While a certain bacterium that can thrive in arsenic has dominated the science press this week, the big story in the world at large is on the ongoing WikiLeaks saga. The release of an enormous trove of confidential documents from the U.S. State Department has provoked plenty of fall-out: there’s governmental embarrassment and anger, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is now wanted in Sweden on alleged sex crimes. But we’re most interested in how the never-ending story touches several science and tech stories, some of which have unraveled here on 80beats.
Get That DNA
One embarrassing revelation of the leaked diplomatic cables was that American diplomats were supposed to be part spy; they were asked to try to gather genetic material from foreign governmental officials. Once the cables leaked, the State Department couldn’t exactly deny that this happened, but it now says that these suggestions came from intelligence agencies. And relax—the requests were voluntary.
A senior department official said the requests for DNA, iris scans and other biometric data on foreign government and U.N. diplomats came from American “intelligence community managers.” The official said American diplomats were free to ignore the requests and that virtually all do. [Washington Post]
China Source of Google Hack
Early in 2010 we reported on the large cyber-attack against Google. Though rumors swirled, the Chinese government denied its involvement; the country and the search engine giant went through months of tension before arriving at a truce in the summer. According to WikiLeaks, leaders of the Chinese Communist Party were directly connected to the hack.
China’s Politburo directed the intrusion into Google’s computer systems in that country, a Chinese contact told the American Embassy in Beijing in January, one cable reported. The Google hacking was part of a coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and Internet outlaws recruited by the Chinese government. [The New York Times]
After the mess of a meeting at the last international climate summit, one year ago in Copenhagen, the easy answer to “what might the world accomplish at this year’s meeting in Cancun?” is, well, nothing. That’s essentially the posture of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva toward the current talks.
“No big leader is going, only environment ministers at best. We don’t even know if foreign ministers are going. So there won’t be any progress,” Lula, who himself decided not to travel to Mexico, told reporters in Brasilia. [AFP]
Just about everyone present concedes the world doesn’t have the stomach or inclination for serious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. But will anything—even agreements on incremental changes—come out of Cancun?
Leaders of the United Nations and European Union echoed Lula’s pessimism when it comes to dealing with carbon dioxide. CO2, however, while it incites most of the political rancor about climate agreements, isn’t the only greenhouse gas.
Other potent warming agents include three short-lived gases — methane, some hydrofluorocarbons and lower atmospheric ozone — and dark soot particles. The warming effect of these pollutants, which stay in the atmosphere for several days to about a decade, is already about 80 percent of the amount that carbon dioxide causes. The world could easily and quickly reduce these pollutants; the technology and regulatory systems needed to do so are already in place. [The New York Times]
Closing a logging loophole?
Indonesia, because it’s an archipelago, might not look like it has a lot of land area. But it’s home to the third largest forest area of any country, and has half the tropical peatlands in the entire world. These forested lands are home to many endangered species, and also store greenhouse gases. Now, thanks to international cooperation (and a big check), more of that area will be saved—for now.
This week, Indonesia pledged to stop giving permits for the destruction of virgin forests:
“We will conduct a moratorium for two years where we stop the conversion of peat land and of forest,” President Yudhoyono said at a joint news conference with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. The pledge comes ahead of Thursday’s climate and forest conference in Oslo, which is expected to be attended by officials from some 50 countries [BBC News].
Environmentalists are cheering the reprieve, noting that vast swaths of forest have already been cleared in Indonesia to provide wood for timber and paper industries, and to provide space for palm oil plantations.
Let the Copenhagen fallout continue.
Friday night, after a two-week diplomacy fest that could be called “difficult” at best, leaders of some of the most powerful countries in the world announced that they reached an 11th hour agreement to conclude the United Nations Copenhagen climate summit. After speaking to the assembly, President Barack Obama spent the day going in and out of meetings with Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao. They met later with Mammoghan Singh of India, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, and South African President Jacob Zuma, before a White House official leaked that these big players had reached an agreement.
Things are getting a tad testy in Denmark as the Copenhagen climate summit lurches toward its conclusion tomorrow. Contrary to rumors that he would skip the event because of the growing pessimism about reaching an agreement, President Barack Obama says today that he’s on his way for the conference’s decisive day.
Yesterday was protest day, as 4,000 people marched around the Bella center and police arrested 260. Activists tried a variety of methods to enter the conference centre, approaching in large groups from several directions and, at one point, sending several hundred people running with seven giant lilos [air mattresses] to bridge a moat next to the centre [The Guardian].