Last week, The Washington Post reported on a proposal to establish a White House panel that would review the scientific evidence on climate change to determine whether it poses a threat to national security.
For the vast majority of climate scientists, including those now working under President Trump, the answer to that question has long-been a resounding yes. But for William Happer, the White House adviser who would lead the initiative, that conclusion is open to question. Despite having no formal training in climate science, the Princeton physicist espouses the view that excess carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas that countries around the world have vowed, but are struggling, to reduce — is actually beneficial.
Back in 2009, Happer compared the vilification of carbon dioxide to the treatment of Jews under Hitler. In 2013, he co-authored an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, reiterating his view that “the demonized chemical compound is a boon to plant life and has little correlation with global temperature.”
Going a step further in 2015, Happer founded the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit that highlights what it calls carbon dioxide’s “vital role” in our everyday lives. The group’s website states that it “seeks to engage in an informed and dispassionate discussion of climate change, humans’ role in the climate system, the limitations of climate models, and the consequences of mandated reductions in CO2 emissions.”
The group has received more than $1 million in donations during the past four years, including from the billionaire Mercer family and the Koch brothers. Among the CO2 Coalition’s current board members are the Heartland Institute’s Craig Idso, who co-authored a climate change skepticism book that was mailed out to schools around the country, and Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist and former MIT professor who has often been critical of what he calls “climate alarmism.” Lindzen also serves on the board of Inference, an online publication featuring a mix of what some critics have called junk science, alongside seemingly accurate scientific content.
In addition to white papers and purported scientific studies posted on its website, the CO2 Coalition’s YouTube channel features a series of advertisements geared towards children. As highlighted by E&E News White House reporter Scott Waldman, one 30-second video — which doesn’t appear to have gained much of an audience — features a cartoon sunflower texting a bee to praise carbon dioxide for keeping them both healthy.
While scientists acknowledge some short-term benefits of increased atmospheric CO2 for certain plants and animals, these are likely to be outweighed by the impacts of increased drought, reductions in air quality, and ocean acidification, among other problems. Reinforcing the urgent need to tackle climate change now, Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told E&E News, “The evidence from scientists around the world is widespread in saying that we have a problem.”
Also in the news:
• Three months after Chinese scientist He Jiankui made headlines with the claim that he used the gene-editing tool Crispr to alter the genomes of two twin girls, the Chinese government has unveiled draft regulations for stricter control over such biotechnologies. The proposed laws would label gene-editing techniques as “high-risk,” making them subject to regulation by the health department of the country’s cabinet. He’s actions last year sparked waves of controversy across the world. He maintained that because China’s laws don’t expressly forbid genome editing of human embryos which are then carried to term, he thought he was doing nothing wrong. Documents reviewed by STAT suggest that the government may have even funded the research, though its unclear how much was known about what it would entail. In any case, the new regulations, some scientists worry, will affect the field of gene-editing as a whole. Because of He’s actions in using Crispr on humans, “the industry will develop at a slower pace,” Kehkooi Kee, a researcher at Tsinghua University, told the Associated Press. “The government will be more cautious with research funds, and private organizations, such as charities and startups, will be less likely to invest.” (Associated Press)
• On Thursday, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued an apology for failing to update its policies on sexual harassment by the investigators it funds. The statement from agency leaders, which does not include a concrete plan for tackling the problem, takes an emotional tone, calling harassment “morally indefensible.” The statement also promises greater accountability and transparency in the future, highlighting work last year to follow up on “sexual harassment-related concerns,” which involved 35 allegations. BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist and #MeTooSTEM activist, met with the Working Group of the Advisory Council to the Director (ACD) on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment and requested that NIH Director Francis Collins apologize to victims. She says an apology is a good first step, along with universities notifying NIH of sexual harassment, but ultimately, the NIH “has to start taking that money back from the universities,” when harassment happens. The NIH concedes: “We can do better. We must do better.” (Science)
• Residents of Toledo, Ohio voted this week to pass the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that grants Lake Erie “personhood” status and confers to it the same legal rights as a human or a corporation. The law intends to give residents the ability to protect the lake from pollution and sue polluters to pay for clean-up and prevention programs. While a handful of other countries — Colombia, Ecuador, India, and New Zealand — have passed similar laws to protect designated forests and watersheds, the new Lake Erie law is the first of its kind in the United States and Canada that seeks to protect an entire body of water, as well as its rivers, tributaries, and shorelines. The Lake Erie watershed encompasses 30,000 square land miles, and provides drinking water for 11 million people across four states and two countries. The impetus for the bill began in 2014 when a major algae bloom caused by agricultural pollution made the water unsafe to drink for 500,000 people, with Toledo heavily affected. While the Lake Erie Bill of Rights passed easily, it is already facing its first legal challenge. The owner of a farm 40 miles southeast of Toledo filed a lawsuit 12 hours after the bill passed, arguing that the bill is unconstitutional and potentially harmful to the farm. (The Guardian)
• Two major fetal-tissue research studies received lifelines from the NIH last week, but they face uncertain futures as the Trump administration continues its sweeping review of federal funding of fetal tissue research. Last December, the NIH surprised researchers at the University of California, San Francisco when it declined to grant the usual year-long extension to the school’s fetal-tissue research contract — opting instead for just 90 days. That extension was initially set to expire on March 5th, but Science now reports that the agency will fund the program at least until June. Science also reports that the NIH has revived fetal tissue research aimed at developing HIV antibodies at its Rocky Mountain Laboratories. The study had come to a halt last year after researchers were directed to stop acquiring tissue from their usual supplier. But the NIH’s deputy director says that stoppage was the result of a miscommunication, and the agency has now cleared the laboratories to resume their work. Still, the long-term fates of these and other federally funded fetal-tissue research projects continue to hang in the balance: The federal government has given no clear timeline for completing its fetal-tissue research review. (Science)
• And finally: The first ever survey of Australian “scientists and technologists” working in any capacity, from academia to government to industry, has uncovered an unsavory truth: Nearly half the female respondents said they had been sexually harassed at work, and so, too, had 10 percent of the male scientists. The findings — although based on a self-selecting sample of participants — echo earlier work suggesting that sexual harassment is rampant and universities in both the U.S. and the U.K.. But according to the journal Nature, which reported on the findings Thursday, the latest survey suggests that harassment is “rife across all types of scientific workplace.” At least one expert referred to the findings as further evidence of a “wicked problem” facing researchers everywhere, but one bit of insight provided reason for optimism: Sexual harassment, it seems, was less likely to occur in workplaces with a greater overall gender balance. Said Emma Johnston, president of Science & Technology Australia (STA), a lobby group representing scientists: “That’s a very strong, positive message.” (Nature)