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At Conference on the Risks to Earth, Few Are Optimistic

August 24, 2008; The New York Times; At Conference on the Risks to Earth, Few Are Optimistic; by Andrew C. Revkin.

ERICE, Sicily — This ancient hilltop town, rife with Roman, Greek, Norman and other influences, is hosting a very modern gathering: a conference on global risks like cyberterrorism, climate change, nuclear weapons and the world’s lagging energy supply.

More than 120 scientists, engineers, analysts and economists from 30 countries were hunkered down here for the 40th annual conference on “planetary emergencies.” The term was coined by Dr. Antonino Zichichi, a native son and a theoretical physicist who has made Erice a hub for experts to discuss persistent, and potentially catastrophic, global challenges.

The participants were not particularly optimistic. They presented data showing that the boom in biofuels was depleting Southeast Asian rain forests, that “bot herders” — computer hackers for hire — were hijacking millions of computers, and that the lack of progress over handling nuclear waste was both hampering the revival of nuclear energy and adding to terrorism risks.

The meetings, which end Sunday, were sponsored by the Erice-based Ettore Majorana Foundation and Center for Scientific Culture and by the World Federation of Scientists in Geneva. Both organizations are led by Dr. Zichichi with what the physicist Dr. Richard L. Garwin, a longtime Erice conference participant and expert on nuclear weapons, affectionately called “imperious” zeal.

Dr. Zichichi, 78, controls every aspect of the sessions, including the seating in the seminars and the wine selections at the nightly dinners.

His goal is to foster what he calls “a science without secrets and without borders,” mixing disciplines and cultures, and to laud veterans and emerging talents in hopes of propelling breakthroughs.

He said past successes included focusing attention on the need to reduce nuclear stockpiles and developing the first detailed analysis of flood risks along the Yellow River in China.

The threat of cyberattacks was also a focus of this year’s meeting. In a session on information security, Hamadoun I. Touré, the secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union, warned that pervasive computer use, while offering the prospect of a global “knowledge society,” also made billions of individuals into potential superpowers.

“Every single brain on earth is equal and can trigger an attack,” he said.

Jody R. Westby, the chief executive of Global Cyber Risk, a Washington-based consulting company, warned that governments were not doing enough to anticipate attacks. She said that the United States, while investing heavily in classified work on communications networks, had only one small program doing advanced research on the vulnerabilities in the private networks that handle the brunt of government communications and information management.

In a workshop on the northward spread of mosquito-borne ailments, participants discussed the growing gap between wealthier and poorer nations in dealing with health risks.

After presentations on recent outbreaks of the tropical chikungunya virus in Italy, Baldwyn Torto of the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya, suggested that too much of the discussion was focused on girding Europe against further outbreaks. A better approach, he said, would be to attack such diseases in the tropical spots where they originate.

At a final gathering on Saturday, Bill Fulkerson of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said that meetings in the next several years would likely concentrate on the technological and scientific needs of developing countries that are trying to expand their economies without diminishing resources.

The daunting nature of the problems did not seem to blunt the experts’ determination to look for answers.

“What option do I have?” said Richard Wilson, 82, a Harvard physicist and an expert on nuclear power and environmental risk. “I could go down to Hilton Head and take a little club and knock a ball around the course, but I don’t find that a very attractive thought.”

Copyright 2008The New York Times Company

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