Tag Archives: Risk

The Ozone Protocol: A Climate Change Precedent

The following letter appeared in the January 1, 2016 edition of the News and Observer, Raleigh, NC

News and Observer Letter

It’s deja vu all over again reading George Will (“Another false ‘turning point’,” N&O, 12/17) and Charles Krauthammer (“Obama’s legacy of fiction,” N&O, 12/18) whine about efforts to address climate change. Neither one considers the science or the history. In this case, it’s history worth repeating, not avoiding.

When the world faced the destruction of stratospheric ozone, 12 countries sat down in 1977 to plan how to negotiate a planet-wide pact. It took 10 years, and the outcome was the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, signed by just 24 countries. It’s strength was flexibility, proven in the eight revisions made since 1987.

Now 197 countries are party to a protocol that includes monitoring, reporting, and critically, sanctions for noncompliance. Most important, it’s working, as the rates of emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals have dropped, and since 2000, the ozone layer has begun its slow process of recovery.

International agreements can succeed in addressing a global environmental crisis. The fits and starts seen in the attempts to address climate change might work faster if those with a monetary or political stake in burning fossil fuels would cease their misinformation campaigns, aided by the head-in-the-sand antics of Will and Krauthammer.

—Denis DuBay

P.S. See this article by Jennifer Morgan and Eliza Northrop,  “Form AND Function: Why the Paris Agreement’s Legal Form Is So Important” for confirmation that the Paris deal holds real promise, not unlike the situation with the Montreal Protocol when it was first signed my just 24 countries. It was published online December 16, 2015 by the World Resources Institute.

ASTEROIDS GOOD AND BAD

Ceres_Dawn2015

Ceres, the largest asteroid, first discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, and visited by the Dawn spacecraft in February, 2015. Those bright spots remain a mystery, and Dawn continues taking pictures of Ceres from its closest approach, which continues the next few months. Image from NASA JPL via Dawn.

NASA’s new 2016 budget includes money for two asteroid missions. One of those missions continues an effort underway for years, the detection of near-Earth objects (NEOs), asteroids that pose a risk of colliding with our home planet. The other mission proposes to land on a near-earth asteroid, pick up a large boulder from its surface, and redirect the boulder into an orbit around the Moon. Once in a stable lunar orbit, manned missions would visit the asteroid fragment and retrieve pieces to return to Earth for detailed study.

Both missions complement each other and serve multiple roles. The detection mission will help protect Earth from a potentially cataclysmic collision with an asteroid. It’s happened many times in the past, and it continues to happen now. The biggest recent impact came in 2013 over Chelyabinsk, Russia, from an asteroid estimated at a mere 18 meters in diameter.

The detection mission would also help NASA find a nearby asteroid from which it might pluck a piece. That mission to “redirect” a piece of an asteroid into orbit around the Moon would build our understanding of what asteroids consist of and how they might contribute valuable minerals for industry. Perhaps even more important, the “redirect” mission involves landing on an asteroid and moving a piece of it onto a different trajectory, skills we would need if we ever detected an asteroid on a collision course with Earth and wanted to deflect it away.

How many asteroids are out there? How big are they? How many are on a course that might bring them into contact with Earth one day? What are they made of and does their composition mean we might benefit by capturing one and mining it? Could we deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth? What spacecraft missions have already studied asteroids, and what have we learned?

Stay tuned.

 

Conquering our fears while that star-spangled banner yet waves

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Francis Scott Key wrote lines that most of us now repeat, or at least listen to, at nearly every sporting event we attend. For my wife, it’s her favorite part of any football game. Okay, she’s not a fan of football nor of standing around in cold, rainy weather, but you’ll still find her standing straight, hand over heart, eyes glued, ears alert as the band starts to play, indoors or out.

Some may struggle to remember all the lines of The Star-Spangled Banner. Most will struggle to hit all the notes. I often tear up and wonder how many others do, too.

I get emotional now just thinking about that hymn honoring my homeland. It’s not a happy emotion. Though our star-spangled banner still waves overhead, by this dawn’s early light, something essential is missing. I speak of our once-acclaimed compassion and courage.

At this Christmas season, we face grim facts of life. The red glare of violence, hatred, and fear overshadows the bright stars we strain to see. Millions of the world’s citizens fleeing bombs bursting in terror find themselves homeless, looking for safe shelter, not unlike a family-about-to-be many of us will celebrate in the days to come.

Faiths of all kinds would have their followers extend a hand to those in need. We bemoan the fact that a particular family found no room at the inn late one night. So why do we resist taking in fleeing families today? Fear.

Fear is nothing to be ashamed of, but it must be faced and overcome. The American soldiers who gathered under Fort McHenry’s ramparts knew fear. Few thought they stood much of a chance to survive the night. Less than three weeks earlier, the British fleet had landed a force in Washington and burned the Capitol, the Treasury, and President Madison’s house. The poorly-equipped American Army and Navy were outmatched.

Finding the courage to overcome that fear took strength and leadership. American major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, somehow convinced his soldiers to vanquish their fear, and they lived through that perilous fight.

We face a fight of our own. With its complexity, our challenge – terrorism – presents perils different from those posed by the British navy on the night of September 13, 1814, but threats nonetheless.

Others face the same risks we do, and have found the strength to resist their fears. I joked with my son-in-law from Toronto a few weeks ago about maybe emigrating to Canada, after reading of Canada’s resolve to accept twenty-five thousand Syrian refugees by March. This week, seeing pictures and reading stories (N&O, 12/10/15) of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, welcoming a planeload of those refugees to his homeland, made me lament my own homeland’s cowering fear. Canadians can remind us how to conquer fear as they band together to sponsor refugee families, embracing the opportunity to practice their humanity, whatever their faith.

We can do the same. We have overcome fears in the past, though not before making withering mistakes along the way. We turned away Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, imprisoned innocent Japanese citizens during World War II, and conducted witch hunts for communist sympathizers. Our lingering racism owes much of its power to fear.

How do we quell our fears? Maybe we remember those bright stars we saw gleaming before terrorism’s twilight dimmed their brilliance. It might help to refuse to let our fears overrule our common sense and bury our bravery, giving in to dark voices shouting about danger all around. Perhaps we recall our pride in the stars and stripes gallantly streaming after hard-fought victories from 1776 and 1814 to 1918 and 1945.

Our best hope lies in shared convictions and collective action. We cannot do it alone. Pray for the leaders we need in both parties to find the courage and honor to lead us together through the night.

The next time you hear the band start playing that song, or a singer starts with “Oh, say can you see…”, see through your misty eyes to the bright stars of our past and remember the final six-words of our National Anthem.
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You may also find this story in Raleigh’s News and Observer for December 25, 2015. See News and Observer, Op-Ed page

What Are the Odds?

It’s my birthday, and Dave’s and Mary’s and Sean’s too! We’re in a neighborhood dinner group consisting of six couples. One evening a few years ago we came to the rather amazing discovery that of the twelve of us, four shared a March 18th birthday.

Now the chance that two people meeting on the street would share the same birthdate, say, March 18, is 1 in 365. The chance that three people would share the same birthday is 1 in 133,226. Add a fourth person and the odds are only 1 in 48 million they would share the same date of birth.

But the odds that those four don’t share just any date, but share March 18, drop to 1 in 17 trillion. Hey, it’s a special date!

If we assume the world population is about 7.3 billion, and we divide that entire world population randomly into little groups of four, there would be 1.83 billion such groups. If you did that grouping-by-four many different times and kept track each time how many of the 1.83 billion groups had all four members sharing the same birthdate (any date), you would expect an average of 38 such groups with each grouping.

The chance that among those 1.83 billion groups of four there existed one group of four that shared a March 18 birthday is 1 in ten thousand. That is, you would expect to have to regroup the world’s entire population 27 times to get one group of four that shared a March 18 birthdate. And the four of us live within a couple blocks of each other and get together every other month to share a meal with our wives and husbands.

The world sometimes turns out to be stranger and smaller than you imagined.

Risk: not a game

One’s perception of risk doesn’t always match up well with the reality. Today, the sixth of October in the year two thousand and fourteen, the risk of Ebola dominates the news. It seems to be a scary time. This perceived risk has persuaded some elected politicians to call for travel bans, something you don’t hear about very often. So the risk must be extreme, right?

So far, one person with Ebola entered the United States. There may be a few more, even several more or a dozen or so before the crisis in west Africa is contained. But for perspective, last year’s flu season here saw 58,732 confirmed cases of flu serious enough to require hospitalization. Last year, 108 children died from the flu in the United States alone. Although it’s difficult to get a firm count, the total death toll from the flu here ranges from 3,000 to 49,000 every year.

The flu virus can spread from a cough or a sneeze, something Ebola cannot do. Ebola is more deadly than the flu if you catch it, but it’s not easily spread. Ebola is out of control in west Africa because it’s a desperately poor region with little capacity to deal with something new. Public health doctors here insist that the best way to protect the rest of the world from the Ebola virus is to snuff it out in west Africa where its numbers have mushroomed. Travel bans will only make it more difficult to send the health care workers needed there to stop the virus in its tracks. And given the slow and poor transmission ability of Ebola, screening travelers is a highly effective containment tool. Such screening would not be nearly so effective with the flu.

In the meantime, if you’re really worried about you or your kids catching a virus and getting sick, get a flu vaccination and keep your kids’ mumps, measles, and rubella and other vaccinations up to speed.