Youth Climate Activists Score A Win In Montana

12:15 minutes

A statue of a man on a horse in front of a law building
HELENA, MY: Thomas Francis Meagher Statue at the Montana State Capital Building in Helena Montana. Credit: Shutterstock

This week, a state court in Montana ruled in favor of a group of 16 youth climate activists, who argued that a state environmental law was in violation of a provision in the state constitution. The Montana constitution states: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”  The ruling will allow (but not require) regulators to consider climate impacts when evaluating proposed energy projects for approval.

Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, joins Ira to talk about the decision and what it might mean for other climate-related litigation around the country. They’ll also discuss other science news of the week, including some strange particle physics from Fermilab,  the end of the road for the common incandescent light bulb, and how researchers decoded a snippet of song — using electrodes on a brain. 

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

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

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And I’m Kathleen Davis.

IRA FLATOW: A bit later in the hour, Angela Rasmussen joins us for an update on COVID. It is not going away.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: We’ll also talk about one specific symptom people with COVID can experience, brain fog and what researchers are learning about it. And we’ll take you to Reno for a look at their water recycling program.

IRA FLATOW: But first, this week, a state court in Montana ruled in favor of the group of 16 youth climate activists who argued that a state environmental law violated part of the state Constitution. The ruling will allow but not require regulators to consider climate impacts when evaluating proposed energy projects for approval. Joining me now to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Umair Irfan, science writer at Vox based in Washington. Welcome back. Good to have you.

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: This seems sort of a really interesting and important decision. Tell me about it.

UMAIR IRFAN: Climate activists around the world have been exploring litigation lawsuits as a way of trying to get governments and oil companies to act on climate change. So far, they’ve been stalled in court. But this recent decision in Montana is probably one of the earliest and most significant decisions in their favor.

As you noted, Montana is kind of a unique case, because they actually have a provision in their constitution that says that they have to maintain and improve the environment for present and future generations. And these group of kids, they said that the state was violating that provision in their constitution, because they were continuing to approve new fossil fuel projects without thinking about the climate change impacts.

IRA FLATOW: And so what does the state have to do now? Is it required to do something?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, what’s interesting is that previously, there’s this law in Montana called the Montana Environmental Policy Act. And under the previous regulation, it said that they weren’t allowed to consider climate change. So what this ruling does is it allows them to. It doesn’t necessarily require legislators to look at climate change. But it creates that opening.

And now, the state legislature will have to come up with a way for how climate change will factor into their decision. So there’s still one more element here to see how this will play out.

IRA FLATOW: Do you get the impression that other states and other activists are looking at this decision?

UMAIR IRFAN: Oh, absolutely. There are a number of climate lawsuits in a number of different states using different approaches and trying to tailor them to those specific states. There was a case in Oregon, in Alaska, in Virginia. And so I know groups of kids have been using this approach in trying different strategies, and Montana is the first place that succeeded. And that might give them some wind in their sails as they pursue these lawsuits in other states.

IRA FLATOW: All right. That is really interesting. We’ll stay with that. And staying on the climate theme, one of the comments you sometimes hear from people who don’t want to accept that climate change is a problem, they say, well, the CO2, it’s good for plants. They like to eat it. But apparently, there’s a limit.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. Plants photosynthesize, which is where they take light, carbon dioxide, and water and they use it to make their own food. And so it stands to reason if you increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, the plants would grow better. And for a period of time, we did actually see that. There is a new paper that just came out this week that found that since 1982, plants have added enough leaf cover to cover an area roughly the size of the continental United States twice over.

But there’s a limit to how much CO2 you can soak up. Because you also need the other ingredients, the water and the sunlight. And if those things are being restricted, then you hit a limit of what you can do with CO2.

IRA FLATOW: So those are the other limiting ingredients?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. And since climate change makes the planet warm up, it leads to more water actually being pulled out of plants. This is a phenomenon called evapotranspiration. And as air temperature increases, it increases the amount of water it can hold onto. So while the plants are getting more carbon dioxide, at a certain point, they start losing more water. And that starts counteracting any benefit.

And so the researchers who studied this they saw that between 2001 and 2016, the rate of new photosynthesis and leaf cover kind of leveled off. And so we’re at the standstill now with the amount of plant growth.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That is interesting to hear. You have one last story that’s sort of climate adjacent. And it’s the final demise of the incandescent light bulb.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. This has been sort of a long time coming. This was actually a process that started under the Bush administration in 2007. Basically, they wanted to switch away from the Edison-era light bulb. Those filaments in the glass vacuum bulb, those have been used for more than a century in the US and in much of the world. But they actually produce more heat than light.

And as we grow more concerned about energy efficiency, policymakers said that we should start trying to be a little bit more efficient. And finally, earlier this month, we got a regulation implemented that basically, retailers, that most of these incandescent bulbs can’t be sold in the US anymore. And people will have to buy more efficient bulbs.

IRA FLATOW: But they’re doing that anyhow?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. A lot of retailers have already stopped selling these incandescent bulbs. And that’s because we have, for the most part, a better technology. And that’s light-emitting diodes.

They’ve been gaining ground over the past decade. Even though they were invented in the 1960s, only recently have they started becoming very competitive with incandescent bulbs in terms of how much light they can produce and also being able to have more features, things like being able to tune their brightness and their color temperature.

And so there’s a lot more versatility here. And they tend to last a lot longer. So there’s a number of benefits that are going for LEDs. But the researchers that I talked to said that we still haven’t availed ourselves of the full gamut of the benefits that we can get from LEDs. And so the future of lighting is actually going to look quite different.

We’ve been trying to make LEDs imitate incandescent bulbs for a long time. And now, if we actually let LEDs be LEDs, we can do some really interesting things like make them a lot smaller, weave them into fabrics. Rather than having distinct light fixtures, imagine just an entire wall or a ceiling that glows. We could diffuse and use lighting more precisely. And ironically, perhaps one of the biggest benefits of LEDs is that we can tune it more accurately to our sleeping and waking cycles, our circadian rhythms.

And this new generation of lighting could actually help us reclaim the dark and help us undo some of the unintended consequences of having so much lighting everywhere.

IRA FLATOW: Love it. Just another gadget I can play around with. OK. This next story might make your hair hurt a bit. It’s a discovery in a tiny subatomic particle called a muon. But it might have big implications.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. Muons are these subatomic particles, as you noted. They’re similar to electrons, but about 200 times heavier. And researchers at Fermilab, this particle accelerator near Chicago, were studying these particles. They were moving them in an accelerator close to the speed of light. And they noticed that there was this wobble that they detected in these particles. And when they went back to their formulas, and they did the math and crunched the numbers, they said this wobble could not be explained by the other forces of nature.

There are four fundamental forces in the universe that govern basically everything that we interact with. That’s gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force. This is part of the standard model. But these new results seem to defy that. There seems to be some other element at work.

And the scientists are really intrigued in trying to figure out what might be going on. Is there a fifth fundamental force that we didn’t know before.

IRA FLATOW: It just shows you how little we really know about how the universe works.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. It’s a reminder for scientists to be humble but also to leave their minds open to other possibilities. For a long time, the standard model was the main thing that scientists were excited about, because all the data kept lining up with it for a long time. And now they’re seeing something that doesn’t line up with it, which means they might have to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate just the fundamental makeup of the universe.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I love that. Well, we don’t know what the dark energy and dark matter is though. Small detail. OK. Let’s move on to a milestone in xenotransplantation using organs from animals in people. You have an update on a pig kidney.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. These researchers at NYU Langone Health reported this week that they were able to keep a pig kidney alive in a human donor for more than a month. And they say that they’re going to try to push that to another month. Now, this is a patient that was already brain dead, which means legally, they are not alive. But the other parts of their body are still viable.

And so what they did was they transplanted this pig kidney into this person’s body and saw that it continued to function. This pig kidney, though, was a little bit special. It came from a genetically-engineered pig so that it would be less likely to be rejected by the host. But the researchers here said that it was a very minimal genetic modification and also that they didn’t have to use that many more drugs to try to keep the body from rejecting it.

IRA FLATOW: So what is the ultimate goal here? Is it to be able to create a source of kidneys that could be transplanted into people?

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s definitely one possibility. We’re always hurting for viable organs. There are a lot more people that need donated organs than there are available in terms of our supply chain. And of course, when we talk about donated organs, you need to have it from a person that dies in a very specific way, in a way where their body does not have any kind of illness or infection and where their organs are kept alive but their brain is dead. And so that’s a very narrow donor pool.

So if we can source our organs from animals that we already harvest for other reasons, then that could potentially save a lot more lives.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Finally, something you don’t hear every day on Science Friday, we play Name That Tune. So let’s listen.


Woo. OK, Umair, what was that?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, that ghostly little tune was actually decoded music read directly from someone’s brain. Scientists reported this week in the journal PLOS Biology that they were able to plant electrodes directly into a patient’s brain and using the readings, they could decode and decipher the music that they were listening to.

IRA FLATOW: We have the original clip. Let’s listen to that.

[PINK FLOYD, “ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL”] All in all, it was just a brick in the wall.

That’s the Pink Floyd song, “Another Brick In The Wall.” That’s what they played. And then they listened to the brainwaves that came out. And this is what that sounded like.


Now that you know what the words are, you can make it out. Exactly.

UMAIR IRFAN: Exactly. So the researchers they said that by looking and listening to the decoded brainwaves they were able to pick up the rhythm guitar, the tempo, and even some of the words in this song. They studied 29 patients. These were patients who were already undergoing treatment for epilepsy.

And they used a fairly invasive technique. This involved putting electrodes directly on the surface of the brain. And so this is not something that they were doing just on a whim. They were doing this on patients who were already seeking treatment for something else.

But this shows that they were able to actually understand what parts of the brain interpret music. And by looking at how those parts of the brain process the signal, we can actually decode that signal as well. So potentially in the future, we might be able to interface brains with devices and be able to tell when you’re listening to a song in your head, could a computer maybe potentially play it back for you? That might be something that we could do in the future.

IRA FLATOW: Umair, we are now firmly into science fiction– not fiction anymore.

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, we’re in the science future.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a good way. Umair, thank you for taking time to be with us today. Have a good weekend.

UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me back, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Umair Irfan, science writer at Vox based in Washington DC.

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