A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, January 23, 2004

All those Gorey Democrats and Kyoto - the reality.....

In an outstanding piece of precision dissection, 'Kyoto's last gleaming' (San Francisco Chronicle, January 22), Debra J. Saunders lays bare the prevarications and deceptions of the Democrats on the Kyoto Protocol. Here are some of the chief ligaments:

"Some top Democratic contenders for the White House now are distancing themselves from the Kyoto international global-warming treaty that Gore negotiated in 1997."

"Democratic Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman were among the 95 senators who voted for a pre-Kyoto resolution that directed the administration to reject any treaty that hurt the U.S. economy by exempting developing nations."

Democratic Sens. John Kerry has allegedly ... "told the Sustainable Energy Coalition that he would not sign the treaty because it can't be met now. 'Because of the Bush administration's inaction, the binding targets in the Kyoto Protocol are no longer achievable,' Kerry said, according to Greenwire, a Web site that tracks environmental politics." [I just love the way he is reported as blaming Bush!]

"... but allow me to note that the Clinton administration never once asked the Senate to ratify Kyoto." [The Gorey Truth?]

"The (unratified) global-warming pact required the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Yet, according to the Energy Information Administration, greenhouse emissions grew by 3.1 percent in 2000 alone; when Clinton left office, emissions were 14 percent higher than 1990 levels."

"The latest figures from the Energy Information Administration are for 2002; they show that under the Bush administration, greenhouse gas emissions are lower -- they're 11.5 percent higher than 1990 levels. I won't credit Bush for the reduction, because the post-Sept. 11 economy was the big factor here, as the Sierra Club's Dan Becker pointed out. But if Bush truly were Satan on the environment, pollution numbers should have gone up, not down."

"Dean says he would renegotiate Kyoto because it exempted developing nations. 'President Bush used the same rationale in defending his decision to pull out of the Kyoto agreement in 2001,' wrote Greenwire. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark says he wants to renegotiate as well."

"While in office, however, Clinton/Gore were so ineffective on the issue that fuel efficiency fell to a level worse than when Ronald Reagan was president and state of the art was '80s technology."

"Kyoto is dead; its death is all but official."

Well! There you have it. Let's hope Tony Blair gets the message very soon before 'Carbon Trading' proves to be the next 'Top-up-Fees'.

Philip, who, being naturally a democrat, naturally never believed the 'talk' in any case. Sauvignon blanc or a claret?

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Bioconfinement or Terminator II - now a good Green idea.....

The National Academies have just issued a fascinating 'News Release' (January 20) about an important forthcoming publication entitled: Biological Confinement of Genetically Engineered Organisms (2004).

This 'Report' will be available in hard-copy form later this winter from the National Academies Press: tel. (US) 202-334-3313, or 1-800-624-6242, or via the Internet at The National Academies Press.

However, in the meantime, you may read this valuable report free online here (in separate Chapters).

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter.

Here is the main body of the 'News Release' (dated January 20):

Integrated, Redundant Approach Best Way to Biologically Confine Genetically Engineered Organisms

'Developers of genetically engineered organisms need to consider how biological techniques such as induced sterility can prevent transgenic animals and plants from escaping into natural ecosystems and breeding or competing with their wild relatives, or passing engineered traits to other species, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The committee that wrote the report used the term "bioconfinement" to describe such techniques.

"Deciding whether and how to confine a genetically engineered organism cannot be an afterthought," said Committee Chair T. Kent Kirk, Professor Emeritus, Department of Bacteriology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a former microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Confinement won't be warranted in most cases, but when it is, worst-case scenarios and their probabilities should be considered. Also, progress in research aimed at developing new biological confinement methods will further minimize risks and boost the public's confidence in biotechnology."

Because no single bioconfinement method is likely to be 100 percent effective, the committee recommended that developers of genetically engineered organisms use more than one method to lower the chance of a failure. It was also clear to the committee that scientists need to do more research to understand how well specific methods work, and that planned combinations of confinement methods will need to be tested in organisms with representative genetic profiles and in a wide variety of field environments.

The report was requested by USDA, which is considering how to regulate a number of genetically engineered organisms that had not yet been developed when the federal government's original 1986 "Coordinated Framework" for regulation of biotechnology products was enacted. Ensuring confinement for some of these new organisms may become one of the requirements for regulatory approval, the committee noted.

Ecological studies have shown that some genetically engineered organisms are viable in natural ecosystems and can breed with wild relatives. The most publicized environmental danger is that invasive weeds could be created if transgenic crops engineered to tolerate herbicides or to resist diseases and pests pass these resistant genes to weedy relatives. Plants also can be engineered with traits that allow them to grow faster, reproduce more, and live in new types of habitats. An additional risk is that transgenic fish or shellfish could escape and mate with their wild counterparts or out-compete them for food. Another concern is that plants and animals engineered to produce pharmaceuticals could harm humans or other species who may accidentally consume them.

The efficacy of bioconfinement methods will vary depending on the organism and the environment in which it will be released. Other factors include how long confinement needs to last, and the size of the area affected. Confinement is expected to work best over short time scales and small geographic areas, the committee said, emphasizing that no one method can achieve complete confinement. Where confinement is deemed desirable, techniques are needed to monitor any escape of genetically engineered organisms or the flow of transgenes; mitigating a confinement failure will be far easier if it is discovered quickly.

The committee paid particular attention to transgenic fish, shellfish, trees, grasses, and microbes, because many of these organisms have been engineered successfully and currently are undergoing regulatory evaluation. Genetically engineered aquatic species can be confined by physical barriers, by disrupting sexual reproduction, or by methods that prevent their survival in the wild. For example, a technique called triploidization can sterilize some fish and shellfish by adding an extra set of chromosomes to the animal's cellular makeup, although the technique cannot guarantee 100 percent sterility. Fish also can be engineered to rely on a man-made substance for survival, so that they would die if they escaped into the wild. For plants, bioconfinement methods include inserting genes that induce sterility, or engineering plants not to produce pollen, which can help close this avenue of gene flow.

There are two major bioconfinement methods for microbes, the report says. One method involves engineering bacteria or fungi to use so much energy or nutrients that they do not compete well with native bacteria and fungi. Because of the rapid adaptability of microbes, the effectiveness of this bioconfinement method remains unclear, the committee cautioned. The second method is to use a chemical to trigger "suicide" genes in bacteria or fungi if they escape confinement and pose a risk, though this method has never been field tested. Little research has been done on bioconfinement of genetically engineered insects, the committee noted. Confining genetically engineered insects can be particularly challenging because the typically large number of insects in any population makes even a small confinement failure problematic.

The committee also said that when bioconfinement methods are needed, an "Integrated Confinement System," or ICS, should be used. ICS is a systematic approach that includes a commitment to confinement by senior decision-makers within the institutions developing genetically engineered organisms, written plans for confinement and for mitigation of failures, employee training, periodic outside review, and reporting to an appropriate regulatory body. The committee was not asked to evaluate current government practices or policy, but it said that "for ICS to work, it must be supported by a rigorous and comprehensive regulatory regime empowered with inspection and enforcement." Government regulators also need to consider the effects that a confinement failure could have on other nations.'

+ This all seems a sensible balance between GM development and precaution. As the Committee Chair, T. Kent Kirk, Professor Emeritus, Department of Bacteriology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, says: "Confinement won't be warranted in most cases, but when it is, worst-case scenarios and their probabilities should be considered. Also, progress in research aimed at developing new biological confinement methods will further minimize risks and boost the public's confidence in biotechnology."


Philip, bringing you all the latest in good, positive science (just in case the UK media miss it!). Morning coffee for an even bigger confidence boost.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

From The Golden Age.....

This is a self-indulgent blog - and why not on a grey, dull Wednesday in the dark recesses of January? Just every now and again, one desperately wishes to throw off the sheer tedium of what Kenneth Grahame so perfectly encapsulated as the life of 'The Olympian', with its non-sensical talk of 'global warming', 'carbon trading', and 'precautionary principles' - "Oh!, for goodness sake, can't we forget those damn 'precautionary principles'!":-

"It was a perennial matter for amazement how these Olympians would talk over our heads - during meals, for instance - of this or the other social or political inanity, under the delusion that these pale phantasms of reality were among the importances of life." (From: 'The Prologue:The Olympians', The Golden Age, by Kenneth Grahame, 1898).

So here are four or five wonderfully non-Olympian 'virtualities' that recall to perfection the Just William existence which we have all lost, but for which we are always seeking:

Oliver Postgate's (what a genius!) spiffingly quirky Chairman Bagpuss Site:

"In his autobiography Oliver Postgate declares that he does not exist - that he is a means, not an end. To a cat of my intellectual prowess it is clear that this is philosophically unsound, because he obviously must be there in order to say that he is not. And anyway, if he were, or rather weren't, where would that leave us, his figments?"

Fun, fun, fun (even though the essays are inevitably from the world of The Olympians, although still somewhat 1960's-style). Bagpuss, on the other hand, is immortal. How we loved him!

Northlands: Noggin the Nog - gloriously free of PC rubbish about 'global warming' melting the Ice Dragon. Superb sagas for a winter's evening.

The Clangers - the home-knitted icon of everything late-1960s/early 1970s. Here is how they were discovered: 'Origins of the Clangers'. Spaced-out before Bush ever thought of Mars!

While here is the Pattern for a Felt Clanger. How much better the world would have been if the dire dictators had spent their days making felt clangers.

I feel happier already - The Magic Roundabout is working once more. I shall never read The Groaniad again!

But aagh!

"A saddening doubt, a dull suspicion, creeps over me. Et in Arcadia ego - I certainly did once inhabit Arcady. Can it be that I also have become an Olympian?"

Philip, in need of Olympian coffee!

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Wot no irony at City Comforts.....

Hey, don't tempt me to stereotype! Can't you lot at City Comforts see irony when it drifts in with the snow? Of course, climate change isn't the post-modern/non-modern construct of 'global warming'! And, of course, you can't say anything about climate from a single, or even 100, weather events! Tell that to the 'global warming' faithful on a hot day in Boston! And, hey guys, I'm a professional biogeographer of 30 years standing - and, if you don't know what a 'biogeographer' is, then don't throw snowballs!

Still - I like city comforts!

Yours ironically, Philip.

Bird feed and feeding birds.....

For today's 'Home Planet' programme on BBC Radio 4, listen here (select the 'Listen to the Latest Programme' button, top left). Not only do you get Stotty et al. on shells and on the Cardiff Bay barrage, but also much twittering about bird feed and feeding cormorants. Hope it doesn't stick in the craw!

Philip, not known to flap his wings to digest his elevenses!
Go North, Dear Reader.....

One commentator who is always worth a read is Richard D. North, and he has recently placed a number of postings worth a moment's contemplation. Here are a couple to sample, and a link to the key web site for further reference:

(a) 'Global warming, GMOs and economics: the big picture' (January 12):

"A left-right division exists in environmental matters, but it is not income-determined. Nor does it correlate with education terribly well. More, we see amongst the small minority of the population which interests itself in environmental matters a divide between those that are interventionist (a large majority) and those that are not (a small minority). Much (not all) environment policy happens because a relatively small but powerful group exert pressure on the body politic. In economic matters, it is a large group of people who are not individually powerful which achieves policy intervention. (It is easy to think up challenges to this contention, but such challenges have to meet the objection that tax policy is a populist issue, in both directions, whilst environment never has been.)"

(b) 'Biodiversity: nice or valuable?' (November 6, 2003):

"Biodiversity doesn't deserve its dominant role as the watchword of our stewardship: at best it is one of the tools by which we consider our relations with the non-human world. Following the thought in item 2), a small percentage of the world's surface holds a large proportion of the world's species, so preserving the number of species might well not be an engine for preserving much habitat. Contrariwise, cherishing and expanding habitat might increase the commonness or availability or accessibility of various species which are in so sense threatened."

And here is the web site: Living Issues (covering especially pharmaceutical patents, global warming, and pressure politics).

All highly recommended as a thoughtful read.

Philip, coffee.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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