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June 23, 2007

Due to a technical error, readers were unable to subscribe to the feed for tinyplanetblog.com. If you’ve been affected by this, I’ve fixed things. The feed can also be found here.

Thanks for your patience.

David

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On the move

June 15, 2007

Dear reader,

Tinyplanet has packed its bags and its moving to a new domain. Come and visit at www.tinyplanetblog.com.


Plants adapt to climate change

June 14, 2007

Writes Andrew C Revkin of the International Herald Tribune:

Many Arctic plant species have readily adjusted to big climate changes, repeatedly re-colonizing the rugged islands of Norway’s remote Svalbard archipelago through 20,000 years of warm and cool spells since the frigid peak of the last ice age, researchers say.

Is this nature taking a step in the right direction, or just a curious anomaly? Read the full article here.


Can science save us?

May 3, 2007

Although it may seem as if we’re doing our communal best to kill our planet, breakthroughs in the fight against climate change are getting closer and closer.

A team from Columbia University is developing a gadget that can strip carbon dioxide — the leading cause of atmospheric warming — from the air, trapping it. Huzzah! Study leader Klaus Lackner says the process is 1,000 times faster than that which occurs in trees. He predicts it’ll be a commercially viable technology within a few years.

The only problem is this seemingly anonymous device won’t work on the sources of carbon emissions, but rather have an impact on the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere. Also, removing the carbon dioxide from the device’s filters is likely to be quite expensive. In all likelihood the contraption would have a permanent base combining carbon stripping and storage. Depleted oil and gas fields have long been touted as places where carbon could be pumped and kept.

But, if it works, it’ll be feckin fantastic. Not that it would solve things overnight. However, it would be a way to tackle emissions. And it’s not the only possibility.

Alongside the by now almost passé wind, wave and geothermal energies, more exotic options include trapping carbon dioxide in the oceans, running cars on vegetable oil, hydrogen power (my personal favourite, probably because of Star Trek) and introducing carbon-loving bacteria into power plants in a bid to reduce CO2 at the source. We shall, for now, leave the likes of zero-point energy, nanoscrubbers and planetary core-tapping to the realm of science fiction.

Things are going to get worse before they get better. The IPCC is predicting a 2C increase in the average global temperature, and that’s in a best case scenario. But in the 1980s it was predicted that the nightmare scenario envisaged for 20 years’ time would be happening now. We’re in trouble, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way.

I love technology. I make no apologies for that. I believe it can address many of our problems, including global warming. We haven’t even begun to fully explore the possibilities.

But I am just one technophile with faith in the future. What do you think? Are we doomed, or can we survive? Can science save us?


Climate report

April 24, 2007

The UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its third climate report on May 4 (in Bangkok; I wonder just how much environmental damage scientists flying all over the world to attend conferences actually does?). Things ain’t looking much brighter, although the latest findings are set to reveal climate change will only hurt the world economy by a few percent if we all get our asses in gear.

Interestingly, the IPCC may embrace wider use of nuclear power, which produces little in the way of greenhouse gases compared to oil and coal. They’re unlikely to call for every nation on Earth to go nuclear, but suggest it as part of a wider package to stave off ecological disaster. Bringing a halt to deforestation is another aspect of said package.

Also, Japan is to press US president George W Bush on signing up to a deal to fight global warming when prime minister Shinzo Abe meets the American leader this week. Whether anything concrete comes out of this remains to be seen.


Up in smoke

April 19, 2007

AFP have a story of an Australian scientist with an unusual idea to help tackle global warming — ending the practice of cremation.

The guy, Professor Roger Short, is a reproductive biologist at the University of Melbourne.

“What a shame to be cremated when you go up in a big bubble of carbon dioxide,” he says. “Why waste all that carbon dioxide on your death?”

And he even has a suggestion for a ‘greener’ death: be buried under a tree in a cardboard box (as ’tis biodegradable). The body would nourish the plant which would in turn convert evil CO2 into gorgeous, sexy oxygen, keeping us all going that little bit longer.

Not that cremation is a leading cause of climate change (as even the man himself admits, hastily adding that he did not want to prevent people disposing of their bodies according to their beliefs).

But it does raise the issue of how little things can make a difference, whether it be washing clothes at a lower temperature, turning off the lights when you leave a room or being buried under a tree. And that’s something which will always fascinate me: how the most insignificant or run of the mill events can make a huge impact further down the line.

The best exploration of this notion I can think of would be ‘virtual’ history. This is perhaps better known as ‘what if?’ history.

For instance, William H McNeill, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, wrote an intriguing article focusing on disease, “one of the wildcards of history”.

He looked at the siegeof Jerusalem by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. The siege was lifted because a disease swept through the army of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. As Judah was a minor kingdom in the region, poorer and weaker than its neighbours, the Assyrian force moved on. McNeill points out that Sennacherib’s forces had already dominated the tiny kingdom anyway; what was one more city? The larger, wealthier part of David’s kingdom, Israel, had been extinguished some 21 years earlier.

McNeill notes that “common sense” in the region was “that the gods worshipped by different peoples protected their worshippers as best they could. Victory and defeat therefore registered the power of rival deities as well as the strength of merely human armies”. The departure of the Assyrian force was a propaganda victory for Hezekiah and the refomers.

“Thus, according to the Bible (e.g., the Book of Isaiah), God saved his people and destroyed the impious Assyrians by spreading lethal pestilence among them. Such a miraculous deliverance showed that both King Hezekiah and the prophet of Isaiah (whom Hezekiah consulted with) were right to rely on God’s power and protection.

More than that: it proved God’s power over the mightiest ruler of the age. Who then could doubt that the prophets and priests of Judah, who so boldly proclaimed God’s universal power, were telling the truth?”

The result was that a religious reformation the king of Judah, Hezekiah, had supported was able to sink roots. And it meant that when Jerusalem was finally conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, and its inhabitants brought into exile in Babylon, their faith was strong enough to endure. The idea of an omnipotent God was so ingrained in the people that even the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was not enough to encourage them to abandon His worship.

The people of Israel had lost their identity following their conquest; “by accepting commonsense views about the limits of divine power, they abandoned the worship of Jahweh, who had failed to protect them”. Not so for the citizens of Jerusalem, who interpreted their defeat as punishment for Judah’s failure to obey God’s commandments as well as they ought. Ultimately, these exiles “reorganised their scriptures to create an unambiguously monotheistic, congregational religion, independent of place and emancipation from the rites of Solomon’s destroyed temple in Jerusalem”.

So, one little plague outside the walls of a city in a minor kingdom some 2,700 years ago ultimately led to the rise of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. What would the world be like without them? Would we have a world full of gods? A world without any?

And now it is time to sleep.