05/10/2019

International Shake-Up Over Warming Arctic

7:08 minutes

blue white ice that is completely etched with deep cracks
Crevasses near the grounding line of Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Credit: University of Washington/I. Joughin/NASA

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo turned heads this week at a meeting of the Arctic Council. He stated that a warming Arctic, and melting sea ice, would make for “opportunity and abundance” by opening up access to new resources—and new conflicts. The international first convened in 1996 to cooperate on protecting the fragile Arctic environment council, and includes eight Arctic-adjacent nations and representatives of indigenous groups.  

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American, explains why it matters that the council was unable to issue a joint declaration prioritizing climate change this week, even as the Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of the globe. Plus, how children may influence their parents to care about climate change, a new take on plastic that might be easier to recycle, and a tiny T-rex ancestor identified from fossil remains—by the same person who had dug up the remains at the age of 16.


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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 quick program note– our Degrees of Change series about the problems of climate change and how we, as a planet, are adapting to it– happy to announce it returns next week. And we’ve been asking what you’re doing in your community? And we’re getting a lot of great stories. Let me just highlight one of them. 

LYNN HANDLIN: My name is Lynn Spitaleri Handlin, and I live in Happy Valley, Oregon. I recently organized a combat climate change public ritual in a park in a suburban area not at all known for any kind of activism. People gathered in the local park. We created sacred space and then shared ideas on what we can do to combat climate change, big and small ideas, like not using single-use plastic cups, contacting elected officials weekly, giving up dairy, joining a climate change organization, and volunteering, doing habitat restoration and so on. Then we each chose a single idea and made a commitment to doing that action for a year and a day. 

IRA FLATOW: Lynn Spitaleri Handlin, and she sent in her idea. Would you like to send in your idea? We would love to hear from you, maybe get you on the radio. Go to sciencefriday.com/degreesofchange to get involved and tune in to hear a new chapter. It’s going to be next week. 

And as climate change marches on, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, leaving people in places like Greenland, Alaska, Canada, and Russia to try to adapt. But as the International Arctic Council convened this week to discuss cooperating on how to best protect their shared interest against, say, climate change, the United States delegation, let’s say, went in a different direction. 

Here with that story and other short subjects in science, Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Hi, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: Always good to see you, Sophie. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You, too. 

IRA FLATOW: So US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said some unexpected things with the Arctic Council this week, right? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So the Arctic Council normally avoids, for example, security issues. But he spoke about developing the Arctic and about how the opportunities that warming opened up for things like drilling and transportation through the Arctic and about how the US would be protecting its interests in those areas. As opposed to signing on to a declaration that the other seven nations in the Arctic Council wanted to have a joint declaration saying, essentially, we should combat climate change, and we should reduce black carbon emissions to do so. 

IRA FLATOW: And that’s because he would not agree to the words “climate change”– 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s correct. 

IRA FLATOW: –in any agreement. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, right. 

IRA FLATOW: So they didn’t sign an agreement for the first time in a long time. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. It’s very frustrating, because it’s called global warming, because it affects everyone across the globe. It affects Americans who live in Alaska, for example, where global warming is already having an effect. 

The Arctic is warming something like four times faster than the rest of the planet. And so in Alaska, for example, people who live there, rely on frozen rivers for transportation during a big chunk of the year. And normally, these frozen rivers start kind of melting and becoming unsafe for use in May. They’ve started– this year, they were starting to become unsafe in March, and people actually died by trying to use the roads for transport and falling through. 

So this is not just dangerous for loss of life, but it’s a huge financial hardship for people who live in the area. They’ve got to get on a plane to go buy groceries. And they can’t hunt, because you can’t take the road out. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And so are the other countries going to go along by themselves without the US? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: The other countries signed a partial agreement just mentioning climate change but the joint one wouldn’t work out. 

IRA FLATOW: Man, it sounds like Mike Pompeo might want to talk to a kid if he needs some better perspective on climate change. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So some researchers in North Carolina noticed that we’ve had this wave of teen climate change activists, including Greta Thunberg, who’s sort of spearheaded this movement to strike for awareness of climate change. And so they decided to see, well, are these kids changing their parents’ minds? 

So they set up a study where they looked at more than 200 families. Some of the students in these families were exposed to a climate change curriculum, a few classes that focused on educating them about climate change. And they did a project, and they were encouraged to interact with their parents about it and to interview their parents and show off what they were learning. 

And they found that all of the parents, actually, over the course of two years, became more concerned about climate change. But in particular, the ones whose children took this curriculum, their awareness of climate change increased the most. And it was particularly notable among fathers and among parents who identified as conservative. 

IRA FLATOW: So they were actually able to change minds. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They were. They were. They found that the parents went– these groups that were more affected, so fathers and conservative parents, went from being a negative two rating, which meant they weren’t particularly concerned, to a positive 2, which meant they were. 

IRA FLATOW: I know the kids are going to save us. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Let’s hope so. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s hope so. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I don’t think we can rely on the grown-ups to. 

IRA FLATOW: Oh, Lord. I’m moving on. I hear you’ve got some good news for plastic recycling enthusiasts. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So plastic is really difficult to recycle. A lot of times, if you melt it down and then try to make something new out of it, it won’t necessarily be as functional as something made fresh would be. And that’s because when you make plastics, a lot of times they’re mixed in with additives, color or something that might be like a flame retardant to help make them more useful, and then it’s hard to reuse. 

So what researchers have done is developed a new type of plastic that’s much easier– you can add acid, and it will break down to its very basic building block components called monomers. And from that, it can be built back up into a totally different type of plastic. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s terrific. Let’s talk about one last, cute little story, and cute in the terms of a dinosaur– a tiny T-Rex predecessor? 

LYNN HANDLIN: That’s right. Right. So this is a little, possibly ancestor or cousin of T-Rex, called Suskityrannus hazelae. It was just identified officially. And one of the neat things about this find is the researcher who wrote the paper identifying it is actually the one who found these remains back when he was a teenager. 

So he found these remains in the ’90s when he was on a dig, and he’s been interested in paleontology ever since. He grew up. He became a professor, and he’s just written this paper identifying this new species. 

IRA FLATOW: And so he’s been hanging out with this bag of bones. I mean, saying– 

LYNN HANDLIN: Kind of. 

IRA FLATOW: –would you look at this? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: He’s actually, as he’s gone to different posts, he’s brought the bones with him. And then they’ve identified it as a species that probably lived about 20 million years before T-Rex. It was about three feet tall, nine feet long, a little bit more tiny than its more famous cousin. 

IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet. Yeah. It’s certainly not one you’re going to bring home, either. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Not necessarily. Even a tiny dinosaur could be pretty dangerous. Just look at cassowaries if you’re worried. 

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. Thank you, Sophie, as always. Great to have you. Sophia Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American.

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About Christie Taylor

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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