Archive for April, 2014
TAIPEI – Taiwanese Premier Jiang Yi-huah announced Monday the suspension of construction of the island’s controversial fourth nuclear power station, pending a public referendum on whether to resume work.
An estimated 28,500 anti-nuclear demonstrators blockaded one of Taipei’s busiest streets Sunday, forcing the ruling Kuomintang party to yield and halt construction work at the nearly completed plant.
Jiang defended the government’s decision to stop work but not to scrap the 283.8 billion New Taiwan dollar ($9.4 billion) project.
“By suspending the construction, we hope the public will have time to think and discuss the issue before they determine at the ballot box,” Jiang told a news conference.
“In this way, we would leave an option open to our next generation when choosing energy (sources),” he said.
Jiang said Taiwan cannot afford another shock similar to 2000 when the then-government of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) announced it was scrapping the plant.
That announcement plunged politics and the stock market into chaos for months. The Supreme Court later ruled against the government decision.
Sunday’s concession prompted many demonstrators to leave but hundreds remained, causing police to use water cannon to disperse them Monday morning.
Claiming they were attacked, club-waving riot police chased some protesters. Police also carried away some sit-in demonstrators lying on the ground.
More than 40 people were slightly injured in the clashes, the government said.
If completed, the new power station 40 km (25 miles) from Taipei will be the island’s fourth nuclear plant. Opponents say it would be unsafe in an earthquake-prone island.
The plant has two reactors, one of which is 98 percent complete.
Protest organizers said they will keep watching to see if the government fulfills its promises.
Concerns about the safety of nuclear power flared up again in the wake of the March 11, 2011, Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Like Japan, Taiwan is regularly hit by earthquakes.
In September 1999 a 7.6-magnitude quake killed around 2,400 people in the island’s deadliest natural disaster in recent history.
Taiwan’s three existing nuclear power plants supply about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.
By Peter Lee
This is an abstract of an article available for purchase here as an offprint.
For the nuclear bureaucrat, lying seems to be as essential and continuous a human process as breathing.
I am not averse to the argument that a greater reliance on nuclear energy, despite its massive risks, might provide an alternative future preferable to being cooked to death by greenhouse gases.
But I must say that I do not think that nuclear energy should be in the hands of the current crew under the current system.
The nuclear agenda is largely in control of the legacy nuclear
powers, whose dominance is enshrined in the imbalanced arrangement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its creature, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The United States and Russia, in particular, are nuclear horror shows when it comes to the waste, haste, shortcuts, and accidents inseparable from the birth of nuclear science in the crisis atmosphere of a world war and ensuing Cold War.
Neither of these nations, I would aver, is particularly interested in a new, more conservative model of radiation risk baselining that might impose onerous economic, political, and public health costs on their governments.
The Japanese government (which, under Prime Minister Abe is set on nuclear power as a strategic national initiative) and Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO) are pretty much cut from the same cloth.
Prime Minister Abe, in order to secure a key Japanese government priority, the 2020 Olympics, had this exchange with the IOC in September 2013 about the situation at the crippled nuclear power station at Fukushima:
Let me assure you the situation is under control,” [Abe] said.
“It has never done or will do any damage to Tokyo.”
Abe replied decisively when pressed by veteran Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg over Fukushima.
“You should read past the headlines and look at the facts,” he said.
“The contaminated water has been contained in an area of the harbor only 0.3 square kilometers big.
“There have been no health problems and nor will there be. I will be taking responsibility for all the programmes with regard to the plant and the leaks.
Fast-forward to April 20, 2014, courtesy of Japan Times: “It’s embarrassing to admit, but there are certain parts of the site where we don’t have full control,” Akira Ono told reporters touring the plant last week. …”
It appears that Abe’s “under control” assurances were based, at worst, on shaky assurances from TEPCO that the Japanese government was in no mood to question in the crucial run up to the awarding of the Olympic bid, or at best upon the rather unsophisticated idea that TEPCO would contain the contaminated water in tanks, so it wouldn’t reach the harbor, until some other more permanent solution got worked out.
Lots and lots of tanks.
The 1,000 tanks [already “approaching capacity”] hold 440,000 tons of contaminated water. Some 4,500 to 5,000 workers, about 1,500 more than a half year ago, are trying to double the capacity by 2016. 
The permanent solution has been slow in coming.
Add to the burgeoning storage tank farm the problems of radiation-averse contract workers hastily constructing and piping tanks and the inevitable problems of leaks, mis-routing, and overflows. Add the difficulty in getting the balky liquid processing system up and running. Add the challenges of trying out the new science of freezing a gigantic underground wall of ice to keep water from the ocean. Add the fact that 400 tons of groundwater flow through the site every day, and after TEPCO struck a deal with the local fishermen to dump 100 TPD into the ocean, it turns out that the water might be too contaminated to dump, anyway.
There are many ways to describe the contaminated water situation at Fukushima. “Under control” is not the most accurate. “Fighting a holding action for the next 30-40 years” as the physics of radionucleide decay ineluctably reduces the danger (and Abe and his promises to take responsibility have entered LDP Valhalla) is perhaps a better description.
“Abe lied Tokyo’s way into the 2020 Olympics” is also not complete hyperbole.
With this context, it is not terribly surprising that lawyers for sailors on the aircraft carrier USSRonald Reagan consider TEPCO a target-rich environment for the lawsuits they are filing to claim redress for TEPCO’s alleged negligence in the matter of the plume of radioactive material that theRonald Reagan sailed under and, thanks to the unfortunate circumstance of the downwash of a snowstorm, into, while conducting relief operations off the east coast of Japan after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.
Their claims have been shrugged off and under-reported in the US and Japan on the grounds that the radiation exposure was so minor it could not have caused any health problems. I don’t buy it, and not just because there is a predisposition in the nuclear industry to shade the truth.
There are good reasons to believe that radiation doses were not – could not be – accurately measured, and that valuable science on the extensive negative health outcomes for radiation workers, derived particularly study of the vast army of Chernobyl liquidators, has not been properly addressed, and a thoroughgoing rethinking of the scientific orthodoxy of radiation sickness and of the global nuclear regulatory apparatus should precede any new wave of nuclear power plant construction.
1. Manager at Japan’s Fukushima plant admits radioactive water ’embarrassing’, Reuters, April 17, 2014.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.
The author addresses the issue of radioactive contamination of the USS Ronald Reagan and its crew in an article for the CounterPunch monthly magazine, “Fukushima’s Nuclear Shadow: Fallout Over the USS Reagan” in which he also discusses little-known elements of the Chernobyl disaster, and the story behind one of the most serious episodes of radioactive contamination from nuclear testing in the United States. CounterPunch has made the full article available as an inexpensive offprint. Click here for the link for purchase.
(Copyright 2014 Peter Lee)
Google isn’t the only corporation to invest heavily in solar power, but its latest million dollar investment added to its previous healthy contributions will mark the company a leader in renewable energy promotion. The company announced just weeks ago that it would buy much of its energy from a wind farm in Iowa and now, along with a $150 million investment from solar panel maker, SunPower, Google will provide $100 million to contribute to lease financing for thousands of American homeowners to add solar panels to their roof tops and clean energy to their mix.
This isn’t an inaugural investment in clean energy for Google and the multi-national company isn’t just invested in solar financing for homeowners. Google put $280 million into a solar rooftop fund run by Solar City and another $75 million into Clean Power Finance’s home solar roof fund.
SunPower launched its solar lease program in 2011 and has helped power 20,000 homes with leased panels.
While solar energy business is booming, as solar technologies improve and the cost of solar panels become more affordable for an average family, captured solar still only accounts for well less than 1 quadrillion Btu out of an annual total of 96.5 quadrillion when you factor in all energy sources utilized in this country, including the burning of human waste, the use of natural gas and oil. The U.S. still relies heavily on coal nuclear energy to generate electricity.
Google isn’t the only corporation to invest heavily in solar power, but its latest million-dollar investment added to its previous healthy contributions will mark the company a leader in renewable energy promotion. The company announced just weeks ago that it would buy much of its energy from a wind farm in Iowa and now along with a $150 million investment from solar panel maker, SunPower, Google will provide $100 million to contribute to lease financing for thousands of American homeowners to add solar panels to their roof tops and clean energy to their mix.
While solar energy business is booming, as solar technologies improve and the cost of solar panels become more affordable for an average family, captured solar still only accounts for well less than 1 quadrillion Btu out of an annual total of 96.5 quadrillion when you factor in all energy sources utilized in this country, including the burning of human waste, the use of natural gas, and oil. The US still relies heavily on coal nuclear energy to generate electricity.
U.S. residential electricity prices are projected to rise steadily. Google recently told a correspondent from CNBC that 34 percent of the search engine company’s day-to-day operations are currently powered by reusable resources, and the company plans on investing over $1 billion in renewable energy.
Why is our country comparatively powering “progress” with loads of dirty energy?
The coal industry strips away valuable soil and pollutes heavily, leaving behind millions of tons of solid waste products annually, including fly ash, bottom ash and flue-gas desulfurization sludge that contain mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic and other heavy metals. Nuclear energy shouldn’t even be a consideration considering that we are still coming to terms with the radiation levels from the Fukushima incident. The radioactive isotopes from this catastrophe are making Geiger counters everywhere soar with astronomical readings.
If Google has already managed to run its mega-corporation with 34 percent clean(er) energy, then surely our country can do better than running on less than 2 percent clean energy. We’ve got a long way to go. Hopefully the new leasing projects offered by Google and SunPower will help more Americans help kick the dirty energy habit.
To view graphs that support this information, click here.
The Congo—one of the world’s greatest rainforests—is getting steadily less green. The slow change in color during this century, recorded by a series of U.S. satellites, has been matched by a rise in temperature and lower precipitation. And, researchers think, it could reflect a forest’s response to climate change.
Scientists from Australia, China, the U.S. and France report in the journal Nature that they examined optical, thermal, microwave and gravity data collected by orbiting sensors between 2000 and 2012.
They concentrated on intact forested regions during the months of April, May and June each year, which span the peaks of growth and rainfall. They detected an intensification in the forest’s decline. This decline was consistent with lower rainfall, poorer water storage below the canopy and a gradual change in the composition of species.
“It is important to understand these changes because most climate models predict tropical forests may be under stress due to increasing severe water shortages in a warmer and drier twenty-first century climate,” said Liming Zhou, of Albany State University of New York. But other factors could accelerate this “browning” of one of the world’s greatest rainforests.
A team from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium—also known in Belgium’s other language as KU Leuven—predicts in the Journal of Climate that explosive population growth and inefficient agricultural practices are likely to make things a great deal hotter for the region and a great deal worse for the rainforest.
By 2050, according to their computer models, Central Africa will be on average 1.4 degrees Celsius hotter than it is today just because of greenhouse gas emissions. And the steady destruction of the forest will add an extra 0.7 degrees Celsius to that figure.
Temperature increases on such a scale will harm plant and animal species and even bring about some extinction. Where the forests have been cleared, there will be increased levels of evaporation, and consequent rises in temperature.
Across the Atlantic, things also look bleak for the Amazon rainforest. Paulo Brando of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute in Brazil and colleagues from the U.S. report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the piecemeal clearing of the rainforest, along with drought, has begun to create “tinderbox” conditions and an ever more destructive cycle of burning.
Over the course of eight years, in one of the longest-running experiments of its kind, the researchers burned 50-hectare plots of forest in the south-eastern Amazon, a region vulnerable to climate change. They compared the tree deaths each year to measure the impact of drought on fire intensity.
“Drought causes more intense and widespread fires,” said Dr. Brando. “Four times more adult trees were killed by fire during a drought year, which means that there was also more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, more tree species loss and a greater likelihood of grasses invading the forest.”
This research, too, was backed up by satellite observation. In 2007, a year of drought, fires in south-east Amazonia burned 10 times more forest than in an average year—an area equivalent to a million soccer fields, according to Douglas Morton of the U.S. space agency NASA, a co-author.
Climate change is expected to bring shorter, more intense rainy seasons and longer dry seasons in the region. Michael Coe of Woods Hole Research Center, another author, said “We tend to think only about average conditions, but it is the non-average conditions we have to worry about.”
The New York Times editorial board finally gets it right about trade in its Sunday editorial, “This Time, Get Global Trade Right.” Some excerpts:
Many Americans have watched their neighbors lose good-paying jobs as their employers sent their livelihoods to China. Over the last 20 years, the United States has lost nearly five million manufacturing jobs.
People in the Midwest, the “rust belt” and elsewhere noticed this a long time ago as people were laid off, “the plant” closed, the downtowns slowly boarded up and the rest of us felt pressure on wages and working hours. How many towns — entire regions of the country — are like this now? Have you even seen Detroit?
“This page has long argued that removing barriers to trade benefits the economy and consumers, and some of those gains can be used to help the minority of people who lose their jobs because of increased imports,” the editors write. “But those gains have not been as widespread as we hoped, and they have not been adequate to assist those who were harmed.”
So acknowledging that our trade deals have hurt the country, they say maybe we could try to do it right with coming agreements. They write:
If done right, these agreements could improve the ground rules of global trade, as even critics of Nafta like Representative Sander Levin, Democrat of Michigan, have argued. They could reduce abuses like sweatshop labor, currency manipulation and the senseless destruction of forests. They could weaken protectionism against American goods and services in countries like Japan, which have sheltered such industries as agriculture and automobiles.
They write that one problem is that these agreements are negotiated of, by and for the giant corporations:
One of the biggest fears of lawmakers and public interest groups is that only a few insiders know what is in these trade agreements, particularly the Pacific pact.
The Obama administration has revealed so few details about the negotiations, even to members of Congress and their staffs, that it is impossible to fully analyze the Pacific partnership. Negotiators have argued that it’s impossible to conduct trade talks in public because opponents to the deal would try to derail them.
But the administration’s rationale for secrecy seems to apply only to the public. Big corporations are playing an active role in shaping the American position because they are on industry advisory committees to the United States trade representative, Michael Froman. By contrast, public interest groups have seats on only a handful of committees that negotiators do not consult closely.
The current trade-negotiation process is a system designed to rig the game for the giant multinationals against everyone else:
That lopsided influence is dangerous, because companies are using trade agreements to get special benefits that they would find much more difficult to get through the standard legislative process. For example, draft chapters from the Pacific agreement that have been leaked in recent months reveal that most countries involved in the talks, except the United States, do not want the agreement to include enforceable environmental standards. Business interests in the United States, which would benefit from weaker rules by placing their operations in countries with lower protections, have aligned themselves with the position of foreign governments. Another chapter, on intellectual property, is said to contain language favorable to the pharmaceutical industry that could make it harder for poor people in countries like Peru to get generic medicines.
These trade agreements place corporate rights over national sovereignty:
Another big issue is whether these trade agreements will give investors unnecessary power to sue foreign governments over policies they dislike, including health and environmental regulations. Philip Morris, for example, is trying to overturn Australian rules that require cigarette packs to be sold only in plain packaging. If these treaties are written too loosely, big banks could use them to challenge new financial regulations or, perhaps, block European lawmakers from enacting a financial-transaction tax.
And they’re asking, like the rest of us are asking, why in the world won’t they do something about currency?
It’s easy to point the finger at Nafta and other trade agreements for job losses, but there is a far bigger culprit: currency manipulation. A 2012 paper from the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that the American trade deficit has increased by up to $500 billion a year and the country has lost up to five million jobs because China, South Korea, Malaysia and other countries have boosted their exports by suppressing the value of their currency.
What So-Called “Free Trade” Agreements Did To The Economy
A trade deficit means that we buy more from the rest of the world than we sell to it. This means that jobs making and doing things here migrate to there. Before the mid-70s the United States ran generally balanced trade, with a bias toward surplus. Look at this chart to see what happened, beginning in the ’80s, and then … wham.
Now we have an enormous, humongous, ongoing trade deficit that over the years has added up to trillions and trillions of dollars drained from our economy. We have lost millions and millions of jobs as tens of thousands of factories closed. We have lost entire industries. We are losing our entire middle class to the resulting wage stagnation and inequality.
Here is what happened when the trade deficit took off. First, look at this chart of the “decoupling” of wages with productivity. In other words, as productivity goes up, what happens to the share of those gains that go to labor:
In case you don’t see the correlation, this chart shows both the trade deficit and labor’s share of the benefits of our economy:
Most people understand the damage that so-called “free trade” has done to the economy, much of our country and the middle class. Millions of people have outright lost their jobs because of corporate CEOs who conclude, “It’s cheaper to manufacture where they pay 50 cents an hour and let us pollute all we want.”
Many others have felt the resulting job fear: “If I so much as hint that I want a raise or weekends off they’ll move my job to China, too.” Entire regions have lost their economic base as factories and entire industries closed and moved.
But We Globalized And Expanded Trade
The basic pro-free-trade argument is that all trade is good and these agreements increase trade. NAFTA negotiator Carla Hills, defending NAFTA, says, “our trade with Mexico and Canada has soared 400 percent, and our investment is up fivefold.”
Of course, this is like proudly telling people that the Broncos scored 8 points in the 2014 Super Bowl*. (Hint: the Seahawks scored 43 points.)
Yes, trade is up and exports are up, but imports are up even more, which costs us jobs, factories and industries. What happened was NAFTA “expanded” trade against American workers and our economy, costing about a million jobs and increasing our trade deficit 480 percent. And don’t even ask what happened with our China trade. (Hint: our 2013 trade deficit with China was 318.4 billion dollars.)
How Would The N.Y. Times Fix Trade?
The Times editorial says we should “press countries to stop manipulating their currencies” and “the president also needs to make clear to America’s trading partners that they need to adhere to enforceable labor and environmental regulations.”
OK, but why would the giant multinationals participate? The point of the free-trade regime up to now has been to accomplish the opposite: to free the giants from the pesky laws and regulations imposed by governments, especially from labor and environmental regulations. The negotiations have been a rigged game designed to transfer the wealth of entire nations to a few billionaires (including Chinese billionaires) and giant, multinational corporations. It worked.
Meanwhile … In The L.A. Times
Meanwhile in the Los Angeles Times, representatives George Miller (D-Calif.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) have written an op-ed, “Free trade on steroids: The threat of the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” talk about NAFTA as a “model for additional agreements, and its deeply flawed approach has resulted in the outsourcing of jobs, downward pressure on wages and a meteoric rise in income inequality,” and ask us not to “blindly endorse any more unfair NAFTA-style trade agreements, negotiated behind closed doors, that threaten to sell out American workers, offshore our manufacturing sector and accelerate the downward spiral of wages and benefits.”
In 1993, before NAFTA, the U.S. had a $2.5-billion trade surplus with Mexico and a $29-billion deficit with Canada. By 2012, that had exploded into a combined NAFTA trade deficit of $181 billion. Since NAFTA, more than 845,000 U.S. workers in the manufacturing sector — and this is likely an undercount — have been certified under just one narrow program for trade adjustment assistance. They qualified because they lost their jobs due to increased imports from Canada and Mexico, or the relocation of factories to those nations.
The recent Korea free trade agreement followed the NAFTA model and the results have already proven terrible for American workers:
Obama said it would support “70,000 American jobs from increased goods exports alone.” In reality, U.S. monthly exports to South Korea fell 11% in the pact’s first two years, imports rose and the U.S. trade deficit exploded by 47%. This led to a net loss of tens of thousands of U.S. jobs in this pact’s first two years.
There are many things we can do to enhance our competitiveness with China and in the global economy.
We can invest in our own infrastructure, manufacturing and job training. We can work harder to address issues like currency manipulation, unfair subsidies for state-owned enterprises in other nations and global labor protections. We can enter deals that increase U.S. exports while doing right by our workers and our priorities, and we can address the real foreign policy challenges in Asia with appropriate policies instead of through a commercial agreement that could weaken the United States and its allies.
What we should not do is blindly endorse any more unfair NAFTA-style trade agreements, negotiated behind closed doors, that threaten to sell out American workers, offshore our manufacturing sector and accelerate the downward spiral of wages and benefits.
No New Trade Agreements, Instead Fix The Ones We Have
Of course, as we reach consensus that we got trade wrong, and realize how these “NAFTA-style” agreements have done so much damage to our economy and middle class, doesn’t this mean it is time to back up and renegotiate NAFTA and others?
012483-droughtclimate-change-042214.jpg (photo: The Nation)
27 April 14
or the first time in 15 years, the entire state of California is experiencing drought, ranging in severity from moderate to exceptional.
That’s the analysis from the National Climatic Data Center’s most recent drought monitor released this week, which found that nearly 39% of the country was in drought. That figure rose by 1% from the previous week.
Drought definitions vary widely. The Climatic Data Center—part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—relies in part on precipitation reports for its assessment. California’s drought monitors consider the state’s water supplies.
Thus, while California is still in the grips of drought, the situation has eased somewhat in the last two months, according to state officials. Soaking rains in Northern California in February and March have put a dent in what was a dire situation.
So much so that last week the State Water Project, which supplies a majority of the state, announced it will be able to make 5% of the system’s allocation. That was good news for municipalities, which had been told in January to expect no water from the project.
Still, NOAA reported last week that half of the Sierra Nevada’s snowpack liquid water equivalent melted in one week, spurred by statewide temperatures that were as much as 12 degrees above average. The melt only boosted reservoir levels slightly,the agency said.
Two leaders of the climate change divestment campaign are urging institutions to break ties with the fossil fuel industry.
Information and resources for those looking to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
Putting the Freeze on Global Warming
The Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu, has called for an international “anti-apartheid-style boycott” against the fossil fuel industry in response to global warming. “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” the Nobel Peace Prize laureate wrote in an essay earlier this month. Tutu’s call to action also urges a strategy of divestment, the selling off of stocks and other investments in the name of an urgent cause.
This week, Bill talks with two leaders who helped inspire the new fossil fuel divestment movement that Tutu is encouraging. Ellen Dorsey is executive director of the Wallace Global Fund and a catalyst in the coalition of 17 foundations known as Divest-Invest Philanthropy. Thomas Van Dyck is Senior Vice President – Financial Advisor at RBC Wealth Management, and founder of As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy foundation.
They are urging foundations, faith groups, pension funds, municipalities and universities to sell their shares in polluting industries and reinvest in companies committed to climate change solutions.
“The climate crisis is so urgent that if you own fossil fuels, you own climate change,” Dorsey tells Moyers. Van Dyck adds that reinvestment is needed to create “a sustainable economy that’s based on the energy of the future, not on the energy of the past.”
Producer: Candace White. Segment Producer: Robert Booth. Editor: Donna Marino.
Astronomers are one step closer to solving a longstanding mystery — just what our Milky Way galaxy looks like.
It may seem odd that a comprehensive understanding of the Milky Way’s structure has so far eluded researchers. But it’s tough to get a broad view of the galaxy from within.
“We are fairly confident that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, but we don’t know much in detail. At the most basic level, we’d like to be able to make a map that would show in detail what it looks like,” said Mark Reid of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who led the new study. [Stunning Photos of Our Milky Way Galaxy (Gallery)]
Using the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a system of 10 radio telescopes spanning the globe from Hawaii to New England to the Virgin Islands, and operated in Socorro, N.M., Reid’s team studied masers — naturally occurring sources of laser-like radio waves from clouds of gas near luminous stars — to map our galaxy in unprecedented detail.
“Mark Reid’s paper presents the most precise data we have on the dynamics and structure of theMilky Way galaxy,” said Harvard theorist Avi Loeb, who did not take part in the study.
Previous studies of the Milky Way’s structure were limited to nearby stars or relied on inferring distances from measurements of the speed of gas clouds approaching or receding from us. But these techniques are not reliable enough to discern the finer points of the Milky Way’s structure. So Reid’s team decided to go one step further.
The researchers first tried to get precise values of the Milky Way’s most fundamental parameters — the distance to the galactic center and the speed with which our sun rotates around it. These parameters directly relate to the size and total mass of the Milky Way.
To do so, they measured parallax — an effect that reflects the apparent position of an object when viewed from two different vantage points. This is essentially the same technique used for surveying on Earth, only carried to extraordinary accuracy with the VLBA.
“Were the human eye to have this accuracy, one could see individual molecules in one’s hand,” Reid said.
Astronomers measure parallax by observing how stars appear to move back and forth as the Earth orbits the sun. Using this technique, Reid’s team first measured the position of a bright maser spot coming from a dense cloud surrounding a newly formed and massive star.
Six months later, the astronomers measured the position again, when the Earth had moved halfway around the sun.
“This gives us two different vantage points, and the bright spot will appear to have moved by a small angle on the sky between the two observations,” said Reid.
Then they made a third measurement, when the Earth returned to its original position, to account for the motions of the sun and the target object. “Knowing the Earth-sun distance and the change in angle allows us to calculate the distance to the starby simple trigonometry,” Reid said.
The results have been impressive. As Reid and his colleagues describe in the paper, published this month in The Astrophysical Journal, it has been possible to determine the location of bright young stars that trace spiral structures in our galaxy, and even to measure how tightly wound the Milky Way’s spiral arms are.
“A typical spiral arm starts near the center of the Milky Way and wraps around once before fading away for lack of material to form stars,” Reid said.
But Loeb said that the most important results of the recent study were the much more accurate estimates of the distance to the galactic center and the circular rotation speed at the sun’s location.
“These values are of fundamental importance to many other studies of the Milky Way,” Loeb said.
Together with Gaia
Since the VLBA is in the Northern Hemisphere, it can only “see” about half of the Milky Way. So the next step is to take the same measurements in the Southern Hemisphere.
Once that’s done, Reid is confident that it should be possible to trace the Milky Way’s arms from their origin in the inner regions of the galaxy around to the outer parts.
His team’s ground-based observations will soon be greatly extended by the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft, which launched in December. Gaia aims to measure the distances to one billion stars by about 2020. [Photos: Gaia Spacecraft to Map Milky Way Galaxy]
“Gaia is an optical telescope and cannot peer through the dusty plane of the Milky Way, where spiral structures dominate, whereas the VLBA uses radio waves that are unaffected by dust,” Reid said, “so the two approaches are quite complementary.”
Instead of measuring parallax distances and mapping the Milky Way, an alternative would be to design a space probe that could move at nearly the speed of light, Reid said.
“In about 10,000 years it would get out of the Milky Way and could take a picture and send it back to us and we would know what the Milky Way looks like,” he said. “Of course it would take another 10,000 years to transmit the image back to us. I’d like to know the answer sooner.”
You can read the paper at the online preprint site ArXiv here:http://xxx.lanl.gov/abs/1401.5377
- Milky Way Quiz: Test Your Galaxy Smarts
- Gallery: 65 All-Time Great Galaxy Hits
- 10 Biggest Telescopes on Earth: How They Measure Up
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This is a story about bad timing.
One of the most disturbing ways that climate change is already playing out is through what ecologists call “mismatch” or “mistiming.” This is the process whereby warming causes animals to fall out of step with a critical food source, particularly at breeding times, when a failure to find enough food can lead to rapid population losses.
The migration patterns of many songbird species, for instance, have evolved over millennia so that eggs hatch precisely when food sources such as caterpillars are at their most abundant, providing parents with ample nourishment for their hungry young. But because spring now often arrives early, the caterpillars are hatching earlier too, which means that in some areas they are less plentiful when the chicks hatch, with a number of possible long-term impacts on survival.
Similarly, in West Greenland, caribou are arriving at their calving grounds only to find themselves out of sync with the forage plants they have relied on for thousands of years, now growing earlier thanks to rising temperatures. That is leaving female caribou with less energy for lactation, reproduction and feeding their young, a mismatch that has been linked to sharp decreases in calf births and survival rates.
Scientists are studying cases of climate-related mistiming among dozens of species, from Arctic terns to pied flycatchers. But there is one important species they are missing – us. Homo sapiens. We too are suffering from a terrible case of climate-related mistiming, albeit in a cultural-historical, rather than a biological, sense. Our problem is that the climate crisis hatched in our laps at a moment in history when political and social conditions were uniquely hostile to a problem of this nature and magnitude – that moment being the tail end of the go-go 80s, the blast-off point for the crusade to spread deregulated capitalism around the world. Climate change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes of which humanity has never actually accomplished. Yet it entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.
When regulation became a dirty word
This deeply unfortunate mistiming has created all sorts of barriers to our ability to respond effectively to this crisis. It has meant that corporate power was ascendant at the very moment when we needed to exert unprecedented controls over corporate behaviour in order to protect life on Earth. It has meant that regulation was a dirty word just when we needed those powers most. It has meant that we are ruled by a class of politicians who know only how to dismantle and starve public institutions just when they most need to be fortified and reimagined. And it has meant that we are saddled with an apparatus of “free trade” deals that tie the hands of policymakers just when they need maximum flexibility to achieve a massive energy transition.
Confronting these various structural barriers to the next economy is the critical work of any serious climate movement. But it’s not the only task at hand. We also have to confront how the mismatch between climate change and market domination has created barriers within our very selves, making it harder to look at this most pressing of humanitarian crises with anything more than furtive, terrified glances. Because of the way our daily lives have been altered by both market and technological triumphalism, we lack many of the observational tools necessary to convince ourselves that climate change is real – let alone the confidence to believe that a different way of living is possible.
And little wonder: just when we needed to gather, our public sphere was disintegrating; just when we needed to consume less, consumerism took over virtually every aspect of our lives; just when we needed to slow down and notice, we sped up; and just when we needed longer time horizons, we were able to see only the immediate present.
This is our climate change mismatch, and it affects not just our species but potentially every other species on the planet as well.
The good news is that, unlike reindeer and songbirds, we humans are blessed with the capacity for advanced reasoning and therefore the ability to adapt more deliberately – to change old patterns of behaviour with remarkable speed. If the ideas that rule our culture are stopping us from saving ourselves, then it is within our power to change those ideas. But before that can happen, we first need to understand the nature of our personal climate mismatch.
Being consumers is all we know
Climate change demands that we consume less, but being consumers is all we know. Climate change is not a problem that can be solved simply by changing what we buy – a hybrid instead of an SUV, some carbon offsets when we get on a plane. At its core, it is a crisis born of overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy, which means the world’s most manic consumers are going to have to consume less.
The problem is not “human nature,” as we are so often told. We weren’t born having to shop this much, and we have, in our recent past, been just as happy (in many cases happier) consuming far less. The problem is the inflated role that consumption has come to play in our particular era.
Late capitalism teaches us to create ourselves through our consumer choices: shopping is how we form our identities, find community and express ourselves. Thus, telling people that they can’t shop as much as they want to because the planet’s support systems are overburdened can be understood as a kind of attack, akin to telling them that they cannot truly be themselves. This is likely why, of the original “three Rs” – reduce, reuse, recycle – only the third has ever gotten any traction, since it allows us to keep on shopping as long as we put the refuse in the right box. The other two, which require that we consume less, were pretty much dead on arrival.
Climate change is slow, and we are fast. When you are racing through a rural landscape on a bullet train, it looks as if everything you are passing is standing still: people, tractors, cars on country roads. They aren’t, of course. They are moving, but at a speed so slow compared with the train that they appear static.
So it is with climate change. Our culture, powered by fossil fuels, is that bullet train, hurtling forward toward the next quarterly report, the next election cycle, the next bit of diversion or piece of personal validation via our smartphones and tablets. Our changing climate is like the landscape out the window: from our racy vantage point it can appear static, but it is moving, its slow progress measured in receding ice sheets, swelling waters and incremental temperature rises. If left unchecked, climate change will most certainly speed up enough to capture our fractured attention – island nations wiped off the map, and city-drowning superstorms, tend to do that. But by then, it may be too late for our actions to make a difference, because the era of tipping points will likely have begun.
The importance of the intensely local
Climate change is place-based, and we are everywhere at once. The problem is not just that we are moving too quickly. It is also that the terrain on which the changes are taking place is intensely local: an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird. Noticing those kinds of subtle changes requires an intimate connection to a specific ecosystem. That kind of communion happens only when we know a place deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one generation to the next.
But that is increasingly rare in the urbanised, industrialised world. We tend to abandon our homes lightly – for a new job, a new school, a new love. And as we do so, we are severed from whatever knowledge of place we managed to accumulate at the previous stop, as well as from the knowledge amassed by our ancestors (who, at least in my case, migrated repeatedly themselves).
Even for those of us who manage to stay put, our daily existence can be disconnected from the physical places where we live. Shielded from the elements as we are in our climate-controlled homes, workplaces and cars, the changes unfolding in the natural world easily pass us by. We might have no idea that a historic drought is destroying the crops on the farms that surround our urban homes, since the supermarkets still display miniature mountains of imported produce, with more coming in by truck all day. It takes something huge – like a hurricane that passes all previous high-water marks, or a flood destroying thousands of homes – for us to notice that something is truly amiss. And even then we have trouble holding on to that knowledge for long, since we are quickly ushered along to the next crisis before these truths have a chance to sink in.
Climate change, meanwhile, is busily adding to the ranks of the rootless every day, as natural disasters, failed crops, starving livestock and climate-fuelled ethnic conflicts force yet more people to leave their ancestral homes. And with every human migration, more crucial connections to specific places are lost, leaving yet fewer people to listen closely to the land.
How we made the air our sewer
Climate pollutants are invisible, and we have stopped believing in what we cannot see. When BP’s Macondo well ruptured in 2010, releasing torrents of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, one of the things we heard from company chief executive Tony Hayward was that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” The statement was widely ridiculed at the time, and rightly so, but Hayward was merely voicing one of our culture’s most cherished beliefs: that what we can’t see won’t hurt us and, indeed, barely exists.
So much of our economy relies on the assumption that there is always an “away” into which we can throw our waste. There’s the away where our garbage goes when it is taken from the curb, and the away where our waste goes when it is flushed down the drain. There’s the away where the minerals and metals that make up our goods are extracted, and the away where those raw materials are turned into finished products. But the lesson of the BP spill, in the words of ecological theorist Timothy Morton, is that ours is “a world in which there is no ‘away.'”
When I published No Logo a decade and a half ago, readers were shocked to learn of the abusive conditions under which their clothing and gadgets were manufactured. But we have since learned to live with it – not to condone it, exactly, but to be in a state of constant forgetfulness. Ours is an economy of ghosts, of deliberate blindness.
Air is the ultimate unseen, and the greenhouse gases that warm it are our most elusive ghosts. Philosopher David Abram points out that for most of human history, it was precisely this unseen quality that gave the air its power and commanded our respect. “Called Sila, the wind-mind of the world, by the Inuit; Nilch’i, or Holy Wind, by the Navajo; Ruach, or rushing-spirit, by the ancient Hebrews,” the atmosphere was “the most mysterious and sacred dimension of life.”
But in our time “we rarely acknowledge the atmosphere as it swirls between two persons.” Having forgotten the air, Abram writes, we have made it our sewer, “the perfect dump site for the unwanted byproducts of our industries … Even the most opaque, acrid smoke billowing out of the pipes will dissipate and disperse, always and ultimately dissolving into the invisible. It’s gone. Out of sight, out of mind.”
The timeframes that escape us
Another part of what makes climate change so very difficult for us to grasp is that ours is a culture of the perpetual present, one that deliberately severs itself from the past that created us as well as the future we are shaping with our actions. Climate change is about how what we did generations in the past will inescapably affect not just the present, but generations in the future. These timeframes are a language that has become foreign to most of us.
This is not about passing individual judgment, nor about berating ourselves for our shallowness or rootlessness. Rather, it is about recognising that we are products of an industrial project, one intimately and historically linked to fossil fuels.
And just as we have changed before, we can change again. After listening to the great farmer-poet Wendell Berry deliver a lecture on how we each have a duty to love our “homeplace” more than any other, I asked him if he had any advice for rootless people like me and my friends, who live in our computers and always seem to be shopping from home. “Stop somewhere,” he replied. “And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.”
That’s good advice on lots of levels. Because in order to win this fight of our lives, we all need a place to stand.
• This column first appeared in The Nation. Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, will be published this September by Allen Lane.