TIME Infectious Disease

Bill Gates Thinks This Is the Deadliest Threat to Humankind

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks at a breakfast meeting with the theme "Dialogue: Technology Innovation for a Sustainable Future" during the Boao Forum For Asia Annual Conference 2015 in Qionghai city, south Chinas Hainan province, 29 March 2015.
Cui hao—Imaginechina/AP Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks at a breakfast meeting with the theme "Dialogue: Technology Innovation for a Sustainable Future" during the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2015 in Qionghai city, China's Hainan province, on March 29, 2015

He says it could kill tens of millions

In the next 20 years, is it likely that nuclear war, gigantic earthquakes or asteroids could kill 20 million people? Bill Gates doesn’t think so.

But he did tell Vox that that such numbers could be felled by a major outbreak of disease — something the 59-year-old billionaire believes has a “well over 50%” chance of happening in his lifetime.

“The Ebola epidemic showed me that we’re not ready for a serious epidemic, an epidemic that would be more infectious and would spread faster than Ebola did. This is the greatest risk of a huge tragedy,” Gates said, claiming that a serious epidemic could kill more than 10 million people a year.

Read more at Vox

TIME climate change

Glaciers Are Crumbling in Southern Antarctica Faster Than Previously Thought

Previously stable glaciers have been melting rapidly since 2009

Multiple large glaciers that were previously not thought to be in danger of melting have been crumbling since 2009, according to a new study published in Science. Researchers have discovered that glaciers on the southern Antarctic Peninsula’s coastline have been steadily thinning over the past several years, with some dwindling by as much as 13 feet per year. The glaciers had not shrunk significantly before 2009.

The rate of melting makes the region “the second most important contributor to sea level rise in Antarctica,” lead study author Bret Wouters told NBC News. Overall, 80 trillion gallons of water were added to ocean by the Southern Antarctic Peninsula between 2009 and 2014. Continued melting could raise sea levels by another 14 inches.

[NBC News]

 

TIME National Security

Obama Calls Climate Change a National Security Threat

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a commencement ceremony at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, S.D. on May 8, 2015.
Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a commencement ceremony at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, S.D. on May 8, 2015.

Obama says the global change in climate will pose a direct threat to our military

President Obama is once again arguing that climate change is a threat to national security.

In a commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Wednesday, Obama noted the problems created by extreme weather, which scientists believe can be exacerbated by climate change. Members of the Coast Guard are often among the first responders during natural disasters such as hurricanes.

“You are part of the first generation of officers to begin your service in a world where the effects of climate change are so clearly upon us,” Obama told the class of 2015. “Climate change will shape how every one of our services plan, operate, train, equip, and protect their infrastructure, today and for the long term.”

During the speech in Connecticut, Obama said that an increase in natural disasters will lead to more humanitarian crises that pose direct threats to a nation’s stability. “More extreme storms will mean more humanitarian missions to deliver lifesaving help,” he said. “Our forces will have to be ready.”

The speech echoed statements presented in the White House National Security Strategy, which said extreme weather, rising tides and temperature shifts fights over scarce resources and diminishing coast lines that will have a stark impact on the global economy.

According to a White House report released Wednesday, the Department of Defense is currently examining the impact climate change can have on U.S. military bases. The Pentagon is also considering how much strain extreme weather places on the Coast Guard.

Wednesday’s speech is the latest Obama administration push to focus the nation’s attention on the threats of climate change. Obama has often said climate change is the greatest threat facing the world’s future generations. It was a sentiment he stressed during an Earth Day trip to the Florida Everglades where he said, “This is not a problem for another generation. It has serious implications for the way we live right now.”

Facing a skeptical Congress, Obama has relied on executive action in efforts to curb the effects of changing temperatures and rising seas. The U.S. has also pledged to a 28% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

“Some warming is now inevitable,” Obama said Wednesday. “But there comes a point when the worst effects will be irreversible. And time is running out. And we all know what needs to happen. It’s no secret.”

TIME Innovation

Fighting Climate Change Will Take Economic Innovation, Too

manhattan-skycrapers
Getty Images

The local community is key to a successful outcome

If any of us want to make a dent in the adverse effects of climate change in our lifetimes, we’ll need all hands on deck. That, in fact, is one of the core tenants of the contemporary environmental justice movement.

Proponents of environmental justice point toward crises looming on the horizon: President Obama is urging new and quick action in reducing carbon emissions and greenhouse gases; California is strategizing a way past its crippling drought; and urban megacities are searching for new models of development that use less resources and generate less waste.

But the project of ensuring a secure future for our planet can’t rely on the innovation of science alone. We need economic innovators, too. That was the message from Peggy Shepard, executive director at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a New York-based advocacy organization, at a recent event at The Museum of the City of New York, co-presented by the Museum and New America NYC.

Shepard was joined in discussion by Ashley White, a young graduate of the Green City Force Corps; Bomee Jung, Deputy Director of the New York City Office of Enterprise Community Partners, Inc.; and Donnel Baird, founder of BlocPower, all of whom confronted head on common assumptions that sustainable development is more expensive and makes little economic sense. On the contrary, a healthy environment requires — and helps reinforce — a healthy economy.

Shepard, who co-founded WE ACT almost 25 years ago, first got turned on to the intersection between environment and economy as the Democratic district leader in her West Harlem neighborhood, where various utility mismanagement struggles came across her radar. Long-neglected and releasing noxious emissions into a residential neighborhood already plagued by poor levels of air quality, the North River Sewage Treatment Plant was a particular problem in Shepard’s district. Another was the absence of an efficient and functional bus depot in northern Manhattan.

The green benefits for the community in advocating for a more environmentally compliant treatment facility and an alternative fuel-operated bus depot were obvious. But WE ACT managed to achieve those benefits while simultaneously creating new jobs and ensuring more long-term government accountability in maintaining both facilities. In both cases, the community was key to a successful outcome, Shepard said. WE ACT’s wins were directly born out of using “models of community organizing and public policy [that allow] residents [to] integrate in and directly influence policy.”

WE ACT’s community-centered approach has caught on in addressing all types of environmental and economic issues — affordable housing development, urban gardening and food distribution, and alternative energy, to name a few.

With her work with Green City Force Corps, White acknowledged the constructive power of the community in the huge gains her organization has made. They have planted urban farms in otherwise unused lots which have yielded 3.6 tons of new of produce by and for residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn, a lower-resourced neighborhood often considered a “food desert.”

In many of the same communities, Jung’s work has transformed amassed assets – the resources accrued by developers through market-race contracts along with the government and tax incentives they receive for committing to new ownership and new building within the city — directly into policy solutions by adjusting city planning regulations for building contracts to include provisions for affordable housing developments that adhere to higher environmental standards. At BlocPower, Baird is leading the effort to invest in public-private partnerships and employ solar and energy efficiency technology to slash both energy consumption and cost.

Taken together, these four pioneers are just a few of the cohort of entrepreneurs working to prove that—through the right combined forces of local empowerment, public and government investment, and private sector support—we can be greener, healthier, and more productive while becoming more economically viable.

To be sure, there’s still work to be done. Shepard observed that government still hasn’t become effectively responsive to community needs. If our environmental footprint is going to get any better, Shepard noted, residents and neighborhood stakeholders have to be put at “the center of efforts for change so they become informed and empowered enough to take their own actions.” Just think: if more residents and fewer bureaucrats were invited to testify in front of city planning commissions and participate in green task forces, how much more consensus and momentum could be generated?

If urban green innovators like Shepard, White, Baird, and Jung are any indication, the environmental-economic future looks bright, but that doesn’t mean they they’re resting comfortably on the laurels of their breakthroughs. To the contrary, they’re always thinking about the next big benchmark for progress. In a society where dollars gained and lost are the go-to arbiters of risk and success, there are still too few companies that see their business impacts outside of environmental terms, and vice versa. But if we see environmental justice as connected to — and often the same as — economic justice, they both win.

As Shepard put it, environmental activism isn’t just about “stopping the bad stuff,” but about cultivating a system that creates the new — new technology, new partnerships, and (sooner than we think) new ways of thinking about the world we all want to live in.

Tyler S. Bugg is the New America NYC associate for New America. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME climate change

A Large Chunk of Antarctica May Disappear Into the Ocean By 2020

A team of international scientists heads to Chile's station Bernardo O'Higgins, Antarctica on Jan. 22, 2015. Water is eating away at the Antarctic ice, melting it where it hits the oceans. As the ice sheets slowly thaw, water pours into the sea, 130 billion tons of ice (118 billion metric tons) per year for the past decade, according to NASA satellite calculations. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Natacha Pisarenko—AP A team of international scientists heads to Chile's station Bernardo O'Higgins, Antarctica on Jan. 22, 2015.

The loss of the ice shelf will likely increase the rate of global sea level growth

A 618-square mile section of Antarctica’s Larsen B Ice Shelf has been melting away and may disappear into the ocean entirely by 2020, according to a new study. The area is the last remaining section of a 10,000-year-old ice shelf that partially collapsed in 2002.

“These are warning signs that the remnant is disintegrating,” said Ala Khazendar, a researcher at the NASA-affiliated Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “Although it’s fascinating scientifically to have a front-row seat to watch the ice shelf becoming unstable and breaking up, it’s bad news for our planet.”

Researchers evaluated the rate at which the glaciers Leppard and Flask, the two primary glaciers that comprise the ice shelf, have been disintegrating in recent decades to estimate how much time the shelf has left. The rate at which they have flowed into the water has increased by more than 50% since 1997. The study, conducted by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and the NASA-affiliated Jet Propulsion Laboratory, found that the glaciers have thinned by 65-72 feet since 2002.

The loss of this ice shelf will likely speed up the rate of sea level growth around the world. Ice shelves slow the rate that other ice enters the ocean and keeps sea levels from growing too quickly.

TIME climate change

How the California Drought Is Increasing the Potential for Devastating Wildfires

Firefighters battle a wildfire in The Mojave Narrows Regional Park in Victorville Calif., March 31, 2015.
James Quigg—AP Firefighters battle a wildfire in The Mojave Narrows Regional Park in Victorville Calif., March 31, 2015.

Forest Service anticipates spending more than $1 billion and mobilizing more than 10,000 fires to fight forest fires this season.

California’s four-year drought has already cost the state billions of dollars and placed thousands of jobs at risk. Now scientists say it has the potential to strengthen wildfires that could destroy homes, affect watersheds and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to extinguish during the warm summer months.

“We are seeing wildfires in the United States grow to sizes that were unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told lawmakers this week. “We expect 2015 to continue the trend of above average fire activity.”

In part because of the increased risk caused by drought, the Forest Service anticipates spending as much as $1.7 billion and mobilizing more than 10,000 people to fight wildfires this year. More than 120 wildfires have occurred on National Forest land in California already this year, according to a Forest Service spokesperson.

Climate change, at least in part, lies at the heart of growth in both the frequency and severity of wildfires in recent decades. Higher temperatures have left forests throughout California dry and flammable, according to Wally Covington, a forest ecology professor at Northern Arizona University. Tree death, another product of the drought, has also increased the chance of wildfire. More than 12 million trees in California forests have died and more are expected to do so soon, according to a Forest Service report.

Widespread tree death can be described as a 20-year “sequence of flammability,” Covington said. First, dead needles on pine trees dry up and start a period of “extreme fire danger.” When the needles fall to the ground, they remain extremely vulnerable to catching fire but are less likely to spread. Finally, over the years, the trees fall to the ground. If they catch fire, have the potential to destroy the surrounding soil and destabilize the habitat.

Other factors contributing forest fire risk include an increase in the presence of various invasive species that wreck havoc on the local environment and poorly located hazardous fuels.

When the Forest Service isn’t focused on fighting wild fires, agency officials spend time and resources trying to prevent the possibility of future fires through ecological restoration, a process of restoring an ecosystem to its natural state. The process doesn’t prevent fires, but it makes them less likely to grow to massive proportions.

Forest Service workers have treated more than 9,300 acres thus far this year, but Covington says it’s not enough. Ecological restoration projects should aim to handle hundreds of thousands or millions of acres to be most effective, he says.

“The science strong is on this,” Covington said. “Ecological restoration will not only prevent severe fires, but all bring in the way of resource benefits for wildlife, for watershed conditions, for scenic beauty and even possibly some restoration jobs.”

TIME Innovation

Are “Micro-Schools” the Future of Education?

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Are personalized “micro-schools” the future of education?

By Anya Kamenetz at NPR

2. Millions of Americans get tests, drugs, and operations that won’t make them better.

By Atul Gawande in the New Yorker

3. Can bacteria help us fight the ravages of climate change?

By Esther Ngumbi in Scientific American

4. Here’s a drone you can fly with your phone, from the designer of the Roomba.

By Jessica Leber in Fast Co.Exist

5. What’s killing the growth of mobile banking?

By Herb Weisbaum in NBC News

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME climate change

Global Warming to Speed Up Extinction

American Pika, photo taken on Aug. 17, 2005, is in trouble because it has few places to escape the heat with climate change.
Shana S. Weber—AP American Pika, photo taken on Aug. 17, 2005, is in trouble because it has few places to escape the heat with climate change.

1 in 6 species could be gone or on the road to extinction by the end of the century

(WASHINGTON) — Global warming will eventually push 1 out of every 13 species on Earth into extinction, a new study projects.

It won’t quite be as bad in North America, where only 1 in 20 species will be killed off because of climate change or Europe where the extinction rate is nearly as small. But in South America, that forecasted heat-caused extinction rate soars to 23 percent, the worst for any continent, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Science.

University of Connecticut ecologist Mark Urban compiled and analyzed 131 peer-reviewed studies on species that used various types of computer simulations and found a general average extinction rate for the globe: 7.9 percent. That’s an average for all species, all regions, taking into consideration various assumptions about future emission trends of man-made greenhouse gases. The extinction rate calculation doesn’t mean all of those species will be gone; some will just be on an irreversible decline, dwindling toward oblivion, he said.

“It’s a sobering result,” Urban said.

Urban’s figures are probably underestimating the real rate of species loss a little, said scientists not affiliated with the research. That’s because Urban only looks at temperature, not other factors like fire or interaction with other animals, and more studies have been done in North America and Europe, where rates are lower, said outside biologists Stuart Pimm of Duke University and Terry Root of Stanford University.

The projected extinction rate changes with time and how much warming there is from the burning of coal, oil and gas. At the moment, the extinction rate is relatively low, 2.8 percent, but it rises with more carbon dioxide pollution and warmer temperatures, Urban wrote.

By the end of the century, in a worst case scenario if world carbon emission trends continue to rise, 1 in 6 species will be gone or on the road to extinction, Urban said. That’s higher than the overall rate because that 7.9 percent rate takes into account some projections that the world will reduce or at least slow carbon dioxide emissions.

What happens is that species tend to move closer to the poles and up in elevation as it gets warmer, Urban said. But some species, especially those on mountains such as the American pika, run out of room to move and may die off because there’s no place to escape the heat, Urban said. It’s like being on an ever-shrinking island.

Still, Pimm and Urban said the extinction from warming climates is dwarfed by a much higher extinction rate also caused by man: Habitat loss. A large extinction is going on, and for every species disappearing for natural causes, 1,000 are vanishing because of unnatural man-made causes, Pimm said.

“I don’t know we’re at the point where we can call it a mass extinction event, but we’re certainly heading that way unless we change direction,” Urban said.

A separate study in the same journal looked at 23 million years of marine fossils to determine which water animals have the biggest extinction risk and where. Marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins and seals, have the highest risk. The Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, western Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean between Australia and Japan are hotspots for potential extinction, especially those caused by human factors, the study said.

TIME Autos

Audi Just Invented Fuel Made From CO₂ and Water

Water, CO2 and green power are the ingredients for Audi e-diesel
Audi Handout Water, CO2 and green power are the ingredients for Audi e-diesel

The next step for the project will be industrial scale production

An Audi research facility in Dresden, Germany, has managed to create the first batches of diesel fuel with a net-zero carbon footprint — made from carbon dioxide (CO2), water and renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power.

Germany’s government has welcomed the new technology, created in partnership with a greentech company called Sunfire. Johanna Wanka, Germany’s Federal Minister of Education and Research, even test drove the fuel and called it, “a crucial contribution to climate protection and the efficient use of resources,” according to an Audi press release.

Manufacturing involves first breaking down steam into hydrogen and oxygen through high-temperature electrolysis. The hydrogen then reacts with CO2 to create a liquid called “blue crude.” This is then refined to make the e-diesel.

A visual infographic released by Audi explains the steps in detail.

Visual representation of Audi e-diesel
Audi Handout

The next stage for the project will be industrial scale production because Sunfire only has capacity to produce 3,000 liters (792.5 gal.) of e-diesel in coming months.

“If we get the first sales order, we will be ready to commercialize our technology,” said Sunfire CTO Christian von Olshausen in a company press release.

Read next: This Is How Much OPEC Really Earns

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Environment

Heatwaves Caused By Climate Change 75% Of the Time, Study Finds

This picture shows two men attempting to push a car out of floodwaters after a storm swept Changsha, central China's Hunan province on taken on April 7, 2015
AFP/Getty Images This picture shows two men attempting to push a car out of floodwaters after a storm swept Changsha, central China's Hunan province on taken on April 7, 2015

Heavy precipitation is another result of climate change

Climate change is increasingly causing extreme weather like heavy rains, heat waves and severe storms, according to a new study.

Three-quarters of all hot spells occurring over land can be traced back to human activity, according to a study published Monday in Nature Climate Change. Global warming also causes 18% of heavy precipitation, the report finds, a figure that will increase to 40% if temperatures continue to rise.

“With every degree of warming it is the rarest and the most extreme events—and thereby the ones with typically the highest socio-economic impacts—for which the largest fraction is due to human-induced greenhouse gas emissions,” Swiss researchers Erich Fischer and Reto Knutti wrote.

The study looked at heat waves and heavy rains from 25 climate models over the period from 1901-2005 as well as projections for 2006-2100.

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