The Supreme Court considers federal regulation of emissions, a tsunami warning system goes into effect and Darwin's tortoise dies.

Inconvenient Truths

Nineteen climate scientists interviewed by the Associated Press gave Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, two thumbs up for scientific accuracy. There were some minor errors, but those errors were “far, far fewer and less significant than the shortcoming in speeches by the typical politician explaining an issue,” according to Michael MacCracken, the chief scientist at the Climate Institute in Washington.

In a June 22nd report, the National Academy of Sciences told Congress, “the last few decades of the 20th century were warmer than any comparable period in the last 400 years.” The report also included evidence that recent warming is caused by human activity and is in excess of any similar warming in the past 2,000 years. These conclusions strongly support the chart presented by Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes in the late 1990s, which showed that the Northern Hemisphere was the warmest it has been in two millennia.

Forcing the Government to Do What’s Right

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that will determine whether the federal government must regulate emissions of new cars. The plaintiffs in the suit charge that the EPA must control greenhouse gasses, but the EPA insists that carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is not defined as a pollutant and therefore should not be regulated. Federal officials have called the lawsuit against the EPA “speculative” and claim that the science behind them is not conclusive enough to require action.

The Sierra Club, a prominent environmental organization, plans to shift over a quarter of its campaign fund from Congressional races to state and local elections. Carl Pope, the executive director of the Club, announced last Tuesday that state races would receive about a third of the fund, which he anticipates will total $5 million to $10 million. Pope said state and local governments are increasingly responsible for environmental issues, since partisan Washington is deadlocked on environmental legislation.

At a summit in Vienna on June 21, United States and European Union representatives agreed to “act with resolve and urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” The two sides pledged to increase funding for lower-emission fossil fuels and renewable fuel sources. While the declaration did not pinpoint any specific emissions targets, it said the two bodies would hold an annual strategic review of their energy cooperation.

Alternative Sources

The Sierra Club has filed a suit against the Pentagon, charging the Department of Defense with blocking the construction of wind power plants. The Department of Defense had barred placement of wind farms within line of sight of military radar. In response, Congress mandated that the Department of Defense conduct a study to determine if wind farms actually do pose a problem for radar systems. Even though the deadline for that study has come and gone, the Defense Department still provides no indication of when it plans to complete the study.

The House Resources Committee approved legislation that would allow oil and gas drilling in waters more than 50 miles offshore. The bill’s sponsors say it is likely to pass in the House but will face an uphill battle in the Senate. Opponents of the legislation say that the bill sets back protection of US coasts and could harm states whose neighbors choose to drill.

Opponents of the 2001 federal ban on stem cell research said a new bill promoting alternative methods of obtaining stem cells will not deter them from trying to repeal the ban. Alternative methods could allow for the creation of embryonic stem cells without the destruction of viable human embryos, but these technologies are largely untested. Most researchers say they believe these alternatives are not likely to be as successful as the methods President Bush banned.

Too Wet, Too Dry

A tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean is finally up and running a year and a half after the devastating tsunami that claimed over 200,000 lives in the region. The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which oversees the project, made the announcement last Wednesday. The system includes 26 national tsunami information centers, 25 new seismographic stations and three deep-ocean sensors.

On June 21, 300 scientists at a United Nations conference in Tunis called on governments to make fighting desert spread a “major priority.” The phenomenon threatens some 250 million people on five continents and has the potential to affect up to 1.2 billion people in the world’s 110 poorest countries. The UN emphasized that only through more widespread scientific understanding can desertification be effectively managed.

Princeton scientists have found that the circulation of waters around Antarctica may regulate the planet’s absorption of carbon dioxide. When water wells up, the researchers found, it forms two streams—a northern stream that provides nutrients to the world’s oceans and a southern stream that acts as a carbon sink by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air. The finding could help explain past fluctuations in greenhouse gases and provide scientists with new ways to combat global warming.

Europe Goes Nuclear

Gordon Brown, Britain’s finance minister and Tony Blair’s likely successor as leader of the Labor Party, declared on June 21 that if he becomes Prime Minister he will ensure Britain’s continued status as a nuclear power. Britain currently controls four nuclear-armed submarines equipped with US-built Trident missiles. The missiles will become unusable around 2020 due to the decay of their nuclear fuel, so Brown said he would spend billions of pounds on new weapons.

The United States gave a European-led consortium permission to build a uranium enrichment plant on US soil—the first in 30 years. Work on the facility, which will be located in Eunice, New Mexico, is scheduled to begin in August and may finish in 2009. The new plant already has contracts worth three billion dollars.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has announced that the government will spend $170 million over a three-year period to make solar energy cost competitive by 2015. Samuel Bodman, the DOE secretary, said the move is part of President Bush’s commitment to diversify America’s energy resources through grants, incentives for private businesses and tax credits.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) announced on June 21 that by applying currently available clean energy technologies, the world could cut its oil and electricity consumption in half. Technologies recommended by the IEA include carbon capture and storage, renewable energy and nuclear energy. The IEA called for improved energy efficiency as essential to slowing consumption.

Comings and Goings

The International Astronomical Union has officially approved the names of the two recently discovered Plutonian moons: Nix and Hydra. In Greek mythology, Nyx is the goddess of darkness and night, and Hydra is a many-headed serpent. The spelling of the former was changed because an asteroid already bears the name Nyx. Scientists discovered the moons using the Hubble Space Telescope. The group chose a name beginning with an h, Hydra, in honor of Hubble.

Harriet the tortoise, who is believed to have traveled with the legendary Charles Darwin, died last week in an Australian zoo. She was 176 years old. Harriet was about the size of a dinner-plate during the 1835 voyage with Darwin, but her final weigh-in put her at a substantial 330 pounds. While undeniably old, Harriet falls short of oldest creature ever recorded— that honor goes to a Madagascar radiated tortoise named Tu’i Malila who died in 1965 at the age of 188.

Eight Chinese scientists have asked the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine to withdraw a letter published on June 22. In the letter, the scientists alleged China knew of a bird flu case two years before its announcement. The scientists have provided no explanation for the request, but since the letter has already been printed, the journal decided to alert the press to the scientists’ inquiry.

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Originally published July 4, 2006


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