By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.
Greenhouse gases hit new milestone, fueling worries about climate change
2015 is a milestone year for the Earth’s Environment. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recently reported that the average levels of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere has exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) in the early months of 2015. The Met Office and Climatic Research Unit in Britain has reported that the temperature in the first nine months of 2015 exceeded historic norms by 1.02 degree C. These reports are raising serious concerns about global warming. “We are moving into uncharted territory at a frightening speed,” says WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud. Many scientists agree that the carbon dioxide levels should remain below 400 ppm, but increasing fossil fuel usage has resulted in a steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, going from 278 ppm during pre-industrial times to 397.7 ppm in 2014. “We will soon be living with globally averaged CO2 levels above 400 ppm as a permanent reality,” Jarraud said. Methane and nitrous oxide, two other important greenhouse gases, are also increasing. The long-term implications for the planet, Jarraud says, include higher global temperatures, extreme weather events, melting ice, rising sea levels, and increased acidity in oceans. These reports on carbon dioxide levels, and the increase in the average temperature, come weeks before the start of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, where diplomats from over 190 countries will participate in discussions on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. (Joby Warrick, The Washington Post)
Science and Decision-Making
European Commission appoints top scientists to fill policy advice gap
The European Commission has appointed seven prominent scientists to provide the Commission with policy advice. This group is part of the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM), and consists of four men and three women from seven different countries and fields, including Polish bioinformatician Janusz Bujnicki, Dutch sociologist Pearl Dykstra, Portuguese material scientist Elvira Fortunato, German physicist and CERN Director Rolf-Dieter Heuer, British climate researcher Julia Slingo, French mathematician and Fields medalist Cédric Villani, and Danish microbiologist Henrik Wegener. “This looks like a good group,” says Anne Glover, the first and only chief scientific adviser (former) of the Commission. “They have scientific credibility as well as a deep knowledge of the ways in which scientific evidence can be used to inform policy as well as the world of politics,” Glover adds. The seven scientists will have their first meeting in January, and the topics of discussion are likely to be dictated by current matters. The SAM also includes a €6 million grant to fund academies and societies to help provide policy advice to the Commission. James Wilsdon from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, though skeptical about how the new group will “safeguard its independence and navigate the political sensitivities that will inevitably arise”, is also optimistic and said that the announcement “is a serious step in the right direction for robust, independent and interdisciplinary scientific advice at the heart of European decision-making.” (Tania Rabesandratana, ScienceInsider)
Public Health Policy
U.S. Smoking Rate Declines, but Poor Remain at Higher Risk
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that smoking has become largely a problem of the poor in the US. Smoking has steadily declined in the last few decades – nearly half the US population smoked in the 1960s, whereas those numbers have declined to 16.8 percent in 2014. However, the differences among various sections of the population are striking. Anti-smoking campaigns have been very successful on a national scale, but the results have not been very encouraging with the poor. While only 5 percent of Americans with a graduate degree smoke, about 43 percent of people with high school equivalency diploma smoke, and the latter figures haven’t changed since 2005, compared to a 26 percent decline in smoking among people with college degrees. Nearly a third of the Americans on Medicaid smoked, in contrast to 13 percent for Americans with private insurance. Smoking among people at or above the poverty line has declined from 21 percent in 2005 to 15 percent in 2014 (a 26 percent decline), whereas it went from 30 percent to 26 percent (a 12 percent decline) for people below the poverty line. Kenneth E. Warner, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, says that disparities are the most important issue in smoking. “The people who are politically influential believe the smoking problem has been solved. It’s not in their neighborhoods. Their friends don’t smoke. Those who still smoke are the poor, the disenfranchised, the mentally ill. That’s who we need to focus on”, says Dr. Warner. A proposed federal rule that bans smoking in public housing might be a step toward changing that. (Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times)
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