Rafaela Hillerbrand’s Posts

Saving the planet by reducing birth rates

Climate change will impact the well-being of future
generations, directly by, for
example, increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as
heavy storms. It will have also indirect
impacts
on human heath – via cardiovascular diseases or by a rise in epidemics as emerging disease leave
the tropic and go North.

 
The beginning of this year, the British Medical Journal
declared that since climate change impacts public health, doctors have to deal
with it. And in tackling the problem, John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of
family planning and reproductive health at University College London , and GP
Pip Hayes from Exeter suggest that doctors should talk to their patients about
climate change and encourage them to think about the environmental impacts of
having a big family: see for example the Editorial
or an article
in the Daily Telegraph, or the Guardian.
After all, “each UK birth
will be responsible for 160 times more greenhouse ags emissions […] than a new
birth in Ethiopia.”

 
Fair enough, the world is
interconnected: environmental changes involve impacts on the population, and
changes in the population impact the environment. But is it sensible to treat
environmental problems not primarily as such, but making them problems of
family planning?

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The Clash of Environmental Values

GMO
and climate change seem currently one of the more upsetting issues not only for
environmentalists, but for the wider public as well. Carbon tax proposals like
the one released by Canada’s opposition party last week (e.g
Financial
Times
) or requests to the
EU by Britain to embrace a more liberal attitude towards GM crops (e.g.
The
Independent
) are the order
of the day in many newspapers. 

Precautionary
arguments of any sort regarding the release of GMO or greenhouse gases commonly
invoke the complex and still badly understood entanglement of different parts
of the environment: Present greenhouse gas emissions may trigger a catastrophic
runaway climate change: An initial global
warming may yield to, say, the release of vast amounts of methane that so far
was bound in the permafrost of the Russian or North American tundra; the
methane further increases the initial warming.  We simply do not sufficiently understand such
type of feedbacks. The same holds true for releasing GMO into the atmosphere:
Via horizontal gene transfer to wild
types or feral relatives, for example, GMO may yield unpredicted and unwanted side
effects.

Releasing
greenhouse gases or GMO are both interventions in the complex environmental
system. But how, if at all, do these two issues, commonly discussed as separate
and isolated questions, interrelate?

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Who is watching the watchmen?

Today, British
MPs approved
the government’s highly controversial plan to extend
pre-charge detention of suspects to 42 days.
This proposal initiated a discussion, though unfortunately still
fairly sparse, on
Britain’ s
headlong way towards a surveillance state (see for example this editorial
in the Guardian).

 Technologies that allow the state to monitor aspects
of private life are not in the realm of science fiction anymore. This is
highlighted by the widespread
use
of network monitoring and data mining suites, which are readily
available from major international companies involved in the standardization of
processes ensuring the lawfulness of the
monitoring. Emerging technologies like nanotech might significantly enhance
these existing possibilities and threats to privacy.

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Personal Carbon Credits and Fairness Considerations

Not a day
seems to pass without some news on the possible catastrophic impacts of climate
change. International politics aims at establishing binding regulations for
greenhouse gas emissions – but quite rightly gets accused of only paying lip
service (though at least last weeks agreement of the G8
states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
might yield the right direction).
However, implementation of these emission cuts is up to the individual states –
but whichever step a government undertakes, there seems to turn up an interest
group that is heavily opposed. The UK’s proposed system of personal carbon
credits
suffers exactly this fate.

In a report published this
Monday, the environmental audit committee urged the government to lead the way
in allocating individuals an allowance of marketable carbon credits. Under this
scheme, people would be given an annual carbon limit for fuel and energy uses.
This limit could be exceeded by buying credits from those who use less. Apart
form being accused as “costly,
bureaucratic, intrusive and unworkable”
, criticism was also raised as this personal
carbon credit scheme might be unfair – just as, for example, a taxation
approach to reduce carbon dioxide emissions would be unfair as well. Some
people might have good reason for using more fuel than others as they live in
the countryside, drive their old neighbour to the supermarket, etc.

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Global Warming and the Hidden Costs of Aviation

A recent study
reveals that aviation might pump 20% more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by
2025 as previously estimated. Vexing is not the possibly underestimated figure;
but the fact that this study was only recently uncovered: As covered by The Independent
or Spiegel
Online
, the British environmental association Aviation Environmental Federation now
presents the study on their webpage although it was already presented last
summer at an international conference in Barcelona. Jeff Gazzard, a spokesman
for the Aviation Environmental Federation, is convinced that this omission to
make the report publicly available was deliberate. The study contains alarming
piece of evidence that challenges the rather liberal approach to aviation of the
Kyoto Protocol: Only domestic aviation emissions are accounted for in a countries’
emissions totals, while emissions from international aviation are omitted (see Kyoto
Protocol, Decision 2/CP3).

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What computer simulations can tell us about the success of international treaties

International negations on climate change
sometimes give the impression that a lot of hot air is raised for nothing:
Politicians, policy makers and scientists alike gain air miles on their way to countless
conferences, thereby emitting non-negligible amounts of greenhouse gases, only
to arrive at the lowest common denominator satisfying none of the parties. International
treaties resulting from these negations suffer a rather bad reputation.

Recent computer simulations may smoothen the
ruffled feathers of all those who see international regulations as the sole
remedy to global environmental problems. At the annual
meeting
of the international research program
SCOUT-O3 that ends tomorrow, researchers
presented simulation
results
showing how the Montreal
Protocol
– originally ratified in 1992 to reduce the emissions of CFCs and
other ozone-damaging substances –has contributed to a healthier environment
(see newspaper
coverage
).

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The case against love: A recent legislation on incest

Germany’s highest court
recently upheld the law making incest a criminal offence that can be prosecuted
with up to 2 years
. It thereby rejected an appeal from a man who has four
children with his sister. The pair fell in love when they met for the first
time at adult age, after being brought up separately. Last week,
the enforcement of the law, which would amount to 17 month in prison for the
man, has been delayed. He and his sister now await the decision of minister of
justice of the appropriate
federal state.
Prior to and following the
decision of the highest court there has been a lively debate on upholding a law
that for many seems nothing but a historical relict and lacking sound
justification.

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Small is beautiful, ain’t it? The EU’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies Research

While some see nanotechnology as the solution to our most pressing current
problems, or at least as the basis
for rapid future technological progress, others fear that nanotech might yield unprecedented
catastrophic consequences. Even outside the genre of science fiction, it has
been suggested that nanotech might provide a solution to world poverty and
waste disposal: Tiny robots will convert garbage into nutrition simply by
reorganizing structures on the molecular or atomic level. Also frequently discussed
is the possibility that self-replicating nanobots threaten the existence of our
world by converting all matter into their own kind – a dystopia that has come
to be known as grey goo.

The European Union has now reacted to the hopes
and fears associated with this fairly new technology and provided a code
of conduct
for responsible nanoscience and nanotechnologies research. This
code shall guide scientists, engineers, policymakers, collective as well as
individual agents. Such a code of conduct seems indispensable. However, the tentativeness (e.g. in the form of a
rather vague appeal to the precautionary principle) and the lack of feasibility of its norms (for
example, it argues for a “general culture of responsibility”, see below) actually
raises more general questions about the feasibility of regulating scientific
research and technological progress.

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Corrupted Science. Peer reviewer leaks information to drug manufacturer

A well-known diabetes expert has abused his
function as peer reviewer for the renowned The New England Journal of Medicine. The reviewer broke confidentiality and leaked
a damaging report about a substantial hike in the risk of
heart attack when using the popular diabetes drug rosiglitazone, sold under the
brand name Avandia, to the drug’s manufacturer
weeks ahead of publication (see Nature or ScienceNews).

Obviously, this scientist violated principal tenets
of independence and integrity of scientific journals and all codes of scientific
conduct. But there seems to be more
to the whole story than the violation of blatant rules by an individual. The NZZ views this incident as the “gateway
to a yawning abyss”
that opens up a fatal sleaze between medical industry
and medical research.

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Objective Research Funding? An Approach to quantify the Value of Experiments

The distribution of research funds is clearly
not based on purely objective criteria. Most countries have different ways of
how to deal with this issue – all face different, but serious problems.
Bruce Knuteson (MIT)
has developed a formula of
which he claims is able to estimate the scientific merit that a proposed
experiment will give back per monetary unit before
we actually perform it.
Knuteson’s formula
estimates the gain to be obtained by a proposed experiment in terms of the reduction in information entropy the experiment is
expected to provide. This is a seductive concept: Large scientific projects,
think of ITER at Cadarache or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – cost the public a lot of money. The ‘right’
distribution of research money is thus not only of interest to promote the future success of
scientific research, but also of larger societal interest.
The Swiss newspaper Neue
Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ)
reports on Knuteson’s formula. Can it really help to
provide objective and rational criteria for funding the right type of research?

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