An increasingly connected world needs hackers more than ever before

Internet security expert Justin Calmus explains why bug bounty programs are so important

An increasingly connected world needs hackers more than ever before
(Credit: Getty/welcomia)

As the world around us becomes more connected to the internet, the number of ways that hackers can infiltrate our lives becomes increasingly multifarious. Today data breaches are taking place in ways that were unheard of just a decade ago — from remotely hacking cars to infiltrating “smart” teddy bears.

The threats have grown so quickly that companies are overwhelmed by the increasing number of attacks, security experts say. This is not just because of the growing number of opportunities to infiltrate a network or device, but also because these attacks are increasingly automated and launched from low-priced computer hardware using open-source tools that require relatively low coding skills to deploy. Defending against such attacks can require well-paid and highly trained experts.

“We believe that cybersecurity is a correctable math problem that, at present, overwhelmingly favors the attackers,” Ryan M Gillis, vice president of cybersecurity strategy for enterprise security company Palo Alto Networks, said at a House Homeland Security Committee meeting last week about protecting the private sector from hacking. “Network defenders are simply losing the economics of the cybersecurity challenge.”

One increasingly popular way for a company or government agency to root out vulnerabilities is through a big bounty program, a policy that invites hackers to try to infiltrate its connected networks. Hackers receive financial compensation for identifying entry points that could be exploited for malicious purposes. The idea has been around since at least 1995, when internet browser pioneer Netscape initiated its “bugs bounty” program with a $50,000 budget. Today such programs are common among major companies, including United Airlines and Tesla Motors, and can be lucrative projects for the most talented hackers who can earn from $10 to tens of thousands of dollars depending on the severity of the vulnerability identified.

Last week Google and Microsoft increased their top rewards for people who can expose the most serious threats, like when code can be remotely injected and executed through network defenses. This underscores the growing popularity of bounty programs as companies compete for the attention of the most talented ethical hackers. Apple, which has resisted compensating people for identifying flaws, last year succumbed to the trend and now offers bounties of as much as $200,000.

Justin Calmus, vice president of hacker success for San Francisco-based HackerOne, which has a bug-bounty platform whose clients include the U.S. State Department, Uber Technologies and General Motors, spoke with Salon about the role bug bounties play in boosting network security.

Bug bounties have been around for about 20 years. Talk about the most recent innovations in the practice and where it might be headed.

I’ll start with the problem first. If we go back 15 years, companies would be able to recruit engineers because they were focused on specific technologies. You would have a few issues from most likely Python, [a high-level general-purpose programming language,] and you would have a website and some people who knew HTML, [the standard language for building websites]. Today we have so many different programming languages and we have different infrastructure components, like running in the cloud versus on premise, we have [Amazon Web Services, a widely used cloud-computing platform] and we have all these different operations.

The problem of security is getting bigger and bigger. How do you control your security? If you run a startup, how do you control your security as you build your business? That’s an even harder problem to solve because you don’t necessarily have the funding to hire tons of security resources. You have to figure out “How do I continue to stay secure while I scale?” That’s one of the problems bug bounties solve for.

For the most part, if you have a company, and it could be any company, you tell hackers, “Hey, I want you to do anything it takes to get access to our data and report it to us.” If you do that, you then have thousands of eyes looking into your specific programs to help you scale and help you secure your business.

Are there hackers that just do this as full-time jobs?

Yeah, we have a gentleman in Vegas that does this full-time, making a half a million dollars a year doing this. You can make a significant income from bug bounties. It’s a fantastic way to make extra income and to potentially go full-time.

Google and Microsoft recently announced big increases in their bug bounty rewards. Why do you think bug bounties are becoming more lucrative?

Imagine if Salon.com is trying to recruit the best reporter in the world, but that reporter must have specific knowledge about security — and it also wants a little bit of software engineering background because the reporter needs to talk technical, and it wants the reporter to be located in this area, and the reporter must be willing to travel. Suddenly you’re moving your needle so small that there might be three people in the world who fit the criteria.

Google is starting to have this problem. They’ve developed a lot of their own tools and they’ve developed their own [programming] language. It’s not easy to find a Google bug because there isn’t external training on what Google does, how they do it, all the different types of infrastructure. There are pretty good resources to figure this out, but to go deep on such a massive problem you need to spend hours and days and months getting to know the infrastructure to find a bug. So to dedicate all of your time and resources into Google you need to be very incentivized to look because at the end of the day you might not find anything.

We’re entering an era of the internet of things [that] connects cars, smart cities, toys with Wi-Fi connections. Are bug bounties being implemented for things like this?

We’re getting to the point to where the [makers of] hardware and the internet of things components are starting to be asked those very questions. As a hacker myself, I want to see them participate in bug bounty programs because I use Alexa, I use some of the apps connected to [the internet of things] and it’s my job to understand how the software and hardware that I buy works. Doing due diligence and being able to reverse engineer to take a look deep into a product, you may find issues and vulnerabilities; some of them may even give you access to other customers’ data. Companies need to be able to responsibly disclose all of that. For hackers to put in the time and effort to find some of these vulnerabilities — it would be fantastic if companies would reward the hackers so that they continue looking into their programs.

We’ve read a lot about how automakers are encouraging white hat hackers to root out these vulnerabilities. But is this happening with other makers of internet-connected products, like internet-connected home appliances or “smart” teddy bears?

It’s absolutely a slow roll. The tech companies get it. They have to deal with security issues day in and day out. The hardware companies don’t necessarily understand it as much as they need to. It’s a problem we’re solving for. We do have some hardware companies on board. We do have internet of things [companies] on board. But we do need to get the word out that security is a fundamental piece of everybody’s life. You need to be able to understand the security outcomes of making life more efficient or easier or whatever it may be. So do I think that we need to spread the word? Absolutely. Do I think they get it yet? Not 100 percent.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundationrecently said that a significant number of federal government websites failed basic security benchmarks. Is the federal government falling behind in this effort to entice ethical hackers?

The Department of Defense has a bug bounty program and we’re starting to see efforts to secure all of our government services. Just speaking to higher-ups on the government side I hear them talking about “Hey, we need to find these hackers and reward them and incentivize them, see what we can do to continue to have them continue to look at our programs and even eventually hire them.” The U.S. has its own hiring criteria, but the [Defense Department] is open to anybody today, not just U.S. citizens looking to work for them.

HackerOne recently announced a platform for the open-source coding community, which is free. What inspired you to go in that direction?

We’re absolutely huge open-source fans. Open source powers our platform. It powers many platforms. We see the mission as making the entire internet safer and make sure that everyone is taken care of. We’re better off doing that for all of the open-source projects out there. We want to make sure we’re on top of that. This also helps us branch out to the best hackers out there. We’re able to leverage our ability find vulnerabilities [in open-source software] while we’re getting more connected to the hacker community.

How Uber Could End Up As Silicon Valley’s Most Spectacular Crash

ECONOMY

Lately, the curtain is being pulled back to reveal a rotten culture and troubled CEO.

Photo Credit: Prathan Chorruangsak / Shutterstock.com

Just a year ago, Uber reigned as the tech industry’s awe-inspiring, all-powerful Wizard of Oz. But lately, the curtain is being pulled back to reveal a guy who’s more like an angry drunk frantically yanking levers while taking roundhouse swings at the Tin Man and propositioning Dorothy.

Uber is in a whole lot of bad right now, and there’s growing concern that it’s about to melt down like a haywire nuclear reactor, which would leave a crater in the heart of Silicon Valley. Uber gave us on-demand transportation. Countless people all over the world love this new kind of service. The category is only going to get bigger. But it’s possible it will do that without Uber.

Rotten Culture, Bad PressAt the heart of Uber’s trouble is its culture, which seems to have been born from a one-night stand between John Belushi’s crude Bluto in Animal House and Ayn Rand’s hypercompetitive Hank Rearden. That culture got put on public display in February, when former engineering employee Susan Fowler published a blog calling out Uber’s rotten treatment of women and its general dysfunction. The place is so cutthroat, she wrote, “it seemed like every manager was fighting their peers or attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job.”

If anyone thought Fowler was a lone whiner, a few days later tech industry legend Mitch Kapor and his wife, Freada Kapor, who is an expert in workplace mores, published an open letter to Uber’s board. The Kapors were early investors in the company, and they were unhappy about Uber’s tepid response to Fowler’s post and fed up with Uber’s “destructive culture,” to use their term. “We are speaking up now because we are disappointed and frustrated; we feel we have hit a dead end in trying to influence the company quietly from the inside,” they wrote.

A week later, while riding in an Uber, CEO Travis Kalanick was captured on video berating the driver, who dared to complain about cuts to his income because Uber keeps reducing fares. “I’m bankrupt because of you,” the driver told Kalanick, who then erupted. After Bloomberg obtained and published the video, Kalanick found himself in the all-too-familiar position of publicly apologizing. He posted on Uber’s site, “I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.” Duh.

Negative publicity keeps battering Uber. The company ran afoul of the protesters who flocked to airports after Donald Trump’s travel ban, then had to fend off a #DeleteUber movement. (Some estimates say 200,000 people deleted the app in the days after the hashtag went viral.) About six months earlier, Uber took a $3.5 billion investment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, a move that made Uber look as if it was buddies with a government that won’t let women drive and puts gay men in jail.

One Uber investor said to Fortune about the deal, “It goes to the heart of who Travis is. He just doesn’t give a shit about optics. Ever.”

Now Uber is being painted as a technology thief by Google’s parent, Alphabet. Last year, Uber bought a company called Otto for a reported $680 million. Otto develops autonomous driving technology. A bunch of people who work there came from Alphabet’s autonomous car subsidiary, now called Waymo. Alphabet alleges that some of those people stole technical data from Waymo, and Alphabet is suing to stop Uber from using it. Uber has often stated that its future rests on having a fleet of self-driving cars—so, of course, it won’t have to share revenue with those pesky human drivers. If Alphabet wins its case, Uber would pretty much have to start building the technology all over again or pay a ton of money to buy someone else’s.

Dissatisfied Drivers, Bleak Financials. While Uber is counting on a hazy future of self-driving cars, in the meantime it has to keep its 160,000 drivers happy, and they are not, as Kalanick’s video encountered showed. Drivers want the Uber app to allow tips; Uber won’t do it. Uber has fought court cases brought by U.S. drivers asking for employee benefits. It settled a suit for $20 million for posting ads that were misleading about how much its drivers can earn. Rival Lyft has been running ads lampooning Uber’s treatment of drivers, hoping to lure away Uber drivers—and convince conscientious riders they should prefer a company that treats its drivers better.  Strategically, Kalanick and his team seem guilty of constant overreach. Does anybody ever order a falafel from UberEats? Who at Uber thought it was a good idea to take on Seamless? Not only did Kalanick buy Otto to get into self-driving cars, but in February he hired a former NASA scientist to develop flying cars. Trump likes to say we always lose to China—well, Uber proved him right by going into China ill-prepared. Last summer, Uber cut a deal with China’s Uber clone, Didi Chuxing, to leave China in exchange for 17.5 percent of the Chinese company and a $1 billion investment by Didi. Is that setting up Didi to eventually beat Uber worldwide? Trump will have a seizure if the day ever comes when U.S. riders no longer say they’re going to “Uber” somewhere and instead say they’re going to “Didi.”And then there is Uber’s financial picture. The company is private, but some of its numbers have been leaked. Bloomberg reported that Uber lost $800 million in the third quarter of 2016. Some speculate Uber may have lost $3 billion last year. Uber is a costly business to run. To serve more customers, it needs to bring in and pay more drivers, so the company can’t take advantage of economies of scale. It has little pricing power because it still faces competition from Lyft and taxis and other newcomers including Maven, which is a unit of General Motors. In order to have the cash to fund operations and expansion, Uber has brought in round after round of private investment, pumping up the valuation of the company to nearly $70 billion. That would make Uber worth more than GM. Raise your hand if you think that makes sense.

The sky-high valuation may be haunting Uber. Kalanick has famously refused to take Uber public, even though the company, at eight years old, is in the sweet spot of when many tech companies do an initial public offering. He makes his stance sound like a maverick’s declaration of independence from public markets, but whispers now are that Uber’s finances might not justify an IPO at a valuation high enough to make current investors happy. If that’s true, Uber is in a hole. It won’t be able to raise money from anyone who has passed sixth-grade math.

If Uber stalls, it isn’t going to be saved by a loyal consumer fan base. There is no stickiness to Uber. It has no frequent-rider program. It has no social component. It prevents users from forming bonds with drivers. No one gets a heightened sense of self by identifying as an Uber rider versus some competitor. We’ll stick with Uber as long as it continues to get us where we want to go at a price we like. Someone else comes along with a better service or lower price, we’ll use it.

Drexel of the 2010s?It’s hard to imagine the devastation that would come with an Uber collapse. Its dozens of investors range from venture capital companies to individuals like Kapor and companies such as Microsoft and Citigroup. The company employs 11,000 people (excluding drivers), mostly around Silicon Valley, and is in the process of spending $250 million on new offices. The blow to Silicon Valley’s ego might be up there with the pain the Democratic Party has been feeling lately.

Uber has done amazing work in its short life. It created, defined and has so far dominated a new market of on-demand transportation, changing the way we do things today and profoundly changing the way we think about the future of urban transportation. It is a historically important company. No one will ever take that away from Kalanick and his crew. But Uber has proved to be a flawed company. To find a business tragedy that’s an appropriate warning for Uber, go back to Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s, when Kalanick was in grade school. (He is, believe it or not, 40 years old.) Drexel, led by investing legend Mike Milken, defined and dominated junk bonds as a category of finance. This changed Wall Street and business forever. Drexel was a superstar. But the company had a flawed culture of insane pressure to perform, so employees took sketchy risks that ultimately led to criminal charges. Within a couple of years, the company fell from the pinnacle of Wall Street power to filing for bankruptcy. Milken went to prison for securities fraud.

The category Drexel created lives on. Today, junk bonds are a $1 trillion market, without Drexel.

The Kapors are pushing Kalanick to reinvent Uber’s culture so it can become an enduring company. It would be awesome if Uber can fulfill its promise and stand next to companies like Apple and Amazon. But as Uber’s bad days pile up, it often looks as if Kalanick has built the Drexel of the 2010s.

Kevin Maney is a best-selling author and award-winning columnist.

 

Months After Calling the Prospect ‘Crazy,’ Facebook Brags About Its Ability to Swing Elections

Posted on Mar 4, 2017

Facebook, whose founder Mark Zuckerberg called arguments that the tech giant helped swing the presidential election toward Donald Trump “crazy” and “extremely unlikely,” is now boasting of its ability to influence elections for pay.

Adam Peck reports at ThinkProgress:

Facebook’s marketing department has a web page set up to document success stories. Most of them are examples of businesses that leveraged Facebook’s advertising network into higher sales, larger audiences, and better customer reviews. But nestled somewhere between the pages for Panera Bread and Cheetos are pages for politicians like Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and former Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

On each page, Facebook’s business team breaks down some metrics about how these political campaigns leveraged the platform to boost donations and turnout on election day. On Johnson’s page, Facebook boasts of a 6.8-point bump in the candidate’s favorability numbers among moderate voters.

But it is wording on Sen. Toomey’s “success story” that has struck a troubling chord. After noting that Toomey was facing a tough re-election in 2016, Facebook touted it’s ability to “significantly shift voter intent and increase favorability,” and that the campaign’s “made-for-Facebook creative strategy was an essential component to Senator Pat Toomey’s re-election, as the senator won by less than 100,000 votes (of nearly 6 million votes cast).”

The Philadelphia Business Journal noted that Toomey’s campaign outspent Democratic rival Katie McGinty by more than a two to one margin on digital content, most of that directed towards Facebook. In return, the campaign was able to create more content specifically tailored to Facebook’s platform rather than recycling things like television ads.

Read more here.

2017 Isn’t ‘1984’—It’s Stranger Than Orwell Imagined

NEWS & POLITICS
Orwell could not have imagined the internet and its role in distributing alternative facts.

Photo Credit: Jason Ilagan / Flickr

A week after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, George Orwell’s “1984” is the best-selling book on Amazon.com.

The hearts of a thousand English teachers must be warmed as people flock to a novel published in 1949 for ways to think about their present moment.

Orwell set his story in Oceania, one of three blocs or mega-states fighting over the globe in 1984. There has been a nuclear exchange, and the blocs seem to have agreed to perpetual conventional war, probably because constant warfare serves their shared interests in domestic control.

Oceania demands total subservience. It is a police state, with helicopters monitoring people’s activities, even watching through their windows. But Orwell emphasizes it is the “ThinkPol,” the Thought Police, who really monitor the “Proles,” the lowest 85 percent of the population outside the party elite. The ThinkPol move invisibly among society seeking out, even encouraging, thoughtcrimes so they can make the perpetrators disappear for reprogramming.

The other main way the party elite, symbolized in the mustached figurehead Big Brother, encourage and police correct thought is through the technology of the Telescreen. These “metal plaques” transmit things like frightening video of enemy armies and of course the wisdom of Big Brother. But the Telescreen can see you, too. During mandatory morning exercise, the Telescreen not only shows a young, wiry trainer leading cardio, it can see if you are keeping up. Telescreens are everywhere: They are in every room of people’s homes. At the office, people use them to do their jobs.

The story revolves around Winston Smith and Julia, who try to resist their government’s overwhelming control over facts. Their act of rebellion? Trying to discover “unofficial” truth about the past, and recording unauthorized information in a diary. Winston works at the colossal Ministry of Truth, on which is emblazoned IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. His job is to erase politically inconvenient data from the public record. A party member falls out of favor? She never existed. Big Brother made a promise he could not fulfill? It never happened.

Because his job calls on him to research old newspapers and other records for the facts he has to “unfact,” Winston is especially adept at “doublethink.” Winston calls it being “conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies… consciously to induce unconsciousness.”

Oceania: The product of Orwell’s experience

Orwell’s setting in “1984” is inspired by the way he foresaw the Cold War – a phrase he coined in 1945 – playing out. He wrote it just a few years after watching Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin carve up the world at the Tehran and Yalta conferences. The book is remarkably prescient about aspects of the Stalinist Soviet Union, East Germany and Maoist China.

Orwell was a socialist. “1984” in part describes his fear that the democratic socialism in which he believed would be hijacked by authoritarian Stalinism. The novel grew out of his sharp observations of his world and the fact that Stalinists tried to kill him.

In 1936, a fascist-supported military coup threatened the democratically elected socialist majority in Spain. Orwell and other committed socialists from around the world, including Ernest Hemingway, volunteered to fight against the rightist rebels. Meanwhile, Hitler lent the rightists his air power while Stalin tried to take over the leftist Republican resistance. When Orwell and other volunteers defied these Stalinists, they moved to crush the opposition. Hunted, Orwell and his wife had to flee for their lives from Spain in 1937.

George Orwell at the BBC.

Back in London during World War II, Orwell saw for himself how a liberal democracy and individuals committed to freedom could find themselves on a path toward Big Brother. He worked for the BBC writing what can only be described as “propaganda” aimed at an Indian audience. What he wrote was not exactly doublethink, but it was news and commentary with a slant to serve a political purpose. Orwell sought to convince Indians that their sons and resources were serving the greater good in the war. Having written things he believed were untrue, he quit the job after two years, disgusted with himself.

Imperialism itself disgusted him. As a young man in the 1920s, Orwell had served as a colonial police officer in Burma. In a distant foreshadowing of Big Brother’s world, Orwell reviled the arbitrary and brutish role he took on in a colonial system. “I hated it bitterly,” he wrote. “In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the gray, cowed faces of the long-term convicts…”

Oceania was a prescient product of a particular biography and particular moment when the Cold War was beginning. Naturally, then, today’s world of “alternative facts” is quite different in ways that Orwell could not have imagined.

Big Brother not required

Orwell described a single-party system in which a tiny core of oligarchs, Oceania’s “inner party,” control all information. This is their chief means of controlling power. In the U.S. today, information is wide open to those who can access the internet, at least 84 percent of Americans. And while the U.S. arguably might be an oligarchy, power exists somewhere in a scrum including the electorate, constitution, the courts, bureaucracies and, inevitably, money. In other words, unlike in Oceania, both information and power are diffuse in 2017 America.

Those who study the decline in standards of evidence and reasoning in the U.S. electorate chiefly blame politicians’ concerted efforts from the 1970s to discredit expertise, degrade trust in Congress and its members, even question the legitimacy of government itself. With those leaders, institutions and expertise delegitimized, the strategy has been to replace them with alternative authorities and realities.

In 2004, a senior White House adviser suggested a reporter belonged to the “reality-based community,” a sort of quaint minority of people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.… That’s not the way the world really works anymore.”

Orwell could not have imagined the internet and its role in distributing alternative facts, nor that people would carry around Telescreens in their pockets in the form of smartphones. There is no Ministry of Truth distributing and policing information, and in a way everyone is Big Brother.

It seems less a situation that people are incapable of seeing through Big Brother’s big lies, than they embrace “alternative facts.” Some researchers have found that when some people begin with a certain worldview – for example, that scientific experts and public officials are untrustworthy – they believe their misperceptions more strongly when given accurate conflicting information. In other words, arguing with facts can backfire. Having already decided what is more essentially true than the facts reported by experts or journalists, they seek confirmation in alternative facts and distribute them themselves via Facebook, no Big Brother required.

In Orwell’s Oceania, there is no freedom to speak facts except those that are official. In 2017 America, at least among many of the powerful minority who selected its president, the more official the fact, the more dubious. For Winston, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” For this powerful minority, freedom is the freedom to say two plus two make five.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Diversity Makes Us Smarter

Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working

Credit: Edel Rodriguez

IN BRIEF

  • Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.
  • It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, nonroutine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way—yet the science shows that it does.
  • This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.

The first thing to acknowledge about diversity is that it can be difficult. In the U.S., where the dialogue of inclusion is relatively advanced, even the mention of the word “diversity” can lead to anxiety and conflict. Supreme Court justices disagree on the virtues of diversity and the means for achieving it. Corporations spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, yet they still face discrimination lawsuits, and the leadership ranks of the business world remain predominantly white and male.

CONTINUED:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/

Climate change brings a potentially devastating “atmospheric river” to California

Megastorms vs. megadroughts:

After years of drought, the Golden State is hit by epic storms — and it’s just the beginning of climate chaos

Megastorms vs. megadroughts: Climate change brings a potentially devastating "atmospheric river" to California
Michelle Wolfe, who had to evacuate her nearby mobile home, looks out toward flooded vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017, in Forestville, Calif. (Credit: AP/Eric Risberg)

As the incoming Trump administration turns Washington increasingly freakish and bizarre, reinventing government as reality show, Mother Nature is doing something equally dramatic 3,000 miles away. Donald Trump can deny climate change all he wants to, but Californians can’t escape the contrasting weather extremes it’s already causing or affecting. We’re in a cycle of ever more serious droughts broken by more intense storms — harbingers of much more serious challenges to come. What’s happening in California now serves to underscore long-term realities, regardless of the day-to-day fantasies of those who temporarily hold political power.

A series of storms from the vicinity of Hawaii, known as the “Pineapple Express,” have drenched California and parts of Nevada, signaling a likely end to four years of severe drought. Just during the storm that hit Jan. 7 to 10, there were 52 reports of extreme precipitation (meaning more than eight inches of rain in a three-day period), with several measuring twice that. Strawberry Valley, on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, got an amazing 20.51 inches of rain during that storm — more than Los Angeles typically gets in an entire year.

The Pineapple Express is just one example of a worldwide phenomenon known as “atmospheric rivers” or ARs. These are jet streams of moist air, tens to hundreds of miles wide, that can carry roughly 10 times as much water vapor as the Mississippi River at its mouth. Powerful as the current set of AR storms are, they pale in comparison to the month-long storms of 1861-2 that flooded much of the state, creating a 300-mile lake in the San Joaquin Valley. But even worse is possible. In 2011, the U.S. Geological Survey did a study of what a 1,000-year atmospheric river storm — known as ARkStorm — would do. Projected losses were staggering, including property losses around $400 billion (more than three Hurricane Katrinas) with another $325 billion in losses due to business interruption, lasting as long as five years. So Californians are lucky today.

View image on Twitter

The percentage of the state that is defined as “drought-free” has almost doubled overnight, from about 18 percent to 34.5 percent, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The drought-free area is largely in less-populated Northern California, above an east-west line running from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, but there are broader signs of hope for the whole state.

“This is likely to be the end of the surface-storage drought for most of the state,” wrote water expert Jeffrey Mount, of the Public Policy Institute of California. With a few more days of rain, he predicted, “almost all the major reservoirs will be at or above their seasonal averages … conditions we have not seen in six years. This is great news since reservoirs are the primary source of water for cities and farms.”

Still, the good news has to be sharply qualified. Even before California’s latest drought, a much longer, continent-wide drought was underway, as shown in this panel of eight annual drought maps from the 2009 paper “Megadroughts in North America” by Edward Cook and co-authors. In a related document, they show that during the medieval period, from 1021 to 1382, the majority of the continental U.S. experienced four megadroughts lasting 22 to 40 years, interspersed with occasional isolated non-drought years. These were three to four times longer than similar modern multi-year droughts from 1855 to 1957, which ranged from seven to 10 years. Thus, California’s climate this century is already atypical for the modern era. The state may already be in the middle of a medieval-style megadrought. The state needs more than one good year of rain to begin breathing easier.

The underlying science behind these phenomena is increasingly coming into focus, according to Marty Ralph, director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “It has been shown that in major parts of the West drought is due to a reduced amount of precipitation from the wettest days, many of which are AR events,” Ralph told Salon.

“We have also known for about 10 years now that most of the big flooding events in the West Coast, at least, are a result of atmospheric rivers. These findings are especially strong in the West Coast and Southwest, and in Western Europe. Thus, indeed, the future of drought and flood in this region hinges on the fate of ARs. And climate models vary substantially in how they handle this.”

What is certain is that both extreme drought and extreme AR storms, driven by global climate change, pose growing challenges to California and many other places in the decades ahead. The divergent extremes place increasing stress on the whole ecosystem, as well as its physical underpinnings. “It’s a really bad combination of two extremes,” MIT’s Adam Schlosser told Pacific Standard. “The drought dries, and, in some sense, cooks up the ground. It becomes more susceptible to heavy rain. You’re putting together a meta-event that could be quite destructive.”

Schlosser was discussing a paper to which he contributed projecting that California will experience three more extreme precipitation events per year by 2100, although the number could be reduced by half that if aggressive policy measures are pursued. These results are more dramatic, but point in the same direction, as research published last summer by Christine Shields and Jeffrey Kiehl at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.

Shields agreed with Schlosser’s warning. “Drought-stricken areas can be significantly damaged by heavy flood,” she told Salon. Although she hadn’t yet read Schlosser’s paper, she warned against overemphasizing any differences. “The different climate projections found in the literature may be due to, in part, a difference in the way the ARs are defined and tracked,” she noted.

It’s also important to distinguish between different measures. “Intensity of rain is not the same thing as overall rain totals, or mean [average] rain,” Shields said. “Potentially stronger rainfall rates would lead to increased likelihood for localized flooding, or flash flooding. Longer durations of storms also might imply increased likelihood for overall rain within the storm itself. It doesn’t say anything about changing the mean rainfall over a given season or region. Any way you slice it, projections should be used as guidelines and not ground truth.”

Those guidelines are all pointing in the same general direction: more climate and weather problems, and more intense problems. But sorting out the differences will be crucial for developing policy responses, Ralph stressed. “The already high variability of annual precipitation in this region could become even more variable in future climate scenarios,” he said. “We don’t have a good handle on which climate projections handle ARs best in the future, and those projections differ substantially in how these events look in the future.  We need to pin this down better, to help inform policy-makers on what to expect in the future for water supply and flood risk.”

When asked what can be done to improve policy responses, Ralph replied, “A major effort is needed to improve short-term predictions of ARs, so that information could be incorporated into myriad decisions made when extreme precipitation occurs, from reservoir operations to transportation to emergency response to flood control, landslides and other impacts such as we’ve seen in California, Nevada and Oregon” over the past few weeks. “Because ARs are the key to seasonal precipitation in this region, we now know what to focus on in terms of research.”

A continent away from Washington, this is what reality-based public policy planning looks like in the age of inexorable climate change. But that doesn’t mean climate science is infallible. Last winter many forecasters predicted significant precipitation fueled by the Pacific climate cycle known as El Niño, and as Ralph puts it, that was a “bust.” At the moment, there are scientific limits on the “predictability of water in the West,” he warned. “We also have the fact that hurricanes and tornadoes attract much of the attention and funding in meteorology. It has been difficult to get adequate focus on these Western water issues.”

Ralph’s center is “creating new AR-oriented forecast tools, built upon new science,” he said. Information about this can be seen in real time on the center’s website, including a “What’s New” section that has brief examples of these products for this last series of storms. You can even sign up for automated email alerts issued daily when there are extreme precipitation events in the West (like the 52 such events mentioned above).

As Californians weather the tail end of this dramatic string of storms, it can be comforting to realize that so much is being done to advance our understanding of the climate challenges facing America’s most populous state. That understanding is starting to translate into better ways of coping with what’s to come, however challenging that future may be. The reality-based community that is mobilizing to protect California’s precarious future in the face of climate change is a model worth celebrating — and also duplicating, in as many realms of public policy as possible. Finding ways to do that that is a top priority for all of us, wherever we live.

 

Obama’s farewell address: One last round of clichés and lies

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By Niles Niemuth
11 January 2017

President Barack Obama capped his eight years in office with a vacuous and hypocritical farewell address Tuesday night delivered at the McCormick Place convention center in downtown Chicago.

The first-ever presidential farewell address delivered outside of Washington, DC had the atmospherics of an overblown, cheap spectacle. Obama strode onto the stage like a rock star, flanked by oversized American flags, a massive illuminated presidential seal and an introductory soundtrack by the rock band U2.

As with every address Obama has delivered over the last eight years, his speech in Chicago was full of clichés, his rhetoric padded with empty phrases and delivered with a false gravitas, signaled by his trademark pursed lips and affected whisper.

The speech was rife with contradictions, the starkest being the juxtaposition of Obama’s boasting of the great social progress achieved by his administration and his warning of threats to American democracy arising from ever-growing social inequality and economic insecurity.

The president declared: “If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history… if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11… if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens—you might have said our sights were set a little too high.

“By almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”

He made no attempt to explain why, given this impressive record of social progress and foreign policy success, his party was routed in the elections and the billionaire demagogue Donald Trump was preparing to succeed him in the White House.

A basic component of the answer, of course, is the grotesquely false rendering of his record and the state of American society as he leaves office. Hardly a week goes by without a new report on signs of extreme social crisis or ever-more obscene levels of wealth among the financial elite. Just in the past month, studies have been published showing the first decline in US life expectancy in 23 years, plunging pay for young adults, a 72 percent surge in deaths from synthetic opioids, and home ownership rates at historic lows for young people.

Other surveys have documented a $237 billion increase in the wealth of the world’s richest 200 billionaires, driven largely by the US stock market boom under Obama, and an acceleration of the transfer of wealth from the bottom half of the US population to the top one percent.

In boasting of presiding over a record number of consecutive monthly job increases, Obama neglected to mention that 94 percent of the new jobs created in the last eight years have been either part-time or temporary.

Noticeably absent from Obama’s remarks was any mention of the social conditions in the city where he was speaking, which is ravaged by high levels of poverty and unemployment, an epidemic of police killings and violence, and a skyrocketing homicide rate.

He lamented in general terms the growth of social inequality and the dangers it poses to American democracy—that is, the threat of a social explosion in the United States.

“While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and rural counties, have been left behind—the laid-off factory worker; the waitress and health care worker who struggle to pay the bills—convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful—a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”

As always, he spoke as if none of these social ills had anything to do with the policies pursued by his administration, including severe cuts in social spending on the one side and the bailout of the banks and flooding of money into the stock market on the other.

Another piece of monumental hypocrisy was Obama’s pose of fighting to defend democracy when he has done more to destroy it than perhaps any other US president.

“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” he declared. “So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are. That’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firm legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, and reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties.”

This is from a president who has personally authorized the assassination of American citizens and thousands of others around the world with drones-fired missiles, protected and promoted those in the CIA responsible for torture, kept the prison at Guantanamo Bay open, persecuted journalists and jailed whistleblowers, militarized the police, and expanded the illegal surveillance of electronic communications.

Obama also used his farewell address take parting shots at Russia and China, lumping the war against ISIS with efforts to counter both countries, and arguing that aggressive action against the world’s second- and third-largest nuclear-armed powers was the only way to avoid war.

“[T]he fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression,” he said. “If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.”

Obama spent his eight years in office waging war abroad and war on the working class at home. With Tuesday’s speech, he passed the reins to Trump with a shrug.

WSWS