President Obama meets with the 2016 American Nobel Prize winners in the Oval Office in November 2016. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

By Lev Facher
13 November 2017

WASHINGTON (STAT) – President Trump, breaking a tradition that stretches back nearly two decades, will not personally greet the eight American Nobel laureates this year before they travel to Sweden in December to receive their prizes.

Not all the honorees are disappointed.

Two American Nobel Prize winners, when contacted by STAT, indicated they would not have attended a White House event even if invited. Columbia biophysicist Joachim Frank, awarded a Nobel in chemistry for his work in microscopy, said in an email he was “very relieved” when he learned there was no chance of an encounter with the president.

“I will not put my foot into the White House as long as Trump, Pence, or Ryan [i.e., the possible succession of impeachments] will occupy it,” Frank said. “I cannot speak for the others; don’t know them personally yet, but I strongly believe that as thinking intelligent people they will have a similar attitude as I.”

Trump returns from a two-week trip to Hawaii and Asia on Tuesday. A White House spokesman cited the foreign travel when asked why the president would not greet the laureates in person.

The White House has hosted an event in the laureates’ honor nearly every year since 2001. Former President Barack Obama granted an audience to the American group each year of his presidency except for 2009, when he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Former President George W. Bush attended each year except for 2006, when former Vice President Dick Cheney greeted the group instead. Former President Bill Clinton also held in-person greetings for Nobel winners on numerous occasions during his presidency. […]

A White House spokesperson also indicated the administration will not follow through with its plans, at least this year, to continue the tradition of a White House Science Fair. [more]

Trump, Breaking with Precedent, Won't Meet with U.S. Nobel Recipients

African elephant tusks and trophies imported to the U.S., 2005-2016. Fewer elephants were killed under the 2015 ban elephant trophy imports under President Obama. Graphic: The Washington Post

By Christopher Ingraham
17 November 2017

(The Washington Post) – Supporters of trophy hunting say that permit fees from the practice, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars in the case of large game like elephants, can be put toward conservation efforts that help bolster the populations of endangered animals.

In part, that's the logic behind the Trump administration's reversal of an Obama-era ban on importing African elephant trophies from Zimbabwe.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has made a finding that the killing of African elephant trophy animals in Zimbabwe, on or after January 21, 2016, and on or before December 31, 2018, will enhance the survival of the African elephant,” according to a notice posted Friday in the federal register.

But if the logic of killing elephants to save them strikes you as questionable, you're not alone.

As of 2014 the African elephant population stood at an estimated 374,000, according to the Global Elephant Census, a massive and costly effort to measure the continent's remaining savanna elephant population. That's down from an estimated 10 million elephants at the turn of the 20th century, and from 600,000 of the animals as recently as 1989. […]

Zimbabwe, in particular, has been rife with bad wildlife management practices, which is why the Obama administration banned elephant trophy imports from the country in the first place. […]

Before the Obama administration's ban, animals hunted in Zimbabwe accounted for nearly half of all elephant trophy imports to the United States, according to Fish and Wildlife Service data analyzed by the Humane Society. After the ban was put in place, elephant trophy imports fell dramatically. [more]

The Trump administration says we have to kill elephants to help save them. The data says otherwise

Ricardo Ramos, executive director of the Electric Power Authority of Puerto Rico (PREPA), attends a news conference, in San Juan. resigned following criticism of the slow restoration of power to the island after Hurricane Maria on 17 November 2017. Photo: Alvin Baez / REUTERS

By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown
17 November 2017

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The head of Puerto Rico’s indebted utility has resigned following criticism of the slow restoration of power to the island after Hurricane Maria, the U.S. territory’s governor said.

Ricardo Ramos, who was named head of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) in 2016, was also criticized over controversial contracts. His resignation was effective Friday, Governor Ricardo Rossello said in a statement.

Rossello recommended Justo Gonzalez as interim director, according to a separate statement. Gonzalez is currently director of power generation at PREPA, a role he took on in April 2017. Gonzalez previously was the company’s planning and environmental protection director and operations manager of the Aguirre Steam Plant.

PREPA’s board will meet later on Friday to discuss who will succeed Ramos, who was appointed by Rossello.

Rossello said he supported a search within and outside Puerto Rico to fill the role permanently.

“I am hoping they do it as quickly as possible,” said Jose Roman Morales, interim chairman of Puerto Rico’s energy commission, which regulates PREPA. […]

In a webcast update on restoration efforts, Ramos said that 50.5 percent of generation had been restored as of Friday, and additional lines have been repaired that have not yet been charged to provide electricity.

“The highest peak of generation that we have had is 50 percent. In this week, we had about three general blackouts in the island that kept San Juan in the dark for most of the week. That is totally unacceptable,” said Tomas Torres, executive director of the nonprofit Institute for Competitiveness and Sustainable Economy for Puerto Rico. [more]

Puerto Rico utility head resigns after slow Hurricane Maria response

Return periods of hurricane total rainfall (millimeters) at the single point of Houston, Texas, based on 3,700 simulated events each from six global climate models over the period 1981–2000 from historical simulations (blue), and 2081–2100 from RCP 8.5 simulations (red). The dots show the six-climate-set mean and the shading shows 1 SD in storm frequency, remapped into return periods. Graphic: Emanuel, 2017 / PNAS

By Jennifer Chu
13 November 2017

(MIT News) – As the city of Houston continues to recover and rebuild following the historic flooding unleashed by Hurricane Harvey, the region will also have to prepare for a future in which storms of Harvey’s magnitude are more likely to occur.

A new MIT study, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reports that as climate change progresses, the city of Houston, and Texas in general, will face an increasing risk of devastating, Harvey-scale rainfall.

According to the study, the state of Texas had a 1 percent chance of experiencing rainfall of Harvey’s magnitude for any given year between 1981 and 2000. By the end of this century, the annual probability of Hurricane Harvey’s record rainfall returning to Texas will rise to 18 percent, if the growth of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere continues unmitigated.

If the risk for such an event during this century increased in a steady, linear fashion, it would mean that there was a 6 percent chance of having Harvey’s magnitude of rainfall in Texas this year.

“You’re rolling the dice every year,” says study author Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science and co-director of the Lorenz Center at MIT. “And we believe the odds of a flood like Harvey are changing.”

When the past isn’t a guide

In the wake of a large disaster, Emanuel says it is natural, and in some cases essential, to ask whether and how soon such an event will occur again. 

“Suppose you’re the mayor of Houston, and you’ve just had a terrible disaster that cost you an unbelievable fortune, and you’re going to try over the next few years to put things back in order in your city,” Emanuel says. “Should you be putting in a more advanced storm-sewer system that may cost billions of dollars, or not? The answer to that question depends upon whether you think Harvey was a one-off — very unlikely to happen any time in the next 100 years — or whether it may be more common than you thought.”

Looking at historical records of extreme rainfall will not provide much insight into the future, Emanuel says. That’s because past measurements have been spotty and difficult to extrapolate across larger regions, and the period over which rainfall data have been recorded is relatively short. What’s more, climate change is shifting the odds in terms of the frequency of high-intensity storms around the world.

“If the underlying statistics are changing, the past may not be a good guide to the future,” Emanuel notes in the paper. 

Instead, scientists are turning to climate models to try and forecast the future of storms like Harvey. But there, challenges also arise, as models that simulate changing climate at a global scale do so at relatively coarse resolution, of around hundreds of kilometers, while hurricanes require resolutions of a few kilometers.

“[Climate models] do simulate slushy hurricane-like storms, but they’re very poorly resolved,” Emanuel says. “We don’t have the computational firepower to resolve storms like hurricanes in today’s climate models.”

Hurricanes, embedded

Emanuel and his colleagues had previously devised a technique to simulate hurricane development in a changing climate, using a specialized computational model they developed that simulates hurricanes at high spatial resolutions. The model is designed so that they can embed it within coarser global climate models — a combination that results in precise simulations of hurricanes in the context of a globally changing climate.

Emanuel used the team’s technique to model past and future hurricane activity for both the city of Houston and the state of Texas. To do so, he first embedded the hurricane model in three gridded climate analyses — simulations of global climate, based on actual data from the past — to simulate hurricane activity near Houston between 1980 and 2016.

He randomly seeded each climate model with hundreds of thousands of “proto-hurricanes,” or early-stage storms, the majority of which naturally peter out and don’t grow to become full-fledged hurricanes. Of the remaining storms, he focused on the 3,700 storms that passed within 300 kilometers of Houston between 1980 and 2016. He then noted the frequency of storms that produced 500 millimeters of rainfall or more — the amount of rain that was initially estimated immediately following Hurricane Harvey.

During this historical period, he calculated that the probability of a Harvey-like storm producing at least 500 millimeters of rain in Houston was around once in 2,000 years. Such an event, he writes, was “‘biblical’ in the sense that it likely occurred around once since the Old Testament was written.”

Stormy odds

To get a sense for how this probability, or risk of such a storm, will change in the future, he performed the same analysis, this time embedding the hurricane model within six global climate models, and running each model from the years 2081 to 2100, under a future scenario in which the world’s climate changes as a result of unmitigated growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

While Houston’s yearly risk of experiencing a 500-millimeter rainfall event was around 1 in 2,000 at the end of the last century, Emanuel found the city’s annual odds will increase significantly, to one in 100 by the end of this century.

When he performed the same set of analyses for Texas as a whole, he found that, at the end of the 20th century, the state faced a 1 percent risk each year of experiencing a Harvey-scale storm. By the end of this century, that annual risk will increase to 18 percent. If this increase happens linearly, he calculates that this year, the state’s odds were at about 6 percent — a sixfold increase since the late 20th century.

“When you take a very, very rare, extreme rainfall event like Hurricane Harvey, and you shift the distribution of rain toward heavier amounts because of climate change, you get really big changes in the probability of those rare events,” Emanuel says. “People have to understand that damage is usually caused by extreme events.”

Emanuel hopes that the study’s results will help city planners and government officials to decide where and how to rebuild and fortify infrastructure, as well as whether to recode building standards to stand up to stronger storms and more damaging floods.

“We’re seeing for Texas an event whose annual probability was 1 percent at the end of the last century, and it might be 18 percent by the end of this century,” Emanuel says. “That’s a huge increase in the probability of that event. So people had better plan for that.”

This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

Texas’ odds of Harvey-scale rainfall to increase by end of century


ABSTRACT: We estimate, for current and future climates, the annual probability of areally averaged hurricane rain of Hurricane Harvey’s magnitude by downscaling large numbers of tropical cyclones from three climate reanalyses and six climate models. For the state of Texas, we estimate that the annual probability of 500 mm of area-integrated rainfall was about 1% in the period 1981–2000 and will increase to 18% over the period 2081–2100 under Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR5 representative concentration pathway 8.5. If the frequency of such event is increasingly linearly between these two periods, then in 2017 the annual probability would be 6%, a sixfold increase since the late 20th century.

SIGNIFICANCE: Natural disasters such as the recent Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria highlight the need for quantitative estimates of the risk of such disasters. Statistically based risk assessment suffers from short records of often poor quality, and in the case of meteorological hazards, from the fact that the underlying climate is changing. This study shows how a recently developed physics-based risk assessment method can be applied to assessing the probabilities of extreme hurricane rainfall, allowing for quantitative assessment of hurricane flooding risks in all locations affected by such storms, regardless of the presence or quality of historical hurricane records.

Assessing the present and future probability of Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall

School children hold banners take out march to express their distress on the alarming levels of pollution in the city, in New Delhi, India, 15 November 2017. Thick smog has constricted India's capital this week, smudging landmarks from view and leaving residents frustrated at the lack of meaningful action by authorities. The air was the worst it has been all year in New Delhi, with microscopic particles that can affect breathing and health spiking to 75 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization. Photo: Manish Swarup / AP Photo

By Nick Perry, with additional writing by Muneeza Naqvi
15 November 2017

NEW DELHI (Associated Press) – Hundreds of students marched Wednesday in India's capital to demand action to improve the city's toxic air.

New Delhi has been wrapped in a choking haze for much of the past week. The smog did lift a little in time for the march at Nehru Park by students from 15 private schools.

The march was organized by representatives from the United Nations, private schools and the Sonalika company, a tractor maker.

Charvi Thakkar, 13, said she felt the pollution had risen to an extreme level and that her grandmother, uncle and brother were no longer able to comfortably breathe.

"We need to stop this," she said. "Because this is what we are providing for our children, for the next generation. If we are not able to breathe properly, then there is no future."

Teacher Neeraj Chhiber said that when she moved to Delhi 25 years ago, it felt a little dusty at this time of year but nowhere near as bad as it is now. [more]

Hundreds of New Delhi students march to demand cleaner air


image

By Mayank Manohar
15 November 2017

NEW DELHI (TNN) – The frequent landfill fires in Delhi have been adding to the rising pollution levels and while the municipal corporations have been directed to stop dumping at the existing sites due to unavailability of land, these sites continue to be functional.

According to latest reports, the Bhalswa landfill fire continues to spew toxic gases even as efforts are on to douse it.

On Saturday, fire broke in the same landfill site during the early morning hours.

Senior officials claimed that experts from IIT Delhi have been roped in to find a workable plan for processing of waste, however, it will take some time.

"The frequent fire is because of the excessive release of methane. The sites have been declared exhausted but due to unavailability of land, we have no other option but to dump at these sites," said a senior official from North Delhi Municipal Corporation.

Smoke rises from a fire at the Bhalswa landfill site in Delhi, India, 15 November 2017. Photo: The Times of India

The 40-acre Bhalswa landfill site was declared exhausted in 2006 and it has crossed the permissible height by 30 meters at least as per the rules of environment ministry.

The story is similar for the other two landfill sites - Okhla and Ghazipur, which were also declared exhausted several years ago. [more]

Delhi pollution: Bhalswa landfill fire rages on as city chokes


Level of air pollution (PM2.5) in Delhi, India, 15 November 2017. The level is 249.58 µg/m³ at 0800. Graphic: The Times of India

By Eric Leister
15 November 2017

(AccuWeather) – A depression in the Bay of Bengal will bring downpours and the threat for flooding to parts of eastern India this week. […]

Total rainfall of 100-200 mm (4-8 inches) with local amounts over 300 mm (12 inches) are expected.
Locations at risk include Visakhapatnam, Puri and Kolkata with the heaviest rainfall expected from Srikakulam to Puri and Ratanpur.

This magnitude of rainfall will create widespread flooding and travel shutdowns. There will also be a heightened risk for mudslides. […]

Meanwhile, much of northern India will continue to endure high levels of pollution and poor air quality as dry and tranquil conditions fail to relieve the current problems.

Delhi and other parts of northern India have had travel disruptions, school closures and an increase in hospital patients over the past week as air quality has deteriorated and pollution levels have reached severe levels.

Weather prediction for India during the week of 13 November 2017. Graphic: AccuWeather

Northern India endures high levels of pollution each year from the late autumn into spring as largely dry and tranquil weather settles over the region and allows pollution to build up.

Pollutants are only dispersed by strong storm systems that are infrequent during this four- to five-month period which causes prolonged periods of poor air quality.

No significant relief from the current poor air quality is expected across Delhi into next week. [more]

Depression to inundate eastern India; No reprieve for smog-stricken Delhi

Rivers as source for global marine plastic pollution. Graphic: Susan Walter / UFZ

17 October 2017 (UFZ) – Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic debris ends up in the sea - a global environmental problem with unforeseeable ecological consequences. The path taken by plastic to reach the sea must be elucidated before it will be possible to reduce the volume of plastic input. To date, there was only little information available on this. It has now been followed up by an interdisciplinary research team who were able to show that plastic debris is primarily carried into the sea by large rivers.

In the meantime, minute plastic particles can be found in the water in virtually every sea and river. This constitutes a serious and growing global environmental problem. There are enormous quantities of input each year and plastic weathers only very slowly. Marine life can be harmed by the tiny plastic particles floating in the water. One example of how this happens is when fish, seabirds or marine mammals mistake the particles for food and consume them. "It is still impossible to foresee the ecological consequences of this. One thing is certain, however: this situation cannot continue," says Dr. Christian Schmidt, a hydrogeologist at the UFZ. "But as it is impossible to clean up the plastic debris that is already in the oceans, we must take precautions and reduce the input of plastic quickly and efficiently."

However, in order to take practical measures to reduce plastic input, it will be necessary to answer the initial questions: Where does all the plastic come from anyhow? And how does it get into the sea? Schmidt and his team addressed these questions in a study that recently appeared in the current issue of the Environmental Science & Technology journal. For this purpose, the researchers analysed various scientific studies that examined the plastic load - that is the quantity of plastic carried by the water - in rivers. They converted the results of the studies into mutually comparable datasets and determined the ratio of these figures to the quantity of waste that is not disposed of properly in the respective catchment area. "We were able to demonstrate that there is a definite correlation in this respect," says Schmidt. "The more waste there is in a catchment area that is not disposed of properly, the more plastic ultimately ends up in the river and takes this route to the sea." In this context, large rivers obviously play a particularly large role - not only because they also carry a comparatively large volume of waste on account of their larger discharge. Schmidt says, "the concentrations of plastic, i.e., the quantity of plastic per cubic metre of water are significantly higher in large rivers than small ones. The plastic loads consequently increase at a disproportionately higher rate than the size of the river."

The researchers have also calculated that the ten river systems with the highest plastic loads (eight of them are in Asia and two in Africa) - areas in which hundreds of millions of people live, in some cases - are responsible for around 90 percent of the global input of plastic into the sea. "Halving the plastic input from the catchment areas of these rivers would already be a major success", says Schmidt. "To achieve this, it will be necessary to improve the waste management and raise public awareness for the issue. We hope that our study will make a contribution to a positive development so that the plastic problem in our oceans can be curbed in the long run."

In future investigations, the UFZ team intends to find out how long plastic debris takes to reach the sea once it gets into a river. Does it take only a few months or even decades? "It is important to be aware of this as the impact of a measure becomes apparent only with a corresponding time delay as existing pollution has yet to be washed into the sea", explains Schmidt. "Only when we are aware of roughly how long plastic debris remains in the respective river system will it also be possible to assess a measure to improve the waste management system in the catchment area."

Contact

Dr. Christian Schmidt
UFZ Department of Hydrogeology
Phone: +49 341 235 1986
christian.schmidt@ufz.de

Susanne Hufe, UFZ press office
Phone: +49 341 235-1630
presse@ufz.de

Rivers carry plastic debris into the sea


Underwater view of floating plastic debris. Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic debris ends up in the sea -- a global environmental problem with ecological consequences. Photo: Richard Carey / fotolia

ABSTRACT: A substantial fraction of marine plastic debris originates from land-based sources and rivers potentially act as a major transport pathway for all sizes of plastic debris. We analyzed a global compilation of data on plastic debris in the water column across a wide range of river sizes. Plastic debris loads, both microplastic (particles <5 mm) and macroplastic (particles >5 mm) are positively related to the mismanaged plastic waste (MMPW) generated in the river catchments. This relationship is nonlinear where large rivers with  population-rich catchments delivering a disproportionately higher fraction of MMPW into the sea. The 10 top-ranked rivers transport 88–95% of the global load into the sea. Using MMPW as a predictor we calculate the global plastic debris inputs form rivers into the sea to range between 0.41 and 4 × 106 t/y. Due to the limited amount of data high uncertainties were expected and ultimately confirmed. The empirical analysis to quantify plastic loads in rivers can be extended easily by additional potential predictors other than MMPW, for example, hydrological conditions.

Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea

Trends over time for environmental issues identified in the 1992 scientists’ warning to humanity. The years before and after the 1992 scientists’ warning are shown as gray and black lines, respectively. Panel (a) shows emissions of halogen source gases, which deplete stratospheric ozone, assuming a constant natural emission rate of 0.11 Mt CFC-11-equivalent per year. In panel (c), marine catch has been going down since the mid-1990s, but at the same time, fishing effort has been going up. The vertebrate abundance index in panel (f) has been adjusted for taxonomic and geographic bias but incorporates relatively little data from developing countries, where there are the fewest studies; between 1970 and 2012, vertebrates declined by 58 percent, with freshwater, marine, and terrestrial populations declining by 81, 36, and 35 percent, respectively. Five-year means are shown in panel (h). In panel (i), ruminant livestock consist of domestic cattle, sheep, goats, and buffaloes. Note that y-axes do not start at zero, and it is important to inspect the data range when interpreting each graph. Percentage change, since 1992, for the variables in each panel are as follows: (a) –68.1%; (b) –26.1%; (c) –6.4%; (d) +75.3%; (e) –2.8%; (f) –28.9%; (g) +62.1%; (h) +167.6%; and (i) humans: +35.5%, ruminant livestock: +20.5%. Graphic: Ripple. et al., 2017 / BioScience

By Sarah Kaplan
13 November 2017

(The Washington Post) – In late 1992, 1,700 scientists from around the world issued a dire “warning to humanity.” They said humans had pushed Earth's ecosystems to their breaking point and were well on the way to ruining the planet. The letter listed environmental impacts like they were biblical plagues — stratospheric ozone depletion, air and water pollution, the collapse of fisheries and loss of soil productivity, deforestation, species loss and  catastrophic global climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“If not checked,” wrote the scientists, led by particle physicist and Union of Concerned Scientists co-founder Henry Kendall, “many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”

But things were only going to get worse.

To mark the letter's 25th anniversary, researchers have issued a bracing follow-up. In a communique published Monday in the journal BioScience, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries assess the world's latest responses to various environmental threats. Once again, they find us sorely wanting.

“Humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse,” they write.

This letter, spearheaded by Oregon State University ecologist William Ripple, serves as a “second notice,” the authors say: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

Global climate change sits atop the new letter's list of planetary threats. Global average temperatures have risen by more than half a degree Celsius since 1992, and annual carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 62 percent.

But it's far from the only problem people face. Access to fresh water has declined, as has the amount of forestland and the number of wild-caught fish (a marker of the health of global fisheries). The number of ocean dead zones has increased. The human population grew by a whopping 2 billion, while the populations of all other mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by nearly 30 percent. [more]

Thousands of scientists issue bleak ‘second notice’ to humanity


13 November 2017 (BioScience) – Twenty-five years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 1700 independent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences, penned the 1992 “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” (see supplemental file S1). These concerned professionals called on humankind to curtail environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.” In their manifesto, they showed that humans were on a collision course with the natural world. They expressed concern about current, impending, or potential damage on planet Earth involving ozone depletion, freshwater availability, marine life depletion, ocean dead zones, forest loss, biodiversity destruction, climate change, and continued human population growth. They proclaimed that fundamental changes were urgently needed to avoid the consequences our present course would bring.

The authors of the 1992 declaration feared that humanity was pushing Earth's ecosystems beyond their capacities to support the web of life. They described how we are fast approaching many of the limits of what the ­biosphere can tolerate ­without ­substantial and irreversible harm. The scientists pleaded that we stabilize the human population, describing how our large numbers—swelled by another 2 billion people since 1992, a 35 percent increase—exert stresses on Earth that can overwhelm other efforts to realize a sustainable future (Crist et al. 2017). They implored that we cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and phase out fossil fuels, reduce deforestation, and reverse the trend of collapsing biodiversity.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of their call, we look back at their warning and evaluate the human response by exploring available time-series data. Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse (figure 1, file S1). Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels (Hansen et al. 2013), deforestation (Keenan et al. 2015), and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption (Ripple et al. 2014). Moreover, we have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century.

Humanity is now being given a second notice, as illustrated by these alarming trends (figure 1). We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats (Crist et al. 2017). By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere.

As most political leaders respond to pressure, scientists, media influencers, and lay citizens must insist that their governments take immediate action as a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life. With a groundswell of organized grassroots efforts, dogged opposition can be overcome and political leaders compelled to do the right thing. It is also time to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most) and drastically diminishing our per capita ­consumption of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources.

The rapid global decline in ozone-depleting substances shows that we can make positive change when we act decisively. We have also made advancements in reducing extreme poverty and hunger (www.worldbank.org). Other notable progress (which does not yet show up in the global data sets in figure 1) include the rapid decline in fertility rates in many regions attributable to investments in girls’ and women's education (www.un.org/esa/population), the promising decline in the rate of deforestation in some regions, and the rapid growth in the renewable-energy sector. We have learned much since 1992, but the advancement of urgently needed changes in environmental policy, human behavior, and global inequities is still far from sufficient.

Sustainability transitions come about in diverse ways, and all require civil-society pressure and evidence-based advocacy, political leadership, and a solid understanding of policy instruments, markets, and other drivers. Examples of diverse and effective steps humanity can take to transition to sustainability include the following (not in order of importance or urgency): (a) prioritizing the enactment of connected well-funded and well-managed reserves for a significant proportion of the world's terrestrial, marine, freshwater, and aerial habitats; (b) maintaining nature's ecosystem services by halting the conversion of forests, grasslands, and other native habitats; (c) restoring native plant communities at large scales, particularly forest landscapes; (d) rewilding regions with native species, especially apex predators, to restore ecological processes and dynamics; (e) developing and adopting adequate policy instruments to remedy defaunation, the poaching crisis, and the exploitation and trade of threatened species; (f) reducing food waste through education and better infrastructure; (g) promoting dietary shifts towards mostly plant-based foods; (h) further reducing fertility rates by ensuring that women and men have access to education and voluntary family-planning services, especially where such resources are still lacking; (i) increasing outdoor nature education for children, as well as the overall engagement of society in the appreciation of nature; (j) divesting of monetary investments and purchases to encourage positive environmental change; (k) devising and promoting new green technologies and massively adopting renewable energy sources while phasing out subsidies to energy production through fossil fuels; (l) revising our economy to reduce wealth inequality and ensure that prices, taxation, and incentive systems take into account the real costs which consumption patterns impose on our environment; and (m) estimating a scientifically defensible, sustainable human population size for the long term while rallying nations and leaders to support that vital goal.

To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world's leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning. Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home.

Epilogue

We have been overwhelmed with the support for our article and thank the more than 15,000 signatories from all ends of the Earth (see supplemental file S2 for list of signatories). As far as we know, this is the most scientists to ever co-sign and formally support a published journal article. In this paper, we have captured the environmental trends over the last 25 years, showed realistic concern, and suggested a few examples of possible remedies. Now, as an Alliance of World Scientists (­scientists.forestry.oregonstate.edu) and with the public at large, it is important to continue this work to ­document challenges, as well as improved ­situations, and to develop clear, trackable, and practical solutions while communicating trends and needs to world leaders. Working together while respecting the diversity of people and opinions and the need for social justice around the world, we can make great progress for the sake of humanity and the planet on which we depend.

Spanish, Portuguese, and French versions of this article can be found in file S1.

World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice

Surgeons work on a patient, in near-total darkness, at Dr. Isaac Gonzalez Martínez Oncological Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo: Carlos Giusti / AP

By Vann R. Newkirk II
29 October 2017

(The Atlantic) – It’s been over a month since the last of Maria’s Category 4 hurricane-strength winds swept over Puerto Rico, but there is still damage yet to come.

The darkness is persistent. Power and clean water are still tenuous and reliant on generators and outside aid. Contamination threatens basic necessities for dozens of municipalities, and the death toll—already likely a serious undercount—is only rising as diseases and the attrition from devastated infrastructure take their toll. Even with the aid of the federal government and the military, a health-care system facing multiple threats might not be able to protect some of the island’s most vulnerable citizens.

Many of those people are facing hard choices in Puerto Rico’s hospitals, which are at the front lines of disaster-relief efforts. While most hospitals have recovered from the storm’s early blows—which knocked most of them out of commission and left a few others dependant on generators—they have had to make do with shortages of power, water, and supplies; personnel crunches; and intensifying health-care needs from accidents and emergent diseases. Last week, a photograph posted by former Governor Alejandro García Padilla on Twitter showed doctors performing surgery by flashlight. From what physicians on the island tell me, such scenarios are common, as is physicians working double and triple shifts—circumstances made even more remarkable by the fact that the doctors themselves are victims of the storm.

Carolina Pichardo, a pediatrician working shifts at both the neonatal intensive-care unit at the University Pediatric Hospital in San Juan and at the pediatric emergency room at the HIMA San Pablo Hospital in nearby Caguas, is one of those doctors. Pichardo lives in a complex in San Juan where power is still tenuous, and she’s had to balance a survival routine with the extraordinary demands of her job.

During the night, when the generators run, she and her husband take cold showers; cook their canned food rations on a charcoal grill for dinner; and try to, by turns, avoid the heat and mosquitoes—keeping their door open to let in the breeze as they put their four-year-old daughter to bed, and closing it to hold off the insects. In the mornings, Pichardo sometimes braves standstill traffic in the capital’s newly congested transportation grid; sometimes it takes up to two hours just to get to Caguas, which is only 20 miles away.

At both hospitals, Pichardo has faced new challenges. At first, doctors and nurses dealt with a total collapse of power, which Pichardo said was the “scariest change” immediately after the storm. Hospitals couldn’t communicate with other hospitals; specialists often couldn’t be reached if they were needed; and patients were transferred to trauma centers or other facilities without any knowledge of whether those institutions could handle more patients.

While lines of communication have at least partially been restored, Pichardo said that problems still abound. “At this point, everything has become challenging,” she told me by email. “Many primary-care physicians are unable to provide services at their practice locations, so more and more people are using the emergency rooms for everyday medical problems. This places a larger burden on the emergency rooms and increases wait time among patients. Children have fallen behind on their immunization schedules, because either their pediatricians are not currently practicing or they have lost their refrigerated vaccines due to power outage.”

The collapse of primary-care structures on the island was a common theme of my conversations with medical professionals there. Primary care was already a bottleneck point for the Puerto Rican health-care system before this season’s hurricanes—with a mass exodus of doctors to the mainland and an increasing concentration of children, pregnant women, and elderly people back on the island. But now, with many doctor’s offices and smaller facilities closed, people with chronic health needs often have to go without care or seek it in emergency rooms, which can mean sitting in triage for hours. The shortage exacerbates the burden of both chronic and acute conditions as patients compete for space and resources. [more]

Puerto Rico's Dire Health-Care Crisis

Demonstrators at a presentation by the United States delegation to the United Nations climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, on 13 November 2017. Photo: Philipp Guelland / European Pressphoto Agency

By Lisa Friedman and Brad Plumer
13 November 2017

BONN, Germany (The New York Times) – The Trump administration made its debut at a United Nations conference on climate change on Monday by giving a full-throated defense of fossil fuels and nuclear energy as answers to driving down global greenhouse gas emissions.

The forum — the only official appearance by the United States delegation during the annual two-week climate gathering of nearly 200 nations — illustrated how sharply the administration’s views are at odds with those of many key participants in the climate negotiations.

George D. Banks, special adviser to President Trump on international energy issues, led a panel with top American energy executives. “Without question, fossil fuels will continue to be used, and we would argue that it’s in the global interest to make sure when fossil fuels are used that they be as clean and efficient as possible,” Mr. Banks said. “This panel is controversial only if we chose to bury our heads in the sand.”

But even before the Trump team could make its case, the panel was disrupted for more than 10 minutes by scores of chanting and singing demonstrators. The protesters then walked out, leaving the room half empty. Throughout the remainder of the presentation, audience members shouted down and mocked White House officials who attempted to explain away President Trump’s stated view that global warming is a hoax.

It was a rude reception for the Trump administration at the first major United Nations climate conference since President Trump took office and declared that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord signed by more than 195 nations in 2015. Mr. Trump has filled top environmental posts with officials who have expressed doubt about established climate science, including studies published by numerous federal agencies.

President Trump, who ran on a pledge to revive the American coal industry and whose cabinet includes a number of prominent oil and gas enthusiasts, sent his team here with a clear message — that extracting and using significant amounts of oil, gas and coal would be a priority of the administration.

The American presentation came the same day that a new study showed that emissions were rising worldwide after three years on a plateau. Researchers said the emissions growth was driven largely by increased burning of coal in China and India.

“The question is not if we will continue to use coal, but how,” said Holly Krutka, vice president of coal generation and emissions technologies at Peabody Energy.

Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who has spent tens of millions of dollars on a campaign to shut down coal plants, said, “Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.” Mr. Bloomberg, who is attending part of the Bonn conference, this week donated $50 million to environmental groups to help countries shift away from coal, starting in Europe. [more]

Protesters Jeer as Trump Team Promotes Coal at U.N. Climate Talks

 

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