Climate strikes to vaping deaths: Science and health stories that shaped 2019
Here are some of the top science stories that made the headlines in 2019
For decades now, scientists have been warning about the severe global impacts of climate change, but the message hit home this year with millions globally bringing climate crisis to the mainstream. However, this did not deter the US from starting the process of exiting the Paris Climate Agreement. Climate news with vaping and measles outbreak in the US dominated science and health headlines in 2019.
The world wakes up to climate change
In 2019, people around the world woke up to a grim reality: climate change is real, and it is getting worse.
Uniting timezones and generations, climate change made millions come out in massive protests to demand urgent action. Climate activist Greta Thunberg played a major role as demonstrations including September’s Global Climate Strike took over.
A decade ago, scientists identified potential tipping points in the Earth system. In a study this year, experts warned that over half of these climate tipping points are now "active". This threatens Arctic sea ice, Greenland ice sheet, Boreal forests Permafrost, Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, the Amazon rainforest, warm-water corals, West Antarctic Ice Sheet and parts of East Antarctica.
“Scientifically, this provides strong evidence for declaring a state of planetary emergency, to unleash world action,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in the report.
While floods are becoming more severe, oceans globally are also experiencing unusual and ‘surprisingly high’ temperatures at nearly double the rate than the scientists had expected.
Sea levels are also rising at an unprecedented rate. In September, a United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report stated while the sea level has risen globally by around 15 cm during the 20th century, it is currently rising more than twice as fast – 3.6 mm per year – and accelerating.
One study warned if emissions continue unchecked, global sea levels could rise by more than 2 meters by the end of this century. This, said the researchers, means that major cities across the world like New York and Shanghai could end up being submerged, displacing up to 187 million people would be globally. Another estimate said 300 million people living in coastal regions around the world could risk losing their homes and livelihood by 2050.
These growing threats of changes means it is no longer responsible to wait and see. The situation is urgent and we need an emergency response, said experts.
Trump formally moves to exit Paris Agreement
The Trump administration formally notified the UN this year of its decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement.
This came even as a new study showed that hundreds to thousands of heat-related deaths could be avoided per US city annually if the 1.5 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement is achieved.
The Paris Agreement aims at keeping the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with an ambition of limiting warming to 1.5°C. Nations in the agreement are required to submit their climate pledges every five years.
New York City, the most populous city in the US could see 1,980 1-in-30-year heat-related deaths avoided in the 2°C warmer world relative to the 3°C warmer world under the assumption of constant population, said the paper.
Lead author of the study, Dr. Eunice Lo from the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute in the UK, had told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW): “The US has emitted the largest amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the world since the 18th century, and it’s their very own citizens, and many others on the planet, whose livelihood and lives will be adversely affected by global warming. Pulling out of the Paris Agreement is threatening the well-being of thousands of people per US city, as our research shows.”
According to estimates, the US is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG) and carbon dioxide, accounting for about 13% and 14%, respectively.
“Slippage in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement by any nation will potentially cost us human lives. Fortunately, in 2020, for the first time, climate change will be a major topic in a US presidential election. I am hopeful that this will stir the electorate to take decisive action and ultimately redouble US efforts to make the Paris Agreement successful," James J. McCarthy, Professor of Oceanography at Harvard University and a co-author of a report on climate pledges, told MEAWW.
Climate meet fails to deliver
UN climate change conference in Madrid this year was an “important opportunity lost”, say experts. There was widespread disappointment that no overall consensus was reached on increased climate ambition.
It featured the 25th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 25) to the UN Framework Convention to Combat Climate Change (UNFCCC).
“I am disappointed with the results of #COP25. The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis. But we must not give up, and I will not give up,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement.
While agreement on some important issues had been reached by negotiators, for example on capacity building, a gender program, and technology, but an overall deal was held up over disagreement on the larger, and more contentious issues dealing with loss and damage caused by man-made climate change, as well as financing for adaptation, said experts.
A draft version of the outcome text was reported to have “underwhelmed all parties to the negotiations,” with representatives of NGOs and civil society describing it as “unacceptable, and a betrayal of the commitments” made under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
In a statement, executive secretary of UN climate change Patricia Espinosa expressed disappointment that the conference did not result in agreement on the guidelines for a “much-needed carbon market – an essential part of the toolkit to raise ambition that can harness the potential of the private sector and generate finance for adaptation.”
“Developed countries have yet to fully address the calls from developing countries for enhanced support in finance, technology, and capacity building, without which they cannot make their economies green and build adequate resilience to climate change. High-emitting countries did not send a clear enough signal that they are ready to improve their climate strategies,” she said.
1 million species face extinction
Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.
The UN report says “tens to hundreds of times” is the extent to which the current rate of global species extinction is higher compared to average over the last 10 million years, and the rate is accelerating.
The experts found that the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900.
Over 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.
Another study said bird populations in the US and Canada have declined by 29% since 1970 -- a loss of almost 3 billion birds, indicating a widespread ecological crisis.
The results show tremendous losses across diverse groups of birds and habitats - from iconic songsters such as meadowlarks to long-distance migrants such as swallows and backyard birds. More than 90% of this loss can be attributed to 12 bird families, including sparrows, warblers, swallows, and finches, say researchers.
America’s vaping crisis
This year saw the US grappling with a national outbreak of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI).
As of December 10, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 52 deaths and 2,409 cases of hospitalized EVALI.
CDC has issued strict warning: not to use e-cigarette or vaping products that contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - a compound found in cannabis - which has been linked to most of the cases.
In another breakthrough, the CDC detected vitamin E acetate in the lungs of EVALI patients – direct evidence suggesting that this substance is present in many EVALI cases. Investigation into other possible causes continues.
Recently, CDC experts said that patients with vaping-related lung illnesses are at risk of death and rehospitalization after they are discharged from the hospital. The warning came after seven patients died following discharge, and 31 patients were readmitted after initial discharge.
An updated guidance recommends that patients must be clinically stable before discharge, besides calling for follow-up with a clinical provider within 48 hours of hospital discharge.
Measles makes a comeback in the US
This year, there were more US measles cases than in any of the last 25 years.
Measles was eradicated in the US in 2000, but the virus managed to make a comeback this year. As of December 5, CDC reported 1,276 cases of measles in 31 states for 2019. This is the largest number of cases reported in the US since 1992 (963 cases).
According to CDC, the high number of cases in 2019 was primarily the result of a few large outbreaks – one in Washington State and two large outbreaks in New York that started in late 2018, all of them among close, tight-knit communities.
Measles is more likely to spread and cause outbreaks in US communities where groups of people are unvaccinated. From January 1 to December 5, 2019, 124 of the people who got measles this year were hospitalized, and 61 reported having complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis.
Health experts are keeping an eye on possible measles outbreaks – as travelers can bring back the disease from infected countries. Five US cities – Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Austin, Texas, and Richmond, Virginia – are on alert, after an American infected with measles made a stop at three different airports on December 17.