Small Islands in the Pacific: Duel Between Freshwater and Sea Water – It is said that the first refugees of climate change will come from the Pacific. In the midst of this ocean’s tropical regions are scattered 50,000 small islands, 8,000 of them inhabited. They are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. These effects include rising sea-water levels, drought and diminishing stocks of freshwater. Such water is essential for the life of the fauna and flora and for the human populations’ food supplies. On the coral reef islands, freshwater occurs as underground reservoirs, as lenses in balance with the underlying sea water. IRD scientists and their research partners have investigated the processes behind such lenses, the way they change and develops, their capacity and vulnerability. The team’s geological, hydrogeological and geophysical surveys showed that the lens structure and internal processes depend strongly on the island’s vegetation cover and topography. This work opens up ways towards assessing what will happen to this resource as a consequence of expected changes in the climate and sea level.

Global Rivers Emit Three Times IPCC Estimates of Greenhouse Gas Nitrous Oxide — What goes in must come out, a truism that now may be applied to global river networks. Human-caused nitrogen loading to river networks is a potentially important source of nitrous oxide emission to the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change and stratospheric ozone destruction. It happens via a microbial process called denitrification, which converts nitrogen to nitrous oxide and an inert gas called dinitrogen. When summed across the globe, scientists report this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), river and stream networks are the source of at least 10 percent of human-caused nitrous oxide emissions to the atmosphere. Rates of nitrous oxide production via denitrification in small streams increase with nitrate concentrations.

The Tax and Spending Compromise – The largest component of this Tax Relief Act is the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts on incomes, dividends, capital gains, and estates. This extension will have some relatively short-term benefits to the economy by stimulating investments and the formation and expansion of small businesses, but the main case for extending these tax cuts is their effects on longer-term economic growth. The growth rate in per capita incomes is determined mainly by the rates of investments in human and physical capital, and by technological progress. Both these drivers of economic growth are in good part in turn determined by tax rates on personal and business incomes. I view the maintenance of the Bush tax cuts as only the first important move of the American tax code toward a more effective income tax structure. That structure would have a broad-based low rate flat tax on personal incomes, with little, if any, taxation of corporate incomes, and with dividends and capital gains taxed as ordinary income. As the majority report of the recent National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform proposed, the income base should be greatly broadened by eliminating the deductibility of interest on mortgages, and a variety of other special deductions that result from the political influence of various special interests.

 The Tax Deal: A Second Stimulus?—The economy is expected to grow by only about 3 to 4 percent in 2011; if the new Act added 2 percent to the higher figure, which I don’t think anyone expects, so that the Gross Domestic Product grew by about $800 billion (6 percent of our $14 trillion GDP), this would, it is true, reduce the rate of growth of the deficit. Suppose the additional $800 billion in GDP yielded $160 billion in additional federal tax revenues (20 percent). Then the 2011 deficit, instead of being roughly $800 billion, would be “only” $640 billion—we would still be on the road to bankruptcy.  It is nevertheless possible to defend the new Act on two grounds. The first, and I think less important, is that it indicates the possibility of compromise between the Obama Administration and the resurgent, and increasingly conservative and assertive, Republican Party, though compromise will be more difficult come January when the Republicans take control of the House. Second, and more important, estimates that GDP would grow by at least 3 percent in 2011 were premised on the expectation that the bulk, at least, of the Bush tax cuts would be continued. Given the weakness of the economy, a sudden tax increase in 2011, which would have been the effect of allowing those cuts to expire, could easily have knocked one or two percentage points off the GDP growth rate. 

Science & the Public: Heavier crudes, heavier footprints – Relying on heavy oils and tar sands as the feedstock for liquid fuels will exaggerate the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with fossil-fuel use, a new study finds. Light crudes are the easiest to work with. But as their biggest and most accessible reservoirs have been tapped — and often tapped out — the oil industry has increasingly been turning to what has been termed “unconventional” stocks. These are viscous, if not tarry, forms of petroleum.  And as the upper graph below shows, the average “gravity” — viscosity of crude — has fallen into the heavy range (below an average of about 31 degrees on the American Petroleum Institute scale) beginning in 2000. At least for oil processed by U.S. refineries. Not surprisingly, it takes extra work to convert viscous gunk into the gasoline, diesel and other high-value fuels that power engines the world over. And the extra fuel that powers those upgrades releases bonus greenhouse-gas emissions, thereby upping the carbon footprint of each gallon of refined product created.
Comprehensive Science Legislation to Become Law – The lame-duck House of Representatives accepted a stripped-down Senate version of the America COMPETES Act, a bill to strengthen research, education, and innovation at several federal agencies.  But looming fights over the discretionary budget may make the legislative success a Pyrrhic victory. The sharply partisan nature of the debate on the House floor this afternoon—only 16 of 146 Republicans supported its passage, along with all 212 Democrats who voted—signaled that the new Republican House leadership won’t take kindly to bills that promise large increases in federal spending, no matter how worthy the cause. That attitude bodes ill for the likely impact of COMPETES, which puts Congress on record in support of steady increases in the budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the basic science programs at the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Conservatives Can Be Persuaded to Embrace Taxes—But Only If Poor People Pay Them – Via Harold Pollack, we learn that George Will and incoming House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp are eager to tackle the problem of poor people having too much money: As usual, this is based on the clever magic trick of pretending that poor people don’t pay state and local taxes. But whatever the merits of the position, it’s tactical important to keep in mind that this is the position. Lurking behind conservative rhetoric about the evils of government spending, is the reality of conservative hostility to taxes. And lurking behind conservative rhetoric about the evils of taxes is the reality of conservative hostility to taxing rich people. Which means that Republicans are likely to insist that any revenue-enhancing deficit-control package rely heavily on regressive measures.

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