Wednesday, 25 July 2012

How trade is killing amphibians

The disease Chytridiomycosis has been found in 287 species of amphibians in 36 countries. It is responsible for the extinction of several species of amphibians and threatens the survival of many more. Chytridiomycosis is due to infection of the skin by a fungus, Batrachochytrium Dendrobatidis (Bd), and was first diagnosed in 1998.

Related fungi are fairly benign and feed on decayed plants rather than live animals. Bd, by contrast, has hundreds of genes that produce proteins that can digest amphibian skin. Genetic studies have shown that samples of Bd from around the world are very similar and that the most dangerous variety has existed for less than century. So Bd is a single, recently evolved, highly anomalous, variety that has spread rapidly.

This suggests two questions:
  1. How has BD spread so fast?
  2. How did a meat-eating fungus evolve from plant-eating ancestors?
The first question is the easier. Mathew Fisher, an epidemiologist at Imperial College, says "trade is getting this thing from continent to continent ... it doesn't survive in salt water, and, as far as we know, has no airborne stage". The most likely kind of trade is a trade in amphibians and there are two main possibilities - the African clawed frog and the North American bullfrog. Both can act as carriers because they are relatively resistant to Bd. The clawed frog is used in research whilst the bullfrog provides the frogs' legs used in some cuisines. Circumstantial evidence from the UK and the Phillippines points to the bullfrog.

So how did it arise? This is less clear but the the farming of bullfrogs creates high population densities that favour highly virulent varieties. With international trade bringing different varieties together in conditions that promote virulence the appearance of a virulent hybrid variety is no surprise - and has been seen in salamanders raised for bait.

So trade has spread this deadly disease and probably contributed to its existence. That, given the continued growth in world trade, is bad news. But there may be worse to come. The same factors that created and spread Chytridiomycosis are found in all trade in animals and plants. They may yet create new, highly virulent, diseases of chickens, pigs or even wheat.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Good News 2: Recycling nuclear waste

Nuclear waste is nasty. It's poisonous and very long-lived. There isn't a whole lot of it compared, say, to spoil from coal mines, but it's a lot nastier. And there will be more, even if we build no more nuclear power stations.

Discussions so far have concentrated on surface storage followed, eventually, by disposal underground. There's an unsurprising reluctance by most people to have it stored under their ground. But is that the best we can do? Can it be reused or recycled?

Turns out we can do better - and there are several ways.
  1. We can bombard the waste with high-speed neutrons from a particle accelerator. This causes the radioactive nuclei in the waste to split (fission) creating much shorter-lived elements. These are easier to deal with since we only have to store them safely for centuries, not millenia.
  2. We can add Thorium to the waste before bombardment. The mix will then generate power much as a Uranium reactor does except that it will consume waste and will probably be safer.
  3. We can design the reactor to create its own fast neutrons and omit the accelerator top get a new design of power-generating reactor.
Though the basic physics is well understood the engineering is not and it will take at least a decade, maybe two, to fix that. Perhaps they will never work.

But to know this we need research. The first accelerator-driven research reactor was commissioned in Tokyo in 2009 whilst Europe's own reactor, Guinevere, went live in Paris last January. Let's hope the problems can be solved. We badly need nuclear reactors that don't leave us with long-lived radioactive waste if we're to break our addiction to fossil fuels.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Casino tail wags the environmental dog

The press is full of banking this week. The Barclays LIBOR scandal has reminded all of us that banking reform is unfinished business - just what the bankers want it to stay. Two things should be obvious:
  1. The banking system has created the current recession and will create another unless reformed.
  2. The culture of the major banks tolerates, even encourages, fraud. Customers cannot trust their banks.
The first hardly needs evidence. In support of the second I'd mention LIBOR, interest rate collars, payment protection insurance and pension mis-selling. A financial journalist could doubtless triple that list without drawing breath. So what's needed is comprehensive systemic change embracing regulation, leadership, culture, bonus structures, risk management systems, compliance and much else.

But what has this to do with climate?

Let's go back to basics. Human life depends first on our abilities to find water and to gather food and then, in most societies, on getting fuel with which to cook it. After that we need safety, shelter, clothing and warmth. For all these things we need a supportive community and once they're secured we'd like some luxuries.

We have had some of these things for tens of thousands of years but in the last two hundred years we have created an extraordinary industrial system that provides them in abundance to many - though far from all - of the Earth's now greatly increased population. Industry and industrialised farming provide food, clothing, housing and many luxuries. To support both we have a large service sector and this includes financial services such as cheques, savings, loans and insurance.

Now in getting to this point we've moved a fair way from picking apples and herding sheep, or even making cars; that is from the activities that meet people's needs and wants. But there is still a connection. I pay a shop for my groceries. I take out a mortgage to buy a house. I borrow money to buy a new lathe for my business. I save spare money for retirement. Financial services facilitate activities that meet needs and wants. So the businesses and people who provide these services have to have some understanding of the ordinary activities they enable.

But attached to ordinary banking we find casino banking. Casino banking is essentially very high stakes betting in which successful traders are highly rewarded for using other people's money to bet against each other. Volumes are enormous and almost unrelated to the activities that meet most people's needs and wants. Casino banking is a parasite on farming and industry, even on ordinary banking itself. It draws money from these businesses to deliver huge profits to its owners and huge bonuses to the most successful traders and executives. Casino banking has become so profitable that it increases inequality and holds governments to ransom. It lobbies vigorously for policies that suit it. The casino banks are not merely too big to fail - they are also too big to regulate!

The dominant position of casino banking should be offensive to all democrats and to anyone who wants avoid being victimised by the banks but it's particularly offensive to anyone who cares about our environment. For it distracts attention away from the real economy and the real environment. It fixes attention on a fantasy world made real only in computers. And it has corrupted ordinary banking - substituting clever 'products' for real understanding and making profit the only measure of value.

Neither a healthy environment nor a healthy economy matters to the casino bankers or to ordinary bankers who see the money they make. If money is the master measure, the only true goal, then everything else - customer service, social responsibility, ethics, even the health of the planetary environment - seems trivial. That's the exact reverse of the values we need to reverse climate change.

To misquote John Dunning, 1st Baron Ashburton, "the influence of the banks has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished".

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Competing at the speed of light

How do banks compete? 

If they want your money or mine they might offer cheaper mortgages or higher returns on investments or better customer service. Or just persuade you that they're nice people. (Hmm - that could be hard.) But the big profits are made in investment and casino banking. How does competition work there?

Casino banking is about complex derivatives and getting to the deal first. Now speed matters in lots of businesses but casino banking is a world apart. Last year Hibernia Atlantic anounced a plan to spend $300 million on the first new transatlantic cable in a decade. Apparently getting messages from London to New york in 65 milliseconds just isn't fast enough. Financial institutions are expected to be keen to use it.

And the current delay between New York and Chicago - 6.55 milliseconds - is also too long. New Scientist reports that 10 firms want to build microwave links between those cities; reducing the transit time by a whole 2.4 milliseconds.

This obsession with speed is symptomatic of the way in which casino banking is detached from the ordinary world - even the ordinary world of loans and savings. It's a pathological growth that should be separated out from ordinary, necessary, banking and then greatly reduced by taxing it as the gambling that it is.

Rioting against climate change?

There is a connection between climate change and last year’s English riots. Both are the result of a socio-economic system that is out of control. That system – you might call it capitalism though I don't find that helpful myself – demands constant growth. It's the nature of that growth to drive consumption, waste and inequality. Naomi Klein (in The Shock Doctrine) has pointed out that prior to the end of 'communism' some of this – especially the growth in inequality – was restrained by the need for the West to compete with communism for the allegiance of the third world and its own working class. So, at risk of gross over-simplification, consumption grew but the benefits were spread widely.

After the end of 'communism' the West no longer felt that need – hence accelerating inequality, etc. since 1990. And, of course, recession and the cuts make social conditions worse. (By contrast, notice how well luxury brands are doing? Even Waitrose which is hardly the preserve of millionaires.)

We MUST tame this system, humanise it – even if that reduces average consumption.

That’s an easy conclusion for a retired management in a London suburb but how can it be reconciled with social justice? How can we expect members of the Tottenham underclass – let alone the poor in countries such as Somalia – to accept it?

The Old Left answer is redistribution from the rich to the poor and that must be part of the answer. The other part is to recognise that the poor, both nationally and globally, are the greatest victims of the current socio-economic system.

The West wants to grow the economic cake. The Left wants to divide it equally. Greens want produce a better cake – one that will not so degrade our planetary environment that our grandchildren starve.