Side-Stepping Climate Change, Trump Touts Trillion Trees Plan

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump made no mention of climate change, even as the rapid warming of the planet is recognized by many scientists as a growing threat to the economy, public health, and national security. Instead, the president’s only nod to environmental protection focused on an initiative to plant trees — lots of trees.

The World Economic Forum’s Trillion Trees Initiative, which the U.S. signed onto last month, aims to protect and plant a trillion trees across the globe by 2050. The project, its proponents say, is essential for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and reaching the goal — set at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 — of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And while a study published in Science last summer seemed to support that thinking, other researchers were quick to critique its findings.

In general, critics have argued that although reforestation can help to offset carbon emissions once trees have reached maturity, it does nothing to address the current level of emissions. In addition, the success of reforestation and afforestation — where trees are planted on land that previously had no forest — can be complicated by myriad factors, including the types of trees planted, tree health, and the needs and cooperation of local communities. After all, the land required comes at a cost for farming, logging, and other economic activities. And even the most earnest tree-planting efforts will be vulnerable to drought, wildfire, and deforestation in other parts of the world.

Trump’s elevation of the Trillion Trees Initiative has been characterized as a “politically-safe” approach to fighting climate change, but viewed alongside the administration’s numerous rollbacks on environmental regulations, critics argue that his efforts fall flat.

“In the face of a climate emergency, Trump’s ‘trillion trees’ initiative is like trying to put out a raging dumpster fire with a squirt gun,” Janet Redman, climate campaign director for Greenpeace USA, told Vox. “Planting trees is not a substitute for cutting carbon emissions or addressing the unjust impacts of extractive industries on marginalized communities.”

Also in the news:

• China is reportedly facing a shortage of medical masks amid the coronavirus outbreak. As the world’s leading manufacturer of these and other products including respirators, other countries may also begin feeling the pinch. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 95 percent of surgical masks and 70 percent of respirators used in the U.S. are produced overseas. In an email to Wired, Tom Nickels, executive vice president of the American Hospital Association, wrote “our members have expressed concern that the already fragile supply chain will break with the worsening conditions in China.” According to the state-affiliated China Global Television Network, the country is producing 20 million masks on a daily basis. But on Monday, it’s foreign ministry issued an appeal to other countries to donate medical supplies, stating that it’s in urgent need of more protective suits, medical masks, and safety goggles. (Wired)

• Colombia’s first ever science minister, molecular biologist Mabel Gisela Torres Torres, is in hot water — and is now facing calls for her resignation — for claims that she gave cancer patients an unapproved fungus-based treatment during an informal clinical trial. Virtually unknown when she was sworn in less than a month ago as leader of Colombia’s newly created Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation, Torres and her research record have in recent weeks come under close scrutiny after the newspaper El Espectador published excerpts from an August 2019 broadcast interview in which she claimed to have seen improvement in patients with cervical, breast, and brain cancer after giving them an extract of large, shell-like mushrooms of the genus Ganoderma without seeking formal ethical or safety approval. Several national scientific and medical societies have issued statements condemning the action and many researchers are publicly expressing disappointment in the choice of Torres to lead the long-awaited overhaul of Colombian science. Quintero Hernández, president of the board of the Colombian Association of Medical Faculties, told Science: “It’s very astonishing that a person who has difficulty [adhering to] the scientific method is the person that will lead the science of this country.” (Science)

• For decades, an aging coke plant in Pennsylvania polluted the air above the city of Avalon, roughly 10 miles north of Pittsburgh. Citizens complained of illnesses and asked hard questions about the role the pollution might be playing, but researchers and officials turned a blind eye to the issue — even as the health of locals continued to deteriorate. Did the factory make residents of Avalon sick? Scientific answers to that question are lacking, and sociologists give this sort of systemic knowledge gap — this “ignorance production” — a name, reports science journalist Nancy Averett for Undark this week: It’s called “undone science,” and it affects lots of places like Avalon. “The textbook way science gets presented in the classroom is that science is this bright light that’s shining on tiny bits of the universe and uncovering all the truths,” Scott Frickel, a sociologist at Brown University and a leading figure in this field of research, tells Averett. “… But what we, as sociologists, are doing is thinking about the politics of knowledge when it comes to science, and how that results in what the public knows — and what it continues not to know.” In May, 2018, the polluting coke plant was demolished, but the residents of Avalon still don’t have any firm answers. “Why are they not doing what I thought was their job,” one resident asked of local health officials, “which is to protect the local citizens?” (Undark)

• NASA astronaut Christina Koch returned to Earth on Thursday after a 328-day trip to the International Space Station, the longest spaceflight ever by a female astronaut. The record was previously held by Peggy Whitson, who spent 288 consecutive days in space in 2016 and 2017. It was Koch’s first trip to the International Space Station, and a productive one: She completed six spacewalks, including the first all-female spacewalk with NASA astronaut Jessica Meir; she crystallized cancer proteins in microgravity; and she worked on multiple plant biology experiments, among other endeavors. She also helped test countermeasures to prevent the bone and muscle loss that can occur during prolonged periods in microgravity. Koch’s trip was 12 days shy of the all-time record, held by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly. She indicated in a recent interview that she’s looking forward to being back on Earth but will miss certain aspects of space living: “Sleep in space has been some of the most restful I’ve ever had,” she said. (CNN)

• Researchers tracking the signals of our changing climate recently highlighted two noteworthy findings: Europe posted its warmest January on record and ocean currents are accelerating far faster than predicted in response to warming temperatures. Both findings underlined an issue that is increasingly baffling and worrying the research community: Computer models designed to forecast the impacts of climate change have begun suggesting a grimmer picture of environmental change than previously expected. Some of the models have also started predicting a stronger heat effect — in one, the warming calculations went up by a full 30 percent. “We hope it’s not the right answer,” one researcher said. Climate modelers suggest that cloud simulations may be playing a role. And around the world, the modeling community is now collaborating on trying to figure out why the predictions changed for the worst, what data is driving those changes, and whether the answer — as they hope — is simply that the computer programs need to be readjusted. (Bloomberg News)

• And finally: Japan plans to build as many as 22 new coal-burning power plants in the next five years. The move contrasts with the ongoing phase-out of coal in many developed economies and growing concern about climate change in the scientific community. Japan currently relies on fossil fuels for four-fifths of its energy needs, with coal alone accounting for over a third of total power generation. Japan’s continued reliance on fossil fuels is due, in part, to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, after which nuclear went from providing a third of Japan’s power to just 3 percent in 2017. There has already been local pushback to the proposed coal plants in Yokosuka, a city in central Japan. Community members are suing the government over its approval of the new plants without properly assessing their impact on local air quality and climate change. Climate action advocates in Japan also warn that the move undermines the country’s attempt to market the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo as one of the most environmentally friendly to date. (The New York Times)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff and interns.

Jane Roberts Reza is the deputy editor of Undark.