National Post

Canada closes embassy in Cario amid security concerns

CAIRO — The Canadian Embassy in Cairo has closed over security concerns, a day after the British Embassy suspended its services over safety worries.

The Canadian Embassy announced its closure through a message on its main telephone number Monday. An Egyptian security official told The Associated Press that Canadians asked for all roads around the embassy shut down and more security.

He said they would increase security, but the roads couldn’t close.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

The British Embassy closed its offices to the public Sunday and Monday. Both embassies are in Cairo’s Garden City neighbourhood. The nearby U.S. Embassy remained open.

Australia advised citizens against visiting Egypt on Dec. 6, citing “ongoing political tension and the threat of terrorist attack,” according to a notice published on the Smarttraveller website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Egypt has been hit by series of militant attacks since last year’s military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

With files from Bloomberg News

Wind turbines have little effect on value of Ontario homes and farms — despite public outcry, study finds

Wind turbines generally have little effect on the value of nearby properties with possibly isolated exceptions, a recent study of thousands of home and farm sales has found.

The surprising findings, published in the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics, come amid an already fiery debate over wind farm impacts and appear to contradict widely-held views among turbine critics.

The study focused on Ontario’s Melancthon township — home to one of the country’s oldest and largest wind farms — and surrounding areas.

“The lack of significant effects of the Melancthon wind farm is somewhat surprising, given the public outcry regarding the construction of these turbines,” according to the authors.

“These results do not corroborate the concerns raised by residents regarding potential negative impacts of turbines on property values.”

The lack of significant effects of the Melancthon wind farm is somewhat surprising, given the public outcry regarding the construction of these turbines

The University of Guelph researchers analyzed more than 7,000 home and farm sales that occurred between 2002 and 2010 in Melancthon Township, which saw 133 turbines put up between 2005 and 2008, and 10 surrounding townships. Of those, more than 1,000 homes and farms were sold more than once, some several times.

“These turbines have not impacted the value of surrounding properties,” co-authors Richard Vyn and Ryan McCullough conclude.

“Further, the nature of the results, which indicate a lack of significant effects, is similar across both rural residential properties and farm properties.”

Vyn said he found the results somewhat surprising given the frequent and public criticisms of turbines.

Despite the overall findings, believed to be the first peer reviewed research on this issue in Canada, the study did find some limited support for those who believe wind farms hurt property values.

One appraiser’s report found the values of five properties close to turbines — bought and resold by wind farm developers — plunged by more than half, the researchers note.

In addition, homes or farms that may not have sold because of nearby turbines don’t show up in the sales data.

Several previous studies have also found turbines have little impact, while some others have concluded the opposite.

The debate around wind farms in Ontario is becoming increasingly bitter. Opponents, who argue turbines can make nearby residents ill, are waiting for the courts to rule on their constitutional challenge to the approvals process.

Dave Launchbury, who has been selling real estate in Melancthon 100 km northwest of Toronto for seven years, said there appears to be a growing stigma attached to properties near turbines. Many potential buyers won’t even look at them, he said.

Launchbury estimated properties close to turbines sell for “at least” 10 per cent less.

One recent study found that perception around the impacts of turbines might contribute to lower property values.

“Assumed property degradation from turbines seems to lower both asking and selling prices,” according to the University of Western Ontario study published late last month.

Vyn, a professor with Guelph’s department of food, agricultural and resource economics, said he wanted to extend the research to other areas of the province and use later data to see if the initial findings hold up — especially given the increasingly vitriolic opposition to turbines.

“As people hear more and more about the concerns, I wonder if that will show up in more recent property sales transactions,” Vyn said in an interview.

Federal scientists want revenues from inventions invested in research to help offset budget cuts

Canada’s federal scientists want contract changes so half of the revenues generated by their inventions and other intellectual property will be plowed back into government research to shore up budgets hit by spending cuts and to attract top talent.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents more than 15,000 scientists, researchers and engineers, is going to the bargaining table this week with a demand to improve science funding as part of its negotiating strategy for 2,300 researchers working in the science-based departments and agencies.

The proposal would put more money into research programs by re-investing at least 50% of the proceeds generated by inventions, patents, copyright royalties and other intellectual property, rather than going into general departmental revenues.

The Ebola vaccine now in clinical trials, for example, could potentially generate huge benefits for the Public Health Agency of Canada if successful. Under the union’s proposal, half those revenues would be invested in the research programs at the Winnipeg laboratory where the vaccine was developed.

The union is also proposing the principal investigators or the “inventors” be consulted on where the money should be invested. If the inventors have left government, a department’s joint union-management “consultation team’ could decide.

Treasury Board had an awards policy for “innovators and inventors” that was aimed at encouraging scientists to commercialize their work by letting them share in the proceeds of their discoveries. That policy was rescinded in 2010 and it’s unclear how departments are handling awards and rewarding their inventors.

As part of its proposal, the union wants all departments to annually submit a list of awards given to scientists, as well as the amount of money directed to the departments’ research.

The union will be making the same proposals for employees it represents at the National Research Council when they go to the bargaining table after Christmas. NRC researchers have a long history of inventions, from the black box for aircraft to the pacemaker. In 2012-13, the NRC generated intellectual royalties and fees worth about $8.5-million.

The request is clearly pushing the boundaries of traditional collective bargaining with demands to deal with the ongoing spending cuts in science and “interference” in the integrity of scientific work.

This latest proposal comes on the heels of an unprecedented demand last week calling for contract changes to promote “scientific integrity” in government, including the right of muzzled scientists to speak freely and forbidding political interference in their work.

That’s when the 7,000 members of the union’s applied science and patent examination group presented Treasury Board negotiators with two packages — one for “scientific integrity” and another for professional development of scientists. The union also wants those proposals included in researchers’ contracts.

The Conservatives have made a significant shift to business-driven research which many federal scientists worry is being done at the expense of research that only government will do — particularly the collection of long-term data, enforcement and regulatory science.

New national chief could transform AFN and set tone for how First Nations make demands of Harper


Canada’s First Nations chiefs gather in Winnipeg for three days this week for a momentous meeting that could set the tone for how indigenous leaders assert their demands to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in coming months. Several hundred chiefs from the country’s largest aboriginal group — the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) — will elect a new national chief. Will that chief be a hard-edged rebel who adopts angry, perhaps even threatening, rhetoric to get the attention of Mr. Harper and the rest of the country?

Or will he try to use logic to persuade Mr. Harper to accept aboriginal demands on issues such as First Nations education funding and control of schools, treaty rights, missing and murdered indigenous women and shared natural resource development? There’s a lot on the line — for the unity, peace and self-image of Canada, for the many thousands of aboriginals living in poverty and for the future of the AFN, which has been accused of becoming irrelevant to the First Nations’ “grassroots.” Postmedia’s Mark Kennedy takes a look at what to watch for as the meeting begins Tuesday.

Release of classified report on CIA torture will cause ‘violence and deaths’ overseas, intelligence officials warn

Foreign governments and U.S. intelligence agencies are predicting that the release of a Senate report examining the use of torture by the CIA will cause “violence and deaths” abroad, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said Sunday.

Republican Rep. Mike Rogers is regularly briefed on intelligence assessments. He told CNN’s “State of the Union” that U.S. intelligence agencies and foreign governments have said privately that the release of the report on CIA interrogations a decade ago will be used by extremists to incite violence that is likely to cost lives. The 480-page report, a summary of a still-classified 6,000-page study, is expected to be made public next week.

A U.S. intelligence official, who was not authorized to be quoted discussing classified intelligence assessments, said Congress had been warned “of the heightened potential that the release could stimulate a violent response.”

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry urged the senator in charge of the report to consider the timing of the release, though Obama administration officials say they still support making it public. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has not responded to reports of the Kerry call, though she told the Los Angeles Times in a story published Sunday that “We have to get this report out.”

A congressional aide noted that the White House has led negotiations to declassify the report since April, and that both the president and his director of national intelligence have endorsed its release. The government has taken steps to beef up security at American posts around the world, said the aide, who was not authorized to be quoted by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The report amounts to the first public accounting of the CIA’s use of torture on al-Qaida detainees held in secret facilities in Europe and Asia in the years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

U.S. officials who have read it say it includes disturbing new details about the CIA’s use of such techniques as sleep deprivation, confinement in small spaces, humiliation and the simulated drowning process known as waterboarding.

President Obama has acknowledged, “We tortured some folks.”

The report also says the torture failed to produce life-saving intelligence, a conclusion disputed by current and former intelligence officials, including CIA director John Brennan.

Mr. Rogers questioned why the report needed to become public, given that the Justice Department investigated and filed no criminal charges.

Ms. Feinstein told the Los Angeles Times that the harsh interrogations undermined “societal and constitutional values that we are very proud of. Anybody who reads this is going to never let this happen again.”

Veterans Affairs’ disability branch — not ‘backroom administration’ — saw biggest job cuts, records show

Some of the biggest job cuts at Veterans Affairs in recent years have been in the disability awards branch — the division targeted in a recent auditor general’s report for taking too long to decide on the benefit claims of ex-soldiers.

Departmental performance reports stretching back to 2009 show that roughly 897 positions have been eliminated across Veterans Affairs, with 33% coming out of the section that administers pensions and awards.

Those same records show the health and rehabilitation branches also took a sizable hit — roughly 372 positions during the same time frame.

Commemorations, the division that celebrates past wars and maintains memorials, was reduced by 17.2%, while internal services — Prime Minister Stephen Harper described it last week as “backroom administration” — lost 71 positions, just 10.1%.

We make no apologies for reducing bureaucratic expenses at Veterans Affairs Canada

“We have taken resources out of backroom administration from bureaucracy. We have put it into services,” Mr. Harper said Wednesday during question period.

“There are more benefits and more money for veterans than ever before, and more points of service. That is called good administration, good government, and it is good service for the veterans of this country.”

As late as Friday, the Harper government was continuing to insist the reductions, part of an overall effort to eliminate the federal deficit, were not coming at the expense of ex-soldiers.

“We make no apologies for reducing bureaucratic expenses at Veterans Affairs Canada,” said Conservative MP Parm Gill, the parliamentary secretary to the minister, Julian Fantino.

“The opposition wants to increase government bureaucracy. We are increasing front-line support for Canada’s veterans. We recently announced eight new front-line mental health clinics for Canadian veterans. While the NDP defends the unions, along with the Liberals, we are defending Canada’s veterans.”

The majority of the staff cuts in the disability and death compensation branch took place between 2010 and 2013. That section also underspent its budget allotment by $121-million, according to a 2013-14 departmental performance report.

There’s a direct connection between the job cuts, the auditor general’s complaints about benefit application wait times and the $1.13-billion in budget allocations that have gone unspent since 2006, said Liberal MP Frank Valeriote.

You can’t spend the money or process the applications if you don’t have the staff, said Mr. Valeriote, who accuses Mr. Harper of misleading Canadians by saying the cuts were administrative in nature.

“It is indefensible,” he said. “Internal services, the backroom position of which the prime minister spoke on Wednesday when he said they’re in the backroom, the cuts were minor in nature. So, let’s make no mistake and let’s be very clear: He lied.”

The Union of Veterans Affairs Employees confirmed the job loss numbers, but noted that there is a knock-on effect when disability claims are delayed, which can also contribute to lapsed funding. Other benefits, such as health care and re-establishment to civilian life, don’t kick in until a disability is approved.

There was $33-million in underspending on that area in the last budget year.

In 2013-14, the department did over-spend on financial benefits for the mostly seriously wounded, including $7.9-million in the permanent impairment allowance, which has been the subject of criticism from the veterans ombudsman.

Despite blowing that portion of their allocation, Veterans Affairs underspent its budget by $133-million in 2013-14, the performance reports show.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Fantino said that the number of clients served by the department declined to 205,213 in 2013, which is about a 13% drop from where it was in 1994. Some of the reduction can be attributed to the passing away of Second World War and Korean War veterans, a trend that is expected to accerlate in the coming years.

Jets, drones don’t mix: Host of near misses with airplanes increase fears of catastrophic incident

A passenger jet on approach to London’s Heathrow airport was at “serious risk of collision” with a drone, with potentially catastrophic effects, according an official report to be published this week, in the first such incident reported at one of the world’s key aviation hubs.

The near miss, which happened on a clear day in July, when the plane was descending at about 200 metres altitude, is just the latest in a growing number of close calls involving remotely operated unmanned aerial vehicles. In another case this summer, for example, a Porter Airlines flight out of Toronto was approaching Dulles Airport in Washington at 850 metres when the pilot saw a black and silver drone pass within 15 metres.

It also highlights the urgency that has grown around the efforts to create, expand and adapt regulations to handle the spike in untrained pilots controlling ever more sophisticated drones, a political dynamic in which Canada has excelled. The United States, especially, is “extremely behind,” according to one Canadian aviation lawyer.

It is clear we have a serious potential safety problem which could cause a serious threat to life

U.S. pilots have reported a spike in close calls with drones, with 25 incidents since June, often at take-off or landing, and frequently near major centres like New York or Washington. Many were forced to make evasive manoeuvres. The U.K. Sunday Times likewise reported this weekend that Britain saw four similar close-call incidents this year, and in all but one case the drones could not be traced to their owners.

In July, pilots flying in and out of Toronto’s Pearson airport diverted because of several drone sightings. Police were dispatched, according to an incident report, but did not make any arrests. A similar incident also happened this summer in Vancouver.

In dramatic footage obtained by the Sunday Times in London, from a different incident, a passenger jet is seen passing within a few metres of a drone. The footage, taken with the drone’s camera, shifts abruptly as the plane passes, as if the drone was buffeted by the draft.


The near misses come as governments grapple with the problem of regulating drones amid a massive boom in their popularity, not just among amateur enthusiasts, but also corporations keen to put them to use in business, with proposed applications spanning everything from pipeline or cattle inspection and crop dusting to the LobsterCopter and BurritoBomber in food delivery.

Drones are small, cheap and easy to use, but their dangers to passenger jets are obvious. If striking a flock of Canada geese can force a passenger jet pilot to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River off Manhattan, as it did in 2009, then drones of similar size could do similar damage, especially if they were to be “ingested,” as the lingo has it, into a plane’s engine. A strike of the cockpit or any window could be similarly devastating, either by injuring the pilots or depressurizing the cabin.

“Any interference with an aircraft period, especially an intake into a jet’s engines, is a significant problem,” said William Clark, an aviation law specialist in Toronto.

“Canada is miles ahead of other jurisdictions in regards to regulation of commercial-use drones,” he said. Its progress is thanks largely to the recent issue of guidelines for the use of smaller drones, subject to fines as high as $5,000 for an individual and $25,000 for a corporation. These include the requirement of visual contact, and various restrictions on where and how high they may be flown.

The rules are still “fairly restrictive,” Mr. Clark said. “It’s a long way from where we’re going to be very quickly on commercial use of drones.”

Photographer Raphael Pirker is the founder of Team BlackSheep — a group that uses drones to record first-person-view videos


Operators used to have to apply for special licences, the same kind that are used, for example, when industrial contractors use helicopters to put air conditioners on building roofs. But the increase in requests — which rose 500% from 2012 to 2013 — meant this was no longer feasible.

Already, drones are in wide use by photographers, media, police and farmers. GoPro, which makes a popular line of sport cameras, is set to launch its own line of affordable drones for amateur pilots next year, each equipped with a camera.

This raises another worry, which has been addressed in detail by Canada’s privacy commissioner, of remote surveillance without consent. As Mr. Clark put it, the joke among industry watchers is: “My Uncle Perv wants one.”

“That’s the kind of misuse we’re going to see,” he said.

Britain, like Canada, requires drone operators to have “direct, unaided visual contact” at all times, and forbids flying over airfields or areas with lots of people. It is also studying the practicality of built-in “geo-fencing,” a GPS-based program that prevents drones from going to certain designated areas.


In the U.S. last month, the National Transportation Safety Board reinstated a case brought by the Federal Aviation Administration against Raphael Pirker, a photographer, for the allegedly “careless or reckless” use of an unmanned aircraft, which he flew around the University of Virginia, in some cases so low that pedestrians had to leap out of the way, and through a “tunnel containing moving vehicles.” He now faces a $10,000 penalty.

In response to this case and others, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has vowed to bring in legislation to “codify and expand” regulations on the use of drones.

“It is clear we have a serious potential safety problem which could cause a serious threat to life,” Ms. Feinstein wrote, according to The Washington Post. “Yet, very few of these incidents resulted in FAA enforcement actions, according to reports, even though the drones’ operations appear to have been plainly illegal.”

This is easier said than done, though, and recently proposed regulations requiring drone operators to have pilots licences and hours of experience have been criticized as unworkable.

“Given that it took half a decade for the FAA to come up with such sweeping and conservative rules, however, chances are it will be a while before the agency comes up with anything more nuanced,” wrote Brian Fung of The Washington Post.

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End-of-life debate turns to newborns: ‘Postnatal abortion’ morally acceptable in some cases, ethicist says

NP Graphics

Doctors would be justified to end the lives of some terminally impaired newborn babies, says a prominent Canadian bioethicist in a report that pushes the country’s euthanasia debate into provocative new territory.

Much of the discussion of physician assisted-death in Canada has centred around adult patients capable of making known how they want to end their lives.

NP GraphicsClick or tap to enlarge

But Udo Schuklenk, a Queen’s University philosophy professor, argues that in rare cases of severely impaired, deeply suffering newborns, actively causing death is morally acceptable, if still illegal in this country.

“The parents should be able to freely decide on what would amount to postnatal abortion,” he argues in a paper just published in the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery.

Euthanasia would even be preferable to “terminal sedation,” where food and liquids are removed from a dying patient, because it would save parents and medical staff the distress of seeing a baby waste away over days or weeks, said Prof. Schuklenk.

The child does not suffer in that scenario — which can and does occur now in Canada — but “it’s a terrible thing to witness,” he said in an interview.

The Ontario research chair in bioethics also headed the Royal Society of Canada’s 2011 panel on end-of-life decision making. He wrote the opinion piece after being invited to debate the newborn issue at a conference of the American Association of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery in Toronto earlier this year.

Even as the concept of euthanasia picks up momentum in Canada, applying it to children has not been on the table. The new Quebec assisted-death law — like those in five U.S. states — applies only to mentally competent adult patients. An assisted-suicide case now before the Supreme Court of Canada also revolves around adults who can choose their own fate.

The Netherlands does permit euthanasia of some newborns. Still, it makes sense for Canadians to first address the situation of consenting adults, whether or not they decide later to allow assisted-death for others, too, said Prof. Schuklenk.

The parents should be able to freely decide on what would amount to postnatal abortion

Opponents of euthanasia, though, are voicing dismay that the academic would even suggest that doctors and parents be allowed to terminate the life of a severely disabled newborn.

“What you’re doing is declaring that certain types of human beings have a life which we in society have determined is not worth living,” said Alex Schadenberg, head of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. “Which would be considered by another group of people as a eugenic philosophy.”

The genesis of Prof. Schuklenk’s opinion piece was a debate at the surgery conference, focused on the case of a baby with a severe form of “heterotaxy” syndrome, where the heart or other organs are misarranged in the body.

The treatment options included: at least three complex surgeries before age five, and possibly more, which at the very best would allow life until teenage years; non-surgical treatment for heart failure permitting survival at most into early childhood; comfort care that would most likely lead to death within a year; and euthanasia.

In cases where babies’ current and future life involves “overwhelming pain and suffering,” proactively ending life is ethically acceptable, Prof. Schuklenk argued in his later article.

He rejected the notion that allowing euthanasia in such cases would lead to a slippery slope where the idea is applied increasingly broadly. In the Netherlands, health-care staff ended the lives of just four babies between 1995 and 2005, and none from 2005 to 2010, he said, although terminal sedation occurs as much as 299 times a year.

In a counterpoint to Prof. Schuklenk’s article, theology professor Gilbert Meilanender of Indiana’s Valparaiso University said patients should not be subjected to aggressive treatment if it is futile, but they should also not be intentionally killed, either.

“That would be to think of ourselves … as people who are fit to exercise a kind of ultimate authority over the life of another,” wrote the former ethics advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush. “If we simply sweep such children off our doorstep every morning with euthanasia, medicine will never learn better ways to help them and others like them.”

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Highly contagious strain of bird flu kills up to 140,000 chickens and turkeys at five B.C. farms

VANCOUVER — With seven countries now turning away imports of Canadian poultry due to a Vancouver-area outbreak of avian flu, federal officials are rushing to contain the highly contagious virus before it can infect farms beyond the Fraser Valley.

While the virus is not dangerous to humans, it has the potential to kill off entire barns of poultry within a matter of days.

“To lose most of your flock within the span of a week is completely unheard of,” said Ray Nickel, president of the B.C. Poultry Association. “It’s hard to even visualize unless you’ve gone through and experienced it.”

Over the weekend, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed that five farms have become infected by a “high pathogen” strain of H5N2 never before seen on Canadian soil.

To lose most of your flock within the span of a week is completely unheard of

As of Sunday, all five properties were subjected to “biosecurity” quarantines as crews in HAZMAT suits destroyed as many as 140,000 chickens and turkeys.

As many as 90 additional poultry farms fall within the three-kilometre-wide quarantine zones established around the infected farms.

The stocks at these other farms will not be culled if no evidence of avian flu is found, but they are subject to strict conditions about moving their birds out of the Fraser Valley.

In a weekend statement, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it has “mobilized all available resources to manage this situation.”

The agency added, “it can be anticipated that additional at-risk farms may be identified in the coming days.”

Outbreaks of H5N2 have struck Canada three times before, but always a low pathogen (“low-path”) version. The difference is quite stark. A flock of chickens could be infected with a low-path version of H5N2 without immediately showing any ill-effects. A “high-path” infection, meanwhile, begins killing birds within hours.

Veterinarians have dubbed it the “cathedral effect”: Farmers enter a normally noisy poultry barn only to discover that it has been left eerily quiet by the sudden die-off of thousands of birds.

“Producers will know,” Dr. Jane Pritchard, chief veterinary officer for the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, said last week.

Indeed, the outbreak first cropped up one week ago when an Abbotsford turkey farmer noticed that more than half of his birds were dying from severe swelling and hemorrhaging.

Mr. Nickel said the die-off was so sudden that officials initially suspected it was a case of contaminated feed.

In press statements last week, Harpreet Kochhar, Canada’s chief veterinarian, said the new form of avian flu “is reflective that these viruses are actively mutating.”

On Saturday, the United States banned the import of all B.C. poultry products. As of Sunday, it has joined Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, China, South Africa and Mexico in the list of countries that have cut off poultry imports from B.C. — or all of Canada.

Mr. Nickel said the ban will not have a major effect on the local poultry economy, since Canadians eat most of the chickens and turkeys produced in the Fraser Valley.

Nevertheless, the effects of the outbreak are expected to have dramatic financial implications for the B.C. poultry economy. “We’re going to have farms out of production, and we’re going to have processors out of product,” said Mr. Nickel.

Fraser Valley farmers are being compensated for every specimen destroyed as part of the federal government cull. Official compensation rates range from $30 for an egg-laying hen to $1,200 for a breeding rooster. The average turkey fetches $70.

The outbreak began at the height of turkey-eating season in Canada, and it was only weeks ago that Fraser Valley turkeys were testing negative for avian flu as they were being shipped off to slaughter in preparation for Christmas.

Federal scientists do not know what kicked off the sudden spread of H5N2, although it is entirely possible that the disease could have been brought to Western Canada by migratory birds.

A 2008 study found high-path H5N2 in a population of Nigerian ducks, providing evidence of a “wild bird reservoir” for avian influenza. For that reason, dead specimens of wild Canadian birds are regularly tested for new strains of bird flu.

Canada’s outbreak is occurring at the same time as avian flu outbreaks in India and the Netherlands. In India the flu strain is H5N1, a version known to be dangerous to humans.

While no human cases have been reported around the outbreak area, Indian health officials have remained on high alert as more than 200,000 birds are culled.

National Post, with files from Glenda Luymes

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Is this the end of the world? From ‘demonic’ AI to nuclear war, seven scenarios that could end human race

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Humanity may have already created its own nemesis, Professor Stephen Hawking warned last week. The Cambridge University physicist claimed that new developments in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) mean that within a few decades, computers thousands of times more powerful than in existence today may decide to usurp their creators and effectively end humanity’s 100,000-year dominance of Earth.

This Terminator scenario is taken seriously by many scientists and technologists. Before Prof. Hawking made his remarks, Elon Musk, the genius behind the Tesla electric car and PayPal, had stated that “with artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon,” comparing it unfavourably with nuclear war as the most potent threat to humanity’s existence.

Aside from the rise of the machines, many potential threats have been identified to our species, our civilization, even our planet. To keep you awake at night, here are seven of the most plausible.

Getty Images / ThinkStockAn artist’s depiction of an asteroid approaching Earth.


Our solar system is littered with billions of pieces of debris, from the size of large boulders to objects hundreds of kilometres across. We know that, from time to time, these hit the Earth. Sixty-five-million years ago, an object – possibly a comet a few times larger than the one on which the Philae probe landed last month – hit the Mexican coast and triggered a global winter that wiped out the dinosaurs. In 1908, a smaller object hit a remote part of Siberia and devastated hundreds of square kilometres of forest. Last week, 100 scientists, including Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal, called for the creation of a global warning system to alert us if a killer rock is on the way.

Probability: remote in our lifetime, but one day we will be hit.

Result: there has been no strike big enough to wipe out all life on Earth – an “extinction-level event” – for at least three billion years. But a dino-killer would certainly be the end of our civilization and possibly our species.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.When artificial intelligence becomes self-aware, there is a chance it will look something like this scene from Terminator 3.


Prof. Hawking is not worried about armies of autonomous drones taking over the world, but something more subtle – and more sinister. Some technologists believe that an event they call the Singularity is only a few decades away. This is a point at which the combined networked computing power of the world’s AI systems begins a massive, runaway increase in capability – an explosion in machine intelligence. By then, we will probably have handed over control to most of our vital systems, from food distribution networks to power plants, sewage and water treatment works, and the global banking system. The machines could bring us to our knees without a shot being fired. And we cannot simply pull the plug, because they control the power supplies.

Probability: unknown, although computing power is doubling every 18 months. We do not know if machines can be conscious or “want” to do anything, and sceptics point out that the cleverest computers in existence are currently no brighter than cockroaches.

Result: if the web wakes up and wants to sweep us aside, we may have a fight on our hands (perhaps even something similar to the man vs. machines battle in the Terminator films). But it is unlikely that the machines will want to destroy the planet – they “live” here, too.

Handout/AFP/Getty Images

Handout/AFP/Getty ImagesLaboratory technicians and physicians work on samples during research on the evolving Ebola disease in bats, at the Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Diseases research Laboratory of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in Pretoria on Nov. 21, 2011.


This is possibly the most terrifying short-term threat because it is so plausible. The reason Ebola has not become a worldwide plague – and will not do so – is because it is so hard to transmit, and because it incapacitates and kills its victims so quickly. However, a modified version of the disease that can be transmitted through the air, or which allows its host to travel around for weeks, symptom-free, could kill many millions. It is unknown whether any terror group has the knowledge or facilities to do something like this, but it is chilling to realize that the main reason we understand Ebola so well is that its potential to be weaponized was quickly realized by defence experts.

Probability: someone will probably try it one day.

Result: potentially catastrophic. “Ordinary” infectious diseases such as avian-flu strains have the capability to wipe out hundreds of millions of people.

AP Photo/U.S. Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

AP Photo/U.S. Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial MuseumA mushroom cloud billows about one hour after a nuclear bomb was detonated above Hiroshima, Japan Aug. 6, 1945.


This is still the most plausible “doomsday” scenario. Despite arms-limitations treaties, there are more than 15,000 nuclear warheads and bombs in existence – many more, in theory, than would be required to kill every human on Earth. Even a small nuclear war has the potential to cause widespread devastation. In 2011, a study by NASA scientists concluded that a limited atomic war between India and Pakistan involving just 100 Hiroshima-sized detonations would throw enough dust into the air to cause temperatures to drop more than 1.2C globally for a decade.

Probability: high. Nine states have nuclear weapons, and more want to join the club. The nuclear wannabes are not paragons of democracy.

Result: it is unlikely that even a global nuclear war between Russia and NATO would wipe us all out, but it would kill billions and wreck the world economy for a century. A regional war, we now know, could have effects far beyond the borders of the conflict.


CERN)/MCTThis is one of the huge particle detectors in the Large Hadron Collider, a 17 mile-long tunnel under the French-Swiss border. Scientists are searching for evidence of what happened right after- and perhaps before- the Big Bang.


Before the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the massive machine at CERN in Switzerland that detected the Higgs boson a couple of years ago, was switched on, there was a legal challenge from a German scientist called Otto Rossler, who claimed the atom-smasher could theoretically create a small black hole by mistake – which would then go on to eat the Earth.

The claim was absurd: the collisions in the LHC are far less energetic than those caused naturally by cosmic rays hitting the planet. But it is possible that, one day, a souped-up version of the LHC could create something that destroys the Earth – or even the universe – at the speed of light.

Probability: very low indeed.

Result: potentially devastating, but don’t bother cancelling the house insurance just yet.

AP Photo/Oculus Rift/Fox

AP Photo/Oculus Rift/FoxThis photo shows a scene fromX-Men: Days of Future Past virtual reality experience. Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom has speculated that our universe may be one of countless “simulations” running in some alien computer, much like a computer game.


Many scientists have pointed out that there is something fishy about our universe. The physical constants – the numbers governing the fundamental forces and masses of nature – seem fine-tuned to allow life of some form to exist. The great physicist Sir Fred Hoyle once wondered if the universe might be a “put-up job”.

More recently, the Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom has speculated that our universe may be one of countless “simulations” running in some alien computer, much like a computer game. If so, we have to hope that the beings behind our fake universe are benign – and do not reach for the off-button should we start misbehaving.

Probability: according to Professor Bostrom’s calculations, if certain assumptions are made, there is a greater than 50% chance that our universe is not real. And the increasingly puzzling absence of any evidence of alien life may be indirect evidence that the universe is not what it seems.

Result: catastrophic, if the gamers turn against us. The only consolation is the knowledge that there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastFloodwaters from the Souris River surround homes near Minot State University in Minot, N.D. on June 27, 2011. Global warming is rapidly turning America the beautiful into America the stormy and dangerous, according to the National Climate Assessment report released Tuesday, May 6, 2014.


Almost no serious scientists now doubt that human carbon emissions are having an effect on the planet’s climate. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that containing temperature rises to below 2C above the pre-industrial average is now unlikely, and that we face a future three or four degrees warmer than today.

This will not literally be the end of the world – but humanity will need all the resources at its disposal to cope with such a dramatic shift. Unfortunately, the effects of climate change will really start to kick in just at the point when the human population is expected to peak – at about nine billion by the middle of this century. Millions of people, mostly poor, face losing their homes to sea-level rises (by up to a metre or more by 2100) and shifting weather patterns may disrupt agriculture dramatically.

Probability: it is now almost certain that CO2 levels will keep rising to 600 parts per billion and beyond. It is equally certain that the climate will respond accordingly.

Result: catastrophic in some places, less so in others (including northern Europe, where temperature rises will be moderated by the Atlantic). The good news is that, unlike with most of the disasters here, we have a chance to do something about climate change now.