Tag Archives: science

It’s Not Easy Being Green

I recently received an email announcing this year’s “Greening the Statehouse” event sponsored annually by the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Greening the Statehouse will be held at the IMMI Conference Center in Westfield, Indiana on November 16th. The day will be filled with informative panels, presentations, and a keynote address all focused on solutions to the climate crisis. As you may recall, GTS is a full day that also includes a light breakfast and lunch. You can learn more at www.hecweb.org/gts

In my more optimistic moments, I think Americans are finally taking environmental concerns–notably, climate change–seriously. It is past time to do so.

I’ve followed the work of organizations like the Hoosier Environmental Council, and shared the dismay of rational people as we’ve watched the current administration not only block progress, but gleefully regress.

I know I’ve written this before, but the climate calculation is simple.

What will happen if the 97% of climate scientists who warn about climate change are proven wrong (or, as conspiracy theorists would have it–plotting to fool us for some mysterious reason), and we nevertheless listen to them?

What if we proceed to clean up our air and water, improve conservation and move to cleaner energy sources–and then find out that all those scientists were wrong?

In that case, we’ll be “stuck” with a healthier, cleaner environment–air our children and grandchildren can breathe and water they can drink; cheaper and more reliable energy sources, and fewer pesticides in our foods. Bummer. True, the bottom lines of fossil fuel companies will shrink, and they might lose some of the 60 billion dollars in yearly subsidies we taxpayers provide them, but those are the breaks in a market economy.

On the other hand, what if all those climate scientists are right, and we follow what passes for policy in the Trump administration–“saving” coal, subsidizing fossil fuels, failing to clean up our waterways, rolling back air pollution standards…and issuing warnings that wind turbines cause cancer?

In that case, we’ll hasten the time the earth can no longer support human life, at least not human life and civilization as we know it.

This “risk to reward” ratio seems like a no-brainer to me, and I am cautiously optimistic that most people are getting the message. The children certainly are–and it may be the children who save us. Greta Thunberg, the remarkable Swedish teenager, minced no words at the recent climate action summit in New York, telling world leaders “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” She accused them of ignoring the science behind the climate crisis, saying: ‘We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth – how dare you!”

Can we dare to hope that at least some of them were listening to her? Can we dare to hope that enough of us are working on voter turnout in 2020–turnout that will dislodge the corrupt and incompetent Trump Administration and install a scientifically-literate one in its place? Can we dare to hope that a majority of earth’s population has come to understand the magnitude–and imminence–of the threat?

I’m writing this in Indiana, where temperatures were in the nineties the first week of October.

If you can, go Green the Statehouse.

 

The Word Of The Day Is Epigenetics

I just finished reading a fascinating–and provocative–book: Pleased to Meet Me, by Bill Sullivan. Sullivan is a professor of pharmacology and microbiology at IU’s Medical School, and unlike most research scientists I know–sorry, guys and gals– is a gifted (and witty) writer. The book is actually fun to read.

The chapter titles give a clue to the book’s approach: “Meet Your Maker,” “Meet Your Tastes,” “Meet Your…Moods, Addictions, Demons, Beliefs, Future…etc.”  Each of the chapters adds to the story of how we have come to be the person we are, thanks to the complicated role played by the genes we’ve inherited, and the mechanisms that support or depress the expression of those genes.

Whether and why a gene “expresses itself” or is “turned off” is what epigenetics is all about.

Epigenetics–I now understand–is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of genes expressions rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. As Sullivan puts it, epigenetics is the study of the “means by which the outside world interplays with our genes.”

After reading this book, I also understand why attributing any characteristic to a single gene, or even several genes, is likely to be inaccurate. It’s incomplete.

Not only can genes be switched on or off, or dimmed, their expression–i.e., the work that they do–interacts with environmental factors. Sullivan explains in great detail (and with funny analogies) why pregnant women shouldn’t drink, for example–and more surprisingly, why fathers who booze it up prior to baby-making can also have a negative effect on the fetus. (I had my children before the negative effects of drinking while pregnant were known–now I wonder whether their tendencies to be smart-asses is a result of my tippling….)

Sullivan doesn’t just want us to understand what science has discovered about our minds and bodies, he also wants us to appreciate the importance of the scientific method that led to those discoveries, and to base our personal and collective decisions on evidence. What science has to tell us should inform public policy. (Obviously, that won’t happen while Trump is in the White House–this is the most anti-science administration in American history.)

In fact, a Pew study confirms a significant partisan divide when it comes to science.

The partisan gap in Americans’ views of government spending for scientific research has grown over the long term. In 2001, there was no significant divide between the parties on this issue. This year, 62% of Democrats support increased spending for scientific research, compared with 40% of Republicans.

Sullivan has a chapter on genetic differences between conservatives and liberals that helps explain this…

If social policy were informed by what scientists now know about the effects of poverty on children, for example, America’s “safety net” (note quotation marks) would look very different. Studies have shown genetic methylation in adults who suffered economic challenges in childhood. (Methylation–another new word for me– changes the activity of a DNA sequence without changing the DNA itself. It’s all pretty complicated.) Underprivileged children don’t just suffer from unfortunate social conditions while they’re experiencing them–they also suffer observable, permanent biological damage.

The most important contribution of this very readable book isn’t the illumination it provides to non-scientists about the operation of our genetic inheritances, although that is certainly a plus. It is the recognition that scientific evidence should–must–inform government policies. Americans have always had an unfortunate habit of creating information silos, of failing to see the relevance of  information we have walled off into specialized domains to other areas of our lives.

Granted, it’s no longer possible to be Renaissance men or women. There is too much information for anyone to be an expert in everything. We can, however, reform our political system to ensure that it recognizes  the existence and importance of expertise. We can insist  that lawmakers base public policies on evidence offered by credible authorities who possess specialized understandings.

But first, we have to elect people who know what they don’t know, who aren’t threatened by people who do know, and who are willing to listen and learn.

 

 

 

Climate Insanity

In Trump’s America, and especially in the wake of the increasing white nationalist mayhem he is encouraging, it’s easy to lose sight of the other damage being done by this utterly corrupt administration.

Take the administration’s wholesale rejection of science.

As Europe tightens restrictions on herbicides and pesticides found to be harmful to humans, the EPA rolls back similar restrictions. The panel of scientists that used to advise policymakers about such threats has been replaced by former lobbyists and industry hacks. Worse still, the administration refuses to admit that climate change is real. It has buried reports from reputable scientists, including those working for the Pentagon.

Last month, The Guardian carried a column by a scientist fired by the administration for insisting on reporting the facts.

The Trump administration’s hostility towards climate science is not new. Interior climate staffer Joel Clement’s reassignmentand the blocking of intelligence aide Rod Schoonover’s climate testimony, which forced both federal employees to resign in protest, are just two of the innumerable examples. These attempts to suppress climate science can manifest themselves in many ways. It starts with burying important climate reports and becomes something more insidious like stopping climate scientists from doing their jobs. In February 2019, I lost my job because I was a climate scientist in a climate-denying administration. And yet my story is no longer unique.

This is why on 22 July I filed a whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration. But this is not the only part to my story; I will also speak to Congress on 25 July about my treatment and the need for stronger scientific integrity protections.

I have worked at the National Park Service (NPS) for a total of eight years. I started out as an intern during the Bush administration, where I experienced nothing like this. I returned in 2012 after earning my PhD, when the NPS funded a project I designed to provide future sea level and storm surge estimates for 118 coastal parks under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. This kind of information is crucial in order for the NPS to adequately protect coastal parks against the future effects of the climate crisis.

I handed in the first draft of my scientific report in the summer of 2016 and, after the standard rigorous scientific peer review process, it was ready for release in early 2017. But once the new administration came into power, publication was repeatedly delayed, with increasingly vague explanations from my supervisors. So for months, I waited. And waited. I was still waiting when I went on maternity leave almost a year later in December 2017.

While she was on her maternity leave, she received an email from an NPS colleague, warning her that “senior leadership” was changing her report without her knowledge, eliminating all references to the human causes of the climate crisis. As she points out in her column, this went far beyond normal editorial adjustment. It was climate science denial, and she initiated a months-long battle over her findings.

Senior NPS officials tried repeatedly, often aggressively, to coerce me into deleting references to the human causes of the climate crisis from the report. They threatened to make the deletions without my approval if I would not agree, to release the report without naming me as the primary author, or not release it all. Each option would have been devastating to my career and for scientific integrity.

She stood firm. The NPS was forced to publish the report as written–and then the retaliation began. There were pay cuts. Her research funding was terminated. She eventually joined the growing exodus of scientists from federal agencies.

I think it was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who said “Reality doesn’t care if you believe in it.” While this administration protects the bottom lines of its donors, sea levels continue to rise, the planet continues to warm, and life on earth gets more precarious.

Trump and his “best people” aren’t just corrupt and inept; they are insane–and our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences.

Now Paper Straws Are Liberal?

We can wring our hands about the corruption of the Department of Education, or the placement of ideologues on our federal courts, the encouragement of White nationalism, or the abandonment of democratic norms and the rule of law, but even those abominations pale next to the war being waged by Donald Trump and his GOP cult on science and the environment.

A sufficiently motivated populace can eject Trump from the Oval Office, and elect people who will begin the process of repairing our governing institutions and our civic culture. The  rejection of science and denial of the existential threat posed by climate change, however, is imposing damage we may never be able to reverse.

It isn’t simply downplaying the extent of the threat, or failing to pursue measures to reverse the damage we now recognize. These troglodytes are actively encouraging behaviors harmful to the environment.

President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign store sells “Make America Great Again” hats, T-shirts, cups, towels and even dog leashes. But one of its newest items might be one of the campaign’s biggest attempt to troll the other side: Trump-branded plastic straws.

According to the campaign store, for $15, those interested can purchase a 10-pack of the red straws with Trump’s name “laser engraved” on them. The new campaign merchandise seems to come as a response to increasing concerned about plastic usage and waste. A video that went viral last year of a marine biologist removing a plastic strawfrom a sea turtle’s nose brought attention to the issue and many communities and businesses have begun to banthe use of plastic straws altogether.

The description of the Trump straws is not subtle about the message the merchandise is meant to send. “Liberal paper straws don’t work. Stand with President Trump and buy your pack of recyclable straws today,” it reads.

Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, tweeted about the new straws on Thursday, saying “Make Straws Great Again.”

Scientists tell us that humans dump eight million metric tons of plastic into our planet’s oceans each year.  By 2050, they estimate that plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish. Plastic in the ocean is eventually broken into smaller pieces — known as microplastic — by sun exposure and wave action, and that microplastic can find its way into the food chain.

When plastic does eventually degrade (a process which takes 400 years for most plastic), it releases chemicals that contaminate the sea.

According to Our Last Straw, 

Americans use millions of plastic straws a day. Those straws litter our streets, lands, shorelines, and oceans. Plastic drinking straws are among the top 10 contributors to marine debris pollution. They do not biodegrade but break down into smaller microplastics that have made their way into our food chain and the deepest trenches of our oceans. The research and statistics on the impacts of plastic straws across the globe are alarming. News articles are appearing regularly on what plastics do to our environment, our health, as well as efforts and innovations across the globe to eliminate and ban single-use plastics straws.

What about the Trump campaign’s assertion that their (very expensive) straws can be recycled? I know it will shock readers to discover that the claim is yet another lie. As the Washington Post (and a number of other media outlets) reported:

Recycling is very important: It keeps many of our plastic objects from spending hundreds of years causing trouble. Unfortunately, your straws always end up in a landfill.

“Plastic straws and other items smaller than two by two inches, such as plastic utensils, fall through the machinery that sorts our recycling,” says Jonathan Kuhl of the D.C. Department of Public Works. “Because of this, we ask District residents not to put these small items in their recycling bins.” The same is true in most recycling plants around the country.

Name calling and gleeful ignorance. They’ll sure show us dumb “libs” (defined as people who accept science). Their grandchildren don’t need a habitable planet anyway.

Rejecting Science

Watching the Trump Administration, I am reminded that there are many kinds of collusion.

The dictionary defines collusion as secret agreement or cooperation for an illegal or deceitful purpose. The  Mueller investigation is pursuing a particularly egregious form–one that, if proven, would legally be considered treason. Americans are focused on that allegation to a degree that overshadows other activities by this Administration–activities that involve a more “homegrown”variety of collusion, and tend to carry less serious legal labels.

Trump’s war on science in cooperation with favored industries is, in my view, every bit as treasonous as his relationship with Russia.

The Guardian recently documented that assault.

Donald Trump’s administration is cutting programs scientists say are proven to protect Americans, from pollution safeguards to teen pregnancy prevention and healthier school lunches, with effects that could last for years.

Experts who have worked in the federal government under Republicans and Democrats say both have sometimes put politics ahead of science but none have done so as blatantly as Trump. And they warn the consequences could continue long into the future.

“It’s as egregious as I’ve ever seen it, starting from the very top with the president just denying the existence of science, manipulating the system on behalf of special interests,” said the former surgeon general Richard Carmona, who testified to Congress that the George W Bush administration pushed him to weaken or suppress public health findings.

Science writer Timothy Ferris has noted the connection between science and liberal democracy; in his book The Science of Liberty, he also documented the historical connection between anti-science and totalitarianism.  As he writes, new scientific knowledge exposes prior ignorance and error, a process that doesn’t pose a problem for democratic regimes, since fallibility is a given in such cultures, “but it leaves totalitarian leaders clinging to outmoded doctrines in a changing world.”  He quotes China scholar H. Lyman Miller,

Just as the scientific community operates according to anti-authoritarian norms of free debate…so science prospers in an external environment that similarly tolerates pluralism and dissent…Scientific dissidents espoused a strong form of liberal political philosophy that grew out of the norms of their profession.

The assault on science, on evidence and on the proper process for achieving reliable data is an assault on liberty and democracy. Refusing to act on the basis of scientific evidence that inconveniences political allies not only causes significant harm to public health and the environment, it is an attack on reason, progress and the rule of law.

In my view, such behavior is every bit as treasonous as taking orders from Vladimir Putin.