Saturday, November 24, 2018

BREAK POINT


The swift rise and rapid collapse of McCarthyism more than sixty years ago offers evidence and a relatively recent example of the capacity of American society and democratic institutions to recover from the paralyzing sway the politics of fear, xenophobia, ethnic division and subversion can temporarily hold over the body politic.

Donald Trump and Joseph McCarthy
Credit: NYMag.com

Surfacing during eras of extreme cultural stress, and highly dependent on the symbolic appeal of simplistic purifying or redemptive solutions targeting infectious ‘alien’ agents—the Red Menace in the ‘50s or terrorist Muslims and Central American caravans today-- such movements rely on two basic ingredients. First, a heightened fear that ‘enemies’ have penetrated the nation’s porous borders, taking advantage of our over-tolerant institutions; and second the powerful appeal of a self-appointed charismatic leader willing to transcending normal institutional limits in order to protect the vulnerable homeland and root out by any means necessary subversive elements within and without.

There have been previous outbreaks of what historian Richard Hofstadter first described as the “Paranoid Style” in American politics. But the infectious America First nationalism and anti immigrant fear-mongering of Donald Trump today has only one major parallel: the fierce anti-communist witch-hunt fanned to a fever pitch by the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, in the early 1950’s. Though different in scope and scale, both McCarthyism and Trumpism share a common script, and, if history is any guide, contain similar seeds leading to their own ultimate devolution and destruction.

McCarthy was late to recognize but quick to exploit the enormous potential and power that extreme and undocumented charges against ‘elite’ government officials could bring at a critically unsettling moment in the early Cold War. Aided and enabled by ambitious politicians, credulous reporters and officials like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover willing to use the Senator for their own purposes, McCarthy was suddenly elevated to position where even the threat of his investigations could silence or destroy powerful individuals and institutions at every level of government and society. Even without Trump’s enormous degree of institutional authority, McCarthy’s assumed power, for a time, seemed unlimited.

Though initially challenged by a few members of his own party who recognized the danger he posed to constitutional freedoms, and later, publicly, by media figures such as the respected broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow, it was, importantly, McCarthy himself whose continuing excesses brought him down.

Legal decisions ultimately prevented some of his most extreme actions, though not before thousands of individuals had their careers and lives destroyed by mere threats or charges. Exposed to a national audience during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy and his counsel Roy Cohn’s bullying misuse of power, prompting the famous line uttered by Attorney Joseph Welch: “Senator, have you at last no decency left?” exposed him for the demagogue he was.

Once the spell was broken, the air went rapidly out of the balloon. Public approval diminished; previous supporters backed away from the spectacle. McCarthy’s political power in congress soon evaporated, and though in some cases it took decades, individuals and institutions McCarthy had attacked could begin to respond and rebuild.

We don’t know yet how many insulted American heroes, generals or admirals it will take, or how many humiliated or berated intelligence agents, or agencies. Nor how many ignorant and un-empathetic comments about Puerto Rican hurricane, Synagogue shooting or Californian fire victims.
How many juvenile or vile name-calling tweets belittling basketball players, commentators or political critics it will take to break the spell. But the spell will break. Indecency has its limits!

On the political side, the scale of the country’s growing repudiation of Trumpism is becoming increasingly evident as final vote counts in various regions confirm the strength of an actual ‘blue wave’ in national and state elections. Where Trump’s acolytes and enablers did win, their victories were hard-fought and far narrower than expected, often dependent on deliberate techniques of voter suppression and political gerrymandering. Denied or not, rising blue tides do indicate gradually melting poles of support.

True to form, and much like that of the earlier demagogue, the President’s immediate response was to attack: first by deriding losing candidates who had not sought his blessing; then by firing the Attorney General whom he had long blamed and demeaned for not sufficiently protecting him from the Mueller investigation, and then by appointing a strong supporter who would do so. Attempting to reassure his base, Mr. Trump then reignited his war with the fake news media, berating African American reporters at his first full news conference and then banning an assertive CNN reporter who insisted on asking difficult questions.

As vote counts tightened, he was quick to charge election officials with fraud, whipping up resentment and public passion against nameless ‘enemies’ as well as against the legitimate mechanisms of democratic governance. Most recently, in attacking a Federal Appeals Court ruling against his asylum policies, he incurred an unheard of rebuke by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who defined the independence of the Judicial System as a critical feature of American democracy countering the President’s attack by saying “there are no Obama judges, or Bush or Clinton judges…..”

Continual exposure to a Chief Executive whose authoritarian tendencies, willingness to incite violent passions, compulsion to lie, lack of empathy towards minorities, asylum-seekers, victims of natural disasters—and even homeless children-- and vindictiveness toward those in the press or public who dare to question his policies and behavior, appears to have begun to awaken a significant portion of the public, among them former supporters.

We may not know yet whether the “spell” has fully been broken, or where the  break point actually is, but it is clear politically that his self-inflated balloon has sprung leaks. Attacks on old ‘enemies’ (Hillary, ‘fake news’ media, congressional opponents, proponents of climate change, NATO allies) will go on, as well, but have passed their sell date. Those, and even newer threats like the ‘invasion’ of legitimate asylum-seekers from Central America may no longer serve to patch the increasingly visible holes. Failed tax policies, disruptive tariff wars and unexpected foreign events emanating from the Middle East—as well as the fallout from the Mueller investigation—may well complete the process.

Just as McCarthy’s rampage weakened democratic institutions at home while endangering America’s standing abroad, Trump’s embrace of authoritarian leaders and murderous tyrants can only undermine any remaining sense of America’s moral capacity to guide international affairs in a positive direction.

Yet, cultural and institutional limits to coarse, brutal and amoral practices in the name of public welfare do exist, and if modern American history is any guide, there is a point when ‘fevers’ (political or otherwise) do break. The question then is how basically healthy bodies can slowly recover and rebuild, and how much lasting damage has been done.

Les Adler

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

A MUST-READ ARTICLE ABOUT CLIMATE AND OUR FUTURE

A friend alerted me to a superb and extremely sobering article by Bill McKibben in the November 26, 2018 edition of the New Yorker. Entitled "How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet," the piece lays out in detail the depth of the climate crisis we're in, and how we got here with the help of Exxon, the Koch brothers, Rex Tillerson and decades of dithering or deluded politicians. 

McKibben offers a ray of hope, if we the people, worldwide, can come together and fight against disinformation and special interests for our own survival and the survival of the biosphere that supports us.

The future is here--Southern California wildfire
Credit: FEMA

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

FOR BLACK CHILDREN, HAVING EVEN ONE BLACK TEACHER CAN LEAD ON TO COLLEGE

Decades of research have shown that negative stereotypes have a major impact on people's performance and achievement. The theory that best explains these deleterious effects--stereotype threat--argues that the targets of negative stereotypes have to fight against a potentially disabling dose of anxiety and self-doubt when they are in a situation that evokes the stereotype. Typical examples might include a black student taking a scholastic aptitude test, a woman starting a STEM-related job, or an older person faced with a physically or mentally demanding task.

Happily, a growing body of research has shown that seemingly small interventions can reduce or in some cases even eliminate the impacts of stereotype threat. Many of these interventions focus on creating a different mind-set, for example by removing stimuli that evoke the stereotype, writing an essay about one's own family and character at the beginning of a school year, or reinforcing the idea that intelligence is malleable. Some of these positive effects last far beyond a single test or challenge, in some cases improving students' grades for an entire year.

For black children we can now add the potentially lifelong impact of having even one black teacher early in life.

 Graduates--Bennet College, 2008

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University and American University utilized student data derived from Tennessee's STAR class-size reduction program, which started in 1986. They found that black children who had a black teacher in kindergarten were 14 to 18 percent more likely to enter college. Having two black teachers in their first two school years boosted children's chances of enrolling in college by a remarkable 32 percent compared to peers who did not have those black role models.

The researchers believe that having one or more black teachers enhances black children's sense of what is possible and worthwhile for them.

One way in which having a same-race role model may have played out is by inculcating "grit" or determination, traits that are as important to achievement in school and life as knowledge or cognitive skills. The researchers found that black middle-school students who had had a black teacher in their first years of school were 10 percent more likely to receive teacher comments such as "persistent," "made and effort," or "tried to finish difficult work" than peers who had had only white teachers early on.

Having at least one black teacher as an early role model may be particularly important for boys. Using data from North Carolina, the researchers found that for boys, having had a black teacher in elementary school reduced the high school drop out rate by one-third.

"The role model effect seems to show that having one teacher of the same race is enough to give a student the ambition to achieve, for example, to take a college entrance exam," said Nicholas Papageorge, an assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins. "But if going to college is the goal, having two teachers of the same race helps even more."

In addition to the impact of having same-race role models, the researchers found that teachers' expectations also influence children's long-term aspirations and success. Black teachers, it turns out, tend to have significantly higher expectations for black students than white teachers do. Those expectations, in turn, can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Since the vast majority of teachers are white, even if they cannot be same-race roll models to black children, it falls to them not to under-estimate the potential of their black students, but to assume and convey the belief that they have the same potential for learning, achievement and success as white children.

"While we make efforts to find and train new black teachers," says Papageorge, "we also need to educate white teachers about implicit bias, teach them to be culturally competent, and show them how not to exacerbate these existing achievement gaps."

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You can access the original research article here.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2018

DID AN ALIEN SPACE SAIL ZOOM THROUGH THE SOLAR SYSTEM A YEAR AGO?

Just a quick note linking to an intriguing story on spaceweather.com about the possibility that the interstellar object 'Oumuamua that zipped through the solar system last fall--the first such interstellar interloper ever detected--may have been a light sail built by an extraterrestrial civilization.

This isn't wide-eyed speculation from a tabloid, but a serious analysis by two respected researchers at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Shmuel Biali and Abraham Loeb. What caught their attention was the fact that 'Oumuamua didn't follow a purely gravitationally-driven trajectory as it careened through the solar system. Instead, it accelerated away from the sun with a force proportional to the inverse square of its distance from the sun.

 'Oumuamua's trajectory through the solar system

That would have been understandable if the object had been a comet, accelerated by jets of gas and dust triggered by the sun's heat. However, astronomers were unable to detect traces of any comet-like activity from 'Oumuamua, which left the anomalous acceleration unexplained. To Loeb, who chairs the advisory board of the Breakthrough Starshot solar sail project, 'Oumuamua's one-over-r-squared acceleration exactly matched the way a lightweight solar sail would have acted.

 Artist's representation of 'Oumuamua as an elongated asteroid
(Observers estimated that it was 10 times longer than its width)

Loeb and Biali went on to analyze in detail the properties of a solar sail following 'Oumuamua's trajectory. They found that it would have to be constructed of very thin material, less than a millimeter in thickness, weighing no more than a tenth of a gram per square centimeter. They also calculated the wear and tear on a sail of this description speeding through interstellar space, colliding with gas and dust as well as being stressed by its own rotation. They conclude that it could have survived a trip of at least 16,000 light years, about one-sixth of the way across our home galaxy.

(Note that there's nothing mysterious or hypothetical about a solar sail with these specifications. We humans have made, tested and deployed a variety of solar sails.)

'Oumuamua sailed out of the solar system before astronomers could perform more definitive studies, and it's not going to return. So it's nature will remain a mystery. Critics point out that that makes the hypothesis that it was an alien craft untestable, and so not scientific. However, Loeb and Biali point out, even the possibility that it was the product of an alien technological civilization warrants an active search for more such visitors.

It's a bit technical, but you can read their article here.

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Monday, November 05, 2018

GUNS AND KIDS IN THE US

We all know that guns are a hot-button issue here in the United States. The Constitution grants and the Supreme Court affirms Americans' right to bear arms, and we do that to a fault. According to the Independent, US citizens own 40 percent of all the privately owned arms in the world, more than the next 25 most heavily armed countries combined. That's a remarkable 12 guns for every 10 of us, men, woman and children.

Many of those 393 million guns don't just sit unloaded, securely stored and unavailable to children. While millions of responsible gun owners do keep their weapons safely away from children, millions do not. Here's one sad result whose magnitude shocked me: According to Stephanie Chao, a pediatric surgeon and professor of surgery at Stanford University, children aged 15-19 in the US are 82 times more likely to die from gun homicide than in any other developed country.

Nearly 3000 US children die from firearm injuries every year
Photo credit: Mediapart

Please excuse my emphasis here: American teenagers are not twice as likely to die from a deliberate gunshot, not 10 times more likely, not 50 times more likely, but 82 times more likely. Than in any other developed country.

The statistics for younger children, and for suicide and accidental deaths from guns are not quite so horrendous, but the US is a consistent and clear outlier on every measure relating to gun deaths.

As a pediatric surgeon dealing with trauma every day, Chao would very much like to find ways to reduce or prevent these tragic deaths. Here's a clue that she found. State by state, laws make a difference.

"Firearm-related injuries are the second leading cause of death among children in the United States," she says, "but we found a clear discrepancy in where those deaths happen that corresponds with the strength of states' firearm legislation. In states with lenient laws, children die at alarmingly greater rates."

How much difference can gun laws make? Chao and her colleagues found that in states with the most relaxed gun laws 5 children out of every 100,000 die from gun-related injuries every year. States with the strictest gun-control laws cut that death rate nearly in half, down to 2.6 children out of every 100,000.

Saving half of children at risk from gun-related death would be a very good thing. Saving all of them would be even better. "Each and every one of these deaths is preventable," says Chao. "Our study demonstrates that state-level legislation prevents children from dying from guns."

When it comes to our children, perhaps we can get away from slogans and fiery rhetoric, and work towards sensible gun-safety laws in more states. Three thousand US children don't need to die from gunshots next year.

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As I write this, the 2018 midterm elections are just a day away. If you would like to find out about gun-control legislation and pro-gun-control candidates in your state, here's an excellent resource. Your vote could save young lives.

  




SOMETHING NEW TO WORRY ABOUT--QUASI-RESONANT AMPLIFICATION

Picture a river flowing down from the mountains to the plains. In the high country, where the river's descent is steep and hedged in by canyon walls, it's likely to follow a relatively straight path, basically tracing the shortest route down. Once it gets to the plains, however, there's no big difference between one path and another, and the river will begin to meander.


 Meandering river
Credit: Alana Whitman

Something similar is true for the jet streams, vast rivers of air that circle the globe from west to east, sometimes reaching speeds of 250 miles per hour. Like rivers, jet streams typically meander north and south. The size of those meanders and the speed with which they gradually drift eastward have major impacts on the weather. The UK, for example, was deluged by record floods in 2007 and again in 2012 when the jet stream looped far to the south and then stalled, unleashing extended periods of heavy rains.

Meandering polar jet stream

That, in turn, gets us to climate change and quasi-resonant amplification (QRA). 

One of the most dramatic impacts of global warming and climate change is that the far north and south are warming much faster than the mid-latitudes and the tropics, a phenomenon known as polar amplification. What this means is that the temperature difference between the poles and the tropics-- which is what creates and drives the jet streams--is reduced. And like a river crossing a plain, this reduced gradient lets the jet stream meander farther north and south, and also tends to make the individual loops, known as Rossby waves, drift more slowly from west to east.

At the extreme, the meanders in the jet stream can form a stable sequence of exaggerated loops around the planet that can stay in place for weeks or months. This is known as quasi-resonant amplification  (QRA) and its results can be devastating. Warm, sunny days can extend into deadly heat waves, droughts and wildfires; while cool, rainy weather can linger, drenching an unlucky region with unprecedented rains and floods.

Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science and Pennsylvania State University, says that as of 2018 this phenomenon has now passed from the theoretical to the all-too-real and threatening. "It played out in real time on our television screens and newspaper headlines in the form of an unprecedented hemisphere-wide pattern of extreme floods, droughts, heat waves and wildfires," he says.

Unfortunately, Mann adds, climate models indicate that such QRA-caused weather extremes will grow more frequent and more severe unless we get a handle on global warming. We can hope that humanity (and the politicians who hold the reins) will get their act together. In the meantime, however, we can all expect more QRAs and the devastating weather extremes they bring coming to a region near us.

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Saturday, November 03, 2018

HOW VALUABLE IS A SCHOOLYARD TREE?

A few schoolyard trees might make the difference between a child's future success or failure.

That's the remarkable implication of new research carried out by Ming Kuo, an environmental scientist at the University of Illinois and her colleagues. Using advanced imaging technology and innovative statistical analysis, Professor Kuo and her colleagues found that the amount of tree cover in and around schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods predicted the academic achievement of students, especially in mathematics. She cautions that the current study only shows a statistically robust correlation, not proof of cause and effect. Still, she  would like to see these findings widely applied as a relatively inexpensive intervention that could potentially benefit millions of disadvantaged children in the US.

"Early math skills are one of the best predictors of later success, not just in math, but in school in general," says Kuo. "So what we have here is a very exciting clue that maybe simply greening -- planting trees in school yards -- could potentially have a significant impact in math achievement and school success down the line for these kids. And you don't have to plaster the schoolyard with trees -- just bringing schools up to average looks like it could have a substantial effect."

 Treeless schoolyard, Washington, DC
Credit: chesbayprogram


Kuo and her colleagues found that tree cover in and around schools had a beneficial effect on children's academic success independently of the levels of disadvantage in their student bodies, the percentage of bilingual students, the number of students, the percentage of female students, and the pupil/teacher ratio. And the impact of trees was localized and specific--more tree cover in the catchment neighborhood did not have the same effect, nor did the amount of grass or shrubbery in the schoolyard.

Schoolyard with trees, Greenbelt, Maryland
Credit: Marjorie Collins/Library of Congress 

As most of us have learned, complicated problems usually require complicated solutions. Wouldn't it be great if Professor Kuo has alerted us to a simple intervention that could at least help solve the complex and extremely important problem of so-called "underachieving schools"?

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Monday, October 29, 2018

THE TWO MINUTES HATE--ORWELL GETS IT RIGHT AGAIN

In George Orwell's dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, a mandatory part of daily life for all citizens is the Two Minutes Hate. Everyone must gather before one of the ubiquitous telescreens to watch a propaganda film designed to stir up their fear and focus their hate on the odious figure of Emmanuel Goldstein, the supposed arch-enemy of the state, and on whatever nation Oceania currently happens to be at war against.

Orwell describes the finely honed propaganda and the intoxication of the crowd as so overpowering that joining in was inescapable:

 Two Minutes Hate--Scene from 1984
Credit: Devin Foley

He writes:

"A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic."

You can view a dramatization of the Two Minutes Hate from the British movie 1984 at this URL. "Shout out his name," the narrator commands, and the enraged crowd roars, "Goldstein! Goldstein! Goldstein!"

Of course, supporters of President Trump will deny any similarity. But watch Trump work the crowd into a frenzy about Hillary Clinton at his rallies here, or against Dianne Feinstein at this URL. Trump ever so smugly denigrates these supposed "enemies," and the excited and enraged crowd roars, "Lock her up! Lock her up. Lock her up." It's fascinating--and frightening--to watch Trump then step away from the microphone and turn his back on the chanting crowd, as if to say, "This hatred isn't my doing."

Credit Washington Examiner

I'll give Trump credit--he's a master of this dark art of stoking fears and focusing hatred wherever he wants. Orwell described the rage stirred up by the daily Two Minutes Hate as an emotion that could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowtorch. So it seems with Trump and his tribe.

And it works; stoking the desire to kill in at least some of his followers, not yet with a sledge hammer to the face, but with mail bombs and an AR-15. The intense hatred Orwell described is eerily similar to the feelings expressed by one of Trump's rally-goers who, as reported in the Guardian, told his liberal sister, whom he claims to love, "If there is a civil war in this country and you were on the wrong side, I would have no problem shooting you in the face."

"She has to know," he went on, "how passionate I am about our president."

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10/29/18: For an extremely clear and thoughtful assessment of Trump's role in inciting violent acts such as the bombs recently mailed to leading Democrats and progressives and the synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, please click through to this Washington Post perspective.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

BREASTFED BABIES END UP RICHER

W know that breastfeeding provides multiple health benefits for babies and their mothers, but until now nobody had looked into the long-term economic benefits of breastfeeding. It turns out they're pretty significant--50 years down the line, the family income of adults who were breastfed is 10 percent higher than their non-breastfed peers.

Based on his research, Mark McGovern, an economist at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, concludes, " . . . breastfeeding may also have a significant economic impact throughout the life course."

Breastfeeding has multiple benefits to babies and mothers
Credit: Pixabay

McGovern and his colleagues drew their data from a massive long-term study that followed more than 17,000 children born in England, Scotland and Wales during one week in 1958.  As detailed in a report published by Queen's University, 50 years later the average household income of adults who had been breastfed was 10 percent higher than adults born at the same time who had not been breastfed. This result was significant even when other factors, such as parents' education or income were taken into account.

McGovern mentions three factors that he thinks may account for this difference--breast milk has substances in it that boost brain development, breastfed infants develop higher intelligence, and breastfed babies are healthier across the board. "Breastfeeding is associated with improvements in health, and health is in turn associated with earning capacity."

As an economist, McGovern is struck by the global economic benefits that would come from increased encouragement of and support for breastfeeding. But individual mothers deciding whether to breastfeed or not can add the possibility of life-long economic benefits to the physical and psychological benefits of nursing.


DON'T JUST REMEMBER TO EXERCISE--EXERCISE TO REMEMBER!

We all know that exercise boosts physical fitness, but more and more research is showing that it also boosts mental fitness. The latest evidence appears in an article in MIT's Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, showing that six weeks of aerobic exercise boosted performance on a challenging memory task. Although the subjects in this study were 95 healthy young adults, the researchers expect to see similar results as they research the benefits of exercise for older adults. They hope to show that exercise can ward off age-related memory loss and even the ravages of dementia.

“At the other end of our lifespan, as we reach our senior years," says researcher Jennifer Heisz, at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada, "we might expect to see even greater benefits in individuals with memory impairment brought on by conditions such as dementia.”

 Aerobic exercise--credit Wikipedia

The kind of exercise that produced these results is called interval training--short bouts of intense exercise followed by a short rest period, repeated over 20 minutes. The physical results were impressive--improved cardiovascular fitness, and an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that helps brain cells to survive and thrive. But the mental benefits were equally important--a significant boost to high-interference memory, which lets us recall the correct word, name or event when there are many similar possibilities.

So, if you remember to exercise, exercise will help you to remember!

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Sunday, September 30, 2018

US AT ESPECIALLY HIGH RISK FROM UNCHECKED CARBON EMISSIONS

How much economic damage does a ton of carbon pumped into the atmosphere really do? That's the question an international team of climate scientists and economists set out to answer on a country-by-country basis. While previous studies have suggested that poor countries are more vulnerable to climate change, these new results reveal the opposite--a large and complex economy like that of the US magnifies the impacts of a destabilized climate. It turns out that the US is especially vulnerable.

Some of the most obvious impacts to the US of a changing climate 
Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists/NOAA

"It makes a lot of sense because the larger your economy is, the more you have to lose," says Kate Ricke, the study's lead author of the recent Nature Climate Change article. "Still, it's surprising just how consistently the U.S. is one of the biggest losers, even when compared to other large economies." 

Other countries who will take major hits due to climate change include India, China and Saudi Arabia.

Ricke and her colleagues estimate that current levels of carbon emissions are already costing the US economy around $250 billion per year. That's nearly $2000 per US household. Even more worrisome, they point out, climate change doesn't just hit us on a year-by-year basis, it's likely to take an increasing  chunk out of America's economic rate of growth. Like a ballooning interest rate on a mortgage, the costs don't just add up, they multiply.

When the researchers take this cumulative economic erosion into account, their estimates of the long-term impact of unchecked global warming and resulting climate change are up to ten times greater than current mainstream estimates, for example those of the US government.

The authors emphasize that these higher estimates of the economic costs of "business as usual" make it clear that it's in the selfish best interest of countries like the US with highly developed economies to take steps--such as a carbon tax--that would actually match the real-world costs and help rein in global warming and climate destabilization.

In an invited commentaryFrances Moore, an environmental economist at the University of California, Davis, writes: 

"In other words, based on just their own self-interest, these countries should be acting unilaterally to dramatically cut GHG emissions. The fact that we do not see this yet suggests that damages are overestimated or costs are underestimated, that countries have not yet recognized the risk posed by climate change, or that sub-national political constituencies have been able to effectively block ambitious mitigation policies that would otherwise be in their national interest."

To those obstructionist political constituencies including, it appears, the entire Republican Party and our current president, this should be a clarion call to do what Kevin Conrad, representing Papua New Guinea, told the United States delegation to the Bali climate conference in 2008--"lead, follow, or get out of the way."








Saturday, September 29, 2018

WHO NEEDS SCIENCE? CERTAINLY NOT TRUMP'S EPA.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970 with the mandate to enforce national environmental protection standards, and to conduct research on pollution in order to strengthen environmental protection and guide policy-making.


 Andrew Wheeler
the smiling face of the new EPA

To coordinate these efforts, the EPA created the Office of Science Advisor. Here's how the EPA's website describes the Science Advisor's role as of 9/28/18:

The Science Advisor works across the Agency to ensure that the highest quality science is better integrated into the Agency's policies and decisions. In this capacity, the Science Advisor leads the OSA and chairs the Agency's Science and Technology Policy Council which reviews selected science issues that have implications across program and regional offices. The mission of the OSA is to provide leadership and serve as an honest broker for cross-Agency science, science policy, and technology issues.

But not for long. The EPA is planning to delete the Office of Science Advisor, ostensibly to "eliminate redundancies" and "combine offices with similar functions." The scientist who has filled the post since 1981, Dr. Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, is an expert on the effects of chemicals and other risk factors on human and environmental health. Apparently, her expertise is no longer needed at the EPA.

Neither is that of Dr. Ruth Etzel, the head of the Office of Chilren's Health. Dr. Etzel, a specialist in children's diseases and a strong advocate for protecting children from pollutants, was placed on administrative leave, stripped of her ID, email and access to the building, and sent packing.

It's more evidence, if needed, that Trump's EPA, currently headed by Andrew Wheeler, a lawyer and former coal lobbyist, is not all that interested in the kind of inconvenient facts once provided by Drs. Etzel and Orme-Zavaleta. Protecting people and the environment has been pushed to the rear, while deregulating polluting industries has been ushered to the front. The new EPA can now freely focus on Trump's promise to advance the cause of "beautiful, clean coal."*

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* That beautiful clean coal produces lots of toxic waste, including neurotoxic mercury. Now the EPA is going to make it easier for polluters to put that into the air you and your children breathe, and the water you drink.

Not to mention radiation. If you believe that a little ionizing radiation is good for you, then today's EPA is the place for you, as they also work to justify reducing radiation protection rules.

And you can now include particulates and ozone; the advisory boards dealing with both of these pollutants are being gutted or disbanded.

You can read more about these anti-science and anti-citizen steps here.

This just in (11/4/18): The EPA's website will no longer discuss climate change. I guess that for Trump's EPA, climate has nothing to do with protecting the environment.

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

ARE ENVIRONMENTAL TOXINS DAMAGING BABIES' BRAINS?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the incidence of neurodevelopmental disorders--any of a number of brain-related problems such as attention deficit, hyperactivity or autism--increased by 17 percent between 1997 and 2008. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) rose by 33 percent, while autism exploded by an astonishing 289 percent during that period.

Most strikingly, autism has continued to rise. In 2008, about one US child out of 125 was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, while by 2018, it was one out of 59, including one out of every 42 boys.

There's still debate about whether these dramatic increases are real, or are caused by increased awareness, more access to care or changing diagnostic criteria. Those may all be factors, but it seems unlikely that they can explain a tripling in the documented incidence of autism in such as short time.

A small but growing body of research suggests that the risk of autism or other neuro-developmental disorders is increased by exposure to pesticides or other persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which may disrupt crucial steps in brain development. We all carry numerous POPS in our bodies, and they have been shown to cause a wide range of metabolic abnormalities. Given the complexity and delicacy of fetal development, and especially the development of the brain, it would not be surprising to find that these ubiquitous pollutants are at least part of the story.

Some recent research with tadpoles may shed light on this question. Although humans and frogs may seem very distantly related, both are vertebrates (animals with backbones) and share many developmental steps and basic brain features. 

Sara McClelland, a biologist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and her colleagues studied the impact of very low doses--1 millionth of a gram per liter of water--of the commonly-used pesticide chlorpyrifos on the brains and bodies of the tadpoles of northern leopard frogs. 

As they reported in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, exposure to chlorpyrifos caused significant changes to the tadpoles' brains. Three brain areas were impacted, areas important to vision, hearing, breathing and motor control. Those changes turned out to be independent of the pesticide's effect on the tiny animals the tadpole's feed on.

 "Innocuous" pesticide dose directly impacts vertebrate brain development
Credit: McClelland et al., Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry

"This study demonstrates that exposure to very low, presumably innocuous levels of organophosphorous pesticides can alter neurodevelopment in amphibians," says McClellnd. "Due to developmental similarities in vertebrates, this work may have implications for how exposure to low doses of organophosphorous pesticides could affect human neurodevelopment."

Given that chlorpyrifos is just one of dozens or hundreds of toxins that we are exposed to, more research on their human impacts is urgently needed. As epidemiologist Miguel Porta points out, "Whatever we know, whatever we think we know about the adverse health effects of a given chemical compound, and about the adverse health effects of several different compounds, simply think that it will not be uncommon for them to be--each and all--present at high concentrations in a significant minority of your patients, constituency, citizens, family or friends. And then think about the plausible negative health effects of the combination or 'cocktail' at high and low concentrations."

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You can find a link to the Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry study here.

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Thursday, August 30, 2018

CALIFORNIA POWERS AHEAD IN THE FIGHT AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE

We need all the good news we can find these days, and California has just handed us a climate-change bouquet.

On August 28, 2018, the legislature passed a bill that requires 100 percent carbon-free electricity in the state by 2045. This massive change in the way power is produced in or imported to California will keep 70 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from being spewed into the atmosphere every year, equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road.


California Wind Farm
a rapidly growing source of clean power
Credit: Creative Commons Zero; Max Pixel


If Governor Brown signs the bill into law, as expected, California will become the largest economy in the world to commit to 100% carbon neutral electricity before mid-century. (Yes! Governor Brown signed the bill into law on September 10, 2018).

Of course, much more than this is needed for the world to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and keep global temperatures no more than 1.5 or at most 2.0 degrees C (2.7/3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels. Still, it's a giant step in the right direction, and one that we hope many more states, cities, countries, companies and industries will follow--and the sooner the better.

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You can find the text of California Senate Bill 100 here.

Friday, August 24, 2018

SCIENTISTS CAN NOW LINK WEATHER EXTREMES TO CLIMATE CHANGE

Climatologists have traditionally been leery of linking a specific event--an extended drought, an exceptional run of hurricanes, massive flooding--to climate change. The most they could be coaxed to say was something along the lines that climate change might have increased the odds of the extreme event, often with a comparison to rolling loaded dice or to an athlete on steroids.

Recently, however, some researchers have started to be more specific. For example, Frederika Otto, a climate scientist at Oxford University, and her colleagues recently reported that South Africa's three-year mega-drought, during which Cape Town came nerve-wrackingly close to running out of water, was demonstrably three times as likely as it would have been without human-caused climate change.

This new capability goes beyond just pinning down the increased odds of an extreme event. In three cases recently, researchers have felt confident enough to say that certain events simply could not have happened without human climate forcing. These included devastating heatwaves in Asia in 2016, the global heat record set the same year, and shockingly high sea temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea between 2014 and 2016. 

A review of 170 similar attribution studies between 2004 and 2018 found that two-thirds of the extreme weather events studied were more likely or more intense because of human caused climate forcing.

 South Africa's Theewaterskloof Reservoir, nearly empty on March 11, 2018
Credit: Zaian

So the question is, what's changed? Why are climate scientists now able to make such specific attributions of the impacts of human-caused climate change?

In principle, the answer is remarkably simple. Researchers use multiple state-of-the-art computerized climate models to run thousands of simulations with slightly different initial conditions. Some of the simulations run with current levels of greenhouse gas levels while others use pre-industrial levels. The researchers can then see how many times a comparable event shows up in each scenario. A drought as long and intense as the one that drained Cape Town's reservoirs to the brink of catastrophe happened three times more often under current atmospheric greenhouse gas levels than in models using pre-industrial levels.

In practice, it's a bit more challenging. The multiple computer simulations that are needed are costly and need a lot of time even on the fastest supercomputers. Otto and her colleagues got around this by tapping into weather@home, a network of thousands of volunteers who offer up time on their computer to help perform these massive calculations. In addition, current climate models are not fine-grained enough to model smaller events, such as a crop-destroying hailstorm or an outburst of tornadoes.

Still, scientists now have what it takes to specify to what extent many extreme events, such as a drought, massive flooding or a killer heat wave, can reliably be attributed to human-caused climate change. We can expect much more frequent, accurate and meaningful reports of this kind in the near future.

These attribution studies are not likely to convince dyed-in-the-wool climate change deniers, but they are already proving helpful to planners at all levels. For example, Helen Davies, with the Western Cape's Department of Economic Development and Tourism, now knows that the devastating drought was not a once-in-a-lifetime event. "This is an incredibly strong message which we cannot afford to ignore. We may need to work on a radically new approach to water management."

Otto hopes that this approach will soon be fast and accurate enough to be linked to extreme weather events in real time. Germany may become one of the first countries to do this on a regular basis. 'It’s part of our mission to illuminate the links between climate and weather,” says Paul Becker, Vice President of the German Weather Agency. “There is demand for that information, there is science to provide it, and we are happy to spread it.”

One example of real-time attribution is the assessment by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that Hurricane Florence is 50 miles wider and will inundate the Atlantic Coast with 50 percent more rain than a comparable hurricane before human-caused climate change.

And a new study using the supercomputers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was able to detail the additional rainfall provoked by global warming in 15 hurricanes that took place in the last ten years, and predict even more rainfall and more intense winds if warming continues.

Let's hope that the entrenched climate change denial on the part of the current US president and congress does not keep this important emerging science from being used here at home.

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The Nature article from which most of this information comes can be found here.

The article summarizing 170 different studies, including a useful interactive map, can be found at this URL.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

LINK BETWEEN AUTISM AND LONG-BANNED INSECTICIDE DDT

Remember DDT? It's an insecticide that was banned worldwide for most uses more than 30 years ago, but which lingers in the environment and in our bodies to this day. In its heyday, DDT was sprayed massively over farms, forests and cities to control mosquitoes and other insects. I remember as a child swimming in an outdoor pool as a plane flew overhead spraying DDT over the entire city. People accepted it as normal.

We're just now finding out that there's a possible link between DDT and autism, a severe, often disabling developmental disorder estimated to impact more than 25 million people worldwide, and 15 children out of ever thousand in the US (one out of every 42 boys!). Autistic children have difficulties with communication and relating to people, and often repeat certain movements or behaviors such as rocking over and over again.

 Autistic child and his mother
Credit: istock

A long-term study involving over one million mothers and children in Finland found that high levels of DDE--a breakdown product of DDT that ends up in the fatty tissues of animals and humans--in the blood of pregnant women doubled the risk of a child developing autism with intellectual disability. This link remained strong even after controlling for factors such as the mother's age and psychiatric history.

DDT is one of many Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), potentially toxic man-made chemical compounds that accumulate in soil, water and air, in the foodchain and in our bodies. Other research has shown that 10 percent of us have high concentrations of 10 or more POPs in our blood, and that high concentrations of POPs in the body are associated with a variety of metabolic abnormalities, including those leading to metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease.

The current research is the first to reveal a link to autism. The authors suspect that DDT and its metabolite DDE may trigger autism because they lead to lower birthweight infants, and by interfering with the proper functioning of androgens, hormones necessary for the development of male characteristics.

"Unfortunately," says Alan Brown, an epidemiologist at Columbia University Medical Center,  "[these chemicals] are still present in the environment and are in our blood and tissues. In pregnant women, they are passed along to the developing fetus. Along with genetic and other environmental factors, our findings suggest that prenatal exposure to the DDT toxin may be a trigger for autism."

Clearly, homing in on the environmental causes of autism can help us find ways to reduce the high and still increasing incidence of this extremely disruptive condition.

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