Climate Conference Ends, With Few Immediate Results

11:57 minutes

A man in a suit gives a speech, looking tired against a green background
Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC Simon Stiell at the COP28 closing plenary session in Dubai. Credit: Kiara Worth, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The United Nations climate conference, COP28, ended this week in Dubai. After a lot of arguing over wording, the final agreement from the meeting calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” That text is significant in that it is the first time, surprisingly, that fossil fuel use was mentioned by name in a COP agreement. However, many critics of the proceedings point out that even this recognition is too little, too late, with few practical routes to keep global warming under thresholds considered to be catastrophic.

Casey Crownhart, climate reporter at MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to walk through the results of COP28. They also discuss other stories from the week in science, including research into morning sickness, clusters of brain cells that appear to do speech recognition tasks, a first look at asteroid samples from the OSIRIS-REx mission, and the tale of an unusual frog that camouflages itself as poop.

Segment Guests

Casey Crownhart

Casey Crownhart is a climate reporter for MIT Technology Review in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

Later in the hour, we’re going to talk about the latest research into seasonal affective disorder and treatments. And then, sleepy penguins, yes.

But first, the United Nations Climate Conference, known as COP28, ended this week in Dubai. And after a lot of arguing over wording, not everyone came away happy.

Joining me now to talk about the conference and other stories from the week in science is Casey Crownhart climate reporter at MIT Technology Review. Welcome back, Casey.

CASEY CROWNHART: Thanks so much for having me back, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s the good news and bad news about the COP28?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, definitely a mixed bag from this year’s conference. There were some really exciting pledges. A lot of countries signed on to triple renewable energy by 2030 and reduce methane emissions. That’s a really powerful greenhouse gas. But like you said, not everybody came away happy. A lot of the fights centered around how to talk about fossil fuels and what role fossil fuels should play in the future.

This was the first COP that ever mentioned fossil fuels by name in the agreement. But the final text was a little bit wishy-washy.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I heard all week about people praising the agreements– hey, we got “fossil fuels” in it. But as you say, nothing really concrete.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, the bar is on the floor a little bit with these. It’s tough because these conferences, everybody has to agree on the final text. So you can imagine that it’s a little bit tough to get really strong wording in there. So originally, a lot of countries wanted it to say something like, we want to phase out fossil fuels or at least phase down fossil fuels. But the final language had some loopholes and caveats. So there’s always next year, I guess.

IRA FLATOW: Well, is the conference worthwhile at all then, Casey, if not much actually gets done?

CASEY CROWNHART: I mean, I think it is a necessary process. For me, I like to look at this as a temperature check of where the world is on climate change, how everybody’s thinking about it and what commitments people are willing to make. But yeah, these agreements aren’t going to be what actually pushes the needle forward on climate action, if you ask me.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. There was a lot of attention given to the Loss and Damage Fund, which ended up being $700 million, or, to put it in perspective, the price of a contract for a pitcher for the Dodgers.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So like you said, this is really, really important funding. So the Loss and Damage Fund is basically giving money to more vulnerable countries to help them pay for all of those impacts of climate change. But yeah, we’re really, really far from how much money is actually needed. So it’s great to see that fund starting to get money put into it. But, like you said, it’s not very much.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to something where real progress was made. And I’m thinking of, last week, the FDA giving the green light to a treatment for sickle cell disease. Very significant, is it not?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, this is really great to see. And this was actually the first CRISPR treatment that’s been approved by the FDA. So it’s really exciting to see that technology starting to have impacts for patients.

IRA FLATOW: And how soon might patients be getting this treatment?

CASEY CROWNHART: It could take a while. And this is also something– it’s a really hard treatment to give to patients, so it takes months. But we could see this start to roll out before too long.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s a really good story. We’re going to be covering it in greater detail in the weeks ahead. Let’s move on a bit to other health news. There’s new research into severe morning sickness during pregnancy. Now, this is not your common, everyday morning sickness, is it?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So a very common pregnancy symptom is vomiting and being sensitive to strong smells. But a small percentage of people who are pregnant– about 2%– experience severe symptoms, severe sickness, vomiting multiple times a day. And now we’re a little bit closer to understanding why some people get those symptoms.

IRA FLATOW: And what did the researchers find?

CASEY CROWNHART: Basically, there’s this hormone that circulates in everybody’s blood. But for some people who are pregnant, they get really elevated levels of this hormone. It’s called GDF15. It’s produced by the fetus. And if you don’t usually have a high level of this hormone and then you suddenly have a lot of it, that can be a cause of severe morning sickness.

IRA FLATOW: What can we do with that? I mean, try to find some sort of remedy for it?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. So I think because they realized that it also had to do with sensitivity, there’s a potential that you could, for example, maybe give people– if they’re at a high risk for this– you could potentially give people a dose of this hormone before pregnancy to help lower their sensitivity to it. So there definitely is potential paths forward for therapies from this research.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s move on to something a little more science-fictiony. And I’m talking about clusters of cells in a Petri dish that can apparently do some kind of voice recognition. Is that right?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, this story was very trippy. One of our reporters at Tech Review covered it for us. So these researchers took clumps of human brain cells in the lab, and they basically were trying to make them do computational tasks. So they sent electrical signals to these cells, and then watched what electro and electrochemical signals the cells gave back in response.

And basically, they found that by giving them electrical signals that were tied to certain sounds, the cells seemed to be able to give the same response when they were given the same sound. So it’s like very primitive speech recognition, which is kind of wild.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So you’re saying it’s not actually hearing a sound, it’s getting some signals.

CASEY CROWNHART: What is hearing? But yes, it’s like getting–

IRA FLATOW: It’s true. It’s true.

CASEY CROWNHART: It’s getting electrical signals. I mean, our brain also gets electrical signals that our ear decodes, I guess, in a way. So I don’t know. It really broke my brain, this whole story, honestly.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Well, let’s move on to something that– well, Science Friday is nothing if we don’t have a little space news each week, right?


IRA FLATOW: And a few months ago, the OSIRIS-REx mission brought back to Earth samples from an asteroid. And you’re telling me now that the first results are in.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. So there’s a big conference going on right now in California, the AGU Conference. And researchers at that conference are giving their first look into this data.

We don’t know everything yet. There’s a lot, a lot of tests that the researchers want to do with this material. But they say that there’s a lot of carbon-based organic molecules in these samples that they got from the asteroid, which is really exciting. They’re saying that that might mean that these asteroids might give us some sort of insight into the origin of life, which is really cool.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because carbon is very big in our life system, isn’t it?

CASEY CROWNHART: Pretty central. Pretty crucial. So yeah, the scientists will be looking for things like lipids and sugars and things that look kind of like DNA to dig in a little bit more to see what these samples really are.

IRA FLATOW: Any idea when that will come back– we get more information on this stuff?

CASEY CROWNHART: We should hear a little bit more sometime in the new year. So within a few months we should have a little bit more information. But all the scientists say that all these samples are like career’s worth of material. So they’ll be looking at these for a very long time.

This is the first time that NASA brought back material from an asteroid, you might remember.


CASEY CROWNHART: So they’ll definitely be digging into these for a while.

IRA FLATOW: So Casey, why did they go to that asteroid in the first place?

CASEY CROWNHART: So this is an asteroid that a lot of people just have their eyes on. There’s a very slight chance that this asteroid could be on a collision course with Earth in 2180-something. It’s kind of a long shot, but there is a chance. And so NASA or other space agencies might want to try to knock this asteroid off course.

And so they need to know a little bit more about what it’s made of, what they might need to do to redirect it. So that was one of the reasons that they decided to go and check out this asteroid in particular.

IRA FLATOW: I cannot think of a better reason to go, right?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. Love that they’re on top of it.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about a different kind of space carbon. And I’m talking about the news this week about a missing space tomato. I’m not making this up, right? There was a missing space tomato. First, how do you get a tomato in space?


IRA FLATOW: It’s not a punchline of a joke.

CASEY CROWNHART: I know. So there was this mission on the International Space Station, where researchers were trying to grow tomatoes in space to better understand how that might work. And the astronauts were harvesting the tomatoes. But they were told, don’t eat the space tomatoes because there could be fungal contamination.

But a few months ago, this one astronaut got back from the Space Station and one of the tomatoes was missing. And everybody thought that he ate it.


CASEY CROWNHART: Nobody believed him. Yes. He was like, no, I didn’t eat the space tomato.

IRA FLATOW: Search me.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, I know. He was like, I swear.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s a missing space tomato.

CASEY CROWNHART: They found the missing space tomato. They wouldn’t say where it was. It was apparently in a little plastic bag. But the missing space tomato has been found. So NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, his name has been cleared.


CASEY CROWNHART: He did not eat the space tomato.

IRA FLATOW: You’d hate to have that on your resume as an astronaut.

CASEY CROWNHART: I know. I know. They’re like, we can’t send you back to space; you might eat the experiments.

IRA FLATOW: Where did they find it? Was it found in the International Space Station, or where was it?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes, it was still on the ISS. They’re not giving details about where it was, which I think is wonderfully mysterious.

IRA FLATOW: That is. Speaking of mysterious– a great segue, Casey; thank you– an unusual frog with a special type of camouflage. A special type; what kind of type are we talking about?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes, I love this story. This frog camouflages itself by looking like poop, which is just delightful. So it’s this species of frog, called Wallace’s flying frog. So these frogs, when they’re full grown, they look like a classic kind of tree frog. They’re green and have really big eyes and stuff. But it takes a long time for them to grow up and develop the toe webbing that helps them soar around. They’re flying frogs, so they fly through the treetops.

And so while they’re growing up, while they’re juveniles, or froglets, they are a totally different color. They’re red, with little white spots. And researchers have thought for a while that this coloration is to make them look a little bit like the poop of birds and bats that eat fruit.

IRA FLATOW: What’s the advantage of looking like the poop of something?

CASEY CROWNHART: I guess it’s not very appealing to predators. And so this study that was in the news this week, researchers took a bunch of little wax models of these froglets, and they basically looked at what birds would attack. So would they attack ones that were green, ones that were red, and then ones that were red with the little white splotches to look like poop?

And those red with white splotches, which is what the froglets look like, those were attacked far less often than the green or the red ones. So it seems to be a pretty effective mode of camouflage.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Casey, you always bring us some really interesting stuff to talk about. And certainly stuff that, around this evening, at the end of the workweek, we have something new to bring up.

CASEY CROWNHART: Bring it up at all of your parties– all of your holiday parties. I certainly will.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Well, good. We’ll follow your lead, Casey. Thank you for taking time to be with us, as always.

CASEY CROWNHART: Thanks so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Casey Crownhart, climate reporter at MIT Technology Review.

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