Friday, 15 December 2017

Fueling dissent: how the oil industry set out to undercut clean air

After casting doubt on climate change for decades, skeptic consultants have turned their attention to air pollution
by Jie Jenny Zou of the Center for Public Integrity

On sunny days, when his classmates run out to play, Gabriel Rosales heads to the school nurse for a dose of Albuterol.
The fine mist opens his airways, relaxing the muscles in his chest. Without it, recess could leave the nine-year-old gasping for breath. He gets a second dose at the end of the day before heading home from St John Bosco Elementary School, in San Antonio, Texas.
Over the past year, Gabriel’s asthma has worsened. Visits to the emergency room, shortened trips to the park and reliance on inhalers have become his new norm. “It got to the point where I couldn’t even leave him with anybody,” said his father, Gabe, who works as a consultant to the National Association of Public Employees, a workers’ advocacy group, and a seasonal field director of the Bexar County Democratic Party. “One time he almost looked blue.”
Gabriel’s health is deteriorating alongside air quality in San Antonio, where oil and gas development, a hotter climate and a growing population have combined to spell misery for a city that once boasted clean air compared to other Texas metropolitan areas. Part of the problem lies southeast of the city in the Eagle Ford Shale,a 400-mile-long hub of hydraulic fracturing that unleashes microscopic particles and smog-causing, ground-level ozone.

Gabe Rosales and his son, Gabriel.
Gabe Rosales and his son, Gabriel. Photograph: Tom Dart for the Guardian
The state’s environmental regulator – the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – has been criticized for not making things better. In fact, it’s followed in the footsteps of Big Oil’s biggest lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, which has forestalled progress on ozone for decades. Using consultants also hired by API, the commission has spent millions of taxpayer dollars in an effort to question scientific evidence linking particulate matter and ozone with bronchitis, asthma and premature death.
Air quality is the new frontier for climate-change skeptics long tied to API. The institute has fueled uncertainty on climate by producing what critics call misleading scientific and economic studies. Now, by attempting to discredit established research on ozone and fine particles, API and its cadre of doubters are trying to undermine the Clean Air Act – the landmark US law credited with saving millions of lives. Working in concert with other free-market groups, they’re taking their message to Capitol Hill. API officials did not grant interview requests from the Center for Public Integrity.

Residents of San Antonio’s low-income, mostly Latino neighborhoods – like Hillcrest, where Gabriel Rosales lives – bear the brunt of poor air quality even if they aren’t in ozone hot spots, said Mario Bravo, an outreach specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “They have less access to healthcare,” Bravo said. “They have less access to transportation to get to the health-care providers.”

Dangerous and under dispute

In June, two peer-reviewed studies trumpeted a conclusion at odds with years of solid science: fine-particle pollution long linked to premature death and chronic illness isn’t as dangerous as health advocates contend. If true, the findings would call into question health benefits claimed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which has set ever-tightening air-quality standards.
There was a catch, however. The articles – which were published within a week of one another – appeared in Critical Reviews in Toxicology and Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, two journals favored by industry consultants. And both studies were funded by API, a trade group that has spent $40m since 2013 to lobby Congress on topics ranging from taxes to global warming.
“Our study is published ... air quality does not kill. $600m of EPA junk science up in smoke,” Steve Milloy, a climate change skeptic and Donald Trump acolyte, tweeted in June, linking to the Regulatory Toxicology article. During a congressional luncheon a month later, the former coal executive took credit for conceiving the study before turning it over to friend, S Stanley Young, and two other statisticians, who authored the final article. No mention of Milloy’s involvement is made in the publication.
Some of the same data was used in the Critical Reviews article published by Louis Anthony “Tony” Cox Jr, which also disputed the link between fine particles and mortality. Cox, a biostatistician from Colorado, started consulting for API in 1988. Cox disclosed that his paper “benefited from close proofreading and copy editing suggestions from API” but denied in an interview that his findings were influenced. In November, he was named the next chair of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, drawing criticism from groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The science on particle pollution, much like the science on global warming, is exhaustive and widely accepted, with thousands of studies pointing to serious health implications. The World Health Organization notes that particulate matter “affects more people than any other pollutant”, with effects observed at even “very low concentrations”. The particles – found in automotive and industrial exhaust and smaller than one-fifth of the width of a strand of hair – form a toxic mix with ozone that lodges deep in the lungs. Unlike Cox, most researchers are no longer fixated on whether this form of pollution is fundamentally dangerous; they worry instead about whether it can cause – not just exacerbate – chronic illness.
Attacking the science is one way of undermining the Clean Air Act, said John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which advocates for more protective air-quality standards. The Clean Air Act is routinely hailed as one of the most cost-effective federal laws, even by business groups. In 2015, the EPA estimated that the law will have saved the US economy $2tn by 2020 while costing $65bn to implement. About 85% of the act’s benefits come from reducing fine-particle pollution, which raises the risk of early death. Opponents of the law “deny that air pollution is deadly … or even harmful in order to try to pretend that no benefits are delivered,” Walke said.
Milloy’s July congressional luncheon at the Rayburn House Office Building – billed as a “congressional staff and media briefing” – helped him plug his latest book, Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA, which condemns the “echo chamber of deceptive science” on ozone and fine particles. Copies of the book were on a table at the side of the room.
The event was hosted by Myron Ebell, who chairs the Cooler Heads Coalition, a climate skeptics’ group that began as an alliance of free-market think tanks. “It’s a lot like climate,” Milloy told the audience. “This stuff is pulled out of thin air.”
Reached for comment, Milloy said the study is not an attack on the Clean Air Act but part of his 20-year effort to expose the EPA’s “garbage-in, garbage-out” air pollution research. He denied having any formal ties to API. “I am very, very disappointed in the American Petroleum Institute and all the oil companies for not defending their products, for leaving the science to people like me,” he said.
Steve Milloy
Steve Milloy Illustration: Robert G Fresson
Young, who authored the study, stood behind its findings and disputed the idea that industry funding presents ethical conflicts. His study data are publicly available, he said, but the EPA isn’t as transparent. Ebell agreed, accusing the agency of using “junk science” to justify air-quality and greenhouse-gas regulation.
Despite their misgivings about the EPA, all three men have become tethered to the agency. Earlier this year, Ebell oversaw the EPA transition for Trump, leading a group that included Milloy. Young was named to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board in October.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, co-founder of the Senate Climate Action Task Force, complained that such appointments have become all too common. “These people were fringe fanatics and industry stooges fighting on behalf of the industry a propaganda war against science,” he said.
Milloy and Ebell were listed among the authors of a $2m plan to amplify uncertainty in climate science – as revealed in a 1998 API memo leaked to The New York Times. Both say the memo grew out of an API brainstorming session that never resulted in concrete action, with Milloy calling it “just a big joke”.
Years before, API had refuted the very concept of global warming under its president, Charles DiBona, who joined the institute shortly after a stint as energy policy advisor to Richard Nixon in the 1970s. White House communications show that DiBona regularly met with then president Frank Ikard, a close friend of Nixon’s, before becoming Ikard’s deputy in 1974.
In recent years, fringe views espoused by API have found a receptive audience in US Representative Lamar Smith, whose climate-denial credentials rival those of Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Since Smith became chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in 2013, the panel has handed out dozens of subpoenas – many to scientists at regulatory agencies and environmental groups – aiming to debunk climate research.
Smith – whose district includes San Antonio – has opened the committee’s hearing rooms to Cooler Heads Coalition events such as Milloy’s book promotion and briefings that urged the United States to drop out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. In February, he reissued a controversial subpoena to New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who is investigating ExxonMobil’s historical knowledge on climate change. Since he joined Congress in 1989, Smith’s top campaign donors have been from the oil and gas sector, which gave him at least $764,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Smith did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2016, Influence Map, a nonprofit environmental research group, estimated that ExxonMobil had spent about $27m on “climate obstruction” lobbying and advertising campaigns. That amount was dwarfed by the $65m API spent on similar efforts, the group found. ExxonMobil is one of the oldest and largest API members.

‘Tired, old industry argument’

In July, the House passed a bill targeting what its proponents called “job-killing regulations” – namely, bedrock air-quality standards. Its lead author was Representative Pete Olson, a Republican from the ozone-plagued Houston area. All but four of the 229 “aye” votes were cast by Republicans, Lamar Smith among them.
Under Olson’s bill, states would have until 2025 to meet the EPA’s latest ozone limit, which was supposed to take effect in October. The agency, which is legally required to update air standards to keep pace with evolving science, would be obligated to review rules for pollutants once a decade, as opposed to once every five years.
The 2017 bill is the latest iteration of a proposal Olson first floated in 2015, seeking to delay regulation of ozone. The same day his bill passed, 144 trade groups, including regional offshoots of API, pledged their support in a letter to Congress. Oil and gas interests have been Olson’s top political contributors, donating more than $1m to his campaigns since 2007. A Senate version of the bill has not come up for a vote.
In an email, Olson’s office wrote that the congressman “believes the Clean Air Act is critically important” but has “fundamental concerns” about Texas’ ability to meet tighter standards. Pollution control, the email said, “can be done rationally and with an eye on our economy”.
By law, the EPA is not allowed to consider cost when setting ozone standards, but that hasn’t stopped API and other industry groups from injecting economics into the policy debate.
Economics, like some controversial science, has provided API with grist to challenge regulations.
Armed with seemingly authoritative studies from firms such as NERA Economic Consulting, the institute has recast issues such as action on climate change as reckless moves that could tank the US economy. NERA, whose clients include API collaborators such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Chemistry Council, was co-founded by Irwin Stelzer, an economist who works at the Hudson Institute, a free-market think tank.
Such studies, like the NERA report Trump cited when he announced the US exit from the Paris climate agreement earlier this year, can be “extremely misleading”, often tallying every conceivable cost and ignoring every possible benefit, said Ben Franta, a Stanford University researcher investigating API’s climate activities. Because data underlying these reports are proprietary, Franta said, in many cases they can neither be verified or debunked. What’s left are unsupported arguments: “New ozone rules could be the most expensive ever,” reads an API webpage linking to dozens of NERA findings.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has taken a tack similar to API’s. Since 2013, the TCEQ has paid NERA more than $870,000 for economic research on ozone – a topic the firm studied earlier for API. More than $2.2m in taxpayer funds have also been spent on contracts with Gradient – a consultancy previously hired by API to question the benefits of a stricter ozone limit. The TCEQ declined to comment on this story but on its website describes its mission as protecting the “state’s public health and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development”.
Anne E Smith, a managing director at NERA, did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment. She was among several industry-friendly voices at a 2015 TCEQ ozone workshop in Austin led by Michael Honeycutt, the agency’s director of toxicology. Other speakers included Gradient scientists, the editor of Critical Reviews in Toxicology, industry toxicologist Michael Dourson and air researcher Robert Phalen, known for saying the air “is a little too clean for optimum health”.
Speakers at the Austin workshop have risen to prominence in the Trump administration. This fall, Honeycutt, Anne Smith, Dourson and Phalen were all named to key EPA science positions as either advisers or staff.

Economics has long figured into API’s strategy to derail ozone rules. In 1971, the newly formed EPA set the ozone standard at 80 parts per billion, but in 1979 took an unexpected U-turn and weakened it to 120 ppb – angering industry and environmentalists alike. The latter called the reversal scientifically indefensible and accused the EPA of prioritizing economics over health. API promptly sued the EPA, with DiBona claiming the relaxed standards would still cost “billions of dollars without significantly improving the quality of the environment or the health of the public”.
Spurred by lawsuits from the American Lung Association that compelled it to update air standards based on the latest science, the EPA reverted to its original 80 ppb ozone limit in 1997. The cap is now at 70 ppb, though even that number may not be protective enough, as some research has found health effects at 60 ppb.
Nonetheless, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt – a former Oklahoma attorney general with deep ties to oil and gas – tried to keep the 70 ppb standard from taking effect. He backed off on the delay after 16 state attorneys general sued the agency in August. In a lawsuit filed this month, however, environmental groups accused the EPA of failing to enforce the rule.
Pruitt had put forth what Dr Greg Diette – a lung specialist at Johns Hopkins University who has testified in favor of tighter ozone standards – calls “a tired, old industry argument. They say, ‘It’s going to put us out of business,’ and it doesn’t,” Diette said. “All this stuff always comes down to who has to pay.”
But not all costs are economic. High ozone days are the hardest for Diette’s patients. “It can be terrifying – it’s the sensation of not being able to breathe,” he said. “Some feel as if they’re going to pass out. Some feel as if they’re going to die.”
Asthmatics can do little more than hide indoors in an air-conditioned environment. The only other option, Diette said, is to move.
Relocating isn’t possible for the Rosales family of San Antonio, who are uninsured and struggling to keep up with the cost of Gabriel’s medications. The air he breathes is expected to degrade further as oil prices rebound and drilling picks up in the Eagle Ford.
With additional reporting by Tom Dart in San Antonio, Texas.
Read the final part of the Guardian US/Center for Public Integrity pieces on big oil and power on Sunday: Venue of last resort: the climate lawsuits threatening future of Big Oil.

Read more in the Center for Public Integrity’s special report, Unites States of Petroleum.

World's richest 0.1% have boosted their wealth by as much as poorest half

Inequality report also shows UK’s 50,000 richest people have seen their share of the country’s wealth double since 1984

The Monaco Yacht Show
The Monaco Yacht Show. The richest 1% of the global population captured 27% of the world’s wealth growth between 1980 and 2016. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

The richest 0.1% of the world’s population have increased their combined wealth by as much as the poorest 50% – or 3.8 billion people – since 1980, according to a report detailing the widening gap between the very rich and poor.
The World Inequality Report, published on Thursday by French economist Thomas Piketty, warned that inequality had ballooned to “extreme levels” in some countries and said the problem would only get worse unless governments took coordinated action to increase taxes and prevent tax avoidance.
The report, which drew on the work of more than 100 researchers around the world, found that the richest 1% of the global population “captured” 27% of the world’s wealth growth between 1980 and 2016. And the richest of the rich increased their wealth by even more. The top 0.1% gained 13% of the world’s wealth, and the top 0.001% – about 76,000 people – collected 4% of all the new wealth created since 1980.
“The top 0.1% income group (about 7 million people) captured as much of the world’s growth since 1980 as the bottom half of the adult population,” the report said. “Conversely, income growth has been sluggish or even nil for the population between the global bottom 50% and top 1%.”
The economists said wealth inequality had become “extreme” in Russia and the US. The US’s richest 1% accounted for 39% of the nation’s wealth in 2014 [the latest year available], up from 22% in 1980. The researchers noted that “most of that increase in inequality was due to the rise of the top 0.1% wealth owners”.
The world’s richest person is Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, who has a $98.8bn (£73.9bn) fortune, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index. Bezos, the biggest shareholder in Amazon, has seen his wealth increase by $33bn over the past year alone. Collectively, the world’s five richest people – Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Amancio Ortega, the owner of Zara, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – hold $425bn of assets. That is equivalent to one-sixth of the UK’s GDP.
In the UK, the richest 1% control 22% of the country’s wealth, up from 15% in 1984. The very richest in the UK have seen a huge increase in their wealth. The top 0.1% – around 50,000 people – have seen their share of the nation’s wealth double from 4.5% in 1984 to 9% in 2013.
“The increase in the concentration of wealth in the last four decades is very much a phenomenon confined to the hands of the top 0.5% (the richest 250,000 Britons), and in particular the top 0.1% (the richest 50,000),” the report said.
The richest people in the UK are the Hinduja family, who control a conglomerate of businesses including cars and banks, and are worth $15.4bn.
The economists, led by Piketty who shot to global fame after the publication of his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, said there was a “huge gap” in wealth between the richest people in the UK and everyone else in the country. They said the bottom 90% of people in the UK had an average wealth of £68,000, compared with £321,000 among the richest 10% and the top 0.5%, who were worth £3.7m on average.
While inequality was high in north America and Europe, the researchers warned that the problem was even more acute in Africa, Brazil and the Middle East, where they said “inequality has remained relatively stable at extremely high levels in recent decades”.
“The top 10% receives about 55% of total income in Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa, and in the Middle East, the top 10% income share is typically over 60%,” the report said. “These three regions never went through the postwar egalitarian regime and have always been at the world’s high-inequality frontier.”
The report warns that unless there is globally coordinated political action, the wealth gap will continue to grow. “The global top 1% income share could increase from nearly 20% today to more than 24% by 2050,” the report said. “In which case the global bottom 50% share could fall from 10% to less than 9%.”
However, the economists said increasing inequality was “not inevitable” if countries acted to bring in progressive income tax. “It not only reduces post-tax inequality, it shrinks pre-tax inequality by discouraging top earners from capturing higher shares of growth via aggressive bargaining for higher pay.”
The authors said taxation alone was not enough to tackle the problem as the wealthy were best placed to avoid and evade tax, as shown by the recent Paradise Papers investigation. The report said a tenth of the world’s wealth was held in tax havens.

Annastacia Palaszczuk to officially veto Adani railway loan after swearing in

Letter confirming veto will be sent to Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal National party elects new leadership team

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk
Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk will send a letter to Malcolm Turnbull to block any Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility loan for the Adani rail project. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, will move to officially veto any loan to the Indian mining company Adani from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, as soon as she and her new government are sworn into office.
After almost two weeks of vote-counting, Labor was declared the winner of the 25 November poll on Friday, returning to parliament with a majority for the first time under Palaszczuk’s leadership.
A letter confirming the Adani veto, which marked a turning point in Labor’s campaign, will be sent to the prime minister immediately after Queensland’s governor swears in the new state government on Tuesday.
“The premier will send the letter the Turnbull government actioning her 3 November announcement to use her government’s veto power to block the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility loan for the Adani rail project,” a spokeswoman for Palaszczuk said. “Adani have previously said that the project’s mine and rail components had been given the ‘green light’ to proceed.”
The move to veto the Naif loan has frustrated the federal government, particularly the minister for resources and northern Australia, Matt Canavan, who last week told News Corp the Queensland government decision was motivated by “xenophobia” and “racisim”, comments Bill Shorten’s office labelled “unhinged”.
Palaszczuk announced the veto at the end of a fraught first week of campaigning, which included numerous ambushes from anti-Adani protesters, after learning of what she said was a planned “smear campaign”.
Palaszczuk said she had learnt political opponents planned to use her partner Shaun Drabsch’s work with PwC preparing Adani’s application for the Naif loan as proof of a conflict of interest, so she had decided to outright block the loan.
She further vowed to stop all direct taxpayer funds going to the mine and its associated infrastructure.
Labor remains officially supportive of the mine itself although, privately, members have expressed scepticism Adani will receive the funding necessary to make it a reality.
But the veto was seen as instrumental in saving south-east Queensland seats, particularly those in Brisbane, where preferences from the Greens proved crucial in deciding electorates.
That cost the LNP, with the biggest scalp coming in the form of the former Newman government minister Scott Emerson, who lost his seat to Queensland’s first Greens MP, Michael Berkman.
That has led to soul-searching within the Queensland opposition, which is about to undergo a leadership spill, following Tim Nicholls’s decision to step down as leader.
The LNP’s current deputy, Deb Frecklington, remains frontrunner for the position, although former leader John-Paul Langbroek has also thrown his hat into the ring, with a LNP backbencher, Mark Robinson, making it a three-point contest.
Frecklington has Nicholl’s endorsement and her choice of deputy, Tim Mander, brings many of the party’s Christian right votes, which is seen as giving her the edge. The LNP is expected to vote on its new leadership team on Tuesday.

Palaszczuk to flex new parliamentary muscle with tougher land-clearing laws

Pro-choice advocates hope Labor will also use its first majority since 2015 to decriminalise abortion

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk
Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk won a majority in parliament in November’s elections, putting her in a strong position to pass legislation. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

For the first time since 2015, the Queensland Labor government has a majority.
And it plans on using it.
For just short of three years, the Palaszczuk government managed to pass a majority of its legislation, despite an at times fickle crossbench, but also suffered defeats, particularly over tightening tree-clearing laws, after a 33% rise in 2015-16.
Labor vowed to reverse the Newman government decision that reduced restrictions on what landholders could clear after intense lobbying from the farming industry and other traditionally Nationals-aligned interest groups. But the legislation failed, after Labor lost the vote of a crucial crossbencher.
Now, with a one-seat buffer, Queensland Labor is set to try again, but will drop the reverse-onus-of-proof element of its original legislation, which would have forced landholders to prove it was not they who cleared the land, rather than authorities needing to prove their case.
“During the election campaign the Palaszczuk government committed to ending broad-scale tree clearing in Queensland by introducing tough and effective legislation, while creating a $500m land-restoration fund,” a spokeswoman for Annastacia Palaszczuk said.
“In line with this commitment the government will introduce legislation in the new year which will have the same intent and effect as the legislation the LNP blocked in 2016.
“This legislation will not include the requirement for a reverse-onus-of-proof, as the same outcome can now be achieved through improvements to compliance and monitoring, including more frequent monitoring of high-resolution satellite imagery.”
The promise is part of Queensland Labor’s attempts to meet the desires of voters who might otherwise potentially turn to the Greens, particularly in the south-east, while also balancing the need to retain votes in the regions.
The need to walk this tightrope led to Labor’s veto on any taxpayer-funded Naif loan for the Adani coalmine rail line, a calculated move that won votes in the south-east, without risking support in north and central Queensland.
“Doing it early, and doing it smart, will hopefully neutralise it as an issue moving forward,” one senior Queensland Labor source said.
“It is clearly something that has to be done, and it is a priority. But we have to make sure that this time, we are not demonised for it. It just makes sense.”
Advocates for the right to choose are also hoping the revamped Queensland parliament will open the door for the decriminalisation of abortion. A private member’s bill to do so failed earlier this year, after opponents inaccurately claimed it would allow terminations up to 40 weeks.
The issue was referred to the Queensland Law Reform Commission, and the independent statutory body’s report is due by the end of June.
Labor also committed to bringing legislation to “modernise” Queensland’s abortion laws, based on the recommendations from the QLRC, although under party rules, members will be allowed a conscience votes. Advocates for change are still unsure if they have the numbers.
But a review of candidates by Fair Agenda found the November election increased the number of openly pro-choice MPs in the Queensland parliament.
“Eight publicly pro-choice candidates won marginal seat races this election – this means Queensland is now closer than ever to having the votes needed to finally decriminalise abortion,” executive director Renee Carr said.
“However there’s still work to do, and it’s essential that Queenslanders now tell their local MP they want them to vote to remove abortion from the Queensland criminal code so we can hopefully see an end to these outdated and unnecessarily cruel laws that have affected so many women.”
After a first term criticised for hesitancy and inaction, and a narrow election win on the back of preferences, Palaszczuk has moved to reset her time in power.
One of her first moves after her government was sworn into office was moving to follow through on her Adani rail line veto vow, sending a letter to Malcolm Turnbull formalising her commitment to block any Naif loan.

Nasa find first alien solar system with as many worlds as our own

Kepler scientists team up with Google AI specialists to detect eighth planet orbiting distant star

Nasa has discovered another planetary system with as many planets as our own.

Scientists on Nasa’s Kepler mission have spotted an eighth planet around a distant star, making it the first alien solar system known to host as many planets as our own.
The newfound world orbits a star named Kepler 90 which is larger and hotter than the sun and lies 2,500 light years from Earth in the constellation of Draco.
Known as Kepler 90i, the freshly-discovered world is smallest of the eight now known to circle the star, and while it is probably rocky, it is a third larger than Earth and searingly hot at more than 420C.
“This ties Kepler 90 with our own solar system for having the most known planets,” said Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at Nasa’s headquarters in Washington DC.

The Kepler-90 planets have a similar configuration to our solar system, with small planets found orbiting close to their star, and the larger planets found farther away.
The planets have a similar configuration to our system: small planets orbit close to their star; larger planets are farther away. Illustration: Nasa/Ames Research Center/Wendy Stenzel
Researchers on the Kepler planet-hunting telescope discovered Kepler 90i when they teamed up with artificial intelligence specialists at Google to analyse data collected by the space-based observatory.
The Kepler telescope hunts for alien worlds by detecting the shadows planets cast as they orbit their parent stars. When a planet passes in front of its star, the telescope detects a minuscule dimming in light, which for an Earth-sized planet circling a sun-like star, can mean a fall in luminosity of a mere 0.01%.
Kepler has observed 150,000 stars to date and already discovered more than 4,000 candidate planets, of which about 2,300 have been confirmed. Astronomers now suspect at least one planet orbits every star in the sky.

Kepler-90 is a sun-like star, but its eight planets are scrunched into the equivalent distance of Earth to the sun. The inner planets have extremely tight orbits with a “year” on Kepler-90i lasting only 14.4 days.
Kepler-90’s planets are fit into the equivalent distance of Earth to the sun. The inner planets have very tight orbits; a “year” on Kepler-90i is 14.4 days. Photograph: NASA/Ames Research Center/Wendy Stenzel
For all their success with Kepler, Nasa scientists knew that more planets lay hidden in the telescope’s observations, but the signals were so weak they were difficult to spot. This is where Google’s AI researchers came in. By training a neural network to learn what bona fide signals of distant planets looked like, Christopher Shallue, a Google researcher, helped Nasa to scour Kepler’s observations of 670 stars for planets that had previously been missed.
The search turned up two new planets around different stars, Kepler 90i, and another world named Kepler 80g, the sixth planet now known to orbit its star. The scientists now plan to search Kepler’s data on all 150,000 stars for other missed planets. A research paper on the findings will be published by the Astronomical Journal.
Suzanne Aigrain, an astrophysicist at Oxford University who was not involved with the research, said: “What is perhaps most exciting is that they are able to find planets that were previously missed, suggesting there are more yet to be found using this approach.”
Earlier this year, Kepler scientists announced the discovery of 219 more candidate planets, of which 10 appeared to be about the same size and temperature as Earth. 

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Global warming made Hurricane Harvey deadly rains three times more likely, research reveals

The unprecedented downpour and severe flooding was also 15% more intense due to climate change, which is making weather more violent around the world

An infrared satellite image of Hurricane Harvey
An infrared satellite image of Hurricane Harvey just prior to making landfall on 25 August along the Texas coast. Photograph: Handout/Getty Images

Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented deluge, which caused catastrophic flooding in Houston in August, was made three times more likely by climate change, new research has found.
Such a downpour was a very rare event, scientists said, but global warming meant it was 15% more intense. The storm left 80 people dead and 800,000 in need of assistance.
The scientists from the World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative usually publish their assessments of the role of climate change in extreme weather events around the world as soon as possible. However, in this case they waited for the work to be confirmed by peer review because of the current US government’s opposition to strong action on climate change.
The researchers said their new work shows global warming is making extreme weather events worse right now and in the US. The cost of the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey has been estimated at $190bn (£140bn), which would make it the most costly weather disaster in US history, more than Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy combined.
A series of new reports have found that extreme heatwaves, droughts, floods, storms and wildfires across the planet have been made more likely or more intense by rising global temperatures. The UK’s Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) analysed 59 studies of the influence of climate change on extreme weather published in the last two years and found warming has made matters worse in 70% of cases and better in just 7%.
Another report, published on Wednesday by the American Meteorological Society, assesses 21 different extreme weather events in 2016, from US snowstorms and South African drought to ocean hotspots and Arctic heating. Most of the events can be attributed, at least in part, to human-caused climate change, the scientists found.
Hurricane Harvey made first landfall on 25 August and then stalled over Texas, with torrential downpours dumping a year’s worth of rain on Houston and surrounding areas in a few days. In east Harris County, a record 132cm (52 inches) of rain fell over six days, the highest storm total in US history.
The WWA scientists used both historical rainfall records and high-resolution climate models to determine the influence of global warming. “This multi-method analysis confirms that heavy rainfall events are increasing substantially across the Gulf Coast region because of human interference with our climate system,” said Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) and lead author of the new study published in Environmental Research Letters.
“It was very a rare event – they were very unlucky,” said van Oldenborgh. But the research shows the chance of it happening was raised threefold by climate change.
The team also estimated that, even if the world limits warming to the internationally agreed 2C limit, the likelihood of such extreme downpours will triple again. “But, if we miss those targets, the increase in frequency and intensity could be much higher,” said Karin van der Wiel, also at KNMI.
“The link between global warming and more extreme weather is nowhere more obvious than in the US. Even if Donald Trump isn’t seeing the picture, many others are,” said Richard Black at the ECIU.
Friederike Otto, at Oxford University, said: “We’re now finding that for many kinds of extreme weather event, especially heatwaves and extreme rainfall, we can be quite confident about the effect of climate change. The ECIU report shows just how quickly knowledge is accumulating, and I think it’s only going to accelerate.”
Climate scientists have long predicted that global warming would increase extreme weather, based on simple physics that means warmer air can contain more water vapour and therefore lead to more intense rain.
Major storms are powered by the warmth of the water at the ocean’s surface, and therefore hotter seas lead to more violent storms. But the fast developing science of climate change attribution now means the role of climate change in many events happening today can be clearly seen.