Sunday, 30 June 2013

Population overshoot

The headline says It all -

Humans: the real threat to life on Earth
If population levels continue to rise at the current rate, our grandchildren will see the Earth plunged into an unprecedented environmental crisis, argues computational scientist Stephen Emmott in this extract from his book Ten Billion

30 June, 2013

Earth is home to millions of species. Just one dominates it. Us. Our cleverness, our inventiveness and our activities have modified almost every part of our planet. In fact, we are having a profound impact on it. Indeed, our cleverness, our inventiveness and our activities are now the drivers of every global problem we face. And every one of these problems is accelerating as we continue to grow towards a global population of 10 billion. In fact, I believe we can rightly call the situation we're in right now an emergency – an unprecedented planetary emergency.

We humans emerged as a species about 200,000 years ago. In geological time, that is really incredibly recent. Just 10,000 years ago, there were one million of us. By 1800, just over 200 years ago, there were 1 billion of us. By 1960, 50 years ago, there were 3 billion of us. There are now over 7 billion of us. By 2050, your children, or your children's children, will be living on a planet with at least 9 billion other people. Some time towards the end of this century, there will be at least 10 billion of us. Possibly more.

We got to where we are now through a number of civilisation- and society-shaping "events", most notably the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and – in the West – the public-health revolution. By 1980, there were 4 billion of us on the planet. Just 10 years later, in 1990, there were 5 billion of us. By this point initial signs of the consequences of our growth were starting to show. Not the least of these was on water. Our demand for water – not just the water we drank but the water we needed for food production and to make all the stuff we were consuming – was going through the roof. But something was starting to happen to water.

Back in 1984, journalists reported from Ethiopia about a famine of biblical proportions caused by widespread drought. Unusual drought, and unusual flooding, was increasing everywhere: Australia, Asia, the US, Europe. Water, a vital resource we had thought of as abundant, was now suddenly something that had the potential to be scarce.

By 2000 there were 6 billion of us. It was becoming clear to the world's scientific community that the accumulation of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – as a result of increasing agriculture, land use and the production, processing and transportation of everything we were consuming – was changing the climate. And that, as a result, we had a serious problem on our hands; 1998 had been the warmest year on record. The 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998.

We hear the term "climate" every day, so it is worth thinking about what we actually mean by it. Obviously, "climate" is not the same as weather. The climate is one of the Earth's fundamental life support systems, one that determines whether or not we humans are able to live on this planet. It is generated by four components: the atmosphere (the air we breathe); the hydrosphere (the planet's water); the cryosphere (the ice sheets and glaciers); the biosphere (the planet's plants and animals). By now, our activities had started to modify every one of these components.

Our emissions of CO2 modify our atmosphere. Our increasing water use had started to modify our hydrosphere. Rising atmospheric and sea-surface temperature had started to modify the cryosphere, most notably in the unexpected shrinking of the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets. Our increasing use of land, for agriculture, cities, roads, mining – as well as all the pollution we were creating – had started to modify our biosphere. Or, to put it another way: we had started to change our climate.

There are now more than 7 billion of us on Earth. As our numbers continue to grow, we continue to increase our need for far more water, far more food, far more land, far more transport and far more energy. As a result, we are accelerating the rate at which we're changing our climate. In fact, our activities are not only completely interconnected with but now also interact with, the complex system we live on: Earth. It is important to understand how all this is connected.

Let's take one important, yet little known, aspect of increasing water use: "hidden water". Hidden water is water used to produce things we consume but typically do not think of as containing water. Such things include chicken, beef, cotton, cars, chocolate and mobile phones. For example: it takes around 3,000 litres of water to produce a burger. In 2012 around five billion burgers were consumed in the UK alone. That's 15 trillion litres of water – on burgers. Just in the UK. Something like 14 billion burgers were consumed in the United States in 2012. That's around 42 trillion litres of water. To produce burgers in the US. In one year. It takes around 9,000 litres of water to produce a chicken. In the UK alone we consumed around one billion chickens in 2012. It takes around 27,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of chocolate. That's roughly 2,700 litres of water per bar of chocolate. This should surely be something to think about while you're curled up on the sofa eating it in your pyjamas.

But I have bad news about pyjamas. Because I'm afraid your cotton pyjamas take 9,000 litres of water to produce. And it takes 100 litres of water to produce a cup of coffee. And that's before any water has actually been added to your coffee. We probably drank about 20 billion cups of coffee last year in the UK. And – irony of ironies – it takes something like four litres of water to produce a one-litre plastic bottle of water. Last year, in the UK alone, we bought, drank and threw away nine billion plastic water bottles. That is 36 billion litres of water, used completely unnecessarily. Water wasted to produce bottles – for water. And it takes around 72,000 litres of water to produce one of the 'chips' that typically powers your laptop, Sat Nav, phone, iPad and your car. There were over two billion such chips produced in 2012. That is at least 145 trillion litres of water. On semiconductor chips. In short, we're consuming water, like food, at a rate that is completely unsustainable.

Demand for land for food is going to double – at least – by 2050, and triple – at least – by the end of this century. This means that pressure to clear many of the world's remaining tropical rainforests for human use is going to intensify every decade, because this is predominantly the only available land that is left for expanding agriculture at scale. Unless Siberia thaws out before we finish deforestation. By 2050, 1bn hectares of land is likely to be cleared to meet rising food demands from a growing population. This is an area greater than the US. And accompanying this will be three gigatons per year extra CO2 emissions.If Siberia does thaw out before we finish our deforestation, it would result in a vast amount of new land being available for agriculture, as well as opening up a very rich source of minerals, metals, oil and gas. In the process this would almost certainly completely change global geopolitics. Siberia thawing would turn Russia into a remarkable economic and political force this century because of its newly uncovered mineral, agricultural and energy resources. It would also inevitably be accompanied by vast stores of methane – currently sealed under the Siberian permafrost tundra – being released, greatly accelerating our climate problem even further.

Amazon rainforest smoulders after being cleared for cattle pasture in Brazil. Photograph: Michael Nichols/Getty Images

Meanwhile, another 3 billion people are going to need somewhere to live. By 2050, 70% of us are going to be living in cities. This century will see the rapid expansion of cities, as well as the emergence of entirely new cities that do not yet exist. It's worth mentioning that of the 19 Brazilian cities that have doubled in population in the past decade, 10 are in the Amazon. All this is going to use yet more land.

We currently have no known means of being able to feed 10 billion of us at our current rate of consumption and with our current agricultural system. Indeed, simply to feed ourselves in the next 40 years, we will need to produce more food than the entire agricultural output of the past 10,000 years combined. Yet food productivity is set to decline, possibly very sharply, over the coming decades due to: climate change; soil degradation and desertification – both of which are increasing rapidly in many parts of the world; and water stress. By the end of this century, large parts of the planet will not have any usable water.

At the same time, the global shipping and airline sectors are projected to continue to expand rapidly every year, transporting more of us, and more of the stuff we want to consume, around the planet year on year. That is going to cause enormous problems for us in terms of more CO2 emissions, more black carbon, and more pollution from mining and processing to make all this stuff.

But think about this. In transporting us and our stuff all over the planet, we are also creating a highly efficient network for the global spread of potentially catastrophic diseases. There was a global pandemic just 95 years ago – the Spanish flu pandemic, which is now estimated to have killed up to 100 million people. And that's before one of our more questionable innovations – the budget airline – was invented. The combination of millions of people travelling around the world every day, plus millions more people living in extremely close proximity to pigs and poultry – often in the same room, making a new virus jumping the species barrier more likely – means we are increasing, significantly, the probability of a new global pandemic. So no wonder then that epidemiologists increasingly agree that a new global pandemic is now a matter of "when" not "if".

We are going to have to triple – at least – energy production by the end of this century to meet expected demand. To meet that demand, we will need to build, roughly speaking, something like: 1,800 of the world's largest dams, or 23,000 nuclear power stations, 14m wind turbines, 36bn solar panels, or just keep going with predominantly oil, coal and gas – and build the 36,000 new power stations that means we will need.Our existing oil, coal and gas reserves alone are worth trillions of dollars. Are governments and the world's major oil, coal and gas companies – some of the most influential corporations on Earth – really going to decide to leave the money in the ground, as demand for energy increases relentlessly? I doubt it.

Meanwhile the emerging climate problem is on an entirely different scale. The problem is that we may well be heading towards a number of critical "tipping points" in the global climate system. There is a politically agreed global target – driven by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – to limit the global average temperature rise to 2C. The rationale for this target is that a rise above 2C carries a significant risk of catastrophic climate change that would almost certainly lead to irreversible planetary "tipping points", caused by events such as the melting of the Greenland ice shelf, the release of frozen methane deposits from Arctic tundra, or dieback of the Amazon. In fact, the first two are happening now – at below the 2C threshold.

As for the third, we're not waiting for climate change to do this: we're doing it right now through deforestation. And recent research shows that we look certain to be heading for a larger rise in global average temperatures than 2C – a far larger rise. It is now very likely that we are looking at a future global average rise of 4C – and we can't rule out a rise of 6C. This will be absolutely catastrophic. It will lead to runaway climate change, capable of tipping the planet into an entirely different state, rapidly. Earth will become a hellhole. In the decades along the way, we will witness unprecedented extremes in weather, fires, floods, heatwaves, loss of crops and forests, water stress and catastrophic sea-level rises. Large parts of Africa will become permanent disaster areas. The Amazon could be turned into savannah or even desert. And the entire agricultural system will be faced with an unprecedented threat.

More "fortunate" countries, such as the UK, the US and most of Europe, may well look like something approaching militarised countries, with heavily defended border controls designed to prevent millions of people from entering, people who are on the move because their own country is no longer habitable, or has insufficient water or food, or is experiencing conflict over increasingly scarce resources. These people will be "climate migrants". The term "climate migrants" is one we will increasingly have to get used to. Indeed, anyone who thinks that the emerging global state of affairs does not have great potential for civil and international conflict is deluding themselves. It is no coincidence that almost every scientific conference that I go to about climate change now has a new type of attendee: the military.

Every which way you look at it, a planet of 10 billion looks like a nightmare. What, then, are our options?

The only solution left to us is to change our behaviour, radically and globally, on every level. In short, we urgently need to consume less. A lot less. Radically less. And we need to conserve more. A lot more. To accomplish such a radical change in behaviour would also need radical government action. But as far as this kind of change is concerned, politicians are currently part of the problem, not part of the solution, because the decisions that need to be taken to implement significant behaviour change inevitably make politicians very unpopular – as they are all too aware.

So what politicians have opted for instead is failed diplomacy. For example: The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, whose job it has been for 20 years to ensure the stabilisation of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere: Failed. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification, whose job it's been for 20 years to stop land degrading and becoming desert: Failed. The Convention on Biological Diversity, whose job it's been for 20 years to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss: Failed. Those are only three examples of failed global initiatives. The list is a depressingly long one. And the way governments justify this level of inaction is by exploiting public opinion and scientific uncertainty. It used to be a case of, "We need to wait for science to prove climate change is happening". This is now beyond doubt. So now it's, "We need to wait for scientists to be able to tell us what the impact will be and the costs". And, "We need to wait for public opinion to get behind action". But climate models will never be free from uncertainties. And as for public opinion, politicians feel remarkably free to ignore it when it suits them – wars, bankers' bonuses and healthcare reforms, to give just three examples.

What politicians and governments say about their commitment to tackling climate change is completely different from what they are doing about it.

What about business? In 2008 a group of highly respected economists and scientists led by Pavan Sukhdev, then a senior Deutsche Bank economist, conducted an authoritative economic analysis of the value of biodiversity. Their conclusion? The cost of the business activities of the world's 3,000 largest corporations in loss or damage to nature and the environment now stands at $2.2tn per year. And rising. These costs will have to be paid for in the future. By your children and your grandchildren. To quote Sukhdev: "The rules of business urgently need to be changed, so corporations compete on the basis of innovation, resource conservation and satisfaction of multiple stakeholder demands, rather than on the basis of who is most effective in influencing government regulation, avoiding taxes and obtaining subsidies for harmful activities to maximise the return for shareholders." Do I think that will happen? No. What about us?

I confess I used to find it amusing, but I am now sick of reading in the weekend papers about some celebrity saying, "I gave up my 4×4 and now I've bought a Prius. Aren't I doing my bit for the environment?" They are not doing their bit for the environment. But it's not their fault. The fact is that they – we – are not being well informed. And that's part of the problem. We're not getting the information we need. The scale and the nature of the problem is simply not being communicated to us. And when we are advised to do something, it barely makes a dent in the problem. Here are some of the changes we've been asked to make recently, by celebrities who like to pronounce on this sort of thing, and by governments, who should know better than to give out this kind of nonsense as 'solutions': Switch off your mobile phone charger; wee in the shower (my favourite); buy an electric car (no, don't); use two sheets of loo roll rather than three. All of these are token gestures that miss the fundamental fact that the scale and nature of the problems we face are immense, unprecedented and possibly unsolvable.

The behavioural changes that are required of us are so fundamental that no one wants to make them. What are they? We need to consume less. A lot less. Less food, less energy, less stuff. Fewer cars, electric cars, cotton T-shirts, laptops, mobile phone upgrades. Far fewer.And here it is worth pointing out that "we" refers to the people who live in the west and the north of the globe. There are currently almost 3 billion people in the world who urgently need to consume more: more water, more food, more energy. Saying "Don't have children" is utterly ridiculous. It contradicts every genetically coded piece of information we contain, and one of the most important (and fun) impulses we have. That said, the worst thing we can continue to do – globally – is have children at the current rate. If the current global rate of reproduction continues, by the end of this century there will not be 10 billion of us. According to the United Nations, Zambia's population is projected to increase by 941% by the end of this century. The population of Nigeria is projected to grow by 349% – to 730 million people.

Afghanistan by 242%.

Democratic Republic of Congo 213%.

Gambia by 242%.

Guatemala by 369%.

Iraq by 344%.

Kenya by 284%.

Liberia by 300%.

Malawi by 741%.

Mali by 408%.

Niger by 766%.

Somalia by 663%.

Uganda by 396%.

Yemen by 299%.

Even the United States' population is projected to grow by 54% by 2100, from 315 million in 2012 to 478 million. I do just want to point out that if the current global rate of reproduction continues, by the end of this century there will not be 10 billion of us – there will be 28 billion of us.

Where does this leave us? Let's look at it like this. If we discovered tomorrow that there was an asteroid on a collision course with Earth and – because physics is a fairly simple science – we were able to calculate that it was going to hit Earth on 3 June 2072, and we knew that its impact was going to wipe out 70% of all life on Earth, governments worldwide would marshal the entire planet into unprecedented action. Every scientist, engineer, university and business would be enlisted: half to find a way of stopping it, the other half to find a way for our species to survive and rebuild if the first option proved unsuccessful. We are in almost precisely that situation now, except that there isn't a specific date and there isn't an asteroid. The problem is us. Why are we not doing more about the situation we're in – given the scale of the problem and the urgency needed – I simply cannot understand. We're spending €8bn at Cern to discover evidence of a particle called the Higgs boson, which may or may not eventually explain mass and provide a partial thumbs-up for the standard model of particle physics. And Cern's physicists are keen to tell us it is the biggest, most important experiment on Earth. It isn't. The biggest and most important experiment on Earth is the one we're all conducting, right now, on Earth itself. Only an idiot would deny that there is a limit to how many people our Earth can support. The question is, is it seven billion (our current population), 10 billion or 28 billion? I think we've already gone past it. Well past it.

Science is essentially organised scepticism. I spend my life trying to prove my work wrong or look for alternative explanations for my results. It's called the Popperian condition of falsifiability. I hope I'm wrong. But the science points to my not being wrong. We can rightly call the situation we're in an unprecedented emergency. We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don't think we will. I think we're fucked. I asked one of the most rational, brightest scientists I know – a scientist working in this area, a young scientist, a scientist in my lab – if there was just one thing he had to do about the situation we face, what would it be? His reply? "Teach my son how to use a gun."

Arctic News

Cyclonic Activity persists in Arctic

30 June, 2013

Above image, edited from 
Naval Research Laboratory, shows that a large area has developed at the center of the Arctic Ocean with very thin ice, at some places down to virtually zero, i.e. open water.

This development is to a large extent caused by persistent cyclonic activity in the Arctic. The Arctic is warming up faster than anywhere else, and this is reducing the temperature difference between the Arctic and lower latitudes. As a result, the polar vortex and jet stream get distorted, resulting in extreme weather. This is graphically illustrated by the animation below, from the 
California Regional Weather Server.

Note: this animation is a 2.5 MB file that may take some time to fully load.
California Regional Weather Server


Open Water In Areas Around North Pole - June 22, 2013

Thin Spots developing in Arctic Sea Ice - June 13, 2013

Polar jet stream appears hugely deformed - December 20, 2012

Changes to Polar Vortex affect mile-deep ocean circulation patterns - September 24, 2012

Diagram of Doom - August 28, 2012

Opening further Doorways to Doom - August 28, 2012

Huge cyclone batters Arctic sea ice - August 11, 2012

Unprecedented Jet Stream Wave Sparks 120+ Degree Temps in the US Southwest and Tundra Fires in Extreme Northern Canada.

(Tundra Fires Near Hudson Bay in Northern Canada on June 29, 2013. Image source: Lance-Modis)

30 June, 2013
Today, as temperatures rocketed to above 120 in the US Desert Southwest, temperatures hit 87 degrees on the shore of the frozen waters of the Canadian Archipelago. These were the south to north markers of a heatwave that spanned 3,000 miles from Death Valley, California to Cambridge Bay in extreme northern Canada.
Beneath the southern section of this vast and sprawling heat dome, US communities coped by setting up cooling centers and issuing heat warnings. But despite this agile preparedness, hospitals in the hardest hit areas were flooded with cases of heat injury.
In one instance, an outdoor concert in Las Vegas saw more than 200 persons treated for heat injuries while more than 36 were hospitalized. Sadly, an elderly man also passed away at one local hospital after suffering from heat stroke. Temperatures reached an extraordinarily hot 115 (Fahrenheit) in Sin City.
Elsewhere, across the region, Palm Springs hit 122, Death Valley hit 125, and Phoenix hit a scorching 119. Tomorrow is expected to bring another day of extreme record heat, so area cities and residents are still under the gun.
Further north, near 90 degree temperatures stretched all the way to the frozen shores of Cambridge Bay in extreme northern Canada. There, some locations on the ice choked waterway experienced 87 degree temperatures, which is nearly 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) above average for this time of year.
The extreme heat sparked numerous tundra fires across Northern Canada, some of which you can see in the NASA satellite image above. Note the smoke tails rising from two clusters of fires in the upper center portion of the image. That ice speckled area of blue to the right is the, usually frigid, Hudson Bay.
The heat also set off melt and fracturing of sea ice in Cambridge Bay, which you can see in the NASA shot below:
(June 29 Ice Melt and Fracturing, Cambridge Bay. Image source: Lance-Modis)
Warming air temperatures typical for this region (high 40s to low 50s) usually result in a more gradual melt. But hot air temperatures at up to 55 degrees (Fahrenheit) above freezing tend to have a far more rapid effect. It is also worth noting the nearly complete lack of visible snow cover in this extreme northern region.
I’ve Never Seen A Rossby Wave Like This
The cause of this 3000 mile swath of heat is an extremely high amplitude wave in the Jet Stream that stretches from the Western US all the way up to the Arctic Ocean. This large bulge has allowed a powerful ‘heat dome’ high pressure system to build up beneath it, concentrating heat over the vast area affected.
Note the up-flow of Jet Stream winds rising up the coast of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia then lifting all the way up to the Arctic Ocean before diving back down through central Hudson Bay and into the US Midwest, before making another hairpin turn north again over the Appalachians.
Large Jet Stream waves of this kind are termed ‘Rossby Waves’ after the climate scientist who first identified them. They show extreme north-south and south-north elongation. In the time I’ve been tracking the extreme changes to the Northern Hemisphere Jet Stream brought about by human-caused warming, I’ve never seen a Rossby Wave quite so large as this. Nor have I seen one that is the result of so many large back and forth meanders. In fact, the entire Northern Hemisphere Jet is a mess of meanders, cut off upper level lows and blocking highs.
One of these upper level lows is expected to bring abnormally heavy rain with up to 3-5 inches for some parts of the US East Coast over the next couple of days. So as heat bakes a swath from Death Valley to the Arctic Ocean, the Eastern US braces for potential flooding. Similar Jet Stream loops and swirls spawned the European floods this June, a series of deadly floods that killed hundreds in India and Tibet, and multiple anomalous Arctic heatwaves occurring throughout the past month.
Extreme Jet Streams, like the one displayed above (for late Saturday, June 29), are far more likely to spawn extreme weather events than the usual, gently wavy Jet Stream that human civilization has been used to for much of the 20th Century and, probably, for most of the 10,000 year period since the last ice age. But a combination of eroding sea ice and record or near record low Northern Hemisphere snow cover contribute to both a slowing of the Jet Stream and in greater north-south and south-north flows. The result is large wave patterns in the Jet that tend to get stuck in the same configuration for long periods. Beneath the swells in the Jet, we get hotter temperatures, dryer conditions, and the risk of everything from extreme heatwaves to droughts and fires. In the dips, we get cooler temperatures and much, much stormier conditions resulting in a range of weather from extreme winters (Europe during winter/spring 2013), to floods (Europe summer 2013, India late June 2013), to record rainfall and powerful thunderstorms (US May-June 2013).
These are vivid examples of how human-caused climate change can result in extreme weather.
Heat Wave to Last For at Least a Week
The current record heat wave affecting both the US West and a large section of Canada is expected to last at least until the end of this week. Slow moderation, though, is expected for some regions after Sunday. However, the blocking pattern that spawned this particular heat wave shows little sign of changing position. So hotter, dryer conditions are expected to remain in place for the foreseeable future for much of the US South-West.
Meanwhile, Canada and regions along the Arctic coastline are still likely to see much warmer than usual conditions as periodic warm air invasions from the south are likely to continue.

Poisoning the nation: US pseudo-food

80% of Pre-Packaged Foods in America Are Banned in Other Countries

June 25th, 2013

Via: Yahoo:

If you or your kids enjoy pre-packaged convenience foods commonly found in grocery stores across the U.S. such as Froot Loops, Swanson dinners, Mountain Dew, and frozen potato and bread products, you may think twice before purchasing them after hearing what they contain: dangerous chemicals that other countries around the globe have deemed toxic to the point that they’re illegal, and companies are fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for including them in food products.

In a new book Rich Food, Poor Food, authors Mira and Jason Calton provide a list of what they term “Banned Bad Boys” – ingredients commonly used in up to 80% of all American convenience food that have been banned by other countries, with information about which countries banned each substance and why.

And though it might not surprise you to hear that Olestra – commonly used in low/no-fat snack foods and known to cause serious gastrointestinal issues for those who consume it (understatement) – is on that list, having been banned in both the United Kingdom and Canada, you may be shocked to hear that Mountain Dew, Fresca and Squirt all contain brominated vegetable oil, a substance that has been banned in more than 100 countries “because it has been linked to basically every form of thyroid disease – from cancer to autoimmune diseases – known to man.”

Brazil protests

Brazil President Dilma Rousseff meets youth protesters as rumours mount of general strike
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff pledged on Friday to open new channels of dialogue with the nation's youth, who have dominated the nationwide protests that have rocked the country over the past two weeks.

29 June, 2013

Ms Rousseff and Education Minister Aloizio Mercadante met leaders from 25 youth organisations, including student and labour unions, as well as gay rights advocates, as part of the Brazilian leader's continuing talks with different interest groups.

No concrete announcements resulted from the talks in the capital city of Brasilia, which Ms Rousseff described as the start of a dialogue with the nation's youth.

Though no follow-up meetings have yet been scheduled, the July 8 launch of a long-planned government website focusing on youth issues will help facilitate continued talks, Ms Rousseff's office said.

The demonstrations took off earlier this month over a 10-cent rise in bus and subway fares in Sao Paulo and evolved into a mass, nationwide movement voicing public anger over a range of issues such as government corruption, poor education and health care.

Scattered smaller protests continued on Friday, with a demonstration by taxi drivers near Rio de Janeiro's Santos Dumont domestic airport over proposed changes to the rules governing taxi licenses.

Riot police in Sao Paulo state used tear gas grenades to disperse a small group of demonstrators who had blocked a multi-lane highway, and another demonstration was under way in the north-eastern city of Natal.

Social networks, which were a main forum for organising protest last week that brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets, were abuzz yesterday with rumours of a general strike on Monday.

According to the posts on social media, the strike is to take place in every state and will focus on demands for better public services and an end to corruption as well as labour-related issues like reducing the work week from 44 to 40 hours and shelving a bill to allow companies to increase the use of outsourced workers.

However, representatives of Brazil's two biggest unions, the Central Workers Union and Union Force, said they knew nothing about a general strike. They said they are planning a national slowdown for July 11.

U.S. Surveillance Best Suited for Gathering Information on Law-Abiding Citizens

U.S. Surveillance Is Not Aimed at Terrorists

By Leonid Bershidsky

29 June, 2013

The debate over the U.S. government’s monitoring of digital communications suggests that Americans are willing to allow it as long as it is genuinely targeted at terrorists. What they fail to realize is that the surveillance systems are best suited for gathering information on law-abiding citizens.

People concerned with online privacy tend to calm down when told that the government can record their calls or read their e-mail only under special circumstances and with proper court orders. The assumption is that they have nothing to worry about unless they are terrorists or correspond with the wrong people.

The infrastructure set up by the National Security Agency, however, may only be good for gathering information on the stupidest, lowest-ranking of terrorists. The Prism surveillance program focuses on access to the servers of America’s largest Internet companies, which support such popular services as Skype, Gmail and iCloud. These are not the services that truly dangerous elements typically use.

In a January 2012 report titled “Jihadism on the Web: A Breeding Ground for Jihad in the Modern Age,” the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service drew a convincing picture of an Islamist Web underground centered around “core forums.” These websites are part of the Deep Web, or Undernet, the multitude of online resources not indexed by commonly used search engines.

No Data

The Netherlands’ security service, which couldn’t find recent data on the size of the Undernet, cited a 2003 study from the University of California at Berkeley as the “latest available scientific assessment.” The study found that just 0.2 percent of the Internet could be searched. The rest remained inscrutable and has probably grown since. In 2010, Google Inc. said it had indexed just 0.004 percent of the information on the Internet.

Websites aimed at attracting traffic do their best to get noticed, paying to tailor their content to the real or perceived requirements of search engines such as Google. Terrorists have no such ambitions. They prefer to lurk in the dark recesses of the Undernet.

People who radicalise under the influence of jihadist websites often go through a number of stages,” the Dutch report said. “Their virtual activities increasingly shift to the invisible Web, their security awareness increases and their activities become more conspiratorial.”

Radicals who initially stand out on the “surface” Web quickly meet people, online or offline, who drag them deeper into the Web underground. “For many, finally finding the jihadist core forums feels like a warm bath after their virtual wanderings,” the report said.

When information filters to the surface Web from the core forums, it’s often by accident. Organizations such as al-Qaeda use the forums to distribute propaganda videos, which careless participants or their friends might post on social networks or YouTube.

Communication on the core forums is often encrypted. In 2012, a French court found nuclear physicist Adlene Hicheur guilty of, among other things, conspiring to commit an act of terror for distributing and using software called Asrar al-Mujahideen, or Mujahideen Secrets. The program employed various cutting-edge encryption methods, including variable stealth ciphers and RSA 2,048-bit keys.

The NSA’s Prism, according to a classified PowerPoint presentation published by the Guardian, provides access to the systems of Microsoft Corp. (and therefore Skype), Facebook Inc., Google, Apple Inc. and other U.S. Internet giants. Either these companies have provided “master keys” to decrypt their traffic - - which they deny -- or the NSA has somehow found other means.

Traditional Means

Even complete access to these servers brings U.S. authorities no closer to the core forums. These must be infiltrated by more traditional intelligence means, such as using agents posing as jihadists or by informants within terrorist organizations.

Similarly, monitoring phone calls is hardly the way to catch terrorists. They’re generally not dumb enough to use Verizon. Granted, Russia’s special services managed to kill Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev with a missile that homed in on his satellite-phone signal. That was in 1996. Modern-day terrorists are generally more aware of the available technology.

At best, the recent revelations concerning Prism and telephone surveillance might deter potential recruits to terrorist causes from using the most visible parts of the Internet. Beyond that, the government’s efforts are much more dangerous to civil liberties than they are to al-Qaeda and other organizations like it.

(Leonid Bershidsky is an editor and novelist based in Moscow. The opinions expressed are his own.)

The Police State

Former Stasi Lieutenant Colonel On NSA’s Mass Surveillance 
‘It Is The Height Of Naivete To Think That Once Collected This Information Won’t Be Used’

26 June, 2013

BERLIN — Wolfgang Schmidt was seated in Berlin’s 1,200-foot-high TV tower, one of the few remaining landmarks left from the former East Germany. Peering out over the city that lived in fear when the communist party ruled it, he pondered the magnitude of domestic spying in the United States under the Obama administration. A smile spread across his face.

You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,” he said, recalling the days when he was a lieutenant colonel in the defunct communist country’s secret police, the Stasi.

In those days, his department was limited to tapping 40 phones at a time, he recalled. Decide to spy on a new victim and an old one had to be dropped, because of a lack of equipment. He finds breathtaking the idea that the U.S. government receives daily reports on the cellphone usage of millions of Americans and can monitor the Internet traffic of millions more.

So much information, on so many people,” he said.

East Germany’s Stasi has long been considered the standard of police state surveillance during the Cold War years, a monitoring regime so vile and so intrusive that agents even noted when their subjects were overheard engaging in sexual intercourse. Against that backdrop, Germans have greeted with disappointment, verging on anger, the news that somewhere in a U.S. government databank are the records of where millions of people were when they made phone calls or what video content they streamed on their computers in the privacy of their homes.

Even Schmidt, 73, who headed one of the more infamous departments in the infamous Stasi, called himself appalled. The dark side to gathering such a broad, seemingly untargeted, amount of information is obvious, he said.

It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”

U.S. officials have defended the government collection of information since word of it broke in newspaper stories based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The records are used only to track down terrorists overseas, officials say. The collection has been carefully vetted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a body of U.S. judges whose actions are largely kept secret. There is no misuse.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, tried to provide an out for President Barack Obama, offering as a possible explanation for the sweeping nature of the U.S. collection efforts that “the Internet is new to all of us.” She was roundly mocked for that statement, and her administration appeared far less forgiving more recently, when similar spying charges were leveled against the British government.

Germans are dismayed at Obama’s role in allowing the collection of so much information. Before his presidency, hundreds of thousands of Germans turned out to hear him speak in Berlin. During a visit last week, the setup was engineered to avoid criticism: Obama spoke to a small, handpicked audience, many from the German-American school. Access to the Brandenburg Gate, the backdrop for his speech, was severely limited, as was access to Berlin’s entire downtown.

As many Germans as heard Obama speak turned out at quickly arranged protests, including one by self-proclaimed tech nerds near the historic Checkpoint Charlie, where U.S. soldiers welcomed visitors from the communist sector of Berlin for four decades with a sign, “You are entering the American sector.” One demonstrator added this coda: “Your privacy ends here.”

The center-left newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung took Obama to task over the surveillance issue. “Governments do not have the right to conceal broad lines of policy,” the newspaper wrote. “President Obama is operating according to an odd maxim: ‘I am doing a lot of the same things that George W. Bush did, but you can trust me because I am the one doing it.’ Not even Obama is deserving of that much trust."

Everyone knows that gathering so much information is bullshit,” said Reinhard Weisshuhn, a political activist and foreign policy adviser. “It’s a total breach of trust by the government. This is how a society destroys itself.”

For 15 years, the Stasi tracked Weisshuhn’s every move and conversation. His Stasi file, which he, like many other Stasi targets, reviewed after the Berlin Wall collapsed, ran to 9,000 pages. He was shocked, and he’s quick to stress that the United States shouldn’t be compared to the totalitarian East German state.

But that doesn’t mean the president gets a free pass,” he said. “The United States is an open society. This is a problem that must be honestly addressed and fixed.”

Weisshuhn shares a common German perception on the scandal: Snowden, who’s been charged under the Espionage Act for leaking news of the domestic spying, isn’t the bad guy.

"In our case, we thought we were being paranoid until we saw what they’d gathered and realized we’d been naive," Weisshuhn said. "Here, it’s not the whistle-blower who is wrong, it’s the gathering of information."

Germans, especially those raised in the east, are unconvinced by arguments that the sweeping collection of information is used only to track terrorists. The assertions by U.S. officials that unspecified attacks have been thwarted don’t persuade them, either. They haven’t forgotten the fear of living under a government that used vague threats to justify blanket spying. In East Germany, the threats came under the banner of disloyalty to socialist ideals. In the United States, the monitoring programs come under the banner of anti-terrorism.

Dagmar Hovestaedt is the spokeswoman for the German Stasi Records Agency, which showed 88,000 people last year what the Stasi had gathered on them. She said the U.S. should consider doing the same.

This is a study on how to deal with the information the NSA is now gathering,” she said of her archive. “To say that the NSA is the equivalent of the Stasi is too simplistic, but the people who are spied on do have a right to know what was learned about their lives, what they had hoped to keep private that was not. Transparency is essential.”

Still, she noted that Stasi victims have a large advantage in finding out what was studied.

It’s easy to make information available when it was gathered by a state that no longer exists,” she said.

Stefan Wolle is the curator for Berlin’s East German Museum, which focuses in part on the actions of and reactions to the Stasi. What becomes clear when studying the information the organization gathered is the banality of evil: Simple pieces of everyday life are given much greater importance than they deserve when a secret organization makes the effort to gather the information.

When the wall fell, I wanted to see what the Stasi had on me, on the world I knew,” he said. “A large part of what I found was nothing more than office gossip, the sort of thing people used to say around the water cooler about affairs and gripes, the sort of things that people today put in emails or texts to each other.

The lesson,” he added, “is that when a wide net is cast, almost all of what is caught is worthless. This was the case with the Stasi. This will certainly be the case with the NSA.”