Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category
Either it was a cleverly engineered plan or some kind of cosmic joke: just as the confirmation hearing for Scott Pruitt, the climate denier who is Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, was getting under way Wednesday, on Capitol Hill, two federal agencies—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—announced that 2016 was the warmest year since modern record-keeping began, in 1880. It was the third year in a row to smash previous records for warmth, a trend that prompted the Times to observe that “temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat.”
If Pruitt is confirmed, there will probably be no one in a better position to influence—or, more accurately, wreak havoc on—domestic climate policy. Central to the Obama Administration’s efforts to curb global warming has been a set of E.P.A. regulations limiting carbon emissions from power plants. Pruitt, as the Attorney General of Oklahoma, made his views on these regulations known by suing to block them. In the past six years, he filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the E.P.A., in many cases acting in concert with the very industries that the regulations were aimed at. Meanwhile, a super pac close to Pruitt, called Liberty 2.0, was collecting large contributions from these same industries; Murray Energy, the country’s largest coal company, for instance, gave fifty thousand dollars in August.
At confirmation hearings, nominees typically try to distance themselves from the more extreme positions they’ve held by suggesting that these were the equivalent of youthful indiscretions. But if that’s the strategy Pruitt was attempting on Wednesday, he failed. In his opening statement, Pruitt offered the following on climate change: “Science tells us that the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change. The human ability to measure with precision the extent of that impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be.” The statement was clearly designed to be obfuscatory, but it was just comprehensible enough to also be clearly wrong. As the Times’ Coral Davenport put it on Twitter, “#Pruitt on #climate: ‘Science tells us climate is changing’ but says extent of human role is up for debate. False.”
Later in the hearing, Senator Bernie Sanders pressed Pruitt on his views about climate change. The exchange went, in part, like this:
Sanders: As you may know, some ninety-seven per cent of scientists who have written articles for peer-reviewed journals have concluded that climate change is real, it is caused by human activity, and it is already causing devastating problems in our country and around the world. Do you believe that climate change is caused by carbon emissions, by human activity?
Pruitt: As I indicated in my opening statement, the climate is changing and human activity contributes to that in some manner.
Sanders: In some manner? Ninety-seven percent of the scientists who wrote articles in peer-reviewed journals believe that human activity is the fundamental reason we are seeing climate change. You disagree with that?
Pruitt: I believe the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to that.
The exchange—a bizarre riff on Pruitt’s opening statement—prompted Gizmodo to label the hearing “ a surreal nightmare.” It led Sanders to tweet: “We cannot have an EPA administrator who denies climate science. It is far too late for that.”
Pruitt has come under fire from some Republicans, including, most notably, . . .
It’s important to remember that the EPA is a Republican creation. Madeline Ostrander reports in the New Yorker:
the early nineteen-sixties, a young lawyer named William Ruckelshaus was assigned to Indiana’s state board of health to prosecute cases of toxic dumping. At the time, it was commonplace for manufacturers to discard untreated industrial swill—ammonia, cyanide, pesticides, petroleum waste, slag from steel plants, “pickle liquor” (sulfuric acid)—into the nearest sewer, river, or lake. Sometimes, it formed piles of noxious froth nearly as tall as a house. “Those rivers were cesspools,” Ruckelshaus told me recently. He and his colleague Gerald Hansler, an environmental engineer, began touring the state in a white panel truck. They collected water samples and snapped photographs of fish corpses—bluegills, sunfish, and perch, poisoned by the effluent that gushed from industrial outfalls. Then they wrote up the evidence and brought charges against those responsible. Yet, however diligently they worked, their efforts were often regarded with suspicion by Indiana’s governor, who wanted to keep businesses from moving to states with even laxer environmental standards. “I just saw how powerless the states were to act,” Ruckelshaus recalled.
Ruckelshaus brought this lesson with him to Washington, D.C., in 1970, when President Richard Nixon appointed him to set up and run the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. From a modest cluster of rooms on L Street, Ruckelshaus led the agency in its first swift actions. After less than two weeks, he announced that the E.P.A. planned to sue the cities of Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit unless they made a serious effort to stop polluting their rivers with sewage. Later, he refused to give automakers an extension on their mandate to install catalytic converters in all new vehicles—a requirement that eventually resulted in large cuts to toxic, smog-forming emissions. And, in 1972, Ruckelshaus’s E.P.A. banned most uses of the pesticide DDT, a move that helped save a national icon, the American bald eagle, from extinction. More than four decades on, the E.P.A.’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act has averted millions of cases of respiratory disease and continues to save hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, according to a series of agency analyses. For the most part, urban rivers are no longer cesspools, and beaches once fouled with sewage are swimmable. Lake Erie is troubled but no longer deemed dead, as it was in the sixties. Lead levels in the coastal waters off Southern California have dropped a hundredfold.
Ruckelshaus, who is now eighty-four, has watched the ascent of Donald Trump with some trepidation. In August, he and William Reilly, the E.P.A. administrator under President George H. W. Bush, endorsed Hillary Clinton, lambasting Trump as ignorant of the G.O.P.’s “historic contributions to science-driven environmental policy.” The President-elect’s pick to head the E.P.A., the Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has argued before Congress that the agency “was never intended to be our nation’s frontline environmental regulator,” and that the states should have primary authority. That argument is now a favorite among conservatives. But according to Philip Angell, who became an E.P.A. special assistant in 1970 and has worked with Ruckelshaus on and off for the past four and a half decades, Pruitt’s interpretation ignores the history and intent of the laws that define the agency’s mission. The statutes give the E.P.A. “the primary authority to set standards and enforce them if the states won’t do it,” he told me. “The whole point was to set a federal baseline.” One of those statutes, the Clean Air Act, is also “famously capacious,” as Ruckelshaus and Reilly wrote in a legal brief they filed last year in support of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. The act, they point out, obliges the E.P.A. to tackle even those environmental problems that no one knew about or understood in 1970, including climate change.
Pruitt not only denies the scientific consensus on global warming but also disputes the E.P.A.’s authority to act on it. He has called the Clean Power Plan an “executive fiat,” as if it were produced at Obama’s whim rather than through the interpretation of the law. Both his LinkedIn profile and his biography on the Oklahoma Attorney General office’s Web site boast that he is a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” He has a hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday morning, and if he makes it through the confirmation process, he’s likely to try to weaken the E.P.A.’s authority. The Republican Party platform envisions shrinking the agency into “an independent bipartisan commission,” and Trump and his adviser Myron Ebell, who is leading the E.P.A. transition, have talked about abolishing it altogether.
But doing away with the E.P.A. would be no easy task, according to Ruckelshaus and other legal experts. “You have all the statutes the E.P.A. administers,” he said. “You’d have to have a debate on each of those laws.” In the early nineteen-eighties, when President Ronald Reagan’s first E.P.A. appointee, Anne Gorsuch Burford, tried to pick the agency apart, she ultimately resigned amid scandal and corruption investigations. Reagan summoned Ruckelshaus to Washington to put the E.P.A. back together. In the past three decades, the agency has had a mixed record, but no administrator has successfully sabotaged its mission. President George W. Bush’s first two E.P.A. appointments were moderates, though his third, Stephen Johnson, stymied efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. And even under Obama’s progressive environmental policies, budget cuts have made it harder for regulators to police pollution violations.
Today, there is ample evidence of what happens when environmental regulation fails—notably the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. But although there is a growing citizen movement in the United States clamoring for more aggressive action on climate change, the E.P.A. itself “has no constituency,” Ruckelshaus said. . .
Is Trump deliberately picking people who are qualified for the jobs he gives them? Perhaps. Maybe he doesn’t want his appointees getting view more favorably than himself, and given his current popularity levels, he has to go to the bottom of the barrel to get people less qualified than he is.
Politico has a report on Pruitt, but Kevin Drum points out that Pruitt is astonishingly (and perhaps deliberately) ignorant of some serious environmental problems, such as lead. Drum writes:
Well, we’ve now officially gone from this:
Clinton proposes goal of ending lead exposure in 5 years
— Ben Adler (@badler) April 13, 2016
Pruitt on lead exposure’s dangers in children: “I don’t know. I’ve not looked at the scientific research on that.”
— Rebecca Leber (@rebleber) January 18, 2017
If Pruitt had been asked about the effects of zirconium dioxide on Alzheimer’s disease or something, then sure. Nobody knows everything, after all. But lead paint has been in the news for something like 50 years now and Flint’s water pipes have been in big, bold headlines for the past two. You’d have to work pretty hard not to be aware of what lead does.
Still, if you’re bound and determined never to regulate anything, no matter how dangerous, then I suppose it pays to aggressively shut your eyes to environmental dangers of all kinds. Welcome to the New Model EPA, folks.
At Mothe Jones Kevin Drum notes the sharp decline in police killings by young people:
Let’s end the day with some good news. As you all know, violent crime began falling after leaded gasoline began its phaseout in the mid-70s. And because lead affects the brain development of infants and toddlers, the fall in crime began with the youngest kids. In the mid-80s, only young children were showing signs of reduced violence. By the mid-90s, everyone under 20 started to show effects. By the mid-aughts everyone under 30 was starting to get less violent.
In other words, the first cohort to benefit from reduced lead was juveniles. Kids born in the late-70s showed only small improvements because lead had been only slightly reduced during their childhood. Kids born in the late-80s showed more improvement because ambient lead had decreased quite a bit during their childhood. Kids born in the late-90s showed yet more improvement, etc.
Rick Nevin has sent me a new chart that shows this vividly:
In the early 90s, young people between the age of 18-24 killed an average of 33 police officers per year. By 2015 that was down to 4. For juveniles under the age of 18, the number was zero. . .
Having young people play on a field filled with carcinogens turns out to be not so good an idea as it seems. Daniel Luzer posts at the Oxford University Press blog:
Amy Griffin, associate head coach of women’s soccer at the University of Washington in Seattle, first began to wonder about artificial turf and cancer in 2009. “We had two goalies from the neighborhood, and they had grown up and gone to college,” Griffin said. “And then they both came down with lymphoma.
“And we were all sitting there chatting—both of them were bald—and they were like, ‘Why us?’ We were just brainstorming and someone said, ‘I wonder if it has something to do with the black dots.’”
The “black dots” are familiar to anyone who plays sports on artificial turf. Black dots are the crumb rubber used in today’s artificial turf fields (and on playgrounds). Those fields are designed to be more pliable than AstroTurf because they’re made from longer synthetic grass surrounded by infill made of ground rubber from used tires, usually mixed with sand.
Today’s fields typically contain the equivalent of at least 20,000 ground-up tires. Such fields were introduced in the 1990s to make playing fields safer (gone were the AstroTurf rug burns) and safely dispose of used car tires, which can pollute the water, air, and soil as they decompose—or catch fire—in landfills.
The UW campus is near Seattle Children’s Hospital. In three of the first four times Griffin visited, she encountered goalies with cancer.
“And so I started Googling,” she said: “‘What’s in a turf field?’”
“And there was a lot of online discussion about this. What are those little black dots? Well it’s ground-up tires. It’s tire trash, from the dump. And it contains carcinogens,” Griffin said.
The black dots contain mercury, benzene, and arsenic. Griffin discovered that although scientists don’t know that crumb rubber turf causes cancer, they also don’t know that it’s safe.
“I’ve been at the University of Washington for 21 years,” Griffin said. “And for 15 years I saw nothing. I knew no one with lymphoma. But now, personally, I know six people who’ve had cancer.” By 2010 she had heard of 12 soccer players with cancer and decided to keep a list. She now has a list of 230 soccer players, nearly all goalkeepers, who have played on artificial turf and developed cancers. “Why is this?” she said. “I thought it might be like asbestos, where it took 35 years for people to see the danger.”
A 2014 study of nine synthetic turf fields in Italy indicated that evaporating materials at high temperatures may expose children in crucial growth stages to toxic chemicals. The release of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) occurs continuously, according to the report, and the “toxicity equivalent of the different compounds evaporating from the crumb was far from negligible.” The quantity of toxic substances synthetic turf releases, the report concluded, “does not make it safe for public health”.
In 2010, researchers from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta evaluated the concentration of lead in synthetic turf by collecting samples of fields. They determined that the level of lead in turf fiber material and in field dust exceeded the limit for children’s consumer products and concluded that “synthetic turf can deteriorate to form dust containing lead at levels that may pose a risk to children”.
The most pertinent concern, echoed by many scientists and advocates, was that researchers didn’t know much about the safety of crumb rubber. In 2008 researchers from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School put it like this:
Neither systematic testing nor post-test evaluation has been performed on the composition and fate of either the turf or the filler. […] Is the crumb rubber contaminated with metals as it comes from ground up used tires that have been in contact with many roadways and dirt surfaces; what is the surface temperature of the artificial turf as the crumb rubber is black and will absorb more heat than a grass surface; how are the fields safely disposed of once they exceed their usable lifetime; and what happens to the rubber material that does not stay attached to the turf as it becomes mobilized and is released into the environment or becomes attached to the skin and clothing of the users? Numerous mothers have told us that this crumb rubber comes home with the child and is distributed around the house. Furthermore, there are now residential uses of turf with and without “in fill” marketed in many colors with unspecified coloring agents. Is the rubber and turf safe?. . .
Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more at the link.
I wonder whether schools and universities will take action to remove this risk. I strongly doubt it. This is where government has a job: to forbid unsafe playing surfaces without leaving the decision up to individual schools.
We customize nature for our benefit: clearing forests, draining swamps, domesticating plants and animals and modifying them through breeding to better meet our needs or desires. But now we’re taking a more direct approach, as Michael Specter describes in the New Yorker:
Early on an unusually blustery day in June, Kevin Esvelt climbed aboard a ferry at Woods Hole, bound for Nantucket Island. Esvelt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on his way to present to local health officials a plan for ridding the island of one of its most persistent problems: Lyme disease. He had been up for much of the night working on his slides, and the fatigue showed. He had misaligned the buttons on his gray pin-striped shirt, and the rings around his deep-blue eyes made him look like a sandy-haired raccoon.
Esvelt, who is thirty-four, directs the “sculpting evolution” group at M.I.T., where he and his colleagues are attempting to design molecular tools capable of fundamentally altering the natural world. If the residents of Nantucket agree, Esvelt intends to use those tools to rewrite the DNA of white-footed mice to make them immune to the bacteria that cause Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. He and his team would breed the mice in the laboratory and then, as an initial experiment, release them on an uninhabited island. If the number of infected ticks begins to plummet, he would seek permission to repeat the process on Nantucket and on nearby Martha’s Vineyard.
More than a quarter of Nantucket’s residents have been infected with Lyme, which has become one of the most rapidly spreading diseases in the United States. The illness is often accompanied by a red bull’s-eye rash, along with fever and chills. When the disease is caught early enough, it can be cured in most cases with a single course of antibiotics. For many people, though, pain and neurological symptoms can persist for years. In communities throughout the Northeast, the fear of ticks has changed the nature of summer itself—few parents these days would permit a child to run barefoot through the grass or wander blithely into the woods.
“What if we could wave our hands and make this problem go away?” Esvelt asked the two dozen officials and members of the public who had assembled at the island’s police station for his presentation. He explained that white-footed mice are the principal reservoir of Lyme disease, which they pass, through ticks, to humans. “This is an ecological problem,” Esvelt said. “And we want to enact an ecological solution so that we break the transmission cycle that keeps ticks in the environment infected with these pathogens.”
There is currently no approved Lyme vaccine for humans, but there is one for dogs, which also works on mice. Esvelt and his team would begin by vaccinating their mice and sequencing the DNA of the most protective antibodies. They would then implant the genes required to make those antibodies into the cells of mouse eggs. Those mice would be born immune to Lyme. Ultimately, if enough of them are released to mate with wild mice, the entire population would become resistant. Just as critically, the antibodies in the mice would kill the Lyme bacterium in any ticks that bite them. Without infected ticks, there would be no infected people. “Take out the mice,” Esvelt told me, “and the entire transmission cycle collapses.”
Esvelt has spoken about Lyme dozens of times in the past year, not just on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard but at forums around the world, from a synthetic-biology symposium in Chile to President Obama’s White House Frontiers Conference, in Pittsburgh. At every appearance, Esvelt tells the audience that he wants his two young children—he has a three-year-old son and a daughter who is almost one—to grow up in a Lyme-free world. But that’s not really why he speaks at infectious-disease meetings, entomology conventions, and international conservation workshops. He has embarked on a mission that he thinks is far more important.
Esvelt and his colleagues were the first to describe, in 2014, how the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPr could combine with a natural phenomenon known as a gene drive to alter the genetic destiny of a species. Gene drives work by overriding the traditional rules of Mendelian inheritance. Normally, the progeny of any sexually reproductive organism receives half its genome from each parent. But since the nineteen-forties biologists have been aware that some genetic elements are “selfish”: evolution has bestowed on them a better than fifty-per-cent chance of being inherited. That peculiarity makes it possible for certain characteristics to spread with unusual speed.
Until CRISPr came along, biologists lacked the tools to force specific genetic changes across an entire population. But the system, which is essentially a molecular scalpel, makes it possible to alter or delete any sequence in a genome of billions of nucleotides. By placing it in an organism’s DNA, scientists can insure that the new gene will copy itself in every successive generation. A mutation that blocked the parasite responsible for malaria, for instance, could be engineered into a mosquito and passed down every time the mosquito reproduced. Each future generation would have more offspring with the trait until, at some point, the entire species would have it.
There has never been a more powerful biological tool, or one with more potential to both improve the world and endanger it. Esvelt hopes to use the technology as a lever to pry open what he sees as the often secretive and needlessly duplicative process of scientific research. “The only way to conduct an experiment that could wipe an entire species from the Earth is with complete transparency,” he told me. “For both moral and practical reasons, gene drive is most likely to succeed if all the research is done openly. And if we can do it for gene drive we can do it for the rest of science.”
At the meeting on Nantucket, Esvelt assured residents that he and his team fully understood the implications of manipulating the basic elements of life. He said that he regards himself not just as a biologist but as the residents’ agent; if they stop showing interest in the research, he will stop the experiments. He also insists that he will work with absolute openness: every e-mail, grant application, data set, and meeting record will be available for anyone to see. Intellectual property is often the most coveted aspect of scientific research, and Esvelt’s would be posted on a Web site. And no experiment would be conducted unless it was approved in advance—not just by scientists but by the people it is most likely to affect. “By open, I mean all of it,” Esvelt said, to murmurs of approval. “If Monsanto”—which, fairly or not, has become a symbol of excessive corporate control of agricultural biotechnology—“did something one way,” he said, “we will do it the opposite way.”
There are fewer than a million white-footed mice on Nantucket, so a gene drive won’t even be necessary to insure the spread of Lyme-resistant genes. Esvelt plans to release enough genetically modified mice, tens of thousands of them, to overwhelm the wild population. (Since he could never house that many mice in his lab at M.I.T., he recently mentioned the idea of breeding them on a container ship.) That approach, however, would never work for Lyme on the mainland, where there are more than a billion white-footed mice scattered up and down the Eastern seaboard.
The battle against Lyme disease is just an early stage in an unprecedented effort to conquer some of mankind’s most pervasive afflictions, such as malaria and dengue fever. Despite a significant decline in deaths from these diseases over the past decade, they still threaten more than half the world’s population and, together, kill nearly three-quarters of a million people each year. Malaria alone kills a thousand children every day.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested tens of millions of dollars in the research of a team called Target Malaria led by Austin Burt, at Imperial College, in London. In laboratory tests, the group has already succeeded in using CRISPR to edit the genes of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, which carry the parasite that causes malaria, so as to prevent females from producing fertile eggs. . .
Later in the article:
For Esvelt, though, those achievements seem almost like secondary benefits. “For a lot of people, the goal is to eradicate malaria, and I am behind that a hundred per cent,” he said. “The agricultural people have the New World screwworm”—a particularly destructive pest also known as the blowfly—“they’d love to get rid of in South America. Everyone has a thing he really wants to do. And it makes sense. But I would submit that the single most important application of gene drive is not to eradicate malaria or schistosomiasis or Lyme or any other specific project. It is to change the way we do science.”
That is the message that Esvelt has been selling in his talks throughout the world, and the initial response, on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard—even from people who attended the meetings in order to object to the proposal—has been overwhelmingly positive. “I came here thinking I would say, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Danica Connors, an herbalist and shamanic practitioner who opposes genetically modified products, said at the Nantucket meeting. “I am the first person to say that, tinker with Mother Nature, we are going to break it.” But she told Esvelt that she loved “the fact that you are a young scientist saying, ‘I want this to be a non-corporate thing and I want this to be about the people.’ ” Seeming to surprise even herself, she said, “You know, I want to see where you go with this. I am actually very excited.”
The article provides instances of perverse incentives in the way science is done today. For example:
Despite his awards, publications, and influential mentors, Esvelt struggled to find a job that would help him achieve his goals as a scientist and as a public educator. To many institutions, he seemed like a strange hybrid. He had certainly demonstrated great talent as a researcher, but he had also decided to become a sort of proselytizer. He long ago concluded that telling the story of science, and the choices it presents, is just as valuable as anything he might accomplish in a lab. Élite scientists often look down on that kind of advocacy and see it as sanctimonious. “Carl Sagan, to this day, has a reputation in the science community as someone who was obviously a great science communicator,” Esvelt said. “But people will say he wasn’t that important a scientist. That is insane. Look at his publication record. He was a fabulous scientist.”
Many universities were discouraging, in large part because they weren’t sure what to do with him. “Most places told me, ‘We are fine with you speaking out about open science, but not on our time,’ ” Esvelt said. This meant that, when it came to tenure decisions and professional evaluations, he would be judged solely on his work in the lab. “I just didn’t fit into any of their normal silos,” he said.
And he mentions others: the great secrecy with which scientists cloak their current research because of the competitive aspect of how the field is structured.
Fracking is okay for others, just not for those who order the fracking. Christopher Hayes reports: