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Washington Post: If I were still working at the EPA, I would resign

Bernard D. Goldstein, former chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and EPA assistant administrator for R&D under Reagan:

I had hoped that Wheeler would reverse Pruitt’s initial policies. Instead, he has taken them well beyond the point that, were I a member of CASAC, I would have resigned. Neither my conscience, nor my concern for the respect of my peers, would have allowed me to provide advice on a complex health-related subject when I cannot interact in a scientific consensus advisory process with those who have the necessary expert credentials.

I cannot ask President Trump’s EPA assistant administrator for research and development to resign. That position remains unfilled. Nor is it likely that any credible scientist would accept such a nomination. But I urge the current members of CASAC to step down rather than seemingly acquiesce to this charade. The EPA’s leadership is destroying the scientific foundation of environmental regulations, to the detriment of the health of the American people and our environment.

Read the whole thing.

Four Gallup polls related to energy and climate

Gallup conducted its annual Environment poll between March 1-10. They have released four snippets of fascinating data related to global warming, reliance on fossil fuels, and nuclear energy.

A/ More people are attributing warmer and colder weather to climate change than previously

Seventy percent of the subset of U.S. adults experiencing warmer temperatures this winter, and 44% of those experiencing colder than normal temperatures, attribute their atypical weather to human activity.

In 2012, when temperatures nationwide were 3.69 degrees higher on average than normal, 38% of those experiencing warmer than usual weather blamed it on human activity. The percentage blaming warmer weather on human activity rose into the 50s from 2013 to 2017 before rising to 70% this year.

The sample sizes of those experiencing colder than normal weather in 2012 and 2013 were too small to allow reporting of these respondents’ views on the cause. However, in 2014, when the sample size was sufficient, just 29% thought colder-than-normal weather was due to human activity. That rose to 37% in 2015, to 40% in 2016, and has since been above 40%.

B/ The data on climate change indicate greater concern overall among the populace, but dramatic differences across party and ideological lines.

… the public’s concern about global warming and belief that humans are responsible are holding steady at or near the trend high points. While Americans as a whole are concerned about global warming, the partisan differences between Democrats and Republicans are stark. Most Democrats take the issue seriously and are troubled by it. Republicans remain skeptical and largely unconcerned.

First, some graphs on the overall concern.

The numbers from 2019 that I find most striking revolve around a question asking whether or not “global warming will pose a serious threat to your or your way of life in your lifetime.” In 2019, 45% said yes and 55% said no. If you split that up by ideology, the difference is stark: 67% of liberals, 47% of moderates, and 27% of conservatives said yes.

C/ The next two items released by Gallup deal with future energy options. The first set of questions focused on decreasing use of fossil fuels in the next 10 or 20 years. 60% of respondents thought it was likely or very likely that the US could dramatically decrease dependance on fossil fuels, with the vast majority wanting to see increased emphasis on wind and solar power.

D/ Gallup also released asked questions on the use of nuclear power. The data show an almost even split:

Americans are evenly split on the use of nuclear power as a U.S. energy source. Forty-nine percent of U.S. adults either strongly favor (17%) or somewhat favor (32%) the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity, while 49% either strongly oppose (21%) or somewhat oppose (28%) its use.

Roughly equal percentages of Americans say nuclear power plants are safe (47%) as say they are not safe (49%). This is the first time in Gallup’s 10-year trend on this question that a plurality of Americans have considered nuclear power unsafe. Even in the 2011 poll, conducted two weeks after the high-profile Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan, a majority said they viewed nuclear power plants as safe.

More information on the sampling methodology and survey methods can be found at the bottom of each page linked above. Visualizations on this page made by downloading PDFs of data from Gallup, extracting tables, and generating plots using some R packages: readxl, ggplot2, and data.table.

And then Steve Bannon showed up: Carl Zimmer on Biosphere 2

Credit: Jessica Lehrman for The New York Times

I remember being entranced and inspired by Biosphere as a kid. Zimmer’s piece is an interesting, entertaining, and thoughtful look at the promise and perils of the project.

Many scientists looked back at the original Biosphere 2 as a colossal failure. “In short, the Biosphere 2 experiment failed to generate sufficient breathable air, drinkable water and adequate food for just eight humans, despite an expenditure of $200 million,” the ecologist Rebecca Stewart and her colleagues declared.

The scientists Joel Cohen and David Tilman wrote, “No one yet knows how to engineer systems that provide humans with the life-supporting services that natural ecosystems produce for free.”

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Biosphere 2 out of hand. For two years, eight people grew papayas, beets, bananas, rice and a host of other crops in there. Except for a sliced finger, their health remained good. The water they drank didn’t poison them. Some species went extinct, but the ecosystems endured. Biosphere 2 did not turn to slime.

Science vs Fringe Thinking: EPA Science Panel Considering Guidelines That Upend Basic Air Pollution Science

NPR, reporting on a recent EPA Meeting:

At a public meeting Thursday that ran nearly two hours long, multiple members of that committee, including Chair Tony Cox and Steven Packham of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said they do not agree that breathing air polluted with soot can lead to an early death.

“[Committee] members have varying opinions on the adequacy of the evidence supporting the EPA’s conclusion that there is a causal relationship between [particulate matter] exposure and mortality,” said Cox, reading from the committee’s draft recommendations before explaining that he is “actually appalled” at the lack of scientific evidence connecting particulate pollution to premature death.

From Nature:

A quarter of a century of research has shown that breathing in fine airborne particles emitted by cars, power plants and other sources shortens people’s lifespans. But that scientific consensus is now under attack from a top advisor to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), just as the agency is rushing to revise the national air-quality standard for such pollution before the end of President Donald Trump’s first term. Scientists fear that the result could be weaker rules on air pollution that are bad for public health — and based on politics, not science.

The case has been made — repeatedly — that the health and economic benefits of the Clean Air Act and subsequent regulatory processes are clear. This is summarized succinctly in the figure below, which shows energy consumption, vehicle miles traveled, GDP, and total emissions of EPA criteria pollutants.

Figure from The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health

Let’s put aside the economic argument and focus on the principles that undergird the Clean Air Act - protection of public health, with standards set to protect the most vulnerable. This critical prerogative is undermined by these (and other) recent efforts to roll back regulations that have clear and demonstrable health benefits. This is yet another example of the Trump administration’s abnegation of responsibility to the health and welfare of the US population.

For more information, see Gretchen T. Goldman and Francesca Dominici’s discussion in Science and their claim-by-claim evidence base. See also a nice summary of the issue at NRDC and a letter from Professor John Samet to the EPA that comprehensively outlines issues with changes to the evidence review process for the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Unacceptable: U.S. Opposition to Breast-Feeding Resolution Stuns World Health Officials

Shame, shame, shame:

A resolution to encourage breast-feeding was expected to be approved quickly and easily by the hundreds of government delegates who gathered this spring in Geneva for the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly.

Based on decades of research, the resolution says that mother’s milk is healthiest for children and countries should strive to limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes.

Then the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers, upended the deliberations.

American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.

Yet another example of prioritizing corporate avarice over concerns of health and the environment. See here, here, here, and here for brief overviews of the benefits of breast-feeding.

10 rules for writing fiction, or just for all endeavors

In 2010, the Guardian asked writers for some tips and guidance - for ten of their “personal dos and don’ts”. Zadie Smith’s read like a dictum for any creative endeavor:

When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand - but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

These feel universal - truths across time and disciplines (granted, with a little adaptation). Most of them certainly feel relevant to my lil’corner of science.

Susanna Hertrich's Risk Perception Art

Susanna Hertrich:

A reflection on common fears in societies where anxieties have become a lifestyle choice (2010 - ongoing).

Regarding the piece above:

Public dread and actual deaths caused by most common sources of energy. Based on a longterm study by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

via @darbyjack

Ye Olde Smog Meringue

image from coclimate.com

Nicola Twilley, writing at ediblegeography.com:

After running around New York City in order to source our precursor ingredients (a huge thanks to Kent Kirshenbaum, chemistry professor at NYU and co-founder of the Experimental Cuising Collective), we spent Thursday afternoon and evening in the kitchens of Baz Bagel (excellent bagels, amazing ramp cream cheese, and truly lovely people) assembling the cart, mixing different chemical precursors, and then “baking” them under UV light to form a London peasouper, a 1950s Los Angeles photochemical smog, and a present-day air-quality event in Atlanta.

We chose these three places and times to showcase three of the classic “types” that atmospheric scientists use to characterize smogs: 1950s London was a sulfur- and particulate-heavy fog, whereas 1950s Los Angeles was a photochemical smog created by the reactions between sunlight, NOx, and partially combusted hydrocarbons. Present-day Beijing often experiences London-style atmospheric conditions, whereas Mexico City’s smog is in the Angeleno style.

Meanwhile, at its worst, Atlanta’s atmosphere is similar in composition to that of Los Angeles, but with the addition of biogenic emissions. An estimated ten percent of emissions in Atlanta are from a class of chemicals known as terpenes, from organic sources such as pine trees and decaying green matter. We had also hoped to create a Central Valley smog as well, but time got the better of us.

Each city’s different precursor emissions and weather conditions produce a different kind of smog, with distinct chemical characteristics—and a unique flavour.

Steven Levy: "The Invention of the Perfect Cup of Coffee"

Photo by Jason Henry

A short and fun interview between Steven Levy and Alan Adler, inventor of the Aerobie and the Aeropress.

Levy:

So I recently ventured to the small suite towards the back of a tiny industrial complex near 101 in Palo Alto, the home of the Aerobie company and its unsung master maker, Alan Adler. At 75, he is still at it, the canonical independent inventor, digging in file drawers for blueprints, shuffling to a storage space to locate an early version of his long-flying disk, lining up AeroPress prototypes like the iconic illustration of Darwin’s vision of the evolution of man. Across the room is his granddaughter, who does his PR. If the Maker Movement needs someone to put on its postage stamp, Adler would be perfect.

Levy & Adler:

You didn’t go to college?

No, but but I taught college. I taught at Stanford for many years. I taught a course in sensors and also mentored mechanical engineering students and I still lecture there.

I certainly had the ability [as a student] but I didn’t always have the discipline to do all the work. I recall one incident in plane geometry class where I submitted a very unusual proof and the teacher asked me to do the proof on the blackboard for the rest of the class, which I did. And she looked sort of stunned. I realized afterward that she thought that my father must have done that proof, which he couldn’t do actually. My grades were about average. I was eager to get out and earn a living and be on my own.

BBC's Your life on earth

Put in a few facts about yourself — birthdate, gender and heights — and get an assortment of facts about how the world has changed since your arrival.

Some of mine:

  • Population has increased by ~2.8 billion; life expectancy is 8 years longer than when I was born
  • BBC projects Oil and Coal will run out by the time I’m 80. They estimate gas supplies will continue beyond my life, but not my children’s.

If you were born 4 years ago:

  • Population has increased ~327 million — 10 million more than the US!
  • While you’re on average (in the US) 3.3 ft tall, a coastal redwood would have grown ~5ft.

Kind of fun. I’d be interested to know a bit more about their data projections. They do offer a little bit of information, at least, about where the data came from.

via kottke

Introducing HAPIT

I’ve lead recent efforts to create a web-based tool to estimate the impacts of household air pollution interventions (like stoves, gas dissemination, etc) using methods based on what’s known about household air pollution and its contribution to the Global Burden of Disease. The project began as an Excel-based spreadsheet before moving to the web leveraging Shiny, R, and a fair amount of javascript. From the site:

HAPIT estimates and compares health benefits attributable to stove and/or fuel programs that reduce exposure to household air pollution (HAP) resulting from solid fuel use in traditional stoves in developing countries. HAPIT allows users to customize two scenarios based on locally gathered information relevant to their intervention, which is the recommended approach. This will normally require preliminary field work at the dissemination site to demonstrate pollution exposures before and after the intervention in a representative sample of households. If no local information is available, however, HAPIT contains conservative default values for four broad classes of household energy interventions based on the available literature — liquid fuels, chimney stoves, rocket stoves, and advanced combustion stoves. As each country’s health and HAP situation is different, HAPIT currently contains the background data necessary to conduct the analysis in 55 countries — those with more than 50% of households using solid fuels for cooking and China, which has a lower percentage of households using solid fuels for cooking, but a high number in absolute terms. See the drop down list on the left and the Info tab for more details.

HAPIT also estimates program cost-effectiveness in US dollars per averted DALY (disability-adjusted life year) based on the World Health Organization’s CHOICE methodology (see Info tab for more detail). It takes a financial accounting approach in that it 1) does not take into account the household costs such as fuel and health expenses or time spent cooking or acquiring fuel and 2) assumes that programs are covering the cost of fuel-based interventions (such as annual LPG costs per household). For custom scenarios, users can adjust the per-household maintenance or fuel cost based on the characteristics of their programs. All program costs should be entered in current US dollars.

There are a number of nice features of HAPIT, but one I’m particularly fond of is the customized, session-based pdf generated by clicking “Download Report.” HAPIT’s a work in progress and will continue to evolve in the coming months.

Citizen Science: Long Island Weather Observer

NY Times story about Richard Hendrickson:

Twice a day, every day, he has recorded the temperature, precipitation and wind from the same area of Bridgehampton. He has been at it through 14 presidencies, 13 New York governorships and 14 mayoralties in that city 96 miles away. The Weather Service says he has taken more than 150,000 individual readings.

His is the longest continuous streak in the history of the Weather Service, which has 8,700 such volunteers nationwide, including 55 in the New York area. The agency says he is the first to serve for more than eight decades. And to answer the obvious question, yes, he has been known to take the occasional vacation. In his 20s, he went to New Zealand — “as far away as you can get,” he said. His mother filled in at the weather station.

Mr. Hendrickson’s daily diary, kept since Jan. 1, 1931, records weather data and family matters. The Weather Service recognized Mr. Hendrickson last month with an award named for him. He said he did not realize until after a ceremony in Upton that he was getting the Richard G. Hendrickson Award, and he sounded embarrassed that the meteorologists had made such a fuss. He did not mention that notables like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington had kept weather records or that Thomas Jefferson had done so from 1776 to 1816 — less than half as long as he has.

Incredible. He started when he was 17. He’s 101 now. 101.

Hard to imagine today, when we expect these things to occur on their own, without intervention. I like this better. Routine thoughtfulness.

The Archdruid Report & Climate Clarity

John Michael Greer, communicating articulately about perturbations to complex systems (read: climate) at The Archdruid Report:

The next time you fill a bathtub, once you’ve turned off the tap, wait until the water is still. Slip your hand into the water, slowly and gently, so that you make as little disturbance in the water as possible. Then move your hand through the water about as fast as a snail moves, and watch and feel how the water adapts to the movement, flowing gently around your hand. .

Once you’ve gotten a clear sense of that, gradually increase the speed with which your hand is moving. After you pass a certain threshold of speed, the movements of the water will take the form of visible waves—a bow wave in front of your hand, a wake behind it in which water rises and falls rhythmically, and wave patterns extending out to the edges of the tub. The faster you move your hand, the larger the waves become, and the more visible the interference patterns as they collide with one another.

Keep on increasing the speed of your hand. You’ll pass a second threshold, and the rhythm of the waves will disintegrate into turbulence: the water will churn, splash, and spray around your hand, and chaotic surges of water will lurch up and down the sides of the tub. If you keep it up, you can get a fair fraction of the bathwater on your bathroom floor, but this isn’t required for the experiment! Once you’ve got a good sense of the difference between the turbulence above the second threshold and the oscillations below it, take your hand out of the water, and watch what happens: the turbulence subsides into wave patterns, the waves shrink, and finally—after some minutes—you have still water again.

This same sequence of responses can be traced in every complex system, governing its response to every kind of disturbance in its surroundings…

… Once things begin to oscillate, veering outside usual conditions in both directions, that’s a sign that the limits to resilience are coming into sight, with the possibility of chaotic variability in the planetary climate as a whole waiting not far beyond that. We can fine-tune the warning signals a good deal by remembering that every system is made up of subsystems, and those of sub-subsystems, and as a general rule of thumb, the smaller the system, the more readily it moves from local adjustment to oscillation to turbulence in response to rising levels of disturbance.

Science Friday | Beer Science: Crafting the Perfect Pint

Oregon has 171 breweries operating out of 70 different cities, and Portland boasts more breweries per capita than any other city in the country. Two Oregon brew experts—Leon Fyfe, a microbiologist with the Craft Brew Alliance, and Ben Tilley, owner of Agrarian Ales—pour over the science of craft brewing, discussing how yeast, hops, malt, and water come together to create the perfect pint.

Audio’s not live yet… but looking forward to it.

Nature: Deadly Dinners

A decent journalistic piece in Nature about household energy use and health. My favorite bit, from the one-two punch of Kirk Smith & Kalpana Balakrishnan:

After decades of battling to get people to use improved cooking-stoves, many researchers worry that such devices will never win over consumers and thus never achieve the desired health and climate gains. “My bottom line is that nothing works,” Smith says. “The only thing we know that’s ever worked is gas and electric.”

Balakrishnan makes a moral argument against improved cooking stoves, which still produce harmful amounts of pollutants compared with LPG or electric ones, powered by remote energy plants that comonly use fossil fuels. “Are you justified in saying that it’s OK to be just a little bit better?” she asks. “If it’s OK for 40% of the population to use fossil fuels, then why is not OK for the other 60% of the population? How can we have dual standards?”

Climate Change: If you see something, say something

Powerful opinion piece by Michael E. Mann in the NYT:

If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.

This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger. The public is beginning to see the danger, too — Midwestern farmers struggling with drought, more damaging wildfires out West, and withering record summer heat across the country — while wondering about possible linkages between rapid Arctic warming and strange weather patterns, like the recent outbreak of Arctic air across much of the United States.

How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?

Those are the stakes.

Bill Murray's Ask Me Anything on Reddit

As with all things Bill Murray, this is a gem. My favorite question and answer is the top one in the thread (for now):

Q. If you could go back in time and have a conversation with one person, who would it be and why? (from anniedog03)

A. That’s a grand question, golly.

I kind of like scientists, in a funny way. Albert Einstein was a pretty cool guy. The thing about Einstein was that he was a theoretical physicist, so they were all theories. He was just a smart guy. I’m kind of interested in genetics though. I think I would have liked to have met Gregor Mendel.

Because he was a monk who just sort of figured this stuff out on his own. That’s a higher mind, that’s a mind that’s connected. They have a vision, and they just sort of see it because they are so connected intellectually and mechanically and spiritually, they can access a higher mind. Mendel was a guy so long ago that I don’t necessarily know very much about him, but I know that Einstein did his work in the mountains in Switzerland. I think the altitude had an effect on the way they spoke and thought.

But I would like to know about Mendel, because i remember going to the Philippines and thinking “this is like Mendel’s garden” because it had been invaded by so many different countries over the years, and you could see the children shared the genetic traits of all their invaders over the years, and it made for this beautiful varietal garden.

Awesome.

Venus, Mars, the Earth and Moon from Saturn

NASA and JPL continue to release some incredible images. Click the image to see a large version in a new window; click here to see huge ones over at NASA.

Humbling and magical.

On July 19, 2013, in an event celebrated the world over, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft slipped into Saturn’s shadow and turned to image the planet, seven of its moons, its inner rings — and, in the background, our home planet, Earth.

With the sun’s powerful and potentially damaging rays eclipsed by Saturn itself, Cassini’s onboard cameras were able to take advantage of this unique viewing geometry. They acquired a panoramic mosaic of the Saturn system that allows scientists to see details in the rings and throughout the system as they are backlit by the sun. This mosaic is special as it marks the third time our home planet was imaged from the outer solar system; the second time it was imaged by Cassini from Saturn’s orbit; and the first time ever that inhabitants of Earth were made aware in advance that their photo would be taken from such a great distance.

With both Cassini’s wide-angle and narrow-angle cameras aimed at Saturn, Cassini was able to capture 323 images in just over four hours. This final mosaic uses 141 of those wide-angle images. Images taken using the red, green and blue spectral filters of the wide-angle camera were combined and mosaicked together to create this natural-color view. A brightened version with contrast and color enhanced (Figure 1), a version with just the planets annotated (Figure 2), and an annotated version (Figure 3) are shown above.

This image spans about 404,880 miles (651,591 kilometers) across.

Beauty of Mathematics

Pretty awesome little video from a French video production and graphic design firm. Not entirely sure about the veracity of the math or the visualizations… but that’s perhaps missing the forest for the trees.

Best viewed fullscreen.

via Colossal

Living on Earth: Bridging Faith and Reason

Arri Eisen, a close friend, mentor, and Professor of Pedagogy at Emory University, was recently featured on Living on Earth along with two of his most unique students — Lodoe Sangpo and Thabkhe Thabkhe, Tibetan Buddhist monks learning and doing science and taking courses. Check out the interview below.