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EPA accused of ‘egregious’ misconduct in PFAS testing of pesticides

US agency found PFOS and other types of PFAS in pesticides but failed to disclose those results, watchdog group allegesDocuments obtained from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate the agency may have presented false information to the public about testing for harmful contaminants in pesticides, according to allegations being made by a watchdog group and a former EPA research fellow.The claims come almost a year to the day after the EPA issued a May 2023 press release that stated the agency found no per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in testing of samples of certain insecticide products. The press release contradicted a published study by the former EPA researcher that had reported finding PFAS in the same pesticide products.This story is co-published with the New Lede, a journalism project of the Environmental Working Group Continue reading...

Documents obtained from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate the agency may have presented false information to the public about testing for harmful contaminants in pesticides, according to allegations being made by a watchdog group and a former EPA research fellow.The claims come almost a year to the day after the EPA issued a May 2023 press release that stated the agency found no per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in testing of samples of certain insecticide products. The press release contradicted a published study by the former EPA researcher that had reported finding PFAS in the same pesticide products.PFAS contamination is a hot topic in environmental and public health circles because certain types of PFAS are known to be very hazardous for human health, and world governments and public health advocates are pushing to sharply limit exposure to these types of chemicals. Accurate testing for PFAS contamination is key to regulating exposure, making the accuracy and transparency of EPA testing a critical issue.The allegations that the EPA incorrectly reported some PFAS test results were made Tuesday by the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer), led by former EPA employees.The Peer director of scientific policy Kyla Bennett said that the organization obtained pesticide product testing data from the EPA through a Freedom of Information Act (Foia) request. The documents they received back from the EPA showed the agency had indeed found PFAS in the tested products, directly contradicting the press release the agency had issued.“It’s pretty outrageous,” said Bennett. “You don’t get to just ignore the stuff that doesn’t support your hypothesis. That is not science. That is corruption. I can only think that they were getting pressure from pesticide companies.”Joining in the allegations is environmental toxicologist Steven Lasee, who authored the 2022 study that the EPA challenged. Lasee is a consultant for state and federal government agencies on PFAS contamination projects and participated as a research fellow for the EPA’s office of research and development from February 2021 to February 2023.Retraction soughtThe EPA declined to comment, saying “because these issues relate to a pending formal complaint process, EPA has no further information to provide”. But in past statements, the agency has presented itself as taking a tough stand on PFAS contamination. The agency recently finalized drinking water limits for PFAS and is classifying two types of PFAS as hazardous substances. And EPA administrator Michael Regan has stated publicly that the adverse health effects of PFAS “can devastate families”.The EPA has also recognized the potential for PFAS contamination of pesticides, focusing on pesticides that are stored in fluorinated high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers. Last year the agency ordered a prominent manufacturer to stop using PFAS chemicals when producing plastic containers for pesticides and other products.PFAS chemicals have been used by a variety of industries since the 1940s for such things as electronics manufacturing, oil recovery, paints, fire-fighting foams, cleaning products and non-stick cookware. Some types of PFAS have been linked to cancer, damage to the immune system, birth defects, delayed development in children and other health problems.In challenging the EPA over the testing issue, Peer submitted a letter to the agency demanding a correction of the EPA’s public statement about the pesticide product analyses and a retraction of the agency’s research memo on the matter.Peer alleges that as the EPA sought to refute Lasee’s study findings, the agency engaged in “egregious” misconduct and is “guilty of numerous departures from both accepted scientific and ethical practices”.The agency “provided misinformation to a national audience and intentionally damaged Dr Lasee,” the Peer complaint alleges.Questions about key findingsThe Lasee study that kicked off the fight with the EPA was published in November 2022 in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters. The study said a key finding was the detection of a very harmful type of PFAS known as perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) in six out of 10 insecticides used in cotton fields and in growing other crops, posing a contamination threat to agricultural areas.The EPA’s response to the study, released six months later, said the agency obtained samples of the same pesticide products from Lasee and also purchased additional products with the same registration numbers to analyze. The agency said unlike Lasee’s results, EPA scientists found no detectable levels of PFOS, nor any of 28 additional PFAS it screened for, and said its equipment and methodology were better than those used by Lasee.Those findings immediately raised questions about the validity of the testing, according to Lasee and Peer. One concern was that the EPA report did not identify any of the “matrix spike” of PFOS, which was intentionally added to the samples before they were analyzed.It is common in analytical chemistry to use a matrix spike as a type of quality-control to evaluate the performance of an analytical method. Lasee had not told the agency of the matrix spike, but if their methods were accurate, the agency scientists would have found the spike, he said.Numerous other flaws and deviations from scientific norms were seen in the testing analyses by the EPA, according to the Peer complaint.Another significant concern was that while the EPA publicly disclosed the results of two tests conducted on the pesticide product samples, the agency’s internal documents turned over to Peer in response to the Foia request showed the agency had actually conducted four tests.The documents show that one of the tests did find evidence of PFOS as well as other types of PFAS, which were not introduced as a matrix spike, Peer said.Peer said it is unclear why the EPA did not report the positive findings of PFAS in pesticides. Regardless, the “presence of PFAS in pesticides points to an appalling regulatory breakdown by EPA”, Peer states in its complaint.In a letter to Peer responding to some of the concerns raised, the EPA division director Anne Overstreet said the agency “remains confident in our findings” and said the agency’s scientists “maintained scientific integrity and is in compliance with established good laboratory practices”.Amid the uproar over his paper and the subsequent EPA testing, Lasee sought to reproduce his initial results but was unable to do so. That created enough doubt about his own methodology that he sought to retract his paper.Now, after seeing the EPA’s internal testing data showing the agency did find PFOS and other types of PFAS in pesticides but failed to disclose those results, he has a new level of doubt – over the credibility of the agency.“When you cherry pick data, you can make it say whatever you want it to say,” Lasee said.

Is it ethical to have children as climate change heats up our world?

Jade Sasser’s research explores one of the biggest questions facing the climate-conscious. Her new book focuses on the racial dimensions of eco-anxiety and reproduction decisions.

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.Jade S. Sasser has been studying reproductive choices in the context of climate change for a quarter century. Her 2018 book, “Infertile Ground,” explored how population growth in the Global South has been misguidedly framed as a crisis—a perspective that Sasser argues had its roots in long-standing racial stereotypes about sexuality and promiscuity.But during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sasser, an environmental scientist who teaches at the University of California, Riverside, started asking different questions, this time about reproductive choices in the Global North. In an era in which the planet is getting hotter by the day, she wondered, is it morally, ethically or practically sound to bring children into the world? And do such factors as climate anxiety, race and socio-economic status shape who decides to have kids and who doesn’t?The result is her latest book, “Climate Anxiety and the Kid Question,” which was published last month by the University of California Press and centers on a range of issues that are part of a broader conversation among those who try to practice climate-conscious decision-making.From the outset, Sasser cautions that her work does not attempt to draw any conclusions about what the future might hold or how concerns about global warming might affect population growth going forward.“This book is not predictive,” Sasser said in a recent interview with Inside Climate News. “It’s too soon to be able to say, ‘OK, these are going to be the trends. These people are not going to have children, or are going to have fewer children or this many, that many.’ We’re at the beginning of witnessing what could be a significant trend.”Sasser said that one of the most compelling findings of her research was how survey results showed that women of color were the demographic cohort that reported that they were most likely to have at least one child fewer than what they actually want because of climate change. “No other group in that survey responded that way,” Sasser said.Those survey results, Sasser said, underscore the prevalence of climate anxiety among communities of color. A Yale study published last year found that Hispanic Americans were five times as likely to experience feelings of climate change anxiety when compared to their white counterparts; Black Americans were twice as likely to have those feelings.“There is a really large assumption that we don’t experience climate anxiety,” said Sasser, who is African American. “And we do. How could we not? We experience most of the climate impacts first and worst. And the few surveys that have been done around people of color and climate emotions showed that Black and Latinx people feel more worry and more concerned about climate change than other groups.”Sasser, who also produced a seven-episode podcast as part of the project, said that she hopes her work can help fill what she sees as a void in the public’s awareness of climate anxiety in communities of color.“Every single thing I was reading just didn’t include us in the discussion at all,” Sasser said. “I found myself in conversations with people who were not people of color and they were saying, ‘Well, I think people of color are just more resilient and don’t feel climate anxiety. And this doesn’t factor into their reproductive lives.’ That’s just simply not true. But how would we know that without the research to tell us? But now I’ve started down that road, and I really, really hope that other researchers will take up the mantle and continue studying these questions in the context of race in the future.”Sasser recently sat down with Inside Climate News to talk about the book and how she uses her research to show how climate emotions land hardest on marginalized groups, people of color and low-income groups.This interview has been edited for clarity and length.How did you come to write “Climate and the Kid Question”?This is a book that I was not expecting to write. It was my pandemic pivot project. I was working on something very different, focused on household energy in the Global South. And then COVID happened and I could no longer travel. And so I had to turn to the things that I had been compiling as part of a project that I saw as being on the back burner.And what I had been compiling was articles about young women climate activists who were talking about not having children in response to climate change. And when I had first encountered these articles, I misunderstood them. I thought that these women were motivated by erroneous ideas about overpopulation, or that they weren’t having children because they thought there were too many people on the earth, things like that.But when I delved more deeply into what I was reading, I began to become aware of the whole world of eco-emotions and climate emotions. And that’s when I was introduced to the terms eco-anxiety and climate anxiety. And then I began to understand where these young people were coming from on a much, much deeper level. And so this book is my response to three years of research delving into climate emotions, distressing emotions, in particular, how those emotions are impacting how young people feel morally and ethically about having children, about raising children, about the future. And also what race and inequality have to do with it all.You’ve been studying issues of population growth for a while now, right? That was the focus of your first book, “On Infertile Ground.”I’ve been having those conversations for, I guess, 25 years now. And in those conversations, I’ve always been curious about what motivates young women to want or not want children, to have or not have them at any particular moment in time. And in the first book those questions centered around “how do these really large scale ideas and policies that are informed by ideas about overpopulation, overconsumption of resources, who should or should not have children?” I, at that time, was curious about how that was informing activism, and how everyday experience in places like Madagascar was shaped by that.This book is very different. What is different is that I focus on the United States. I also look at movements in Canada and in England, but I’m not looking at the Global South at all, intentionally. And the reason why is because people in the Global North—specifically the U.S. and Canada and Britain—have really different perspectives on personal reproductive behavior and environmental issues. And what is different is here you have a lot of young people who are very climate aware and climate literate.They’re reading the science. They’re taking environmental studies classes. They’re asking questions about what this means for their personal lives, and they’re making decisions about their personal lives based on what they anticipate is coming in the future. And to see the racial inequality and socio-economic inequality as it shapes those questions—it’s very context specific.And I wanted to get into that context specific stuff here in the United States, because I think it’s really easy for some people to skim over that. I’ve read articles and op-eds in the past saying things like, well, “people in the United States are worried about having children in the context of climate change.” And it makes sense because people in the U.S. over-consume resources. So people in the U.S. are not all the same. We’re not all having the same experiences. We don’t occupy the same social location. We are not impacted by climate change in the same ways.And so I wanted to really shine a light on how social inequality right here makes the experience of climate change and climate injustice very, very difficult for people of color. And how those climate inequalities and climate impacts land on the mental health and emotional health of people of color. And how people of color feel differently about bringing children into the world as a result.Are you a mother? Do you have children? The decision of having a child is such a personal one.I’m not a mother. I think actually that it’s a personal decision that has been made political for so long. And I think that the way that most people talk and write about this issue is that they are actively saying do or don’t. Unfortunately, most environmentalists throughout the history of environmentalism have fallen on the side of saying don’t have children. And I think that has been a very dangerous thing to say in particular, because those that they’ve been telling not to have children have tended to be low-income people and people of color.I think that the other thing is one of the arguments I make in the book that you’ll see is that I personally don’t actually think that this is private. And what I mean by that is the conditions of climate change, which are the conditions that young people today are living in as they make their reproductive decisions. Those aren’t private. Those aren’t personal. Those are public. Those are big public actions that these big actors, corporations and governments and militaries are taking. And we are all living in this big collective shared experience of climate change. And if that’s the social circumstance in which you have to think about whether to have kids or not, it’s really not a private decision.You have to respond to the big social conditions you’re living in. And when people take it on as a private issue or a personal matter, that tends to lead to more feelings of guilt or stigma or like they’re doing something wrong or like there’s something wrong with them for perhaps not wanting to have kids. And so I actually advocate for having this conversation more in public. And really placing responsibility on those who deserve it. And that is the big corporate actors, the fossil fuel companies, the military and governments, government actors, elected officials, who are not creating and supporting climate-forward legislation.In terms of research, the study of climate emotions is still fairly new, right?So, climate emotions have really only been studied in the last 20 years. And as they’re being studied, they are ramping up in real time. So climate emotions are any kind of emotional changes or emotional impact that results from how people experience—either learning about, or living through, or anticipating—the impacts of climate change. So those who don’t necessarily ever experience evacuation from a wildfire or hurricane or flood might still be deeply distressed by climate impacts.If they’re reading the science, they’re looking at the reports or, you know, they’re watching TV, or engrossed in social media and hearing about other people who are experiencing those things. And what climate emotions researchers have been uncovering is that this emotional distress lands hardest on younger people, especially Generation Z.What those researchers have studied less of, and what I do in this book, is understand how other groups, particularly socially marginalized groups, people of color and low-income groups are also people on whom those climate emotions land hardest. And when I say climate emotions, distressing emotions, include things like anxiety, depression, grief, sadness, fear and other emotions like that.How does race play a factor in how we all process those emotions?What I found in a survey that I conducted, doing this research is that for people of color, the most distressing emotions were reported by people of color, who in a statistically significant way, most identified feeling traumatized by the impact of climate change. They also reported feeling fear more so than white respondents.And they also reported feeling overwhelmed. And that came out a lot in interviews, too. What I was not anticipating—but this is also significant—is that when it came to parenting in the midst of climate change, people of color in my study were most likely to report positive or action-oriented emotions, including feeling motivated, feeling determined, feeling a sense of happiness or optimism. Because that was a quantitative survey, I wasn’t able to ask questions about why those positive emotions were there.But I can only imagine that it’s because people of color really have long histories of facing existential threat. Black and Indigenous people, in particular, have had to develop tools to become resilient, to become resilient within community, within family and within social movements. And so I can only imagine that those responses of motivation, joy, determination and happiness come from that sense of “we will survive, we will endure and whatever future is ahead we will be—and we will find a way to thrive.”So, does your work really underscore the importance of African Americans and communities of color—in the face of these threats—drawing strength from family?Not just family. We can trace a long history in the United States of Black people, literally, facing threats to our existence, from literally the earliest days of being in this country through slavery. And so one of the things that has always been a really important institution to protect us from the harms of the outside world is family, and not just family, but multigenerational family. And for us, that often includes chosen family.We all have “play cousins,” “play aunties,” “play uncles”—people who are not biological kin. But the lack of biological relationship does not matter at all. They are members of the family. Building and sustaining those multi-generational ties has always been important to strengthen us, not just against big existential threats, but to strengthen us in a society in which we often don’t have the necessary resources and social supports that we need.We often have the absence of a social safety net to provide for us in the ways that we need to be provided for. Other institutions provide those supports, as well. The church, for example. Say what you want about the Black church—there are challenges, there have always been challenges, but the Black church has been a really important institution in the lives of African Americans, not just for religious reasons, but for social reasons. It was a very important institution throughout the civil rights movement.And it provides a space of safety, solace and community as a buffer against a lot of the challenges of the outside world. How does all of this come back to climate anxiety and the kid question? Well, when you don’t have research that includes African Americans, for example, then you tend to assume that we don’t experience climate anxiety or that, if we do, it doesn’t have any impact on kid questions for us. And that’s not true.We can’t make that assumption, [but] people do make that assumption in the absence of research. And this research is the first and only of its kind that asks these questions and puts race at the center. And why did I want to do that? I wanted to establish an evidence base so that we are not left out of the discussion when it comes to climate, mental health and the kinds of resources that will be provided to communities to respond to the negative mental health impacts of climate change. And I also don’t want us to be left out of the discussion of how climate mental health impacts do, or potentially, will impact reproductive changes. I just want us to be in the discussion, and we can’t be if we’re left out of the research.What was the most surprising finding in your research? And what does all of this mean for the future?The thing that surprised me most, this came out in interviews, is that among some young people—especially those who have taken environmental studies classes in college or were environmental studies majors—there is more and more peer pressure to not have kids, and I was not expecting that. I was expecting to hear things along the lines of, “I really want kids, but I feel like I can’t have them. The world is a scary place, you know, climate change is getting worse.”And I did hear that a lot. But I expected that to be the overwhelming sentiment and what I heard, a number of times and was always surprised, was that, some people I interviewed said, “Well, when I talk to my friends and I say that I want children or that I want a large family, their response is ‘Eww, why would you want that? That’s awful.’” I was not expecting anti-child peer pressure among Gen Z. I did not anticipate that. Those are people who are planning to have one less child. Planning and behavior are not the same thing.So, you know, no one can predict what they will actually do. What does this mean for the future? I think that’s exactly the right question to ask, and none of us can predict. But what we need for the future is for our young people to feel excited and hopeful about the future that’s ahead of them, and to feel empowered to make the decisions that would make them happy in their lives, whether that is having children, adopting children, step-parenting or not being in children’s lives at all.So, for me and for people I interviewed, it’s not fundamentally about babies or about children. That is a way, a high stakes way of getting us to what it fundamentally is about, which is how can we aggressively fight climate change right now and combat lackadaisical attitudes or profit-driven attitudes that really just favor business as usual, because ultimately the problem that needs to be solved is not climate anxiety, it’s climate change. Climate anxiety is a normal, natural response to climate change. Let’s fight and solve climate change, and then you won’t have the thing to be anxious about.

Extreme Heat Exacerbates Brain Conditions from Alzheimer's to Migraines to Strokes

Extreme heat caused by climate change can exacerbate a variety of neurological ailments, from Alzheimer’s disease to migraines to epilepsy, new research shows

CLIMATEWIRE | A broad range of brain conditions, from migraines to strokes, are made worse by extreme heat, new research shows.The most direct impact of high temperatures is that they can mess with the brain’s wiring. But extreme heat creates a variety of other problems, too, for those diagnosed with epilepsy, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases, according to a May study from 24 researchers published in The Lancet Neurology journal.The human brain does best when outside temperatures are between 68 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit, said Sanjay Sisodiya, the lead author of the study and a neurologist at University College London. It’s where “we feel thermally comfortable without having to do additional things.”On supporting science journalismIf you're enjoying this article, consider supporting our award-winning journalism by subscribing. By purchasing a subscription you are helping to ensure the future of impactful stories about the discoveries and ideas shaping our world today.But if the “temperature's taken out of that range,” he added, then the way the body’s components interact “can be disrupted.”A scientist not affiliated with The Lancet Neurology study made a similar observation.While the brain’s temperature “is really well regulated,” excessive outside temperatures distort some of the brain’s support network — especially for those of advanced age, said George Perry, a biology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.“At high temperatures you have less oxygen being transported and [altering] metabolic processes to end up stressing a lot of different systems that keep the brain functioning normally," he said.Perry was one of the first scientists to speculate about the link between climate change and neurological disorders back in the early 2010s.The new study says impaired communication between brain cells can result from heat-induced “dehydration, electrolyte losses, and psychological intolerance of heat.”As part of their research, Sisodiya and his co-authors surveyed 332 academic papers. They found extreme heat had “broad and complex adverse effects” on a variety of brain conditions — sometimes for very different reasons.For example, Sisodiya said that heat waves themselves can contribute to strokes, but extreme heat also is associated with increased pollution that compounds the probability of having a stroke. High temperatures also can interrupt sleep and disrupt supply chains for medication.The study found that climate change can influence factors such as “admissions to hospital for psychiatric disorders, or vector range extension and sociopolitical upheaval” that might indirectly aggravate mental disease systems.One indirect example Sisodiya cited was epilepsy.“When the temperature at night is elevated,” he said, “many people find they can't sleep properly. If you can't sleep properly, then, for some people with epilepsy, that can increase the number of seizures they have.”A 2023 paper published in Health Science Reports that was not reviewed by Sisodiya’s team found those minor disruptions can impact almost everyone’s mental health: “High temperatures can increase discomfort, interfere with sleep, and alter daily routines, potentially leading to an escalation in stress, anxiety, and even cognitive impairment if unattended.”But while some consequences won’t outlast a given heat wave, others “can prove lethal for many people,” Sisodiya said.He cited one of the studies the team surveyed, published in 2006 by the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, when saying: “In the 2003 European heat wave, around 20 percent of the excess deaths were of people with neurological conditions.” In comparison, only 10 percent of the population had a neurological disease.Sisodiya added that the 2022 heat waves also resulted in a high proportion of heat-related deaths in the U.K. “due to neurological conditions.”The British Office for National Statistics reported that “dementia and Alzheimer's disease was the leading cause of excess deaths in England and Wales during 2022 heat-periods.” Their figures showed the two illnesses could have represented 27 percent of excess heat-related deaths.The mounting data has put health authorities on alert. Agencies now warn that people with dementia face additional risks in the heat.“Dementia is a risk factor for hospitalization and death during heat waves,” the CDC said on its website. “Hot weather poses a risk for patients with severe mental illness like schizophrenia, as medications may affect temperature regulation.”Perry cautions that climate change may go beyond agitating existing brain disease symptoms: It is likely to create more patients — at least with Alzheimer’s. “The main part of the pathology is stress responses of the brain,” Perry said.“Heat stress,” he said, “is going to push people to convert from normal aging to Alzheimer’s disease with greater frequency.”Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2024. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

Convening for cultural change

At MIT and internationally, senior Cindy Xie works to bring people together for the health of humanity and the planet.

Whether working with fellow students in the Netherlands to design floating cities or interning for a local community-led environmental justice organization, Cindy Xie wants to help connect people grappling with the implications of linked social and environmental crises.The MIT senior’s belief that climate action is a collective endeavor grounded in systems change has led her to work at a variety of community organizations, and to travel as far as Malaysia and Cabo Verde to learn about the social and cultural aspects of global environmental change.“With climate action, there is such a need for collective change. We all need to be a part of creating the solutions,” she says.Xie recently returned from Kuala Lumpur, where she attended the Planetary Health Annual Meeting hosted by Sunway University, and met researchers, practitioners, and students from around the world who are working to address challenges facing human and planetary health.Since January 2023, Xie has been involved with the Planetary Health Alliance, a consortium of organizations working at the intersection of human health and global environmental change. As a campus ambassador, she organized events at MIT that built on students’ interests in climate change and health while exploring themes of community and well-being.“I think doing these events on campus and bringing people together has been my way of trying to understand how to put conceptual ideas into action,” she says.Grassroots community-buildingAn urban studies and planning major with minors in anthropology and biology, Xie is also earning her master’s degree in city planning in a dual degree program, which she will finish next year.Through her studies and numerous community activities, she has developed a multidimensional view of public health and the environment that includes spirituality and the arts as well as science and technology. “What I appreciate about being here at MIT is the opportunities to try to connect the sciences back to other disciplines,” she says.As a campus ambassador for the Planetary Health Alliance, Xie hosted a club mixer event during Earth Month last year, that brought together climate, health, and social justice groups from across the Institute. She also created a year-long series that concluded its final event last month, called Cultural Transformation for Planetary Health. Organized with the Radius Forum and other partners, the series explored social and cultural implications of the climate crisis, with a focus on how environmental change affects health and well-being.Xie has also worked with the Planetary Health Alliance’s Constellation Project through a Public Service Fellowship from the PKG Center, which she describes as “an effort to convene people from across different areas of the world to talk about the intersections of spirituality, the climate, and environmental change and planetary health.”She has also interned at the Comunidades Enraizadas Community Land Trust, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Wildlife Fund U.S. Markets Institute. And, she has taken her studies abroad through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). In 2023 she spent her Independent Activities Period in a pilot MISTI Global Classroom program in Amsterdam, and in the summer of 2023, she spent two months in Cabo Verde helping to start a new research collaboration tracking the impacts of climate change on human health.The power of storytellingGrowing up, Xie was drawn to storytelling as a means of understanding the intersections of culture and health within diverse communities. This has largely driven her interest in medical anthropology and medical humanities, and impacts her work as a member of the Asian American Initiative.The AAI is a student-led organization that provides a space for pan-Asian advocacy and community building on campus. Xie joined the group in 2022 and currently serves as a member of the executive board as well as co-leader of the Mental Health Project Team. She credits this team with inspiring discussions on holistic framings of mental health.“Conversations on mental health stigma can sometimes frame it as a fault within certain communities,” she says. “It’s also important to highlight alternate paradigms for conceptualizing mental health beyond the highly individualized models often presented in U.S. higher education settings.”Last spring, the AAI Mental Health team led a listening tour with Asian American clinicians, academic experts, and community organizations in Greater Boston, expanding the group’s connections. That led the group to volunteer last November at the Asian Mental Health Careers Day, hosted by the Let’s Talk! Conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In March, the club also traveled to Yale University to participate in the East Coast Asian American Student Union Conference alongside hundreds of attendees from different college campuses.On campus, the team hosts dialogue events where students convene in an informal setting to discuss topics such as family ties and burnout and overachievement. Recently, AAI also hosted a storytelling night in partnership with MIT Taara and the newly formed South Asian Initiative. “There’s been something really powerful about being in those kinds of settings and building collective stories among peers,” Xie says.Community connectionsWriting, both creative and non-fiction, is another of Xie’s longstanding interests. From 2022 to 2023, she wrote for The Yappie, a youth-led news publication covering Asian American and Pacific Islander policy and politics. She has also written articles for The Tech, MIT Science Policy Review, MISTI Blogs, and more. Last year, she was a spread writer for MIT’s fashion publication, Infinite Magazine, for which she interviewed the founder of a local streetwear company that aims to support victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.This year, she performed a spoken word piece in the “MIT Monologues,” an annual production at MIT that features stories of gender, relationships, race, and more. Her poetry was recently published in Sine Theta and included in MassPoetry’s 2024 Intercollegiate Showcase. Xie has previously been involved in the a capella group MIT Muses and enjoys live music and concerts as well. Tapping into her 2023 MISTI experience, Xie recently went to the concert of a Cabo Verdean artist at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. “The crowd was packed,” she says. “It was just like being back in Cabo Verde. I feel very grateful to have seen these local connections.”After graduating, Xie hopes to continue building interdisciplinary connections. “I’m interested in working in policy or academia or somewhere in between the two, sort of around this idea of partnership and alliance building. My experiences abroad during my time at MIT have also made me more interested in working in an international context in the future.”

How Plant Biology Could Revolutionize Renewable Energy

New research has revealed that the hydraulic systems of plants generate a streaming electric potential in sync with their circadian rhythms, presenting innovative opportunities for...

A groundbreaking study demonstrates that plants can generate electricity that varies with their circadian rhythms, opening up new possibilities for environmentally sustainable energy production. Credit: Aniruddha Guha, editedNew research has revealed that the hydraulic systems of plants generate a streaming electric potential in sync with their circadian rhythms, presenting innovative opportunities for sustainable energy production.When plants draw water from their roots to nourish their stems and leaves, they produce an electric potential that could be harnessed as a renewable energy source. However, like all living things, plants are subject to a circadian rhythm — the biological clock that runs through day and night cycles and influences biological processes. In plants, this daily cycle includes capturing light energy for photosynthesis and absorbing water and nutrients from the soil during the day, and slowing its growth processes at night.Study Insights on Electrical Potential in PlantsIn a new study published this week in Physics of Fluids, by AIP Publishing, the researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur detailed how biological processes produce voltage in plants and the impact of the cyclic day and night changes on this voltage.“This streaming potential, essentially a consequence of the natural energy gathered in the plant, offers a renewable energy source that is continuous and can be sustainable over long periods,” author Suman Chakraborty said. “The question we wanted to answer was how much potential it can produce, and how is electric potential influenced by the plant’s biological clock?” Plant hydraulics drive the biological process that moves fluids from roots to plant stems and leaves, creating streaming electric potential, or voltage, in the process. This study closely examined the differences in voltage caused by the concentrations of ions, types of ions, and pH of the fluid plants transport, tying the voltage changes to the plant’s circadian rhythm that causes adjustments day and night. According to the authors, this consistent, cyclic voltage creation could be harnessed as an energy source. Credit: Aniruddha GuhaMethodology and DiscoveriesTo find out, the authors inserted electrodes into the stems of water hyacinths and attached reservoirs with electrodes to pieces of lucky bamboo to closely examine how electrical potential changes depending on types of ions, ion concentration, and the pH of the fluid flowing through the plants.“Our eureka moment was when our first experiments showed it is possible to produce electricity in a cyclic rhythm and the precise linkage between this and the plant’s inherent daily rhythm,” Chakraborty said. “We could exactly pinpoint how this is related to water transpiration and the ions the plant carries via the ascent of sap.”The study quantified the voltage response originating from the movement of ions through the plant’s pathways that align uniquely with the plant’s daily rhythms.Potential for Sustainable Energy HarvestingThe authors discovered plants can actively moderate the flow of fluid or sap in sync with the day and night cycles. They also found the electric streaming potential increases with decreased concentration of ions or increased pH in the fluid.“We not only rediscovered the plant’s electrical rhythm, articulating it in terms of voltages and currents, but we also provided insight into potentially tapping electrical power output from plants in a sustainable manner with no environmental impact and no disruption to the ecosystem,” Chakraborty said.“The findings could help develop biomimetic, nature-inspired systems that can address the global energy crisis with an eco-friendly, sustainable solution in which planting a tree not only relieves the crises of climate change and declining environmental quality, but also provides a way to harness electricity from it.”Reference: “How does the diurnal biological clock influence electrokinetics in a living plant?” by Aniruddha Guha, Saumyadwip Bandyopadhyay, Chirodeep Bakli, and Suman Chakraborty, 28 May 2024, Physics of Fluids. DOI: 10.1063/5.0195088

Is America Ready for ‘Degrowth Communism’?

Kohei Saito’s theory of how to solve climate change is economically dubious and politically impossible. Why is it so popular?

Kohei Saito knows he sounds like a madman. That’s kind of the point, the Japanese philosopher told me during a recent visit to New York City. “Maybe, then, people get shocked,” he said. “What’s this crazy guy saying?”The crazy idea is “degrowth communism,” a combination of two concepts that are contentious on their own. Degrowth holds that there will always be a correlation between economic output and carbon emissions, so the best way to fight climate change is for wealthy nations to cut back on consumption and reduce the “material throughput” that creates demand for energy and drives GDP.The degrowth movement has swelled in recent years, particularly in Europe and in academic circles. The theory has dramatic implications. Instead of finding carbon-neutral ways to power our luxurious modern lifestyles, degrowth would require us to surrender some material comforts. One leading proponent suggests imposing a hard cap on total national energy use, which would ratchet down every year. Energy-intensive activities might be banned outright or taxed to near oblivion. (Say goodbye, perhaps, to hamburgers, SUVs, and your annual cross-country flight home for the holidays.) You’d probably be prohibited from setting the thermostat too cold in summer or too warm in winter. To keep frivolous spending down, the government might decide which products are “wasteful” and ban advertising for them. Slower growth would require less labor, so the government would shorten the workweek and guarantee a job for every person.Saito did not invent degrowth, but he has put his own spin on it by adding the C word.As for what kind of “communism” we’re talking about, Saito tends to emphasize workers’ cooperatives and generous social-welfare policies rather than top-down Leninist state control of the economy. He says he wants democratic change rather than revolution—though he’s fuzzy on how exactly you get people to vote for shrinkage.This message has found an enthusiastic audience. Saito’s 2020 book, Capital in the Anthropocene, sold half a million copies. He took a job at the prestigious University of Tokyo and became a regulator commentator on Japanese TV—one of the few far-left talking heads in that country’s conservative media sphere. When we met up in April, he was touring the northeastern U.S. to promote the new English translation of the book, titled Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto, and planning to appear on a series of panels at Georgetown University to discuss his ideas. One day during his New York stint, we visited the pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University, where a young protester named Tianle Zhang spotted him and waved him over, telling Saito he’s the reason he’s applying to graduate school. They took a selfie together and Saito posted it on X.Saito’s haters are just as passionate as his admirers. The right-wing podcaster James Lindsay recently dedicated a three-hour episode to what he called Saito’s “death cult.” Liberals who favor renewable energy and other technologies say Saito’s ideas would lead to stagnation. On the pro-labor left, Jacobin magazine published multiple pieces criticizing degrowth in general and Saito in particular, calling his vision a “political disaster” that would hurt the working class. And don’t get the Marxist textualists started; they accuse Saito of distorting the great man’s words in order to portray Marx as the OG degrowth communist.It’s understandable why Saito provokes so much ire: He rejects the mainstream political consensus that the best way to fight climate change is through innovation, which requires growth. But no matter how many times opponents swat it down, the idea of degrowth refuses to die. Perhaps it survives these detailed, technical refutations because its very implausibility is central to its appeal.Economic growth, the French economist Daniel Cohen has written, is the religion of the modern world. Growth is the closest thing to an unalloyed good as exists in politics or economics. It’s good for the rich, and it’s good for the poor. It’s good if you believe inequality is too high, and if you think inequality doesn’t matter. Deciding how to distribute wealth is complicated, but in theory it gets easier when there’s more wealth to distribute. Growth is the source of legitimacy for governments across the political spectrum: Keep us in power, and we’ll make your life better.Japan has worshipped as devoutly as anyone. After the country’s defeat in World War II, GDP replaced military might as a source of national pride. Japan’s economy grew at a rate of nearly 10 percent until the 1970s and remained strong through the 1980s as its automotive and electronics industries boomed. So when the Asian financial bubble burst and the Japanese economy collapsed in the early 1990s, the country faced not just an economic crisis, but a crisis of meaning. If Japan wasn’t growing, what was it?[Read: Does the economy really need to stop growing quite so much?]Saito was born in 1987, just before the crash, and he grew up in a time of stagnation. As a student at a private all-boys secondary school, his politics were moderate, he says. He thought of problems like inequality and consumerism in terms of individual moral failings rather than as the consequences of policy choices. But the war in Iraq got him reading Noam Chomsky, college introduced him to Marx, and the 2008 financial crisis spurred him to question the capitalist system. Saito briefly enrolled at the University of Tokyo, but transferred to Wesleyan University, which he found insufficiently radical, on a scholarship. He graduated in 2009.The 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster at Fukushima pushed Saito to reconsider humanity’s relationship with nature. “Fukushima caused me to question whether technology and the increase of productive forces create a better society,” he said. “The answer was no.”Saito moved to Berlin and got his Ph.D. at Humboldt University, where he studied Marx’s views on ecology. In 2016, he published an academic treatise on Marx’s “ecosocialism,” the English translation of which won the prestigious Deutscher Memorial Prize for books in the Marxist tradition.Around that time, the idea of degrowth, which had been kicking around environmentalist circles for decades, was gaining steam in Europe. Saito started reading thinkers such as Tim Jackson, Giorgos Kallis, and Kate Raworth, all of whom argued that there are planetary boundaries we can’t exceed without causing mayhem. Thinkers since Thomas Malthus had been talking about limits to humanity’s expansion—sometimes with disturbing implications, as in Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb, which described with disgust a teeming Delhi slum. But degrowthers identified the pursuit of GDP as the culprit, arguing that it fails to account for all kinds of human flourishing. Greta Thunberg amplified the degrowth message further when she mocked capitalist society’s “fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”Japan was a ripe target for these ideas. For decades, the country had been mired in low and sometimes even negative growth. The problem was no longer new, and the government’s proposed solutions—negative interest rates; trying to boost worker productivity—were losing their appeal. “A lot of young people feel like, I don’t want to work endless overtime and give up my family life and all my hobbies just to serve a corporation until I die,” says Nick Kapur, an associate professor at Rutgers University at Camden who studies modern Japanese history. “For what? Just to grow our GDP?”  Saito saw an opening: to connect degrowth with the Marxist ideas that he had been studying closely for years. Degrowth on its own had bad branding, he told me between bites of Beyond Burger at Tom’s Restaurant in Morningside Heights. The solution, he said with a grin, was to add “another very negative term: communism.”When we met, Saito had traded his usual blazer and clean-cut look for an oversize denim jacket and a boy-band tousle. He has a disarming sense of humor: When he signs a book, he stamps it with a cartoon image of himself alongside Marx. But he’s serious about the need to embrace degrowth communism. He argues, not unreasonably, that degrowth is incompatible with capitalism, which encourages individuals to act selfishly and grow their riches. “Many people criticize neoliberalism,” Saito said. “But they don’t criticize capitalism. So that’s why we have ethical capitalism, sustainable capitalism, green capitalism.” Degrowth communism instead targets what Saito says is the root cause of our climate woes—capitalism itself—rather than just the symptoms, and prioritizes the public good over profit.While degrowthers and Marxists have plenty of intellectual overlap, the match has always been an awkward one. Marx is generally considered pro-growth: He wanted to leverage the productive tools of capitalism to bring about a socialist future in which the fruits of that production would be fairly distributed. Saito, however, rejects that “Promethean” characterization of Marx. In Capital in the Anthropocene, he instead argues that Marx converted late in life from productivism to, yes, degrowth communism. To make his case, Saito cites some of Marx’s lesser-known writings, including a draft of his 1881 letter to the Russian revolutionary writer Vera Zasulich and Critique of the Gotha Programme, which was published after Marx’s death.Saito’s book is a mishmash of political polemic, cultural criticism, and obscure Marxist exegesis. He calls individual actions like using a thermos instead of plastic water bottles “meaningless,” and mocks the UN Sustainable Development Goals, dismissing them and other market-friendly solutions as “the opiate of the masses.” Instead of relying on technology alone to save humanity, he argues, wealthy countries need to give up their consumerist lifestyles and redistribute their resources to poor countries to help them navigate the transition to a slower global economy. He advocates transitioning away from capitalism toward a “sharing economy,” and offers a mix of solutions both modest and bold. Workers should own their businesses. Citizens should control local energy production. Also: “What if Uber were publicly owned, turning its platform into a commons?” Saito argues that this arrangement would produce not scarcity but “radical abundance” as we freed ourselves from the obligation to generate ever-higher profits: “There will be more opportunities to do sports, go hiking, take up gardening, and get back in touch with nature. We will have time once again to play guitar, paint pictures, read … Compared to cramming ourselves into crowded subways every morning and eating our deli lunches in front of our computers as we work nonstop for hours and hours every day, this is clearly a richer lifestyle.”On a superficial level, Saito put a fresh young face on old environmentalist ideas. Well spoken and self-deprecating, he didn’t have the off-putting self-seriousness of many ideologues. After years of ineffective stimulus and grind culture, Saito’s ideas may have intrigued Japanese audiences looking for “the opposite of the status quo,” Nick Kapur told me. Saito’s analysis also offered a kind of tonic for Japan’s national neurosis around slow growth: What if this is good, actually? On a recent Saturday, Saito sat onstage at the People’s Forum, a community center in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, along with three other panelists: a historian, a geographer, and a journalist from The New Republic. It was a friendly crowd, but each of the panelists cast gentle doubt on Saito’s pitch. The historian said he’d like to see more modeling of the impact of degrowth policies; the geographer wondered how a degrowth agenda would ever expand beyond small, local experiments; and the journalist, Kate Aronoff, suggested that degrowth had a branding problem.Saito had just begun his U.S. tour, and he was already encountering more resistance than he’d expected. “One thing surprising about American culture is they’re really anti-degrowth,” Saito told me after the event, as we walked along a chaotic stretch of 9th Avenue. When an American writer recently laced into him online, Saito’s European friends came to his defense. But here he was more isolated.The simplest case against degrowth is that it’s not necessary. The prospect of boosting GDP while reducing emissions—known as “decoupling”—used to look like a moon shot. But now it’s happening. In more than 30 countries, including the United States and much of Europe, emissions are declining while GDP climbs, even when you factor in the “consumption-based emissions” generated in places that manufacture goods for rich countries. Solar and wind are cheaper in the U.S. than fossil fuels. Electric vehicles, for all their struggles, will make up half of global car sales by 2035, according to one recent estimate. Decoupling still isn’t happening nearly fast enough to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, but green-growthers argue that we can speed up the process with enough investment. “It’s easy to say we need a socialist revolution to solve the climate crisis, but that’s not going to happen in the timescale,” says Robert Pollin, a progressive economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who co-authored a book with Noam Chomsky on the Green New Deal.Other detractors say that degrowth would be actively harmful. It’s one thing to ask billionaires to cut back, but what about everyone else? Are they supposed to abandon hope of raising their standard of living? Saito includes working-class Americans in his indictment of the “imperial mode of living” that he blames for carbon emissions. This was too much for Matt Huber, a professor of geography at Syracuse University, and the left-leaning climate journalist Leigh Phillips, who co-wrote an article for Jacobin accusing Saito of doing “capital’s work” by “dividing the international working class against itself.”Perhaps the most vicious reads of Saito target his interpretation of Marx. In the eyes of his critics, his reliance on a handful of passages in order to prove that Marx embraced degrowth communism amounts to a kind of fan fiction. One otherwise-sympathetic scholar wrote in a Marxist journal that the evidence Saito marshals is “simply not very convincing.” Huber and Leigh describe various claims about Marx’s views made by Saito as “wild,” “remarkable,” and “unsubstantiated.” Even John Bellamy Foster, the University of Oregon sociology professor who pioneered Marxist ecological studies in the 1990s and published Saito’s first book, told an interviewer that “no concrete evidence could be found of Marx actually advocating what could reasonably be called degrowth” and called Saito’s analysis “profoundly ahistorical.” (Saito responded in an email that Huber and Phillips “never read Marx’s notebooks that I investigate. Thus, they are not in a position to judge whether my claims are unsubstantiated because I am rereading Marx’s texts based on new materials.” As for Foster’s criticism, Saito wrote: “​​Marx never used the terms like degrowth, sustainability, and ecology. It is an attempt to push beyond Marx’s thought because there is no necessity to dogmatize Marx and he did not complete his work.”)The question of whether Marx was a degrowther is academic—and so is degrowth itself, unless it can find a viable political path. Right now, that path is murky at best. The next politician to win reelection by urging voters to accept a lower standard of living will be the first. In the U.S., policies like a carbon tax and a national cap-and-trade program are dead on arrival. Even in Europe, farmers are protesting environmental regulations that they say erode their livelihoods. In today’s politics, proposing sacrifice seems like an obvious form of political suicide that would only empower politicians who don’t care about climate change.Saito nonetheless insists that degrowth is politically possible. It starts small, he says, with workers’ cooperatives and citizens’ assemblies, and then spreads from city to city. Europe is already taking the lead, he says: Amsterdam recently banned building new hotels, while Paris restricted parking for SUVs. (One could fairly ask whether these are degrowth policies or just traditional forms of regulation.) The Spanish government has piloted a four-day workweek, Barcelona has introduced car-free “superblocks,” and the Spanish city of Girona has begun to explore how to implement “post-growth policies.” Saito says success is simply a matter of convincing a critical mass of citizens to push for degrowth. He cites the statistic popularized by the Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth that it only takes 3.5 percent of the population protesting to enact change.Isn’t expecting rich countries to act against their own interests a little optimistic? “Oh, yeah,” Saito said. “But the capitalist alternative is much more optimistic.” For Saito, the long-term alternative to degrowth communism is not green growth but “climate fascism,” in which countries lock down, hoard their resources, and disregard the collective good. Faced with that prospect, humanity will make the right choice. “As a philosopher,” he said, “I want to believe in the universality of reason.”Saito does propose a few concrete fixes: Ban private jets. Get rid of advertising for harmful goods and services, such as cosmetic surgery. Enact a four-day workweek. Encourage people to own one car, instead of two or three. Require shopping malls to close on Sundays, to cut down on the time available for excessive consumption. “These things won’t necessarily dismantle capitalism,” he said. “But it’s something we can do over the long term to transform our values and culture.”Of course, transforming values might be the heaviest lift of all. “Changing people’s preferences is really hard,” Dietrich Vollrath, an economist at the University of Houston who studies growth, told me. “You don’t need to change people’s preferences if you just make solar really cheap.” The Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman, who wrote The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, says people fundamentally care about raising their material living standards and always will. “Trying to reform humanity is not a project of much interest to economists,” he told me. “We talk about what to do, not how to wish for another form of human being.”Saito admits that he might be overshooting. He isn’t expecting countries to scale down in the next decade, but maybe after that. He’s not opposed to green-energy subsidies; he just wants degrowth to be part of the conversation. He emphasized that his ideas aren’t designed with realism in mind. “I’m not an activist,” he said. “I’m a scholar.” His job is to provide the theory behind the change. Making it work is up to others.Degrowthers like Saito seem to be caught in a double dilemma. They bristle at the suggestion that degrowth would take us back to premodern standards of living—yet in trying to dispel that notion, they narrow their vision so far that it resembles business-as-usual left-of-center politics. A typical rundown of degrowth policies looks like a wish list from the Democratic Socialists of America: health care for all, universal basic income, a smaller military, mutual aid, better public transportation, decolonization, and so on. Adherents reject the view that degrowth would require some authoritarian power to impose it, but have yet to articulate a political plan besides changing one mind at a time.“At bottom it’s not actually an evidence-based agenda,” Ted Nordhaus, the founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute and self-described “eco-modernist,” told me. “It’s sort of a worldview and a vibe.”And yet, for many, the vibe hits. Degrowth captures a core truth of the fight against climate change: What we’re doing is not enough and might even be making things worse. Degrowth might fail too, but in the eyes of its supporters, at least it’s directionally correct. It’s the protest vote of climate activism.While in D.C., Saito co-headlined a workshop with a few dozen students at Georgetown, where they discussed degrowth. The group was mostly in favor, according to two students who attended. Fiona Naughton, a rising sophomore who studies international labor policy, told me she and many of her peers find Saito’s ideas inspiring. “A lot of us have felt such immense climate anxiety and considered whether or not we should have children,” she said. “Degrowth gives us hope for a future that we haven’t felt in a long, long time.”I also followed up with Tianle Zhang, the protester who’d taken a selfie with Saito at the Columbia rally, and asked him about how he’d discovered Saito’s work. Zhang said that as a kid in Indiana, he’d watched the news in horror as oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. In college, he’d sensed a gap between the immensity of the problem of climate change and the attempts to address it. Saito was one of the few scholars he found who was trying to connect thinking about the environment with a broader theoretical critique of capitalism and society.Zhang said he was also deeply influenced by Paul Schrader’s 2017 film, First Reformed. The film stars Ethan Hawke as a troubled priest who descends so far into climate despair that he considers committing an act of terrorism. “For me, it was showing the failures of conventional morality to handle the issue of climate,” Zhang said.[From the January/February 2023 issue: Why the age of American progress ended]Degrowth’s appeal might be similar: not political, not even economic, but moral. In the climactic final scene of First Reformed, Hawke’s character wraps himself in barbed wire as he prepares to possibly do something horrifying and futile. This seems like a fitting metaphor for not only Saito’s proposals—Saito acknowledges that degrowth would require pain—but also their psychological appeal. We have been bad, and we must atone.Beyond its stark moral claims, the very fact of degrowth’s unreasonableness gives it weight. Degrowth advocates have called it a “missile word,” designed to provoke. There’s a reason we’re talking about degrowth and not the “steady-state economy,” which environmentalists have been pushing for decades. As the prominent degrowth thinker Jason Hickel has written, the term itself upends conventional wisdom: “It is only negative if we start from the assumption that more growth is good and desirable.” To this way of thinking, the inconceivability of degrowth only highlights how trapped we are in the growth-fetishist mindset.At the end of our dinner, Saito told me he’s working on his next book, about the role of government when it comes to implementing degrowth. “The state has to intervene, but how can we make a democratic transition?” he asked rhetorically. I asked if he had an answer. He said, “Not yet.”

Simple Equation Predicts the Shapes of Carbon-Capturing Wetlands

To calculate the amount of carbon stored inside peatlands, researchers developed a unified theory of “bog physics” applicable around the world. The post Simple Equation Predicts the Shapes of Carbon-Capturing Wetlands first appeared on Quanta Magazine

earth scienceSimple Equation Predicts the Shapes of Carbon-Capturing WetlandsBy Gabriel PopkinMay 28, 2024To calculate the amount of carbon stored inside peatlands, researchers developed a unified theory of “bog physics” applicable around the world.This aerial view of the 3,000-year-old Viru bog in Estonia shows a peat bog’s quintessential characteristic: a sopping-wet dome of peat soil that covers a former lake and is strong enough to support trees and shrubs. Jaanus Jagomägi IntroductionA visit to a peat bog will make you rethink everything you know about the surface of our planet. A bog is land, sort of, but not in the solid-ground sense you’re used to. If you try walking across one’s surface, you may feel the soft organic muck known as peat undulate beneath you — or you may sink into it yourself. From the surface, it’s hard to know whether the waterlogged peat extends 3 feet deep or 30. These strange, soggy places have historically been reviled, and many have been drained so that people could build on or farm the land. In the era of climate change, however, they are gaining newfound fame: Peatlands are among nature’s most effective ways of storing carbon and keeping it out of the atmosphere. To ensure it remains there, scientists have long sought a way to calculate how much peat and carbon they store. A recent study may provide the answer. Late last year in Nature, scientists reported a mathematical model that they say can calculate the shape of any peat bog on Earth using a simple set of measurements. The model, if it works as advertised, could make it easy to tally up the carbon in a bog — a crucial step in determining a given bog’s contribution to reducing climate change. Shawn Lum, an ecologist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who was not involved with the research, hailed the paper as a breakthrough, calling it, “the peatland equivalent of special relativity.” Lum’s praise is revealing. For decades, biologists have longed for equations in the mold of E = mc2 or Newton’s law of gravity — simple, sweeping mathematical rules that unite realms of knowledge and provide profound insights into the hidden order that governs our world. While such all-encompassing laws have long driven progress in physics, their life-science equivalents have proved elusive. Now, apparently, some unity has been found among the world’s bogs. Peat bogs hardly seem like the kinds of orderly places that would yield general laws. These nutrient-poor ecosystems, fed solely by rainwater, form when dead plants become trapped in soggy environments that lack oxygen and are therefore inhospitable to microbes that might digest the dead tissues. The dead vegetation piles up over hundreds or thousands of years, forming wide, gently sloping domes that can rise dozens of feet above the surrounding land. Merrill Sherman/Quanta Magazine; Source: Irish Peatland Conservation Council IntroductionPeat bogs are found around the world. In cold, high-latitude locales like Canada and Russia, they’re often carpeted in sphagnum moss. In the warmer tropics, they tend to be swampy forests with trees up to 200 feet tall. All told, bogs and other peatlands occupy around 3% of Earth’s land. Yet they manage to pack away twice as much carbon as all the planet’s trees. If that carbon were released, atmospheric carbon dioxide would double, with potentially disastrous consequences for humans and many other species. Many scientists argue that protecting peat bogs and restoring previously drained peatlands could be easy yet powerful ways to slow climate change. But there’s a hitch: Draining peat is often highly profitable. Already, around 15% of known peatlands have been destroyed, mainly to create farmland. To stop the bleeding, advocates have proposed paying countries to preserve undisturbed peatlands. To ensure such payments to help the climate, however, scientists need a way to accurately quantify the impounded carbon. That need sent Charles Harvey, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in search of an equation that could predict the shape of any peat bog and thus the amount of carbon it holds. Previous research groups had attempted to mathematically model bogs, Harvey said, but their models tended to be unrealistically simple. Charles Harvey of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his team intensely studied the Mendaram peat dome in Brunei to develop their bog math. “It’s absolutely nuts that you have this completely impenetrable, terrible, hard-to-get-through, complicated forest, and it’s described by a simple equation,” he said. Courtesy of Charles Harvey IntroductionHis team spent more than 15 years investigating the tropical Mendaram peat dome in Brunei. The researchers chose this bog because, unlike most in the region, it is “really pristine,” Harvey said. “As far as we know, no other human beings have ever gone in there.” Measuring it proved tough. Peat can be meters deep and difficult to navigate. “It’s really hard to move around in the peat forest,” Harvey said. “There’s no solid ground. There are big gaps in the peat, so if you’re not balanced on a log or roots or something, you just punch through the ground,” potentially ending up mired waist-deep — or worse — in muck. To find order amid the chaotic landscape, the researchers zeroed in on the water table, which is the elevation at which the ground becomes saturated with water. They noticed that no matter what plants were growing or how much debris had piled up on the peat, the water table was almost always near the bog’s surface. If the water table fell, perhaps due to water flowing out faster than rain could replenish it, some peat became exposed to air and decomposed until the bog’s surface sank to the new level. If the water table rose, as during a period of heavy rainfall, peat accumulated until it caught up. The bog’s shape seemed to be essentially governed by the physics of the water table. The researchers found that they could mathematically model the shape of the bog by solving a widely used equation named for the 19th-century mathematician Siméon-Denis Poisson that allowed them to approximate a bog’s depth given only the shape of its boundary. Then they used measurements of the peat dome’s height taken along a single line, or transect, to adjust the model for the bog’s specific properties — a correction they called the bog function. For the Mendaram bog, they took these measurements using lidar, a radarlike technology that measures how long laser light takes to travel from an airplane or satellite to the Earth’s surface and back to a detector. While past studies had proposed simpler models for bog shape, they couldn’t account for environmental variables such as rainfall and the dynamics of water flow off the peat, Harvey said. It took 15 years for Charles Harvey’s PeatFlux team (some members pictured here) to fully map the Mendaram bog. The work was strenuous and dirty because the peaty ground is saturated by the water table. Courtesy of Charles Harvey IntroductionThe researchers knew the model could predict the shape of the tropical peat dome in Brunei. But would it apply to other bogs? To test it, they tried predicting the shapes of seven other bogs in boreal and temperate regions for which lidar transects had already been taken. The model performed even better than it had for the Mendaram bog, with errors of less than 6% compared to real measurements. That blew the scientists away. “It’s absolutely nuts that you have this completely impenetrable, terrible, hard-to-get-through, complicated forest, and it’s described by a simple equation,” Harvey said. “I wouldn’t have guessed it would work as well.” Lum, the Nanyang Technological University ecologist, agreed. “What I found beautiful and astounding is that regardless of the vegetation that grows on the peat bog, the deposition and building up of the peat dome is predictable,” he said. Sources: ESRI; Grid Arendal (Levi Westerveld) IntroductionPeat bog modeling is having a bit of a moment. Several groups are working to mathematically describe these ecosystems, including an effort from the University of Leeds called DigiBog, which simulates peat accumulation over decades or centuries and water-table dynamics over days or weeks. “Peat provides a testable context for concepts that are now at the forefront of applied mathematics and soft matter physics,” said David Large, a geologist at the University of Nottingham. In a preprint under peer review at Earth System Dynamics, Large and colleagues reported a third bog model that attempts to capture not only hydrology but also the mechanical properties of peat as a material, such as how easily it deforms. Such properties can determine how easily a bog can bounce back from a drought or other damaging event, Large said. Large called Harvey’s study “an excellent paper,” especially for estimating the volume of large bogs. But he noted that it ignores the topography of the land under a bog, which could be an issue in regions with complex topography, as in much of the United Kingdom. “There’s definitely a limit to what they can do,” Large said. Harvey says the underlying topography has little impact on a bog’s final shape. His team is now applying their model to the vast and virtually unstudied peatlands of central Africa and the Amazon, which have been described as potential “climate bombs” because they contain so much carbon. Environmentalists hope payments can persuade the countries in these regions to protect their peat. Harvey says his team’s model can help by quantifying exactly how much carbon would be lost if a particular bog were drained or channelized. Whether any peat model will gain the sort of widespread acceptance afforded to physical theories such as relativity remains to be seen. But even if they don’t, their practical applications could be profound, Lum said. “Carbon stocks, green financing, doing carbon offsets, planning strategies … this is all made possible and much easier by this work.”

Scientists Discover Unusual Ancient Fish 900 Miles North of Its Previous Known Range

The Australian brook lamprey (Mordacia praecox) belongs to a group of primitive jawless fish. It’s up to 15 cm long, with rows of sharp teeth....

The Australian brook lamprey, a non-parasitic jawless fish, has been found in Queensland, extending its known range. Conservation efforts face challenges due to its mistaken identity with a more common species. Scientists stress the importance of protecting this Endangered species amidst threats like habitat changes and rising sea levels. Credit: David MoffattThe Australian brook lamprey (Mordacia praecox) belongs to a group of primitive jawless fish. It’s up to 15 cm long, with rows of sharp teeth. Growing up to 15 cm in length, it has rows of sharp teeth. Unlike most lamprey species, which use their teeth to suck blood, this species is non-parasitic.As larvae, the Australian brook lamprey lives buried in the bottom of streams for around three years, filter-feeding. Its adult phase is about one year long, in which it doesn’t feed at all. Prior to this study – funded in part by the Australian Government through the National Environmental Science Program’s (NESP) Resilient Landscapes Hub – the species was widely believed to only live in a few streams along a 170 km stretch of coastline near the NSW/Victoria border.A close-up of the head of an adult male Australian brook lamprey. Credit: David MoffattThe study began after another exciting discovery: Dr Luke Carpenter-Bundhoo from the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University found the species living in streams on K’gari (Fraser Island). To unravel the mystery of Queensland lampreys, Dr Carpenter-Bundhoo teamed up with David Moffatt from DESI, who had found isolated populations of lamprey in other Queensland streams. Together, they confirmed reports of Australian brook lamprey in Queensland, including as far north as Rockhampton! With this enormous extension of its geographic range, the Australian brook lamprey becomes the only lamprey species in the world to live in truly tropical waters.Conservation Concerns“It’s quite exciting to find an Endangered species so far out of its known range, yet so close to populated areas. We expect these animals naturally occur in Queensland, and have been here for an awfully long time, but have remained hidden due to their cryptic nature,” said Mr Moffatt.The Australian brook lamprey is thought to be extinct where it was first described, in southern NSW. Its existence is thought to be threatened by sedimentation, wildfires, and human development.Perhaps the biggest threat to their conservation is that they’re very difficult to identify – this species truly faces a case of mistaken identity. For most of their life, the non-parasitic Australian brook lamprey is indistinguishable from its more common blood-sucking southern relative, the short-headed lamprey (Mordacia mordax), which has a conservation status of ‘Least Concern’.David Moffatt and Dr Luke Carpenter-Bundhoo with a small tank of Australian brook lamprey. Credit: Troy HarrisAdd to this the fact that, globally, only a few people can tell them apart.In their new Endangered Species Research article, Dr Carpenter-Bundhoo and Mr Moffatt outline the difficulties of implementing a conservation strategy for this fish and propose some solutions.The species’ conservation is especially important, given that projected sea level rises mean that many of the lowland freshwater coastal streams where Australian brook lamprey live are likely to become saltwater.With these new findings, scientists will be better equipped to conserve this unusual and Endangered species.Reference: “Expanding the known range and practical conservation issues of the Endangered Australian brook lamprey Mordacia praecox” by Luke Carpenter-Bundhoo and David B. Moffatt, 25 April 2024, Endangered Species Research.DOI: 10.3354/esr01319The surveys were partially funded by an NESP project that aims to restore ecosystem health in the Moonaboola (Mary River) catchment area of south-east Queensland and protect threatened species like the Australian lungfish, the Mary River cod and the giant barred frog.

How Pig Welfare Became a States’ Rights Issue

This week, the House Agriculture Committee approved a version of the farm bill, the sprawling piece of recurring legislation governing federal agriculture, conservation, and nutrition policy. Written by House Republicans, the bill was approved largely along party lines, with four Democrats joining all GOP committee members in voting to advance the measure.This will likely not be the final form of the farm bill, which is approved roughly every five years in Congress. Most Democrats have bristled at the Republicans’ proposal, arguing that it is overly partisan; they are particularly concerned about how food stamp benefits would be calculated and rescissions to the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats’ seminal climate policy bill, which passed in 2022.The GOP farm bill would divert unspent IRA conservation funds to other priorities, out of a belief that climate-related policy should be determined by the states, rather than the federal government mandating farming practices that reduce emissions.“Every state is different, because every state has different soil types, commodities, climate, weather patterns,” Representative Glenn “GT” Thompson, the Republican chair of the House Agriculture Committee, told me on Thursday. “We’ve always known that the most successful conservation investments are those that are locally led, incentive-based, and voluntary.”But another element of the Republican bill would overturn a California state law that requires some meat products sold in the state to be produced under certain welfare standards. The potential ramifications of this California law, known as Prop 12, extend beyond agriculture. Opponents say that it would inhibit other states’ ability to implement their own regulatory policy.“States would no longer be able to set consistent standards for meat and dairy products sold or consumed within their borders, potentially disadvantaging in-state producers, creating deregulatory pressure, and increasing food safety and quality risks,” said Kelley McGill, a legislative policy fellow at the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic, in an email.In 2018, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 12, a ballot initiative that established housing standards for certain livestock. Prop 12 requires that farmers provide a minimum amount of space for laying hens, breeding pigs, and calves raised for veal, as well as specifically banning gestation crates, cages that are too small for pregnant pigs to even turn around in. This mandate applies to all covered products sold in California, and so affects producers outside of the state. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Prop 12, after out-of-state pork producers attempted to block it through litigation.“Companies that choose to sell products in various states must normally comply with the laws of those various states,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.”Shortly thereafter, Republican members of Congress introduced the Ending Agriculture Trade Suppression, or EATS, Act, legislation that would prohibit one state from regulating farming practices for food produced in another. Similar language was incorporated in the text of the House farm bill, which declares that “no state or subdivision thereof may enact or enforce, directly or indirectly, a condition or standard on the production of covered livestock other than for covered livestock physically raised in such state or subdivision.”Rather than infringing on a state’s ability to determine its own regulatory standards, Thompson argued that this provision was in keeping with the redirecting of conservation funds, as a victory for states’ rights. “We respect [that] a state can mandate, intrastate, their own agricultural practices, but they can’t dictate to other states,” Thompson said.Opposition to Prop 12 does not fall neatly along party lines. In February, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee that there would be “chaos” in the market if other states followed California’s lead. Vilsack later argued before the Senate Agriculture Committee that the California market is so large, out-of-state producers functionally have no choice to opt out of the state’s requirements.“When you’re dealing with 12 percent of the pork market in one state, there is not a choice between doing business with California and not in California,” Vilsack said. “At some point in time, somebody’s got to provide some degree of consistency and clarity. Otherwise, you are just inviting 50 different states to do 50 different iterations of this.But California’s law is not wholly unique. While Prop 12 has been the leading example of influential state policy, 14 other states have also passed laws banning certain types of confinement for livestock or instituting regulations for animal enclosures; like California, Massachusetts also approved similar policy by ballot measure. “The long-standing status quo under our federalist system,” McGill said, “is for states to be able to regulate products that enter their borders—so long as such regulations do not impermissibly discriminate—and states have long exercised that right across many aspects of agricultural production and points all along the food supply chain. Prop 12 will lead to no more chaos than will those existing state provisions.”Experts further warn that overturning Prop 12 might not mitigate the regulatory chaos. In a November open letter sent to congressional leaders, 30 law professors warned the EATS Act would “initiate years of lengthy court battles to resolve the act’s constitutionality and derive the act’s scope, as well as an endless flood of concurrent challenges to innumerable state and local laws.” Overturning Prop 12 via legislation “would create a staggeringly uncertain legal and regulatory landscape,” the letter said. “The result would surely be an unprecedented chilling of state and local legislation on matters historically regulated at the state and local level.”Producers are also divided on on Prop 12. The National Pork Producers Council vehemently opposes the policy, as do other large agricultural coalitions; but some individual producers are in favor of Prop 12, in part because they believe it’s better for smaller farms that have been pushed out by the large-scale pork production industry. Other producers have already invested significant funds in preparing their farms to meet Prop 12’s requirements.Thompson believes that heeding these standards results in higher costs, which then leads to poor and middle-income Americans being unable to purchase pork products. “When people can’t afford their bacon, they’re going to rise up, and there will be a future proposition that repeals it,” Thompson predicted about the future of Prop 12 in California.A September survey by Purdue University’s Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability found that 32 percent of consumers would decrease their purchases of pork products due to a general price increase. However, when respondents were asked about price increases due to Prop 12, fewer consumers said they would decrease spending on pork if they knew the cost hikes were related to animal welfare. A 2022 poll by Data for Progress, a liberal think tank, further found that 80 percent of likely voters believe farm animal welfare is a moral concern.The farm bill provision that would overturn Prop 12 also has potential ramifications for health outcomes: In a 2022 amicus brief to the Supreme Court, several public health organizations and experts wrote that Prop 12’s requirements “protect the health and safety of Californians.” Intensive confinement of pigs results in weaker immune systems and increased growth of pathogens, and the close quarters of gestation cages “facilitates the transmission and mutation of pathogens into more virulent forms that can be transmitted to and sicken, or even kill, humans.”Although the provision in the farm bill is slightly narrower than the language of the EATS Act, McGill warned that its passage could make it more difficult for states to regulate “the sale of meat and dairy products produced from animals exposed to disease, with the use of certain harmful animal drugs, or through novel biotechnologies like cloning, as well as adjacent production standards involving labor, environmental, or cleanliness conditions.” Those who think Prop 12 shouldn’t be overturned thus worry about the ramifications not only for animals but for the humans consuming meat products.It’s unclear whether this provision will end up in the final version of the farm bill—it has significant opposition from hundreds of Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, which could ultimately result in it being excised from the final bill. But Senator John Boozman, the Republican ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, noted that Congress has the authority to legislate on an issue after the Supreme Court has made a decision; if it’s removed from the final text of the farm bill, there’s still an opportunity for supporters to append it. “We’ll either have it in the base bill, or it will come up as an amendment,” Boozman said.

This week, the House Agriculture Committee approved a version of the farm bill, the sprawling piece of recurring legislation governing federal agriculture, conservation, and nutrition policy. Written by House Republicans, the bill was approved largely along party lines, with four Democrats joining all GOP committee members in voting to advance the measure.This will likely not be the final form of the farm bill, which is approved roughly every five years in Congress. Most Democrats have bristled at the Republicans’ proposal, arguing that it is overly partisan; they are particularly concerned about how food stamp benefits would be calculated and rescissions to the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats’ seminal climate policy bill, which passed in 2022.The GOP farm bill would divert unspent IRA conservation funds to other priorities, out of a belief that climate-related policy should be determined by the states, rather than the federal government mandating farming practices that reduce emissions.“Every state is different, because every state has different soil types, commodities, climate, weather patterns,” Representative Glenn “GT” Thompson, the Republican chair of the House Agriculture Committee, told me on Thursday. “We’ve always known that the most successful conservation investments are those that are locally led, incentive-based, and voluntary.”But another element of the Republican bill would overturn a California state law that requires some meat products sold in the state to be produced under certain welfare standards. The potential ramifications of this California law, known as Prop 12, extend beyond agriculture. Opponents say that it would inhibit other states’ ability to implement their own regulatory policy.“States would no longer be able to set consistent standards for meat and dairy products sold or consumed within their borders, potentially disadvantaging in-state producers, creating deregulatory pressure, and increasing food safety and quality risks,” said Kelley McGill, a legislative policy fellow at the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic, in an email.In 2018, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 12, a ballot initiative that established housing standards for certain livestock. Prop 12 requires that farmers provide a minimum amount of space for laying hens, breeding pigs, and calves raised for veal, as well as specifically banning gestation crates, cages that are too small for pregnant pigs to even turn around in. This mandate applies to all covered products sold in California, and so affects producers outside of the state. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Prop 12, after out-of-state pork producers attempted to block it through litigation.“Companies that choose to sell products in various states must normally comply with the laws of those various states,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.”Shortly thereafter, Republican members of Congress introduced the Ending Agriculture Trade Suppression, or EATS, Act, legislation that would prohibit one state from regulating farming practices for food produced in another. Similar language was incorporated in the text of the House farm bill, which declares that “no state or subdivision thereof may enact or enforce, directly or indirectly, a condition or standard on the production of covered livestock other than for covered livestock physically raised in such state or subdivision.”Rather than infringing on a state’s ability to determine its own regulatory standards, Thompson argued that this provision was in keeping with the redirecting of conservation funds, as a victory for states’ rights. “We respect [that] a state can mandate, intrastate, their own agricultural practices, but they can’t dictate to other states,” Thompson said.Opposition to Prop 12 does not fall neatly along party lines. In February, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee that there would be “chaos” in the market if other states followed California’s lead. Vilsack later argued before the Senate Agriculture Committee that the California market is so large, out-of-state producers functionally have no choice to opt out of the state’s requirements.“When you’re dealing with 12 percent of the pork market in one state, there is not a choice between doing business with California and not in California,” Vilsack said. “At some point in time, somebody’s got to provide some degree of consistency and clarity. Otherwise, you are just inviting 50 different states to do 50 different iterations of this.But California’s law is not wholly unique. While Prop 12 has been the leading example of influential state policy, 14 other states have also passed laws banning certain types of confinement for livestock or instituting regulations for animal enclosures; like California, Massachusetts also approved similar policy by ballot measure. “The long-standing status quo under our federalist system,” McGill said, “is for states to be able to regulate products that enter their borders—so long as such regulations do not impermissibly discriminate—and states have long exercised that right across many aspects of agricultural production and points all along the food supply chain. Prop 12 will lead to no more chaos than will those existing state provisions.”Experts further warn that overturning Prop 12 might not mitigate the regulatory chaos. In a November open letter sent to congressional leaders, 30 law professors warned the EATS Act would “initiate years of lengthy court battles to resolve the act’s constitutionality and derive the act’s scope, as well as an endless flood of concurrent challenges to innumerable state and local laws.” Overturning Prop 12 via legislation “would create a staggeringly uncertain legal and regulatory landscape,” the letter said. “The result would surely be an unprecedented chilling of state and local legislation on matters historically regulated at the state and local level.”Producers are also divided on on Prop 12. The National Pork Producers Council vehemently opposes the policy, as do other large agricultural coalitions; but some individual producers are in favor of Prop 12, in part because they believe it’s better for smaller farms that have been pushed out by the large-scale pork production industry. Other producers have already invested significant funds in preparing their farms to meet Prop 12’s requirements.Thompson believes that heeding these standards results in higher costs, which then leads to poor and middle-income Americans being unable to purchase pork products. “When people can’t afford their bacon, they’re going to rise up, and there will be a future proposition that repeals it,” Thompson predicted about the future of Prop 12 in California.A September survey by Purdue University’s Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability found that 32 percent of consumers would decrease their purchases of pork products due to a general price increase. However, when respondents were asked about price increases due to Prop 12, fewer consumers said they would decrease spending on pork if they knew the cost hikes were related to animal welfare. A 2022 poll by Data for Progress, a liberal think tank, further found that 80 percent of likely voters believe farm animal welfare is a moral concern.The farm bill provision that would overturn Prop 12 also has potential ramifications for health outcomes: In a 2022 amicus brief to the Supreme Court, several public health organizations and experts wrote that Prop 12’s requirements “protect the health and safety of Californians.” Intensive confinement of pigs results in weaker immune systems and increased growth of pathogens, and the close quarters of gestation cages “facilitates the transmission and mutation of pathogens into more virulent forms that can be transmitted to and sicken, or even kill, humans.”Although the provision in the farm bill is slightly narrower than the language of the EATS Act, McGill warned that its passage could make it more difficult for states to regulate “the sale of meat and dairy products produced from animals exposed to disease, with the use of certain harmful animal drugs, or through novel biotechnologies like cloning, as well as adjacent production standards involving labor, environmental, or cleanliness conditions.” Those who think Prop 12 shouldn’t be overturned thus worry about the ramifications not only for animals but for the humans consuming meat products.It’s unclear whether this provision will end up in the final version of the farm bill—it has significant opposition from hundreds of Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, which could ultimately result in it being excised from the final bill. But Senator John Boozman, the Republican ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, noted that Congress has the authority to legislate on an issue after the Supreme Court has made a decision; if it’s removed from the final text of the farm bill, there’s still an opportunity for supporters to append it. “We’ll either have it in the base bill, or it will come up as an amendment,” Boozman said.

This Supreme Court Term, Health and Safety Are on the Line

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will release several opinions that implicate the health and safety of every American. Citizens may believe that the court’s decisions are far removed from their everyday lives. But this term, at least, they will hit close to home. From the environment, to medical care, to the hot-button issues […]

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will release several opinions that implicate the health and safety of every American. Citizens may believe that the court’s decisions are far removed from their everyday lives. But this term, at least, they will hit close to home. From the environment, to medical care, to the hot-button issues of guns and abortion, over the past year the court took up a string of cases that will affect how well we live—and how long.  The vast and critically important implications of these coming rulings pose a key question: Should judges be the ones deciding the rules and regulations that so intimately affect Americans’ lives? In case after case, the court is contemplating overruling decisions made by Congress and administrative agencies to protect Americans’ safety. One of the most critical cases this term raises that very issue: who in government gets to decide detailed questions about our medical care, drug safety, chemicals in the air and water, food safety, and much more? It’s likely that in a pair of cases this term, the justices will decide that the best people to make those decisions are unelected judges—and ultimately, the justices themselves. The Chevron case puts thousands of regulations related to Americans’ health and safety at risk. In a set of cases challenging a fishing regulation, the justices are considering whether to end or limit a principle of judicial decision-making called Chevron Deference, under which judges defer to administrative agencies if the law is ambiguous and the agency interpretation is reasonable. The rule was enshrined in the 1984 case Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council, but “this practice of deferring to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes was well established in the case law handed down by the Supreme Court” by the mid-1940s, says Miriam Becker-Cohen, an appellate counsel at the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center.  The case implicates thousands of regulations promulgated every year, many having to do with Americans’ health and safety. In an amicus brief, the American Cancer Society warned that deference is critical to the administration of Medicaid, Medicare, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which together provide healthcare to nearly half the US population. Agency experts, they argued, are best positioned to interpret statutory terms like “geographic area,” “costs incurred,” and “nursing-related services.” Given the amounts of money spent on health care, without Chevron, litigation would abound. “The resulting uncertainty would be extraordinarily destabilizing, not just to the Medicare and Medicaid programs but also—given the size of these programs—to the operational and financial stability of the country’s health care system as a whole,” the brief warns. The effects of sunsetting Chevron would go far beyond healthcare. Civil rights groups warn that laws protecting minorities in housing, employment, and financial services could be gutted by newly-empowered judges. Agencies, guided by scientists and other experts, work to protect Americans from toxic chemicals, to keep air and water clean, maintain food safety, and on and on. “Is a new product designed to promote healthy cholesterol levels a dietary supplement, or a drug?” Justice Elena Kagan asked during oral arguments, raising just one hypothetical question that, if Chevron were overruled, might transfer from doctors to judges. With changes this broad, everyone’s safety would be implicated. “When the administrative state falls into a sinkhole, or quicksand, because of this court,” Georgetown Law professor Michele Goodwin warns, it will impact how people “actually have a healthy and, in fact, even joyful life.” Guns are another issue critical to Americans’ health and safety. In 2017, a gunman used semi-automatic rifles equipped with bump stocks to fire on concert-goers in Las Vegas. A bump stock is a firearm accessory that turns a semi-automatic rifle into a continuously firing weapon that discharges dozens of bullets in seconds. In 11 minutes, the shooter struck 500 people, killing 60—the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s history. In the aftermath, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms banned bump stocks by defining them as illegal machine guns. In Garland v. Cargill, the justices are weighing whether to overturn that decision. Such a ruling by the court would allow Americans to own, for all intents and purposes, automatic weapons. One need only look to Las Vegas to understand the cases’ significant potential to impact Americans’ health and safety.  Lawmakers say ending the bump stock ban would “shackle” Congress’ ability to keep people safe. In a second major gun case, the justices are considering whether a federal law barring firearm possession by people subject to domestic violence restraining orders violates the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Victims of domestic abuse rely on the law to survive. “As one study found, the risk of intimate-partner homicide increases 500% when abusers have access to a firearm,” an amicus brief submitted by domestic violence prevention groups states. “Another determined that an average of seventy (70) women are shot and killed by intimate partners per month.” When Congress decided to ban gun possession by abusers in 1994, it had found that domestic violence was “the leading cause of injury to women in the United States between the ages of 15 and 44,” and that “firearms are used by the abuser in 7 percent of domestic violence incidents.”  In a brief submitted by Democratic members of Congress, lawmakers argued that invalidating the ban would “shackle” Congress’ ability to keep people safe, and render it “unable to develop innovative solutions for the benefit of the public.” Moreover, they warn, such a decision would “generate a wave of litigation” challenging other public safety-minded gun restrictions “that will burden the courts and hamper legislatures’ ability to address public safety needs.” Public health and safety are closely tied to the environment. This term, the court heard a challenge to an EPA rule intended to protect against air pollution under the Clean Air Act. The case involves the legality of the Good Neighbor provision, which protects downwind states from harmful pollution originating in upwind states. According to the EPA, the rule will “improve air quality for millions of people living in downwind communities, saving thousands of lives, keeping people out of the hospital, preventing asthma attacks, and reducing sick days.” In 2026 alone, the agency estimated that the rule would prevent around 1,300 premature deaths and 2,300 hospital and emergency room visits, cut asthma symptoms by 1.3 million cases, and eliminate 430,000 school absence days and 25,000 lost work days. But after oral arguments in February, the court’s Republican-appointed majority appeared ready to block the provision. The case arrived at the court following a complex series of lawsuits, and the justices agreed to hear the challenge on an emergency basis, short-circuiting the lower courts. Should the Supreme Court decide to halt the EPA’s rule, it will have gone out of its way to impede environmental safety when the issue could have been left to the normal judicial process. In 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), to stop hospitals from “dumping” uninsured or poor patients who showed up in need of emergency care. In 2022, Idaho banned all abortions unless the mother’s life was at risk. This conflicted with EMTALA, which requires an abortion when it is the necessary treatment to stabilize a health emergency, even when the mother’s life isn’t immediately in peril. Now, the Supreme Court is deciding whether states can subject pregnant women to undergo severe medical crises—up to and including death—in their radical crusade to end abortions. The court is deciding whether states can subject women to medical crises—including death. The effects of abortion bans on women’s health are already apparent two years after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The EMTALA case is about the most extreme examples: people whose safety, bodily organs, and lives are in danger yet are being denied care as a result of state abortion bans. Already, stories of women hemorrhaging in bathrooms, spending days in the ICU, and being airlifted across state lines fill the news. Failure to provide an abortion in critical cases can lead to loss of the uterus, kidney failure, stroke, hemorrhage, and death. This is a health emergency created by the Supreme Court—and if oral arguments are an indication, it will only worsen when it rewrites federal law to remove the right to emergency abortion care for pregnant people. The EMTALA case is not the only abortion case the court is deciding. The other centers on access to mifepristone, one of two drugs used in medication abortions, which, after Roe, have become the most common way to end a pregnancy. In order to stop them, a group of pro-life doctors argued that the FDA improperly okayed the drug more than two decades ago. For technical legal reasons, the justices appear unlikely to limit access to the drug this term. But the case is likely to return on stronger footing soon, and whatever its disposition, the threat such attempts represent to public health is enormous: access to safe abortions improve health and economic outcomes for women, while bans imperil women’s health.  In each of these cases, the court is contemplating doing serious harm to health and safety by undoing an action by Congress or agency experts regulating at the behest of Congress, shifting control over life and death decisions from the elected branches of government to the courts. Perhaps the most terrifying phrase about today’s government is: I’m a Supreme Court justice and I’m here to help.

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