Tag Archives: science

Crimes and Misdemeanors

There are crimes, and then there are crimes.

Americans are currently fixated on the antics of a deranged President and the (almost daily) revelations of his closest associates’ corrupt and criminal behaviors. I’m certainly not immune, as anyone who regularly reads this blog can tell.

The problem is, while we are all distracted by the grade-B gangster movie taking place in and around the Oval Office, we’ve lost focus on what is surely the most egregious and damaging crime of all: the administration’s war on science and its sabotage of the fight against climate change, subjects I touched on yesterday.

We are already seeing the effects of our warming planet, but an irrational administration (populated with ex-lobbyists for fossil fuels and religious extremists who reject not only climate science but the theory of evolution) is intent upon rolling back even modest efforts  to move America away from greenhouse-gas-producing energy sources.

A consortium of scientists and environmental organizations is trying to re-focus our attention on the urgent need to move to clean energy–and the imperative of addressing what is clearly the largest challenge we face. 350.org, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Jobs for Justice and several other organizations are sponsoring nationwide “Rising for Climate” demonstrations on September 8th.

Indiana’s march will begin at the Statehouse at 10:00 a.m. The announcement points up Indiana’s “contribution” to the problem.

We, the people, are running out of time. Join us on September 8, 2018 to demand our elected officials take urgent action on human-driven climate change, protecting our health, moving to 100% renewable energy and creating local, equitable jobs for our city, state, country and planet.

Indiana is home to five of the top 22 worst greenhouse gas and toxic super polluter coal plants in the nation. Indiana is the second largest source of industrial greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States and exceed those from 187 countries (more info at www.superpolluters.com). The time to act is now.

We rise in solidarity on Sept. 8 with communities across the globe. We march in advance and in support of the Global Climate Summit in San Francisco. Elected officials in Indiana, hear our message: take action now.

The time for empty declarations of intent and unreasonable transition timelines has closed. It is time to make Indiana fossil-free and create sustainable, equitable jobs!

The march will end at Christ Church Cathedral, and will be followed by a Community Forum beginning at 11:30 AM.

Will these marches change the retrograde policies being pursued by people in the pockets of fossil fuel interests? Of course not. What they will do, however, is what the Women’s March(es) did: focus voters’ attention on important issues, and send lawmakers the message that millions of Americans care deeply about the environment and will vote to punish a criminal unwillingness to protect it. Marches will encourage further activism. They will encourage people who care about the environment to run for office.

And they will promote solidarity, and encourage people who may feel that they are lonely voices for sanity, by providing evidence that they are not alone.

What’s the old saying? A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step?

If you can, take a step. Rise for Climate on September 8th.

 

It’s Who You Know

I have always been irritated by the common saying “It isn’t what you know, it’s who you know.” Not that there isn’t a good deal of truth to it–that’s what networking is all about, when you think about it– but it’s an observation that is often meant to be snide. The subtext is “So-and-so wasn’t really qualified, but he/she knew someone.”

I always assumed that even if “so and so” got the job on the basis of connections, people who failed to perform would soon be shown the door. That naive belief has been crushed by the Trump Administration, where jobs are filled by cronies and actual expertise–not to mention any evidence of intellectual honesty– is far more likely to get you fired than hired.

In all fairness, people who do know what they’re doing aren’t exactly eager to work for the Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight. But still.

The Guardian recently took a look at the Department of the Interior.

Prominent US climate scientists have told the Guardian that the Trump administration is holding up research funding as their projects undergo an unprecedented political review by the high-school football teammate of the US interior secretary.

Scientific funding above $50,000 now has to be vetted by an additional review,  to ensure–in Secretary Zinke’s words–that expenditures “better align with the administration’s priorities”.

As we’ve seen, protecting the environment and America’s public lands are not among those priorities. Neither is climate science.

Zinke has signaled that climate change is not one of those priorities: this week, he told Breitbart News that “environmental terrorist groups” were responsible for the ongoing wildfires in northern California and, ignoring scientific research on the issue, dismissed the role of climate change.

Steve Howke, one of Zinke’s high-school football teammates, oversees this review. Howke’s highest degree is a bachelor’s in business administration. Until Zinke appointed him as an interior department senior adviser to the acting assistant secretary of policy, management and budget, Howke had spent his entire career working in credit unions.

Howke looks to be a perfect fit for an administration intent upon protecting the fossil fuel industry while dismantling efforts to understand and combat climate change. I’m sure the administration considered his utter lack of scientific background or experience evaluating grant proposals to be a feature, not a bug.

Funneling every grant over $50,000 to a single political appointee from departments that range from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the [US Geological Survey] to the Bureau of Reclamation suggests a political micromanagement approach,” said David Hayes, an interior deputy secretary in the Obama and Clinton administrations who now directs the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the NYU School of Law. He described it as “political interference” that is “both unprecedented and pernicious”.

Trump’s cabinet, staff and political appointees may represent the most extensive collection of petty criminals, buffoons, religious zealots, White Nationalists and know-nothings ever assembled. Certainly, concepts like ethical service and the public good are entirely foreign to them. It’s reminiscent of the old song: they all get by (i.e. keep their jobs)  with a little help from their friends.

And they try to be “helpful” in return. Earlier this year, political appointees at the National Park Service attempted to censor a scientific report by removing every mention of the human causes of climate change.

What is that great quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson? Reality doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not.

If we don’t rid ourselves of this horror show of an administration very soon, America–and the planet–are totally screwed.

The Science of Stereotypes

When you look at the history of human conflicts, it sometimes seems as if most of them can be boiled down to battles of “us versus them”–however the relevant combatants are defining “us” and “them.”

Anyone who is, or has ever been, part of a group marginalized by a particular society knows the sting of the stereotype: In the U.S. it has been”scheming” Jews, “sissy” gays, “shiftless” blacks…In our trips to Europe, Spanish people have warned us against “thieving” Moroccans, a Hungarian expressed disdain for “dirty” Gypsies, and in a small town in Northern England, we were told to beware of people from Yorkshire.

Anyone with two brain cells recognizes how ridiculous it is to apply sweeping generalities–positive or negative– to any group of people. That said, it is clear that even nice people have implicit preferences for those with whom they identify. That undeniable human tendency raises two questions: why? and how do we overcome a deep-seated trait that–whatever its original utility– is increasingly counterproductive?

A recent article in The Conversation looked at the science of stereotyping.

As in all animals, human brains balance two primordial systems. One includes a brain region called the amygdala that can generate fear and distrust of things that pose a danger – think predators or or being lost somewhere unknown. The other, a group of connected structures called the mesolimbic system, can give rise to pleasure and feelings of reward in response to things that make it more likely we’ll flourish and survive – think not only food, but also social pleasure, like trust.

But how do these systems interact to influence how we form our concepts of community?

Implicit association tests can uncover the strength of unconscious associations. Scientists have shown that many people harbor an implicit preference for their in-group – those like themselves – even when they show no outward or obvious signs of bias. For example, in studies whites perceive blacks as more violent and more apt to do harm, solely because they are black, and this unconscious bias is evident even toward black boys as young as five years old.

Brain imaging studies have found increased signaling in the amygdala when people make millisecond judgments of “trustworthiness” of faces. That’s too short a time to reflect conscious processes and likely reveal implicit fears.

These studies, and many others like them, can help us understand distrust and fear of the “other.” They also explain the innate preference for people with whom we identify:

As opposed to fear, distrust and anxiety, circuits of neurons in brain regions called the mesolimbic system are critical mediators of our sense of “reward.” These neurons control the release of the transmitter dopamine, which is associated with an enhanced sense of pleasure. The addictive nature of some drugs, as well as pathological gaming and gambling, are correlated with increased dopamine in mesolimbic circuits.

The good news is that biology is not destiny.

Even if evolution has tilted the balance toward our brains rewarding “like” and distrusting “difference,” this need not be destiny. Activity in our brains is malleable, allowing higher-order circuits in the cortex to modify the more primitive fear and reward systems to produce different behavioral outcomes.

Research has confirmed that when diverse people work together–in business, or on a common problem–they are more innovative and productive than more homogeneous  groups. When people of different backgrounds socialize, they stretch their frames of reference and reduce their instinctive suspicions.

Of all the damage done by Trump voters, perhaps the very worst has been their willingness to reward political candidates–including legislators–who appeal to crude stereotypes and enthusiastically encourage fear of “the other.”

Humans can learn. To be human is to have a choice. We can tame our destructive instinctive responses. But in order to do that–in order to be more humane and less primordial–we need leaders who model our preferred behaviors and call on us to be the best version of ourselves.

Those are the people who deserve our votes in November.

Can We Trade Trump For France’s Macron?

Remember “Freedom Fries”? Remember those sneering comments about the French? Because after all, we’re Amuricans, so we are clearly superior.

Right.

I watched the French election with interest. It was right after “Amurica” accidentally elected the Orange Ignoramus, and thoughtful observers were worried whether our disastrous election–coming on the heels of the equally disastrous Brexit vote in England–heralded a global spread of white nationalist extremism.

Trump, if you’ll recall, endorsed Marine Le Pen.

Fortunately, Trump’s Le Pen endorsement was every bit as effective as his lukewarm endorsement of Luther Strange and his full-throated advocacy for Roy Moore. The French election was won overwhelmingly by Emmanuel Macron. I’d been rooting for Macron–my middle son’s partner is Parisian and they split their time between Manhattan and Paris, so I had more insight into the French candidates than I would otherwise have had.

My preference for Macron has now been validated. As Reuters recently reported,

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron plans to award multi-year grants for several U.S.-based scientists to relocate to France, his office said on Monday on the eve of a climate summit hosted by the president to raise finances to counter global warming.

Macron unveiled the “Make our Planet Great Again” grants after President Donald Trump in June said he was pulling the United States out of an international accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that was brokered in Paris in 2015.

Macron repeatedly tried to persuade the U.S. leader to reverse his decision. In a statement, the Elysee Palace said 13 of the initial 18 grants will be awarded to scientists based in the United States.

Meanwhile, our dumb and delusional President just dropped climate change from America’s National Security Strategy, in favor of “economic competitiveness.” (I assume we’ll be exceedingly competitive when we’re underfed and underwater..).

Lest you dismiss Macron’s offer to the scientific community as simply a (richly-deserved) middle-finger gesture to Trump, Science Magazine informs us that Macron’s invitation has already borne fruit:

French President Emmanuel Macron’s effort to lure disgruntled foreign climate scientists to France—especially from the United States—has produced its first harvest. France today announced that Macron’s Make Our Planet Great Again initiative has recruited its first class of 18 scientists. Of the new recruits, 13, including a few French nationals, now work in the United States, whereas others are based in Canada, India, and elsewhere in Europe.

It’s hard to disagree with the reaction of the liberal website Daily Kos:

Macron is appealing to shunned U.S. scientists with a simple message: Come do your work in France and we will give you grant money and respect you. What France gets out of the deal is a front-row seat for all of the environmental, energy, and other technical innovation that those scientists will now be producing in their new laboratories. Being on the forefront of new technology has been one of the surest ways to ensure your own workforce is highly skilled and earns high wages. You know, that thing that the United States was once famous for.

You have to wonder just how Donald Trump justifies his daily presidential existence when, at this point, even allies like France are openly mocking him. Donald said he’d be staffing our government with “the best people.” It turns out we got people like Kellyanne Conway while our “best people” take job offers in countries willing to respect their work.

Of course, Donald Trump doesn’t see any reason to “justify” his Presidential existence. He wouldn’t even understand the question.

America has elected an intellectually-challenged and severely mentally ill Chief Executive (casting serious doubt on the mental/intellectual capacities of American voters, but that’s a subject for a different day). Other countries–not just France, which will at least continue to be our ally during this depressing interlude– but China and of course Russia will take advantage of our diminished capacities and our dramatically declining global status.

But hey– Trump voters are happy. They got rid of that black President, brown people aren’t coming here anymore (even as tourists!), and as a bonus, they’re offloading those fancy-shmantsy elitists who do “science” and “facts.”

Happy (White Christian) days are here again….

 

The Roads Not Taken

The other day, my husband shared a great cartoon with me: a lecturer was standing by a whiteboard containing a list of actions to combat climate change, most of which would also result in cleaner air and water. A man at the back of the lecture hall is asking “But what if we make the world better and it turns out the scientists were wrong?”

It is difficult to understand opposition to efforts to ameliorate climate change, since most of the measures being proposed are things we ought to be doing anyway. (I do understand why people who make their living from fossil fuels pooh-pooh climate change, and “explain away” the unusual number of unusually destructive hurricanes, not to mention the droughts,  the fact that it’s the end of October and in Indiana the trees have barely begun to change color…)

The problem with taking a head in the sand approach–or just making outright war on all environmental protection measures, a la Scott Pruitt–is that it is getting costly. Ignore, if you will, predictions of future crop failures and massive numbers of refugees from no-longer-habitable regions. Let’s just look at current costs and those we can predict with confidence.

Thanks to the unprecedented number and severity of hurricanes, FEMA has already had to ask Congress for billions of extra dollars. To the extent the fires in California were connected to that state’s long drought, we can add the costs of that disaster. Those disasters, however, are small potatoes next to the extra costs incurred on otherwise run-of-the-mill projects as a result of climate change.

Take road construction.

When engineers build roads, they use weather models to decide what kind of pavement can withstand the local climate. Currently, many American engineers use temperature data from 1964 to 1995 to select materials. But the climate is changing.

A recent paper in Nature Climate Change asserts that newer temperature figures are needed to save billions of dollars in unnecessary repairs. Using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Shane Underwood of Arizona State University and his colleagues show that road engineers have selected materials inappropriate for current temperatures 35 percent of the time over the past two decades.

The researchers concluded that a failure to adapt the engineering to warmer temperatures is adding 3 to 9 percent to the cost of building and maintaining a road over 30 years. Those are tax dollars being wasted at a time American infrastructure is desperately in need of repair and rebuilding.

The research analyzed two potential scenarios, one in which global temperatures rose less than current estimates, and one that reflected current predictions. Their results suggest that somewhere between $13.6 and $35.8 billion in extra or earlier-than-normal repairs will be required for roads now being built if the current predictions are accurate. In the lower-temperature warming model, they calculate annual extra costs of between $0.8 billion and $1.3 billion; in the higher-temperature warming model, they predict annual extra costs between $0.8 billion and $2.1 billion.

Other findings included:

  • A road built to last 20 years will require repairs after 14 to 17 years under these models.
  • In some cases, government transportation agencies are paying too much for materials to withstand cold temperatures that do not currently (and perhaps no longer) exist.
  • Because municipal governments in the United States work on tighter road-maintenance budgets than state and federal transportation departments, the extra financial strain will largely impact cities and towns.

There are undoubtedly other expenses that will be generated by our changing climate–some that we can anticipate, and others that will come as unwelcome surprises. Scientists in a number of fields are investigating likely consequences–everything from the loss of hundreds of insect and animal species to the negative effect on coffee beans.

There will be significant and unpleasant costs to taking the road marked “Science Denial.” Unfortunately, these days–at least, in the United States– that road isn’t the “one less traveled.”