The policy community has given increasing attention to 3D printing, the process of constructing 3-dimensional objects from a digital model by layering materials – from polymers to metals – in an additive manufacturing process. There are myriad applications of 3D printing, from building repair parts to whole homes. Some, including our colleagues at the Center for Climate and Security, have written on the promises of 3D printing to transform global trade and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or to make countries more resilient to climate change by making supply chains less vulnerable to natural disasters.
The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) has been using 3D printers in combat theatres, including Afghanistan, in order to reduce operational vulnerabilities associated with logistic tails. Last November, Wired Magazine reported that “At Camp Nathan Smith outside of Kandahar, there's a 20-foot cargo container loaded with a 3D printer, a computer-controlled machine for cutting metal, and a couple of Ph.D.s. It's one of three REF ‘expeditionary labs’ placed around Afghanistan that can quickly design and prototype tools for troops on the ground right now.”
In this photo, Army researchers at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center experiment with different designs of protective masks for soldiers. Similar types of equipment, like replacement bolts for soldiers' rifles, are already being fielded in Afghanistan through the Army's REF.
Photo: Courtesy of Tom Faulkner and RDECOM Public Affairs.
I recently set out to learn more about the process of fracking, with an interest in the risks and the mitigation of risks, as well as the national security implications of America’s potential natural gas glut.
While there are innumerable diagrams and images available online from a variety of sources detailing the process, I did not find any clear, coherent messaging from government and industry entities. So, I turned to a 2010 documentary titled “GasLand” where director Josh Fox appears to go to great lengths to paint fracking in the least optimistic light, climaxing with a scene in which he lights methane-laced tap water on fire as it streams from a rural Pennsylvania man’s faucet. Immediately after watching “GasLand,” I watched “FrackNation,” which originally aired on AXS TV in January 2013, by director Phelim McAleer specifically aimed at debunking the myths professed in “GasLand.” At the end of half a day in front of the television, I had more questions than I had answers.
NASA successfully launched its new Landsat satellite on Monday, ensuring that the U.S. government will continue its ability to keep a close eye on environmental change from space, from receding glaciers, deforestation and coastal erosion to natural disasters.
We noted the importance of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission in our August 2011 policy brief, Blinded: The Decline of U.S. Earth Monitoring Capabilities and Its Consequences for National Security:
The health of the Landsat program, which provides information on topics from land use change to urbanization, is a top concern. One of the two remaining Landsat satellites is past its expected lifespan, and the other has declining capabilities. One replacement satellite, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, has a planned launch date in 2012. The achievement of this mission and its successors is necessary to ensure that one of the most accomplished U.S. satellite programs, spanning nearly four decades, is not lost.
A report in The San Francisco Gate explained the satellite’s important functions and role in generating remote sensing data:
The newest Landsat is equipped with sensors that are more powerful than its predecessors. Once it reaches 440 miles above Earth, the satellite will zip around the planet 14 times a day, snapping hundreds of pictures that will be beamed back to ground stations in South Dakota, Alaska and Norway.
After a three-month checkout period, day-to-day operations will be turned over to the U.S. Geological Survey, which intends to make images and data free on the Internet as in previous Landsat missions. NASA developed the spacecraft and its two instruments.
Learn more about the Landsat Data Continuity Mission at NASA.gov.
On Monday, Quartz published a story about China’s growing foothold in Greenland and the mounting concerns about its quest to produce the semi-autonomous island’s rare earth metals. (See “China’s creep into Greenland is setting off alarm bells.”)
The New York Times reported last September that the retreating Greenland ice sheet is giving way to new opportunities for the 57,000 people living on the once sparse island. In particular, the melting ice is leading to new discoveries of mineral deposits, including rare earths. According to the report, the small Greenland town of Narsaq sits near one of the world’s largest deposits of rare earth elements – which are critical in the manufacturing of advanced technologies, from smart phones and smart bombs to wind turbines and high-end batteries. According to Greenland Minerals and Energy Ltd, the deposit could contain about 10.3 million metric tons of rare earth metals, equivalent to about 10 percent of the known global reserves (which total about 110 million metric tons, according to the U.S. Geological Survey).
Quartz reports that Western officials are particularly concerned about potential Chinese control of Greenland’s rare earth elements given that they are critical to advanced technologies and have few – if any – reliable manufacturing substitutes. (Some technologies can substitute rare earths, but they do not have the same effective properties.) Adding to the angst is the fact that China today produces about 97 percent of the world’s rare earth elements – even though it only holds 50 percent of the world’s known reserves, and that China has been limiting exports in order to satisfy its own domestic demand.
But how worried should Western officials be about China’s potential control of Greenland’s rare earths? A couple of points are worth mentioning that should help allay concerns.
First, China’s share of the rare earth market is in relative decline. Sure, China produces 97 percent of the world’s rare earth resources. But the United States has ample reserves as well; they are just not being produced – yet. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States holds about 13 million metric tons of rare earths, or about 12 percent of the known global reserves. One of the largest mines is in California. While the United States used to produce these minerals, more rigorous environmental standards made it difficult for U.S. producers to compete with cheaper Chinese metals, and so U.S. producers stopped extracting them. But that is starting to change as prices rise. The market appears to be doing its thing, and the United States is ramping up U.S. rare earth production to compete with Chinese metals. Naturally this will help diversify the market. Moreover, Australia and Malaysia are also planning to increase production of their known reserves as well. Other countries are likely to follow suit, including India and other states in Central Asia.
As President Obama begins his second term, there is no shortage of recommendations for how he should prioritize and shape his agenda moving forward.
Two new publications from the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offer sensible recommendations for how the administration should take advantage of the opportunities and confront the challenges of America’s windfall production in unconventional hydrocarbons – principally shale gas and tight oil. Both hark on the need for a balanced approach that would allow the United States to reap the energy and economic benefits from increased domestic energy production while seriously addressing the climate consequences of continuing to burn petroleum.
In their piece, “Energy and Climate: Black to Gold to Green,” Charles K. Ebinger and Kevin Massy of the Brookings Institution write that the United States can take advantage of oil and gas exports to energy hungry Asia while using the revenue from those exports to fund two potentially transformative technologies that are essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions – carbon capture and sequestration technology and advanced batteries.
“Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” reads a draft of the Third National Climate Assessment, published for public review by the U.S. Global Change Research Program on Friday.
The draft study is unequivocal about the state of climate change: it is already affecting Americans and it is primarily driven by human activity. According to an excerpt from the study’s executive summary:
Climate change is already affecting the American people. Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic sea ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity.
The congressionally mandated study – a result of the Global Change Research Act of 1990 – is intended to provide policymakers with a better understanding of the impact of climate change on U.S interests – from human health and biodiversity to energy production and transportation. The assessment is required every four years, but in practice has been more ad hoc. (This assessment is the third one since the 1990 act was passed by congress.)
The study also provides useful insights to national security and foreign policy practitioners charged with navigating the changing global climate landscape and making sense of the impact on U.S. interests. While the study explores areas for mitigating climate change – that is, reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are adding to climate change – it also emphasizes adaptation to changes that are already locked in as a result of decades of emissions increases. According to the study, “Proactively preparing for climate change can reduce impacts, while also facilitating a more rapid and efficient response to changes as they happen.”
The draft study is worth a closer examination than we can provide here on the blog. Read the full report here.
The National Intelligence Council (NIC) published its Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds on Monday, a quadrennial analysis of the major trends shaping the global security environment. The report is intended to provide a framework for a new presidential administration to think about the threats and opportunities that lie ahead in the future security landscape.
The report examined four medgatrends that analysts believe will shape the world of tomorrow: individual empowerment; diffusion of power; demographic patterns; and the food, water, energy nexus.
The latter two trends directly affect each other. According to the NIC’s analysis, “Demand for these [food, water and energy] resources will grow substantially owing to an increase in the global population [demographics].”
Climate change is inextricably linked to the growing food, water and energy nexus. According to the report:
Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle class. Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources. Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter and dry and arid areas becoming more so. Much of the decline in precipitation will occur in the Middle East and northern Africa as well as western Central Asia, southern Europe, southern Africa, and the US Southwest.
We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future. Many countries probably won’t have the wherewithal to avoid food and water shortages without massive help from outside.
Technology will play an interesting role in the future security landscape, particularly when it comes to energy, according to the NIC’s analysis. Technological breakthroughs in unconventional natural gas and oil production are contributing to an energy revolution in North America.
Annie Snider of Greenwire confirmed on Monday that after more than three years the CIA has closed its Center for Climate Change and National Security, the office responsible for the intelligence agency’s analysis of the national security implications of climate change.
According to the report, the center was closed due to continuing pressure from congressional representatives and dwindling internal support for the work. “Especially since Panetta left, there wasn't a lot of love for this at the CIA," one former defense official told Greenwire.
“The exact timing of the closure and the reasons behind it are not clear. Those close to the center speculate that the move may have been intended to pre-empt cuts from Congress. The total U.S. intelligence budget has declined for the past two years, dipping to $75.4 billion for fiscal 2012 after peaking at $80.1 billion in fiscal 2010,” Greenwire reported.
Nevertheless, the agency has a continued stake in assessing the impact of climate change on U.S. national security interests and will continue the work “under other auspices,” the report said.
On Sunday, the World Bank released a study – Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4⁰C Warmer World Must Be Avoided – that says the world is on a path to increase the average global temperature by 4⁰C by end of the century– that is double what scientists say is safe in order to avoid the most catastrophic climate-related events.
“The world is barreling down a path to heat up by 4 degrees at the end of the century if the global community fails to act on climate change, triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people,” the World Bank described in a press released on Sunday.
“A 4 degree warmer world can, and must be, avoided – we need to hold warming below 2 degrees,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim stated in a press release. “Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.”
Sea-level rise is among the many consequences described in the report. According to the study’s climate projections, .5 meter to 1 meter sea-level rise is likely by 2100, with higher levels in specific regions. Present-day sea-level dynamic topography could put developing countries in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast and East Asia at most risk, areas that already experience above-average sea level rise. While there is no definitive link “between present-day dynamic topography and the future sea-level rise under climate warming,” those regions are experiencing greater coastal and urban migrations, which could make them more vulnerable to future sea-level rise. “Highly vulnerable cities are to be found in Mozambique, Madagascar, Mexico, Venezuela, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam,” the study found.
One of the knocks against advanced algae biofuels is that they are not cost competitive with conventional petroleum – which is true. But science may eventually offer a way around this particular challenge.
Writing recently in Yale Environment 360, Marc Gunther lays out the potential for science to revolutionize the biofuels business. “By far the biggest opportunity to reduce the costs of algal fuels lies within the algae,” Gunther writes. “Just as crop scientists have bred corn and wheat to improve yields, with spectacular results, the algae companies are using conventional breeding and genetic modification to develop strains of algae to grow faster, yield more oil, and repel pests.”
The biggest opportunity may come from synthetic genomics, a relatively nascent field that enables scientists to build living organisms with special characteristics from scratch. By closely studying strains of algae, scientists can map entire genetic sequences and identify the genes tied to specific physical properties like growth and oil yield. Using the building blocks of the genome – DNA nucleotides – scientists can then build from scratch the most efficient algae strain for producing oils that can be refined into gasoline and jet fuel, lowering the costs for producers.
In an interview with Scientific American in November 2011, J. Craig Venter, the man behind mapping the human genome, described the effort this way:
Everybody is looking for a naturally occurring algae that is going to be a miracle cell to save the world and, after a century of looking, people still haven't found it. We hope we're different. The [genetic] tools give us a new approach: being able to rewrite the genetic code and get cells to do what we want them to do.
By using synthetic genomics to create novel strains of algae, engineers can focus not just on making the algae more efficient oil producers, but also making them resistant to viruses that destroy whole ponds of algae and can drive up production costs. “The same genetic engineering and genome engineering we have, we can make cells that are resistant to viruses,” Venter told Scientific American. “Getting algae that are really robust and can withstand true industrial conditions on a commercial basis. You can't afford to shut down a plant for contamination. Most algae growers have to do that at a fairly frequent pace.”