Saturday, December 31, 2016 | By Laura Smith | No Comments
If 2016 was a rough year for the animal kingdom, 2017 could be worse. Most scientists agree that we are experiencing a sixth mass extinction, but unlike the previous five that extended over hundreds of millions of years and occurred because of cataclysmic natural disasters, humans are responsible for this one.
Climate change, agricultural expansion, wildlife crime, pollution, and diseasehave created a shocking acceleration in the disappearance of species. The World Wildlife Fund recently predicted that more than two-thirds of the vertebrate population—mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles—would be lost over the next three years if extinctions continue at the current rate. A 2015 study that appeared in the journal Science Advances suggests that the rate ofvertebrate extinction has increased nearly 100 times. Paul Ehrlich, a professor of population studies at Stanford University and a co-author of the study, notes half the life forms that people know about are already extinct. Another study, published in the journal Current Biology, observes that some species are likely becoming extinct before scientists have a chance to discover and classify them. Researchers looking at Brazil’s bird populations found some already so threatened when they were discovered, they went extinct almost immediately. “That we have these examples,” the authors write, “may be by good luck: we will surely have missed many others.”
Scientists have cautioned against making sweeping overall estimates, rather than talking about risks for specific populations. As Duke University professor of Conservation Ecology, Stuart Pimm, observed, even though animal populations are “declining precipitously,” pinpointing exactly how many animals will be gone and the timeframe for their extinction doesn’t capture the complexity of the problem. “It’s bird populations in Europe, it’s fish in the Pacific,” Pimm says.“You can’t add those together and come up with a number that makes any sense.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has tried to show the scope of the problem in its Red List,a comprehensive roster of threatened species. Hereare some of the highlights, including three species that went extinct last year and others to watch out for in 2017:
The Bramble Car melomys: This small Australian rodent that resembled an ordinary mouse was confirmed as extinct in 2016. It is the first known mammal to go extinct as a result of human-caused climate change. Its habitat on an island in the Great Barrier reefwas assaulted by the rise of sea levels, coastal erosion, and flooding—all driven by climate change.
Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog: In 2016, the appropriately named Toughie died in the Atlanta Botanical Garden. He was at least twelve years old, though his exact age is unknown. Toughie and another Rabb’s fringe-limbed tree frog were collected from Panama in 2005 for research on chytrid fungus, a deadly fungus that has been ravaging amphibian populations in the region. Amphibians, like Toughie, have the highest rate of endangerment, with a third of known species being at risk of extinction. Toughie became the face of the amphibian extinction crisis as visitors to his enclosure knew they were looking at the last of his kind.
Dolphins and porpoises: There has been a lot of alarming news about the ocean recently: A UN report found that ocean acidification is up around 26 percent, and more than half of the sharks and rays in the Mediterranean are at risk of extinction.But, in 2016, with a population of only three, the Irrawaddy dolphin in Laos was declared “functionally extinct.” The announcement came after a World Wildlife Fund survey of Cambodia and Laos determined there were not enough mating pairs for the species to survive. Resembling Flipper—except with a bulbous face instead of a bottle nose—this sea faring mammal’s extinction is blamed on gill nets, a type of netting used by commercial fishermen that trap fish by their gills. Dolphins are caught in the nets and drown.
Vaquita, or “Little cow” in Spanish, is the smallest species of porpoise, and the remaining few live in the Gulf of California. Vaquita are so rare that some people who live on the Gulf don’t believe they exist, according to a recent Vaquita documentary. In May, a Conservation Biology acoustics survey found that there are only 60 left. Now, some have dropped the estimate to fewer than 50. Like the Irrawaddy dolphin, they are victims of gill net fishing.
African Grey Parrot: In December 2016, the International Union of Concerned Naturalists revealed that 11 percent of newly discovered bird species were already threatened and changed the status of others, such as the African Grey Parrot, from “vulnerable” to “endangered.” Highly intelligent and capable of mimicking human speech, the African Grey Parrot’s population has shrunk by as much as 99 percent in some places because of habitat loss and trapping. Perhaps the most famous member of this species was Alex, the subject of intelligence studies at Harvard and Brandeis universities who, when he died in 2007, knew more than 100 English words.
Giraffes: Bad news for the planet’s tallest land creature was announced before the end of 2016: Giraffe populations are plunging in what scientists call a “silent extinction” due to poaching and habitat loss. (The extinction is “silent” because we had largely failed to notice their plummeting population.) Previously, the IUCN’s Red List had given them a “least concern” rating. News that their populations have dropped by as much as 40 percent since 1985 has caused their status to be changed to vulnerable.
Jaguars and most large cats: The protection of all big cats will be important in the coming years, as populations continue to plummet. The African lion population, for example, has dropped 90 percent. At the end of December, a study from the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesreported that the fastest land animal on earth, the cheetah, now only has a worldwide population of about 7,000. That’s down from its population of about 100,000 a century ago. The study attributed the drop to habitat loss: Cheetahs have lost 91 percent of their range.
Large cats are also endangered in our own backyard. “El Jefe,” who was named by Arizona school children, is the only known wild jaguar inthe United States, but it is an elusive animal whose exact whereabouts are often unknown. In February, the Center for Biological Diversity released a video of the enormous cat slinking through the mountainside in the Santa Rita mountains outside of Tuscon. Randy Serraglio, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity who tracks El Jefe, suggests the animal has likely migrated to Mexico in search of mates. Once there, it faces other dangers from ranchers, who kill jaguars for sport or out of concern for their livestock,Mexican newspapers reported. Back in the US, a Canadian mining company might threaten El Jefe’s habitat by developing a massive open pit copper minethrough its territory in Arizona. On top of all that, should Donald Trump actually make good on his proposed border wall, jaguar migratory patterns would bedisrupted.
Rhinos: These massive mammals have long been hunted for their horns, which are erroneously believed to have healing properties. The western black rhino is already extinct and there are only three northern white rhino left. There is still a small population of Javan Rhinos in Indonesia, but two other subspecies, one in Vietnam, have also gone extinct. In 2016, numbers showed that the previous year was the worst year ever for rhino poaching. Given the trends, scientists predict that the entire wild rhino population will go extinct between 2021 and 2031. Many of the horns already on the market are fake, and some companies are trying to deal with the crisis by flooding the rhino horn market with 3-D prints of rhino horns, under the dubious assumption that this will make poaching less lucrative. However, some conservationists argue that it could actually make things worse by removing the stigma about using the horn and making it harder for law enforcement officers to track poachers.
Yellow-faced honeybee: Seven species of Hawaii’s yellow-faced bees made it onto the endangered species list last year, but more than a quarter of the bee population in the US is also in trouble. This has potentially devastating consequences for the planet’s food supply: Bees are responsible for pollinating more than a third of the world’s food.
The African elephant: The Endangered Species Coalition reports that the population of the largest land animal in the world—once 10 million strong—has fallen to about 400,000. The Great Elephant Census, a pan-African census that collects data using small planes, reports that the Savannah elephants have lost nearly a third of their population in the last seven years. The population drop is attributed to ivory poaching and loss of habitat. If poaching continues at its current rate, there will be no African elephants in 20 years.
Wednesday, December 28, 2016 | By Nathalie Baptiste | No Comments
Ever since Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November, climate activists have been scrambling to find ways to safeguard the progress made by President Barack Obama in the fight against global warming. It won’t be easy. The president-elect has pledged to back out of the Paris climate agreement and repeal Obama’s limits on greenhouse gas emissions. But advocates believe they’ve found one final action Obama can take that Trump won’t be able to undo: funding climate action abroad.
In 2010, the United Nations established the Green Climate Fund, a mechanism for wealthy countries to finance efforts by poor countries to reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change. Four years later, Obama pledged $3 billion to the fund. In March this year—despite objections from the GOP-controlled Congress—the administration submitted its first payment of $500 million. The funds came from the Economic Support Fund, $1.9 billion that Congress had already appropriated to the State Department for the promotion of economic and political stability in countries with special conditions.
Climate advocates were hoping that the next president would continue to support the GCF by making contributions over the next several years. But Trump has made it clear that making payments to the fund and combating climate change in poor countries will not be priorities for his administration. In October, the Trump campaign pledged to “cancel billions in payments to UN climate change programs” and instead use the money to “fix America’s water and environmental infrastructure.”
So climate activists are calling on the White House to deliver the rest of the funds before Obama leaves office on January 20. Last week, more than 100 organizations, led by Corporate Accountability International, signed a letter urging the Obama administration to hand over the remaining $2.5 billion to the GCF before Inauguration Day.
The basic idea behind the fund is that developing countries did little to cause the problem but in many cases will be hit with huge climate impacts that they can’t afford to deal with. “It’s set up that way because wealthy countries are predominantly responsible for the crisis of climate change,” says Jesse Bragg, who is Corporate Accountability International’s media director. “The total budget is $100 billion, which is a drop in the bucket compared to what it will cost.”
Developing countries will use the money for renewable energy projects. “It will also be used to assist with projects and programs that will reduce the risks of climate-related disasters,” says Michael Burger, an environmental law expert at Columbia University, who added that many of those disasters can be linked to the United States’ consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
“The debt for the damage inflicted on the global climate by American carbon will never be fully repaid,” Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, said in the Corporate Accountability International press release. “And the Trump administration can be counted on to do nothing for the most vulnerable people on the planet.”
Activists hope that because Obama was able to make the first payment despite a hostile Congress, he can do it again. Republicans made a lot of noise over the transfer but ultimately weren’t able to reverse or cancel the payment. “It’s no small feat to move this amount of money in this amount of time, but we’ve seen the administration take similar action before,” says Bragg.
The clock is ticking. “Any transfer that is made and completed would not be reversible,” says Burger. “But, it will certainly be within the Trump administration and the incoming Congress’ power to withhold future payments.”
“This is Obama’s legacy at the end of the day,” adds Bragg. “Is he going to let everything he’s done on climate be unraveled by Trump?”
President Obama acted on the urging of several Native American tribes and their supporters by designating national monuments in Nevada and Utah. This action followed years of public demand for better protections and the growing threats from looting, vandalism and theft.
Wednesday, December 28, 2016 | By Jeremy Schulman | No Comments
2016 was a year of remarkable scientific breakthroughs. A century after Albert Einstein proposed his general theory of relativity, researchers proved him right when, for the first time ever, they were able to observe gravitational waves produced by two black holes that collided 1.3 billion years ago. Astronomers discovered a potentially habitable planet just 4.3 light-years from Earth. And scientists even came up with a good reason to put a bunch of adorable dogs in an MRI machine.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of anti-science nonsense this year, too—much of it from our political leaders. On issues ranging from climate change to criminal justice, our president-elect was a notable offender. But some of his rivals joined in as well. So did his nominees. And Congress. And members of the media. Here, in no particular order, are some of the most appalling examples. You can let us know in the comments which one you think is the worst.
Hurricane Matthew Truthers
In early October, as Hurricane Matthew approached the southeastern United States and officials ordered mass evacuations, a group of right-wing commentators alleged that the Obama administration was conspiring to exaggerate hurricane forecasts in order to scare the public about climate change. On October 5, Rush Limbaugh said hurricane forecasting often involved “politics” because “the National Hurricane Center is part of the National Weather Service, which is part of the Commerce Department, which is part of the Obama administration, which by definition has been tainted.” He added, however, that Matthew itself was “a serious bad storm” and hadn’t been politicized.
The next day, Matt Drudge took the theory a step further, tweeting, “The deplorables are starting to wonder if govt has been lying to them about Hurricane Matthew intensity to make exaggerated point on climate.” He added, “Hurricane center has monopoly on data. No way of verifying claims.” Drudge’s tweets were widely condemned as dangerous and irresponsible. They also caught the attention of conspiracy kingpin Alex Jones:
A day later, Limbaugh also went full Matthew Truther, declaring it “inarguable” that the government is “hyping Hurricane Matthew to sell climate change.” Matthew would ultimately kill more than 40 people in the United States and hundreds in Haiti. It caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage.
Congress Won’t Lift the Gun Research Ban
Gun violence is a public health crisis that kills 33,000 people in the United States each year, injures another 80,000, and, according to an award-winning Mother Jones investigation, costs $229 billion annually. But as the Annals of Internal Medicine explained in a 2015 editorial, Congress—under pressure from the National Rifle Association—has for years essentially banned federal dollars from being used to study the causes of, and possible solutions to, this epidemic:
Two years ago, we called on physicians to focus on the public health threat of guns. The profession’s relative silence was disturbing but in part explicable by our inability to study the problem. Political forces had effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other scientific agencies from funding research on gun-related injury and death. The ban worked: A recent systematic review of studies evaluating access to guns and its association with suicide and homicide identified no relevant studies published since 2005.
Following the June 12 terrorist shootings that killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Democrats tried once again to lift the research ban. But as the Hill reported, “Republicans blocked two amendments that would have allowed the [CDC] to study gun-related deaths. Neither had a recorded vote.”
Officials Face Charges in Flint Water Crisis
Perhaps the biggest scientific scandal in recent memory was the revelation that residents of Flint, Michigan—an impoverished, majority-black city—were exposed to dangerous levels of lead after government officials switched their drinking water source. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems, along with a variety of other serious health issues. Officials ignored—and then publicly disputed—repeated warnings that Flint’s water was unsafe to drink. According to one study, the percentage of Flint children with elevated lead levels doubled following the switchover. The water crisis may also be to blame for a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
Since April 2016, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed charges against 13 current and former government officials for their alleged role in the crisis. On December 19, Schuette accused two former emergency managers—officials who had been appointed by the governor to oversee Flint’s finances with minimal input from local elected officials—of moving forward with the switchoverdespite knowing the situation was unsafe. According to the charging document, Darnell Earley conspired with Gerald Ambrose and others to “enter into a contract based upon false pretenses [that required] Flint to utilize the Flint River as its drinking water source knowing that the Flint Water Treatment Plant…was unable to produce safe water.” The document says that Earley and Ambrose were “advised to switch back to treated water” from Detroit’s water department (which had previously supplied Flint’s water) but that they failed to do so, “which caused the Flint citizens’ prolonged exposure to lead and Legionella bacteria.” The attorney general also alleged that Ambrose “breached his duties by obstructing and hindering” a health department investigation into the Legionnaires’ outbreak. Earley and Ambrose have pleaded not guilty.
Trump’s Budget Director Isn’t Sure the Government Should Fund Zika Research
Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), Donald Trump’s choice to head the White House Office of Management and Budget, isn’t just a global warming denier. As Mother Jones reported, he recently questioned whether the government should even fund scientific research. In September, Mulvaney took to Facebook to discuss the congressional showdown over urgently needed funding for the Zika epidemic—money that would pay for mosquito control, vaccine studies, and research into the effects of the virus. (Among other disputes, Republicans sought to prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving Zika funds.)
The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is quickly becoming one of the most inaccurately named entities in Washington. For the pastseveral years, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has used his position as chairman of the committee to harass scientists through congressional investigations. He’s even accused researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of having “altered historic climate data to get politically correct results” about global warming. As we explained in February, “Smith is determined to get to the bottom of what he sees as an insidious plot by NOAA to falsify research. His original subpoena for internal communications, issued last October, has been followed by a series of letters to Obama administration officials in NOAA and other agencies demanding information and expressing frustration that NOAA has not been sufficiently forthcoming.”
Fast-forward to December 2016, when someone working for Smith decided to use the committee Twitter account to promote an article from Breitbart News titled “Global Temperatures Plunge. Icy Silence from Climate Alarmists.” (Breitbart is the far-right website that was formerly run by chief Trump strategist Steve Bannon. In addition to climate denial, Bannon has said the site is “the platform for the alt-right,” a movement that is closely tied to white nationalism.)
Republicans’ devotion to coal was one of the defining environmental issues of the 2016 campaign. Trump promised to revive the struggling industry and put miners back to work by repealing “all the job-destroying Obama executive actions.” Those commitments were reflected in an early version of the GOP platform, which listed coal’s many wonderful qualities and said that Republicans would dismantle Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which limits emissions from coal-fired power plants. That didn’t go far enough for GOP activist David Barton, who convinced delegates at the party’s convention to add one additional word to the text. “I would insert the adjective ‘clean,'” said Barton. “So: ‘The Democratic Party does not understand that coal is an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.'” Barton’s wording change was approved unanimously. As Grist noted at the time, “For years the coal industry—and at one point, even President Obama—promoted the idea of ‘clean coal,’ that expensive and imperfect carbon-capture-and-storage technology could someday make coal less terrible. But there’s no way it is clean.”
Global Warming Deniers in the GOP Primaries
As 2016 kicked off, there were still 12 candidates competing for the Republican presidential nomination. Nearly all of them rejected the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are the main cause of global warming. (The GOP contenders who spoke most forcefully in favor of the science—Lindsey Graham and George Pataki—both dropped out of the race in late 2015.)
As recently as December 2015, Trump declared that “a lot of” the global warming issue is “a hoax.” His chief rival, Ted Cruz, said in February that climate change is “the perfect pseudoscientific theory” to justify liberal politicians’ efforts to expand “government power over the American citizenry.” In a debate in March, Marco Rubio drew loud applause when he said, “Well, sure, the climate is changing, and one of the reasons why the climate is changing is the climate has always been changing…But as far as a law that we can pass in Washington to change the weather: There’s no such thing.” Moments later, John Kasich said, “I do believe we contribute to climate change.” But he added, “We don’t know how much humans actually contribute.”
In 2015, Ben Carson told the San Francisco Chronicle, “There is no overwhelming science that the things that are going on are man-caused and not naturally caused.” A few months earlier, Jeb Bush said, “The climate is changing. I don’t think the science is clear of what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural…For the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant.” In one 2014 interview, Rand Paul seemed to accept that carbon pollution is warming the planet; in a different interview, he said he’s “not sure anybody exactly knows why” the climate changes. Mike Huckabee claimed in 2015 that “a volcano in one blast will contribute more [to climate change] than a hundred years of human activity.” (That’s completely wrong.) In 2011, Rick Santorum called climate change “junk science.” In 2008, Jim Gilmore said, “We know the climate is changing, but we do not know for sure how much is caused by man and how much is part of a natural cycle change.”
Two other GOP candidates, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina, seemed to largely accept the science behind climate change, but neither of them had much of a plan to deal with the problem.
Trump’s (Other) Wars on Science
Trump’s rejection of science goes well beyond basic climate research. Here are some of his more outlandish claims from the past year:
Despite DNA evidence, Trump still thinks the Central Park Five are guilty. In 1989, five black and Hispanic teenagers were charged with the brutal rape of a white woman in New York’s Central Park. Trump proceeded to pay for inflammatory ads in the city’s newspapers decrying the “permissive atmosphere which allows criminals of every age to beat and rape a helpless woman.” He called on lawmakers to “bring back the death penalty and bring back our police!” The defendants, most of whom had confessed to involvement in the rape, were convicted. They were eventually exonerated by DNA evidence and a confession from the actual rapist. But Trump still isn’t persuaded by the scientific evidence. “They admitted they were guilty,” he told CNN in October. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.” As Sarah Burns, who made a documentary about the case, noted in the New York Times, “False confessions are surprisingly common in criminal cases. In the hundreds of post-conviction DNA exonerations that the Innocence Project has studied, at least one in four of the wrongly convicted had given a confession.”
Trump mocks football players for worrying about brain damage from concussions. In October, Trump praised a woman who returned to his Florida rally shortly after she had fainted from the heat. “That woman was out cold, and now she’s coming back,” he said. Trump, who once owned a USFL football team, added, “See, we don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussions—’Uh oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season’—our people are tough.” As the Washington Post pointed out, “Recent MRI scans of 40 NFL players found that 30 percent had signs of nerve cell damage. Florida State University College of Medicine’s Francis X. Conidi, a physician and author of the study, said in a statement that the rates of brain trauma were ‘significantly higher in the players’ than in the general population. In the spring, the NFL acknowledged a link between football and degenerative brain diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is associated with symptoms such as depression and memory loss.”
Trump meets with anti-vaxxers. Trump has long been a proponent of the discredited—and dangerous—theory that vaccines cause autism. “I’m not against vaccinations for your children, I’m against them in 1 massive dose,” Trump tweeted in 2014. “Spread them out over a period of time & autism will drop!” He made the same argument at a 2015 GOP debate, causing a spike in Google searches for information about the supposed vaccine-autism connection. Since then, Trump hasn’t said much more about the issue in public. But according to Science magazine, he met privately with a group of leading anti-vaccine activists at a fundraiser in August. The group reportedly included Andrew Wakefield, the lead researcher behind the seminal study (since retracted) of the vaccine-autism connection. Science reported that “Trump chatted with a group of donors that included four antivaccine activists for 45 minutes, according to accounts of the meeting, and promised to watch Vaxxed, an antivaccine documentary produced by Wakefield…Trump also expressed an interest in holding future meetings with the activists, according to participants.”
Trump says there is no drought. During a May campaign stop in Fresno, California, Trump offered a bizarre take on the state’s “insane” water problems, implying that there wasn’t actually a drought. (There was and still is.) He suggested that the state had “plenty of water” but that “they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea” in order to “protect a certain kind of three-inch fish.” As FactCheck.org explained, “California is in its fifth year of a severe ‘hot’ drought,” and “officials release fresh water from reservoirs primarily to prevent salt water from contaminating agricultural and urban water supplies.” (A much smaller proportion of water is released from reservoirs to preserve habitat for Chinook salmon, the “three-inch” delta smelt, and other fish.)
Trump wants to use hairspray. Trump has repeatedly complained that efforts to protect the ozone layer are interfering with his hair routine. “You’re not allowed to use hairspray anymore because it affects the ozone,” he said in May, arguing that more environmentally friendly hair products are only “good for 12 minutes.” He added, “So if I take hairspray and I spray it in my apartment, which is all sealed, you’re telling me that affects the ozone layer?…I say no way, folks. No way. No way.” FactCheck.org actually went through the trouble of asking scientists whether Trump’s strategy of using hairspray indoors would help contain the ozone-destroying chemicals. “It makes absolutely no difference!” said Steve Montzka, a NOAA chemist. “It will eventually make it outside.”
Jill Stein (Yep, She Deserves Her Very Own Category)
Vaccines. Of course, science denial isn’t confined to the political right. During the 2008 presidential campaign, both Obama and Hillary Clinton flirted with the notion that vaccines could be causing autism and that more research was needed on the issue—long after that theory had been discredited. Obama and Clinton have abandoned these misguided views, but Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is apparently still concerned. In July, she told the Washington Post that vaccines are “invaluable” medications but that the pharmaceutical industry has too much influence over safety determinations from the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC. “As a medical doctor, there was a time when I looked very closely at those issues, and not all those issues were completely resolved,” she said. “There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.”
GMOs. There are plenty of reasonable debates surrounding the use of genetically modified crops. But when it comes to their impact on human health, scientists are pretty much in agreement: GMOs are safe to eat. Once again, Stein isn’t convinced. During the 2016 campaign, Stein called for a moratorium on the introduction of new genetically modified organisms and a “phaseout” of current genetically modified crops “unless independent research shows decisively that GMOs are not harmful to human health or ecosystems.” Stein’s website promised that her administration would “mandate GMO food labeling so you can be sure that what you’re choosing at the store is healthy and GMO-free! YOU CAN FINALLY FEEL SECURE THAT YOUR FAMILY IS EATING SAFELY WITH NO GMO FOODS ON YOUR TABLE!” That page also featured a 2013 video of Stein saying, “This is about what we are eating. This is about whether we are going to have a food system at all. This is about whether our food system is built out of poison and frankenfood.”
The Climate-Denying Cabinet
Trump has loaded up his incoming administration with officials who, to varying extents, share his views on climate change. Vice President-elect Mike Pence once called global warming a “myth,” though he now acknowledges that humans have “some impact on climate.” Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in May that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” Energy secretary nominee Rick Perry once alleged that “a substantial number” of climate scientists had “manipulated data.” Trump’s interior secretary nominee, Ryan Zinke, believes that climate change is “not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either.” Ben Carson (see above) is slated to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an agency facing serious challenges from global warming. Mulvaney, the incoming White House budget director, has said we shouldn’t abandon domestic fossil fuels “because of baseless claims regarding global warming.” Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions claimed in 2015 that predictions of warming “aren’t coming true.”
Interfering with government scientists?
Trump hasn’t even been sworn in yet, but already there are troubling signs that his administration may attempt to interfere with the work of government scientists and experts.
Energy Department questionnaire. The president-elect’s transition team submitted a questionnaire to the Department of Energy asking for a list of employees and contractors who had worked on the Obama administration’s efforts to calculate the “social cost of carbon”—that is, the dollar value of the health and environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels. The transition team also asked for a list of staffers who attended UN climate negotiations. As the Washington Post explained, the questionnaire “has raised concern that the Trump transition team is trying to figure out how to target the people, including civil servants, who have helped implement policies under Obama.” (The department didn’t comply with the request, and the Trump team ultimately disavowed the questionnaire after facing criticism.)
Earth science at NASA. One of Trump’s space advisers, Bob Walker, has repeatedly floated the idea that the administration should begin to remove Earth science from NASA’s portfolio. NASA’s Earth science program is well known for producing some of the world’s most important climate change research, and Walker’s proposal has sparked an outcry among many in the scientific community. (Walker has suggested shifting the work to NOAA, but the incoming administration hasn’t proposed giving NOAA additional funding, and Walker’s critics have called the plan unworkable.) Trump hasn’t actually adopted Walker’s idea, and scientists such as David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist who receives NASA funding, are optimistic that he won’t. But if Trump does attempt to gut NASA’s research efforts, the backlash could be intense. “We’re not going to stand for that,” said Grinspoon on our Inquiring Minds podcast. “We’re going to keep doing Earth science and make the case for it. We’ll get scientists to march on Washington if we have to. There’s going to be a lot of resistance.”
Your pregnancy history affects your chances of getting breast cancer. If you give birth to your baby, you are less likely to develop breast cancer in the future. Research indicates that having an abortion will not provide you this increased protection against breast cancer.
“The wording in [the Texas booklet] gets very cute,” said Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society’s chief medical officer, in an interview with the Washington Post. “It’s technically correct, but it is deceiving.” Here’s the problem, as explained by the Post:
Women who deliver their first baby to full-term at 30 years or younger face a decreased long-term risk of breast cancer than women who have their first baby at older than 30 or 35, or who never deliver a baby at all…Having a baby does provide increased protection against breast cancer, but it doesn’t mean that having an abortion affects your risk one way or another. For example, women who deliver a child before 30, but then have an abortion after their first child, still have a decreased risk of breast cancer, said Brawley, who described himself as “pro-life and pro-truth.”
Pence Denies the Existence of Implicit Bias in Police Shootings
During her first debate with Trump, Clinton supported efforts to retrain police officers to counter so-called “implicit bias.” She noted that people in general—not just police officers—tend to engage in subconscious racism. But she added that in the case of law enforcement, these biases “can have literally fatal consequences.” During the vice presidential debate a few days later, Pence blasted Clinton and other advocates of police reform for “bad-mouthing” cops. He criticized people who “seize upon tragedy in the wake of police action shootings…â€Što use a broad brush to accuse law enforcement of implicit bias or institutional racism.” That, he said, “really has got to stop.”
Pence’s comments were a gross misrepresentation of a key scientific issue in the national debate over police killings of African Americans. Implicit bias does not, as he implied, refer to intentional, overt bigotry or to systematic efforts by law enforcement to target minorities (though there are plenty of examples of those, too). Rather, implicit bias refers to subconscious prejudices that affect people’s split-second decisions—for example, whether or not a cop shoots an unarmed civilian. As Chris Mooney explained in a 2014 Mother Jones story:
This phenomenon has been directly studied in the lab, particularly through first-person shooter tests, where subjects must rapidly decide whether to shoot individuals holding either guns or harmless objects like wallets and soda cans. Research suggests that police officers (those studied were mostly white) are much more accurate at the general task (not shooting unarmed people) than civilians, thanks to their training. But like civilians, police are considerably slower to press the “don’t shoot” button for an unarmed black man than they are for an unarmed white man—and faster to shoot an armed black man than an armed white man.
And as Mooney noted, acknowledging that implicit biases are common—something Pence refused to do—allows scientists and law enforcement to devise trainings that seek to counter the problem.
Wednesday, December 28, 2016 | By Maddie Oatman | No Comments
By mid-October, harvest is in full swing in central Iowa. Giant green combines crawl through rows of withered corn until well after dusk as Webster City’s farmers hurry to gather their crops before the first freeze sets in. The stiff, pale bodies of dead hogs pile up in dumpsters along gravel roads, waiting to be butchered. Geese sail south in wavering Vs, and the maple trees on the banks of Brewer Creek flare crimson.
A few miles outside of town, in a squat white barn that used to house hundreds of sows, a different sort of harvest has kicked into gear. Grace Nelson, 22 and tan with ombré hair, stands alert, clipboard in hand, watching her co-workers hustle to transfer fish from tanks to a flatbed truck bound for Colorado.
Grace Nelson, 22, in the former hog barn that her family converted into a fish farm. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber
Their neighbors raise hogs and cattle, sow soybeans, and tend pumpkin patches and orchards now sagging with apples. But five years ago, the Nelsons—a third-generation Iowa farming family—turned to raising fish. Hundreds of thousands of silvery barramundi, to be precise. Part of a hearty species that’s roughly the size of coho salmon and has flesh the flavor of red snapper, the Nelsons’ barramundi start their lives in their native Australia. Seventeen days after spawning, they are flown in plastic bags of water to central Iowa, where they spend their adolescence swimming against a current pulsing through rectangular tanks on the Nelsons’ farm. Barramundi easily tolerate many environments and have a flexible diet, attributes that led Time in 2011 to call them “just about perfect” as a farmed species. Once the fish reach nearly two pounds, they’ll be shipped live to seafood markets and restaurants across the country, or filleted, flash-frozen, and sent to food distributors like Sysco.
The Nelsons’ operation is so intriguing that in 2014, a pair of Canadian investors named Keith Driver and Leslie Wulf acquired it, changing the name to VeroBlue Farms. (Vero means “true” in Latin.) With the Nelsons still in charge of the day-to-day operations, VeroBlue aims to become North America’s biggest land-based fish farm and the largest domestic producer of barramundi, raising as much as 10 million pounds every year—more than twice as much as anyone else.
Some scientists and ocean advocates believe we need more fish farms like this one: A 2015 World Wildlife Fund report revealed that half of all marine vertebrates have been wiped out since 1970 because of pollution, climate change, and industrial fishing. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, about 30 percent of the world’s wild stocks are fished at biologically unsustainable levels, and research by acclaimed French marine biologist Daniel Pauly suggests the real figure could be more like 45 percent.
That’s prompted experts at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to embrace farmed varieties. “If responsibly developed and practiced, aquaculture can generate lasting benefits for global food security and economic growth,” the director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization declared in 2014. “Here in Iowa, they know how to grow protein,” Driver, the president of VeroBlue, recently told a group of investors. “That’s all we’re doing—growing protein.” The difference, suggests Paul Greenberg, author of the seafood bible Four Fish, is that when it’s done right, aquaculture presents “a real opportunity to change the footprint of our protein.”
How did a family from Webster City, a bucolic town about 75 miles north of Des Moines and 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean, get the idea to farm fish? On a break from manning a booth at Iowa’s annual Pork Congress in 2009, Mark Nelson—co-founder of the aquaculture venture, along with his cousin Jeff—noticed a diagram of a feed dispenser rigged above a pool of tilapia. His mind flashed to his family’s barn, which had sat empty since the family quit raising hogs when the market soured the year before. “It just sort of clicked,” he remembers. Why not fill it with fish tanks? Mark and Jeff, who at the time were in their mid-50s, spent the next three years researching aquaculture systems and retrofitting the sow barn. In 2012, they began selling hybrid striped sea bass to a distributor in Minneapolis. Soon, they switched to the heartier barramundi, supplying Minnesota restaurants as well as Hy-Vee grocery stores. (Jeff still runs the family’s conventional farm down the road, where he harvests corn, hay, and soybeans and fattens hogs for market.)
Photo by Ackerman + Gruber
The Nelsons were betting on math. They knew that one pound of beef can require six pounds of grain and 1,800 gallons of water to produce; a pound of pork might take four pounds of grain and about 600 gallons of water. But one pound of barramundi requires just one pound of grain and up to seven gallons of water. Because the fish’s native rivers in Australia frequently dry up, the barramundi have also adapted to survive close together in billabongs with low levels of oxygen—as if primed to prosper in tanks. When fully grown, they fetch $4 to $5 a pound, while ground beef averages $4.20 and pork averages $3.70. “You look at that stuff and it’s like, okay, this is a good way to go if we’re going to continue to feed the world,” says Mark.
The Nelsons are fussing over Jeff’s broken combine the day I arrive in Webster City, so VeroBlue’s Driver, an energetic 41-year-old with close-cropped strawberry blond hair, gives me a brisk tour of the barn. We don plastic muck boots and swish our soles in a milky antimicrobial mixture sitting in trays on the floor of each doorway. Inside, the air is hot and moist, smelling more like a damp forest than a seafood market. Down a long corridor, we pass tanks and filters that transform water drawn from the local aquifer—smelling of sulfur and red with manganese and iron—into clear and fish-friendly water. Water from the tanks is continuously pushed through filters where beneficial bacteria convert excess ammonia into nitrates. Most of the water is recirculated back into the tanks, and concentrated wastewater flows into a lined lagoon behind the barn, eventually bound for the irrigation systems that water the Nelsons’ crops. (Unlike hog manure, this filtered fish waste doesn’t pollute—there’s much less volume, and the concentrations of nitrates are significantly lower.) And once the company grows bigger, Driver says, it will recycle virtually all the fish excrement into fertilizer.
VeroBlue President Keith Driver catches a barramundi from one of the Nelsons’ tanks. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber
The Nelsons bought this unique water recirculation system, called Opposing Flows, from an inventor in Maryland named Rick Sheriff, who back in the 1980s designed a simple, elegant setup that uses air blowers to simultaneously circulate and oxygenate the water. The current also churns up fish poop, creating a self-cleaning tank. Most enclosed aquaculture rigs rely on ozone and pumps to circulate the water. By cutting out those two elements, Sheriff suspects that Opposing Flows uses 8 times less energy and costs 10 times less to run than competing systems. And low overhead is key: The United States’ only other land-based barramundi operation, Australis, couldn’t compete with cheaper ocean-based barramundi farms in Southeast Asia, so it moved the majority of its production to Vietnam. Grace Nelson calls Opposing Flows the family’s “secret sauce.”
Driver leads me into a long “grow out” room, which holds two dozen 10,000-gallon tanks painted dark green to mimic the color of a riverbed. Teenage barramundi—11 inches long—cluster under the surface of churning water kept at 82 degrees. Banks of lights put the fish through six sunrises and sunsets each day, a trick to keep them feeding and growing faster. When the lights turn on, they know lunch will drop from plastic containers hanging over the tanks. Pellets made from ground fish meal, chicken byproducts, and wheat are quickly snatched up, helping the barramundi swell from 1.4 ounces to two pounds in mere months, a growth spurt that would take them a year in nature.
Special lights help the barramundi grow faster. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber
The surface of the tank froths like a gurgling hot tub, so Driver asks technician Joe Rezek to grab a fish so I can take a closer look. He stands on the wooden platform parallel to the tank, leans over the railing, and scoops out a football-sized barramundi. The fish is nickel-colored, with an underbite and a sharp, webbed dorsal fin that calls to mind prehistoric creatures. In the wild, barramundi eat insects, shrimp, other fish, and, according to the Australian government, even baby crocodiles; they’ve been tracked traveling upward of 380 miles and can live 20 years. At about five years old, they migrate from rivers to coastal estuaries, shift from male to female, and spawn. The fish in Rezek’s hand flops violently before Rezek dunks it into an ice bath, where it disappears under the chalky slurry, a dark splotch that writhes for a moment before stilling.
Mark and Jeff Nelson say aquaculture is what kept their kids down on the farm. Grace, Mark’s daughter, had been studying education at Iowa State University, on the road to becoming a teacher, when the fish experiment started to take off. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, hold up,'” she says. “I could see where this is going, and I was like, ‘I can’t not be a part of it.'” For Grace and her sister, Kelsey, along with Grace’s boyfriend and various in-laws and cousins, the excitement and financial opportunity of a new industry beckoned. And unlike hog farming—which involves handling powerful animals, enduring the stench of toxic manure, and then managing a gruesome slaughter—aquaculture is mostly just waiting for fish to grow. “I felt like I had to shower 14 times before I got that smell off me,” Grace says of hog farming. Now, “I can come in here, do chores, go home and freshen up, and go to church.”
VeroBlue is hoping the Nelsons’ neighbors will see the appeal of switching from hogs to fish. Already, about 150 local farmers have expressed interest in installing tanks in their barns. And in the fall of 2015, the company bought a 270,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown Webster City for $2.5 million. The space once housed an Electrolux washing-machine factory that shuttered in 2011, with a loss of 500 jobs. With its “urban farm,” which opens in January, VeroBlue has promised to introduce 150 new jobs in a town of 8,000 people. The company has started construction on a hatchery, too, so it no longer has to import fry from Australia. Scaling up, says Mark Nelson, will be key to the company’s long-term success. Big-name grocers, he says, “don’t want to talk to me unless I can produce so many thousands of pounds of fish a week.”
That’s a tall order, according to Randy Cates, owner of the first offshore fish farm in the United States. Cates believes land-based aquaculture alone will never meet the skyrocketing demand for seafood; he once compared the practice to “growing corn on a barge in the middle of the ocean.”
Indeed, one challenge on a landlocked farm is getting enough water to make sea creatures feel at home. The Nelsons’ operation uses a whopping 15,000 gallons of water a day. But Driver points out that much of that is reused to irrigate the Nelsons’ cornfield. And luckily for the Nelsons, their water source, the Jordan Aquifer, is the state’s most productive source of groundwater—despite the fact that farmers and businesses drew 24 billion gallons from the aquifer in 2013, more than a 50 percent increase from the 1970s. VeroBlue’s new facility will include a wastewater treatment plant that will recycle up to 90 percent of its water, further minimizing its dependence on the state’s groundwater.
In addition to the water concerns, there’s also the carbon emissions associated with keeping water flowing within tanks day in and day out. Steven Gaines, the dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management in California, studies the environmental footprints of food. He estimates that with the current mix of power sources in the United States, land-based fish farms create half the emissions of beef, one of the most carbon-intensive foods on the planet. VeroBlue plans to install solar panels on its new facility eventually, but for now it draws its power from the grid.
Actually, it’s likely that VeroBlue’s biggest challenge isn’t water or any technical problem—it’s marketing. Elite chefs like The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller and Top Chef’s Rick Moonen have begun featuring barramundi on their menus, and meal-kit service Blue Apron includes it in its dinners. Yet most foodies still consider farmed fish inferior to wild seafood. Aquaculture’s poor reputation stems from a long line of mistakes, says Corey Peet, a former aquaculture program manager at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Southeast Asian farmers clear-cut hundreds of thousands of acres of mangrove swamps to make way for dirty shrimp farms. Domestic farmed salmon have suffered frequent outbreaks of disease and sea lice, and their waste often damages the surrounding ecosystem. And farmed salmon are typically fed large amounts of smaller fish like anchovies and herring—whose stocks are also on the decline. One pound of salmon requires the fish oil wrung from five pounds of these forage fish. The barramundi raised in tightly controlled, indoor environments like the Nelsons’ don’t need antibiotics or hormones. They require a third of the feed to produce roughly the same quantity of healthy omega-3 fatty acids as some kinds of salmon. And recent innovations in the feed industry have slashed or even eliminated the amount of fish meal required to sustain farmed fish; Skretting, the company that makes the pellets used by VeroBlue, announced in the spring that it had developed a feed without fish meal. Other researchers are looking to nut waste, algae, or insect larvae as a replacement.
The Nelsons’ barramundi live in tanks meant to mimic a riverbed Photo by Ackerman + Gruber
Whatever the challenges of farming fish, the fact is that aquaculture may be the oceans’ last hope for survival. “We’re now in a situation where doctors and nutritionists are asking us to double our seafood consumption,” says Michael Rubino, director of aquaculture at NOAA, referring to the recommendation by the US Dietary Guidelines that people increase their seafood consumption to twice a week. “Where is all that seafood going to come from?” Rubino says. “So far, the choice we’ve made is to go elsewhere, rather than figuring it out at home.” By pioneering the mass production of barramundi in the United States, VeroBlue hopes to play a role in easing that strain, though Gaines points out that it’s going to take a lot more than just VeroBlue to produce enough sustainable seafood to satisfy our ever-growing appetite. Land-based fish farms in the United States produce only a fraction of 1 percent of the 7 billion pounds of fish we’d need if every American ate as much fish as the government guidelines recommend.
On my last day at the farm, Driver hosts three potential investors for a lunch of barramundi, as well as trout and salmon, which the company also hopes to raise and sell. One man, an Australian who grew up eating barramundi, inhales three cornmeal-encrusted chunks and admonishes his colleagues for not consuming the oil-rich skin. After plates sit empty for several minutes, awaiting the salmon and trout courses, Driver grows impatient.
He enters the kitchen and discovers the problem—Rezek is struggling to carve a piece of coral-colored trout.
“Where’s the salmon?” Driver asks.
“We butchered it trying to fillet it,” Rezek says sheepishly.
We are, after all, 1,000 miles from the Atlantic and 1,500 miles from the Pacific. But if the rest of my visit is any indication, it likely won’t take long before Iowa farmhands master the art of the fish fillet.
For the first time, the federal government is implementing a set of comprehensive plans to improve the protection of land, water and wildlife that might be impacted by energy development and other projects on public lands.
Thursday, December 22, 2016 | By Karen Hao | No Comments
Scientists have developed a vaccine that could successfully prevent the spread of Ebola, according to a study published Thursday in the Lancet. The study was conducted in response to the West African Ebola crisis—the largest and deadliest recorded Ebola outbreak to date—and is the first to report a promising solution for the deadly virus.
“While these compelling results come too late for those who lost their lives during West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, they show that when the next Ebola outbreak hits, we will not be defenseless,” said the World Health Organization’s Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation and lead author of the study, Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, in a press release accompanying the study.
Amid the Ebola crisis, researchers from WHO and over a dozen other international partners, tested the new vaccine on 5,937 at-risk individuals in Guinea and found it was 100 percent effective when administered soon after exposure. None of the roughly 3,900 people vaccinated within three weeks of Ebola exposure ended up catching the virus 10 or more days after the vaccination. (Researchers discounted any individuals who got Ebola within 10 days—the typical incubation period for the virus—under the assumption that they had already contracted it prior to vaccination.) The vaccine appears to be less effective the longer the researches waited after an exposure: of the roughly 2,000 people vaccinated more than three weeks after an exposure, 16 got Ebola.
To find people at risk of getting Ebola, researchers used a unique method, “ring vaccination,” inspired by the strategy used to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. Each time a new Ebola case was confirmed, researchers traced all of the people the patient had come in direct contact with, as well as the people that had come in contact with those people within the previous three weeks. The clusters, or “rings” were then randomly assigned to either immediate or delayed vaccinations. Afternoticing positive results in the first few months, the researchers stopped the delayed vaccinations altogether. Eventually, the researchers began vaccinating children, which also was 100 percent effective.
The “ring vaccination” technique also had a positive impact on public health impact: communities of those who were vaccinated were also less likely to get sick. That proved crucial not only in developing the vaccine but also in quashing the outbreak itself.
The team still needs to do more research on the safety of the vaccine in children and other vulnerable populations, such as people with HIV. Other questions also remain about how long the protective effects of a single vaccination can last and whether or not it can be modified to reduce side effects without compromising efficacy.
In the meantime, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, a global health partnership that includes WHO, gave $5 million to pharmaceutical giant Merck in January to procure the vaccine after its approval. Merck also committed to making 300,000 doses of the vaccine available, should an emergency arise in the interim.
“Ebola left a devastating legacy in our country,” Dr KeÏta Sakoba, Coordinator of the Ebola Response in Guinea, said in the press release. “We are proud that we have been able to contribute to developing a vaccine that will prevent other nations from enduring what we endured.”