The United Nation’s 24th annual conference on climate change came to a close in the Polish city of Katowice last Saturday, with the results eliciting mixed reactions from the nearly 200 nations that participated. The meeting was intended to create rules for fulfilling the emissions pledges and other goals made as part of the international climate agreement reached in Paris in 2015, but the talks were often bogged down by arguments — and even some praise for fossil fuels.
Despite the fact that coal is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other source of electricity, Trump administration adviser Wells Griffith held a panel discussion at the talks emphasizing the need for developing nations to use the fuel, along with oil and gas, for years to come. In response to protesters, Griffith doubled down, stating that “no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.”
The discussion came just days after the Trump administration, along with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia, moved to block delegates from collectively endorsing the latest report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which detailed the steps necessary to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — including curbing the use of fossil fuels. (The planet has already warmed by roughly 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the dawn of the industrial age and the introduction of large amounts of man-made, planet-warming emissions).
Negotiations were also delayed by an argument led by Brazil over carbon credits, which are awarded for reducing emissions or cultivating carbon sinks, like forests. Decisions on whether or not to create a trading system for the credits has been put off until next year.
Overall, the talks failed to produce more ambitious targets for cutting emissions. The Paris agreement set the goal of keeping global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but climate scientists say the world is currently on track for 3 degrees, which they predict will lead to disastrous extreme weather events and threaten the world’s food supply.
The final days of negotiations were tense, as hundreds of activists gathered at the conference center to express their frustration with the direction of the talks. Critics were angry that the delegates stripped language regarding human rights from the text of the “rulebook,” and did not incorporate the warnings from the recent IPCC report to keep emissions under 1.5 degrees.
Fifteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg stole the spotlight when she bravely addressed the delegates in a plenary session, scolding them for not taking bolder action. “You say you love your children above all else, and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” Thunberg told them. “We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time.”
Conference president, Michal Kurtyka, appeared unfazed by Thunberg’s message, taking to Twitter a few days later with the message, “Our children will look back at our legacy and recognize that we took the right decisions at important junctures, like the one we face today.”
With a new roadmap in hand to report their progress, participating nations now have until 2020 to demonstrate that they have met their targets and to set new ones.
Also in the news:
• Guns kill more children in the U.S. than cancer, drownings, and respiratory illnesses combined, reports a University of Michigan study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers analyzed more than 20,000 pediatric deaths from 2016 — the latest year for which data was available — and found that nearly one in six deaths were attributable to firearm-related injuries. Of those, more than half were homicides, a third were suicides, and a slim fraction were unintentional. Only motor vehicle crashes, which killed more than 4,000 children in 2016, were deadlier. The bleak numbers continue a disheartening trend: Since 2013, the rate of gun-related pediatric deaths in the U.S. has climbed by 28 percent. The latest numbers are the highest in nearly two decades, and more than 36 times the rates of childhood gun deaths in 12 other high-income countries. “Children in America are dying or being killed at rates that are shameful,” wrote Edward W. Campion, executive editor of the NEJM, in an accompanying editorial. Guns exacted an especially heavy toll in African-American communities, where in 2016 firearms were the leading cause of childhood death. (Los Angeles Times)
• Following on from China’s much-criticized social credit system, the nation’s government is introducing a new policy to punish researchers who engage in scientific misconduct. While offenders already face repercussions including the loss of grants or awards, the new policy could lead to consequences even outside of academia. Under the existing social credit system, failure to pay fines or debts can result in being denied things including insurance or even train tickets. According to the new policy, those who commit scientific misconduct will named publicly and could face restrictions on jobs and loans. “This sends a clear signal that curbing misconduct should go beyond the academic community or individual morality,” Li Tang, a professor in the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai, told Nature. “Legal punishment can be also applied.” (Nature)
• Roughly 15 percent of low-income children under the age of four and living in rural areas of the U.S. display levels of nicotine exposure comparable to that of adult smokers. That’s the surprising finding of a study published this month in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research, which also found that of the 1,218 children whose saliva was sampled at ages 6 months, 1 month, 2 years, and 4 years, a full 63 percent had detectable levels of the tobacco byproduct cotinine in their bodies. The suspected modes of exposure were not just second-hand but also third-hand: cigarette residues found on clothing, furniture, floor, and other surfaces with which infants and toddlers make frequent and intimate contact. Such high levels of exposure in babies and very young children are understudied, the researchers suggested — and also worrying. Direct smoke exposure, after all, is highly linked to a variety of respiratory illnesses and infections. But even residual nicotine exposure may be linked to elevated blood-lead levels, and higher risks for cardiovascular and other diseases down the road. “We really have not had a good understanding of this magnitude of exposure,” one of the authors of the study told MedPage Today, “and the impact of this level of exposure on children’s brain development.” (MedPage Today)
• Looking at more direct exposure, teenage vaping has increased dramatically in the last year, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and the popular electronic “cigarettes” are driving an increase in adolescent exposure to the additive alkaloid nicotine. From 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use increased by 10 percent in high school seniors, 7.9 percent in sophomores, and 2.6 percent in 8th graders. Those three grades, according to the researchers, represented an additional 1.3 million adolescents who were vaping in 2018. The findings indicate, the scientists warned, that public policies in place to stop increased nicotine exposure in teenagers are apparently failing. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
• That news came just ahead of a deal announced on Thursday, in which Juul Labs Inc., the maker of a popular e-cigarette that’s been criticized for marketing to teenagers, sold a 35 percent stake to Altria Group Inc., the parent company of tobacco giant Philip Morris. The $12.8 billion deal — which saw Juul’s founders become the first e-cigarette billionaires — follows other moves by Altria to diversify its business, including a recent investment in a Canadian cannabis company Cronos Group Inc. In positioning itself as providing an alternative to traditional cigarettes, Juul will place its nicotine vaping pens next to Malboro products on retail shelves. Marlboro will also include promotional material for Juul in its cigarette cartons. (Bloomberg)
• And finally: If you’re a new parent, you may have wondered about the optimal pain-reducing stroking speed to soothe your aching infant. A new study, published this week in the journal Current Biology, has determined that velocity to be about an inch per second, or the speed at which you’ve intuitively been stroking your baby. While it was known that stimulating sensory nerves called C-tactile afferents relieved pain in adults, the researchers wanted to know if the same would be true for infants. Using electroencephalography (EEG), a monitoring test that records bursts of electrical activity on the surface of the brain, the scientists gently brushed half of the observed infants just before they received pinpricks. The EEG registered a 40 percent decrease in pain compared to those who weren’t touched. Babies stroked at about 10 times the optimal speed also showed no signs of pain relief. “If we can better understand the neurobiological underpinnings of [touch] techniques like infant massage,” said Rebeccah Slater, a pediatric neuroscientist who led the study, “we can improve the advice we give to parents on how to comfort their babies.” (Discover Magazine)