Saturday, December 20, 2008

US investigation into gravity weapons 'nonsense'

by David Robson

Even the gravity waves produced by circling pairs of superdense neutron stars can only be detected indirectly (Image: Mark Galick/SPL)

Even the gravity waves produced by circling pairs of superdense neutron stars can only be detected indirectly (Image: Mark Galick/SPL)

If you think the idea of gravitational waves propelling interplanetary spacecraft sounds like science fiction, you're in good company - any astrophysicist will rubbish the idea out of hand.

However, that didn't stop the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) from commissioning a report to investigate whether the elusive waves could pose a threat to US security.

The JASON Defense Advisory Group were also asked to judge whether high-frequency gravitational waves could image the centre of the Earth, or be used for telecommunications.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time caused by the movement of an extremely large mass, such as a very dense star.

Yet even those from huge stellar events have been too weak to trip the most sensitive detectors. The best evidence is indirect, coming from observations of how superdense, binary neutron stars lose energy.


Nevertheless, the JASON team was asked to consider a funding proposal from US company GravWave to the DIA that claimed humans could generate strong gravitational waves on Earth, using the Gertsenshtein effect.

This describes how electromagnetic waves travelling through a very strong magnetic field can be converted into gravitational waves.

When the JASON team did the maths, however, results were not good for the plan's supporters.

The technique is so inefficient that it would take longer than the lifetime of the universe for every power station on Earth to produce a gravitational wave with the energy of one ten millionth of a Joule. Accelerating a spacecraft at 10 metres per second squared, a rate that just exceeds the pull of Earth's gravity, would require 1025 times (a 1 followed by 25 zeroes) the electricity output of the world.

The report (pdf format) concludes: "These proposals belong to the realm of pseudo-science, not science."

'Utter nonsense'

Physicists striving to actually detect gravitational waves expressed surprise that a committee needed a 40-page report to come to that conclusion.

"The proposal is utter nonsense," says Karsten Danzmann from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Hanover, Germany, and member of the GEO600 project to detect gravitational waves.

"I'm a bit surprised the agency bothered to commission an investigation - it would probably have been enough to just ask an in-house science advisor," he says.

David Shoemaker, from MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a member of the LIGO project to detect gravitational waves, agrees that a quick phone call to a physicist may have been sufficient.

But he quips that given the US defence establishment's history of funding bad science, over-long reports that rubbish such ideas at an early stage may not be a bad thing. "The Department of Defense always have a few projects on the go that disobey the rules of thermodynamics, so I wish they would commission this kind of in-depth study in more cases."

In the mid-1990s and early 2000s the Pentagon spent millions of dollars on developing a quasi-nuclear weapon called the hafnium bomb that was actually based on junk science. When put into that context, perhaps the money spent on a report that prevents similar spending on gravitational wave weapons was actually a good investment.

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Nasa finds 'missing' Mars mineral

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News, San Francisco

Nili Fossae
Carbonate minerals show up as green in the image of Nili Fossae

Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has finally spotted rocks on the Red Planet that bear carbonate minerals.

The ingredients needed to make the rocks are very evident, so their absence had been a major puzzle.

One theory to explain the omission is the idea that water on Mars has been too acidic to allow carbonates.

The rocks' identification now shows these harsh waters have not dominated all parts of Mars - and that is good news for the search for life.

"You want to get an environment that is basically as clement as possible, that's not difficult to live in," explained Bethany Ehlmann from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

"It's difficult to live in a highly acidic environment; it's difficult to live in a very salty environment. If you have neutral waters then that presents a less difficult environment for microbial life," she told BBC News.

Weathered rocks

Ehlmann and colleagues have been detailing the discovery here at the American Geophysical Union's (AGU) Fall Meeting 2008. A paper explaining their findings is also being published in the journal Science.

That means there are some places we can go and look for evidence for past life - if it ever existed
Richard Zurek
MRO project scientist
The carbonate minerals were detected in a mid-latitude region called Nili Fossae, on the western edge of the Isidis impact basin.

The landscape viewed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is believed to have formed more than 3.6 billion years ago.

Carbonates are produced in the weathering process that sees water with dissolved carbon dioxide re-fashion the original chemistry of rocks. The carbonates - in this case, magnesium carbonate - precipitate out of solution.

On Earth, carbonates are usually associated with great marine sediments like limestone and chalk; although the scientists here stressed the Martian carbonates would look nothing like that.

Life hunt

Previous data from orbiting spacecraft and from the robot rovers on the surface of Mars has revealed salt-rich, acidic waters affected much of the planet in more modern times.

Given that carbonates dissolve quickly in low pH solutions, it is possible that many large carbonate formations created on early Mars may simply have disappeared; and this could explain why it has taken so long to find a carbonate signature.

But the MRO discovery shows that some areas of the Red Planet must have been untouched by these harsher conditions. That makes Nili Fossae an interesting place for future Mars missions to explore.

"If you preserve carbonates on the surface then you know carbon-bearing compounds can survive in some environments on the planet," said Richard Zurek, the project scientist on MRO.

"That means there are some places we can go and look for evidence for past life - if it ever existed."

Interestingly, Nili Fossae lost out in the site selection contest to choose the landing location of the next Nasa rover, called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

The vehicle's launch recently slipped from 2009 to 2011 and the scientists at AGU said it was possible the contest outcome could now be reviewed. However, they also said there would be other opportunities to visit Nili Fossae.

"MSL is not the last lander that we intend to send to the planet. With this diversity of environments, there are many places to explore," said Dr Zurek.

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NASA Scientists Ask: Is Life Possibile on Saturn's Moon, Enceladus?


NASA scientists are exploring the possibility that microbial life exist inside Enceladus, where no sunlight reaches, photosynthesis is impossible and no oxygen is available.

Until the two Voyager spacecraft passed near Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, in the early 1980s, very little was known about this small moon except for the identification of water ice on its surface. The Voyager missions showed that Enceladus is only 500 km in diameter and reflects almost 100% of the sunlight that strikes it. Voyager 1 found that Enceladus orbited in the densest part of Saturn's diffuse E ring, indicating a possible link between the two, while Voyager 2 revealed that despite the moon's small size, it had a wide range of terrains ranging from ancient, heavily cratered surfaces to young, tectonically deformed terrain, with some regions with surface ages as young as 100 million years old.

The Cassini spacecraft performed several close flybys of Enceladus in 2005, revealing the moon's surface and environment in greater detail. In particular, the probe discovered a water-rich plume venting from the moon's south polar region. This discovery, along with the presence of escaping internal heat and very few (if any) impact craters in the south polar region, shows that Enceladus is geologically active today.

Given the level of tectonic resurfacing found on Enceladus, a critical factor in the evolution of life on Earth, has been an important driver of geology on this small moon. Enceladus the fourth body in the solar system to have confirmed volcanic activity, along with Earth, Neptune's Triton, and Jupiter's Io.

There are three ecosystems discovered on Earth that could mirror possible lifeforms on Enceladus. Two are based on methanogens, which belong to an ancient group related to bacteria, called the archaea -- the hardy survivalists of bacteria that thrive in harsh environments without oxygen. Deep volcanic rocks along the Columbia River and in Idaho Falls host two of these ecosystems, which pull their energy from the chemical interaction of different rocks. The third ecosystem is powered by the energy produced in the radioactive decay in rocks, and was found deep below the surface in a mine in South Africa.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft discovered a surprising organic brew erupting in geyser-like fashion from Saturn's moon Enceladus during a close flyby on March 12, 2008. Scientists were stunned that this tiny moon is so active, "hot" and teeming with water vapor and organic chemicals.

"Enceladus has got warmth, water and organic chemicals, some of the essential building blocks needed for life," said Dennis Matson, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We have quite a recipe for life on our hands, but we have yet to find the final ingredient, liquid water, but Enceladus is only whetting our appetites for more."

"A completely unexpected surprise is that the chemistry of Enceladus, what's coming out from inside, resembles that of a comet," said Hunter Waite, principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "To have primordial material coming out from inside a Saturn moon raises many questions on the formation of the Saturn system."

"Enceladus is by no means a comet. Comets have tails and orbit the sun, and Enceladus' activity is powered by internal heat while comet activity is powered by sunlight. Enceladus' brew is like carbonated water with an essence of natural gas," said Waite.

The Casssini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer saw a much higher density of volatile gases, water vapor, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as organic materials, some 20 times denser than expected. This dramatic increase in density was evident as the spacecraft flew over the area of the plumes.

New high-resolution heat maps of the south pole by Cassini's Composite Infrared Spectrometer show that the so-called tiger stripes, giant fissures that are the source of the geysers, are warm along almost their entire lengths, and reveal other warm fissures nearby. The warmest regions along the tiger stripes correspond to two of the jet locations seen in Cassini images.

"These spectacular new data will really help us understand what powers the geysers. The surprisingly high temperatures make it more likely that there's liquid water not far below the surface," said John Spencer, Cassini scientist on the Composite Infrared Spectrometer team at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

Previous ultraviolet observations showed four jet sources, matching the locations of the plumes seen in previous images. This indicates that gas in the plume blasts off the surface into space, blending to form the larger plume.

At closest approach, Cassini was only 30 miles from Enceladus. When it flew through the plumes it was 120 miles from the moon's surface. Cassini's next flyby of Enceladus is in August.

The first step toward answering the question of whether life exists inside the subsurface aquifer of Enceladus is to analyze the organic compounds in the plume. Cassini's March 12 passage through the plume provided some measurements that help us move toward an answer, and preliminary plans call for Cassini to fly through the plume again for more measurements in the future. Ultimately, another mission in the future could conceivably land near the plume or even return plume material to Earth for laboratory analysis.

Organic chemicals were part of the raw material from which Enceladus and Saturn's other moons formed. The origin of Enceladus' heat is less clear, but there are several possibilities that could have given Enceladus a layer of liquid water that persists today. Early on, it could have been heated by decay of short-lived radioactivity in rocks, with the heating prolonged by tidal influences.

Or perhaps an earlier oblong orbit could have brought more tidal heating than exists there today. A past tidal relationship with another moon could have caused the heat. Another theory says the heat could have been produced from a process called serpentization, where chemical binding of water and silicate rock could occur at the upper layer of the moon's core. This increases the volume of the rock and creates energy in the form of heat.

Any of these heating mechanisms might have created a liquid subsurface aquifer solution rich in organics, allowing Enceladus to serve up a suitable prebiotic soup.

The deep sea vent theory for the origin of life on Earth might apply to Enceladus as well. In this scenario, life on Earth began at the interface where chemically rich fluids, heated by tidal or other mechanisms, emerge from below the sea floor. Chemical energy is derived from the reduced gases, such as hydrogen-sulfide and hydrogen coming out from the vent in contact with a suitable oxidant, such as carbon dioxide. Hot spots on an Enceladus sea floor could be locales for this type of process.

We don't know how long it takes for life to start when the ingredients are there and the environment is suitable, but it appears to have happened quickly on Earth. So maybe it was possible that on Enceladus, life started in a "warm little pond" below the icy surface occurring over the last few tens of millions of years.

For life to persist once it has been established requires an environment of liquid water, the essential elements and nutrients, and an energy source. On Enceladus, there is evidence for liquid water, but we don't know its origin. The March 12 close flyby indicates there are some complex organic chemicals, as well. An energy source of some sort is producing geysers. As Cassini's exploration continues, NASA is seeking to bring together more pieces of this intriguing puzzle.

Posted by Casey Kazan. Adapted from materials provided by NASA

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NASA looks for places to display retired space shuttles

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If your organization has the right stuff, it could display one of the U.S. shuttles that NASA plans to retire from service in 2010.

Space Shuttle Endeavour comes in for a landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California last month.

Space Shuttle Endeavour comes in for a landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California last month.

The space agency sent a notice this week to museums, schools and similar institutions to gauge their interest and qualifications for properly housing Discovery, Atlantis or Endeavour.

The shuttles are to be retired by September 30, 2010, but they won't be available until about a year later, NASA spokesman Michael Curie said Thursday.

"These are national assets, national treasures and something that NASA feels the public would want to see displayed publicly for years to come," Curie said.

Space shuttle Discovery already has been offered to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

"We have the information, and of course, we're thrilled to be considered for this artifact," said Claire Brown, director of communications for the museum. But no action has been taken at this point, and the institution doesn't have a plan for incurring the cost, she added.

The privilege of showing off a shuttle won't be cheap -- about $42 million.

This figure will include $28.2 million for the removal of hazardous chemicals -- such as ammonia, used as a coolant, and nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine, used as fuel; $5.8 million for moving the shuttle via a carrier aircraft to its new location; and $8 million for preparing the shuttle for display, Curie said.

A carrier aircraft will be the only way to deliver a shuttle to a landlocked location, and such aircraft will no longer be in NASA's budget once the shuttle program ends.

After chemicals are drained from the shuttle, its estimated weight will be about 170,000 pounds, Curie said.

Whatever facility receives a shuttle must have experience in displaying space hardware and major historical artifacts, NASA said. The shuttles will be released without their engines, which, along with other components, will be offered separately. The deadline for responding to NASA is March 17.

NASA emphasizes that it will pay special attention to ensuring that the shuttles will retire to "appropriate places." The agency wants them to remain in the United States, and private collectors likely would not meet NASA's goal to have the orbiters and engines displayed publicly, Curie said.

"We really feel that these are artifacts that are important to the history of the country and that as many people as possible should have the opportunity to see them if they can," Curie said.

Asked whether NASA had considered trying to sell the shuttles on eBay, he laughed: "No, that probably wouldn't be the prudent thing to do with something paid for by taxpayers' money."

In January 2004, President Bush called for an eventual shift in focus from the space shuttle program to the new Vision for Space Exploration program, which NASA describes as "a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system."

Bush has said he wants astronauts to return to the moon by 2020. However, President-elect Barack Obama has a team reviewing options for the direction of space exploration.

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NASA's Kepler Spacecraft Ready to Ship to Florida


The Kepler spacecraft at Ball Aerospace & Technology Corp. in Boulder, Colo. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ball

( -- Engineers are getting ready to pack NASA's Kepler spacecraft into a container and ship it off to its launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The mission, scheduled to launch on March 5, will seek to answer an age-old question -- are there other Earths in space?

"Kepler is ready to begin its journey to its launch site, and ultimately to space, where it will answer a question that has been pondered by humankind at least as long ago as the ancient Greeks," said James Fanson, the project manager for the mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Kepler will monitor more than 100,000 stars for signatures of planets of various sizes and orbital distances. It has the ability to locate rocky planets like Earth, including those that lie in a star's "habitable zone," a region where liquid water, and perhaps life, could exist. If these Earth-size worlds do exist around stars like our sun, Kepler is expected to be the first to find them, and the first to measure their frequency.

"Kepler's mission is to determine whether Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of other stars are frequent or rare; whether life in our Milky Way galaxy is likely to be frequent or rare," said William Borucki, the Kepler science principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

Kepler is currently at Ball Aerospace & Technology Corp. in Boulder, Colo. It passed all its environmental tests ensuring that it is prepared for the harsh trip to space. It also passed what's called the "pre-ship review," meaning that it is ready to be shipped via convoy to Florida in early January. Its first stop will be Astrotech in Titusville, Fla., where the spacecraft will be processed before being carried to its launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Kepler will launch atop a Delta II rocket.

"An outstanding team of engineers overcame some difficult hurdles to achieve this considerable milestone," said Ball Aerospace Program Manager John Troeltzsch. "The culmination of this effort will put a spectacular mission in orbit designed to increase our understanding of the cosmos."

Kepler is a NASA Discovery mission. In addition to being the home organization of the science principal investigator, NASA Ames Research Center is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. Kepler mission development is managed by JPL. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is responsible for developing the Kepler flight system and supporting mission operations.

Provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Want a retired space shuttle? They're up for grabs

In this image provided by NASA the space shuttle Endeavour, fresh from the AP – In this image provided by NASA the space shuttle Endeavour, fresh from the STS-126 mission and mounted …

By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA's soon-to-be-retired space shuttles are up for grabs.

The space agency said Wednesday it's looking for ideas on where and how best to display its space shuttles once they stop flying in a few years. It's put out a call to schools, science museums and "other appropriate organizations" that might be interested in showcasing one of the three remaining shuttles.

Beware: NASA estimates it will cost about $42 million to get each shuttle ready and get it where it needs to go, and the final tab could end up much more.

The estimate includes $6 million to ferry the spaceship atop a modified jumbo jet to the closest major airport. But the price could skyrocket depending on how far the display site is from the airport. Only indoor, climate-controlled displays will be considered.

"The orbiters will not be disassembled for transportation or storage," NASA insists in its nine-page request for information.

One space shuttle appears headed to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. The remaining two would be placed in storage at Kennedy Space Center until their final homes are decided.

If a space shuttle is too pricey, NASA is offering some of its shuttle main engines for anywhere between $400,000 and $800,000, not counting shipping costs.

The space shuttles, so you know, will not come with any main engines.

NASA plans to retire Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour by Sept. 30, 2010, in keeping with President George Bush's initiative calling for a return by astronauts to the moon by 2020. A transition team set up by President-elect Barack Obama is reviewing all the options, however, including the possibility of keeping the shuttles flying beyond 2010.

If that happens, then all space shuttle deals are off.

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Most Distant Water in the Universe Found


The spectrum -- a radio "fingerprint" that revealed radio emission from water masers in the distant quasar MG J0414+0534. The background image is an infrared image of the quasar, made with the Hubble Space Telescope. The quasar appears broken up into four components by a foreground galaxy (diffuse object in the center), acting as a gravitational lens and strengthening the signal by a factor of 35. The inset with the galaxy M87 shows how the quasar might be seen from nearby. Image: Milde Science Communication, STScI, CFHT, J.-C. Cuillandre, Coelum.

( -- Astronomers have found the most distant water yet seen in the Universe, in a galaxy more than 11 billion light-years from Earth. Previously, the most distant water had been seen in a galaxy less than 7 billion light-years from Earth.

Using the giant, 100-meter-diameter radio telescope in Effelsberg, Germany, and the National Science Foundation's Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, the scientists detected a telltale radio "fingerprint" of water molecules in the distant galaxy.

The soggy galaxy, dubbed MG J0414+0534, harbors a quasar -- a supermassive black hole powering bright emission -- at its core. In the region near the core, the water molecules are acting as masers, the radio equivalent of lasers, to amplify radio waves at a specific frequency.

The astronomers say their discovery indicates that such giant water masers were more common in the early Universe than they are today. MG J0414+0534 is seen as it was when the Universe was roughly one-sixth of its current age.

At the galaxy's great distance, even the strengthening of the radio waves done by the masers would not by itself have made them strong enough to detect with the radio telescopes. However, the scientists got help from nature in the form of another galaxy, nearly 8 billion light-years away, located directly in the line of sight from MG J0414+0534 to Earth. That foreground galaxy's gravity served as a lens to further brighten the more-distant galaxy and make the emission from the water molecules visible to the radio telescopes.

"We were only able to discover this distant water with the help of the gravitational lens," said Violette Impellizzeri, an astronomer with the Max-Planck Institute for Radioastronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany. "This cosmic telescope reduced the amount of time needed to detect the water by a factor of about 1,000," she added.

The astronomers first detected the water signal with the Effelsberg telescope. They then turned to the VLA's sharper imaging capability to confirm that it was indeed coming from the distant galaxy. The gravitational lens produces not one, but four images of MG J0414+0534 as seen from Earth. Using the VLA, the scientists found the specific frequency attributable to the water masers in the two brightest of the four lensed images. The other two lensed images, they said, are too faint for detecting the water signal.

The radio frequency emitted by the water molecules was Doppler shifted by the expansion of the Universe from 22.2 GHz to 6.1 GHz.

Water masers have been found in numerous galaxies at closer distances. Typically, they are thought to arise in disks of molecules closely orbiting a supermassive black hole at the galaxy's core. The amplified radio emission is more often observed when the orbiting disk is seen nearly edge-on. However, the astronomers said MG J0414+0534 is oriented with the disk almost face-on as seen from Earth.

"This may mean that the water molecules in the masers we're seeing are not in the disk, but in the superfast jets of material being ejected by the gravitational power of the black hole," explained John McKean, also of MPIfR.

Impellizzeri and McKean worked with Alan Roy, Christian Henkel, and Andreas Brunthaler, also of the Max-Planck Institute; Paola Castangia of the Max-Planck Institute and the INAF Astronomical Observatory of Cagliari in Italy; and Olaf Wucknitz of the Argelander Institute for Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. The scientists reported their results in the December 18 issue of the scientific journal Nature.

Provided by National Radio Astronomy Observatory

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Men Flirt with Risk to Score Women

On August 16, 1960: Project Excelsior III USAF pilot Joe Kittenger parachutes from a balloon 19.5 miles up, becoming the fastest human sky-diver at over 614 mph (988 km/hr).

Men make up four-fifths of the world's skydivers and two-thirds of all rock climbers, and a new study suggests they do it for more than just the thrill.

Men may flirt with risk because they think it will help them score women.

Evolutionary psychologists have long believed that women are choosier about men than men are about women. It's not (just) because girls want to make life difficult for guys; it's because, at least historically, women have had to pick men who could provide for them and their children. This pressure forces males to work harder to prove their worth to females and out-compete other guys in the running. Social psychologists at Florida State University wondered: could risk-taking be one of the ways in which men show off their strength, ambition and confidence to potential lovers?

To find out, they asked 134 undergraduate male and female psychology students to participate in an experiment. They wanted to see whether men would take more risks if they were "in the mood" and if the men thought there were beautiful women around for them to woo.

The researchers showed students pictures of either 10 attractive or 10 unattractive faces of the opposite sex. Then they asked the subjects how sexually motivated they felt — that is, how interested they were in finding new sexual partners. One-by-one, each of the students then played a succession of 11 rigged blackjack hands; since the researchers knew what cards the participants had, and all were given the same cards, the scientists could compare how the subjects played each hand. (Asking for a "hit" indicated a risky move, since the player risked going over 21, while "staying" was considered safe.)

Finally, after the game, the researchers tested the students' memories for the faces they had seen before the game.

The men were much more likely to take blackjack risks if they were sexually motivated and had seen images of beautiful women before they played. The guys were also more likely to take risks if they saw attractive female faces and remembered them afterwards — even if they weren't looking for a new partner — perhaps because the faces made more of an impression on them and ramped up their sexual desire. The behavior of the female students, however, wasn't affected by what they felt, saw, or remembered.

"The bottom line is that risk-taking can be a tool that men use to show potential mates that they have desirable qualities such as confidence or ambition," said study co-author Michael Baker, a doctoral student in social psychology at Florida State.

Interestingly, the study found that guys who saw attractive faces but weren't sexually motivated did not take more risks than guys who saw unattractive faces. Baker speculates that guys only take risks if they stand to benefit from them, because risk-taking does come with a cost — after all, a bad skydiving or rock climbing experience could keep a guy from reproducing ever again.

"If men are not motivated to pursue a mate or there are no potential mates present, then the potential benefits of a risky display are less likely to outweigh the potential costs," Baker told LiveScience.

In other words, if a guy doesn't really want a new relationship, then his safest bet may be just to stay home and watch football.

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God Or Science? A Belief In One Weakens Positive Feelings For The Other

A person's unconscious attitudes toward science and God may be fundamentally opposed, researchers report, depending on how religion and science are used to answer "ultimate" questions such as how the universe began or the origin of life.

What's more, those views can be manipulated, the researchers found. After using science or God to explain such important questions, most people display a preference for one and a neutral or even negative attitude toward the other. This effect appears to be independent of a person's religious background or views, says University of Illinois psychology professor Jesse Preston, who led the research.

Preston and her colleague, Nicholas Epley, of the University of Chicago, wanted to explore how information about science influences a belief in God, and how religious teaching can also cause people to doubt certain scientific theories.

"As far as I know, no one has looked experimentally at an opposition between belief in science and religion," Preston said.

"It seemed to me that both science and religion as systems were very good at explaining a lot, accounting for a lot of the information that we have in our environment," she said. "But if they are both ultimate explanations, at some point they have to conflict with each another because they can't possibly both explain everything."

The researchers conducted two experiments designed to manipulate how well science or God can be used as explanations. In the first, 129 volunteers read short summaries of the Big Bang theory and the "Primordial Soup Hypothesis," a scientific theory of the origin of life.

Half then read a statement that said that the theories were strong and supported by the data. The other half read that the theories "raised more questions than they answered."

In the second experiment, which involved 27 undergraduate students, half of the study subjects had to "list six things that you think God can explain." The others were asked to "list six things that you think can explain or influence God."

All the subjects were then required to quickly categorize various words as positive or negative on a computer.

"What they didn't realize was that they were being subliminally primed immediately before each word," Preston said. "So right before the word 'awful' came up on the screen, for example, there was a 15-millisecond flash of either 'God' or 'science' or a control word."

A 15-millisecond visual cue is too brief to register in the conscious mind, but the brief word flash did have an effect. Those who had read statements emphasizing the explanatory power of science prior to the test were able to categorize positive words appearing just after the word, "science," more quickly than those who had read statements critical of the scientific theories.

Those who were asked to use God as an ultimate explanation for various phenomena displayed a more positive association with God and a much more negative association with science than those directed to list other things that can explain God, the researchers found.

Similarly, those who read the statement suggesting that the scientific theories were weak were extremely slow to identify negative words that appeared after they were primed with the word "God," Preston said.

"It was like they didn't want to say no to God," she said.

"What is really intriguing is that the larger effect happens on the opposite belief," she said. "When God isn't being used to explain much, people have a positive attitude toward science. But when God is being used to account for many events – especially the things that they list, which are life, the universe, free will, these big questions – then somehow science loses its value."

"On the other hand, people may have a generally positive view of science until it fails to explain the important questions. Then belief in God may be boosted to fill in the gap," she said.

The most obvious implication of the research is that "to be compatible, science and religion need to stick to their own territories, their own explanatory space," Preston said. "However, religion and science have never been able to do that, so to me this suggests that the debate is going to go on. It's never going to be settled."

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Journal requires peer-reviewed Wikipedia entry to publish

By John Timmer

It's easy to find the latest in scientific publications by going to a search engine, such as PubMed, that specializes in the relevant literature. But, if you're looking for something else—unpublished data, relevant software, a comprehensive database—you're likely to turn to a general search engine. These, more often than not, will return a Wikipedia page within the top 10 hits. In increasing numbers, scientists are reasoning that, if people are going to look at the Wikipedia page anyway, the scientific community should probably ensure that the information there is good. In the latest manifestation of this trend, the journal RNA Biology is requiring that authors of a specific type of paper submit a Wikipedia entry for peer review, as well.

This isn't the first effort involved in trying to improve the quality and breadth of biological information available through Wikipedia, but it appears to be the first time that entries in the online encyclopedia are being made a precondition of the research career's be-all and end-all: peer-reviewed publications.

RNA biology is a young journal, having published its first edition in 2004. Its focus is pretty broad—RNA does everything from arranging the production of proteins using DNA as an information source to controlling the silencing of entire chromosomes; there's a strong consensus that the origin of life proceeded through an RNA world stage. Although RNA is a big topic, RNA biology appears to be a small, specialist journal; a hint of its impact can be inferred from the fact that the journal chose to announce its new policy through a new story hosted at Nature.

Nevertheless, the journal appears to have a progressive open access policy; it will handle getting the papers it publishes into the appropriate repositories a year after publication, and authors can pay a reasonable fee ($750, $500 for those from institutions with a subscription) to make their papers open access immediately upon publication.

The new policy is being coordinated with the Wellcome Trust's Sanger Institute, which hosts a genome sequencing center and a number of bioinformatics initiatives. One of the editors of RNA biology is located at Sanger, which also hosts the RFAM RNA family database.

The goal behind the effort is to link publications with public contributions. RNA Biology is creating a new class of publications that focus on a thorough description of a family of RNA molecules, where family is defined by common sequence and function. The publication will result in an update of the RFAM database, and the authors will be required to provide a Wikipedia entry with their paper. That entry will be peer reviewed along with the manuscript, which will ideally help ensure that people looking for a quick overview of the RNA family will have easy access to decent information.

The first examples of this program in action are already online. The journal is hosting an open access paper that describes a family of RNA molecules found in nematode worms; a corresponding Wikipedia page is already in place. In good Wikipedia form, the phylogenetic analysis of these RNAs is dinged for not providing citations, while the article as a whole is flagged as having excess jargon. (The talk page hosts an interesting discussion of how much jargon can possibly be eliminated from a highly technical description like this.)

So far, everyone is happy with the results. A few scientists have started updating the scientific content of the RNA entries, while the usual Wikipedia denizens have helped out in terms of catching typos and improving the formatting. The people backing the project expect that it will be immune to some of the issues that plague other Wikipedia entries; Nature quotes one of the biologists as saying, ""We don't think vandalism will ever be as much of a problem for a Wikipedia page on transfer RNAs as it is for a page on George Bush."

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Japan launches first solar cargo ship

TOKYO (AFP) – The world's first cargo ship partly propelled by solar power took to the seas on Friday in Japan, aiming to cut fuel costs and carbon emissions when automakers export their products.

Auriga Leader, a freighter developed by shipping line Nippon Yusen K.K. and oil distributor Nippon Oil Corp., took off from a shipyard in the western city of Kobe, officials of the two firms said.

The huge freighter capable of carrying 6,400 automobiles is equipped with 328 solar panels at a cost of 150 million yen (1.68 million dollars), the officials said.

The ship will initially transport vehicles being sent for sale overseas by Japan's top automaker Toyota Motor Corp. The project was conceived before the global economic crisis, which has forced automakers to drastically cut production as sales dwindle.

Company officials said the 60,213-tonne, 200-metre (660-foot) long ship is the first large vessel in the world with a solar-based propulsion system. So far solar energy has been limited to supporting lighting and crew's living quarters.

The solar power system can generate 40 kilowatts, which would initially cover only 0.2 percent of the ship's energy consumption for propulsion, but company officials said they hoped to raise the ratio.

The shipping industry has come under growing pressure to take part in efforts to curb global warming, which is blamed on carbon emissions.

Estimates say maritime transport accounts for anything from 1.4 percent to 4.5 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. But the industry remains largely unregulated due to its international nature.

Nippon Yusen, Japan's largest shipping company, has set a goal of halving its fuel consumption and carbon-dioxide emissions by 2010.

Resource-poor Japan has been looking for ways to reduce its dependency on foreign oil.

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Curse of the fish that time forgot: Believed to be extinct for 65million years - it returned with chilling consequences

By Samantha Weinberg

Heat cloaked the small South African city of East London like a steaming towel.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the young curator of the local natural history museum, had just received a phone call from the captain of the trawler Nerine, to say he had landed a catch that might interest her.

She was tempted not to go to have a look; it was too hot, and she wanted to finish a display of fossils before the museum closed for the holidays. But something persuaded her it might be worth it. So she grabbed her assistant, Enoch, and caught a taxi to the wharf.


Fossils show coelacanth were alive 400million years ago - 200 million years before the first dinosaurs

The Nerine was moored nearby, with a heap of fish on its fo'c'sle deck. Marjorie hitched up her cotton dress and climbed aboard. It was while she was sorting through the sharks, starfish, sponges and rattail fishes that she noticed a blue fin sticking up from beneath the pile.

'I picked away the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen,' she later recalled. 'It was 5ft long, a pale, mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange little puppy-dog tail.'

What Marjorie had stumbled on, 70 years ago this month, would change her life for ever. More than that, it would profoundly alter man's understanding of the natural world.

For this was the first recorded specimen of a coelacanth (pronounced see-la-canth) - a fish thought to have been extinct for more than 65 million years, which was believed to be 'the missing link' that marked the moment when animal life first left the ocean for the land.

Previously, the coelacanth's existence had only ever been known from fossil records that showed the species had lived as long as 400million years ago - 200 million years before dinosaurs had first walked the Earth.

Early naturalists, who had studied the fossil records, had long been puzzled and intrigued by this creature, with its lobed, limb-like fins. But it was only with the publication of Darwin's Origin Of the Species, in 1859, and his theory of evolution, that its true significance first became apparent.

For here was a fossil species that answered the critics who poured scorn on the very idea that fish could somehow have 'walked' out of the sea and later diversified into the huge variety of land-based animals around us today - including man himself.

Yet even after Darwin's theory became widely accepted, no naturalist ever imagined that coelacanths might have survived into the modern age. At least, not until Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer made her astonishing discovery amid the foetid heat of that South African dockside.

Marjorie's find turned conventional scientific thinking on its head. But it was by no means the end of the coelacanths mystery. Not by a long chalk. For in the decades after that discovery, the coelacanth continued to defy man's best attempts to study it.


Sightings of the coelacanth remained as rare as Yeti's footprints

Despite the promise of vast rewards for any live specimen, sightings remained as rare as Yeti's footprints. Yes, one or two were dredged up for the ocean depths to become museum pieces. But only a live specimen would help solve the mystery of how it had survived, unchanged and undisturbed, for so long.

What ensued was one of the greatest fishing-hunt of the last century. For some, the search would become a lifelong obsession.

Certainly, it inspired extraordinary levels of devotion and dedication. But it would also lead to greed, recklessness...and, ultimately, to a sequence of agonising deaths that raised a bizarre and haunting question: Could this 'living fossil' be cursed?

I saw my first coelacanth 15 years ago, in a small museum in the remote Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean, between Madagascar and Mozambique. It was pouring outside, curtains of tropical rain, and I needed shelter until the storm passed.

Wandering around the museum, my attention was drawn by the large stuffed fish in a glass case. The story on the card beside it captivated me; the tale of a creature from pre-history, who had somehow managed to survive the coming and going of dinosaurs, ice ages, and the dawn of mankind.

Like Marjorie and many others before me, I became obsessed with this, our oldest living ancestor, and determined to find out everything I could about it. The more I learned, the more intrigued I became.

Measuring the fish

An expert measures a fish caught in the Sixties

My first step was to travel to South Africa, where I spent several days with Marjorie, then a sprightly 90-year-old. She told me what had happened after she'd brought that first coelacanth back to her museum, and her desperate battle to find some way to preserve it for a closer scientific analysis.

Wheeling the fish around town on a handcart, much to the annoyance of Christmas shoppers, she had tried the mortuary and the cold storage. But there was no room at either inn.

So with the help of a friendly taxidermist, she managed to wrap the fish up in formalin-soaked newspaper and a sheet, which she borrowed from her mother.

Then she sent a letter, with a rough sketch, to her friend and mentor, Dr JLB Smith, a lecturer at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, on the Eastern Cape, asking for his
assistance. It was 13 anguish-filled days before Smith read Marjorie's letter and studied her sketch.

'I stared and stared, at first in puzzlement,' he later wrote in Old Fourlegs, his account of the story.

'And then a bomb seemed to burst in my brain...I was looking at a series of fishy creatures that flashed up as if on a screen, fishes no longer here, fishes that had lived in dim past ages gone, and of which only fragmentary remains in rocks are known.' Smith was sure he was looking at a sketch of a long-extinct coelacanth, and immediately dashed off a telegraph to Marjorie, asking her to preserve the coelacanth's body at all costs.


Coelacanths defy man's attempts to understand them

But it was too late. The all-important innards had long been consigned to the ocean.

So distraught was Smith at this missed opportunity that he spent the next 14 years searching, obsessively, for another coelacanth. With his wife, Margaret, he scoured the southern and eastern coasts of Africa. They talked to fishermen and distributed 'wanted' posters across the area.

But it wasn't until Christmas Eve, 1952, that they found what they were looking for.

It was then that Smith received a telegram from an English sea trader named Eric Hunt, informing him that a curious-looking fish had been spotted in a market in the Comoros, which he suspected might be what the naturalist was hunting for.

Smith went into a state that he later described as 'possessed'. He was prepared to do anything necessary to get to the Comoros as quickly as possible.

His only option was to charter a plane, but since it was Christmas, only one man had the power to help him - the South African Prime Minister, DF Malan. But there was a problem: Malan was a strict Calvinist and creationist. Surely he would reject any request for help from a scientist hoping to prove Darwin's theory of evolution was right.

Filled with despair, Smith tried phoning the Prime Minister at his Cape Town retreat. The premier came on the line - and to Smith's eternal surprise, agreed to help.


A creature caught in the Fifties

The following day, Smith flew in a South African Air Force Dakota to the Comoros and hurried to see the fish, which was lying in state in a coffin-shaped box aboard Hunt's schooner.

Looking at the curious specimen, the scientist could not contain his rapture: 'I knelt down on the deck to get a closer view, and as I caressed that fish, I found tears splashing on my hands and realised I was weeping, and was quite without shame.'

Smith and his team flew the fish back to Durban to be greeted by a battery of flash bulbs. There, he spent the night in the barracks, the fish beside him, while a special detail of Zulu guards patrolled outside. By the next day, the story was on the front pages of papers around the world. The coelacanth had become an unlikely global celebrity.

Following Smith's dramatic rescue mission, representatives of museums from every country in the world were desperate for their own display specimen, and offered enormous sums as rewards. But it seemed that coelacanth could not be caught to order.

While one or two dead specimens were successfully preserved, the ultimate prize - a live fish - remained unclaimed. Despite the best efforts of scientific expeditions, it seemed the coelacanth could not be kept alive at the sea's surface.

Moreover, those who tried their luck often came to an unhappy end. After an illustrious career as South Africa's most revered scientist, Smith committed suicide in 1968, when he felt his mental faculties beginning to fade.

And Eric Hunt, the English sea captain who had landed the Comoros specimen, died in a shipwreck in 1956.

Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the coelacanth continued to excite the imagination of scientists and adventurers around the world. But it was not until the mid-Eighties that the breakthrough came, when a German animal behaviourist named Hans Fricke found and filmed a number of live coelacanths from his two-man submersible in the waters off the Comoros.


The coelacanth continues to excite the imagination of scientists and adventurers around the world

Then, in 1997, a marine biologist, Mark Erdmann, saw what he was convinced was a coelacanth in an Indonesian fish market while on his honeymoon. He took photographs and returned the next year to search for more, offering a one million rupee reward (equivalent to six months' salary) to any fisherman who could land a fish known locally as rajah laut - the king of the sea.

Months passed. And then it happened. On July 29, 1998, (just as an elderly Marjorie was being presented with a special gold coin to commemorate her discovery) an Indonesian fisherman called Om Lameh netted a rajah laut.

It was still alive as he brought it to Mark Erdmann on the island of Bunaken, off Sulawesi. Erdmann filmed his wife swimming with the coelacanth - but it was already dying. Erdmann watched as the life went out of it, and within hours, was hard at work dissecting the coelacanth to try to work out how closely related it really was to other living creatures - and ultimately, to us.

Two days after this discovery, I arrived on Bunaken, and spent the next three months there, living in a small shack between the Erdmanns and the fishermen. I had hoped to be there when the next coelacanth was fished up, but it wasn't to be.

The rajah laut, it seemed, was determined to remain as elusive as ever. I was disappointed, yes, but also inspired - my subsequent book about the coelacanth's story, A Fish Caught In Time, became a surprise best-seller.

But it turned out this was not quite the end of the story. For the coelacanth continued to exert an eerie pull on naturalists - and the closer man got to its secret world, the more dangerous these encounters became. In 1998, a professional diving trainer name Riaan Bouwer was searching for coelacanths in the deep water off Sodwana Bay in South Africa, determined to be the first diver to see them.

Diving to great depths is technically complicated, requiring a specific mix of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen, as well as several stops during the ascent to prevent decompression sickness, or the bends. Tragically, Bouwer's equipment malfunctioned, forcing him to attempt a rapid ascent to the surface. He never made it. Because his body hadn't decompressed sufficiently, it sank back down and was never recovered.

Two years later, three more South African deep-water divers were exploring the same area. This time, they were more successful. 'I saw this eye reflecting towards me and that made me curious,' said expedition leader Pieter Venter. 'I approached, and underneath an overhang, I saw a fish of about two metres long.'

After a few seconds, he realised it was a coelacanth. But he had no camera. 'It was like seeing a UFO without taking a photograph,' he said. He immediately started planning a return trip with a camera crew.

On November 27, 2000, they dived down to 115 metres. At that depth, they would have only 15 minutes of time at the bottom before their air ran out. They moved from cavern to cavern against a long wall of a canyon. Twelve minutes into their dive they got lucky: they found and filmed three coelacanths, all hovering in such a way that it made them seem as if they were standing on their heads.

The dive team were thrilled - but in a bizarre repeat of the earlier tragedy, disaster struck again. One of the team's cameramen lost consciousness, forcing his diving buddy, Dennis Harding, to rush him to the surface. From a depth like that, a safe ascent should take around two hours. They had to do it in minutes.

The two men made it to their boat, but after helping his buddy on board, Harding started to complain of neck pains. Shortly afterwards, he died from a massive cerebral embolism brought on by his rapid ascent.

The curse of the coelacanth had struck again - just as it would do the following year, when yet another diver, Erna Smith, died in the same waters while practising for another coelacanth expedition.

In three years, then, the coelacanth had claimed the lives of three divers. It was almost as if death and suffering was the price paid by those who dared to intrude on the king of the sea's private realm. Ultimately, though, the mystery of the coelacanth couldn't last. In 2004, the first of 15 specimens was caught - this time, off the coast of Tanzania. Today, they are being caught at an increasing rate, not least on account of an intensification of trawling, particularly by Japanese fishing boats, near the coelacanth's habitat.

In one way, this signifies hope that there might be many more groups of these astonishing creatures living undisturbed around the world. But it is also worrying for those of us who see the coelacanth as not just a fish, but almost a spiritual talisman of life's infinite mystery.

The South African, Comoran, Tanzanian and Indonesian governments have recently announced measures to limit fishing in the areas where coelacanths are known to live. I only hope they succeed - and that the coelacanth will find a way to endure, as it has done for 70 million years, a haunting symbol of eternity in our transient and troubled times.

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Researchers Plan to Simulate Movements of 300 Million Americans

By developing an extremely detailed simulation of the US population, researchers are hoping to understand how contagious diseases spread through society.

( -- Researchers from Virginia Tech are developing a computer simulation that matches the movements of all 300 million people in towns across the US. The team hopes that the model will help them understand the spread of contagious diseases, fads, and traffic flows.

Currently, the researchers' model consists of about 100 million Americans, and they expect to be able to simulate the movement of all 300 million US residents in the next six months. To achieve this, the researchers use large amounts of publicly available demographic data, mostly from the US Census. Each synthetic American possesses as many as 163 variables, which describe characteristics such as age, education level, occupation, and whether one lives with a family or alone.

The software, called EpiSimdemics, can provide an accurate simulation of the demographic attributes of groups composed of 1500 people or more. Based on the data, the software generates individuals to populate real US cities, giving them real street addresses and real jobs or schools within a reasonable distance from their address. Individuals are also matched to local grocery stores and shopping centers, which are identified through a database from Navteq, a digital mapping company.

One of the first applications for compiling all this data will be studying how contagious diseases, such as a flu epidemic, might spread through different regions. The software infects a few simulated individuals with the flu, and tracks them as they go about their daily lives. The model gives each person a different probability of responding to the virus, derived from the individual's data, such as age and general health.

Using data from all the interactions between infected individuals and others, the algorithm determines the number of new infections. The software treats each person and location as a separate set of calculations, so that many parts can be computed in parallel on a supercomputer. By breaking up the problem in this way, the researchers could significantly speed up the calculations.

By showing the path that a virus takes through a population, the simulation can help researchers implement effective public health intervention programs. The simulation can also determine when the infection peaks, representing the biggest burden on a city's health system, and preparing officials.

"The vision is for a Google-like interface, where you approach the system and ask it a question," says Christopher Barrett, who works on the project and is the director of Virginia Tech's Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory. "The framework is there, and now we're pushing the system to larger and larger scales."

Original here

World Coal Reserves Could Be a Fraction of Previous Estimates

By Alexis Madrigal


SAN FRANCISCO — A new calculation of the world's coal reserves is much lower than previous estimates. If validated, the new info could have a massive impact on the fate of the planet's climate.

That's because coal is responsible for most of the CO2 emissions that drive climate change. If there were actually less coal available for burning, climate modelers would have to rethink their estimates of the level of emissions that humans will produce.

The new model, created by Dave Rutledge, chair of Caltech's engineering and applied sciences division, suggests that humans will only pull up a total — including all past mining — of 662 billion tons of coal out of the Earth. The best previous estimate, from the World Energy Council, says that the world has almost 850 billion tons of coal still left to be mined.

"Every estimate of the ultimate coal resource has been larger," said ecologist Ken Caldeira of Stanford University, who was not involved with the new study. "But if there's much less coal than we think, that's good news for climate."

The carbon dioxide emitted when humans burn coal to create usable energy is primarily responsible for global warming. Leading scientists think that the stability of Earth's climate will be dictated by how the world uses — or doesn't use — its coal resources. And the thinking has been that the world has more than enough coal to wreak catastrophic damage to the climate system, absent major societal or governmental changes.

So the new estimate, which opens the slim possibility that humankind could do nothing to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions and still escape some of the impacts of climate change, comes as quite a shock.

Rutledge argues that governments are terrible at estimating their own fossil fuel reserves. He developed his new model by looking back at historical examples of fossil fuel exhaustion. For example, British coal production fell precipitously form its 1913 peak. American oil production famously peaked in 1970, as controversially predicted by King Hubbert. Both countries had heartily overestimated their reserves.

It was from manipulating the data from the previous peaks that Rutledge developed his new model, based on fitting curves to the cumulative production of a region. He says that they provide much more stable estimates than other techniques and are much more accurate than those made by individual countries.

"The record of geological estimates made by governments for their fossil fuel estimates is really horrible," Rutledge said during a press conference at the American Geological Union annual meeting. "And the estimates tend to be quite high. They over-predict future coal production."

More specifically, Rutledge says that big surveys of natural resources underestimate the difficulty and expense of getting to the coal reserves of the world. And that's assuming that the countries have at least tried to offer a real estimate to the international community. China, for example, has only submitted two estimates of its coal reserves to the World Energy Council — and they were wildly different.

"The Chinese are interested in producing coal, not figuring out how much they have," Rutledge said. "That much is obvious."

The National Research Council's Committee on Coal Research, Technology, and Resource Assessments to Inform Energy Policy actually agrees with many of Rutledge's criticisms, while continuing to maintain far sunnier estimates of the recoverable stocks of American coal.

"Present estimates of coal reserves are based upon methods that have not been reviewed or revised since their inception in 1974, and much of the input data were compiled in the early 1970’s," the committee wrote in a 2007 report. "Recent programs to assess reserves in limited areas using updated methods indicate that only a small fraction of previously estimated reserves are actually mineable reserves.”

And don't look to technology to bail out coal miners. Mechanization has actually decreased the world's recoverable reserves, because huge mining machines aren't quite as good at digging out coal as human beings are.

With Rutledge's new numbers, the world could burn all the coal (and other fossil fuels) it can get to, and the atmospheric concentration of CO2 would only end up around 460 parts per million, which is predicted to cause a 2-degree-Celsius rise in global temperatures.

For many scientists, that's too much warming. A growing coalition is calling for limiting the CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, down from the 380 ppm of today, but it's a far cry from some of the more devastating scenarios devised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"Coal emissions really need to be phased out proactively — we can't just wait for them to run out — by the year 2030," said Pushker Kharecha, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "There is more than enough coal to keep CO2 well above 350 ppm well beyond this century."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses economic models that assume that the world will not run out of coal. Some IPCC scenarios show 3.4 billion tons of coal being burned just through 2100. That's more than five times what Rutledge thinks will be possible — and a good deal higher than the WEC's estimate for recoverable coal reserves, too.

On the other hand, if the world were really to encounter a swift and steep decline in accessible coal resources, it's unclear how humans could retain our current levels of transportation, industry and general energy-usage.

So, even if coal were to run out and the most dangerous climate change averted, the imperative to develop non–fossil-fuel energy sources would remain.

"Peak Oil and peak gas and peak coal could really go either way for the climate," Kharecha said. "It all depends on choices for subsequent energy sources."

Image: Mining equipment at Black Thunder Mine near Wright, Wyo. AP Photo/Carson Walker

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River pilot's jealousy linked to massive oil spill

HOUSTON (Reuters) - A river pilot's jealousy sparked a chain of unfortunate events that led to July's massive oil spill that shut down a long stretch of the Mississippi River near New Orleans.

That's according to testimony in New Orleans on Thursday by the master pilot who should have been at the wheel of a tugboat that steered an oil barge into an oncoming ship on July 23, but was chasing down his girlfriend instead.

According to The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, master pilot Terry Carver testified that on July 20 his nephew called to tell him that he had spotted Carver's girlfriend riding around in another man's truck, and Carver struck off to Illinois to investigate.

Carver's departure left apprentice mate John Bavaret in charge of the towboat Mel Oliver, which on July 23 steered a barge into the tanker Tintomara, spilling 420,000 gallons of fuel oil into the river.

Carver was following the progress of the tugboat via cell phone and was informed by a deck hand that "they got hit by a ship," Carver said, according to The Times-Picayune report.

The collision shut down a 97-mile stretch of the key commercial trading link for days as the U.S. Coast Guard scrambled to clean up a scrim of foul-smelling fuel oil.

Coast Guard spokesman Stephen Lehmann in New Orleans said the tugboat operator had only an apprentice mate's license, and no one else on the vessel had a license to operate the boat on the river. To pilot a tugboat, the operator should have had a master's license, Lehmann said.

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A Green Agenda for Obama's First 100 Days

Environmentalists offer the president-elect their advice on the priorities he should set for his administration.

Yale Environment 360 asked a wide-ranging group of environmental activists, scientists, and thinkers to answer the following question: If you were advising Barack Obama, what would you tell him are the most important environmental and energy initiatives that he should launch during his first 100 days?

Although the respondents — including entrepreneur Paul Hawken, Rajendra Pachauri of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, activist Van Jones, and green investing leader Mindy Lubber — represent a broad range of interests, they were largely in agreement on how best to solve the current economic and environmental challenges. Basically, they agree that weaning the country off fossil fuels and onto renewable sources of energy is the single best way to rebuild the U.S. economy; that Obama must use all the tools at his disposal — from invoking the Clean Air Act for regulating greenhouse gas emissions to persuading the new Congress to put a price on carbon — to tackle climate change and spur the move to alternative energy; that under an Obama administration the United States must lead in forging a new global climate change treaty; and that, given the rapidity of global warming, Obama must be made fully aware of the “scary” scientific facts — as environmentalist Bill McKibben puts it — and move with a sense of urgency.

Here are their responses:

Bill McKibben | Rajendra K. Pachauri | Mindy Lubber
Paul Hawken | Joseph Romm | Frances Beinecke
Fred Krupp | David W. Orr | Van Jones | William K. Reilly
Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich | Betsy Taylor | Bill Chemeides

Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben, author, scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and founder of
It seems to me that job number one with climate change involves Obama sitting down with his new employees — most importantly the world's premier climatologist, Jim Hansen at NASA — and making sure he has a full grounding in the latest climate science. The new president needs to understand what the cutting edge is telling us: that the targets and goals of even two or three years ago are insufficient — 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere has become the new red line.

If Obama understands that, much else will eventually flow — especially a much deeper examination of whether coal can continue to be a part of the way we power this planet. Without a deep and scary sense of the science, Obama will do lots of good and useful things, but nothing that adds up to the scale of change that we actually need. So I think the first hundred days should be less about action and more about information gathering.

Our one hope is that Obama is as smart as he seems — that he can assimilate the complex but not especially technical science, reach a conclusion about who is right, and then set policy. Scientific realism has to drive political realism in this case, because as the problem is currently understood in Washington, political realism won't come anywhere near grappling with it.

PRajendra K. Pachauri
Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
I believe the most important initiative that President Obama should undertake would be to announce an ambitious plan for reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases on par with what the European Union has put forward — namely the 20-20-20 plan. This would require the U.S. to cut its emissions by 20 percent over 1990 levels, as well as generate 20 percent of its electricity through renewable energy sources, by 2020. Everything else would flow out of this set of goals, because business and industry would take immediate action in developing new technologies and refining existing ones to make them economically viable before 2020.

One major area in which the new President could bring about a major structural change would be to strengthen passenger railway transport in the U.S. by providing low interest loans to build high-speed lines that would lure passengers away from air travel. Simultaneously, the new administration must mandate stringent mileage standards to produce energy-efficient cars. States and local governments should be provided with financial support to carry out energy-efficiency retrofits in existing buildings and ensure much higher targets of energy efficiency in new construction.

The U.S. should also donate liberally to the adaptation fund that hopefully will be part of the new agreement on climate change to be negotiated by the end of 2009 in Copenhagen. Several poor countries that bear no responsibility for the increase in greenhouse gases will need major resources to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and as a matter of international justice, the U.S. must play a large role in these adaptation efforts.

I would tell the new President that all these measures would not only meet the challenge of climate change and establish the willingness of the U.S. to be part of the solution, but would also ensure energy security for the U.S. in the future and create much-needed new employment.
Mindy Lubber
Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a U.S. coalition of investors, environmental groups, and public interest groups working with companies on sustainability issues. She also directs the Investor Network on Climate Risk.
Barack Obama’s presidency comes at an extraordinary moment. Our economy is reeling, our planet is overheating, and our national security is unstable. Yet the convergence of these crises offers him a pivotal opportunity to reset the course of this nation and to reform the instruments of our society to assure a future that is livable, safe, and just for everyone.

In his first 100 days, the new president must move quickly to pass a recovery package that not only jumpstarts the economy, but also catalyzes a green and sustainable future — one that creates new business opportunities, triggers new jobs, and helps heal the environment.

We believe that investors, companies, and those who work for them are waiting for the signals from Washington to begin this work. Those signals should come quickly, and we recommend they include these specific steps:

  • Stimulate the economy through investments in clean energy technology, energy efficiency, green-collar jobs, and training.

  • Lay the groundwork for legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

  • Work with Congress to end tax incentives and subsidies for high carbon-emitting technologies and projects.

  • Enact mandates that 20 percent of the nation’s electricity come from renewable power by 2020 and at least 30 percent by 2030.

  • Instruct the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies to disclose the risks and opportunities they face from climate change.

  • Institute financial reforms to require honest accounting of the financial risks that companies and investors face from climate change and other sustainability threats.

  • Direct the EPA to issue California’s clean car waiver, allowing it and 18 other states to implement stringent fuel efficiency standards.

  • Re-engage and provide strong leadership in the international climate negotiation process.

Paul Hawken
Paul Hawken, environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and best-selling author.
The single most important task at hand for the new administration is the economy. The most powerful tool to address deflation, joblessness, and negative GDP growth is energy-source distribution and efficiency. I believe we need to approach energy as a moon shot project, not an incremental change in efficiency and carbon content. The U.S. should commit $6 trillion to $8 trillion to retrofit the entire country in ten to fifteen years. This includes transport, the electrical grid, electric storage, biofuels, solar, solar thermal, geothermal, wind, and building retrofits for energy efficiency. This would be a massive amount of debt if seen traditionally, but it should be seen as investment.

While there would be inflationary pressures created by this vast change in infrastructure, it would create more jobs than any other program, be highly visible in all towns and communities, create a national sense of purpose, enhance security, raise morale, stimulate innovation and investment in research, and recreate the American economy.

I recognize that the administration is committed to all the above, except for the scale. It is critical to anticipate that the precipitous drop in oil prices from their historic high of $147 a barrel to under $40 is undermining, if not eliminating, investment in new oil production. When the economy recovers in 2010-11, there simply won't be sufficient supply, and we will revert quickly to overpriced oil. The commitment to this level of funding and timing will ameliorate oil prices to a certain degree. Without this, I am afraid we will be caught flat-footed again without the level of internal commitment that will allow us to become energy independent in a reasonable time. Over the suggested time frame, we are talking about an investment equal to approximately 3% of GDP. The return on the investment will be spectacular. It is time for the government to create a set of books like businesses, with capital investment separated from revenue and expenses. And it is time that America invests in itself.
Joseph Romm
Joseph Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he runs the blog, climate He is a former acting assistant secretary of energy.
Obama's top priority should be to stop the country from building any more traditional coal plants. The Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to do that today.

If we don't stop building new dirty coal plants, we can't meet the greenhouse gas targets needed to avoid catastrophic warming — targets Obama himself has embraced, including a 17 percent cut in total U.S. emissions by 2020, and then a further 80 percent cut by 2050. If developed countries can't show that sustainable growth is possible without coal, then developing countries will never shift away from it. Ultimately, coal with carbon capture and storage may prove practical and affordable, but that technology is at least a decade or two away.

Fortunately, with energy efficiency, wind power, solar photovoltaics, and concentrated solar thermal, plus other renewables, the country has more than enough cost-effective technologies to not only replace new coal, but to start shutting down existing plants. Obama should use the economic stimulus package and a major 2009 Energy Bill to launch a massive effort to vastly improve energy efficiency, create clean electricity, and develop smart grid technology. The next priority is aggressively jumpstarting the transition to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Electricity is the only alternative fuel that can provide an abundant domestic, low-carbon, alternative fuel with a per-mile fueling cost that is considerably cheaper than gasoline or diesel.

The third priority is a climate bill that sets a price on carbon. Such a price is crucial for stimulating the ingenuity of the marketplace. But such a bill won’t deal with existing coal plants or the transportation sector fast enough to meet urgent near-term emissions targets. Only smart regulations can do that, which is why they are a higher priority.
Frances Beinecke
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The economic crisis is clearly at the top of President-elect Obama's long list of pressing challenges. Fortunately, he seems to recognize that the path to economic stability leads right through clean energy investments — solutions that create jobs and curb global warming.

In the first 100 days, Obama should announce his commitment to passing a massive, clean energy stimulus plan that will include incentives for: retrofitting homes and offices to become more energy efficient, expanding public-transit infrastructure, making the nation's electric grid smarter and capable of managing renewable power, and retooling manufacturing plants to produce high-mileage cars and other efficient goods.

All of these measures, from installing new insulation to writing software for smart meters, will create millions of jobs right here in America.

Most importantly, we can make these investments in the nation's clean-energy infrastructure without increasing the federal budget deficit. Instead, we will generate clean energy capital by enacting clear limits on global warming pollution and requiring polluters to buy permits for each ton they release.

That's why it is critical for Obama to make a public commitment to support legislation that will cap carbon emissions — as he indicated recently. Scientists say that to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, we must cap and decrease emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Obama should let that science guide his climate efforts.

Obama can also use the executive branch's powers under existing laws to tackle climate change. For instance, he should allow California and other states to enforce their own standards for global warming pollution from cars, and use our energy laws to strengthen fuel economy and appliance efficiency standards.

The entire federal government has a critical role to play in unleashing these solutions, but it is the president who will set the tone. In his first 100 days, President-elect Obama has an opportunity to galvanize the nation by announcing bold measures that will channel America's ingenuity into solving the entwined economic, climate, and environmental crises.
Fred Krupp
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.
What should the top environmental priority for our next president be? One that goes hand-in-hand with efforts to rebuild our economy. When President-elect Barack Obama told a bipartisan group of governors in late November that the effort to create millions of jobs and restore American leadership on climate change will "start with a federal cap-and-trade system," he got it exactly right.

Obama's commitment turns two of our nation's greatest challenges — economic turmoil and unchecked global warming — into a singular opportunity. Dealing with them together makes perfect sense: A cap on greenhouse gas pollution will help solve climate change and reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing.

How? First, by creating vast new demand for low-carbon energy solutions. Behind every clean energy technology, from wind turbines and solar cells to carbon capture and advanced lighting, lies a parts-and-labor supply chain that runs through the heartland of U.S. manufacturing. Every wind turbine contains 8,000 parts, including bolts, copper wiring, ball bearings, concrete foundations, and steel towers. Cap-and-trade would instantly create new markets, new customers, and new jobs for the companies that make them.

At the same time, auctioning emissions allowances under cap-and-trade can potentially raise billions in new revenue that can be dedicated to investment in American infrastructure — in turn creating more jobs that cannot be outsourced, more solutions for combating climate change, and a firm foundation for a new energy economy.

Post-election polling conducted for the Environmental Defense Fund shows a majority of voters believe now is the time to address climate change by investing in clean energy and creating new jobs. Congress and the president-elect should work quickly to pass a cap-and-trade bill that builds our way out of the economic challenges we face, and makes America more efficient, more competitive, and more safe and secure. It is precisely the leadership the American people are looking to the next president and the new Congress to provide.
David W. Orr
David W. Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College.
The incoming Obama administration must grapple with the largest and most portentous policy debate we’ve ever had about the biggest issue ever on the human agenda — planetary destabilization brought about by our overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, climate destabilization will compete for attention and resources with the effort to solve the economic crisis.

The conventional wisdom with which we’re starting the debate on climate policy is seriously flawed in several ways. Politicians, pundits, and even most NGO advocates believe that climate change is a solvable problem, is mostly an economic issue and is far less important than economic growth, and is only one issue on a list of mostly unrelated problems.

The conventional wisdom is wrong on all counts. Since most mistakes occur early in the policy process, embedded in unexamined assumptions, it is crucial at the outset that the president-elect understand the nature of climate destabilization. No known technology can “solve” the climate problem in a time span meaningful for us. But we do have control over the eventual size of climate impacts now underway. Assuming that we are successful, say, by the year 2050, we will not have forestalled many of the changes, but we will have contained the scope, scale, and duration of the destabilization.

The chasm between the science on one side, and the slow, piecemeal politics of Washington on the other, calls for leadership far beyond ordinary expectations. Climate destabilization calls for rethinking governance and the practice of democracy on a scale and time-span commensurate with the changes we’re setting in motion. Policies that govern climate and energy are crucial to policies that affect the economy and national security. Obama must demonstrate leadership that helps the public understand fundamental connections, including those between what we drive and the weather we experience. He must help us calibrate hope with the hard realities ahead and initiate deeper transformations that would otherwise be dismissed as utopian, but that are now the only practical options left to us.

We are rapidly approaching climate thresholds that we must not cross. The president-elect must be prepared to act quickly and boldly, develop unified policies for energy, security, the economy, and social equity, and use the White House as a “bully pulpit” to build a constituency for the long haul.
Van Jones
Van Jones, founding president of the group, Green for All, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to put people to work tackling the economic and environmental challenges of his day. The new administration must help create an economy that is based on building, not borrowing; on creativity, not credit and consumption. We need to establish a Clean Energy Corps to help us meet our modern challenges. This corps should be charged with retrofitting and re-powering America. It would have three components: The first would be fully funded green community service programs — for example, getting volunteers to plant trees and gardens. The second would be green job training programs; trainees would learn how to install solar panels, weatherize buildings, and do green construction. And lastly, green jobs; the federal government should invest heavily in renewable energy and energy retrofits for buildings. Much of this work would pay for itself in energy savings. Such an effort would jumpstart the economy.
William K. Reilly
William K. Reilly, administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1989-1993, and founding partner of Aqua International Partners, a private equity fund that invests in water and renewable energy.
In the first year, the Obama administration should quickly put the nation's clean air laws and other appropriate authority to work to cut global warming pollution and help deliver dramatic reductions in oil use. The Clean Air Act is flexible and well suited to address global warming pollution from the transportation and electric generating sectors, which account for more than half of greenhouse gas emissions. Aggressive action by the president can both spur Congress to early action on a more comprehensive climate program and complement congressional action.

The following measures are important to jumpstart progress on solving our nation’s climate and energy crisis.

  • Direct the EPA to act on the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA, which established that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger both human health and welfare. This opens the door to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.

  • Direct the EPA to allow California to enforce its more stringent, fleetwide standards for vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases. Then direct EPA to use existing authority to propose national global warming pollution standards for cars and trucks that are at least as tough as those approved by California. These standards should be finalized within one year.

  • Direct the EPA to begin the rulemaking process for medium and heavy-duty vehicle global warming pollution standards under the Clean Air Act, coordinated with the Department of Transportation, and to start the rulemaking process for global warming pollution standards for aviation and shipping.

  • Support alternatives to driving, such as mass transit, walking, biking, telecommuting, and carpooling.

  • Instruct the EPA to identify measures to address stationary-source emissions, such as from coal-fired power plants, and work with Congress on legislative approaches to curb these emissions.

The current economic crisis will be raised as a reason to defer President-elect Obama's promises to address energy and climate challenges. However, carefully crafted actions on climate change, alternative energy, and new incentives for green technologies can put the country on a path to a future that better reconciles our environmental goals with our economic aspirations.
Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich
Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich, are in the Department of Biology and the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, where he is Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences and she is Senior Research Associate.
The monumental task before us, and the new president, is to solve the human predicament — the combined crises of overpopulation, wasteful consumption, deteriorating life-support systems, growing inequity, increasing hunger, toxification of the planet, declining resources, increasing resource wars, and a worsening epidemiological environment that increases the probability of unprecedented pandemics.

The new administration should embrace a population policy that strives to reduce birthrates in the U.S. and abroad, promotes access to legal abortion, and immediately lifts ideological restrictions imposed on government Web sites dealing with reproductive health. The administration should also promote programs to educate and open job opportunities for women and to provide effective contraception in poor countries.

Overall, the administration’s policies should adhere to a number of overarching principles: embrace zero population growth, emphasize conserving more than consuming, expand global educational opportunities, and initiate a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior to begin a debate on what population size, consumption patterns, economic arrangements, and technologies will lead to a sustainable future.

We hope the new president is willing to dramatically change how the U.S. and the world work. We hope he will not employ conventional economists who will try to restore the same old growth machine that is destroying the world. We hope Obama will take steps to transform our energy economy so the nearly inevitable eventual war with China over fossil fuels can be avoided. Then there is the issue of curbing rich-world consumption. The U.S., with 4.5 percent of the global population, cannot continue to consume roughly a quarter of Earth’s resources; similar statements apply to the other rich nations.
Betsy Taylor
Betsy Taylor, founder and board president of 1Sky campaign to urge federal action on global warming.
President Obama must rally the nation to action but first he should announce a national day of prayer and reflection. The president can only prevail with a bottom-up outpouring of public support for transformational change. He must ask us to reclaim our best selves and a new ethos of public service, rather than greed, as the core of the American identity.

President Obama should help us visualize a promising future: a world without fossil fuel and with five million new green jobs, clean energy, and basic security for all. He should issue an “all hands on deck” call to action and focus overwhelmingly on programs and policies that simultaneously cut global warming emissions and foster economic opportunity. I recommend the following three policy initiatives on climate and energy:

Set a national goal for reducing greenhouse gases and engage all sectors in moving beyond rhetoric to action.

  • Commit to mandatory reductions in carbon emissions that meet the demands of science. Reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 25-40 percent by 2020 and work to achieve zero emissions by 2050.

Urge Congress to enact comprehensive climate legislation that puts a price on carbon, compensates Americans for rising energy costs, and funds adaptation programs

  • Obama should work with Congress to forge a new climate policy that caps greenhouse gas emissions and requires carbon polluters to pay for 100 percent of their pollution through a cap-and-tax and/or cap-and-auction program. Redirect the estimated $100-$200 billion in revenue to protect Americans from rising energy prices and ensure a just and equitable transition to a low-carbon future. Return at least 70 percent of the revenue from corporate polluter payments back to American households to offset the rising cost of heat, transportation, and food.

  • Protect the most vulnerable by using 15 percent of revenue from the auction or tax for a mix of programs, including home energy assistance and weatherization initiatives.

  • Invest 5 percent to help developing nations with adaptation plans and programs that aid those being displaced by droughts, fires, and water shortages resulting largely from the disproportionate share of global warming emissions generated by the United States.

  • Invest the final 10 percent in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs that rapidly cut carbon emissions while generating new green jobs.

Place an immediate moratorium on all new coal-fired power plants that emit global warming gases. If we don’t do this, we lose.
Bill Chameides
Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.
Let’s face it, when Obama takes office the environment will not be Priority Number 1. Getting America on a firm financial footing will. But addressing environmental needs can help stimulate economic growth. Here’s how the new president can address the underlying drivers of climate change while taking care of our flagging economy.

I believe that sinking federal subsidies into renewable energy (like solar and wind projects) is an ineffective way to spend our limited resources. Far more effective would be using federal dollars to (1) spur the wealthier private sector to invest in renewable energy and efficiency, and (2) build the infrastructure needed for large-scale, private deployment of renewable energy.

Infrastructure projects are critical for getting the economy going and addressing environmental needs. A top priority is redoing the nation’s electric grid. Today's system for moving electrons from power plants to homes and workplaces is outdated. The current grid maxes out, and can crash, when electricity coming from renewable sources makes up about 20 percent of its capacity. We need a "smart grid" that can integrate large amounts of intermittent energy from wind and solar while remaining stable and dependable.

Obama and the Congress must also invest in transportation. While rebuilding our aging roads and bridges, we must greatly expand mass transportation, which is fundamental to addressing energy security, congestion, air pollution, and climate change.

While we're talking transportation, don’t forget the Internet. What does the Net have to do with transportation? Plenty. More bandwidth makes telecommuting and teleconferencing more practical for more people, reducing consumption of imported oil. Finally, America needs a comprehensive climate policy, and the new administration should send Congress a climate bill during its first 100 days. But waiting for Congress would be a huge mistake. The failed Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act showed that getting climate legislation passed will not be easy. President Obama should jumpstart the country’s climate policy by using the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant.

There is every reason for optimism. After eight long years, we have a president and Congress committed to an ambitious climate and energy policy. President Obama has the mantel. Godspeed, he’ll need it.

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