The Latest IPCC Report Is Full Of Warnings—And Hope
It’s that time of year: another IPCC report has hit the presses. These reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are like a check up—to let us know how we’re doing on the climate front and what Earth’s future is projected to look like. And to no one’s surprise, this year’s report is full of warnings. But also, it has a lot of room for hope.
Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, joins guest host Charles Bergquist to talk more about the report and other science news of the week. They chat about a 3D printed rocket that didn’t quite make it to space, the mysterious Oumuamua space object, the rise of dangerous fungal infections in the US, why researchers are so excited about figuring out Beethoven’s cause of death, and—of course—new research about octopuses’ brain waves.
Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Flora Lichtman, host and managing editor at Gimlet Media. And I used to work at Science Friday. And it’s very good to be back.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So glad to have you back. I’m Charles Bergquist. We’re filling in for Ira this week. Later this hour, I’ll be chatting with the co-organizer of the ultimate natural history sporting event, March Mammal Madness. And we’ll hear how scientists turn data from the cosmos into an album. But first, another IPCC report has hit the presses. These reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are kind of like a checkup to let us know how we’re doing on the climate front and what Earth’s future is projected to look like.
And to no one’s surprise, this year’s report is full of warnings, but also has some room for hope. Here to tell us more about that report and other science news of the week is Maggie Koerth. She’s senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Welcome back, Maggie.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Hi. Thanks for having me.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So glad to have you here. So walk me through the report. What are some of the big takeaways?
MAGGIE KOERTH: So this is a UN committee of scientists. And they have been analyzing and summarizing research on climate change since 1992. Now, after years of treaties and plans that are aimed at keeping warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial temperatures, this newest IPCC report is saying that that’s going to be all but impossible. The Earth has already warmed by about 1 degree. And even if everybody follows their pledges to the letter, it’s probably not going to be enough to stop that from getting hotter over the next few decades.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So I feel like each one of these reports is similar in content to what you just said, that Earth is warming. Humans are responsible. It’s going to be bad. Is this just more of the same? Or how does this report differ from the previous ones?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, so I think one thing that is important to point out here is that there is some good news. So this report was specifically focused on how we can cut emissions and reduce warming. And it found that the costs of clean energy have fallen dramatically since 2010. And it’s also become much more widely used. So it now accounts for about 10% of the world’s electricity.
And what’s more, there is all the suite of relatively inexpensive interventions that have multiple benefits beyond just reducing climate change. So we’re talking about stuff like public transit, energy-efficient buildings. And if you take all of those together, this report says that you could cut climate emissions in half compared to 2019.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So I’m glad that there’s some hope. But let’s take a break from the gloom and talk about space or almost space for a moment because a mostly 3D-printed rocket launched on Wednesday?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. So this is really cool. This rocket was almost entirely made out of 3D-printed parts. And it was successfully launched. And it flew for a whole three minutes. Now, unfortunately, that was not quite long enough to actually make it to space, which was the goal. This uncrewed rocket crashed into the Atlantic shortly after launching from Cape Canaveral.
But what’s really cool here is that you shouldn’t consider this an abject failure. We’re talking about 85% of a rocket, including the engines, being made from printed metal parts. The only stuff that wasn’t was the computer, some electrical systems, and fasteners, like screws. And doing that required building these truly massive 3D printers, which is an achievement in itself. The rocket’s developers are really hoping that this is going to be the first step in a whole industry of cheaper rockets to meet this growing demand for launching orbital satellites.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So what do you get out of being able to 3D print a rocket? What does it get you that traditional methods don’t?
MAGGIE KOERTH: It makes it cheaper. And it is probably also something that’s going to be able to make you be able to make more of these things. There’s a big demand right now for launching satellites. We’re launching more of them. We’re launching them faster. And being able to have kind of rockets that are semidisposable like this, that would just burn up on re-entry and you make a new one, is something that could really kind of cut the cost of pulling these things together.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Do they know yet what went wrong with it, why it crashed?
MAGGIE KOERTH: They’re investigating that it’s probably something to do with one of those engines. Multiple companies right now are vying to be part of the 3D rocket supremacy. And some of them are even looking further into the future. So there might be a time coming when you just print the satellite in space.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Whoa.
MAGGIE KOERTH: And no launch is even necessary.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: In other space news, you might remember back when astronomers caught a thing whizzing through the solar system in 2017. They named it Oumuamua. There’s new news about that this week. Tell us about it.
MAGGIE KOERTH: This was the first interstellar object detected by humans. It passed our solar system. Everybody got really excited. And it quickly became the stuff of legends, or at least the stuff of really, really wanting it to be a spaceship.
It was 300 feet long, oblong. It tumbled by. And it sped up as it left our solar system and utterly failed to conform to the expectations of either an asteroid or a comet. And now there is a paper out where some scientists say that they think Oumuamua was probably a comet all along, just a weird one. So the idea is that this was small for a comet. And it was small enough that it could maybe be propelled along by very tiny amounts of hydrogen gas that were being released from these bubbly pockets in the ice that made up its core.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Hmm. So if this is some kind of funky new comet that they haven’t seen before, are there likely to be more of them out there? Or is this a one-off thing?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, not all scientists buy the theory that this was a comet. This is something that there’s already pushback on. But–
CHARLES BERGQUIST: It’s got to be aliens, right? It’s definitely aliens this time.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Right. I’m making the meme hand gesture right now, like, aliens. But it does, at least, give us some hypotheses to test out the next time we spot an interstellar object. And another one of those came through in 2019. And researchers now think that interstellar objects are more common than we used to believe, maybe common enough that we could see one every year.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Back to Earth, back to not-so-great news because a fungal infection is spreading around, and we’re not talking about some Last of Us tie-in here. Tell us about it.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. The timing does feel a little bit like maybe Candida auris is getting paid by HBO. But it’s not. And this fungus is a drug-resistant fungal infection that’s spreading in health care facilities. This is a new CDC report that was released on Monday.
This fungus was detected for the first time in the us in 2013. And there still haven’t been very many cases. But it’s growing exponentially every year. So there were 53 people diagnosed with this who were ill in 2016 and more than 1,400 in 2021. They also found an additional 4,000 people who were carrying it, but they weren’t sick.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Tell me about what the symptoms are here. How do you know if you may have this fungus?
MAGGIE KOERTH: That’s a difficult thing to really identify because right now, this is something that has largely been detected in people who are already sick and vulnerable with other things. So it’s hard to know what is being caused by the fungus and what’s being caused by other issues. It seems to be complicating infections that already exist.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Mm. Do we know why it’s suddenly spreading more?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, to make that HBO tie-in, it evolved to grow at the human body temperature. It’s probably a result of climate change. And it has been spreading in these hospital systems probably because of understaffed hospitals and the strain on the health care system caused by COVID-19.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Ah. Now, this next one is one of my favorite stories this month. And it’s that researchers figured out how the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven may have died. Now, I suspect he’s still dead. Whatever did him in is probably no longer a threat to anybody. So why do we care?
MAGGIE KOERTH: This is one of the things that I kind of love about this story. Beethoven, by all accounts, probably just died of natural causes. But people have spent a remarkable amount of energy over centuries debating and investigating and theorizing about what exactly killed him. There’s alcoholism. There’s syphilis. There’s lead poisoning, multiple rare diseases that have been bandied about over the years.
The man’s even been dug up twice so that people could do autopsies. And this DNA analysis is just kind of the latest thing in this long obsession. So it used hair samples. Scientists were able to reconstruct a genetic code that they believe is Beethoven’s, using five locks of hair that were probably cut from his head.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Wow. And now that that mystery is solved, drum roll, please. The cause of death is?
MAGGIE KOERTH: It’s probably the liver that got him for a couple of reasons. First, Beethoven’s DNA, or what we think is Beethoven’s DNA, carries several genetic markers that put him at higher risk of liver disease. Second, one of these samples, which was taken closer to his death, has evidence of hepatitis B infection. And like I said, there’s everything that was written down while he was still alive.
We know he had heavy drinking habits. And there’s all these reports of his skin turning yellow towards the end of his life. So effectively, everything that could go wrong with his liver, did.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Wow, very cool. Let’s end with a story about a sci-fi favorite, the octopus. A new study is the first to record octopuses’ brainwaves from freely moving, “living their life out there” octopuses. Tell me about that.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Oh, my gosh, octopuses are so cool. What I think is interesting about this is this is the closest thing you get to alien intelligence on Earth. They have as many neurons as a dog. They look like something the cat dragged in.
But they have about 2/3 of these neurons aren’t even in their heads. It’s mixed up in their arms. And this brain is spread through this wild, wily body that’s really hard to actually attach anything to. It’s squishy. It changes shape. It’s a goo ball.
And it’s an incredibly smart goo ball that then wants to remove anything that you stick on it that it finds uncomfortable, and it’s completely capable of doing that, right? So getting over those hurdles has been really hard. And this is the first time that they’ve been able to measure brain waves in an octopus. What they ended up doing was using portable data loggers and then surgically placing the electrodes that were feeding the information back to them.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: And what did they find after all of this work, anything cool?
MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. So the octopuses were allowed to kind of go about their daily lives. And the results were neat. Some of the brain waves that they picked up corresponded to things that we’ve seen in other animals, including humans. So we’re talking about like sleep-wake cycles, memory consolidation cycles.
But there is also some weird patterns that have never been seen before in any other creature. These brain waves were really slow, and they were really strong. And they sometimes happened in just one electrode and sometimes were happening simultaneously in really far and removed parts of this octopus neural structure. Nobody knows what they mean yet.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Mm. Well, I for one welcome our octopus overlords. Thank you, Maggie.
MAGGIE KOERTH: Thank you.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Maggie Koerth is a senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.