Cause for Terror — and Some Hope — in New Climate Report


The last time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released one of its landmark reports on climate science, in 2013, the document skirted stating that humans were definitely causing the bulk of climate change. It was “unequivocal” that the planet was warming, the United Nations-convened scientific group concluded, and “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

The IPCC’s latest major report, published Monday, is even more forceful in its insistence that humans have warmed the planet, that major environmental changes are now inevitable, and that some of the severe effects of climate change are not just distant projections, but unfolding right now. “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land,” the report states at the opening of a 41-page summary for policymakers. The planet’s land, water, air, ice, and ecosystems, the report continues, have undergone “widespread and rapid changes.” In the eight years since its previous report, the IPCC concluded, the evidence has only grown stronger that human activities are fueling severe heatwaves, rainfalls, cyclones, and droughts.

The full new IPCC report is nearly 4,000 pages long, draws on thousands of scientific studies, and has been reviewed and approved by representatives of 195 countries. While its findings are not new, it offers a sweeping overview of the scientific consensus on the climate crisis.

That overview is not hopeless. Although the authors conclude that 1.5 degrees Celsius ( 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming above preindustrial levels — enough to effect long-term rise in sea levels, along with other disruptive changes — is basically unavoidable, “deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions” could head off more dramatic warming this century.

As Robinson Meyer writes this week in The Atlantic, the latest IPCC report describes climate change with a new immediacy. “If climate change is happening now, then its time scales — which once seemed distant — are suddenly ticking by at the speed of the political or business calendars,” he writes, adding that “an earlier draft of this report cautioned that the world could see more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the early 2030s.” (The detail was cut from the final draft, on fairly technical grounds.)

Global leaders will soon have another chance to respond — or not — to the warnings: The next big U.N. climate summit will kick off on Oct. 31.

Also in the News:

• As concerns grow about the long-term efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines against new variants of the coronavirus, scientists are expanding their research into additional protective measures, including vaccines delivered by nasal spray. There are now six candidate nasal spray Covid-19 vaccines in early-stage clinical trials, with other formulas being tested in lab animals. Researchers say that typical vaccines, given by injection into the arm, do an excellent job of generating a strong overall immune response to the coronavirus, and vaccines remain highly effective at preventing severe cases of Covid-19. But, experts say, these injected vaccines do not always promote a strong immune protection in the nasal cavity, where airborne viruses often enter the upper respiratory tract. Intranasal vaccines, some scientists hope, could offer a more targeted defense by buffering the mucus membranes of the nose and throat. Still, many public health experts argue that the most important measure at this moment is getting the existing vaccines into a much larger proportion of the population. “I think right now we’re still at the stage where we need to prevent just the basic disease,” University of Iowa coronavirus researcher Stanley Perlman told STAT, adding that he could see intranasal vaccines getting more use “in the future sometime.” (STAT)

• A researcher in Belgium is spearheading an effort to identify scientific papers that use genetic data from vulnerable ethnic minorities in China, Science reports this week. But publishers aren’t always responding quickly. Last year, after a complaint from Yves Moreau, a bioinformatician at KU Leuven, scientific publisher Springer Nature launched an investigation into a 2017 paper published in one of its journals, Human Genetics. The paper — which looked at the “male genetic landscape of China” — includes data from the country’s ethnic minorities, including Uighurs, who have been an ongoing target of genetic surveillance by the authoritarian Chinese government. Uighurs have also been interred in concentration camps as part of what the U.S. and other countries have characterized as an ongoing genocide, and some of the paper’s co-authors work for law enforcement organizations in China. Moreau raised concerns about whether the researchers had actually obtained informed consent, but, more than a year after beginning its investigation, Springer Nature’s inquiries are still ongoing. Moreau has flagged many other human genetics studies, too. According to Science, his efforts are already showing results: They recently prompted the resignation of eight members of one journal’s editorial board, who, according to Science, were frustrated by the slow pace of an inquiry into papers that Moreau had identified as problematic. “Public trust in human genetics,” Moreau told Science, “depends on our community’s ability to transparently abide by its moral duties.” (Science)

• Following thousands of anecdotal reports, researchers are beginning to study whether Covid-19 vaccines could be linked to changes in menstrual cycles. Though no causal connection has been established so far, and cycles can vary due to a variety of factors including stress and medication, many people have reported having heavier periods or spotting after vaccination. Both Kate Clancy, a human reproductive ecologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Katharine Lee, a biological anthropologist and engineer at Washington University in St. Louis, experienced changes in their own cycles that prompted them to formally document reports from other people who menstruate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also looking into the issue, and new research suggests that it’s possible that changes in the immune system could affect the build-up and breakdown of the uterine lining. The changes reported so far, Lee told NPR, “seem to be short-lived, just a couple of cycles.” Health officials continue to recommend that all eligible patients be vaccinated against Covid-19, and adverse side effects from the shots remain extremely rare. Lee and Clancy say they’re in favor of the vaccine as well but are concerned that some people feel their worries aren’t being taken seriously. “It seeds distrust, because it’s not expected,” Lee told NPR. (NPR)

• Space enthusiasts’ excitement turned to disappointment last week when NASA announced that its Mars rover, Perseverance, had failed in a historic attempt to collect a core sample from the Red Planet. Perseverance had successfully plunged the first of its 43 sample tubes into the rocky floor of the Jezero Crater, sealed the tube, and stored it away — a series of feats that prompted some outlets to prematurely declare victory for the robotic rover. But a subsequent image revealed the tube was not filled with ancient rock, as scientists had hoped, but was empty. After days of combing through data, the space agency has now concluded that the rock at the crater site was so loose and crumbly that the sample disintegrated and fell to the crater floor before the tube could be sealed. “This is just another reminder that there are still a lot of unknowns about Mars,” Meenakshi Wadhwa, the principal scientist for the sample-retrieval effort, told Nature. However, all isn’t lost: Perseverance will have up to 42 more tries to collect samples from the Red planet, in hopes that the Martian rocks can eventually be returned to Earth as part of a later mission. (Nature)

• On Tuesday, affiliates of the nonpartisan research group Cybersecurity for Democracy accused Facebook of disabling their accounts in order to block research into misinformation on the social media platform. In an op-ed for The New York Times, researchers Damon McCoy and Laura Edelson said the company had disabled their accounts, which they use to conduct their research. According to Facebook, the researchers used “unauthorized means to access and collect data,” forcing the company to take action in order to protect user privacy. McCoy and Edelson aren’t buying it. “We believe that Facebook is using privacy as a pretext to squelch research that it considers inconvenient,” the researchers wrote in The Times. Facebook has countered that research is still possible with data the company itself provides, but the researchers maintain that information the company has made available is “woefully inadequate.” (The New York Times)

• And finally: There are about 800 species of meat-eating plants in the world. On Monday, Science reported that researchers have added a new one to the list: the western false asphodel, or Triantha occidentalis, which appears to only eat insects when it is flowering. Triantha lives in boggy areas in the mountains of western North America, and it has a puff of white flowers that sit on top of a long stalk; the upper part of the stalk is covered in sticky red hairs that can trap small insects. Scientists at the University of British Columbia first flagged Triantha as a possible insect-eater after noticing that its genetic profile is similar to other carnivorous plants. Next, the scientists tracked down the plants in a bog near Vancouver and fed them fruit flies laced with a type of nitrogen that isn’t typically found in nature. Back in the lab, the scientists found that the Triantha plants had ingested the special nitrogen into their stems, leaves, and fruit, while a control had no detectable traces of it. The research suggests that there may be other carnivorous plants hiding in plain sight. (Science)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Sudhi Oberoi, Jane Roberts, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.