Amid Rising Climate Stakes, Trump and Allies Get Personal

In an impassioned speech to the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg begged world leaders to listen to the science on climate change. “For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear,” Thunberg said, sounding at times like she was on the verge of tears. “How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight?”

This has been a consistent theme of Thunberg’s activism: that the adults in power need to stop pretending things are okay and start responding to the dire projections of climate scientists. For many right-wing political figures and commentators, though, looking at the science seemed more difficult than usual this week, because all they could see was Thunberg.

On Fox News, host Laura Ingraham described Thunberg’s speech as “chilling” and compared her to the characters from the 1977 Stephen King horror story “Children of the Corn,” in which children, under the influence of a nefarious entity, ritually murder adults. A Fox News guest, Michael Knowles, called Thunberg, who has Asperger’s syndrome, “mentally ill,” adding that she was being exploited “by the international left.” (The network later apologized, describing Knowles’ comments as “disgraceful”).

The National Review, which ran at least seven pieces about Thunberg in the last week alone, suggested she was a cross between two cartoon characters: Lisa Simpson and the supervillain Bane. And, on Twitter, President Donald Trump shared a video of Thunberg’s speech and made a sarcastic comment: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”

Whether intentionally or not, all of this hubbub about one Swedish teenager seemed to deflect attention from the very thing that Thunberg wants everyone to focus on: the science. And, on that front, the news this week was stark. A new report from the World Meteorological Organization, released at the beginning of the week in conjunction with the U.N. summit, documented rapid global sea-level rises over the past five years, and showed that concentrations of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are continuing to climb.

Then on Wednesday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a grim new report about oceans and ice. “Climate change is heating the oceans and altering their chemistry so dramatically that it is threatening seafood supplies, fueling cyclones and floods, and posing profound risks to the hundreds of millions of people living along the coasts,” The New York Times reported.

In the light of that kind of news, it’s hard to imagine that social media sniping at a teenaged activist will one day be anything other than a sad historical footnote. And Thunberg seemed to agree with her critics on one count: She, too, wished she were off the stage and back at home. “This is all wrong,” she told the U.N. gathering near the beginning of her remarks. “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.”

Also in the news:

• The head of e-cigarette giant Juul stepped down this week amid a growing crisis of vaping-related illnesses and deaths. The company also announced that it would suspend all advertising and halt some of its lobbying. The shakeup comes as the U.S. is planning a ban on all flavored e-cigarette products in an effort to curb their appeal to youth. Some states have already done so, with others moving to ban vaping products altogether. While health officials haven’t yet identified any particular brand, ingredient, or substance as causing the illnesses — which often present as chest pain, shortness of breath, and coughing — they’re urging users to exercise caution or refrain from vaping until more is known. While many advocates are lauding stricter regulations, some groups say the new rules would only stimulate the black market for vaping products. (CNN)

• A paper questioning the conclusion of the United Nations’ Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) and U.S. intelligence agencies that the Syrian government was responsible for a 2017 chemical weapons attack was withheld from publication this week in Princeton’s Science & Global Security (SGS) journal amid controversy over its methods and authors’ biases. Released in 2017, the JIM’s analysis concluded that sarin nerve gas — which killed at least 80 people in the town of Khan Shaykhun and prompted a retaliatory U.S. attack on a Syrian airbase — was released from a bomb dropped by a government airplane. But through mathematical modeling of a small impact crater at the attack site, the new paper suggests that the depression could have instead been formed by an artillery rocket and warhead, a weapon used by multiple fighting factions. One of the paper’s authors, Theodore Postol, a weapons systems expert and professor emeritus at MIT who has argued against the Syrian government’s responsibility in a number of chemical attacks, has been accused by others in the field of ignoring evidence and being a sympathizer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Postol denies taking political sides and told a Science reporter he is “totally confident” the journal will eventually run the paper. According to a letter from SGS editors, an independent internal review of the manuscript “identified a number of issues with the peer-review and revision process,” and publication will be postponed until “editors can rectify the problems that we identified.” (Science)

• Albania’s capital city, Tirana, was rattled last Saturday by a magnitude-5.8 earthquake that damaged nearly 1,000 buildings. Then two of its media outlets were rattled by scandal. Two journalists from Gazeta Shekulli and were reportedly detained by police after publishing stories that incorrectly warned of a magnitude-6 aftershock on Sunday night. A screengrab shared on Twitter captured the story’s original headline, which advised readers: “Get out of the house. A powerful earthquake is predicted. Here’s what time.” The reporting — believed to have been a misinterpretation of statements made by Greek seismologist Akis Tselentis — prompted city residents to flee their homes just before midnight. Albanian Defense Minister Olta Xhaçka called the stories “fake news” and “a serious criminal offense which is punishable by the criminal code.” contends that the arrest of its journalist was political, aimed at curbing press freedom. Seismologists maintain that it is not currently possible to predict when and where a large earthquake will strike. (Voice of America and The Associated Press)

• Scientists and students in the Kashmir Valley are currently dealing with the ramifications of an almost two-month-long communications blackout. The strict limits, imposed by the Indian government in an attempt to curb unrest following a move to dissolve the autonomous status of the Jammu and Kashmir region, have deprived people of internet access, mobile networks, and landlines since August 4. The outages have also left scientists and university students in the region unable to complete their work, and researchers in India have reported that they are completely unable to contact Kashmiri colleagues to exchange ideas, bringing any scientific collaboration to a standstill. Accessing literature in online academic journals is now impossible for Kashmiri researchers, and they are also unable to submit their papers. Many universities in the region, including the University of Kashmir and the University of Jammu, have reportedly either been left in disarray or temporarily closed, and Kashmiri students have been forced to put their higher education on hold. In the meantime, a number of Kashmiri scientists have chosen to relocate to escape the communications blockade. However, moving to a different region does not mean they can simply return to their research as usual, since their labs and most of their equipment remains in Kashmir. (The Scientist)

• There is little question that DNA science has revolutionized crime investigation — particularly in cold cases with no clear suspect. Today, law enforcement officials can take DNA samples obtained from crime scenes and consult vast databases of interconnected genetic information in a hunt for matches, or even familial relationships. As the size of those databases has grown, so too has ability to identify criminals who might have otherwise stayed under the radar. But this ability, Undark reported this week, leads to a more profound question: Does the mere existence of vast warehouses of DNA now deter some would-be criminals from acting on their impulses in the first place? Some researchers, using sophisticated analysis of crime data, are starting to argue that it does. Among these is Jennifer Doleac of Texas A&M, who used crime data from seven states to compare recidivism rates for offenders whose DNA was added to a database, versus those who committed similar crimes, but had no DNA taken. Among the results: Violent offenders who gave a DNA sample were 17 percent less likely to reoffend within the first five years of release than those who did not. More research is needed, Schwartz notes, to determine the strength of the effect — and no matter the strength, not everyone agrees it’s a good thing, particularly given the documented racial and ethnic biases of the criminal justice system. These techniques “are agents of control against black and brown men,” one source told Undark, “and they are not being used equally across the board.” (Undark)

• In what could mark an historic breakthrough in quantum computing, Google may have successfully demonstrated “quantum supremacy,” according to a draft research paper temporarily posted to a NASA website and uncovered by the Financial Times late last week. The paper describes an experiment in which Google tested how fast one of its experimental quantum processors, called Sycamore, could solve a problem compared to Google’s powerful server clusters and the Summit supercomputer — the world’s fastest. The Google paper claims the Sycamore quantum processor was able to perform operations in 200 seconds that would take a conventional supercomputer approximately 10,000 years to match. Responses to the news from Google’s competitors and others in the quantum computing community have been mixed, with some experts pointing out that Google’s claims must still be verified, and others lauding the news as evidence that quantum computing is making strides. In a statement, Dario Gil, head of IBM Research, said that Google’s result represents a “laboratory experiment” with “no practical applications.” According to Gil, “the task ahead is to continue to build and make widely accessible truly programmable quantum computing systems.” Google has not yet responded to journalists’ requests for comment. (Wired)

• And finally: A coalition of 17 states — led by California, Massachusetts, and Maryland — filed suit against the federal government this week in an effort to fight the Trump administration’s deliberate weakening of the Endangered Species Act. The attorneys general involved in the lawsuit cited plans by the Environmental Protection Agency to decrease habitat for vulnerable species; to allow expanded hunting of threatened animals; and to remove language from the 1973 Act that declares that protection decisions should be based on science rather than cost. The planned changes, according to numerous sources, were prompted largely by a push from industry to expand drilling on public lands. The administration first proposed amending the Act in August, prompting an earlier lawsuit from a network of environmental and animal rights organizations, ranging from EarthJustice to the Humane Society of the United States. The groups pointed out that the proposed changes violate federal rules that require the proposal to include a clear analysis of how it would affect the environment.  Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross dismissed such complaints at the time, describing the move as necessary to lessen the “regulatory burden” on the American public. But the states involved in the lawsuit see the situation differently. In addition to the three leaders, that list includes Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. “The Trump administration is gutting Endangered Species Act protections to make way for oil and gas developments,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. “We are suing to defend federal law and to protect our imperiled wildlife and environment.” (The Washington Post)

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.