2018 Wasn’t a Completely Horrible Year for the Environment
By Jeff Turrentine
Was 2018 a tough year for the environment? Absolutely. But were there bright spots and victories among the attacks on biodiversity, climate and public health? Of course there were. Here are just a few, in case you're feeling blue about the state of our only planet.
The Ousters of Pruitt and Zinke
The first few weeks of 2018 saw Scott Pruitt, then administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, trying to deflect attention from several corruption scandals by publicly declaring his intention to halve the agency's workforce and slash its operating budget by 30 percent, all toward his stated goal of "protecting taxpayer dollars." Meanwhile, over at the Department of the Interior, then-Secretary Ryan Zinke was announcing his plan to get rid of 4,000 employees as a part of the largest reorganization in Interior's history—one that would accommodate President Trump's proposal, supported by Zinke, to cut the department's budget by $1.6 billion.
By that point in their now mercifully truncated careers, both men had made clear their willingness to abuse their substantial power in order to reward cronies and supporters from the fossil fuel industry. This article is too short to list all of their various crimes against the environment and public lands and health, but they include the rollback of air and water protections, the opening up of U.S. coastal waters to offshore drilling, the shrinkage and pillaging of our national monuments and the cynical rejection of climate science.
Their boss, President Trump, admired his two hires' dedication to destruction. But he came to hate the near-daily cavalcade of news stories detailing their shady dealings, which reinforced his administration's reputation as an incubator of graft. Pruitt's departure in July and Zinke's resignation last week were met with cheers by practically every American who's not currently employed in the oil, gas, or chemical industries—though their respective replacements, Andrew Wheeler and likely David Bernhardt, are every bit as dangerous (if not every bit as sleazy).
Keystone XL, Now on Ice
President Trump had been in office for only four days when, in one of his very first official acts, he signed an executive order advancing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project that President Obama had blocked in 2015, signaling the brand-new administration's old-fashioned obeisance to the fossil fuel industry. His signature (accompanied by the comment that he hoped his reversal of Obama's decision would help "get that pipeline built") was meant to fast-track the construction of a 1,179-mile tube designed to carry 830,000 barrels a day of filthy, toxic tar-sands oil from Alberta to Nebraska.
If Trump's environmental policy was a race to the bottom, this act was the starting gun—alerting everyone (but especially oil and gas companies) that concerns about the climate and the environment were no longer germane to our national conversation about energy. Although Obama had managed to slow the pipeline's progress substantially, KXL seemed to be coming back from the dead ... until last month, when a federal judge in Montana temporarily blocked the construction of Keystone XL, ruling that Trump's State Department hadn't provided sufficient justification for its approval.
The judge, Brian Morris, furthermore criticized the administration for neglecting to factor in the risk of ruptures and spills, asserting that the State Department's analysis of the project's environmental impact "fell short of a 'hard look.'" While this latest delay isn't the death knell that many have been hoping for, every day that passes without "that pipeline built" adds to the sense of uncertainty about KXL's ultimate fate.
A Congress Going Green?
When the 116th Congress convenes in a few weeks, it will contain more women and people of color than ever before. It will also be, collectively, one of the youngest groups ever to be sworn in: 25 members of the new class are 40 years of age or younger, and the average age of new members is 10 years younger than the average age of the 115th Congress.
With youth and diversity comes a greater climate consciousness, and there is already much buzz around a Green New Deal. The 116th Congress just may be the one to usher in a paradigm-shifting economic and legislative package that creates thousands of new jobs in an expanded clean-energy sector designed to generate 100 percent of America's electricity from clean sources, and puts the country on a path to net-zero carbon pollution by 2050. Just a few years ago, such an endeavor was little more than a progressive pipe dream. Now it's got real momentum to match its real popularity among Americans of all political stripes. A recent poll of registered voters showed that 92 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of independents, and 64 percent of Republicans support a Green New Deal.
Numbers like that strongly suggest that we're beyond talking about whether some ambitious effort to curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will pass; instead it's a matter of when. Politicians who were once afraid to talk about climate change on the floor of the House or the Senate—calling it a "divisive" issue—are soon going to be afraid of avoiding the topic.
Year of the Elephant
Last Dec. 31, 2017, China finally put an end to its legal, government-sanctioned ivory trade. That ban is already yielding results: According to a recent study, the number of people in China who say they intend to buy ivory has dropped by almost half this year, and 9 out of 10 Chinese citizens asked about the ban say that they support it. In a happy inversion of the laws of economics, demand seems to be falling even as supply dwindles.
Now, almost exactly a year later, the United Kingdom has announced an incoming ivory ban of its own, imposing stringent new rules on the trade that are being touted as some of the toughest in the world. That announcement follows news that the Dutch intend to ban all sales of raw ivory in their country beginning in March. A similar ban proposed by Singapore's government is currently undergoing public debate.
Much more needs to be done, of course, to put an end to the killing of elephants for ivory. There are still way too many loopholes that help elephant poachers and ivory traffickers stay in business, and too many countries that have yet to stop their domestic ivory trades. (We're looking at you, EU and Japan.) And under President Trump, the U.S.—which instituted a near-total ban on African ivory in 2016—recently relaxed its rules that forbade the importing of elephant trophy parts, a setback for our country and a horrible message to send to the rest of the world. But overall, the global momentum is shifting on this issue, and it's moving in the right direction.
The new year will be full of challenges, the biggest of which will be getting the nations of the world (including our own) to agree on a means of curbing carbon pollution and combating climate change. But the climate isn't all that's changing. The mood appears to be changing, too—and for the better.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
Low Vitamin D, Severe COVID-19 Disease?<p>A research study carried out <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352364620300067?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">at the University of Hohenheim</a> has now established a link between vitamin D deficiency, certain previous diseases, and severe cases of COVID-19.</p><p>According to the study, "there is a lot of evidence that several non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome) are associated with low vitamin D plasma levels. These comorbidities, together with the often accompanying vitamin D deficiency, increase the risk of severe COVID-19 events."</p><p>"This statement is completely correct," said Martin Fassnacht, head of endocrinology at the University Hospital of Würzburg. However, he qualifies that it is a pure association, "i.e. a mere observation that these events occur together.</p><p>Dr. Fassnacht is very critical of the hype surrounding vitamin D, but not because he denies the vitamin serves important functions. However, studies on humans have not been able to show that vitamin D has the healing powers many often propagate.</p><p>Fassnacht says, "If you take a closer look, the hopes that the administration of vitamin D has a healing effect have not been confirmed so far."</p>
Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
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