The Trouble With Testing Part 1 — “No Responsibility at All”

“The White House is now home to an inattentive, conspiracy-minded president. We should not underestimate what that could mean.” — The Atlantic in a special report on U.S. pandemic preparedness during the July/August 2018 issue

“Anybody that wants a test can get a test. That’s what the bottom line is… and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect, right?” — Donald Trump on March 6 as U.S. was suffering a major shortage of COVID-19 test kits. 

“I take no responsibility at all.” — Donald Trump when asked if he felt any responsibility for the persistent lags in U.S. testing capability on March 13. 

“President Trump continues to falsely state that everyone who needs a COVID-19 test can get one.” — In an NPR interview conducted on April 2. 

“Two and a half months after the first reported coronavirus case in the US, America still doesn’t have the capacity that it needs to track all cases…” — Vox.

*****

The need for testing during a virus epidemic is directly related to the number of infected persons. If the outbreak is small, the need for testing is also proportionately smaller. And if the outbreak is large, then the need for testing is subsequently much larger.

Ironically, the more testing happens early on, the more cases are identified early on, the more contacts are traced and isolated early on, the more the virus is ultimately contained and the lower the follow-on need for tests. The inverse is also true. The less testing, identifying, and containing of pandemic illness early on, the more tests will later be needed.

A failure to test, trace and isolate in the U.S. early on resulted in a massive COVID-19 outbreak necessitating nationwide mitigation. 1 in 5 people tested in the U.S. are still showing up as positive as of April 20th — indicating that tests are generally still occurring only for high risk persons and not for the broader population. Image source: Our World in Data.

Because less testing, identification and containment means an illness like COVID-19 can expand undetected, exponentially, and with far less constraint. Each failure to respond to this nasty disease pushes us up the scale in the need for a still greater response in the form of testing, isolation, sanitation, and ultimately mitigation. And if leadership is incapable of providing that response in a continuous escalation, then we end up with an ever-expanding disaster. That’s what we face here in the U.S. Because here a national leadership under Trump that utterly lacks responsibility is showing its dramatic incapacity.

A Question of Responsibility

What is responsibility? At its root — response. In a disaster, swift, decisive, and effective response is what it takes to prevent an expanding and uncontainable cascade of harm, economic loss, and loss of life. Without leadership responsibility, a sense of duty to the persons under leadership’s charge and a willingness to answer to others, to positively absorb criticism, to act, to overcome barriers in order to make effective action possible, then crisis and disaster response itself will be set up to fail.

In the context of COVID-19, U.S. leadership failure by a corrupt and incompetent Trump Administration has weighed heavily in loss of life and well-being. Specifically, the Administration’s failure to take the responsibility necessary to provide the tests Americans need has been a critical aspect of this failure.

Test Development Timeline in a Global Context

Unlike South Korea which took swift action and outran global COVID-19 testing capability, the U.S. response under Trump in the form of deploying viable test kits, has lagged it.

On December 30 and 31 of 2019, China and WHO had identified pnemonia-like cases of a new illness. By January 10-12 of 2020, China released the new disease (later called SARS-CoV-2 for the virus or COVID-19 for the illness the virus causes) genome to the world. Within just a few days, German scientists, using SARS-CoV as a reference, had developed a test that could identify a unique portion of the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s DNA. On January 17, the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted the German-based test, published the guidelines for developing the test, and began working with private companies to rapidly produce those tests and distribute them. As other agencies developed new tests, WHO would also publicly provide the new formulas. For example, WHO published China’s test development formula one week later on January 24.

The importance of WHO action at this stage was threefold. First, it provided information on how to manufacture an effective test. In other words, any country could take the WHO-provided information and use it to mass produce its own tests. Like South Korea, they could then independently coordinate with medical industry to get the production chain rolling. Unlike South Korea, they no longer needed to independently develop one. A test formula was now publicly available. Second, the WHO began to manufacture test kits to send out to other nations who requested them. These manufactured kits provided physical samples of the published testing formula — making it easier for manufacturers in other countries to validate and reproduce. Third, WHO served as an agency that mass produced tests. This helped to provide tests to those who were unable to provide for themselves. By March 16, two months later, WHO alone had produced 1,500,000 tests and sent kits out to 120 countries.

The gene assay of SARS-CoV provided by Olfert Landt to the World Health Organization in January. This assay would result in an easily producible test that many nations would use to contain their COVID-19 outbreak. Image source: WHO.

Independently, the German firm that provided the first test protocol adopted by WHO was also shipping out tests to other countries. In mid-January, New Zealand, who decided the WHO-published test formula was good enough and the need for more immediate access to tests was greater than the need to independently produce one at home, ordered the Germany-developed kits. The kits were subsequently shipped. And New Zealand was provided with tests ahead of the outbreak that later occurred. In other words — they were prepared. Australia and a number of other countries made the same decision — also ordering their test kits from overseas. Olfert Landt’s firm, the German Agency that developed the first COVID-19 test protocol adopted by WHO, alone was shipping out 1,500,000 tests per week by late February of 2020.

U.S. — All Testing Eggs Slow-Walked into one Trump-Shrunken Basket

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control, a crucial public health protection organ, had long suffered budget cuts and diminishment under Trump. As noted before, each of Trump’s budgets had requested reduced funding for CDC and his attacks on the Affordable Care Act also degraded U.S. disease fighting capability. His removal of Obama’s Pandemic Task Force had cut off a federal limb that could have helped stop the virus in its tracks overseas, but if it did get out could have also coordinated infectious disease response at home and abroad, cut red tape, and sped the availability of materials such as test kits for the U.S. public.

Perhaps as equally pivotal, though, was Trump’s choice of director — Robert Redfield — to head CDC. Redfield, unlike many of Trump’s appointees, was certainly a professional with many years of experience in his field. One who spent 30 years researching HIV and for 20 years served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Redfield was, arguably though, far from a great choice to head the agency responsible for fighting disease in the U.S. He was embroiled in a controversy over an HIV vaccination trial in the 1990s in which he was accused of manipulating data. Redfield has also been criticized for allowing his strong religious beliefs to interfere with his medical views. Peter Lurie from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group expressed this concern about Redfield’s appointment: “What one would get in Robert Redfield is a sloppy scientist with a long history of scientific misconduct and an extreme religious agenda.”

In choosing the controversial Redfield, Trump also passed over Anne Schuchat — a career public servant whose experience dealing with Anthrax in the U.S., Ebola in West Africa, and SARS in China made her an ideal choice for CDC head. In other words, an infectious disease expert with exactly the kind of experience to handle an illness like COVID-19. That’s what the people of the United States didn’t get from Trump. What we got was something that we’ve come to expect from a corrupt and incompetent Administration — at best a political appointee with professional credentials but also possessed of a questionable and often partisan-charged past, at worst the same but with no professional standing whatsoever.

As it happened, on the same day that WHO had published Olfert Landt’s test kit formula on its website, January 17, a sapped CDC in the U.S. announced that it had developed its own preliminary test for COVID-19. They’d decided to work on their own test. This decision was guided in part by regulation — and much of it for good reason. We didn’t want to open the door to fraudulent tests. But it was also a decision that occurred in the context of a global health emergency. And leadership from the top could have worked to ensure the protective needs of regulation were adhered to while still providing back-up options if the CDC-sponsored test kit development occurred too slowly or didn’t produce a usable test soon enough.

In other words, they could have cut red tape to enable medical industry in the U.S. to produce coordinate tests. Like South Korea, they could have called together industry heads and provided organization and guidance. Something a dedicated pandemic response team, had it been in place, could have helped to accomplish. Something a CDC head with novel pandemic chops like Anne Schuchat would have recognized the need for. CDC could have worked to validate those tests in conjunction with its own test. It could have used one of a number of WHO-validated formulas for these coordinate tests. It could have set up teams to work to validate multiple sets of tests to determine which ones were effective. It could have worked to set up contingency surge production if more tests were needed (as happened in South Korea and elsewhere).

The bio of Anne Schuchat — the kind of infectious disease expert that the U.S. is capable of fielding to head an effective pandemic response. The kind of expert the Trump Administration has repeatedly passed over in favor of less effective leaders. Image source: CDC.

Such a layered strategy did not develop at CDC under Redfield as head. At first, and for many weeks after, the decision by leadership was to support one testing regime and then to in a laissez faire way, ignore the fact that other agencies such as FDA ended up using existing regulation to defend it and to (unintentionally) stymie the independent development of effective tests in the U.S. In other words, through lack of response adequate to the threat of COVID-19, Trump’s CDC head put all their testing eggs into one basket.

Making Our Own Unluck

It all could have still worked out. The U.S. could have been lucky. The CDC test could have worked effectively. It could have arrived in time to help stop the virus. It could have arrived in enough numbers to meet the testing need. It could have been targeted to the regions that needed it most. Trump’s Redfield CDC hadn’t increased their likelihood of that success, though. They had greatly increased the opportunity for failure. And given that self-infliction of a worsened set of odds, things did not go well.

Development of the CDC test notably lagged behind the rest of the world. By January 21, the U.S. saw its first confirmed case of COVID-19. It was of a man who’d flown back from Wuhan, China and entered the U.S. on January 15. But it took another week — until January 28th for the CDC to provide its own test kit formula to WHO — 11 days later than Germany, four days later than China, and weeks after South Korea had developed an effective test protocol. Fully two weeks after the virus had arrived on U.S. shores.

It wasn’t until February 5 — fully 19 days after CDC’s first test protocol was announced — that a CDC under Trump had shipped 200 test kits to more than 100 public health labs across the U.S. These tests were enough to test 60,000 – 80,000 people if the kits proved effective. By the same time, WHO had shipped 250,000 tests that had already been validated. Globally, on February 5, confirmed cases had risen to above 28,000. In the U.S., 12 cases had been confirmed with cases springing up Washington State, Illinois, Wisconsin, California, Massachusetts, and Arizona. Given what we know about COVID-19, actual numbers were probably already much greater than these early confirmations indicated.

The virus had arrived on U.S. shores and CDC had scrambled to send out these test kits. But the test deployment would ultimately prove to be seriously problematic. The trouble with these U.S. tests ended up being four-fold. First, that they had not yet (by February 5) been validated and many would later prove useless. Second, there weren’t enough to meet demand. Third, many came too late. And fourth, test kit distribution was not targeted or weighted to the regions of highest need. Why the U.S. CDC response was so much slower and so poorly coordinated compared to those of other nations has not fully been explained. Nor has it been fully explained why many of the tests that CDC ultimately provided would fail. But this failure was arguably a major reason why COVID-19 would break out to such a great extent in the U.S. Why the U.S. would experience the worst first wave outbreak of this novel deadly illness. Because what ultimately happened was a serious failure to contain the illness once it reached our shores. To perform that detection, contacts tracing and isolation that was proving so useful in places like South Korea.

So by early February, CDC had shipped out about 200 test kits to public health labs across the country. Each kit contained enough material to test between 300 to 400 patients. But because kits were evenly distributed, places with much higher populations, places like public health labs in New York City which would later experience a devastating outbreak, only received enough testing material to test between 300-400 patients at that time. That’s 300-400 tests for a public health lab serving a city of 8.4 million souls.

According to a report from Kaiser:

The kits were distributed roughly equally to locales in all 50 states. That decision presaged weeks of chaos, in which the availability of COVID-19 tests seemed oddly out of sync with where testing was needed.

Another problem was that the test kits that were shipped out often proved faulty — lacking critical components that hobbled kits ability to produce results. So from February 5 to mid February — for about ten days or so — public health labs across the country were put in the position where they needed to validate CDC test kits. And, in most cases, the validation of a useful kit did not occur. By mid-February only about six public health labs had access to reliable tests. But the Trump-appointed CDC director Robert Redfield was at the time entrenched, defending those tests. He insisted that CDC had developed a “very accurate test.”

Global distribution of COVID-19 cases on February 20, 2020. Image source: World Health Organization.

At this point the official number of cases stood at 15. But we know that those numbers were growing unchecked. Mainly because the CDC test kits would prove inadequate. On February 24th, U.S. confirmed cases had jumped to 53 and health experts were saying that community spread was happening in the U.S. On the same day, The Association of Public Health Laboratories sent a plea letter to the FDA asking if states could develop their own testing protocols independent of the CDC. In a few days, FDA reversed its previous position of defending CDC tests as a national standard and allowed states to begin producing their own tests. By February 29, after 43 days, the CDC tests had only been used 472 times. An astonishingly small number compared to the 60,000 to 80,000 that the original test kits should have represented. The U.S. confirmed case total stood at 68. But hundreds more people had already been infected by the illness in the U.S. We just didn’t have much of a way to know who or where because the CDC-backed testing regime ended up being so abysmal.

March Explosion

In the race between testing to track the illness and COVID-19’s in-built imperative to grow beyond our control in the U.S., the virus was winning. It had gotten a big head start of about a month and a half.

By early March, as the number of tests in the U.S. was finally starting to expand, in large part due to rapid production of tests within states and independent of the Trump-hobbled CDC, U.S. confirmed case totals were rapidly shooting upwards. On March 7, confirmed U.S. cases had hit 435. Redfield on the same day noted about the CDC tests: “We found that, in some of the states, it didn’t work. We figured out why. I don’t consider that a fault. I consider that doing quality control. I consider that success.”

By the end of March the U.S. COVID-19 case total would be the largest in the world. This would necessitate a nationwide lockdown as containment failed risking hundreds of thousands of deaths. Image source: Worldometers.

In one more week, confirmed cases would multiply nearly sevenfold — hitting 2,770 by March 14. Tests were finally starting to work and be produced in larger numbers. But for the U.S., a new worrying statistic was starting to become evident — the number of positive cases per test was notably high. In total about 1 out of every 4-5 people receiving a test were testing positive. This was due to the fact that the primary location for U.S. testing was hospitals and emergency rooms. The U.S. did not have widespread dedicated test facilities like South Korea. So most people who got a test were already very ill. All of this was an indication that the U.S. barely understood even the tip of the COVID-19 iceberg that the country was slamming up against.

By March 21, the number of COVID-19 cases had again exploded — hitting 24,345 or nearly ten times their number from the prior week. States such as Washington, New York, and California were testing thousands of people per day now. And a disturbing understanding of the U.S. disease curve was starting to emerge. A model produced by the Imperial College in London projected that as many as 2.2 million people in the U.S. could die if the U.S. did not move strongly to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Moving To Mitigation as Virus Outruns Containment in a Big Way

Unlike testing, contacts tracing, and isolation, mitigation involves serious constraints on activity within the impacted regions. In effect it would mean lockdowns or stay at home orders for much of the nation. A kind of freeze placed on society and economies in order to reduce mass loss of life. We say reduce, because the mass casualty event for the U.S. had already gotten well out of the bag. Tens of thousands would already lose their lives as a result. The question now was between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands or millions along with a smashed U.S. hospital system.

By March 31, U.S. cases had again exploded to nearly 190,000. Even more tragically, already more than 4,000 souls had been lost due to the virus. A Trump Administration that had promised to provide 27 million tests by that time had only seen the U.S. testing 1 million. And a good portion of these tests were provided not by the CDC or the federal government under Trump, they were provided by states who were forced to scramble to fill the yawning vacuum of a failed federal testing, contacts tracing and isolation response.

Most U.S. states now have more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases. Many now have more than 10,000 cases. The U.S. total will likely near 1 million by the end of April. This massive outbreak has forced large scale mitigation in which most states remain under stay at home orders. Image source: CDC.

Now states would have to step in again. This time to provide the mitigation necessary to prevent about 2.2 million deaths across the U.S., California’s Gavin Newsom issued a stay at home order on March 19, New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, made a similar order just a day later on March 20th, Washington State’s order came on March 25th, Maryland’s own stay at home order began on March 30th. By the end of March, fully 42 states had issued a stay at home policy. A policy that would remain in place for many weeks to come. Containment had failed in a dramatic way. Testing still lagged well behind the need. People who wanted tests still couldn’t get them. And as U.S. COVID-19 case numbers climbed toward 1 million in April, testing would continue to lag the need for it in most places.

The result was a full-on move to mitigate COVID-19’s spread. But the failure to provide enough tests would still haunt the U.S. And a new issue with testing would emerge as debates on how to restart a hobbled U.S. economy in the presence of a widespread and terrible virus that had wafted its way into all corners of our nation would again emerge. Sadly, this debate would continue to include a tone of irrational defiance to advice provided by experts and to the larger threat posed by a deadly and as yet incurable illness from the Trump Administration and its political supporters.

(UPDATED)

Up next: It’s Everywhere Now — COVID-19 A Global Viral Wildfire

 

 

Hundreds of Billions of Dollars in Damages, ‘Toasted, Roasted, and Grilled’ — That’s What Trump’s Refusal to Support the Paris Climate Agreement Gets Us

So far, in the past three months, we’ve had four major U.S. disasters whose impacts we can certainly say were made worse by human caused climate change.

The costs from these disasters to U.S. society and, in the end, to citizens and taxpayers is tremendous. Thousands of people have lost their homes. Irreplaceable lives were forever stripped from us. Many have lost access to work and livelihoods. And in the case of Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people have been thrust back into what amounts to a modern rendition of the dark ages.

(A satellite image of the burn scar left following the North Bay fires. Human-caused climate change is a primary enabler for these kinds of disasters. Image source: NASA.)

As a measure of money alone and leaving aside the untold human misery, hurricane Harvey may ultimately cost the U.S. $180 billion, Irma may cost the U.S. $65 billion, and Maria may ultimately cost the U.S. as much as $100 billion. Adding in the $85 billion dollar damage estimate for the devastating California wildfires which were also made worse by climate change, and the total cost to U.S. society from these four disasters alone may top $430 billion.

Sitting at 1 to 1.2 C warming and staring down the barrel of 2-4 C or greater warming this Century, we can definitely say that these kinds of disasters are going to get worse. That we need to be both aware and prepared. And that we need to do our best to limit future damages to more manageable levels by working as hard as we can to reduce the climate disaster enabling greenhouse gas emissions. The world agreed to such limits at Paris. And yet it is a mark of consequential irrationality amounting to massive and indiscriminate inflicted harm that the Trump Administration has forced us to withdraw from this noble and moral compact.

A basic fact that hasn’t been lost on Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund, who wrote today in The Guardian that if the world fails to take steps to reduce climate change, we will be ‘toasted, roasted, and grilled.’ Lagarde warned of a dark, dystopian future if major nations fail in their moral responsibility to address climate change — citing the fact that the Trump Administration in the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Summit. A global commitment to more rapidly reduce greenhouse gasses that Nicaragua recently joined leaving the U.S. only accompanied by Syria as inauspicious non-signatories.

A federal U.S. policy blind to the impacts of climate change under Trump is far from immune to its slings and arrows, as we’ve found so tragically this summer and fall. And underlying this fact is that an unaffiliated Government Accounting Office (GAO) report from Trump’s own government recently found that climate change related extreme weather and other related damages have topped $350 billion over the past decade. A number likely to significantly increase once recent events are also tallied. A number that will be dwarfed by future events if fossil fuel burning related carbon emissions continue to hit the atmosphere at their geologically unprecedented rate of more than ten billion tons each year.

The report took two years to compile at the bipartisan requests of Susan Collins of Maine (R) and Maria Cantwell of Washington (D). Ms Cantwell noted to the New York Times that the report is:

“basically telling us that this is costing us a lot of money...We need to understand that as stewards of the taxpayer that climate is a fiscal issue, and the fact that it’s having this big a fiscal impact on our federal budget needs to be dealt with.”

The report identified wide-ranging climate change related impacts coming from hurricanes, wildfires, sea level rise and damages to crops. Impacts that do not discriminate between political affiliation or level of income. However, it is notable that the U.S. Southeast, a traditional republican stronghold, is one of the regions the report identifies as likely to experience the some of the most severe and damaging impacts related to climate change.

Failure to provide significant national and international policy to address climate change, in Trump, is not only a failure to recognize basic scientific fact. It is not only putting the U.S. in a less competitive position economically with regards to renewables. And it is not only making the U.S. more vulnerable to the powerful storms and severe weather events such failures contribute to. It is also a dramatic failure of basic fiscal responsibility that will have an equally dramatic and long-last impact on deficits, budgets, taxes and ultimately incomes for years and decades to come.

Links:

New York Times — Climate Change Costs

Climate Change is Already Costing the U.S. Taxpayer Billions of Dollars

We Will Be Toasted and Roasted and Grilled

NASA

Hat tip to Abel

Hat tip to Suzanne

Broadcast Media’s Deafening Silence as Hundreds of Thousands March in Defense of Science

I just want to remind the administration that science is political. It is inherently political like everything else … It’s in the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, to promote the progress of science and useful arts. That’s what enables innovation, and if our country stops innovating, it will not be able to compete worldwide. —  Bill Nye

*****

Scientists — from luminaries like Michael Mann, Bill Nye, Richard Alley, Gavin Schmidt, Stefan Rahmstorf and Neil deGrasse Tyson, to thousands of humbly toiling researchers for the public good whom you’ve probably never heard of — need our help now more than ever.

(Earth Day’s 2017 March for Science produced an unprecedented outpouring of support for public, non-special-interest-based scientific advancement and research around the world. Unfortunately, despite widespread internet and print coverage, broadcast media barely mentioned the historic event.)

Around the world and in the United States, science budgets are under threat, politically motivated individuals attempt to delete factual information related to public health and safety from science websites, individual scientists are subject to politically motivated attacks by quacks and climate change deniers in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Congress, and the person elected president is willfully scientifically illiterate while openly expressing opinions and pursuing policies that are hostile to fact-based science.

Public Rallies in Support of Scientists Under Threat

On Saturday, April 22nd, in honor of Earth Day, hundreds of thousands of people around the world marched in solidarity with scientists. Their essential jobs, often health, safety, and national security-related, are under threat of expungement by individuals and industries now empowered to attack the very basis of scientific truth. Though spearheaded by anti-science climate change deniers and those who harmfully attack public vaccination programs, the gamut of attacks on scientific understanding extends to research on toxic substances, water quality and security, endangered species, food safety and sustainability, forest resiliency, earth and weather observation and many, many more helpful endeavors.

 

(Saturday’s March for Science drew amazing support from around the globe.)

Weather Underground’s Bob Henson, in his own poignant and heartfelt call to join the march, noted:

For many of us, a prime motivation for marching on Saturday is to express our dismay and anger at the proposed slashing of U.S. federal funding of science that’s now on the table… These proposals run the gamut from medical to atmospheric research; in many areas, they would be the deepest cutbacks in decades. Cuts to ongoing scientific research can be especially problematic. It can take years to gather the people and resources needed for a major study. Once the momentum is disrupted and people scatter, a project may never fully recover. In the world of atmospheric science, satellites and other critical observing tools are especially vulnerable to funding-related problems. We only have one global atmosphere, and there is no substitute for monitoring it as closely as possible—including the effects that human-produced greenhouse gases are having on it. [emphasis added]

The public outpouring in support of these scientists — who often work for modest salaries and generate considerable public good for years and decades following the completion of their work — was tremendous. 610 demonstrations blanketed not just the U.S. but scores of countries and hundreds of cities around the world. Washington, New York, Sydney, London, Denver, L.A. and even Antarctica got involved. Never before in modern history has such an amazing show of support for scientific endeavors by climate scientists and others occurred.

Broadcast Media’s Increasingly Irresponsible Coverage — Or Lack Thereof

And though print media outlets like The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Washington Post provided almost continuous coverage of this historic event, television broadcast news media on Sunday morning following the protest was deafeningly silent. According to Media Matters:

Sunday news shows generally ignored the events that attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters. ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, and NBC’s Meet the Press failed to mention the March for Science at all, according to a Media Matters review. CNN’s State of the Union only had a brief headline about the demonstrations, and Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday only dedicated about one and a half minutes to the story.

Such failure to cover follows a long-running pattern of apparently oblivious or even anti-science-based activity in TV news media. For example, the Presidential debates hosted by big TV networks included zero questions on the key scientific issue of climate change. Broadcast media sources often host climate change deniers — giving quackery, politicization, and long-disproven claims equal time to actual established science. Meanwhile, TV coverage of climate change-related science and events has plummeted even as climate change-related impacts have steadily worsened. At a time when the Earth is the warmest it has ever been since the dawn of human civilization (and probably in at least 115,000 years), when ice caps are melting, seas are rising, the Great Barrier Reef is dying, crops are endangered and cities like Miami are slowly succumbing to the rising tides, such a dearth of coverage is both unconscionable and amoral.

(My father-in-law, a retired rocket scientist for the U.S. Navy, braves the rain to show his support for the Science March. Mainstream broadcast media, however, was sadly mostly AWOL.)

Over the weekend, many of the same networks that have failed to cover the climate crisis also failed to report on the issue of special-interest-based attacks on science, as well as the public protest and outrage over such attacks. This neglectful non-reporting serves to enable climate bad actors and provides cover for those who attack scientists. Even worse, many of these same broadcast news organizations, in the few rare instances when it was mentioned, used the March to provide a platform for climate-change deniers to level attacks against those who support science. Such actions make these broadcast news organizations (of which Fox News is almost always first and worst) at least partially complicit in the assault on science that spurred the Marches in the first place.

At the start of the Science March this past Saturday, Bill Nye so eloquently reminded us that science and its underlying and ever-expanding quest for fact-based truth is a critical cornerstone of our democracy. However, in order for a healthy democracy supportive of the public good to exist, broadcast media’s silence over or denial of critical scientific issues needs to stop. A large subset of the fourth estate of government in the form of independent internet media and various mainstream print media sources have stepped up to the plate when it comes to providing more responsible coverage of climate change and other key science-based issues. It’s time for broadcast media to pull the gigantic plank out of its own eye, wash its mouth out with a large dollop of soap, and follow suit.

(Broadcast media’s failure to adequately or responsibly cover the Science March follows a longer-term trend of reduced science and climate coverage by major TV outlets. In addition, networks like Fox often host climate-change skeptics or deniers, providing a false balance to actual mainstream scientists. Image source: Media Matters.)

The science, along with the foundations of a healthily functioning democracy, is under attack by politically motivated anti-science interests at the exact time that dangers to public health and safety in the form of climate change and increasingly virulent diseases are on the rise. This is a story that needs to be covered. And it is arguably the biggest, most important story in the history of our nation and our race. So to broadcast media we say — pitch in, or get the hell out of the way.

Links:

The March for Science

Why We are Taking Part in the March for Science

March for Science on Earth Day

Sunday Shows Mostly Silent on the March for Science

Historians Say March for Science is Pretty Unprecedented

Every Continent Turned out For Science March

Networks Providing Coverage of Science March Gave Platform to Climate Change Deniers

Why Has Climate Change Been Ignored in U.S. Electoral Debates?

Trump Presses Control+Alt+Delete on Science

Lamar Smith’s Attacks on Science are Funded by the Fossil Fuel Industry

Hat tip to Suzzanne

Hat tip to Robert in New Orleans

Hat tip to Ryan in New England

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Scientific hat tip to Bob Henson

Special thanks to everyone here and elsewhere who showed up this weekend in support of science

Friday, March 3, 2017 Climate Change Open Discussion: Permafrost Decay, Ocean Acidification, Renewable Energy Advances, Trump Turning EPA into Fossil Fuel Vending Machine

Over the past week, it became clear that considerable changes were underway in the global climate system, in the realm of government policy, and in the world’s energy markets. This blog post will touch on as many of these issues as possible. More importantly, it will serve as an open forum for discussing these recent trends over the coming weekend.

52,000 Square Miles of Permafrost Decaying in Canada

This week, Inside Climate News produced a must-read report high-lighting the latest science on permafrost thaw. The report found that:

“Huge slabs of Arctic permafrost in northwest Canada are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. A new study that analyzed nearly a half-million square miles in northwest Canada found that this permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles of that vast stretch of earth—an expanse the size of Alabama.”

The article linked various permafrost thaw studies and produced a broad overview of the many and wide-ranging local and regional impacts. It identified major geophysical changes due to permafrost subsidence and erosion along the Arctic coastline (which in places is losing as much as 70-80 feet per year). It covered large regions experiencing land deformation due to permafrost thaw — some of which were quite large. As an example, one permafrost thaw related sink hole in Russia was a quarter mile across and growing. And it also identified a threat to river and estuary health posed by soil outflows produced by the thaw:

According to researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, the permafrost collapse is intensifying and causing landslides into rivers and lakes that can choke off life downstream, all the way to where the rivers discharge into the Arctic Ocean.

But perhaps what is more concerning are the implications of the research highlighted by Inside Climate News. To this point, permafrost thaw isn’t just a local issue — it’s a geophysical change the produces global impacts.

permafrost_feedback

(Carbon and albedo feedback produced by permafrost thaw is a serious concern. However, impacts produced by permafrost thaw are even more wide-ranging. Image source: Carbon Brief.)

Permafrost thaw can add amplifying feedback carbon emissions to the Earth System at a time when atmospheric carbon levels are already the highest we’ve seen in about 5-15 million years. Frozen permafrost is a carbon sink –taking in more atmospheric carbon than it produces. Active, thawed permafrost generates the opposite effect. Microbes coming alive in the soil produce methane and carbon dioxide that contribute to the growing pools of carbon in the atmosphere and the world ocean. And with so much permafrost thawing as the world warms, the issue is one that simply will not go away.

Such amplifying feedbacks are a serious concern due to the fact that they make the need for global carbon emissions cuts more immediate and urgent. Carbon budgets, for example, become considerably more constrained when you can expect 50, 100, 250 billion tons or more of additional carbon emission coming from the thawing permafrost over timeframes relevant to human civilizations.

In addition, soil flushed down streams and into estuaries eventually deposits carbon into the world ocean system. As a result, you end up with still more carbon hitting an ocean that is already reeling from acidification stresses. The nutrients in the soil also feed algae blooms that speed acidification and potentially rob the ocean surface regions of vital oxygen when they decay. Considerable and rapid permafrost thaw has the potential, therefore, to also add to the larger and ongoing damages to ocean health due to fossil fuel emissions and to push the world to warm at a more rapid rate. So the Inside Climate News report is important, not just for the various regional impacts that it highlights, but for the larger implications due to the wide-ranging permafrost thaw that the research currently identifies.

Advancing Ocean Acidification

Recently, we highlighted threats to the world’s corals and, in particular, to the Great Barrier Reef as a result of a big warm-up in the world’s ocean system. One that is now producing a global coral bleaching event that could last for decades.

But warming ocean waters aren’t the only threat to corals and other marine species produced by human-caused climate change. Ocean acidification and ocean anoxia (in which warming combines with algae blooms and other factors to rob the oceans of oxygen) represent two of the other major threats to oceans related to climate change. Of these, ocean acidification has received a good deal of attention in the scientific press recently. In particular, this comprehensive piece in DW this week highlighted growing scientific concerns over ocean acidification.

The DW report shined a light on a new study:

in Nature Climate Change this week [that] says ocean acidification is spreading rapidly in the western Arctic Ocean in both area and depth. That means a much wider, deeper area than before is becoming so acidic that many marine organisms of key importance to the food chain will no longer be able to survive there.

The study found that the region in which the ocean is uptaking high levels of CO2 and coordinately increasing ocean acidification has enlarged and expanded northward by 5 degrees of latitude. In particular, the zone of ocean acidification in the Western Arctic Ocean has expanded considerably. As a result, the rate at which the Arctic Ocean is acidifying is increasing.

ocean-acification-through-2050

(As atmospheric CO2 levels increase, the oceans take up more carbon and become more acidic. Polar oceans become acidic first. Then acidified waters expand southward. With atmospheric CO2 levels hitting around 410 ppm this year [peak value] polar ocean species are now threatened by acidification. Eventually, at around 500 ppm CO2, levels of acidity are high enough to threaten key ocean species the world over. Image source: Threat to Coral Reefs From Ocean Acidification.)

The study sounds an alarm among ocean researchers and environmentalists concerned about key ocean species vulnerable to acidification. The threat to species posed by climate change in the Arctic is now expanding from walruses, whales, polar bears, puffins and various fishes to include calcareous creatures like star fish, mollusks, shrimps, sea snails, various crabs and others. Where warmth has robbed some species of habitats, acidification dissolves the shells that protect the bodies of these creatures or kills off the chief food source of other key ocean animals.

As the oceans take up more and more of the amazing overburden of carbon flooding into the atmosphere chiefly from fossil fuel emissions, the cooler polar waters acidify first. And that’s where ocean researchers are seeing the early warning signs of harm. But acidic waters at the poles don’t just stay there. They expand southward — bringing the damage they cause with them. In this way, the lower latitude corals that are already experiencing mass die-offs spurred by warming waters will soon face the threat of acidic oceans as well.

Renewable Energy — An Economic Force of Nature

Despite a rightward shift in various global economic dynamos like the U.S., the U.K, and Australia, the hope for rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels and related carbon emissions remains alive as renewable energy becomes an ever more powerful economic and political force.

In the U.S., 23 cities, townships and counties have now pledged to run their economies on 100 percent renewable electricity and California has just introduced legislation aiming at achieving 50 percent of its electricity generation from renewable sources by 2025 and 100 percent by 2045. More good news also came from the auto sector as electric vehicle sales in the U.S. jumped 59 percent year on year during the month of January.

us-unsubsidized-levelized-cost-of-energy

(In the US, the unsubsidized, levelized cost of wind and solar now beat out every other competing energy system. Image source: Clean Technica.)

Globally, even the Pope is going electric as solar cell production is expected to hit near 80 gigawatts in 2017 — another record year following 10 years of uninterrupted expansion. And wind energy is racing to catch up to solar by setting new record low prices near 5 cents per kilowatt hour at power purchase bids in India. At such low prices, wind and solar now boast the lowest levelized costs of all major power sources according to this research. Meanwhile, in a trend that’s fantastic enough to make even computer chip manufacturers jealous, clean energy prices just keep falling even as renewable energy capabilities keep on improving.

The good news continues in China where 110 gigawatts of solar energy capacity is expected to be installed by 2020 and where sales of zero oil electric buses are now exploding. The adds to clean tech are also contributing to China’s plans to cut coal burning by a further 30 percent in 2017. These cuts are helping to spur planned cuts of 1.8 million coal and steel jobs coordinate with a responsible (something republicans and Trump would never consider) 15 billion dollar effort to retrain and place these workers in the new, less dangerous, cleaner industries of the future.

Trump — the Chief Beneficiary of a Russian Cyberwarfare Campaign Against the U.S. Electoral System — is Trying to Turn EPA into a ‘Vending Machine for Fossil Fuel Companies’

All this great news on the renewable energy front is, of course, tempered by the terrible and rapidly deteriorating state of the global climate. In addition, the forces opposing responses to climate change and actively seeking to throw a wrench into the amazing works of the renewable energy revolution have taken power in the form of the corrupt and Russian-influenced Trump Administration in the U.S.

It’s worth noting that Donald Trump and his ilk in the form of republicans in the U.S. and various allied fossil fueled politicians around the world are unlikely to be able to completely sabotage the economic juggernaught that renewable energy has become unless they succeed in a campaign aimed at total political dominance. And as Trump and his Russian helpers have learned, total dominance in a country with considerable separation of powers, as in the U.S., is a very difficult thing to achieve. Especially when the opposition to the forces of that dominance are as invigorated and diverse as they are today.

(Scott Pruitt spent most of his career attacking the EPA. Now, under Trump, he heads it. It could well be said that the environmental version of Bizzaro superman now sits at the helm of the agency that, in the US, is responsible for protecting the environment. Video source: Youtube.)

Despite these difficulties, Trump and his allies can probably effectively slow the renewable energy revolution down — to the great harm of pretty much everything living on Earth. Despite this fact, it’s well worth noting that renewable energy grew up into the economic force it is today despite continued attempts to stymie its growth by fossil fuel special interest groups over at least the past half-century. The rise of Trump and of so many powerful fossil fuel connected politicians around the world today can well be seen as a reactionary outgrowth of the old and inherently autocratic economic power associated with fossil fuels. One that is arguably now suffering an existential crisis. For the threat to fossil fuels now posed by renewables has grown considerably. In the U.S., solar alone accounted for 1 in 50 new jobs in 2016. In other words, substantially rolling back the renewable industry at this time would be very harmful to the U.S. economy. The systemic forces now protecting renewables are stronger than ever before simply due to the fact that the U.S. economic system increasingly has come to rely and depend on them.

But this inherent system change hasn’t stopped the Trump administration and its allied republicans from trying to sabotage the very forces that threaten a big chunk of their power base. And their initial efforts to this end since the election have involved rolling back key environmental laws and practices (those helpful bits of government that republicans like to blanket-label ‘regulation’). An example of this is the recent removal of rules requiring fossil fuel companies to report methane emissions at the EPA. A move that Vera Pardee of the Center for Biological Diversity identified as an attempt to turn “the EPA into an oil industry vending machine.”

Where the Trump Administration isn’t withdrawing the EPA from its responsibilities to prevent environmental harms by applying publicly helpful government oversight to industry, it’s attempting to de-fund the EPA altogether. A recent budget proposal by Trump aimed at raising defense spending by 54 billion on the backs of cuts to domestic agencies would have slashed the EPA’s scientific workforce, removed funding for key protections like preventing lead from entering U.S. drinking water, and slashed the EPA climate change prevention program by 70 percent.

Thankfully, Trump’s draconian cuts to domestic spending, the EPA, and public health are unlikely to make it through even a republican controlled Congress. But his budget proposal is an excellent illustration of how a far-right government tries to govern in the US these days — leverage puffed up fears of outsiders and a hyper-focus on security and defense to force cuts in critical programs while always denying the necessity of actually raising revenues through taxation to fund beneficial public programs.

In a related reference, Steve Hanley, responding to Trump’s transport secretary’s cuts to electric rail funding succinctly noted today that:

Republicans hate high-speed rail. In fact, Republicans pretty much hate spending taxpayer dollars on anything that might benefit taxpayers. They would prefer to give the money to defense contractors, corporate executives, and Wall Street investment bankers. After all, those are the folks who paid to get them elected.

The same could be said for the Trump Admin overall which was a monstrosity that grew up out of Wall Street and that apparently got a huge assist from the Russian petrostate by hacking and cyber-warfaring their way to electoral success in the 2016 U.S. Presidential race. And to this final point it’s worth noting that the significant political headwinds those concerned about climate change now face issue from all the groups that have produced so much resistance to helpful climate action in the past. From corrupt smokestack industries and from even more corrupt petrostates headed by autocratic dictators with a penchant for funding right wing groups in an attempt destabilize the world’s democratic governments as apparently now happened (at least to some degree) to the Executive Branch in the United States.

(UPDATED)

Hat tips

Colorado Bob

Cate

Keith

Andy in San Diego

Ryan in New England

Redsky

Sean Redmond

Dave W

Mlparrish

Spike

Wharf Rat

Clean Technica

Gas2

DW

The Washington Post

The New York Times

The Huffington Post

Nature

 

 

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