10/22/2021

Biden’s Administration Preps For A Crucial Climate Conference

11:58 minutes

This week, CDC advisers gave their support to approve COVID-19 vaccine boosters for those who received Moderna and J&J vaccines. The recommendations would follow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of “mixing and matching” booster shots from different vaccine developers. Ira provides new updates on the latest vaccine booster approvals, and a story about a successful transplant of a pig kidney… to a human. Plus, climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis gives us a closer look at how the United States is living up to its Paris Agreement pledges as a crucial international gathering looms, and Biden’s clean energy legislation appears to be faltering.


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Segment Guests

Kendra Pierre-Louis

Kendra Pierre-Louis is a senior reporter for Gimlet/Spotify’s How to Save a Planet podcast.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. Coming up later this hour, a conversation with the outgoing director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins. And the story of how Filipino-American nurses became a crucial part of the US health care system. But first, COVID boosters are now approved for millions more people with your choice of which one to get.

Yesterday, a CDC advisory panel recommended booster doses for those who have received the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, and those recommendations were approved last night by Director Rochelle Walensky. That means both Moderna and Pfizer recipients who are 65 and older, and those with certain medical conditions, can get booster shots starting today. And for those who got the J&J vaccine, a booster shot is now recommended for all recipients of that vaccine, at least two months after the first shots.

As for mix and match vaccines boosters, the CDC now says eligible individuals may choose which vaccine they receive as a booster dose. There’s some evidence that both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines provide a better boost than the J&J shot. We’ll keep following this story as it unfolds.

In other big science news this week, for the first time doctors attached a pig kidney to a human patient for 54 hours, and it worked, functioning like a human kidney. The donor pig had been genetically modified, and the human subject was brain dead and maintained on a ventilator. It’s a step that could open up new possibilities for those who need transplants.

DR. ROBERT MONTGOMERY: The single biggest problem that we have right now in transplantation is that we just don’t have enough organs available. About half of the people who are waiting die before they get a transplant.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Robert Montgomery was the lead surgeon on the team at NYU’s Langone Transplant Institute

DR. ROBERT MONTGOMERY: It tells us that a pig kidney can function normally in a human for several days. It tells us that a pig kidney can be transplanted into a human without an immediate rejection.

IRA FLATOW: That audio, courtesy of NYU. Montgomery says they want to gather more input from medical ethicists and the legal community, but he hopes to move to living human trials within a year or two. And now on to more news, about climate change. To address it with me is Kendra Pierre-Louis, a senior reporter for the Gimlet Spotify podcast, “How to Save a Planet.” Welcome back, Kendra.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Thanks so much for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Let’s start with President Biden’s big plans for climate change action in the US, the Infrastructure bill, the Build Back Better plan’s clean energy program, have been moving through Congress this summer and fall, and, as they say, where are they now?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: So the word on the street, or, I guess, the word in the halls of DC, is basically that they don’t have enough votes because Manchin refuses to sign it. He’s opposed to it. Ostensibly he’s opposed to it because his state. West Virginia. Is a heavily coal producing state, but the reality is that he also has financial interests in coal. And so people are thinking that it’s more tied to his financial conflict of interest than it is to the best interests of the state, which is not immune to climate change. The state has, because of climate change, seen both more intense drought, like a severe drought in 2015 that affected every single county in the state, and increased rainfall. There was a 1,000 year flood in 2016, and there’s more routine flooding. And with that flooding, because West Virginia’s a mountain state, there have been landslides.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. Well, is meaningful reduction of US greenhouse gas emissions possible without the measures in these bills?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: So there’s one analysis by the Rhodium Group which says that we can do it through a variety of measures. But that report is incredibly optimistic, saying that we’re going to depend heavily on carbon capture technologies on a scale that we’ve never seen before. So, absent that one report, broadly speaking, it’s not possible if we want to be in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s not possible if you want to stave off the worst effects of climate change. We’re hitting all of the timetables. It’s a physics and a time problem, and we’re not acting quickly enough. And every day of delay makes it harder. Every day of delay, A, releases more emissions and, B, makes it harder to reach the target that we need to have in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

IRA FLATOW: I want to go back to West Virginia for a second, because, as you mentioned, Joe Manchin, his vote is so crucial in passing this legislation. But as you alluded to, his constituents in West Virginia, are themselves at risk from climate change. I mean, it’s sort of ironic here, is it not?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, and there have been, actually, a lot of protests by his constituents. There was a boat protest, there have been several trying to get him to sign on. His constituents are aware, both of the harms that they’re facing from climate change, and the benefits that this package has and in creating clean energy jobs in their community.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Is there any potential benefit to the coal industry if we–

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: No.

IRA FLATOW: –don’t push– No?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Coal– sorry, that was such a fast no. Coal, in general, is on the decline. It’s more concerned about the natural gas industry, which is really heavily trying to prop up itself in that region. But practically speaking, there is no long term benefit to coal. It’s on the decline. It’s just making it limp out more slowly, so that it can do the maximum amount of damage on its way out.

IRA FLATOW: And all of this on the brink of a major international conference on meeting the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. This is not a good look for the US, is it?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: It’s not a good look for the US, and it’s not a good look especially because the commitments that we know– basically, in 2015, every country made commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The hard target is 2 C, and the soft target was 1.5 C. The 1.5 degree C report came out in 2018, and we know now that 1.5 degrees C of warming is more catastrophic than we thought. And that 1.5 degrees C, in part, got into the Paris Agreement because low lying island states were very concerned about their ability to continue to exist, and we now know that as it gets above 1.5 degrees C, many of these countries will cease to exist. So it’s not a good look for us, and it’s especially not a good look for– it’s not a good future for those countries.

IRA FLATOW: So we’re showing up to COP26 without having done our own homework.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: And at COP26 we’re supposed to be ramping up our commitment. The commitments that we made in 2015– we’re supposed to go back, and we’re supposed to revise them, and we’re supposed to be even stricter now. And we’re not, we’re just not. We had four years of delay under the Trump administration, and now we’re being held back by one Senator.

IRA FLATOW: So, just to be clear, even if we were definitely instituting Biden’s clean energy program right now, that wouldn’t be enough to live up to our pledge.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: It might. It would make us live up to our pledge because our pledge was 26% to 28% 2005 levels, but the pledge is not enough to get us below 1.5 degrees C. And the goal with the Biden administration would get us to about 45% reduction, which is pretty close. We need 50%, with the expectation that states would fill in the gap.

IRA FLATOW: I get it. Let’s talk more about the COP26. Can you give us a preview of this? What are people hoping comes out of it? Why is it happening? A thumbnail sketch, please.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Sure. It happens every year. This is the 26th one. It’s supposed to be the 27th, but it got delayed because of COVID. So, they didn’t do it last year. And it’s basically an annual climate change conference where everybody across the m that are parties to the UN, meet to discuss climate change action. Because we recognize that climate change is a global problem, and no single individual nation can tackle it. The idea in this particular one is, both, that ramp up that I was telling you about, so the idea that we would come with newer commitments that would get us closer to where we need to be, every country, and the other idea is around financing loss and damages.

And early rumblings both from Boris Johnson, who– the conference is in Glasgow this year, so he’s Prime Minister of the UK, but he’s also, essentially, the host, and from John Kerry in the United States, suggests that we shouldn’t get our expectations too high.

IRA FLATOW: Tell me about the loss and damages money. That is for what? Whose loss, whose damage?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: It’s essentially saying that there are a lot of countries that did very little to contribute to this problem, but they’re suffering disproportionately from the effects. And so loss and damages is basically a way of helping them both deal with the ways in which they have to adapt because of a warming world, and deal with the harm that has come to them. And the idea is that the countries that have contributed the most, like G20 countries to climate change, would help finance lower income, and lower emitting, countries’ adaptation to climate change.

IRA FLATOW: So you have small islands like these small islands in the Pacific that may virtually be underwater, who have really not contributed a whole lot to climate change, and yet they’re suffering the most. That’s payments to those islands?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yes, and not just those islands. We keep talking about immigration at the southern border. Well, a lot of that immigration, a lot of that migration, especially from Central America, is being driven by climate change.

IRA FLATOW: Aha. And the conference is starting on Halloween. I find that to be a little scary, about climate change.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Well, just remember that most of the world doesn’t actually celebrate Halloween. It’s a very US holiday. So it is funny to us, but it isn’t funny to most people

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah, I get it. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, released their winter outlook yesterday and it sounds, in a word, chilly.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, for a lot of the country it’s going to be cooler and drier than usual, and it’s another La Nina year, so they’re going to be more dry days across the southern third of the United States. Which, from a weather perspective, where it really matters is the West, because they’re in such a persistent drought, and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to be alleviating.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, so more drought for the west.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: More drought.

IRA FLATOW: And California just had their driest year since what 1924.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Correct. Yeah, it’s not looking good. It’s a really water-stressed state in normal times, and right now it’s incredibly water-stressed, and what the winter outlook is saying is that that’s not going to let up anytime soon.

IRA FLATOW: We should be seeing this effect starting immediately, if that forecast is made for now, I would imagine.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, I think Nina technically arrived four days ago, so, yes, we are already in it.

IRA FLATOW: And remind us what La Nina is.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: It’s a climate pattern. So there are two there’s El Nino and La Nina, and it’s a cyclical climate pattern that has to do with weird things happening in the Pacific. But what mostly matters is that La Nina generally, at least in the US, delivers more dry days across the southern parts of the United States, and El Nina tends to be hotter and wetter.

IRA FLATOW: Lastly, this isn’t just about physical dangers from fires, droughts, floods, and so on. As the Lancet Medical Journal, one of the premier medical journals in the world, makes a point of reporting on every year, climate is also about health, right? What are their concerns?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: I mean it’s all over the map– it’s mental health, it’s tick-borne diseases, it’s more pandemics, like we’re living through it. It’s heat deaths, it’s pretty much everything. It’s to remind people that it isn’t just what’s happening in the atmosphere, it isn’t just what’s happening to our homes, it has a direct impact on our physical health and well-being.

IRA FLATOW: Kendra Pierre-Louis, a senior reporter for the Gimlet Spotify climate change podcast, “How to Save a Planet.”

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Thank you so much for having me.

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Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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