01/29/2021

A New President, A New Climate Policy

11:48 minutes

biden smiling standing at a podium
Credit: Shutterstock

When President Biden was running for office, he campaigned on re-entering the Paris climate accords his first day in the White House. He followed through shortly after being sworn in. But in the week that followed, the new President has also taken additional steps focused on reducing carbon emissions and adapting to the changing climate—like a push to move the government vehicle fleet to electric vehicles, establishing a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, and pausing oil and gas exploration leases on federal lands.

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about Biden’s climate moves, as well as other stories from the week in science, including a study of global ice loss, a halt to Merck’s COVID-19 vaccine trials, and a question about the aquatic habits of an ancient dinosaur.

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll tackle your questions about COVID vaccines. But first, President Biden campaigned on reentering the Paris Climate Agreement. His first day in the White House, he made good on that promise. And the new president has also taken additional steps focused on reducing carbon emissions and adapting to the changing climate. Joining me now to talk about that and other science news of the week is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American. Always good to have you, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s get into this. Let’s talk about some of the climate items the Biden administration brought up this week.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So far, President Biden has been using executive orders and memoranda telling the federal agencies what to do to get started on his goal of eventually having zero-emissions electricity in the US by 2035. So that’s a pretty aggressive goal. He’s almost certainly going to need to work with Congress in order to actually meet that goal.

But in the meantime, he’s getting started on things like eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, stopping new oil and gas leases on public lands, starting to have federal agencies study how climate change is affecting global conflict and disadvantaged communities, and generally changing the emissions reductions targets for the US.

IRA FLATOW: Are these specific hard policy actions, or is this more just signaling?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Some of this is signaling. So for example, one of these orders is about having federal agencies– when they purchase new vehicles, have those vehicles be zero-emissions vehicles made in the US, when they set up their electricity, have them try to buy clean electricity. But he told them to do that, but not given them a ton of specifics. So some of that is going to be up to the individuals within the Biden administration.

IRA FLATOW: Got it. Let’s move on to climate news a bit, because there’s news that the planet just keeps on melting at an incredible rate.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, a new study looked at the total loss of ice all over the Earth since the ’90s, and they found that we’ve lost 28 trillion tons of ice from the mid ’90s up until about 2017.

IRA FLATOW: And the majority of this loss is driven by climate change?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So back when they looked at this, the number in the ’90s, they say, was about 800 billion tons of ice per year being lost. And by today, that number has gone up to 1.2 trillion tons of ice per year.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a number that’s almost difficult to get your head around, what the size of an ice cube would look like with that much ice.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s really, really hard to imagine. So for example, I tried comparing it– I was looking at comparisons, like how many blue whales would this be? But it’s a number, again, that’s so high that it’s still hard to picture. It’s just an incredible loss.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and we’re not just talking about where most of the rate of climate change is happening at the poles. This is a worldwide figure.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So the researchers added up the ice loss for the ice sheets over Greenland and Antarctica. They looked at the sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic at the poles, and they also looked at mountain glaciers all over the world. And they added up all those ice losses to reach the 28 trillion ton number.

IRA FLATOW: In more cheerful environmental news, if there is some, kinds of environmental damage might be fixable. That’s always good to hear. What do you mean by that?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So at the border between the US and Mexico, especially at the end of the Trump administration, there was a rush to build a border wall. But a lot of this was happening in areas that were impassable for humans, but that was good habitat for wildlife.

And in those cases, the wall, which also includes more than 100 feet of cleared vegetation and a road on either side that has blocked the ability of animals to migrate– in some places, the wall has blocked the flow of rivers or of water, which has contributed to erosion. And it’s just caused a lot of ecological damage. So President Biden has ordered a halt on wall construction, and conservationists are asking him to take down specific parts of the wall in the places where it is most damaging.

IRA FLATOW: And they think, then, that the damage can be restored or reversed.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, for some animals– for example, ocelots, which migrate on foot, and their migration has been cut off by the existence of this wall– the conservationists think if they take down the wall, that this population will be OK, that their ability to move will be restored. But I mean, there’s other animals that have been living in areas where there’s been wall construction or barrier construction on and off for years, and it might be more difficult for them to recover.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so even just stopping the construction is a positive for the environment there.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, the construction is really disruptive. It involves digging a trench. It involves having a lot of noise and light that’s just very disruptive to the local flora and fauna.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to vaccine news this week. There’s some news from several vaccine teams. Go through that with us.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Sure, so first of all, Merck was developing two different vaccine candidates, and they’ve dropped both of them. They released a statement that said that the ability to boost the immune response– it wasn’t– they called it inferior in comparison to the amount of immune boost you get from either having survived a case of COVID-19 and having that protection or from getting a vaccine from Pfizer or from Moderna.

So they’re no longer going to be developing the vaccine candidates, although they are continuing to develop treatments. On the other hand, we’ve got news from Johnson & Johnson that their coronavirus vaccine is about 66% effective against the virus, but it’s 85% effective against severe disease. So if you have that vaccine, even if you get sick, you’re much less likely to get the very severe case that would require hospitalization, for example.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s important because that– as you say, if you don’t go to the hospital, if this prevents people from going to the hospital, that takes the burden off the people in the hospital. They can work on people who are really in worse case than you are.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. One other announcement that’s interesting, which is coming from Novavax– so Novavax is also working on a vaccine, and it works very well. Their efficacy rate was almost 90%. But it’s not as good on the variant that has come out of South Africa. So in that case, it still works somewhat, but the rate is only at 50%– it’s actually under 50%, instead of as high as you would want it to be.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll be talking more about vaccine efficacy and answering our listener questions later in the hour. Let’s move off the planet for a while. There’s some space news this week. Tell us about it.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So Axiom Space, which is a private space company, has announced the first entirely private mission to the Space Station. So in the past, space tourists have hitched a ride on, for example, the Russian Soyuz flights up to the Space Station, but this is the first case where you’ve got a private spacecraft. They’re going to be flying in a SpaceX Crew Dragon. And you’ve got a private crew going up into space.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, I heard that the price was astronomical to get on that Axiom flight as a space traveler.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. You have to pony up $55 million to join this voyage.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, OK, that’s first class, right? I’m sure the tourists– well, there isn’t going to be a tourist class.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I mean, I don’t know if you can expect to be served cocktails on the flight up. But it’s definitely a price tag that’s eye watering.

IRA FLATOW: I’m thinking of 2001 Space Odyssey, where they have– they’re serving drinks in flight. But that’s not what this is going to be. So is this a business thing for Axiom, or is it a tourist thing? What will they be doing as a private company?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So Axiom is planning to have multiple missions that are going to ramp up. So this is going to be the first entirely private mission to the Space Station. They plan to eventually attach their own modules to the ISS. And that, they’re hoping to use as a test bed for them eventually launching a private Space Station into orbit.

IRA FLATOW: Now, as far as I know, they don’t make spacecraft, right? So whose spacecraft are they using?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They are using a SpaceX spacecraft.

IRA FLATOW: Elon Musk is at it again here in space. Well, he’s showing that you can make a profit and that private industry can work in space.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: We’re definitely seeing an increase in private spaceflight, in private interest in getting into space and exploring and also using resources up there.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, if they’re going to be in a hotel in the International Space Station, they’ve got to be paying for food and board, don’t they?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. They do. If you were staying in a hotel, you would have to pay for the space. You’d have to pay for whatever you ate. And it’s the same thing here, although I don’t imagine– even with the price tag for space travel, I can’t imagine that they’re going to be eating the finest cuisine up there. There’s limits.

IRA FLATOW: NASA makes a few bucks on this, then, getting reimbursed for this mission?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Give us a timeline on this here.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They think the earliest they could launch would be in a year, in January 2022. But with all things space related, every time you get an estimate of the deadline, you have to take it with a grain of salt, because often these missions get pushed back by weeks or months or even years.

IRA FLATOW: All right, before we run out of time, let’s move on to a really important question about whether the dinosaur spinosaurus was more of a swimmer or a wader.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I love stories like this about– scientists are passionate on both sides of this debate. They’re releasing new papers. The most recent paper advances the hypothesis that the spinosaurus, which is this 50-foot long dinosaur, 20 feet tall– it had this big sail on its back.

And they know that it lived in and around the water. But the question is, was it swimming through the currents, or was it more of a wader, like a wading bird? And a lot of this involves just looking at the body and the remains that they’ve recovered and comparing it to existing animals. And the most recent study that has come out has now said we think it was a wader.

IRA FLATOW: A wader, just up to its waist, maybe.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, because they were looking at the body shape. And a lot of aquatic animals that spend much more time swimming have a much more streamlined body. It’s easier for them to navigate through the water. And this study is looking at various– at the bulk of the spinosaurus, at that unwieldy sail, at the number of muscles in its tail. And they said, based on this information, we don’t think it would have been a very fast swimmer, and we think it would have been a more effective strategy for this type of animal to stay in the wading shallows and to dip its head in.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I wonder what the over-under was on taking bets, whether it was the swimmer or the wader. We’ll leave that up to the Vegas bookmakers on that. Thank you, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American. Always good to talk with her.

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