The US Is Abandoning The Paris Climate Agreement
The U.S. has officially started the process to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, with the Trump administration saying the accord would put too big a strain on the U.S. economy. The notification to the United Nations begins a year-long exit process, which will conclude the day after the Election Day in November of 2020. Once the U.S. completely withdraws from the agreement, it will still be allowed to attend meetings and discussions of the signatories—but only under ‘observer’ status.
Science Friday’s director Charles Bergquist joins Ira to talk about that story and others from the week in science, including research into flu infection, PFAS chemicals on the ski slopes, and the tale of cannibalistic ants trapped in a nuclear bunker.
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As Science Friday’s director, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about why dozens of research institutions are investigating potential cases of espionage and stolen research.
But first, the US has officially started to process to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, with the Trump administration saying, the accord would put too big a strain on the US economy.
Joining me to talk about that and other selected short subjects in science is our own Charles Berquist, director and contributing producer at SciFri. Good to have you on the side of the mic. Let’s talk about this climate policy. This week, President Trump followed through on his promise?
CHARLES BERQUIST: Yeah, I mean this comes as a surprise to basically no one. He’s been saying that this is going to be happening. And this week, basically, was the first time under the process that they could start this withdrawal process. They’ve formally notified the UN that they plan to exit the climate accords in Paris.
IRA FLATOW: And it would not begin what, for another year?
CHARLES BERQUIST: Right. This kicks off a year-long process. If it all comes to fruition, it would go into effect the day after the next presidential election in November 2020.
IRA FLATOW: So you have– if the president is reelected, that’s when it would happen. And then, a lot of scientists, thousands of them, are saying don’t do this, right?
CHARLES BERQUIST: So, yeah, in other climate news, there was a big letter published this week in the journal, BioSciences, from over 1,000 scientists calling climate change a threat to the fate of humanity. And saying really– action needs to be taken now.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about flu research. Scientists are deliberately infecting people with the flu?
CHARLES BERQUIST: Right.
IRA FLATOW: I imagine there’s a good reason for doing that.
CHARLES BERQUIST: Well, this is sort of basic scientific research. The NIH is funding this project, which will be run at four centers around the country, and they’re looking for 80 volunteers to participate in what they call a human challenge study.
Basically, they take these volunteers and deliberately squirt a specific strain of the flu up their nose. And then, they live in a clinic for a week, and give blood samples and cheek swabs and all of that, to monitor how the immune system progresses over the course of the infection.
IRA FLATOW: And do they get renumerated for this?
CHARLES BERQUIST: They do. If you go through with this, you’re accepting the risks of– a, you will get the flu, and who knows, there may be other follow on effects, but you do get a couple thousand dollars. But–
IRA FLATOW: A couple of grand for that?
CHARLES BERQUIST: Yeah, but you got to live in a clinic for a week with the flu. So–
IRA FLATOW: I don’t know.
CHARLES BERQUIST: Toss-up, right?
IRA FLATOW: It’s borderline. All right. Let’s move on to last week. We talked a lot about, on the program, about PFAS chemicals. And now, research is finding that they’re showing up in an unexpected place, a Nordic ski slope.
CHARLES BERQUIST: Right. So as you said, we talked about these a lot last week. Some people call them forever chemicals. They’re industrial chemicals that are used in manufacture of things from Teflon pans to fire retardants. But it turns out, one of the uses that I wasn’t aware of, is in ski wax.
And so researchers found, looking at the ski resort in Trondheim, Norway, that along the ski slopes, there were elevated levels of these chemicals. And what’s even more concerning, they also found the chemicals in the earthworms living there and in a kind of rodent called a bank vole that feeds on the earthworms. And they found that the levels in the rodents were higher. So the fear is that it’s bioaccumulating as it moves up the food chain, so to speak.
IRA FLATOW: So are they thinking that people are putting it in the wax, and the wax is getting on the skis or–
CHARLES BERQUIST: It is an ingredient in the sort of lubricating wax–
IRA FLATOW: Oh, it is.
CHARLES BERQUIST: –that people put on the skis, yeah, to make them glide better on the snow.
IRA FLATOW: So the wax then comes off–
CHARLES BERQUIST: Comes off–
IRA FLATOW: Off this.
CHARLES BERQUIST: Right. Into the snow.
IRA FLATOW: And the worms eat it.
CHARLES BERQUIST: It ends up in the soil and the water. It ends up in the worms. It ends up in the voles. And, probably then, foxes or whatever are going to eat the voles and then it will end up in the foxes.
IRA FLATOW: That is the food chain, the plastics food chain now.
CHARLES BERQUIST: Right.
IRA FLATOW: There’s some news, this week, in spaceflight. The company’s developing new vehicles for taking humans to space?
CHARLES BERQUIST: Sure.
IRA FLATOW: A couple of developments, right?
CHARLES BERQUIST: Yeah. Boeing and SpaceX are both competing to be part of what’s called the Commercial Crew Program, the people that are, basically, going to take humans into space to the International Space Station now that we don’t have a shuttle or any other way of getting there. So on Monday, Boeing had a test of its Starliner capsule, an abort test, where they fired their capsule about a mile up into the air and pretended that it was suffering some kind of problem and forced to abort and parachute–
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s the emergency escape system during launch.
CHARLES BERQUIST: Right. You don’t want to put people in something with no way of aborting, right?
IRA FLATOW: Right.
CHARLES BERQUIST: So they were testing this abort system and found that their parachute system, mostly, worked. There are three chutes on the craft. One of them apparently wasn’t fastened on correctly and so there was a problem with that one chute. But two other chutes were able to carry this capsule back to Earth safely.
IRA FLATOW: So, yeah, so they assumed that no one would have been hurt if there had been people in it.
CHARLES BERQUIST: They’re calling it a successful test. And they’re going to keep going with their timeline towards maybe early next year sometime trying it with people on board.
IRA FLATOW: Might have been a little harder landing then–
CHARLES BERQUIST: Yeah, I don’t know how that works.
IRA FLATOW: –then they expected. Yeah, another thing about that, that’d be the first time we land on land. All our other capsules used to land in the ocean.
CHARLES BERQUIST: Well, I mean you’ve also got the SpaceX with their crazy boosters landing back down.
IRA FLATOW: And they had a very successful test also, right?
CHARLES BERQUIST: Right. So they released footage of one of their parachute tests, and they say that this is the 13th successful test of their parachute system.
IRA FLATOW: And they didn’t rocket it up into space, did they?
CHARLES BERQUIST: They brought a mock-up of their capsule, called Crew Dragon, up in an aircraft and kind of shoved it out the door with the parachutes on to see what would happen. But it was successful, too, so that’s a good sign.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I saw the beautiful pictures of the chutes opening. A lot cheaper to do it that way then send it up. Finally, how could we let the week go by without mentioning the cannibal ants in a nuclear bunker?
CHARLES BERQUIST: Right. So this is a heartwarming study, published in the Journal of Hymenoptera this week. And it goes back to 2013 when researchers found this colony of ants living in a Polish munitions bunker. And it appeared that the ants had fallen down some kind of ventilation pipes. But they were living there with no source of food or light or heat.
And the question was, well, how is this happening? So the researchers followed them, followed the ants. And in 2015, went back, found that the colony was doing really well. There were like a million ants living there. Again, the question, how? The answer is cannibalism. The ants were eating the bodies of other fellow ants that had also fallen into the bunker. But there is a heartwarming end to the story.
IRA FLATOW: Happy ending.
CHARLES BERQUIST: Yes. So in 2016, the researchers gave the ants a ladder back to the ventilation pipe. And went back in 2017, a year later, and found that the bunker was empty. The ants had all returned to their host colony, and they lived happily ever after.
IRA FLATOW: All that’s missing is the harp music that we don’t have.
CHARLES BERQUIST: Exactly.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Thank you, Charles. Charles Berquist, the Science Friday’s director and contributing producer.