With unprecedented threats to nature at hand, how to turn the tide

With unprecedented threats to nature at hand, how to turn the tide

The United Nations report noted five main drivers of threats to biodiversity: changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasion of alien species. Marine pollution was identified as a particular area of concern.

By Katherine Unger Baillie and Michele W. Berger

The scale of the threats is massive: One million plant and animal species face imminent extinction due to human activity. That was the major finding of a report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a summary of which was released earlier this month.

The assessment, which took three years, involved 145 expert authors as well as indigenous and local knowledge, and reviewed 15,000 scientific and government sources, reveals unprecedented and accelerating risks for biodiversity and human life.

To shed light on the report’s implications, Penn Today reached out to experts across the University in a range of subjects, from psychology to sustainability, sociology to biology, asking for their primary impressions of the study and for advice on how to take action.

If you had to pinpoint a major takeaway from the report, what would it be?

Dan Janzen, professor of biology and Thomas G. and Louise E. DiMaura Term Chair, Department of BiologySchool of Arts and SciencesThis report simply reiterates what has been obvious to us globally and in Costa Rica since 1985 (when we started paying attention). Today it is old news, so the real takeaway is, why are humans so bent on destroying their nest? The answer is that those who are doing it are largely doing it on the backs of those who suffer the consequences: The person who lives next to and works all day in the pineapple plantation rather than the person who buys the pineapple in a Philadelphia grocery store. It has been the history of humans since the Pleistocene village and before for some to enslave others. You all know the drill. Upper class, middle class, and working class. What is the probability that the upper class will destroy that structure?

Katie Barott, assistant professor, Department of BiologySchool of Arts and Sciences: The biggest takeaway is that the natural world is intricately linked to and necessary for our own physical and social wellbeing, and a new paradigm is needed that considers sustainability a central and necessary component of all societal decisions.

David Yaden, doctoral student, Department of PsychologySchool of Arts and SciencesUrgent action is required to help minimize the negative effects of climate change.

Dan Garofalo, director, Penn Sustainability: For me, the key takeaways are right at the top: ‘Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before’ and ‘Globally, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are disappearing. This loss of diversity, including genetic diversity, poses a serious risk to global food security by undermining the resilience of many agricultural systems to threats such as pests, pathogens, and climate change.’

Daniel Aldana Cohen, assistant professor, Department of SociologySchool of Arts and Sciences: The report’s main takeaway is that, while carbon is the most urgent global environmental problem we face, it is just one part of an even more holistic threat to human wellbeing. Decarbonizing our energy system isn’t enough. We need to overhaul our entire economic system so that we no longer have a model of affluence that systematically destroys the basis for human life on Earth.

Julie Ellis, senior research investigator, Department of PathobiologySchool of Veterinary MedicineWhat struck me most is the tension between feeding the world’s human population and conserving biodiversity. According to the report, land-use change has had the largest relative negative impact on nature, and agricultural expansion is the most widespread form of land-use change, with more than one third of the terrestrial land surface being used for cropping or animal husbandry. We urgently need innovative land-use strategies to reconcile feeding humanity and conserving biodiversity. And these strategies need to include the world’s most vulnerable populations.

How can a member of the public take action to stem the threat of mass extinction and biodiversity loss?

Dan Janzen: The answer to this question depends totally on whether you live in Costa Rica, Pakistan, or Pennsylvania. The one I always give to Penn students is, ‘Get very good at what you do well and like doing well, get very rich at it in either money or capacity, and offer that to the conserved or conservable wildland that catches your fancy and is political/logistically most accessible to you.’ And if you cannot find one that can absorb your skills, our efforts in Costa Rican tropical conservation can always absorb such donations and put them to very good use.

David YadenActive support for policy changes and sustainable consumption seem most important, but some psychological factors may help to encourage these actions. My research has explored ‘the overview effect,’ a psychologically impactful experience that astronauts sometimes report after viewing Earth from orbit. A similar kind of mental shift, from a local to a global perspective, may help to motivate action on behalf of Earth as a whole.

Dan Garofalo: Reducing your carbon or ecological footprint will reduce pressure on the natural world and all the species that inhabit it. There’s no silver bullet, and there’s no secret lever that will protect ecosystems from our collective impact, but there are actions that we can take: Pay attention to where you live, how you commute, your purchasing/consumption habits, your travel footprint, and what you eat. Those five things tend to define your impact.

Joseph Kable, Baird Term Professor, Department of PsychologySchool of Arts and Sciences: One thing people can do is prioritize these issues in their politics. Adequate tackling the issues raised in the U.N. report is going to require collective action at a large scale. While most people will say they are concerned about the environment if you directly ask them, very few volunteer environmental issues as one of the top concerns that drives their vote.

Daniel Aldana Cohen: The only remedy for the threats we face at the scale at which they confront us is massive political economic change. By far the most meaningful thing an individual person can do is join a social, political, or cultural movement aimed at transforming our political economy. No individual’s consumer choices and no group’s consumer choices are significant in the absence structural change.

Julie Ellis: I have three actions to recommend:

  • Plant native species in your yard. Native plants are adapted to local environmental conditions, so they require fewer resources such as water. In addition, they provide habitat for birds, native pollinators, and many other species of wildlife. Many populations of native pollinators, including bumble bees and butterflies, are facing some degree of extinction risk. Planting native wildflowers can give these populations a boost.
  • Reduce your plastic use, especially single-use items such as bags, straws, and flatware. There are a growing number of reusable and sustainable options for commonly used household products including toilet paper and toothbrushes made from bamboo and laundry detergent in biodegradable pods and compostable packaging. Talk to your local restaurants and coffee shops. Explain the problem of plastic pollution, and ask them to consider switching to sustainable, reusable materials. Make your voice heard and use your consumer power to pressure businesses to be more responsible in their resource use.
  • Vote for representatives who support innovation in sustainable energy and renewable resources.
OH Digest: Long-life secrets from a tortoise, the health risks of a changing climate, and more

OH Digest: Long-life secrets from a tortoise, the health risks of a changing climate, and more

The genetic code of Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Galapagos tortoises, could contain insight about what leads to longer lifespans. (Photo credit: FlickrCC/DavidCook)

By Jacob Williamson-Rea

Our weekly round-up compiles stories and news, both from here at Penn and around the world, that highlight the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health.

Seeking clues to longevity in Lonesome George’s genes
The New York Times, Dec. 8, 2018
Lonesome George, the last surviving Galapagos Pinta Island tortoise, died in 2012 after living for more than a century. Since then, researchers have been analyzing his genetic code in hopes of better understanding what allowed for his impressive lifespan.

How climate change is challenging health care
The Atlantic, Dec. 6, 2018
Climate change will make people sicker, increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, and expand the range of diseases caused by mosquitoes and ticks, according to a recent report published in The Lancent, a public-health journal.

‘Planet of the chickens:’ How the bird took over the world
BBC News, Dec. 12, 2018
Human activity has dominated our planet. This includes what we eat: The Earth is home to more than 23 billion chickens. But as supermarket-ready chicken populations have increased, wild bird populations have decreased, amplifying the negative consequences of human activity on the natural world.

Five years of record warmth intensify Arctic’s transformation
Scientific American, Dec. 12, 2018
The Arctic experienced its second-warmest year ever, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s yearly Arctic Report Card. These changes are affecting animal populations such as wild caribou and reindeer, which have each plummeted by more than 50 percent since 1990.

Tourists may be making Antarctica’s penguins sick
Science, Dec. 13, 2018
Researchers have discovered human-linked pathogens in Antarctic bird poop. This indicates that the previously isolated animals are prone to our infections, which, in extreme cases, could lead to population collapse and extinction.

OH Digest: Gene-edited babies, preventing malaria, and more

OH Digest: Gene-edited babies, preventing malaria, and more

A researcher claims to have edited the genes of a pair of twins, sending the scientific community into debate. (Photo: WikiCommons)


By Jacob Williamson-Rea

Our round-up compiles stories and news, both from here at Penn and around the world, that highlight the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health.

Chinese researcher claims first gene-edited babies
AP News, Nov. 26, 2018
Chinese researcher He Jiankui claims to have successfully gene-edited day-old embryos. He altered the DNA of twin girls, using a rare gene that allows one to naturally fight off HIV. Controversy surrounds this news, and some experts have strongly condemned the experiment.

Malaysia is ground zero for the next malaria menace
Science News, Nov. 4, 2018
Cases of monkey malaria are increasing in Malaysia, and deforestation is partially to blame. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes thrive in deforested areas with felled trees because humans move closer to the cleared areas.

Massive crater under Greenland’s ice points to climate-altering impact in the time of humans
Science, Nov. 14, 2018
Beneath the Hiawatha Glacier in Northwest Greenland, there’s a crater bigger than Washington, D.C., researchers report in Science Advances. The crater might hold the key to understanding the crater’s impact changed our climate.

Palm oil: One woman’s fight to save ‘the last place on Earth’
BBC, Nov. 18, 2018
Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem is the only place on Earth where elephants, rhinos, orangutans, and tigers live together. Facing climate change and the palm oil industry, environmental activist Farwiza Farhan vows to protect it.

WHO chief warns Congo violence is allowing Ebola to spread
Scientific American, Nov. 19, 2018
World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns that rebel attacks in the Democratic of Congo, particularly on the Ebola outbreak center in Beni, have made the virus difficult to contain.

Air pollution cuts two years off global average lifespan, says study
The Guardian, Nov. 20, 2018
Pollution produced by vehicles, industry, and fossil fuels cuts the average human lifespan by about two years, according to a new study. The effect worsens in heavily polluted nations such as China and India, which see lifespans shortened by six years.

OH Digest: Insect fertility, genetically modified mosquitoes, and more

OH Digest: Insect fertility, genetically modified mosquitoes, and more

Insect populations have seen a sharp decline in male fertility, which may be the cause of population decreases. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

By Jacob Williamson-Rea

Our weekly round-up compiles stories and news, both from here at Penn and around the world, that highlight the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health.

Heatwaves can ‘wipe out’ male insect fertility
The Guardian, Nov. 13, 2018
Heatwaves might be destroying the fertility of male beetles. As heatwaves become more common and as wildlife disappears, scientists suspect these trends are linked. Also worrying is the decrease in the sperm counts of western men, which have been cut in half during the past 40 years. 

Climate change may have made the Arctic deadlier for baby shorebirds
Science News, Nov. 13, 2018
The Arctic used to be a haven for shorebirds during nesting season. As larger numbers of birds have been migrating to these breeding grounds, more predators have arrived, putting young birds at risk. Experts suspect climate change plays a role.

As Ebola outbreak worsens in Congo, U.S. stays out of war zone
The Washington Post,
Nov. 14, 2018
Ebola response teams are struggling to isolate and track Ebola patients in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Violence has intensified near the Ebola operations center in Beni, an urban epicenter, which has interfered with standard disease control measures.

Hurricane Harvey passed over, but these fish kept making babies
The New York Times, Nov. 15, 2018
Though Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on land, the spotted seatrout continued reproducing, which suggests that some animals might remain resilient in the face of environmental destruction.

Africa doesn’t need genetically modified mosquitoes
Scientific American, Nov. 13, 2018
Some say genetically modified mosquitoes could eventually eliminate not only mosquitoes, but vector-borne diseases as well. But critics say the risk isn’t worth it, and that genetically modified animals could create unforeseen disasters.


How will the midterms affect health care, women’s health, and climate change?

How will the midterms affect health care, women’s health, and climate change?

Tomorrow’s midterm elections will affect health-related issues. Three Penn experts weigh in with their opinions on how the results may change health care in general, women’s health, and environmental policy.

Health care
If Republicans retain a majority in the House and the Senate after the midterm elections, they might make another push for repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), says Janet Weiner, co-director for health policy at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. However, it is unclear whether they could muster enough votes with a presidential election on the horizon. If Republicans maintain control of the Senate but lose the House, she says, the ensuing gridlock would leave little chance for major health care reform legislation in the next two years.

One aspect of the ACA has dominated campaigns across the country, Weiner adds.“People are very concerned about pre-existing conditions,” she says. “There’s widespread agreement across parties that people shouldn’t be turned down [for having a pre-existing illness], but some policies might have that effect. People are concerned about prices in general, but neither party has a magic bullet for that.”

In August, Republicans had set forth legislation that they said would protect those with pre-existing conditions, but the bill would have allowed insurers to deny treatment and services for certain conditions. In light of that proposal and in an effort to retain Senate seats in states like West Virginia and Florida, which Donald Trump won in 2016, many Democrats have honed their focus, saying they will continue to protect those with pre-existing illnesses from being denied insurance.

“We need a discussion about health care that’s taken out of the political realm, which is hard, but solutions come from finding agreement across parties,” Weiner says. “For now, people will vote for whoever they think will protect pre-existing conditions and the ability to see a doctor without going into debt.”

Women’s health
Twenty-three women are running for seats in the Senate, 239 women are competing for seats in the House, and 16 women are gubernatorial candidates. Those are record numbers, says Wendy Grube of Penn Nursing, who serves as interim director of the Center for Global Women’s Health. “This shows that women’s issues, especially women’s health, will be front and center [during the elections].”

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation Poll, three in 10 women voters say that health care is “the most important issue” when considering candidates, with gun policy and the economy following closely behind. “Additionally, 88 percent of women believe that funding for reproductive services is important or somewhat important in this election,” Grube says. “This means more than just birth control; this is access to cancer screenings, health education, and more.”

But few women’s health topics divide women across party lines more than abortion. Almost three-quarters of women who identify as Democrat or Democratic-leaning support access to these services, and 58 percent of women who identify as Republican or Republican-leaning favor restricting it. Republican women are also split down the middle on whether the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision should be overturned.

Add to this the surge of the #MeToo movement and the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and one of the most common challenges of midterm elections—apathy from voters, particularly young voters—vanishes.

“We’re witnessing a set of circumstances that is galvanizing, along with women candidates, women voters, and in particular younger women voters,” Grube says. “We can see this reflected in activities right here on campus. They’re canvassing, registering people to vote, and have been very vocal on the importance of voting. These young women see themselves as part of a change for the future.”

Climate change
Following the October report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which asserts the world must limit global warming to 1.5º C—not the previous 2º C max—climate change should be at the forefront of political discussion, says Christina Simeone, director of policy and external affairs at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. However, the report seems unlikely to influence long-term climate deniers.

“With the current administration, the potential to have meaningful climate change legislation passed will be zero, and the chance of a change in this administration’s executive agenda is slim to none,” Simeone says. This changes slightly, however, if Democrats win a majority in the House. They could then practice more oversight of the executive branch’s activities around climate change, environmental deregulation, and expansion of fossil fuel production.

In the interim, leadership will happen at the state level. Simeone says voters should keep an eye on two interesting ballot initiatives, one in Washington state, the other in Colorado.

Voters in Washington will vote to decide whether to implement a carbon fee, which would require polluters to pay for greenhouse gases emissions. Ballot Initiative 63 will test the waters as to whether states can implement climate policy as the Trump administration rolls it back.

In Colorado, voters will decide whether to establish Proposition 112, which would increase limits on new oil and gas drilling in the state. If passed, this would require 2,500 feet between wells and all buildings, unlike current limits, which require 1,000 feet from schools and 500 feet from homes. This could deal a major blow to the oil and gas industry, Simeone says.

A close House race in Florida’s 26th district, in the state’s southernmost part, could indicate how this topic will impact elections in states directly threatened by climate change. Incumbent Republican Carlos Curbelo and Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell both recognize the danger that a changing climate poses to their state, which Simeone says is a step toward bipartisan agreement. On the other hand, in the state’s Senate race, climate change-denier and Republican candidate Rick Scott appears to have just a 30 percent chance of beating incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. As climate change begins to reshape the state’s coastline, Simeone says she expects voters will reshape politicians’ stances on it too.

“We’ve already started seeing more extreme weather events, as climate scientists predicted,” she says. “Scientists have warned a changing climate could have significant health impacts: heat-related deaths in the summer, flooding, drought, and increases in vector-borne diseases. Sadly, these terrible outcomes may be the only thing able to create the political will needed to make change.”

OH Digest: Protection for grizzlies, mosquitoes carrying plastic, and more

OH Digest: Protection for grizzlies, mosquitoes carrying plastic, and more

A court has ruled that protections should remain in place for grizzly bears in Yellowstone. (Photo: US Geological Survey)

By Jacob Williamson-Rea

Our weekly round-up compiles stories and news, both from here at Penn and around the world, that highlight the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health.

Court restores federal protections for Yellowstone-area grizzly bears
The Washington Post, September 24, 2018
The Trump Administration recently announced that Yellowstone grizzly populations had recovered and therefore no longer needed safeguarding. A judge overturned this decision, restoring federal protections for the bears.

Common weed killer—believed harmless to animals—may be harming bees worldwide
Science, September 13, 2018
Glyphosate has been considered safe for animals, but it now appears as though it might wreck honey bee populations. Pollinators like the honeybee are disappearing worldwide, and this only adds to researchers’ concerns.

Europe’s farmers on red alert as deadly African swine fever spreads to Belgium
The Guardian, September 14, 2018
An outbreak of highly contagious African swine fever has been reported in the Belgian town of Étalle, in the country’s southeast region. A separate outbreak continues to spread throughout Chinese provinces.

Saltmarsh sparrows fight to keep their heads above water
The New York Times, September 17, 2018
Even the smallest increase in sea levels causes a huge threat to the species. Researchers predict that if those waters keep rising at the current rate, it will be too late to save the birds.

Mosquitoes could carry plastic particles into the food chain
Scientific American, September 19, 2018
Mosquito larvae, and possibly other insect larvae, eat and then carry small plastic particles that remain in their bodies for the duration of their lives, according to new study in Biology Letters. These plastic particles are then consumed by insectivores, such as birds or spiders, which could mean a rapid spread of this undetected pollution.

DNA from seized elephant ivory unmasks three big trafficking cartels in Africa
The Guardian, September 19, 2018
Researchers report in Science Advances that they can work toward locating ivory tracking cartels by identifying elephant DNA in separate batches of tusks.