May 30, 2024

Illustration of microscope viewing earth

The vision

“To deny climate change is to say you don’t believe in gravity.”

— Christina Figueres, climate advocate and diplomat,
in her 2020 book
The future we choose

The spotlight

How do we know that the climate is changing – and that humans are causing it? To a certain extent we can see and feel it ourselves. New temperature and weather extremes are undeniable, affecting more and more places every year. And the greenhouse effect (the mechanism by which carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere) is taught in many basic science classes. But when asked how they know that “climate change is real,” some people will simply respond that way 99.9 percent of scientists agree that it is.

“To me, intellectually, it always felt like a bit of a cop-out,” said Jesse Nichols, a video producer at Grist. Sure, it’s a compelling statistic, and there’s nothing wrong with putting our faith in the consensus of the scientific community. But Nichols also felt that understanding how scientists reached this conclusion and supported it—sometimes in surprising ways—can be enlightening and empowering.

“Something that’s always really fascinated me is people who are able to uncover giant stories from small pieces of evidence,” he said, “like environmental detective stories.”

That’s a big part of the ethos behind it Proof of concept, a video series created by Nichols that profiles the science and scientists behind some of the most surprising recent environmental research and discoveries. The videos take viewers from a laboratory at MIT to a primate research center in California to a museum basement in Seattle filled with jars of centuries-old preserved fish.

In one, Nichols interviews scientists studying one of the world’s healthiest coral reefs — the Flower Garden Banks, in the Gulf of Mexico, which also happens to be surrounded by offshore oil drilling.

A collage of corals and oil rigs, with a play button over it

Like trees, corals grow bands each year that allow researchers to date them—and to gain insight into what’s going on in the ocean climate each year the corals grow. As Nichols says in his narrative, “The legacy of oil extraction, carbon emissions and climate change is literally etched into the hard skeletons of the corals themselves.”

These coral “time capsules,” as one scientist puts it in the video, are exactly the kind of clues Nichols was referring to when he compared scientific discovery to a detective story. By analyzing small scraps of coral from each of the different bands, scientists were able to detect changes over time that corresponded to global events. By looking at the carbon in the coral, they could see an increase in an isotope associated with fossil fuel emissions – a clear sign that our planet’s rising carbon emissions are indeed caused by humans. Another finding was the increased presence of barium in the reef skeleton, an element often used as a lubricant in offshore oil wells.

“By analyzing the dust you got from that coral skeleton, you can show that climate change was happening—or that oil boomed in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1970s, or that fertilizer from the Mississippi River increased, or that nuclear weapons testing happened throughout the Cold War,” Nichols said. “All these world history events were visible within the skeleton of a coral, and I thought it was so cool that scientists could tell such big stories from such small evidence. “

Watch the full video here.

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In another video from the series, Nichols talks to Chelsea Wood, a parasitologist. “I don’t think anybody is born a parasitologist — like, nobody grows up wanting to study worms,” ​​Wood jokes in the video. But when she found out how biodiverse parasites really are, and the often crucial roles they play in ecosystems, it felt like she’d discovered a whole new secret world. She decided to dedicate her career to studying parasite ecology, and how humans affect it.

A collage showing a shoreline ecosystem, with puppet hands floating above

Wood wanted to find out what had happened in the world of parasites over the last 100 years of global change, and that data did not exist. So she figured out a way to get it. Much as the scientists at Flower Garden Banks used the historical record preserved in corals themselves to study how environmental changes affected reefs, Wood found a historical record of parasites – in the bellies of fish. She opened jars of fish specimens in the Burke Museum in Seattle dating back to the 1800s and dissected the fish to find out what kind of parasites lived in them.

“Chelsea has a completely overlooked story about how parasites have changed over the last century, using these fish samples that were collecting dust in a basement,” Nichols told me. One thing she and her team discovered is that complex parasites—ones that depend on biodiverse ecosystems with several different host species—have been steadily declining, and climate change is almost certainly to blame.

Watch the full video here.

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The third follows Lisa Miller, a researcher at the California National Primate Research Center. In 2008, summer wildfires blanketed Northern California with smoke—and Miller had an idea. A group of 50 rhesus monkeys have just been born at the center and, like everyone else in the area, have been exposed to the unusually high levels of wildfire smoke. She wondered if they could study these monkeys, compared to a control group born the following year, to learn more about the effects of early exposure to air pollution.

A collage showing monkeys, lungs and a brain, with a play button over it

The scientists monitored the monkeys’ health through routine medical examinations such as blood draws and CT scans, and also by fitting them with Fitbit-like collars to monitor their physical activity. They found that the wildfire smoke led to lifelong health impacts. The exposed monkeys had weaker immune systems when they were young, which then changed to overactive immune systems when they were adults. They developed smaller and stiffer lungs than the control group, and did not sleep as well.

Because rhesus monkeys are genetically similar to humans, these findings also have implications for human health. Long-term health studies in humans are notoriously difficult because it is nearly impossible to control for various environmental and lifestyle factors that complicate things. But the wildfire smoke that descended over the primate research center, a completely controlled environment, provided a unique opportunity to learn more about this climate impact.

“It was really, in my opinion, serendipity — in the sense that we were in the right place at the right time,” Miller says in the video.

Watch the full video here.

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The fourth and final video in this year’s series will be published tomorrow. Unsubscribe to watch it then!

As a preview: The story looks at ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase, or RuBisCO — an enzyme that enables plants to pull carbon dioxide from the air to support photosynthesis, a process that in turn fuels all life on Earth. The twist is that RuBisCO is notoriously bad at its job, and climate change seems to be making it even worse. But scientists are working to design a new variety.

“I think science itself helps us know how the world works, and you can’t solve a problem if you don’t know how the system works,” Nichols said. “All these are stories of people trying to get a clearer picture of what’s going on. And having a good picture of what’s going on is kind of like having a map when you’re lost in the wilderness.”

– Claire Elise Thompson

A parting shot

In last week’s newsletter about the 15 minutes city, we asked where you can walk within 15 minutes of where you live. For fun, I put some of your answers into an AI image generator to see what our collective 15-minute city might look like. One thing I found interesting – even with my reminders, the generator struggled to conjure up a “city” without cars, and to match many different specific features (a pizzeria, a taco truck, a bookstore, a church, an urgent care clinic … ) in a single scene. But I would still live here, I think. what about you

A panel of nine AI-generated illustrations showing city streets with people walking and cycling, trees and shop fronts

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