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What to Expect and What to Hope for in Obama's Final State of the Union
In his final State of the Union speech tomorrow night, President Obama will certainly have a lot to say about the economy, terrorism, gun control and health care. But he is also likely to address climate change, energy and other issues that Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) works on more directly. Here’s a look on what he’s likely to say on these issues, as well as some things he should say about them, but may not.
A Banner Year on Climate Change
In last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama stated that “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” and said he was “determined to make sure that American leadership drives international action.” By aggressively implementing his Climate Action Plan—especially EPA’s standards on the amount of carbon pollution that the nation’s power plants are allowed to dump into the atmosphere—and engaging in nonstop diplomacy with China, India, Brazil and other key countries, the president and his team laid the groundwork for last month’s historic climate agreement in Paris. Expect President Obama to claim his share of the credit for this achievement, which blows a gaping hole in opponents’ arguments that other countries won’t join the U.S. if we take action on climate change. Also expect him to lay out the economic, environmental and security benefits of such action and to commit to keep working for additional progress on this critical issue until his last day in office. Not only is this the right thing to do; it also is good politics, as the American public—including a majority of Republicans—strongly supports regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
President Obama may well mention Mission Innovation, the commitment announced in Paris by the U.S. and 19 other countries to double the level of government investment in clean energy technology R&D over the next five years and call for bipartisan support for this initiative. He may acknowledge the extension of the investment tax credit and production tax credit provisions for solar, wind and other renewable sources in the comprehensive tax bill passed by Congress last month and how this will continue the rapid increase in electricity production these clean energy resources have experienced since he took office in 2009.
He will likely discuss how climate-related impacts—including tidal flooding linked to sea level rise, forest die-back, wildfires, heatwaves, drought, health effects and threats to iconic landmarks and to our electricity system—are increasingly affecting local communities across the country and ask Congress to join him in increasing federal assistance to state and local governments to prepare for and cope with the consequences of climate change.
President Obama may also highlight the need for climate justice and equity to be key components of efforts to build resilience in communities on the frontlines of climate change and put in a plug for his solar access initiative, which seeks to ensure that disadvantaged communities enjoy full access to clean, renewable forms of energy and benefit from the rapid growth of clean energy jobs.
Clean Vehicles and Fuels: Good Progress and More to Come
The increasing fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet is a major contributor to recent reductions in oil and gasoline prices; the president was part of a bipartisan group of Senators who helped pass historic legislation in 2007 that increased the federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for light-duty vehicles for the first time in 20 years and he built on that success during his first term as president by adopting even more ambitious standards for new light-duty vehicles out to 2025. He now needs to ensure that the analysis and technology assessments that his agencies use as they prepare for next year’s mid-term evaluation of these standards is based on the best information and science. That will allow the next administration to have the best data in hand when assessing how to keep the 2025 standards strong.
In his 2014 State of the Union address, the president committed to keep working to improve vehicle efficiency, “by setting new standards for our trucks, so we can keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump.” This spring, the Obama administration is set to finalize these standards to increase fuel efficiency in our heavy-duty trucks, which make up less than 7 percent of cars on the road but use more than 25 percent of our oil. While strong, the administration’s proposed standards could still be improved, according to UCS analysis. Stronger standards would require a 40 percent reduction in fuel consumption by 2025—a technically feasible and cost-effective target that, when compared to the current proposal, would save more fuel and sooner. When final, these standards will be another major component of the comprehensive strategy that’s needed to cut our oil use in half through efficiency and innovation, reducing the problems oil causes our economy, our security, our environment and our climate.
President Obama also can and should do more to address the supply side of the equation. For the fact is that unnecessary leaking, venting and flaring of methane dramatically increases the greenhouse gas emissions associated with extracting, refining and producing a barrel of oil. The Obama administration has already proposed regulations to address methane leaks from new and modified oil and gas production; tomorrow night, the president should announce that not only will he finalize those standards, but that he will also move to set standards for existing drilling sites before he leaves office next year.
Grounds For Caution on Natural Gas
As he has in previous State of the Union addresses, President Obama may refer to the nation’s expanding production and use of natural gas as a benefit to our economy and environment. It’s true that substituting natural gas for coal in electricity production can help reduce carbon pollution in the near-term, though just as with oil, there are fugitive methane emissions from gas production and use, which if large enough, could overwhelm these carbon benefits. But ultimately, we need to virtually eliminate carbon pollution from all sources—including natural gas—if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
An overreliance on natural gas over the long-term won’t allow us to achieve the emissions reductions needed to address global warming and could crowd out essential investments in renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency. Also, as UCS’s toolkit on fracking makes clear, too many communities are being pressed to make decisions on new oil and gas production projects without access to comprehensive and reliable scientific information about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on their local air and water quality, community health, safety, economy, environment and overall quality of life. President Obama should pledge that the federal government will take a stronger role in protecting these communities and work with states to strengthen regulation and oversight of these industries.
Protecting the Government’s Ability to Protect Us
Just last week, the House passed H.R. 1155, the Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome (or “SCRUB”) Act, which as the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards points out, “would establish a new bureaucracy empowered to dismantle long-established public health and safety standards and would make it significantly more difficult for Congress and federal agencies to implement essential future protections.” Fortunately, the White House has already issued a veto threat for this ill-conceived legislation, should it ever reach the president’s desk. But this isn’t the first bad idea on “reforming” the federal regulatory process to be put forward by the current Congress and it almost certainly won’t be the last. President Obama should make it crystal clear tomorrow night that he will continue to stand up to these efforts of special interests and their allies in Congress to undermine the ability of the federal government to protect the public’s health and safety.
There is also more that President Obama can do on his own on this front. For example, in 2013, he issued an Executive Order to improve chemical facility safety and security, but as my colleague Gretchen Goldman points out, the rules that provide better information for communities and protections against the risks of chemical accidents—the EPA’s so-called Risk Management Plan—are woefully out of date. The president should ensure these rules are updated before he leaves office.
Needed: A National Food Policy
While the president may once again refer to First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity, it’s unlikely he will address the disconnect between health and nutrition policies, on the one hand and our national agricultural policy on the other. As UCS Food and Environment Program Director Ricardo Salvador and three colleagues put it in a November, 2014 Washington Post op-ed:
"How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on Americans’ well-being than any other human activity. The food industry is the largest sector of our economy; food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality and the federal budget. Yet we have no food policy—no plan or agreed-upon principles—for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole."
While an executive order to establish a national policy for food, health and well-being is likely a bridge too far in the president’s final year, the lack of a national food policy needs to be an issue in this year’s presidential campaign.
In the meantime, President Obama should make clear that he will defend healthy and sustainable food and farm policies in 2016, which will likely see the passage of at least one major food bill, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) Act. CNR sets nutrition standards and funding levels for school lunch and breakfast programs and authorizes the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program, which provides food assistance to low-income families. It also authorizes the Farm to School program, which has been instrumental in connecting local and regional farmers with schools, providing a win for farmers and schools alike. President Obama can use his veto power to ensure that a CNR bill delivers healthy, affordable food for those who need it most. Additionally, he can ensure that any other food and agriculture legislation or federal rules are developed using sound science in order to protect our water, air and soil and our families’ health.
Reducing the Threat from Nuclear Weapons
Less than three months after taking office, President Obama gave a stirring speech in Prague on reducing the threat from nuclear weapons. Sensibly, he sought to “put an end to Cold War thinking” and to “reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy.” He set forth a bold goal by declaring “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Almost seven years later, there has been far less progress toward those goals than many—presumably including the president—had hoped. Some of that is due to Russian intransigence and misbehavior, but despite those challenges, President Obama still has time and the authority to take steps that would reduce the nuclear threat.
He could begin tomorrow night, by declaring that the U.S. will remove its land-based nuclear-armed missiles from hair trigger alert, a dangerous posture held over from the Cold War that dramatically increases the chances of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war. He could also cancel the proposed new nuclear-armed cruise missile, a dangerous new capability that lowers the threshold for nuclear use. In June 2013, based on a comprehensive Pentagon study of military requirements, President Obama declared that the U.S. could safely reduce deployed U.S. nuclear forces by one-third, but he has not done so. He could seize that opportunity in the State of the Union. Finally, he could declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the U.S. and its allies, a significant move that would fulfill his intention to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy.
By reducing the nuclear threat, each of these steps would lead to a significant improvement in U.S. and global security.
Making Full Use of the Bully Pulpit
President Obama can take a measure of satisfaction from the difference he and his administration have made on issues such as these that are of such vital importance to the future of all Americans. But there is clearly more work to be done and the president has made clear he will use every remaining minute of his time in office to make more progress wherever he can.
Part of his focus over the next year—and beyond—should be on continuing to raise public awareness of the benefits of responsible government action on climate change, clean energy, public health and safety protections, arms control and other critical issues. This will not only build support for the actions he takes as president, but will help create positive pressure for continued constructive action after he leaves the Oval Office next January.
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By Tom Duszynski
The coronavirus is certainly scary, but despite the constant reporting on total cases and a climbing death toll, the reality is that the vast majority of people who come down with COVID-19 survive it. Just as the number of cases grows, so does another number: those who have recovered.
In mid-March, the number of patients in the U.S. who had officially recovered from the virus was close to zero. That number is now in the tens of thousands and is climbing every day. But recovering from COVID-19 is more complicated than simply feeling better. Recovery involves biology, epidemiology and a little bit of bureaucracy too.
How does your body fight off COVID-19?<p>Once a person is exposed the coronavirus, the body starts producing <a href="https://www.mblintl.com/products/what-are-antibodies-mbli/" target="_blank">proteins called antibodies to fight the infection</a>. As these <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/27/serological-tests-reveal-immune-coronavirus/" target="_blank">antibodies start to successfully contain the virus</a> and keep it from replicating in the body, symptoms usually begin to lessen and you start to feel better. Eventually, if all goes well, your immune system will completely destroy all of the virus in your system. A person who was infected with and survived a virus with no long-term health effects or disabilities has "recovered."</p><p>On average, a person who is infected with SARS-CoV-2 will feel ill for about seven days from the onset of symptoms. Even after symptoms disappear, there still may be small amounts of the virus in a patient's system, and they should stay <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html" target="_blank">isolated for an additional three days</a> to ensure they have truly <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">recovered and are no longer infectious</a>.</p>
What about immunity?<p>In general, once you have recovered from a viral infection, your body will keep cells called lymphocytes in your system. These cells "remember" viruses they've previously seen and can react quickly to fight them off again. If you are exposed to a virus you have already had, your antibodies will likely stop the virus before it starts causing symptoms. <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.5114%2Fceji.2018.77390" target="_blank">You become immune</a>. This is the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK27158/" target="_blank">principle behind many vaccines</a>.</p><p>Unfortunately, immunity isn't perfect. For many viruses, like mumps, immunity can wane over time, leaving you <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160421145747.htm" target="_blank">susceptible to the virus in the future</a>. This is why you need to get revaccinated – those "booster shots" – occasionally: to prompt your immune system to make more antibodies and memory cells.</p><p>Since this coronavirus is so new, scientists still don't know whether people who recover from COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/faq.html" target="_blank">immune to future infections of the virus</a>. Doctors are finding antibodies in ill and recovered patients, and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/clinical-guidance-management-patients.html" target="_blank">that indicates the development of immunity</a>. But the question remains how long that immunity will last. Other coronaviruses like <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.25685" target="_blank">SARS and MERS produce an immune response</a> that will protect a person at least for a short time. I would suspect the same is true of SARS-CoV-2, but the research simply hasn't been done yet to say so definitively.</p>
Why have so few people officially recovered in the US?<p>This is a dangerous virus, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is being extremely careful when deciding what it means to recover from COVID-19. Both medical and testing criteria must be met before a person is <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/disposition-in-home-patients.html" target="_blank">officially declared recovered</a>.</p><p>Medically, a person must be fever-free without fever-reducing medications for three consecutive days. They must show an improvement in their other symptoms, including reduced coughing and shortness of breath. And it must be at least seven full days <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">since the symptoms began</a>.</p><p>In addition to those requirements, the CDC guidelines say that a person must test negative for the coronavirus twice, with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/care-for-someone.html" target="_blank">tests taken at least 24 hours apart</a>.</p><p>Only then, if both the symptom and testing conditions are met, is a person officially considered recovered by the CDC.</p><p>This second testing requirement is likely why there were so few official recovered cases in the U.S. until late March. Initially, there was a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/health/coronavirus-test-shortages-face-masks-swabs.html" target="_blank">massive shortage of testing in the U.S.</a> So while many people were certainly recovering over the last few weeks, this could not be officially confirmed. As the country enters the height of the pandemic in the coming weeks, focus is still on <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/hcp/clinical-criteria.html" target="_blank">testing those who are infected</a>, not those who have likely recovered.</p><p>Many more people are being tested now that states and private companies have begun <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/testing-in-us.html" target="_blank">producing and distributing tests</a>. As <a href="https://www.dispatch.com/news/20200406/coronavirus-in-ohio-from-its-rocky-start-testing-for-covid-19-slowly-ramping-up" target="_blank">the number of available tests increases</a> and the pandemic eventually slows in the country, more testing will be available for those who have appeared to recover. As people who have already recovered are tested, the appearance of any new infections will help researchers learn <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/24/we-need-smart-coronavirus-testing-not-just-more-testing/" target="_blank">how long immunity can be expected to last</a>.</p>
Once a person has recovered, what can they do?<p>Knowing whether or not people are immune to COVID-19 after they recover is going to determine what individuals, communities and society at large can do going forward. If scientists can show that recovered patients are immune to the coronavirus, then a person who has recovered could in theory <a href="https://www.vox.com/2020/3/30/21186822/immunity-to-covid-19-test-coronavirus-rt-pcr-antibody" target="_blank">help support the health care system</a> by caring for those who are infected.</p><p>Once communities pass the peak of the epidemic, the number of new infections will decline, while the number of <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/china-says-passed-peak-coronavirus-epidemic-covid-19-1491863" target="_blank">recovered people will increase</a>. As these trends continue, the risk of transmission will fall. Once the risk of transmission has fallen enough, community-level isolation and social distancing orders will begin to relax and businesses will start to reopen. Based on what other countries have gone through, it will be <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00154-w" target="_blank">months until the risk of transmission is low</a> in the U.S.</p><p>But before any of this can happen, the U.S. and the world need to make it through the peak of this pandemic. Social distancing works to slow the spread of infectious diseases and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/what-you-can-do.html" target="_blank">is working for COVID-19</a>. Many people will <a href="https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/2019-novel-coronavirus/" target="_blank">need medical help to recover</a>, and social distancing will slow this virus down and give people the best chance to do so.</p>
By Elizabeth Claire Alberts
The future for the world's oceans often looks grim. Fisheries are set to collapse by 2048, according to one study, and 8 million tons of plastic pollute the ocean every year, causing considerable damage to delicate marine ecosystems. Yet a new study in Nature offers an alternative, and more optimistic view on the ocean's future: it asserts that the entire marine environment could be substantially rebuilt by 2050, if humanity is able to step up to the challenge.
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By Zulfikar Abbany
Bread has been a source of basic nutrition for centuries, the holy trinity being wheat, maize and rice. It has also been the reason for a lot of innovation in science and technology, from millstones to microbiological investigations into a family of single-cell fungi called Saccharomyces.
Chemical leavening<p>If you like a little heft in your loaf, you will need a leavening agent.</p><p>For those short on time, you can use baking soda. That's a chemical compound of sodium bicarbonate mixed with potassium bitartrate, or cream of tartar.</p><p>Soda breads have their traditions in parts of eastern and central Europe, and in Ireland and Scotland, with Melrose loaves and "farls."</p><p>They can taste a bit bland, though, and are often considered only as an emergency solution on Sundays. No disrespect intended: They taste just fine fresh from the oven.</p><p>Whether it's chemical or more "natural," leavening relies largely on the production of carbon dioxide.</p><p>When you mix an acid, such as vinegar, buttermilk, yogurt or apple cider, with an alkaline compound like baking soda, you get CO2. That CO2 creates bubbles, which in turn capture steam in the oven and allow a bread to rise.</p><p><span></span>But it's better with yeast. Tastes better, too. It just takes more time. </p>
What is yeast?<p>There are yeasts all around us — on grains, in the air, in biofuels. It even lives inside us, but that's not always a good thing.</p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1090575/pdf/1471-2334-5-22.pdf" target="_blank">Candida yeast</a> can cause infections of the skin, feet, mouth, penis or vagina if it builds up too much in the body.</p><p>One of the most common yeasts, however, is <em>Saccharomyces cerevisiae</em>. That's <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/an-early-beer-archaeologists-tap-ground-at-worlds-oldest-brewery/a-45480731" target="_blank">"brewer's"</a> or "baker's" yeast.</p><p>You can get fresh baker's yeast, often in 42-gram (1.48-ounce) cubes, or as dried yeast (quick action or active, which requires rehydration) in a sachet of 7 grams.</p><p>There's little difference: One is compressed and the other is dehydrated and granulated. But they do the same thing, essentially. </p><p>Some commercial yeast producers add molasses and other nutrients. But natural yeast has plenty of useful nutrients in it anyway, including B group vitamins, so who knows whether it's good or necessary to add them. </p>
How does yeast work?<p>When you mix flour, yeast and water, you set off a veritable chain reaction. Enzymes in the wheat convert starch into sugar. And the yeast creates enzymes of its own to convert those sugars into a form it can absorb.</p><p>The yeast "feeds" on the sugars to create carbon dioxide and alcohol. The yeast burps and farts, releasing gases into the mix, and that creates bubbles to trap CO2. </p><p>It's a vital fermentation process that breaks down the gluten in the flour and helps make your bread more digestible.</p><p>The yeast cells split and reproduce, generating lactic and carbonic acid, raising the temperature and ultimately adding flavor to the mix.</p><p>The longer you leave the yeast to do its thing, the better for your bread. Time is more important than the amount of yeast. </p><p>In fact, that's an enduring question — how much yeast? I'll use 20 grams fresh yeast for 500 grams of flour. Others say that's enough yeast for 1 kilo. If you are converting a dry-yeast recipe to fresh yeast, some bakers advise tripling the weight. So, if a sachet of dried yeast is 7 grams, your fresh yeast is 21 grams.</p><p><span></span>But that also depends on the flours you are using, temperatures in the bowl and the room, and a host of other things. You'll just have to experiment and see. No number of books (and I've read a stack on bread) will help as much as trial and error.</p>
Wild yeast: Sourdough<p>So, good bread needs time. If you have a lot of time, why not move it up a notch and grow wild yeast — a sourdough starter — in your own home?</p><p>A sourdough starter is not to be mistaken (as it often is) for the leaven, or "mother," "sponge," or <em>levain</em>. That's more a second stage, a descendant of the starter. You take a scoop from your starter and add it to another flour and water mixture when you prepare the dough for a new loaf. </p><p>The sourdough process utilizes yeasts naturally present in flour and … yet more time. A longer fermentation process allows a richer lactic acid bacteria <em>lactobacilli</em> or LAB to evolve, and that can be healthy for your gut microbiome.</p><p>It's simple enough to start a sourdough starter. All you need is flour, warm water and time.</p><p>Some suggest equal measures of whole-grain flour and water at 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), some say room temperature — just don't let the water exceed 40 C or the yeasts will die. Some suggest two parts flour to three parts water. But it's up to you whether you want a drier or wetter starter. You will know only through experimentation. </p><p>Some say you should filter tap water to remove chemicals like fluoride and avoid using water that's boiled and then cooled. Others say that really doesn't matter.</p><p>The main thing is, keep it clean and give it time. Days, weeks, months and years.</p>
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