Science & Health

IPBES Report Will Call for Sustainable Growth

A draft report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is under final review in Paris this week. The report was three years in the making and is expected to lay out a rescue plan for the world’s vanishing biodiversity. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

Science & Health

Space Station Power Shortage Delays SpaceX Supply Run

A major power shortage at the International Space Station has delayed this week’s SpaceX supply run. 

SpaceX was supposed to launch a shipment Wednesday. But an old power-switching unit malfunctioned at the space station Monday and knocked two power channels offline. The six remaining power channels are working normally, according to NASA.

NASA stressed Tuesday that the station and its six astronauts are safe. But because of the hobbled solar-power grid, the SpaceX launch is off until at least Friday. NASA wants to replace the failed unit to restore full power, before sending up the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule.

The breakdown has left the station’s big robot arm outside with one functioning power channel instead of two. Two power sources are required — one as a backup — when the robot arm is used to capture visiting spacecraft like the Dragon.

Flight controllers will use the robot arm to replace the bad unit with a spare later this week, saving the astronauts from going out on a spacewalk.

There’s no rush for this delivery. Northrop Grumman launched supplies two weeks ago.

Solar wings collect and generate electricity for the entire space station. Any breakdown in this critical system can cut into power and affect operations.

SpaceX, meanwhile, is still investigating this month’s fiery loss of its new Dragon capsule designed for astronauts.

Six weeks after a successful test flight without a crew to the space station, the crew Dragon was engulfed in flames during a ground test. SpaceX was in the process of firing the capsule’s thrusters on a test stand. The April 20 accident — which occurred right before or during the firing of the launch-abort thrusters — sent thick smoke billowing into the sky.

SpaceX and NASA have offered few details. But the accident is sure to delay launching a crew Dragon with two NASA astronauts on board. SpaceX had been aiming for a summertime flight.

The company still needs to conduct a launch-abort test, before astronauts strap in. The Dragon that flew last month was supposed to be used for this test in June.

Economy & business

Governments Prepare for May Day Protests Worldwide

Major cities around the world have ramped up security, increasing police presence and even using drones to monitor crowds expected at May Day rallies.

International Workers’ Day, which is commonly known as May Day, celebrates the international labor movement on the first day of May every year. It’s a national holiday in more than 80 countries around the world.

France, which has been recently rankled by violent anti-government yellow vest protests, plans to deploy more than 7,400 police and dozens of drones in Paris. 

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said there was a risk that “radical activists” could join anti-government yellow vest protesters and union workers Wednesday in the streets of Paris and across the country. He said the goal was to protect demonstrators with “legitimate aspirations” and defend Paris from calls on social media to make it “the capital of rioting.”

He said other cities around France were also on alert.

In Germany, more than 5,500 officers will be deployed in Berlin where protesters, led by the “1 May Revolutionaries,” have been for weeks calling on people to demonstrate. As many as 20,000 activists are expected to protest against gentrification in the eastern district of Friedrichshain.

Across the world in Jakarta, police spokesman Commander Argo Yuwono said there will be 1,500 personnel deployed for a protest in the Istora Senayan area and 25,000 for a protest near the State Palace. He said more than 40,000 protesters are expected to take to the streets of Indonesia’s capital.

Turkish police have barricaded Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where May Day demonstrations have been held for years. The square was blocked off even though city authorities denied permits for rallies there this year. Taksim Square gained notoriety on May Day in 1977, when 34 demonstrators were killed when shots were fired from a nearby building. Hundreds of others were injured, but no one has been brought to justice for the shooting. 

In Iran, 12 members of the Free Workers Trade Union of Iran have been arrested as they met to plan International Workers’ Day celebrations, local media reported. Iran does not recognize labor unions independent of government-sanctioned groups. 

Economy & business

New French Energy Law Puts off Difficult Climate Decisions

France has set more ambitious targets to cut carbon emissions by 2050 but few measures will take effect on President Emmanuel Macron’s watch as the “yellow vest” protest movement limits his scope for environmental protection.

A draft new “energy transition law,” presented to cabinet on Tuesday and seen by Reuters, pledges to reduce carbon emissions by a factor of more than six by 2050 compared to 1990. That increases the emissions’ reduction target from a factor of four stipulated in a 2015 energy law introduced by Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande.

Months after coming to power in 2017, Macron dropped that law’s key provision — despite a pledge to respect it — to reduce nuclear energy’s share in French electricity production to 50 percent by 2025, from 75 percent currently.

The new law will delay the 50 percent nuclear target to 2035, transfer the European Union’s 2018 “Winter Package” energy targets into French law and will also form the framework for a detailed “PPE” 2019-2028 energy strategy.

However, it includes no landmark measures to reduce CO2 emissions now, and replaces an election promise to close coal-fired power stations with a CO2 emission cap that would not take effect before Jan. 2022, just before the end of Macron’s term.

“This government systematically makes vague and very long-term commitments, but never any concrete, short-term policies that would be implemented during this president’s term,”  Greenpeace energy campaigner Alix Mazounie said.

Macron was breaking his promise to close coal-fired plants by 2022, she said, adding that under the new system their life spans could be extended forever.

A senior environment ministry official denied the president was backtracking on environment pledges but acknowledged that no major new measures would be implemented on Macron’s watch.

“Energy policy must balance constraint with encouragement, and as we saw with the carbon contribution, going too fast and too hard is not necessarily the road to success,” she said, without wishing to be identified.

Late last year, Macron’s centrist government dropped planned fuel tax increases after protests by irate motorists turned into a nationwide movement by so-called “yellow vests” against his reforms.

Asked why Macron was setting targets for more than three decades away while he had undone the key element of his own predecessor’s energy law, the official said that was a normal process. 

“Anything one government decides, another government can change, that is the principle of democracy,” she said.

Climate Action Network campaigner Anne Bringault said France has fallen behind on eight of nine key climate targets.

“The state is not respecting its own climate objectives, and since the energy law states that the PPE must respect these objectives, they are now changing the law,” she said.

Environment lawyer Arnaud Gossement said the new law was necessary after Macron had extended the lifespan of state-controlled utility EDF’s nuclear reactors by a decade.

“Once you reserve a huge place for nuclear for another 10 years, that changes everything for the place you leave for other forms of energy,” he said.

Macron is an ardent supporter of nuclear energy, which he sees as France’s answer to climate change, Gossement said.

The draft law is due to be submitted to parliament in late June and then head to the senate for final approval later in the summer.

WWF France’s Pierre Cannet said he hoped that lawmakers would force changes to the new law to make it more effective in fighting climate change.

“We hope that they will at least make sure coal plants are closed and that we do more to insulate buildings,” he said.

Science & Health

Space Rock Left Big Crater on Moon During Full Lunar Eclipse

A space rock left a massive crater on the moon during January’s total lunar eclipse.

Spanish scientists reported Tuesday the meteoroid hit the moon at 38,000 mph (61,000 kph), carving out a crater nearly 50 feet (15 meters) across. It was the first impact flash ever observed during a lunar eclipse.

The scientists — who operate a lunar impact detection system using eight telescopes in Spain — believe the incoming object was a comet fragment up to 2 feet (60 centimeters) across and 100 pounds (45 kilograms). The impact energy was equivalent to 1 { tons of TNT.

Astrophysicist Jose Maria Madiedo of the University of Huelva says it was “really exciting” to observe the event, after many unsuccessful tries.

The findings appear in the Royal Astronomical Society’s Monthly Notices.

Science & Health

It Seems Like Alzheimer’s But Peek Into Brain Reveals a Mimic

Some people told they have Alzheimer’s may instead have a newly identified mimic of the disease — and scientists say even though neither is yet curable, it’s critical to get better at telling different kinds of dementia apart.

Too often, the word dementia is used interchangeably with Alzheimer’s when there are multiple types of brain degeneration that can harm people’s memory and thinking skills.

“Not everything that looks like Alzheimer’s disease is Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Julie Schneider, a neuropathologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. And among all the known dementias, this newly identified kind “is the most striking mimic of Alzheimer’s,” she added.

It’s not clear how many people have this particular type, which an international team of scientists defined Tuesday in the journal Brain. But there could be a sizeable number, said Dr. Peter Nelson of the University of Kentucky, the paper’s lead author.

The dementia was dubbed “LATE,” an acronym chosen in part because the oldest seniors seem at greatest risk.

Here’s a look at various dementias in the confusing Alzheimer’s-or-not mix:

Scientists stumbled onto newest disorder

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, and autopsies have long found its telltale signs in the brain: sticky plaque from an abnormal buildup of amyloid protein, and tangles of another protein named tau. Only recently have scientists developed special, pricey scans that can measure that buildup in living brains.

Then studies with those scans found about a third of people with Alzheimer’s symptoms lack amyloid buildup — ruling out Alzheimer’s, said Schneider, senior author of Tuesday’s paper. What else could cause their dementia?

Another toxic protein found

It turns out another protein, named TDP-43, also can run amok in the brain. Scientists knew it plays a role in a completely different disorder, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Then, they linked TDP-43 buildup to severe shrinking of the hippocampus, a brain region key for learning and memory.

Nelson said about a quarter of people over age 85 have enough abnormal TDP-43 to affect their memory or thinking abilities. For now, it takes an autopsy to spot — the symptoms seem like Alzheimer’s until a specialist can peer inside the brain.

“What is now clear is that a lot of dementia is caused by gloppy proteins. We used to think it was just two gloppy proteins, amyloid and tau,” Nelson said.

The next step: Finding better ways to measure abnormal TDP-43 and diagnose LATE. (It stands for an unwieldy scientific name — Limbic-predominant Age-related TDP-43 Encephalopathy.)

“Our ultimate goal is to test people hopefully in a very noninvasive way,” said National Institute on Aging dementia specialist Nina Silverberg. That’s key to eventually developing treatments.

Other culprits also are overlooked

— Strokes, sometimes small “silent” ones, can trigger what’s called vascular dementia, something scientists at the National Institutes of Health think might be prevented with better blood pressure control.

— Lewy body dementia, named for clumps of still another abnormal protein, can cause Alzheimer’s-like symptoms along with movement and other problems.

— Frontotemporal dementia often triggers changes in personality and tends to strike at a younger age than Alzheimer’s, yet can still be misdiagnosed.

Many older patients probably have “mixed dementia,” several brain changes that combine to cause trouble, Dr. Walter Koroshetz, head of NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told a recent meeting about non-Alzheimer’s dementias.

Tuesday’s paper about TDP-43-caused disease adds to the complexity, said Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer Maria Carrillo, who wasn’t involved with the new research.

“We must learn more about each contributing cause of dementia so we can understand how these changes begin and interact and co-occur, and how to best diagnose, treat and prevent them,” she said.

Why is it important to tell one dementia from another?

Current treatments for Alzheimer’s and other dementias temporarily ease symptoms. But there are other reasons for a precise diagnosis. A list of medications common for seniors can harm people with Lewy body dementia, for example. Knowing the specifics also can help people plan care, as some types of dementia worsen faster than others.

And it’s critical for developing better dementia treatments. Testing a treatment that targets, say, the tau tangles or amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s won’t stand a chance if patients who only have TDP-43 are allowed into the study.

“If you have a dementia percolating in your brain, the only hope we have right now is to participate in a clinical trial to try to stop it,” Nelson said.

Economy & business

Warren Buffett Bankrolls Occidental’s Anadarko Bid With $10 Billion

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc committed $10 billion on Tuesday to Occidental Petroleum Corp’s $38 billion cash-and-stock bid for Anadarko Petroleum Corp, boosting its chances of snatching a deal from Chevron Corp.

Occidental and Chevron are locked in the biggest oil-industry takeover battle in years as they eye Anadarko’s prized assets in West Texas’ huge Permian shale oil field.

Anadarko on Monday agreed to start negotiations with Occidental, saying its bid could potentially be superior to Chevron’s existing deal to buy Anadarko for $33 billion in cash and stock.

Berkshire’s cash provides Occidental with flexibility to fund and even increase its proposal. Anadarko has previously expressed reservations about the risk of Occidental having to get any deal voted through by its own shareholders. Occidental could now use the majority of the Berkshire investment to add cash to its bid and remove the requirement for a vote, if it so chooses.

The Berkshire investment, contingent on Occidental completing its proposed acquisition of Anadarko, could also repay some of the debt being taken on to finance the deal’s cash portion, or cover the $10 billion to $15 billion of proceeds from asset sales which Occidental plans in the two years after closing the acquisition.

Analysts said Buffett’s endorsement supports Occidental’s push to get the deal done but comes at a high cost.

Berkshire Hathaway will get 100,000 preferred shares and a warrant to purchase up to 80 million shares of Occidental at $62.50 apiece in a private offering, a statement from Occidental said.

The preferred stock will accrue dividends at 8 percent per annum, compared with about 5 percent yield on common equity and 4 percent on term debt, Tudor Pickering Holt analyst Matthew Portillo said.

“For Occidental shareholders, our view is this is a fairly expensive cost of financing for the transaction even though it carries a kind of nice headline of having Berkshire Hathaway participate in the potential financing here.”

It is rare for Buffett to participate in a bidding war for a company. The last time he did this was in 2016, supporting a consortium including Quicken Loans Inc founder Dan Gilbert that tried unsuccessfully to buy Yahoo Inc’s internet assets.

Shares of Occidental were down 2.1 percent at $58.89 at midday Eastern time, while those in Anadarko were down about 0.3 percent at $72.69. Chevron shares were up 2.7 percent at $120.88.

A Chevron spokesman reiterated that the San Roman, California-based company believes its “signed agreement with Anadarko provides the best value and the most certainty to Anadarko’s shareholders.”

Occidental and Chevron, two of the largest oil and gas producers in the Permian by production volumes, argue they can best squeeze more oil from Anadarko’s 240,000 acres (97,120 hectares)in the area.

The two companies control land adjacent to Anadarko’s properties and expect a deal will add deposits that can produce supplies for decades using low-cost drilling techniques.

Economy & business

Argentine Labor Unions Stage Strike, Slam Macri for Subsidy Cuts

Argentine labor unions staged a 24-hour nationwide strike on Tuesday against President Mauricio Macri’s fiscal austerity program, blocking streets in the capital Buenos Aires and shutting down traffic in the city center.

The protests partially paralyzed government offices, schools, banks and airports as opposition to Macri’s belt-tightening policies raised fresh doubts about his bid for re-election in October.

A proponent of free markets, Macri came to office in 2015 as a favorite among business leaders and investors.

Opinion polls show him losing popularity as he raises taxes and cuts public utility subsidies as part of his effort to erase the primary fiscal deficit under his government’s $56 billion standby lending agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

“This president is dangerous!” Pablo Micheli, head of the CTA umbrella labor group shouted to a sea of protesters gathered in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo. “We must hold more strikes and marches to keep these guys from taking any more away from us.”

Argentina’s previous leader, Cristina Fernandez, a free-spending populist who increased government’s role in the economy, has been gaining popularity and may run for the presidency again in October.

Macri campaigned on promises of “normalizing” the economy after eight years of government intervention in the markets under Fernandez.

“To go back to the past would be self destruction. It would mean sacrificing two or three more generations,” Macri said in an address on Tuesday at an event outside the capital.

The peso hit a record low on Friday, ending a tough week for local markets buffeted by anxiety over Argentina’s recession, 54% inflation and the upcoming election.

The peso got a 3.37% boost on Monday after the central bank said it may increase dollar sales in the foreign exchange market to control the slide of the local currency, which lost 2.12% of its value against the dollar in April.

The peso inched up another 0.18% on Tuesday to close the session at 44.29 per dollar. But the country’s economic outlook remained murky as poverty increases and business chokes on benchmark interest rates of nearly 74%.