Friday, August 14, 2015

Deadly Air

Wednesday's catastrophic explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin are, understandably, attracting greater attention at present, but new research suggests that day-to-day air quality is a far greater threat to human life than random events like the Tianjin disaster.

A statistical analysis by researchers at Berkeley Earth asserts that air pollution in China is responsible for somewhere between 700,000 and 2,200,000 deaths each year. The midpoint of the estimate--1,600,000 deaths per year--translates to 4,400 deaths per day.

The paper, based on detailed records of air-sampling stations in China and neighboring countries combined with World Health Organization frameworks for estimating mortality associated with the diseases most commonly linked to air pollution, is scheduled to be published in PLOS One on August 20. PLOS One is an online, open-access, peer-reviewed science journal that publishes about 30,000 papers per year.

The Berkeley Earth research suggests that much of Beijing's famed air pollution is produced 200 miles away in the industrial areas of Hebei Province. This means that local efforts to mitigate air pollution in advance of the 2022 Winter Olympics will likely be inadequate in the absence of measures addressing the pollution generated by more distant coal-fired power plants.

More on the Berkeley Earth findings, including maps and data sources, can be found here. The study to be published in PLOS One is available here (PDF).

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Deterring Cyber Attacks

The New York Times reports today that President Obama has been weighing a variety of possible responses to the intrusion into Office of Personnel Management computers that was first reported in June. The hack, which has been attributed to China, resulted in the theft of personal information for over twenty million federal employees. Although CIA data was not involved in the breach, some of the information collected may have allowed the Chinese to determine the identity of spies posted to China in the past.

One of the considerations involved in the Obama administration's deliberations--and apparently the reason that certain administration officials were willing to talk to a reporter about ongoing discussions--is the desire to achieve a measure of deterrence by imposing costs on the attackers that are clearly tied to the initial data breach. James R. Clapper, Jr., director of national intelligence, and Admiral Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, have both argued that Chinese cyber attacks will keep escalating as long as the United States fails to impose costs on China for the attacks. On the other hand, there is a concern that retaliation, if not carefully calibrated, might prompt escalation rather than restraint.

According to the Times article, the idea of economic sanctions against China has been considered and rejected due to the potential for costly Chinese retaliation against U.S. economic interests. Additionally, the idea of criminal prosecution has apparently been rejected due to the scope and nature of the OPM breach. A recent Congressional Research Service report notes that U.S. policy regarding cyber espionage attempts to distinguish between breaches that involve national security and those that are concerned with economic interests. The former draw a counterintelligence response while the latter are potential subjects for criminal prosecution.

Two years ago, at a "shirt sleeves summit" in Rancho Mirage, California, President Obama tried but failed to get his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to agree to a framework for the regulation of activities in cyberspace. If the U.S.-Soviet nuclear relationship provides any guidance--and it's not entirely clear that it does--a sense of mutual vulnerability may be necessary to bring the United States and China to the point of being able to cooperate on cyber arms control.