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Here’s What Trump’s Environmental Agencies Were Doing During The Pandemic This Week

The novel coronavirus pandemic tanked the stock market and sent jobless claims soaring to unprecedented levels this week, but did little to slow the White House’s efforts to boost fossil fuel production and roll back environmental safeguards. 

On Wednesday, as the U.S. death toll surpassed 100 and the virus spread to all 50 states, the Trump administration widened what critics call one of its most aggressive assaults on science, auctioned drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico and greenlit the expansion of a mine. 

It started when the Environmental Protection Agency formalized its plans to expand on a controversial proposal to restrict the scientific research used to make regulations, broadening the scope to include non-regulatory divisions of the agency as well.

By the afternoon, the Interior Department wrapped up an auction to sell oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, offering up some 78 million offshore acres ― an area roughly the size of New Mexico. It proved to be a bust, bringing in approximately $93 million for just shy of 400,000 acres, the smallest total for an offshore auction since 2016.

By the day’s end, the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management approved a nearly 500-acre expansion of a gold and silver mine on public lands near Bullhead City, Arizona. 

President Donald Trump addresses his administration's daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on Friday.&nbs

President Donald Trump addresses his administration’s daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on Friday. 

Thursday brought the promise of another oil and gas auction, a step forward for a rule likely to increase the deaths of protected bird species, and approval for a new gas pipeline as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 doubled and mass layoffs spiked. 

The Bureau of Land Management announced plans to auction off 45,000 acres in southeast New Mexico and West Texas for oil and gas development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, closed the public comment period on a proposed rule to permanently weaken protections for migratory birds, despite calls from environmentalists to extend that and other comment deadlines because of the pandemic. The rule would codify a 2017 policy change that legalized all unintentional killing of migratory bird species, opening the door for gross negligence by fossil fuel, chemical and agricultural interests.

Over at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a panel voted 2-1 to rubber-stamp construction of both the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export terminal in Oregon’s already-polluted Coos Bay, and the 230-mile Pacific Connector Pipeline. The decision, The Oregonian reported, stunned Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), who warned that the state had not yet approved permitting in the midst of a national emergency. 

This week, Trump and his team also quietly appointed Anna Seidman, a longtime lawyer at the trophy hunting advocacy group Safari Club International, to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s international affairs program, as HuffPost reported Friday. Seidman repeatedly sued FWS and other federal agencies during her 20 years at SCI, an organization with more than 50,000 members that has close ties to the Trump administration. 

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus topped 241, with 18,170 confirmed cases as of Friday, according to a CNN tally. The nation reeled from shortages of protective gear, ventilators and testing kits, and doctors pleaded for help, comparing the experience to being “at war with no ammo.”

A HuffPost Guide to Coronavirus

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Natural history TV ‘boosts species awareness’

Sir David Attenborough (Image: BBC)

Image caption

Programmes, such as Sir David Attenborough’s, triggered a greater interest in species among audiences

Programmes, such as Sir David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II series, boost people’s awareness and interest in species, a study has suggested.

Despite lacking an overt conservation message, the programmes stimulated people to find out more about the species featured in the broadcasts.

The team from University College Cork based their findings on analysing data from Twitter and Wikipedia.

The findings have been published in Conservation Letters journal.

The researchers said their results appeared to show that “natural history films can provide vicarious connection to nature and can generate durable shifts in audience awareness”.

Conservation criticism

Co-author Dario Fernandez-Bellon said that he and co-author Dr Adam Kane decided to carry out the study after the Planet Earth II series attracted some criticism for not carrying a more overt conservation message.

Image caption

Screen-time, rather than how charismatic an animal was, influenced how an audience behaved

The scientists decided to investigate the initial criticism more closely, using “big data” collated from Twitter and Wikipedia, to see if there was an issue that needed to be highlighted.

“We found that there was, in fact, very little of the script dedicated to conservation,” observed Dr Fernandez-Bellon, “and that barely had any impact on Twitter, let alone Wikipedia.”

But the researchers found that there was a clear link when it came to the species featured in the programmes.

“What we found was that people’s reactions and interest in species was mainly led by how long they were on screen, and independent of whether they were mammals, birds or reptiles,” he told BBC News.

In other words, the creatures did not have to be so-called “charismatic species” in order to attract attention.

Dr Fernandez-Bellon added: “It was really quite interesting because it showcases that dilemma producers sometimes have in finding the balance between producing a show that’s entertaining, while generating awareness in people without taking a preachy approach.”

He observed: “If a producer wants to highlight a specific species that is endangered, they do not really have to rattle on about how endangered it is, but just by giving it more time on screen, people are more likely to go on to Wikipedia and find out the information themselves.”

Media professionals recognise that an increasing proportion of the audience now “dual-screen”, which describes how they watch television while also using a mobile device, such as a smartphone or a tablet.

Drs Fernandez-Bellon and Kane also decided to see if the data suggested the programmes led to people taking a more proactive approach when it came to conservation, such as donating to a wildlife charity.

“We did look at a couple of charities to see whether they registered peaks in donations around the time Planet Earth II was broadcast,” Dr Fernandez-Bellon said.

“The truth is that there was not, not in the same way we had found a peak in Twitter activity, and a peak in Wikipedia activity but there was not in proactive action.”

Dr Fernandez-Bellon said that there was a lot of scope to use the big data from social media platforms, such as Twitter, to help shape policies on how to communicate conservation to a wider audience.

“If this data is being used for marketing or business purposes, why couldn’t we use it for conservation purposes or to assess potential changes in human behaviour,” he said.

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Coronavirus: List of stores with special hours for elderly, vulnerable

  • Retailers around the world are changing their opening hours to allow elderly people and others most at risk of contracting severe cases of COVID-19 to shop more comfortably. 
  • Several major US chains, including Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, and Stop & Shop have dedicated special opening hours to those shoppers.
  • Scroll down to see a list of stores who are extending their hours to accommodate them.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Major retailers around the world are changing their opening hours in order to allow elderly people who are most at risk of contracting deadly cases of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the new coronavirus — to shop more comfortably. 

The disease has already spread to more than 218,000 people, and across 145 countries. As of Thursday morning, the US has reported more than 9,400 cases and more than 150 deaths.

The virus has affected older people with preexisting health problems most seriously, according to a recent study from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The data also suggests that the risk of dying from the disease increases with age.

Death Rate by Age Range Coronavirus

The COVID-19 death rate by age. Click on the graphic to enlarge.

Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

Meanwhile, stores have reported empty shelves and long lines as people move to stockpile essentials, including toilet paper. Several retailers have placed purchasing limits on essential goods like hand sanitizer, diapers, rice, pasta, and eggs. 

All this has left some seniors afraid to buy groceries. Several volunteer groups, including Meals on Wheels, have started stepping up efforts to deliver groceries to the elderly

Several major chains have also stepped up their policies to ensure seniors can continue to buy groceries, with less fear of disease transmission, by thoroughly disinfecting their stores and devoting new opening hours to them. 

Several New York officials have called on the state to implement these hours as policy. 

“I hope the scattered shopping hours would lead to seniors being in a store with less people,” Bettina Fries, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, told The Washington Post.

Here are the stores that have dedicated special opening hours to elderly shoppers:

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Why Coronavirus Fear Is ‘Contagious’

The sensations were familiar: my heart rate accelerating, my chest tightening, my focus narrowing. These were feelings I’d had many times before in my life—most often when exposed to heights, climbing a ladder or hiking along a steep trail. I’d felt them during the long, stretched-out moments of a serious car accident, rolling off the highway and into a ditch in a mountain hailstorm, and I’d felt them again for months afterwards whenever I drove on icy pavement or around a sharp curve. I’d felt them in late-night moments of uncertainty, walking home along a dark street with a car idling too close, or waking up alone in my apartment, wondering if that strange sound I’d heard was a dream or reality.

This time, though, I wasn’t doing any of those things. I was standing in the canned-goods aisle of the grocery store, staring at the mostly-empty shelves. Even in the Yukon, a region of northern Canada that had yet to record its first known case of COVID-19, there was only one carton of chicken stock left. I tried to tell myself that the situation was funny, tried to avoid eye contact with the other shoppers as I grabbed that one carton. I could feel our collective unease.

So often, we describe fear in terms of disease—we talk about fear spreading like a virus, racing through a crowd; we talk about being infected by fear. And it might be a cliché, but it turns out studies suggest it’s true: fear really is contagious.

We’ve known for a while now that animals can “smell” fear on each other—although in the popular imagination, we tend to think of predators sniffing out the fear of their prey. That’s a misunderstanding of the phenomenon. What really happens is that prey animals unknowingly emit silent, invisible “alarm pheromones.” These are airborne chemical cues intended to warn other members of their species about nearby dangers.

Until fairly recently, it wasn’t clear if this was an ability that was limited to the wild world, an instinct that humans had lost in our march away from nature. There were studies, based on observed behaviors, that suggested human beings might be capable of emitting and sensing alarm pheromones. But it was only a little over a decade ago that a team of scientists provided clear physiological evidence of the phenomenon.

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“We kind of set out to do the first rigorous test of whether human alarm pheromones existed,” Lilianne Mujica-Parodi, the lead researcher on the 2009 study, told me. Her team used an unorthodox experimental technique: they sent people skydiving. Mujica-Parodi and her colleagues collected sweat samples from 144 people who were about to experience a first-time tandem jump. Then they used those same 144 individuals as their own controls, collecting their sweat after they’d run on a treadmill.

Next, they presented both sets of sweat samples to a new set of test subjects, using fMRI brain scans to view how they reacted to the pheromones in real time. The “fear sweat” triggered activity in the subjects’ amygdalas—the small brain structure that is known to be critical in deploying and managing our fear response. The exercise sweat did not.

In a second phase of the experiment, having already demonstrated amygdala reactivity in response to the fear sweat, the team explored the behavioral component of that amygdala response. They exposed the test subjects to either the fear sweat or the exercise sweat while showing them a range of images of human faces, conveying a spectrum of expressions ranging from blank to angry. Asked to rate each image as either neutral or threatening when inhaling the exercise threat, the subjects rated only the angry faces as potential threats. But when they inhaled the fear sweat, they were significantly more likely to rate the whole range as threatening—suggesting that the fear sweat triggered heightened vigilance in the subjects. We really can “smell” fear on one another, her research suggests. And that chemical alert system may prepare our brains to react to incoming threats.

That might help explain why we sometimes find ourselves walking into a room and suddenly feeling on our guard—that sense of an inexplicable yet clearly threatening vibe or mood. It might also help explain that sense of palpable tension in the air these days when someone coughs nearby or when we realize that the toilet paper aisle is ominously empty.

I’ve thought a lot about Mujica-Parodi’s research in the last few days as I’ve shopped for necessary supplies, canceled plans and scrolled anxiously through endless news stories and social media posts about the spread of the virus. This might sound strange, but thinking of it comforts me. Our alarm pheromones are a vital reminder: Fear is built into us for a reason, and it’s O.K. to feel it. It’s a survival mechanism, and it is designed not only to help us survive as individuals, but to help our communities survive, too.

Spotlight Story

In the Wake of the Coronavirus, Here’s Why Americans Are Hoarding Toilet Paper

Our panic buying represents one thing we can control

It’s easy to view the idea of contagious fear, of infectious fear, as a negative. We spend so much time, as a culture, talking about suppressing, ignoring, defeating, overcoming and curing our fears. But our fear is a finely calibrated alarm system, more like a smoke detector than a disease. At this fraught moment, it makes sense to listen to its siren: not to panic, but to heed official medical guidance and prepare.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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Thousands Prepare To Escape Into The Sea As Wildfire Turns Sky Red In Australian Town

The sky has turned an apocalyptic shade of red, and thousands of people have evacuated onto the beach in the Australian town of Mallacoota as a destructive wildfire approaches.

Pictures of the red sky and falling embers are trickling onto social media as thousands of residents and tourists in the eastern Victoria town, about 400 miles south of Sydney, seek refuge from the oncoming blaze and prepare to escape into the Tasman Sea if the fire comes closer.

Social media users reported wearing goggles in order to see and covering their skin with towels to protect themselves from falling ash and embers. The sound of wailing emergency sirens added a shrill note to a constant roar of the fire.

Victoria state Fire Commissioner Andrew Crisp said 4,000 people were sheltering on the beach.

Mallacoota before the fires neared and now, as the blaze approaches the Tasman Sea.

Mallacoota before the fires neared and now, as the blaze approaches the Tasman Sea.

Bed-and-breakfast owner David Geoffrey told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) what he was witnessing on Mallacoota Beach. 

“It was blowing out to a gale for a point and then… it’s pitch black. And then the sky went red. We thought it was a fire front about to run over the top of us,” he said.  

“They wanted us to get into the water, get against that wall. It’s got oysters and stuff, not the greatest thing to do, but it will save you from radiant heat. It’s a barrier. 

“So we were ready to jump in. And everyone was all along the edge, ready to go, and, of course, when, you know, when that sky went red, it looked like what we’ve been looking at when we saw the fire coming.”

Geoffrey added that evacuees could hear gas cylinders exploding, “which means it’s people’s homes being destroyed.”

Community radio presenter Francesca Winterson was sheltering in a building on the town’s main street, she told ABC. She said loudspeaker alerts were issued throughout the town intermittently, between warning sirens, telling people to take refuge immediately.

“It’s absolutely horrific at the moment,” Winterson told ABC. “We have got blustering winds, we are surrounded by red sky, choking dust, choking smoke, and embers are falling on the town, and we are completely isolated.”

Another resident reported escaping out to sea on a boat with his family and pets, saying that it was “chaos,” as seen in the footage below.

About 100 fires are burning across Australia in multiple states, with as many as 14 emergency warnings in place for Victoria. Fires are also threatening homes and infrastructure in South Australia and Tasmania.

A New South Wales volunteer firefighter who died in a “cyclonic wind” fire event on Monday has been identified as 28-year-old Sam McPaul. 

The state’s Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons described McPaul as “a much loved and respected local firefighter” who leaves behind a wife who is pregnant with their first child. 

“He leaves behind, tragically, a beautiful wife, Megan, who is pregnant with their first child, that’s due on 4 May,” Fitzsimmons said at a news conference Tuesday.

Fitzsimmons said there were preliminary reports of three more potential fatalities in small towns in New South Wales.

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