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Posts Tagged ‘climate change

Science Policy Around the Web June 2nd, 2020

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By Andrew Wright, BSc

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

 Sixth mass extinction of wildlife accelerating, scientists warn 

new analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has examined the number of terrestrial vertebrates on the verge of extinction. In examining 29,400 species, researchers found that 515 of them have fewer than 1,000 individuals (the metric for “critically endangered”) and roughly half of those have fewer than 250. Most of these species have lost their geographic range and are nearing an irreversible collapse within the next 20 years, which could have profound effects on their respective environments as their ecological utility is permanently wiped out.

Of those species with between 1,000 and 5,000 individuals, 84% live in an area that overlaps the critically endangered, meaning there is the potential for a domino-like effect. For example, a paper from PNAS in 2015 demonstrated that overhunting of sea otters in the mid-1700s led to the extinction of the Stellar’s sea cow.  Since sea otters fed on urchins that in-turn fed on the kelp environments in which the sea cows lived, the elimination of the otters led to over-feeding on kelp and precipitated the loss of a seemingly unrelated species.  

The worst-affected global regions are those that are increasingly heavily populated and where ongoing environmental destruction is occurring unabated, namely tropical Asia and South America where deforestation has actually been accelerating as attention has been pulled towards the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While there is still room for a comprehensive solution, according to the authors, “…the window of opportunity is almost closed. We must save what we can, or lose the opportunity to do so forever[…]it is something that humanity cannot permit, as it may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilization. What is at stake is the fate of humanity and most living species.”

(Damian Carrington, The Guardian

What a US exit from the WHO means for COVID-19 and global health

On May 29th, the President of the United States Donald Trump announced that US would be withdrawing from the World Health Organization (WHO) and severing its relationship with the international organization, chiefly accusing it of a faulty coronavirus response and leniency with China. While it is unclear whether the President can unilaterally pull out of the WHO without congressional approval, he does have the authority to pull US funding to the organization that made up 15% of its revenue last year. In place of this funding, reports from the State Department suggest the replacement would be a domestically run initiative called the President’s Response to Outbreaks (PRO) and would cost roughly $2.5 billion in new and transferred appropriation. This new office would also subsume programs run by USAID. This is mirrored by the introduction of a Senate bill called the “Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020” that calls for $3 billion in appropriations overseen by political appointment. 

Critics of this move suggest that a new office would conflict with existing international programs and muddy a cohesive response. As Kelly Lee, a global health researcher at Simon Fraser University put it, “You can’t just show up in Afghanistan and start vaccinating people.” Others pointed to the ongoing Ebola outbreak as an example of where there is little response apart from that provided by the WHO, particularly in regions with ongoing violence or negative sentiments against the US. Furthermore, in those areas where the US solely funds programs, they are often coordinated by the WHO.  Lee also notes that there could be a loss of expertise and knowledge sharing should US researchers and international researchers be deprived of collaborative avenues supported by the WHO.

Finally, pulling out of the WHO altogether may weaken US control over the global health agenda. Contrary to the US President’s apparent intent, this could in effect grant countries like China a path to take over in both in funding and decision-making.    

(Amy Maxmen, Nature)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 3, 2020 at 9:50 am

Science Policy Around the Web May 5th 2020

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By Hannah King, PhD

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

Renewable power surges as pandemic scrambles global energy outlook, new report finds

The current coronavirus pandemic and resultant economic instability have led to a sharp drop in global energy use, and consequently, carbon emissions. A new report from International Energy Agency posits that this may transform global energy use even beyond the end of this pandemic.

In countries with strict lockdowns in place, energy use has declined by 25% week-to-week with an estimated 6% global decline across 2020. This decline has been driven by high carbon emitting energy sources, such as coal which has declined by 8% and oil which has declined by 5%. This may be due to the difficulties in storage and supply chains required for these fossil fuels. In contrast, renewable energy use has risen by 1.5% in the first 3 months on 2020, and overall renewable energy demand is expected to increase by 1% this year.

While this trend may wane as economies begin to re-open, some countries, such as South KoreaGermany and the U.K., have indicated they wish to invest in technologies to reduce climate change as part of their economic recovery plans. Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Engery Agency, has urged other governments to follow suit and place renewable energy investments “at the heart of their plans for economic recovery”, while predicting that “the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before”.

(Warren Cornwall, Science)

‘Autistic voices should be heard.’ Autistic adults join research teams to shift focus of studies

Autistic people are increasingly being included in research teams studying autism, especially in adults, a population sometimes overlooked in autism research. The focus of such research is also shifting from medically-oriented studies attempting to find either a medical cause or cure for autism, towards research into strategies to assist autistic individuals succeed in society and the workplace.

One example is a recently published study assessing burnout in autistic workers that demonstrated such burnout is often due to the accomodations autistic workers need to perform to mask autistic behaviours, which are associated with chronic exhaustion. The authors suggest the onus should fall on workplaces to introduce solutions, such as not pressuring autistic workers to appear “neurotypical” and providing flexible working arrangements. 

By including autistic researchers in the design and implementation of studies, researchers such as Christina Nicolaidis, who has an autistic adult son, say that this inclusion has helped them to better design studies to obtain reliable and rigorous data. Nicolaidis contends that failing to get this input is “like doing research in Spanish and not having anybody who’s Latino on your team.”

This philosophy is exemplified by the new journal Autism in Adulthood which publishes quarterly issues. Here, several members of the editorial team are austistic researchers, and at least one reviewer for each article submitted is autistic. These reviewers provide valuable input, such as ensuring the accessibility of language used in manuscripts. TC Waisman, an autistic member of the editorial team, summarizes the importance of this inclusion with “autistic voices should be heard and acknowledged first and foremost”.

(Emily Willingham, Science)

A Strange Dinosaur May Have Swum the Rivers of Africa

A fossil dinosaur tail found in Morocco may indicate the existance of a predatory dinosaur able to swim and hunt underwater. This dinosaur is Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, a 40 foot long, 6.5 tonne creature with crocodile-like jaws. The newly discovered tail fossil, described in the journal Nature, has long fins rising vertically from it, suggesting the tail may be capable of undulating side-to-side to swim underwater, placing the morphology of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus like a cross between a lizard and an eel.

However, other paleontologists have contested the plausibility of these claims. David Hone, a paleontologist at Queen Mary University of London in England commented “I’m extremely unconvinced by some of the ecological interpretations that they placed on it”. Another researcher Donald M. Henderson, from the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada instead believes this species of dinosaur lived a lifestyle much more similar to a grizzly bear, living near the edge of the water and eating fish. The study’s authors are receptive to these criticisms, and plan to continue their research. Despite, or possibly because of this discussion, it certainly seems true, as author Dr. Stephanie E. Pierce of Harvard says, that “it’s going to lead to all sorts of cool analyses.”

(Kenneth Chang, New York Times

Climate Change and Human Health

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By Sanjay Gautam, PhD

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay 

The World Health Organization recently listed climate change as one of the ‘urgent global health challenges’ for upcoming decades. A healthy planet offers every living being a better place to live. The effect of climate change on human health is obvious and anyone who ignores this fact are ‘fooling themselves’ (George Benjamin, Executive director of American Public Health Association). Climate change essentially refers to an increasing rate of global temperature commonly referred to as global warming. This happens when there is an imbalance between incoming solar radiation to the earth’s surface and its exit with greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) being the sole culprit.  So, how does this affect the epidemiology of infectious diseases? 

There are multiple mechanisms described to relate the increasing incidence of communicable diseases and earth’s raising temperature. For example, warmer air retains more moisture and causes heavy rainfall in some places and drought in others. Increased availability of stagnant water and temperature above 16°C allows the malaria transmitting mosquitoes to breed increasingly well. In contrast, places with drought will have increased numbers of West Nile virus infection as water scarcity brings its primary host mosquito and bird in close proximity resulting in disease transmission.  As the environment gets warmer, the spread of flu is not limited to a single season, but rather continues year-round (William Schaffner, Vanderbilt University). An investigation by Towers and colleagues investigated the pattern of Influenza seasons in the United States between 1997 to 2013 and concluded that severe epidemic and early onset of the disease is preceded by warmer winters (Towers et al., PLoS Curr, 2013). Similarly, countries with cooler climate are getting record number cases of vector borne diseases (for example, dengue, chikungunya) and spread of diarrheal illnesses in colder seasons. 

The effect of climate change makes live, livelihood and economy vulnerable and therefore warrants a coordinated approach which fortunately is within the reach. A strong political will is key to recognize the depth of the issue and prioritize the measures to mitigate the effects of adverse environmental phenomenon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)has issued a policy on climate change and health with an objective to place the system to detect and track the adverse health effects with no delays; and, work towards effectively managing and responding the public health challenges. The impact of climate change in human health can be predictable or not and may vary with regions and communities.  The CDC’s priority area for public health preparedness includes, credible dissemination of information, tracking the data, model and predict the health effects, scientific capacity building, identification of communities at high risk, establish partnership with stakeholders, provide leadership, implement preparedness and response plans, provide technical assistance and promoting the workforce development. Similarly, American Public Health Association and the World Health Organization are actively prioritizing the discussions on global warming, health and  policy action agenda to adequately prepare to mitigate the human health challenges due to change in rising global temperature. There is an urgent need to develop and implement sustainable development programs and educate young generations the effects of poor climate, for example through incorporating the issues of climate change in curriculums.  

Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 20, 2020 at 4:01 pm

Science Policy Around the Web February 11th, 2020

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By Mohor Sengupta PhD

Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay 

One of Antarctica’s fastest-shrinking glaciers just lost an iceberg twice the size of Washington, D.C.

In October 2019, scientists from the European Union’s earth observation program, Copernicus, detected cracks in the Pine Island Glacier of Antarctica. Earlier this week, the cracks caved in and an iceberg the size of Washington, D.C., separated itself from the main glacier. 

Peeling off icebergs from a glacier, also called calving, is not uncommon. However, these occurrences have increased in frequency over the last decade. Glaciers like Pine Island are retreating inward because they are unable to keep up with calving and warmer waters surrounding them. 

Pine Island and its neighbor, Thwaites Glacier, are in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. These glaciers have been consistently losing ice over the last several years. According to NASA, the two glaciers have enough mass to cause a 4 ft rise in the surrounding ocean levels if all of their ice melt away. 

Last week, a region of Antarctica close to the southern tip of South America reached a record high summer temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3oC). Rapidly warming oceans surrounding Antarctic ice shelves are a threat to their glaciers, according to scientists. The Arctic region is the fastest warming zone on the planet. Similar observations have not been made for Antarctica, but melting ice is indicative of profound changes in the climate and ecosystem of the region. 

 (Brandon Specktor, Live Science)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 11, 2020 at 3:26 pm

Science Policy Around the Web January 16th, 2020

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By Andrew H. Beaven, PhD

Facts & Figures 2020 Reports Largest One-year Drop in Cancer Mortality

On January 11, 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men, a probable cause of lung cancer in women, and the most important cause of chronic bronchitis. This led to the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 and the Public Health Act of 1969 that required warnings on cigarette packages, banned cigarette advertising in broadcasting media, and called for an annual report on the health consequences of smoking. 

Fifty-six years later, lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer mortality in the U.S. – accounting for almost one-quarter of all cancer deaths. However, with an ever-increasing understanding of how to treat cancer and America’s general cessation, the American Cancer Society announced a 2.2% drop in the American cancer death rate between 2016 and 2017, the largest single-year drop in cancer mortality (statistics are reported in the American Cancer Society’s peer-reviewed journal, CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians). This substantial mortality rate decrease is primarily attributed to a decrease in lung cancer deaths. Coincidentally, the report aligns with recent legislation raising the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old. This legislation was included in the federal year-end legislative package, passed by both houses of Congress, and signed into law on December 20, 2019 by President Donald Trump. The goal of the legislation is to keep tobacco out of teenager’s hands, with the hope that if teens do not start using tobacco early, they will never start using tobacco products.

(Stacy Simon, American Cancer Society)

NASA, NOAA Analyses Reveal 2019 Second Warmest Year on Record

New, independent analyses by U.S. federal agencies NASA and NOAA demonstrate Earth’s continuing warming. Global surface temperatures in 2019 were the second hottest since 1880 when modern recordkeeping began. These results, posted online January 15, continue the concerning trend – the past 5 years have been the warmest of the last 140 years (the hottest year was 2016). NASA and NOAA report temperature on a relative scale based on the mean temperature between 1951–1980. The 2019 anomaly was 1.8 ºF (0.98 ºC) warmer than the 1951–1980 mean. The report makes special note that average global warming does not imply that all areas experience the same warming. For example, NOAA reported that the contiguous 48 U.S. states experienced the 34th warmest year on record, simply giving it a “warmer than average” classification. Meanwhile, Alaska experienced its warmest year on record.

To account for biases, the scientists take into account the varied spacing of the temperature stations, urban heat island effects, data-poor regions, changing weather station locations, and changing measurement practices. Through continuing modeling and statistical analyses, scientists continue to conclude that this rapid uptick in temperature is because of increased greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities.

(Steve Cole, Peter Jacobs, Katherine Brown, NASA)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 16, 2020 at 9:38 am

Plastics, Problems, and Progress

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By:Jedidiah Acott, PhD

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay 

Plastic is a staple of modern society, due in part to its malleable and durable properties, providing an applicability in innumerable contexts. The first plastic – known as Parkesine – was created in 1862 by heating, molding, and cooling organic cellulose; Alexander Parkes found that after processing, Parkesine could maintain a rigid shape. Less than 50 years later, the commercially manufactured synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was introduced at a chemical conference by Leo Hendrik Baekeland. Interest in the material was immediate, and soon Bakelite was widely used in the public sphere. All throughout the 20th century, new synthetic polymers were invented and brought to the industrial forefront, eventually replacing the plastic progenitors. The ubiquitous role of these synthetic plastics fills such a crucial function in modern society, that if one were to ponder the hypothetical state of the world in their absence, then it could seem like they are a cornerstone of necessity. In fact, it would appear we have become so dependent on plastics that some deem the current times as the plastic age of human history. What are the effects of our plastic addiction? This is the burning question that emerges from witnessing these extreme behaviors, and as current conditions display, where there is smoke there is fire.

It is not a stretch to say that plastics interact with almost every sphere of the global ecosystem, and similar to the inert use of mercury in a barometer compared to its’ interaction with human physiology, the consequences of using a material is determined by its context of use. The pure form of synthetic plastics appear to be non-toxic, but the inclusion of additives that leech into the environment alters the organic polymer into a mysterious and possibly dangerous material. Plastic degradation may take a thousand years or more, and as they degrade, microplastics are produced that can be readily consumed by marine organisms. On the ocean surface, microplastics smaller than 1 cm in diameter have been documented to be heavily abundant, and researchers in Honolulu have observed these microplastics to be present within the small shortbill spearfish, a population native to the area. In larger marine life, plastic bags have been found obstructing the digestive tracts of beached whales, and the stomachs of sea turtles. As a testament to the abundance of oceanic plastics, works of art entirely composed of plastic removed from the stomachs of seabirds hangs on the walls of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Honolulu, Hawaii. Another set of researchers predicts that by the year 2050, 99% of all seabird species will have ingested plastics. It is obvious enough that mechanical obstruction can cause issues, but what of the environmental and biological consequences of plastic consumption?

It is well-known that the amazon rainforest serves as a carbon sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide, but lesser known is that sea ice serves a similar function for microplastics. One study shows that as a plastic sink, sea ice traps microplastic particulates at concentrations several orders of magnitude beyond highly contaminated waters. Even if every bit of plastic floating in the ocean were to be removed, there would remain a reservoir of plastic waiting to be re-released into the environment. On one front, increasing ocean acidity threatens the formation of calcium carbonate shells for growing organisms, while on another, plastic waste promotes the colonization of disease-associated pathogenic microbes that threaten coral reefs. In 2017, scientists studying coral reefs provided evidence that corals in contact with plastics increase their risk of disease from 4% to 89%. As one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, coral reefs harbor plants and animals that actively contribute to drug discovery and development for human ailments. The molecules from these organisms have relevance for conditions ranging from cancer and arthritis, to bacterial and viral infections. The present circumstance does not project a promising future for the worlds’ oceans. Ecosystem imbalance, plastic reservoirs, threats to marine life, and microplastics in ocean-derived resources are immediately visible consequences, but are there tangible causes for concern toward the human species in particular?

The current literature surrounding the effects of micro- and nano-plastics on human health is sparse, but a lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. As new knowledge is created, the present paradigms are renovated, and a type of hindsight bias may emerge confounding future generations from the current apathy. A recent study published in Canada measured the contents in a cup of liquid following a normal steeping process using a manufactured plastic tea bag. The researchers found 11.6 billion microplastics, and 3.1 billion nanoplastics in the beverage, several orders of magnitude above the plastic loads reported in other foods. In accordance with this report, the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada issued a statement that no evidence shows harm to human health by microplastics, and that polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and nylon have been deemed safe for use as tea bags for hot food and beverages. Not so long ago cigarettes were claimed as being not harmful by tobacco companies and health professionals. Today though, we have ample evidence to support tobaccos’ role in cancer, heart disease, complications with blood circulation, and addiction. It would be highly irresponsible and quite the historical oversight to lay behind the thin veil of ignorance as justification for allowing plastics to continue polluting our environment and our bodies. Allowing these conditions to become precedent now, and only asking questions later, is actively participating in our own dissolution. Research has already revealed that plastic-derived BPA and DEHP are detrimental to human health, increasing risk for breast and uterine cancer, and interfering with testosterone levels and childhood development. More than enough evidence already points to the need for addressing the plastic crisis with urgency, and as we attempt damage control and eventual reparations, a multi-layered approach may now be the best option.

Equally for climate change and the plastic crisis, the current generation did not create the problem: we inherited it. But because we have also contributed to it, it is our burden to create meaningful solutions and demand institutional changes to prevent continued indifference and destruction toward the world. Several possibilities, such as government policy, institutional accountability, mechanical recycling, clean-up groups, and enzyme-based depolymerization, are already being enacted. In India, 17 states have joined together to “ban the manufacture, use, storage, distribution, sale, import, and transportation of many plastic goods and materials.” Even while making the change, industrial plastic and clothing manufacturers filed a lawsuit challenging the ban. On the basis of adverse effects to businesses, the Indian government gave the companies 3 months to dispose of banned items. A ban on imported recyclables was put into effect by the Chinese government 2017, and in relation to this ban many American counties have cancelled their recycling programs, leaving consumers to throw plastics in the trash, which may actually reduce ocean-bound plastics. Agilyx, a company in Tigard, Oregon has taken a small-scale approach toward the problem. By using chemical plastic depolymerization to break the molecular bonds between plastic polymers, the Oregon company can turn plastic into reusable raw materials. Carbios, a plastic depolymerization startup in France, is using an enzyme specific for the synthetic PET molecule, which the CEO calls a “conceptually…infinite recycling process.” Some studies have shown that chemical recycling may even reduce greenhouse gas emissions, addressing two environmental issues with one method.

Humanly-created problems require humanly-created solution, and although the plastic crisis is actively being worked on by engineers, scientists, companies, and governments around the world, international accountability may be a bottle-neck impeding authentic solutions; but with the perseverance of the human spirit, we may even yet clear the streams of pollution toward an unimpeded flow of environmental conscientiousness, and re-forge the bottle into a favorable material for future life of the planet.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 23, 2019 at 1:42 pm

Science Policy Around the Web November 19th, 2019

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By: Andrew Wright Bsc

Source: Pixabay

EPA’s ‘secret science’ plan is back, and critics say it’s worse

​The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been exploring new rules on the incorporation of scientific data in its rulemaking process. The so-called “secret science” rules were originally proposed in 2018 under the EPA’s previous administrator Scott Pruitt, and have since been revised by its new administrator Andrew Wheeler in response to harsh criticism from scientific, environmental, and patient groups. Rather than addressing these criticisms to mollify the proposals detractors, the draft of the newly proposed rule, which was leaked to the New York Times, seems to drastically broaden the scope of which data cannot be used. 

According to the 2018 proposed rule, all raw data would have to be made available for studies that assessed a “dose-response” relationship, a bedrock of toxicity research. This could be difficult, if not impossible, when considering patient privacy protection laws and proprietary information requirements that would prevent the dissemination of that data. In the new draft rule, this set of constraints is imposed on all scientific studies used to guide agency procedures, instead of just dose-response studies. The draft also seeks comment on whether these restrictions should be imposed retroactively. According to the draft rule, if the underlying data were not made available, the EPA would be able to “place less weight” or “entirely disregard” those studies.  

While the draft does provide room for a tiered data-sharing approach such as those implemented at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration and allows for political appointees to provide exemptions, critics worry that these new requirements will effectively remove science from the EPA’s decision-making process.  Thus far, the EPA’s scientific advisory board has not been afforded the opportunity to weigh-in.

(David Malakoff, Science)

‘Insect apocalypse’ poses risk to all life on Earth, conservationists warn

A recent study looking at insect populations in the UK suggests that up to half of all insects have been lost since 1970 and that 40% of all known insect species are facing extinction. Due to the complexity of ecological systems that rely on insect biodiversity to function properly, this level of insect loss could lead to “catastrophic collapse” on a global scale. 

This study demonstrates a similar severity of insect decline as has been seen in other regions around the world. In Puerto Rico, for example, insect biomass has declined between 10 and 60 times and has led to the destruction of its rainforest’s food web. In Germany, 75% of flying insects have vanished in the past 27 years.

Solutions to address what is now considered Earth’s sixth mass extinction event are becoming increasingly complex as failing components of anthropogenic damage to the global ecosystem are beginning to interact. However, conservationists suggest that insect numbers could be rapidly recovered through a combination of pesticide reduction and land management. 

(Damian Carrington, The Guardian)

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November 19, 2019 at 11:59 am

Science Policy Around the Web October 11th, 2019

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By Ben Wolfson PhD

Image by Thomas B. from Pixabay 

Massive California power outage triggers chaos in science labs

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, upwards of 600,000 California residents lost power when Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility company, instituted rolling blackout. Due to high winds, PG&E worried that keeping power on could result in sparking and increased risk of wildfires.

PG&E has been found to be liable for approximately two dozen wildfires, including the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, and filed for bankruptcy in January of 2018 due to the lawsuits it faced. The weeks rolling blackouts were instituted in an attempt to prevent further wildfires. State Senator Jerry Hill (D-CA), stated that the decision to target such large numbers of people for blackouts demonstrated the serious risk of fire, but also showed that PG&E has so far failed to improve the safety of their power system. 

In addition to affecting residential customers, the rolling blackouts have also thrown scientists and research labs into disarray as they struggle to protect valuable reagents and samples. Many labs have limited or no access to backup power, meaning items that must be refrigerated or frozen are at risk of being lost when they increase in temperature. In addition, tissue culture requires a stable environment maintained by a powered incubator, and laboratory animals need filtration and temperature control systems that may be shut off in light of power loss. 

While California has always had high risks of wildfires, the warming climate has increased the chance and frequency of deadly fires. California’s annual burned area has increased 5-fold since 1972, and 7/10 of the most destructive fires have occurred in the last decade. 

(Jeff Tollefson, Nature)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

October 11, 2019 at 3:47 pm

Science Policy Around the Web September 27th, 2019

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By Andrew Wright BSc

Image by Herm from Pixabay 

Extreme sea level events ‘will hit once a year by 2050’

According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate released on September 25th,  the effect of climate change on the worlds oceans and ice formations are so severe that they are partially irreversible even with steep cuts to emissions by 2050. While such cuts will reduce far more drastic and damaging changes in the latter half of the 21stcentury and beyond, increased temperatures, acidification, oxygen decline, marine heatwaves, and a weakening of critical ocean currents (that affect weather patterns among other ecological systems) are all but certain. This will lead to extreme sea level events that are “historically rare”, meaning they occur roughly once per century, occurring every year, especially in tropical regions.  Further, sea level rise is projected to continue beyond 2100 even in optimal emission reduction scenarios, with an estimated range of 1 meter of ocean rise in the best-case scenario and multi-meter rise in the worst-case scenario. To compare, since 1993 the ocean has risen by about 8cm, or less than 10% of the projected expected ocean rise, and flooding in the United States has increased by over 200%.

            Almost 2 billion people live on the coast and as such sea level rise will cost several trillions of dollars a year in damages and lead to millions of displaced migrants. These damages will be alongside collapsing coastal ecosystems that supply 10% of the world’s population with their livelihood and 4.3 billion people with a significant part of their food. The magnitude of these effects was revised upward in this most recent report to account for accelerating ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica, which is now surpassing thermal expansion as the primary contributor to ocean rise.

(Damian Carrington, The Guardian

Grad student unions dealt blow as proposed new rule says students aren’t ‘employees’

The question of whether graduate students at private universities are considered employees has been revisited several times by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) since its original 2000 decision allowing graduate students to form a union at New York University. As NLRB members are politically appointed, decisions about the validity of university graduate student unions have vacillated with the priorities of concurrent presidential administrations. In 2004, the NLRB under the George W. Bush administration ruled that graduate students are not considered employees, while in 2016 the NLRB overturned that decision under the Barrack Obama administration and allowed graduate students at Columbia University to form a union if they were compensated for teaching.

The most recent proposed rule, under the Donald Trump administration, counters previous guidance in stating that graduate students are not “employees” regardless of the compensatory mechanism, and thereby do not hold the capacity to form a union. In this case, the NLRB is comprehensively addressing the graduate student employee issue by going through the mechanism of the official rulemaking process rather than by deciding the issue on a case-by-case basis as has been previously.

This new rule, which has a 60-day public comment period, will affect a number of private universities where students have decided to unionize as at least 12 schools have done so far. What is less clear is how this will affect ongoing negotiations that have been entered into by graduate student unions and universities as those unions face delegitimization.

Interestingly, part of the reason that the NLRB is using this rulemaking process is due to the withdrawal of petitions by students at the University of Chicago, Yale University, Boston College, and the University of Pennsylvania, without which the NLRB was unable to rule on their individual cases. However, according to the executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions William Herbert, Congress has the authority to stipulate who is and is not an employee under U.S. labor law, which will most likely open the proposed rule to litigation.

(Katie Langin, Science)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 27, 2019 at 10:55 am

Science Policy Around the Web August 30th, 2019

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By Andrew Wright, BSc

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

EPA’s controversial ‘secret science’ plan still lacks key details, advisers say

In early 2018 under its previous administrator Scott Pruitt, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first proposed rules to restrict the use of scientific findings whose data and methodologies are not public or cannot be replicated. Following the removal of all sitting Science Advisory Board (SAB) members who receive EPA grants in late 2017 (roughly half of its members) there was concern that environmental experts were being sidelined from EPA decision-making, which the proposed rule seemed to support. While making data public and replicable has merits, the SAB has raised concerns that the proposed rule would make it impossible to use the most accurate information as many environmental studies are long-term ones that assess human exposure to toxins and cannot be ethically or efficiently replicated. Now, under administrator Andrew Wheeler, how this proposed rule will be implemented is still unclear. 

A central concern is how to maintain privacy over personally identifiable information (PII) to comply with existing privacy laws and concerns (such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA). One proffered strategy is to try a tiered approach based of the model currently used by the National Institutes of Health, whereby the more sensitive the PII is, the more restricted its access will be. 

As the SAB has decided to engage in a consultation of the proposed rule, individual members will have their comments written up in a report to be sent to Wheeler but will not have to come to a consensus for the proposed rule to move forward.  

(Sean Reilly, Science (Reprinted from E&E News

 Brazilian Amazon deforestation surges to break August records 

While the recent spate of fires in the Amazon rainforest have been capturing international attention, regular deforestation via cutting and clearing techniques have also been rapidly increasing. In August alone, 430 square miles, or a region the size of Hong Kong, has been cut down. This comes after the July’s loss of 870 square miles, a 275% jump from the previous year.  At the current rate of deforestation Brazil is on track to lose more than 3,800 square miles of rainforest, or an area roughly one and a half times the size of Delaware, this year.

“The August data from Deter is hardly surprising,” said Claudio Angelo of Climate Observatory, referencing the Deter-B satellite that was put into place in 2015 to monitor Brazil’s rainforests. According to him and other representatives from non-governmental organizations, the Bolsonaro government is delivering on its promises to support local industries such as mining, ranching, farming, and logging rather than enforcing environmental protections. 

While this deforestation data is separate from data on forest fires, felled trees are often left to sit and dry before they are lit aflame, leading forest engineers to portend that the fires are going to get worse in the coming months.

Since the Amazon rainforest generates its own weather patterns, studies have demonstrates the possibility that after 40% deforestation has occurred, the biome may irreversibly convert to savannah. This could impact global weather patterns, affected Brazilian weather most severely. However, recent estimates place that tipping point closer to 20-25% due to the synergistic effects of climate change. According to the World Wildlife Fund, approximately 17% of the rainforest has been lost in the past 50 years, putting uncontrollable forest conversion much closer than previously assumed.

(Jonathan Watts, The Guardian

Written by sciencepolicyforall

August 30, 2019 at 11:08 am