A Michigan health official told Congress that his department’s “initial analysis” showed blood lead levels in Flint children in the summer of 2014 were “within range of years before.” That’s false. That analysis concluded blood lead levels “were higher than usual” from July to September 2014, shortly after the city switched its water supply.
On April 25, 2014, the city of Flint began using the Flint River as its water source, as reported in the Detroit Free Press. But the Flint River has particularly corrosive water, which led to high levels of lead leaching into the water from many of the city’s dated pipes. Soon after the water supply switch, Flint residents began complaining about the color of the water, rashes and other issues.
Then, in July 2015 the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder that issues with water contamination in Flint were limited to one house and not widespread. At the same time, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services claimed the elevated blood lead levels in children followed a normal seasonal trend.
The link between Flint’s water switch and elevated blood lead levels in children wasn’t confirmed until two independent researchers, Marc Edwards and Mona Hanna-Attisha, each put forth their own analyses in September 2015.
Paris climate deal signing ceremony: what it means and why it matters
The world took a collective sigh of relief in the last days of 2015, when countries came together to adopt the historic Paris agreement on climate change.
The international treaty was a much-needed victory for multilateralism, and surprised many with its more-ambitious-than-expected agreement to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
The next step in bringing the agreement into effect happens in New York on Friday 22 April, with leaders and dignitaries from more than 150 countries attending a high-level ceremony at the United Nations to officially sign it.
The New York event will be an important barometer of political momentum leading into the implementation phase – one that requires domestic climate policies to be drawn up, as well as further international negotiations.
It comes a week after scientists took a significant step to assist with the process. On April 13 in Nairobi, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agreed to prepare a special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This will provide scientific guidance on the level of ambition and action needed to implement the Paris agreement.
Why the ceremony?
The signing ceremony in New York sets in motion the formal, legal processes required for the Paris Agreement to “enter into force”, so that it can become legally binding under international law.
Although the agreement was adopted on December 12 2015 in Paris, it has not yet entered into force. This will happen automatically 30 days after it has both been ratified by at least 55 countries, and by countries representing at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Both conditions of this threshold have to be met before the agreement is legally binding.
So, contrary to some concerns after Paris, the world does not have to wait until 2020 for the agreement to enter into force. It could happen as early as this year.
Signing vs ratification
When a country signs the agreement, it is obliged to refrain from acts that would defeat its object and purpose. The next step, ratification, signifies intent to be legally bound by the terms of the treaty.
The decision on timing for ratification by each country will largely be determined by domestic political circumstances and legislative requirements for international agreements.
Those countries that have already completed their domestic processes for international agreements can choose to sign and ratify on the same day in New York.
Who is going to sign and ratify in New York?
It is perhaps no surprise that the countries which are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and who championed the need for high ambition in Paris will be first out of the gate to ratify in New York.
Thirteen Small Island Developing States (SIDS) from the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific have signalled their intent to sign and ratify in New York: Barbados, Belize, Fiji, Grenada, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Saint Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Seychelles and Tuvalu.
While these countries make up about a quarter of the 55 countries needed, they only account for 0.02% of the emissions that count towards the required 55% global emissions total.
Bringing the big emitters on board
China and the United States have recently jointly announced their intentions to sign in New York and to take the necessary domestic steps to formally join the agreement by ratifying it later this year. Given that they make up nearly 40% of the agreed set of global emissions for entry into force, that will go a significant way to meeting the 55% threshold.
We can expect more announcements of intended ratification schedules on 22 April. Canada (1.95%) has signalled its intent to ratify this year and there are early signs for many others. Unfortunately the European Union, long a leader on climate change, seems unlikely to be amongst the first movers due to internal political difficulties, including the intransigence of the Polish government.
The double threshold means that even if all of the SIDS and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) ratified, accounting for more than 75 countries but only around 4% of global emissions, the agreement would not enter into force until countries with a further 51% of global emissions also ratified.
Consequently, many more of the large emitters will need to ratify to ensure that the Paris agreement enters into force. This was a key design feature – it means a small number of major emitters cannot force a binding agreement on the rest of the world, and a large number of smaller countries cannot force a binding agreement on the major emitters.
The 55% threshold was set in order to ensure that it would be hard for a blocking coalition to form – a group of countries whose failure to ratify could ensure that an emissions threshold could not be met in practice. A number much above 60% of global emissions could indeed have led to such a situation.
The countries that appear likely to ratify this year, including China, the USA, Canada, many SIDS and LDCs, members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum along with several Latin American and African countries – around 90 in all – still fall about 5-6% short of the 55% emissions threshold.
It will take one more large emitter, such as the Russian Federation (7.53%), or two such as India (4.10%) and Japan (3.79%) to get the agreement over the line. The intent of these countries is not yet known.
Why is early action important?
The Paris agreement may be ambitious, but it will only be as good as its implementation. That will depend on the political momentum gained in Paris being maintained. Early entry into force for the treaty would be a powerful signal in this direction.
We know from the Climate Action Tracker analyses that the present commitments are far from adequate. If all countries fully implement the national emission reduction targets brought to the climate negotiations last year, we are still on track for temperature increases of around 2.7°C. Worse, we also know that current policies adopted by countries are insufficient to meet these targets and are heading to around 3.6°C of global warming.
With average global annual temperature increase tipping over 1°C above pre-industrial levels for the first time last year, it is clear that action to reduce emissions has never been more urgent.
We are already seeing more evidence this year: increases in the monthly global averages of February and March 2016 far exceeded 1°C, record coral reef bleaching, heatwaves, and unprecedented early melting of the Greenland ice sheet this northern spring.
Early entry into force will unlock the legally binding rights and obligations for parties to the agreement. These go beyond just obligations aimed at delivering emissions reductions through countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions to the critical issues of, for example, adaptation, climate finance, loss and damage, and transparency in reporting on and reviewing action and support.
The events in New York this week symbolise the collective realisation that rapid, transformative action is required to decarbonise the global economy by 2050.
Climate science tells us that action must increase significantly within the next decade if we are to rein in the devastating impacts of climate change, which the most vulnerable countries are already acutely experiencing.
For an up-to-date picture of which countries have ratified the Paris Agreement, see our Ratification Tracker.
The current election climate in the U.S. has gotten me all annoyed and depressed. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to take a step back and appreciate the beauty in our planet. THANK YOU International Space Station for capturing this Ultra-High Definition time lapse of an Aurora Borealis from space. More details here. Enjoy!
Big primary day for NY today, so be sure to go out there and vote! Not going to even bother discussing the republican candidates here, but for some info on the democrats, here’s just a nice post from US News about past actions from the candidates in regards to science.
In the Senate, Clinton and Sanders Didn’t Always Agree
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were on opposing sides of certain types of biomedical research while they served in Congress.
By KEN THOMAS, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were on opposing sides of certain types of biomedical research while they served in Congress, differences that have gained notice by scientists and advocates on the forefront of stem cell research.
Clinton has pointed to her advocacy for groundbreaking medical research, from her push for more dollars as a New York senator for the National Institutes of Health to her long support for stem cell research that could eventually lead to regenerative medicine.
Sanders, a Vermont senator, has supported stem cell research in the Senate. But advocates within the scientific community cite his voting record in the early 2000s in the House when he repeatedly supported a ban on all forms of human cloning, including one called therapeutic cloning intended to create customized cells to treat disease.
“We were looking for signs that he is going to be a supporter of what science and technology can do and I think everyone in the country ought to be worried about that,” said Dr. Harold Varmus, the Nobel Prize-winning former NIH director under President Bill Clinton.
“I am quite concerned about his stance on these issues,” Varmus said. “This is a litmus test. It was 10 years ago — it’s still a test that he failed in the view of many of us.”
Sanders’ campaign policy director, Warren Gunnels, said in a statement Saturday that Sanders “strongly supports stem cell research, including research on embryonic stem cells. He understands that stem cell research holds the possibility of remarkable discoveries, even cures, for many illnesses — from Parkinson’s and diabetes to Alzheimer’s and arthritis.” He noted that Sanders supported 2006 legislation to lift funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.
While serving in the House, Sanders voted to ban therapeutic cloning in 2001, 2003 and 2005 as Congress grappled with the ethics of biotechnology and scientific advances. Patient advocacy groups note that Sanders co-sponsored bans in 2003 and 2005 that included criminal penalties for conducting the research and opposed alternatives that would have allowed the cloning of embryos solely for medical research.
Clinton, meanwhile, co-sponsored legislation in 2001 and 2002 in the Senate that would have expanded stem cell research and co-sponsored a bill in 2005 that would have banned human cloning while protecting the right of scientists to conduct stem cell research.
Sanders said following a vote in 2001 that he had “very serious concerns about the long-term goals of an increasingly powerful and profit-motivated biotechnology industry.” In a later vote, he warned of the dangers of “owners of technology” who are “primarily interested in how much money they can make rather than the betterment of society.”
Gunnels said that “therapeutic cloning is a good thing, but only with proper oversight and regulations. The reality is that the corporate biotechnology industry is motivated almost exclusively by their quest for short-term profits and higher stock prices. There must be proper oversight over this industry.”
Some advocates for stem cell research said that overlooked the potential benefits of finding possible cures to Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s and other fatal or disabling diseases.
“Sanders and (then Republican House Majority Leader Tom) DeLay — some unlikely group — were just unyielding and they were part of the religious right’s attempt to shut down this whole critical new frontier of therapy for chronic disease,” said Robert Klein, chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
“It’s fine to say you’re for stem cell research but you vote against it and you vote against all therapeutic application, it doesn’t mean anything to say you’re for it,” Klein said. “Fine, he votes for it years later when it’s more popular and the pressure is off. We needed leadership then.”
Embryonic stem cells are master cells that can turn into any tissue of the body and researchers hope one day to harness that power for what’s today typically called “regenerative medicine.” Initially, they were derived by using leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics.
Therapeutic cloning is another method of deriving those cells.
Exactly what types of stem cell research to allow, and how to fund it, have been debated not only on the national level but in a number of states including Wisconsin, where researchers played key roles in some early discoveries. Wisconsin holds its presidential primary on Tuesday.
Federal law prohibits taxpayer funding of research that harms embryos so that early work was done with private money. But those types of cells can reproduce indefinitely in lab dishes, “lines” used for a variety of research projects.
After much controversy, the Bush administration declared that taxpayer money could be used for research using certain already-created embryonic stem cell lines and President Barack Obama expanded the number that qualify, a move that survived court challenges.
Consensus confirmed: over 90% of climate scientists believe we’re causing global warming
When we published a paper in 2013 finding 97% scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, what surprised me was how surprised everyone was.
Nevertheless, no-one I spoke to was aware of the existing research into such a consensus. Rather, the public thought there was a 50:50 debate among scientists on the basic question of whether human activity was causing global warming.
This lack of awareness is reflected in a recent pronouncement by Senator Ted Cruz (currently competing with Donald Trump in the Republican primaries), who argued that:
The stat about the 97% of scientists is based on one discredited study.
Why is a US Senator running for President attacking University of Queensland research on scientific agreement? Cruz’s comments are the latest episode in a decades-long campaign to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change.
Back in 2002, a Republican pollster advised conservatives to attack the consensus in order to win the public debate about climate policy. Conservatives complied. In conservative opinion pieces about climate change from 2007 to 2010, their number one argument was “there is no scientific consensus on climate change”.
Recent psychological research has shown that the persistent campaign to confuse the public about scientific agreement has significant societal consequences. Public perception of consensus has been shown to be a “gateway belief”, influencing a range of other climate attitudes and beliefs.
People’s awareness of the scientific consensus affects their acceptance of climate change, and their support for climate action.
The psychological importance of perceived consensus underscores why communicating the 97% consensus is important. Consensus messaging has been shown empirically to increase acceptance of climate change.
And, crucially, it’s most effective on those who are most likely to reject climate science: political conservatives.
In other words, consensus messaging has a neutralising effect, which is especially important given the highly polarised nature of the public debate about climate change.
Consequently, social scientists have urged climate scientists to communicate the scientific consensus, countering the misconception that they are still divided about human-caused global warming.
But how do you counter the myth that the 97% consensus is based on a single study?
One way is to bring together the authors of the leading consensus papers to synthesise all the existing research: a meta-study of meta-studies. We did exactly that, with a new study published in Environmental Research Letters featuring authors from seven of the leading studies into the scientific consensus on climate change.
A recurring theme throughout the consensus research was that the level of scientific agreement varied depending on climate expertise. The higher the expertise in climate science, the higher the agreement that humans were causing global warming.
To none of our surprise, the highest agreement was found among climate scientists who had published peer-reviewed climate research. Interestingly, the group with the lowest agreement was economic geologists.
Seven studies quantified the level of agreement among publishing climate scientists, or among peer-reviewed climate papers. Across these studies, there was between 90% to 100% agreement that humans were causing global warming.
A number of studies converged on the 97% consensus value. This is why the 97% figure is often invoked, having been mentioned by such public figures as President Barack Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron and US Senator Bernie Sanders.
Manufacturing doubt about consensus
The relationship between scientific agreement and expertise turns out to be crucially important in understanding the consensus issue. Unfortunately, it provides an opportunity for those who reject human-caused global warming to manufacture doubt about the high level of scientific agreement.
They achieve this by using groups of scientists with lower expertise in climate science, to convey the impression that expert agreement on climate change is low. This technique is known as “fake experts”, one of the five characteristics of science denial.
For example, surveys of climate scientists may be “diluted” by including scientists who don’t possess expertise in climate science, thus obtaining a lower level of agreement compared to the consensus among climate scientists. This is partly what Senator Rick Santorum did when he argued that the scientific consensus was only 43%.
Another implementation of the “fake expert” strategy is the use of petitions containing many scientists who lack climate science credentials. The most famous example is the Oregon Petition Project, which lists over 31,000 people with a science degree who signed a statement that humans aren’t disrupting the climate. However, 99.9% of the signatories aren’t climate scientists.
The science of science communication tells us that communicating the science isn’t sufficient. Misinformation has been shown to cancel out the effect of accurate scientific information. We also need to explain the techniques of misinformation, such as the “fake expert” strategy.
This is why in communicating the results of our latest study, we not only communicated the overwhelming scientific agreement. We also explained the technique used to cast doubt on the consensus.
It's not a coincidence that so many more scientists identify as Democrats slnm.us/Q2ChWvs—
Salon.com (@Salon) April 12, 2016
REQUIRED READING!! This Salon piece by Sean McElwee and Philip Cohen is EVERYTHING – about why scientists and Republicans are so at odds … or more that the Republicans are at war with science. We at CauseScience post often about the many times Republican politicians say or do things that are anti-science, and this article highlights the reasons why. My three favorite points below:
Research placing shrimp on treadmills was lampooned by Republicans, but it is part of important research on how marine organisms react to ecosystem changes, which has important implications for food safety. But in other cases, there are less benign motivations for cutting research spending. For instance, big fossil fuel donors have an interest in the government doesn’t take action on climate change. The GOP has tried to slash the NASA budget to prevent it from researching climate change. ExxonMobil has continued to fund climate denial, even after promising not to and after evidence surfaced that it has known about the existence of global warming for nearly four decades.
The explanation is rather simple: Scientists are more broadly in line ideologically with the Democratic Party. But there are two other factors that are accelerating the trend. First, the increasing extremism of the Republican Party, and its fealty to the donor class has led it to embrace positions outside the mainstream. Second, both the GOP base and legislators take an increasingly antagonistic view of science and scientists. Their work to delegitimize science raises deep concerns about the ability of academics to influence important public debates.
How sexually transmitted diseases might have driven the evolution of monogamy
Exactly why so many humans choose monogamous pair bonds over juggling multiple partners has long been a mystery to scientists. After all, having several partners at the same time should lead to more offspring – an outcome you’d think evolution would favour. Now a new study has linked the phenomenon to sexually transmitted diseases, arguing that monogamy could have evolved because it offered protection against the threat of infection.
Monogamy is, of course, the norm in Western societies. But there are many cultures where a husband can have more than one wife (polygyny) or, less commonly, a wife can have more than one husband (polyandry). This diversity of human mating systems is also hard to explain. What we do know, however, is that many hunter-gatherer societies, living in small groups, were most often polygynous (and many remaining groups still are). But with the rise of agriculture, societies tended to become more complex – and less polygynous. In the most strictly monogamous societies, there was often a social punishment for polygynists, either informally or, as in many modern societies, through a legal system.
Many explanations for this evolution have been put forward, including changes to the way that women chose their partners, such as being faithful to men who invested in provisioning for them. Another possibility is that groups of monogamists may have performed better than groups of polygynists. But the new research adds a further option: could an increased risk of infection from sexually transmitted infections associated with polygyny have contributed to – or even driven – the overall move from polygyny to monogamy?
Sexually transmitted diseases have been infecting humans for a long time. Prior to modern medicine, they also often caused significant harm – especially to the reproductive system. Clearly, these diseases infect polygynists more than monogamists, and it has been argued that when a polygynist and a serial monogamist have the same number of partners overall, the polygynist is more likely to pick up a dose of something nasty than the monogamist. According to computer modelling, this is because contact networks are more connected when you have concurrent partners than when you have serial partner change. Either way, overall, these effects could have had a big enough impact on the well-being of polygynists to allow monogamous individuals to take over a population.
The challenges of modelling
It’s certainly a good argument. But it’s hard to assess how likely it is to be true. This is because we know very little about the risk of sexually transmitted diseases in hunter-gatherer societies or historical societies transitioning to agriculture. This is a common problem in science: we can only make progress when we can test an idea, but plausible ideas are sometimes very hard to evaluate without massive effort.
One option in these cases is to do your experiment in the form of a computer simulation. This is what the researchers behind the new study did, modelling the impact of a bacterial sexually transmitted disease similar to gonorrhoea or chlamydia. Their results strongly back the hypothesis that such diseases could have triggered monogamy.
In their model, sexually transmitted diseases tend to “fade out” from small groups such as polygynist hunter-gatherers. This occurs because of random chance events that are more likely to be important in small groups, such as all the infected people suddenly getting better or dying. In larger, agricultural groups, however, such fade-out is much less likely, so sexually transmitted diseases tend to persist, damaging the health and reducing the birth rates of polygynists while allowing monogamists to take over.
What’s more, the monogamists that are most likely to take over a group for a long period are those that follow a “punishment strategy”, which fits with what we observe in many societies today.
So is the puzzle solved? Not quite yet. Computer simulations are useful and can tell us important things, but they are always limited and necessarily simplify the real world. In this case, for example, the researchers assumed that the disease they were modelling had similar pathological effects on men and women, whereas in reality many sexually transmitted diseases affect women more severely than men, potentially changing the effect of the disease on polygynists.
Further questions are raised by research into sexually transmitted diseases in animals, which hasn’t really found a clear relationship between promiscuity and disease. In fact, computer modelling work focused on animals has found that promiscuous and monogamous individuals can coexist even in the presence of a dangerous disease. What’s more, there are examples of highly promiscuous animals which are heavily infected with sexually transmitted diseases yet carry on regardless (two-spot ladybirds in Continental Europe are one example, believe it or not).
As the researchers themselves point out, there are indeed some challenges associated with this idea. More detailed simulations or better data on sexually transmitted infections in societies where people live in small groups would make the picture clearer. For now, it remains an intriguing and plausible suggestion that we should explore further. Given the continuing threats posed by sexually transmitted diseases today it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for someone to put two and two together and suggest that the advent of monogamy may have served a very practical purpose.