels in favor of renewables. Morocco, for example, has pledged to obtain 42% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, far more than planned by the members of the European Union. Later this month, the country will commence operations at the Ouarzazate solar thermal plant, a mammoth facility capable of supplying electricity to one million homes by relying on an array of revolving parabolic mirrors covering some 6,000 acres. These will concentrate the power of sunlight and use it to produce steam for electricity-generating turbines.

Village

Developing countries, like Rwanda, have adopted renewable-energy goals often surpassing those of industrialized countries.

Elsewhere in Africa, authorities in Rwanda have commissioned a vast solar array at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, about 40 miles east of Kigali, the capital. Consisting of 28,360 computer-controlled solar panels, the array can generate 8.5 megawatts of electricity, or about 6% of Rwanda’s capacity. Spread over an undulating hill, the panels are laid out in the shape of the African continent and are meant to be symbolic of solar energy’s importance to that energy-starved continent. “We have plenty of sun,” said Twaha Twagirimana, the plant supervisor. “Some are living in remote areas where there is no energy. Solar will be the way forward for African countries.”

Even more significant, a number of major oil-producing countries have begun championing renewables, too. On November 28th, for example, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, vice president and ruler of Dubai, launched the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050, which aims to make the emirate a global center of green energy. According to present plans, 25% of Dubai’s energy will come from clean energy sources by 2030 and 75% by 2050. As part of this drive, solar panels will be made mandatory for all rooftops by 2030. “Our goal is to become the city with the smallest carbon footprint in the world by 2050,” Sheikh Mohammed said when announcing the initiative.

As part of its green energy drive, Dubai is constructing the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, intended to be the world’s largest solar facility. When completed, around 2030, the giant complex will produce some 5,000 megawatts of energy — about eight times as much as the Ouarzazate solar plant.

Long-Term Prospects

Evidence that an accelerating shift to renewables is already underway can also be found in recent studies of the global energy industry, most notably in the IEA’s just-released annual assessment of industry trends, World Energy Outlook 2015. “There are unmistakable signs that the much needed global energy transition is under way,” the report noted, with “60 cents of every dollar invested in new power plants to 2040 [to be] spent on renewable energy technologies.”

The growing importance of renewables, the IEA noted, is especially evident in the case of electricity generation. As more countries follow the growth patterns seen in China and South Korea, electricity is expected to provide an ever-increasing share of world energy requirements. Global electricity use, the report says, will grow by 46% between 2013 and 2040; all other forms of energy use, by only 24%. As a result, the share of total world energy provided by electricity will rise from 38% to 42%.

This shift is significant because renewables will provide a greater share of the energy used to generate electricity. Whereas they contributed only 12% of energy to power generation in 2013, the IEA reports, they are expected to supply 24% in 2040; meanwhile, the shares provided by coal and natural gas will grow by far smaller percentages, and that by oil will actually shrink. While coal and gas are still likely to dominate the power sector in 2040, the trend lines suggest that they will lose ever more ground to renewables as time goes on.

Contributing to the growing reliance on renewables, the IEA finds, is a continuing drop in the cost of deploying these technologies. Once considered pricey compared to fossil fuels, renewables are beginning to win out on cost alone. In 2014, the agency noted, “about three-quarters of global renewables-based [power] generation was competitive with electricity from other types of power plants without subsidies,” with large hydropower facilities contributing much of this share.

Certainly, renewables continue to benefit from subsidies of various sorts. In 2014, the IEA reports, governments provided some $112 billion to underwrite renewable power generation. While this may seem like a significant amount, it is only about a quarter of the $490 billion in subsidies governments offered globally to the fossil fuel industry. If those outsized subsidies were eliminated and a price imposed on the consumption of carbon, as proposed in many of the schemes to be introduced in the wake of the Paris climate summit, renewables would become instantly competitive without subsidies.

Go Green Young Man and Young Woman

All this is not to say that the world will be a green-energy paradise in 2030 or 2040. Far from it. Barring the unexpected, fossil fuels will continue to rule in many areas, especially transportation, and the resulting carbon emissions will continue to warm the planet disastrously. By then, however, most new investment in the energy field will, at least, be devoted to renewables and in most places globally there will be rules and regulations aimed at facilitating their installation.

As a college professor, I often think about such developments in terms of my students. When they ask me for career advice these days, I urge them to gear their studies toward some field likely to prosper in exactly this future environment: renewable energy systems, green architecture and city planning, alternative transportation and industrial systems, sustainable development, and environmental law, among others. And more and more of my students are, in fact, choosing such paths.

Electric car

More and more cities are increasing their reliance on renewable sources of energy.

Likewise, if I were a future venture capitalist, I would follow the lead of Gates, Bezos, and the other tycoons in the Breakthrough Energy Coalition by seeking out the most innovative work in the green energy field. It offers as close as you can get to a guarantee against failure. As the consumption of renewable energy explodes, the incentives for power and money-saving technical breakthroughs are only going to grow and the rate of discovery is sure to rise as well, undoubtedly offering enormous payback possibilities for those getting a piece of the action early.

Finally, if I were an aspiring politician, whether in this country or elsewhere, I would be spinning plans for my city, state, or nation to take the lead in the green energy revolution. Once the transition from fossil fuels to renewables gains more momentum, leadership in the development and deployment of green technologies will become a far more popular position, which means it will increase your electability. This proposition is already beginning to be tested. For example, the Labor Party candidate for mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is now leading the way by building his campaign around a promise to set that city on course to be 100% powered by renewables by 2050.

You’re still going to hear a lot about fossil fuels — and for good reason — but make no mistake about it: the future belongs to renewables. Of course, Big Energy, the giant utilities, and the lobbyists and politicians in their pay, including just about the complete climate-change-denying Republican Party, will do everything in their (not insignificant) power to perpetuate the Fossil Fuel Era. In the process, they will cause immeasurable harm to the planet and to us all. They will win some battles. In the process, they will also be committing some of the great crimes of history. But the war they are fighting is a losing one. Inevitably, ever more people — especially the most dynamic and creative of the young — will be hitching their futures to the coming of a genuinely green civilization, ensuring its ultimate triumph.


Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Michael Klare

Top photo by Fotolia/Christian Delbert

Middle photo by Fotolia/asillem

Bottom photo by Fotolia/Kadmy

Null Results, No Headlines

Many scientific studies have been so embraced by the media, they’ve become facts we often regard with, “Well, duh.” Consider bilingualism: It’s the full-proof edge! Hire a Spanish-speaking nanny! Pop in Rosetta Stone and double your salary!

Despite it being an invaluable skill, it’d be wise to hold off on the “duh.” A new metastudy suggests that there’s a publication bias to what scientific journals choose to headline—ones that eventually make their way through the mainstream media and into the public’s bank of “common sense” facts. That’s because there’s more meat to a headline that claims there’s a link between two things (*blank* causes cancer, for example) than a study that finds the same research inconclusive or that denies the connection entirely.

One research team from Edinburgh University looked at 104 papers on bilingualism that were presented at academic conferences (typical venues for researchers to receive edits before attempting to get published in peer-reviewed journals). Despite there being an even split between research that either supported or questioned the advantages to bilingualism, only 36 percent of papers that challenged the popular notion got published, compared to 63 percent that supported it.

But publications are not the only ones to blame; another study looked at how often researchers reported their null results. One Stanford team analyzed projects run through the National Science Foundation’s Timeshare Experiments in the Social Sciences (TESS), which keeps records of all experiments it’s conducted. The team could then figure out what has yielded positive or negative results and if those findings have been published, written but never published, or never written at all. While they found that publication bias is, indeed, real, they found that researchers aren’t submitting their null results, either. Of the 47 negative outcomes in the TESS data, only 38 percent were even written. Of the 170 positive results, roughly 93 percent were reported. 

Neil Malhotra, co-author of a new study on publication bias and a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, said it’s important for researchers to at least write down their null results so that other scientists can be aware of them. But it’ll take institutional changes, he said, such as new journals dedicated to negative findings so scientists feel encouraged to report these results.

Although inconclusive studies lack drama, they provide science with context, Malhotra said. The Edinburgh research team summed it up in their press release: “All data, not just selected data that supports a particular theory, should be shared, and this is especially true when it comes to data regarding issues that have enormous societal relevance and implications, such as bilingualism.”

Image by Sebastian Wiertz, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Literal Pain in Your Neck

The human head weighs about 12 pounds … unless you add a Smartphone to that equation. The more the neck bends downward, the more weight is added to the cervical spine: at a 15-degree angle, the head weighs 27 pounds; at 30 degrees, 40 pounds; at 45 degrees, 49 pounds; at 60 degrees, 60 pounds (the equivalent to carrying an 8-year-old around your neck). The result: “text-neck.”

On average, Smartphone users (58 percent of American adults) look down at their phones two to four hours a day—about 700 to 1,400 hours a year of added spinal stress. High schoolers, on the other hand, could spend up to an additional 5,000 hours hunched over in this position.

Physical therapists say that as the tissue stretches for long periods of time, it gets sore and inflamed, also causing muscle strain, pinched nerves, herniated disks and, over time, can potentially remove the neck’s natural curve. Poor posture can also contribute to headaches and neurological issues, depression and heart disease, and can reduce the lung capacity by as much as 30 percent.

One expert gave TODAY some tips to avoid this pain, such as using your eyes to look down at your phone instead of bending your neck. Be sure to move your head from left to right several times, as well, or try standing in a doorway with both arms extended while pushing your chest forward to strengthen the muscles activated during good posture.

Image by Kamyar Adl, licensed under Creative Commons.

Parents Could Be Held Liable for Kids’ Facebook Activity

A Georgia appellate court recently reached a decision that holds parents liable for their kids’ online activity—an unprecedented legal ruling, lawyers said. The parents of a 7th grader were deemed “negligent” after failing to get their son to delete a defamatory Facebook profile of a female classmate in 2011.

According to court documents, the boy and a friend of his created a fake Facebook account posing as the girl, which included altered photos of her, racist and promiscuous comments and photos, and claims that she was on medication and doing illegal drugs. They sent friend-requests to her classmates, teachers and family members, reaching 70 Facebook friends in two days.

When the girl and her parents discovered this profile, they complained to the school principal, who gave the boy two days of in-school suspension and informed his parents, who grounded him for a week. The profile, however, remained active for another 11 months until the girl’s parents urged Facebook to deactivate it. Her lawyer said that the school protected the boy’s confidentiality, preventing her parents from confronting his.

The courts held that the key question regarding negligence lies in the parent’s ability to anticipate harm as a result of the unsupervised activity.

“Given that the false and offensive statements remained on display, and continued to reach readers, for an additional 11 months, we conclude that a jury could find that the [parents’] negligence proximately caused some part of the injury [the girl] sustained from [the boy’s] actions (and inactions),” wrote Judge John J. Ellington in the opinion, handed down Oct. 10. Another part of the lawsuit sought to hold the parents responsible for allowing the page to be posted in the first place, which the appeals court dismissed.

Atlanta litigator Edgar S. Mangiafico, Jr., who represented the boy, said he will appeal the ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court, noting that he couldn’t find a previous case where the parents were held responsible for failing to supervise their kid’s computer use regarding cyberbullying.

Atlanta attorney Natalie Woodward, who represented the girl, agreed that this was a novel outcome, saying that the ruling shows that in certain circumstances, parental knowledge triggers liability.

Good luck to high-schoolers ignoring their mom’s friend request now.

Image by Marco Packöeningrat, licensed under Creative Commons

One Step Closer Toward Telepathic Communication

Telepathic communication is no longer exclusive to the Jedis: scientists successfully conducted one of the first instances of brain-to-brain communication on record, transmitting “hola” and “ciao” from one person in India to three people in France. Team members included Barcelona-based research institute Starlab, French firm Axilum Robotics, and Harvard Medical School, whose findings were published in PLOS One.

“We want to improve the ways people can communicate in the face of limitations—those who might not be able to speak or have sensory impairments,” said study co-author Alvaro Pascual-Leone, director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical Center. “Can we work around those limitations and communicate with another person or computer?”

The experiment proved it’s possible, indeed. The subjects didn’t speak, type, or look at each other throughout the exercise. Pascual-Leone said that while the technique still has a long way to go, this breakthrough serves as a proof of concept. “It’s still very, very early. [But] we can show that this is even possible with technology that’s available. It’s the difference between talking on the phone and Morse code. To get where you’re going, you need certain steps to be taken first.”

The process included turning letters into binary code, hand and feet movements conveying the code through electroencephalography sensors, transmitting it to email, and converting it into quick flashes through a transcranial magnetic stimulation system (attached to the blind-folded recipient’s head). The flashes would then be translated back into binary, and then finally to text. The one-word message took approximately 70 minutes to relay.

The ultimate goal is to remove the computer as a middleman and allow brain-to-brain communication between people. “We’re still a long way from that,” Pascual-Leone told Smithsonian magazine, “but in the end, I think it’s a pursuit worthy of the effort.”

For more on the history of telepathic communication studies and how it works, watch this video, courtesy of BrainCraft:



Image by Joan M. Maes, licensed under Creative Commons

The Building Blocks of Society

shell

LEGO makes strides and faces scrutiny over its toys.

Children’s toys are an arena for play and learning – and they have also become a reflection of society. That’s both good and bad news for LEGO. On a positive note, the company is becoming more gender aware. While a past attempt at marketing the product to girls caught flak for its overuse of pink and purple, the company is now developing a series of mini-figures that feature a female astronomer, paleontologist, and chemist. The sets were designed by Alatariel Elensar who says, “As a geochemist I started with designs close to my own profession, a geologist and a chemist, and then expanded the series to include other sciences and other professions. The motto of these Scientists is clear: explore the world and beyond.” Elensar submitted her concept through LEGO CUUSOO which allows anyone to create LEGO ideas which are then considered by the company for possible production. The female scientist series is slated to hit shelves by August.

On the flipside, LEGO is coming under scrutiny for its partnership with the oil company Shell. The toy company has been producing Shell-branded sets and is selling them in 33 countries. Greenpeace is leading the campaign with a short video and petition that urges LEGO to drop Shell, citing the detriment that the  company could cause to the Arctic region as well as concerns related to branding aimed at children. Despite the fact that LEGO’s Brand Framework states the company has, “an opportunity to make a difference to the environment in the future by engaging with children on sustainability and responsibility issues as they will be the builders of tomorrow,” the company is not budging on the partnership, releasing a statement that read, “We expect that Shell lives up to their responsibilities wherever they operate and take appropriate action to any potential claims should this not be the case. I would like to clarify that we intend to live up to the long term contract with Shell.”

Photo by Michele Mazzoli, licensed under Creative Commons.

Keeping Up with the Cartographers

map

New and updated maps reflect global issues.

In How Maps Change Things author Ward Kaiser explains, “We all use maps as tool of exploration. But the most basic—and most surprising—discovery we can make with maps goes far beyond any factual information; it comes in that ‘Aha!’ moment when we perceive that maps are loaded not just with data but with meaning.” That meaning can range from the highly political to a personal understanding of our place in the global scheme of things, and can interpret everything from history to languages to population. In fact, ODT Maps just released their 2015 population map in which each country’s size is represented by its population. Whereas Canada appears as a tiny yellow sliver atop the purple mid-sized U.S., India is a hulking blue mass.

The cartographers charged with updating the map from its 2005 version were surprised at the changes that were visualized. They found that the Middle East is growing rapidly with Qatar, Bahrain, and Cyprus all surpassing the one million mark, and that the only countries with decreasing populations were in Eastern Europe. The map itself also features information charting population growth in the past 100,000 years and the percentages of countries with children under the age of 15, a strong indicator of what future maps may look like.

As the world rapidly changes, geographers and researchers are striving to map out a variety of issues. New maps have been developed to chart recent problems such as plastic in the ocean while older maps like the National Geographic Atlas of the World are being updated to show the affect of the dramatically decreasing Arctic ice sheet. In doing so, information can be tracked and communicated. However, maps, like most media that undergoes editorial decisions, must be looked at critically. In updating the population map, publisher Bob Abramms explains, “The challenge as a publishing company, was that the map had grown in size so much that it couldn't fit onto any reasonable size of paper … So in the end we needed to crop off all the map explanation material from our 2005 map.” And on the updated National Geographic atlas, there was debate on what portion of ice to show since it shifts throughout the seasons. You’ll be able to see the final outcome when it’s released this September.

Image by Nicolas Raymond, licensed under Creative Commons.