Energy Resilience: Winter in Texas

 I have written often about resilience and its importance in our energy transition. You can put the word into the search box and see a plethora of posts. Most of them focus on California and Australia, where climate change has triggered uncontrollable summer fires. Now, in mid-winter, Texas joins the list of places overpowered by extreme weather:

Electricity was restored to most Texans who had lost power after a winter storm, but water systems for nearly two-thirds of residents were disrupted, leaving millions without drinkable water.

Major disruptions to the Texas power grid left more than four million households without power this week, but by Thursday evening, only about 347,000 lacked electricity. Much of the statewide concern had turned to water woes.

More than 800 public water systems serving 162 of the state’s 254 counties had been disrupted as of Thursday, affecting 13.1 million people, according to a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

In Harris County, which includes Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, more than one million people have been affected by local water systems that have either issued notices to boil water so it is safe to drink or that cannot deliver water at all, said Brian Murray, a spokesman for the county emergency management agency.

Residents in the Texas capital, Austin, were also told to boil water because of a power failure at the city’s largest water-treatment facility. The director of Austin Water, Greg Meszaros, said that plummeting temperatures caused water mains to break and pipes to burst, spurring an increase in water usage and allowing water to leak out of the system. 

This phenomenon of global warming extending cold spells in historically temperate places has been documented. Some of us remember the blockbuster 2004 movie, “The Day after Tomorrow,” which illustrated the extremes of such trends (see my February 23, 2016 blog). The Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the world. This warming increases the chances that frigid arctic polar air will shift the jet stream and move southward. The movie was a bit exaggerated, especially in terms of timing, but what’s happening in Texas is real. It is likely that the frequency of cold waves in unusual places, such as Texas, will increase with climate change. As the temperatures drop below zero for an extended period of time, the existing infrastructure freezes around almost everything, including natural gas facilities, coal and nuclear power facilities, and wind farms. Any place where water flows is vulnerable to freezing.

In spite of warning signs, the state was woefully unprepared:

For scientists, the havoc wreaked by the extreme winter weather that hit Texas in mid-February–dropping several inches of snow and leaving millions without power –did not come as a surprise. Ten years ago, in 2011, energy regulators warned the state’s electric-grid operators that they were ill-prepared for an unprecedented winter storm. And for decades before that, climate scientists had cautioned that a warming planet would cause climate chaos, raising the average global temperature while driving unusual weather events like this one. For Texas, it was always just a matter of time.

Despite these warnings, the state was unprepared–which Texans realized as soon as the storm swept in. Equipment froze at power plants, leaving about half of the state’s electricity-generating capacity offline. Natural gas wells iced over, slowing the fuel supply that heats homes. Millions were left without electricity, at least one city turned off its water supply, and Harris County, where Houston is located, reported hundreds of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning as Texans turned on their own generators to warm up. “This shows a disastrous level of under   preparation,” says Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, speaking to TIME shortly after he had lost water pressure. “We knew this weather event was coming … What went wrong?”

The catastrophe can be linked to a string of planning failures that didn’t take that threat seriously. Much of the electricity infrastructure in Texas wasn’t hardened–think of insulation and other protections that allow it to function in extreme winter weather. Several power plants remained offline for scheduled maintenance, ignoring weather forecasters’ warnings of the fast-approaching storm. And the storm disrupted the supply of fuel needed to run other such plants.

Well, more than half of the country that sits north of Texas regularly experiences such sub-freezing temperatures during the winter, without the catastrophic consequences that Texas is currently experiencing. Why can’t Texas learn from them? Good question. The main reason is that the authorities in Texas didn’t believe that these problems would hit “them” (See my November 17, 2020 blog about “them” vs. “us”). Texas was prepared for hot summers but not for cold winters. When the weather system and its accompanying problems inevitably came, like Don Quixote, they blamed the windmills.

“No, Wind Farms Aren’t the Main Cause of the Texas Blackouts”

As his state was racked by an electricity crisis that left millions of people without heat in frigid temperatures, the governor of Texas took to television to start placing blame.

His main target was renewable energy, suggesting that the systemwide collapse was caused by the failure of wind and solar power.

“It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas as well as other states to make sure we will be able to heat our homes in the winter times and cool our homes in the summer times,” said Gov. Greg Abbott, speaking on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News. Other conservative talk-show hosts had already picked up the theme.

However, wind power was not chiefly to blame for the Texas blackouts. The main problem was frigid temperatures that stalled natural gas production, which is responsible for the majority of Texas’ power supply. Wind makes up just a fraction — 7 percent or so, by some estimates — of the state’s overall mix of power generation this time of year.

Gov. Abbott’s false attribution shows a marked refusal to listen to scientists. Unfortunately, ignoring a problem does not make it go away. Nor is Texas alone. These extreme weather occurrences are only going to get stronger and more frequent. To prepare for the ever-escalating consequences of climate change in every season, we need to build resiliency into the system. The Federal Reserve is advocating this change:

As Winter Sweeps the South, Fed Officials Focus on Climate Change. A top Federal Reserve official says climate scenario analysis could be valuable in making sure that banks mind their climate-tied weak spots.

A top Federal Reserve official issued a stark warning on Thursday morning: Banks and other lenders need to prepare themselves for the realities of a world racked by climate change, and regulators must play a key role in ensuring that they do.

“Climate change is already imposing substantial economic costs and is projected to have a profound effect on the economy at home and abroad,” Lael Brainard, one of the central bank’s six Washington-based governors, said at an Institute of International Finance event.

This is almost an identical observation to the one I cited on the January 14, 2020 blog. Our homes, jobs, food supply, and many other essential elements of our lives are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It’s high time we start paying attention.

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Climate Change, Social Media & Politics

I teach different levels of climate change courses and do my own research on the subject. My semester started at the end of January and I had four senior students who needed to select their own research topics regarding the climate and physics. I wrote my February 2nd blog on my perceptions of the physics of reality in part to serve as a guideline for these selections. Doing so, I have encountered another aspect of our reality: the role of social media.

One of Brooklyn College’s objectives in requiring science for all students is to produce well-rounded citizens who can make their own decisions about a variety of issues and vote (or serve) accordingly. Climate change is an excellent example of this aspiration.

Of course, the danger always exists that a teacher may try to impose his own politics on his students. Coming from a position of power, this is ethically questionable. I have been, at least nominally, trying to avoid politics in my teaching, making resentment from students with different political views less likely. However, politics can have a relatively broad definition. According to the Oxford Languages Dictionary:

the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.

  • the activities of governments concerning the political relations between countries.
    plural noun: politics
  • the academic study of government and the state.

In one sentence, it comes down to how the interactions between the individual and the collective are governed.

Recently, I tried to boost my readership of this blog via Facebook. Facebook was happy to accept the money to promote my post from two weeks ago, “Physics of Reality” (February 2nd). It boosted my blog considerably (thousands of new viewers) and brought in a slew of comments, many of which my great editor, Sonya Landau, determined came from trolls. I was unfamiliar with the term and had to Google the term to get some insight but I agree with her assessment. Meanwhile, Facebook refused to boost an earlier blog “Peaceful Presidential Transition vs. the Rise of Nazis” (January 26th), because it was judged to be too “political.” I am guessing this determination had to do with my repeated mention of Nazis.

Below are Facebook’s instructions as to the censorship of blogs that are too political:

As of November 4 at 12:00 AM PT, we temporarily stopped running all ads about social issues, elections or politics in the United States. We’ll notify advertisers when this policy is lifted. Learn more.

Following the Georgia runoff election, starting early on January 6, 2021, we’ll no longer allow ads about the Georgia runoff elections on our platform in line with our existing nationwide social issues, electoral or political ads pause.

Learn more about how Facebook has been preparing for the elections.

Given the evolving COVID-19 situation, we have fewer people and resources available to process new authorizations for ads about social issues, elections or politics. In certain cases, our review times to review ID documents has exceeded 48 hours. Our teams are actively working to review your documents in a timely manner. Continue to visit facebook.com/id to check status. If it’s been 30 days or more since you submitted your ID and you haven’t received a notification that it’s been rejected or approved, try submitting your ID again. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Ads about social issues, elections or politics are:

  • Made by, on behalf of, or about a candidate for public office, a political figure, a political party or advocates for the outcome of an election to public office; or
  • About any election, referendum, or ballot initiative, including “go out and vote” or election campaigns; or
  • About social issues in any place where the ad is being placed; or
  • Regulated as political advertising

A Washington Post piece covers the topic of Facebook’s political filters:

Facebook is exploring ways to play down political content on users’ feeds as it continues to reckon with the role its site played in boosting interest in the Jan. 6 rally that ended with a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, the social media titan announced Wednesday.

Starting this week, Facebook will temporarily reduce political content in news feeds for a small slice of users in Brazil, Canada and Indonesia. It will do the same with a small percentage of American users in the coming weeks. The company also said it will stop recommending civil and political groups to users worldwide, just as it did in the United States before the Nov. 3 election. 

I understand the urgency of the political censorship on Facebook and other social media outlets. It came, in large part, as a response to the extreme politicization of these outlets surrounding both the 2016 and 2020 US elections and the vast polarization in between. Thomas Friedman gives his take:

“Cyberspace Plus Trump Almost Killed Our Democracy. Can Europe Save Us?”

If we don’t find a solution fast, China will pass us economically.

Fast forward to today. Cyberspace is starting to resemble a sovereign nation-state, but without borders or governance. It has its own encrypted communications systems, like Telegram, outside the earshot of terrestrial governments. It has its own global news gathering and sharing platforms, like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It even has its own currencies — Bitcoin and others — that no sovereign state has minted.

In recent years, all these platforms have mushroomed. They can elevate important voices that were never heard before. But they can also enable a believer in Jewish-run space lasers that start forest fires to connect with enough voters to become a congresswoman. They can generate mass movements for racial equity and women’s rights, and also generate crowds to block Covid-19 vaccinations or to interrupt a nation’s sacred peaceful transfer of power.

The illustration at the top of this blog outlines the evolution of long-distance human communication throughout the ages. The figure below shows social media’s immense presence worldwide.

Sociologists have long been interested in the close correlation between social movements and mass communication. The 2018 book, “The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Social Movements” includes a chapter about the link:

“Social Movements and Mass Media in a Global Context” by Deana Rohlinger and Catherine Corrigall-Brown

This chapter identifies two key dimensions that shape when (and how) activists use mass media: (1) the target of activist communication; and (2) the relative openness of the media system. By examining these two dimensions, one can move beyond simply focusing on types of outlets (traditional outlets or Internet Communication Technology) as well as media outcomes to understand how activists use media for different goals across political contexts. This framework underscores that conventional media (such as mainstream news), commercial media (such as books and music), and Internet Communication Technology are all shaped by state mandates and, consequently, affect how activists use them in their political projects. Using the existing literature on social movements and mass media, the chapter highlights the utility of this approach and draws attention to the obstacles and risks associated with different choices across media systems.

My issue with Facebook and other social media in the context of this evolution is this:

If you want to censor politics, be careful about your approach. Dedicate sufficient resources to the process that will facilitate actual reading of the stuff. Don’t censor based on what you think is a clever algorithm.

I am fully aware that the internet (and real world) abounds with references to Nazis and Hitler (see the January 19th blog, “Godwin’s Law and Us”). I haven’t checked but I am willing to bet that many of the people who used Nazi symbols of any kind at events like that on January 6th, don’t know much about the period under their reign. Obviously, I do.

When I mentioned Nazis in the blog that Facebook refused to boost, they were not a metaphor. I meant, instead, to highlight the historical correlations of their rise to power out of a polarizing, chaotic, environment. We know what followed the Nazi rise to power but we don’t know what will follow our present reality. We are once again in a time of polarization and chaos; we’d better keep our eyes open. I am not trying to use this blog to tell anybody whom to follow or what political party to join. I use this to examine a historical precedent that might help us analyze our time.

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Winners and Losers: COVID and Coal

President Biden signed 17 executive orders immediately after his inauguration on January 20th (January 26th blog). Many of them nullified President Trump’s policies which had deliberately ignored climate change and thwarted mitigation efforts. Foremost of these new policies was the US return to the 2015 Paris Agreement. As we see in these quick changes, however, executive orders are not laws; the next administration can void them easily. The November 2020 election ended with Democrats winning both the presidency and both houses of Congress but it was a very thin win. The election has delivered a 50:50 tie in the Senate and 222-211 Democratic advantage in the House of Representatives. Despite a gap of 7 million in the popular vote and 306-232 difference in the electoral college, changes of fewer than 50,000 votes in a few key states could have given the presidency back to President Trump.

The country is polarized to the extreme. As a break from the anger and politicization, there’s a cute piece in The New York Times that collected some funny opinions of how else we could divide the people of world.

The destructive polarization is not restricted to the United States; such extreme opposition also exists between poor and rich countries. Right now, we face two global disasters in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. In this circumstance, such schisms can have deadly consequences. These are collective disasters, where nobody is safe until everybody is safe.

Fortunately, COVID-19 will be a much shorter problem. We already have mitigating vaccines at hand; the main issue now is distribution. This serves as a teaching moment regarding what to do in other global disasters. Here is what the NYT writes about the global distribution of vaccines against COVID-19:

“If Poor Countries Go Unvaccinated, a Study Says, Rich Ones Will Pay”
By 
Peter S. Goodman

A failure to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine in poor nations will worsen economic damage, with half the costs borne by wealthy countries, new research shows.

In monopolizing the supply of vaccines against Covid-19, wealthy nations are threatening more than a humanitarian catastrophe: The resulting economic devastation will hit affluent countries nearly as hard as those in the developing world.

This is the crucial takeaway from an academic study to be released on Monday. In the most extreme scenario — with wealthy nations fully vaccinated by the middle of this year, and poor countries largely shut out — the study concludes that the global economy would suffer losses exceeding $9 trillion, a sum greater than the annual output of Japan and Germany combined.

Everything is connected. Even if we’re only acting in our own self-interest, we have to care for each other. The immediate economic mitigation efforts are, not surprisingly, focused on COVID-19. In the US, any economic stimulus bill will need bipartisan support because it requires 60 votes for approval. So far, this is not within reach. Republican senators agree that, as it stands, the stimulus bill proposed by Democrats is too big and costly. They also object to the bill’s independent measures, including a federal increase to a minimum wage of $15/hour. It would be possible for Democrats to pass the bill with a simple majority along party lines (a reconciliation bill), however, such an accomplishment would necessitate complete unanimity.

Joe Manchin is the sole Democratic senator from West Virginia, which voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in the 2020 elections (68.6% vs. 29.7%). West Virginia is a poor state (personal income per capita is 76% of the national average). The coal industry there employs about 30,000 people and is the largest coal producer east of the Mississippi river. Senator Manchin’s vote is essential for any legislative achievement of the Biden administration. He holds a lot of power in Congress right now and President Biden and VP Kamala Harris know it.

In order to put some pressure on Senator Manchin, VP Harris went to WV and gave a speech on how important the stimulus bill will be to the state’s poorer residents. Senator Manchin’s support will be especially critical in passing climate change legislation. Presently, the senator believes in climate change mitigation but he advocates research and advanced technology rather than ending the use of coal or other fossil fuels. This is, technically, possible. Major developments in the technology of carbon capture can remove some pressure from the fossil fuel industry. That was not VP Harris’ focus, however:

Harris also spoke about the economic situation of the West Virginia coal industry.”All of those skilled workers who are in the coal industry and transferring those skills to what we need to do in terms of dealing with reclaiming abandoned land mines; what we need to do around plugging leaks from oil and gas wells; and, transferring those important skills to the work that has yet to be done that needs to get done,” she said.

Every major transition involves closing some old venues and opening new ones. VP Harris identified an obvious loser in the energy transition: the coal industry. However, the solution that she has offered is not likely to gain much support. Successful solutions need to subsidize both the winners and the losers. I used the example of Germany in my October 8, 2019 blog, “Wisdom from Germany: How to Transition Away From Coal”:

TOKYO (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday that her country would withdraw from coal-fired power production by 2038, showing her support for the deadline recommended by a government-appointed commission.

The so-called coal commission said last month that Germany should shut down all of its coal-fired power plants by 2038 at the latest and proposed at least 40 billion euros ($45.7 billion) in aid to coal-mining states affected by the phase-out.

West Virginia has a long history of conflict over coal and nobody is going to be swayed by the simple suggestion that coal miners look for another job. Indeed, after Harris’ speech, Senator Manchin expressed his disappointment with the new administration’s approach. Nor is he alone in being open to proposals from both sides of the aisle, but none of his peers in this ambivalence are climate deniers. They include: Arizona Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly as well as Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.

The 2022 elections are not far away and politicians are mindful of their constituencies. Coal miners are not the only losers in this transition. President Biden is looking to accelerate the energy transition by banning new oil and gas leases on federal lands. Over a quarter (27.4%) of the US belongs to the federal government. This includes more than 20% of the land in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

This step is necessary to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels but at the same time, states that are going to be directly impacted should be compensated. Big oil companies, which have long denied climate change, have been suffering because of both the pandemic and the shift to renewable energy. They will certainly be among the losers in the energy transition and that loss will transfer to workers.

In my December 26, 2018 blog, I discussed the Yellow Vests demonstrations that took place in France. France taxed transportation fuels to minimize carbon emissions but didn’t take into account the millions of people who live outside of major metropolitan areas and need their cars for essential purposes such as driving to work. Understandably, people were upset.

In terms of fuel sources, Poland is probably in a similar position within the European Union to West Virginia in the US. The EU stands at the forefront in its commitment to replace fossil fuels by sustainable energy sources. Poland, however, is one of the EU’s poorest countries and is heavily dependent on coal. As with Senator Manchin, Poland has veto power on many EU decisions. Special arrangements had to be made for Poland to go along with the transition.

In his inauguration, President Biden made a commitment to be the president of all Americans, regardless of whether they voted for him. In any major transition that he plans to try to institute, he has to apply this commitment to include winners and losers of more than just the election. I agree with the argument that mitigating climate change makes all of us, including future generations, winners. However, by the nature of these transitions, we must make sacrifices now in order to ensure a better future. Some of us will bear the brunt of these changes. We should be able to offer remedies to ameliorate these sacrifices.

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Physics of Reality

Spring semester at my school started yesterday. I have a few senior physics students, each of whom will need to produce a research paper. I want their research to reflect some aspect of the world that we live in. It can involve society but it has to conform to the discipline of physics. In this blog I want to focus on what physics has to say about reality and where my students can start their process.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines physics in this way:

Physicsscience that deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe. In the broadest sense, physics (from the Greek physikos) is concerned with all aspects of nature on both the macroscopic and submicroscopic levels. Its scope of study encompasses not only the behaviour of objects under the action of given forces but also the nature and origin of gravitational, electromagnetic, and nuclear force fields. Its ultimate objective is the formulation of a few comprehensive principles that bring together and explain all such disparate phenomena.

Physics textbooks use a similar definition. Wikipedia has a longer entry. For now, I am most interested in the association between physics and the scientific method and why quantitative analysis (i.e., use of mathematics) is so important here.

Physics uses the scientific method[change | change source]

Physics uses the scientific method. That is, data from experiments and observations are collected. Theories which attempt to explain these data are produced. Physics uses these theories to not only describe physical phenomena, but to model physical systems and predict how these physical systems will behave. Physicists then compare these predictions to observations or experimental evidence to show whether the theory is right or wrong.

The theories that are well supported by data and are especially simple and general are sometimes called scientific laws. Of course, all theories, including those known as laws, can be replaced by more accurate and more general laws, when a disagreement with data is found.[8]

Physics is quantitative[change | change source]

Physics is more quantitative than most other sciences. That is, many of the observations in physics may be represented in the form of numerical measurements. Most of the theories in physics use mathematics to express their principles. Most of the predictions from these theories are numerical. This is because of the areas which physics has addressed work better with quantitative approaches than other areas. Sciences also tend to become more quantitative with time as they become more highly developed, and physics is one of the oldest sciences.

As a physicist, my reality involves humans. Wikipedia defines physics regarding human societies as:

Social physics or sociophysics is a field of science which uses mathematical tools inspired by physics to understand the behavior of human crowds. In a modern commercial use, it can also refer to the analysis of social phenomena with big data.

Social physics is closely related to econophysics which uses physics methods to describe economics.

Recent work[edit]

In modern use “social physics” refers to using “big data” analysis and the mathematical laws to understand the behavior of human crowds.[11] The core idea is that data about human activity (e.g., phone call records, credit card purchases, taxi rides, web activity) contain mathematical patterns that are characteristic of how social interactions spread and converge. These mathematical invariances can then serve as a filter for analysis of behavior changes and for detecting emerging behavioral patterns.[12]

The first elements of social physics were outlined in French social thinker Henri de Saint-Simon’s first book, the 1803 Lettres d’un Habitant de Geneve, which introduced the idea of describing society using laws similar to those of the physical and biological sciences.[1] His student and collaborator was Auguste Comte, a French philosopher widely regarded as the founder of sociology, who first defined the term in an essay appearing in Le Producteur, a journal project by Saint-Simon.[1] Comte defined social physics as

Social physics is that science which occupies itself with social phenomena, considered in the same light as astronomical, physical, chemical, and physiological phenomena, that is to say as being subject to natural and invariable laws, the discovery of which is the special object of its researches.

Recent books about social physics include MIT Professor Alex Pentland’s book Social Physics[13] or Nature editor Mark Buchanan’s book The Social Atom.[14] Popular reading about sociophysics include English physicist Philip Ball’s Why Society is a Complex Matter,[15] Dirk Helbing‘s The Automation of Society is next or American physicist Lazlo Barabasi’s book Linked.[16]

Phillip Ball also wrote a relatively short historical perspective of the “physical modelling of society” for Elsevier’s Physica A.

Climate change is one of the most pressing scientific topics as it relates to people. It requires detailed, in-depth scientific exploration. Its study combines traditional physics with “social physics,” while retaining the same quantitative discipline. About half of the top 10 scientists in this list of climate change experts have backgrounds in physics.

In one of my earliest blogs (December 10, 2012), I described the reception that I got after presenting a seminar at a physics department in one of our neighboring schools:

In this particular talk I didn’t go much further in talking about them. I was expecting familiarity with the figures and wanted to get quickly to what I considered the focus of the talk. (I was also working with the probably unconscious expectation that I was not dealing with an audience of deniers) I mentioned the data in the first figure as “simple spectroscopy” – a familiar branch in physics. I emphasized the uncertainty that is visible in the band of the temperature response to atmospheric consequences of carbon dioxide. The purpose was to differentiate this figure from the second one, which is based on two specific scenarios and represents a projection of the future.

Well – I got a bucket thrown at me (figuratively speaking). The essence of the comments was that this is bad science: much worst science than what physicists are doing for example in figuring out properties of semiconductors— bad science because it cannot be described by a set of differential equations. I was told that in two hours, one of the physicists could come up with his/her own scenario – implying the arbitrary nature of analyzing a future based on projected scenarios. Surely, science with such uncertainty should not form the basis for action that could result in a reduction of our standard of living.

Since I included my Holocaust background (May 14 blog) later in my talk, it was strongly suggested to me to disconnect the two issues, because denying the climate change might lead to denying of the Holocaust.

I ended up in a completely defensive mode that I was not prepared for. In fact, I strongly suspect that what I achieved with the students that were present was the exact opposite of what I had intended.

Despite this, I am committed to using physics to describe the world around me. Nor am I the only one curious about doing so; Gabriel Popkin published a piece in Nature where he describes his attempts to figure out the physics of living things:

From flocking birds to swarming molecules, physicists are seeking to understand ‘active matter’ — and looking for a fundamental theory of the living world.

The New York Times recently looked at the physical properties of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. While we might think of COVID-19 as being a purely biological problem, it turns out that the field of physics may be helpful here. One of the most interesting elements that is being examined is the virus’ method of self-assembly. Once we understand the process and find a way to intervene, we can apply it to a new generation of vaccines.

I am especially interested in trying to examine feedback and connectivity on societal scales. The next few months will be a good time to cooperate with my students and further explore these concepts.

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Peaceful Presidential Transition vs. the Rise of Nazis

transition, baton, relay, powerI started writing this one day after President Biden and Vice President Harris were inaugurated. Many of us were thoroughly relieved that the event turned out to be a dignified, uneventful transition of power. I wouldn’t quite call it peaceful, given that the capital was full of police and troops prepared to quell a repetition of the January 6th mob attack, but there were no outright acts of violence.

The pandemic forced most of us to view the inauguration online. Those few who were invited had to maintain a safe distance and wear masks to prevent the event from functioning to boost the spread of the virus. A few hours after the formal inauguration, President Biden started the process of annulling some of ex-president Trump’s most objectionable policies. In his first day, President Biden signed 15 executive orders and two agency directives in areas such as mitigation of COVID-19, rejoining the 2015 Paris climate agreement, negating travel ban from Muslim-dominant countries, and delivering economic relief to those in need. In the coming days, he will expand this list; it promises to be a major transition from the last four years.

My semester will start in two weeks and most of my classes regard climate change, so I will be looking closely at the new administration’s climate change policy changes, both in class and in the coming blogs.

Tomorrow, January 27th, is International Holocaust Day. This time last year, I gave a talk as a part of my school’s “We Stand Against Hate” seminar series (see the February 4, 2020 blog). Less than two months later, we were all were forced into a lockdown. My talk then focused on my experiences in the Holocaust and the connections that I have been trying to establish between that planned genocide and climate change, which I refer to as a self-inflicted genocide.

Transitions like that between these two presidents are much more complicated than the straightforward exchange of batons shown above. We know what has already happened; the future is always uncertain but we are optimistic that it will be better than the past. Last year we were wrong; 2020 was a mess! I hope that we will do better this year. The Trump-inspired mob attack two weeks ago is an important piece of our recent past.

Last week, I focused on the visible part of that attack. Some of the people involved carried signs with swastikas because they identified with Nazi ideals. Others, who understand the almost universal regard for Nazis as the ultimate evil, used the opposite rhetoric, misrepresenting policies and guidelines with which they disagreed as exemplifying fascism.

I started this blog more than eight years ago, as an attempt to use my Holocaust background as  leverage to try to mobilize mitigation efforts in the face of the dangers of climate change. This excerpt from my first blog (April 22, 2012) summarizes my attitude:

The Webster Dictionary defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of racial, political or cultural groups.” There is no question that the Holocaust was a genocide. Genocides do not repeat themselves exactly. They come in different guises. Despite the deniers, it is straightforward to teach students to condemn the Holocaust, but it is more difficult to teach them how to prevent future genocides. One of the most difficult parts is to see them coming. Despite the fact that Hitler published the first volume of his manifesto, Mein Kampf, in 1925, where he laid out his philosophy, he was, nevertheless, democratically elected as German Chancellor in 1933. Few people believed in 1933 that he would seriously try to accomplish what he preached or anticipated the consequences that resulted from his actions.

As you can see, that first blog solicited 82 comments, which forced me to expand on the issue in the next two posts, each of which received more than 60 comments. The discussion sort of dried up but this has remained the underlying theme over the more than eight years I have been writing this blog. It has also persisted as one of the most important anchors between me and my students throughout my teaching. The focus of the analogy is not the Holocaust itself or the multitude of crimes that the Nazis perpetrated after they came to power, the part I want to look at now is how they got to power in the first place.

When the most recent lockdown started, I realized that I don’t know enough about this last point. At first, it was a revived interest in WWII, specifically in Germany; a lot of Russian archival material about WWII had suddenly become available. I focused on Volker Ullrich’s two books on Hitler. In the December 29, 2020 blog, I discussed his second volume that described in details WW2 from 1939 – 1945 with a focus on the Nazi leadership from the perspective of today’s German historians that took advantage of the rich Russian archives. That volume spanned 632 pages of mostly text, few pages of detailed maps with abundance of arrows and close to 150 pages of tight-spaced references and notes. Hitler himself was mostly in the background.

In December (after the end of our online fall semester), I started to read Ullrich’s first volume, Hitler: Ascent, 1989-1939. The book was published in German in 2016 (English Translation, 2017). On the cover of the English translation, the publisher quoted a New York Times review:

“A fascinating Shakespearean parable about how the confluence of circumstance, chance, a ruthless individual and the willful blindness of others can transform a country” By Michiko Kakutani – The New York Times.

The book made me think about our own transition, with the similarities and the happy differences that follow.

Hitler was a “normal” kid when he grew up in Austro-Hungary at the end of the 19th Century. He moved to Germany in 1913. A year later, he joined the German army in WWI. By the end of the war in 1918, he was 25 years old. Germany (together with Austro-Hungary and Turkey) lost the war and had to pay for it.

The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 1919:

Of the many provisions in the treaty, one of the most important and controversial required “Germany [to] accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” during the war (the other members of the Central Powers signed treaties containing similar articles). This article, Article 231, later became known as the War Guilt clause. The treaty required Germany to disarm, make ample territorial concessions, and pay reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente powers. In 1921 the total cost of these reparations was assessed at 132 billion gold marks (then $31.4 billion or £6.6 billion, roughly equivalent to US$442 billion or UK£284 billion in 2021). At the time economists, notably John Maynard Keynes (a British delegate to the Paris Peace Conference), predicted that the treaty was too harsh—a “Carthaginian peace“—and said the reparations figure was excessive and counter-productive, views that, since then, have been the subject of ongoing debate by historians and economists. On the other hand, prominent figures on the Allied side, such as French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, criticized the treaty for treating Germany too leniently.

Parallel to that, and not surprisingly, completely missing from Ullrich’s book, was the strike of the Spanish flu pandemic:

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide—about one-third of the planet’s population—and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans. The 1918 flu was first observed in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading around the world. At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain. Citizens were ordered to wear masks, schools, theaters and businesses were shuttered and bodies piled up in makeshift morgues before the virus ended its deadly global march.

In Germany, an estimated 426,000 out of a population of 61 million died from the Spanish flu from 1918-1919. It’s only recently, during our present pandemic, that an interest in the Spanish flu’s contribution to the rise of the Nazis in Germany has started to surface.

When the Weimar Republic was born, WWI had just ended and the Germans were understandably in a bad mood. They were looking for anybody besides themselves to blame. Hitler was no exception. He joined the German Workers Party (DAP) in 1919 and was instrumental in converting it into a new Nazi party by adding NS (National Socialists) to its name. The new party’s name was NSDAP. The table below (not taken from Ullrich’s book), describes the composition of the German parliament (Reichstag) from the mid-1920s to 1933. The transition came in 1930. In 1928, the Nazi party had only 2.5% of the votes. In 1930, it became the second largest party, with close to 20% of the votes. Less than two years later, it became the largest party, with 38% of the vote. It took less than three months after the November 1932 election for Hitler to take absolute power in Germany.

Nazi, political party, Germany, Reichstag

Political Parties in the Reichstag, 1924-1933

The Weimar republic was able to withstand the Treaty of Versailles and the Spanish flu but not the Great Depression that hit Germany in 1929. That last event spread from the Wall Street crash in the US to the rest of the world. Ullrich’s book describes this crucial 15-year transition in Germany in detail. From the numbers in the table above, it is clear that following the crash, the Weimer Republic became a failed state. Hitler realized it from the beginning of his political involvement. The book portrays him as a person with no formal education to speak of. He was a gifted orator, able to read his audience and tell them what they wanted to hear. Facts didn’t matter and fact-checkers were unpopular at the time. He originally crafted the foundations of the Nazi party in 1919 to give people a scapegoat for their misery—one that didn’t have the governmental power to defend itself. Jews were a convenient target. According to Ullrich, Hitler’s antisemitism was initially an election tactic. It didn’t take long, however, before he converted it into deadly creed. His speeches often accused Jews of profiteering from Germans’ misfortunes. He carefully did not blame the Allied Powers who won WWI and forced the Treaty of Versailles; they had the wherewithal to fight back, both politically and militarily. The Bolsheviks were too busy in the wake of the Russian revolution to fight back, so Germany had the potential to add to its living space by expanding east. As I mentioned before, the false narrative of Judeo-Bolshevism (i.e. Jews caused and benefited from the Russian revolution) became a battle-cry. Hitler demanded an end to all Jewish immigration and in Mein Kampf, he started to advocate liquidation.

The 1930s transition is directly responsible for the loss of approximately 75 million people worldwide, including most of my family. It didn’t end well for anybody, winners or losers.

Hitler didn’t have nuclear weapons but he came very close to being the first to possess them. The first successful nuclear fission demonstration took place in Hitler’s Germany. We don’t need a rich imagination to foresee that a similar evolution of events could results in complete extinction.

The US does have nuclear capabilities and the potential to cause a lot of damage. Fortunately, we do not seem to be going in the direction of 1930s Germany. President Reagan described our nation’s historic tradition of the peaceful transition of power:

“To a few of us here today this is a solemn and most momentous occasion, and yet in the history of our nation it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”

We must take that to heart. President Biden’s inauguration on January 20th could have ended differently and we should all be thankful that the tradition held up.

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Godwin’s Law and Us

This is a follow up to my “Shame” blog about the president-triggered mob attack on the American government in Washington, DC on January 6th. The attack was one part of a series of efforts to void the November 3rd election results; it was not an isolated event. What happened on January 6th was probably the lowest point in terms of violence, target (the American government), and perpetrators (it was sparked by language from the president) but it came as a reflection of general unrest. We have seen the fruits of this unrest largely in the form of massive demonstrations—some peaceful, some violent—many in response to government decisions. These demonstrations protested: government mitigation methods against the impacts of COVID-19, the election results (in both the US and Belarus), and police brutality, among other issues. Timothy Snyder wrote an excellent, if biased, historical essay about Trump, conspiracy, and fascism in the US.

Many participants in these demonstrations expressed the issues as a matter of ultimate good (e.g., God) vs. evil (e.g., Nazi Germany). I am not an authority on the religious references but I know something about Nazi Germany. This week I’m looking at visual, written, and verbal Nazi analogies. My next blog will be my perspective of which of these analogies actually hold sway.

Some circles point to the many Nazi analogies as being classic examples of Godwin’s law. I mentioned Godwin’s law in an earlier blog (December 27, 2016) in the context of divestment from fossil fuel companies. I feel it is high time to return to this topic.

Wikipedia explains Godwin’s law:

Godwin’s law, short for Godwin’s law (or ruleof Nazi analogies,[1][2] is an Internet adage asserting that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1“.[2][3] That is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or his deeds, the point at which effectively the discussion or thread ends.

Promulgated by the American attorney and author Mike Godwin in 1990,[2] Godwin’s law originally referred specifically to Usenet newsgroup discussions.[4] He stated that he introduced Godwin’s law in 1990 as an experiment in memetics.[2] It is now applied to any threaded online discussion, such as Internet forums, chat rooms, and comment threads, as well as to speeches, articles, and other rhetoric[5][6] where reductio ad Hitlerum occurs.

In 2012, “Godwin’s law” became an entry in the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.[7]

Of course, not all of the demonstrators reflected the Nazi analogies that I describe here. I’m cherry picking, and I’m not the only one. Below is a good example, however, of the cross reference between COVID-19, and Nazism. The woman’s sign affirms that the US is not Nazi Germany, then lists the social-distancing steps mandated by the government, concluding that such measures amount to tyranny. However, the demonstrators are not asking themselves why they find these particular mandates to be unacceptable while they have no qualms about other rules. The same group, for instance, does not protest the legal status of walking around naked, or for women, bare-breasted. This is likely because they are already used to such mandates. The newness of mask-wearing rules is what has prompted calls of tyranny.

Huntington Beach, California demonstration against government-recommended (or mandated) steps to combat the impact of COVID-19

The next photo shows demonstrators in North Carolina, referencing both God and QAnon, calling for a reopening of the economy.

QAnon, economy, pandemic, mask, social distance, Nazi, tyranny, liberty, constitution, USDemonstrators in North Carolina in April 2020

The photo below comes from a similar demonstration but features more explicit imagery. There are some questions as to the origin of the symbolism in this particular photo: whether it marks a proclamation from Trump/Pence supporters that they agree with the Nazi party or whether it is instead an accusation of such an alliance.

A demonstration with more explicit, though questionable, messages

Another picture outpaces the previous ones. It shows a COVID-19 demonstration that directly blames the Jewish governor of Illinois for all the troubles Illinoisans are facing. The antisemitic sign is held side by side with one warning that we are in a dry-run for communism. This argument directly mimics the birth of the Nazi party; its founders blamed the ills of the world on Judeo-Bolshevism.

This particular demonstration got the unique dishonor of being denounced by the Auschwitz memorial and museum, which stands on the site of the Nazi’s worst death camp.

Auschwitz, demonstration, protest, antisemitic, antisemitism, Pritzger, Illinois, communism, fascism

COVID-19 demonstration in Chicago, Illinois 

One of the members of the January 6th mob wore a sweatshirt mocking the pain and death of that horrific institution.

Auschwitz, concentration camp, Nazi, riot, January 6

“Man in ‘Camp Auschwitz’ sweatshirt during Capitol riot identified”

Aljazeera published one of the most striking examples of an American association with Nazism. The picture shows a demonstration in Charlottesville, Georgia, two years before COVID-19 struck and almost three years before the 2020 presidential election.

Nazi, swastika, mob, riot, Charlottesville, Georgia, white supremacy

Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally in 2018 in Georgia [File: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP]

Clearly, this country is not without legitimate fascist threats.

I will finish this blog with two non-pictorial reports that echo the link—one from England, the other from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ex-governor of California.

Apparently, some extremist groups in England are encouraging their members to infect Muslims and Jews with COVID-19:

London (CNN)Neo-Nazis and far-right activists have been telling followers to “deliberately infect” Jews and Muslims with coronavirus, a UK government counterterrorism agency warned on Thursday, as extremists attempt to capitalize on the pandemic.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the UK’s Commission for Countering Extremism said it has received increasing reports of far-right, far-left and Islamist extremists exploiting the crisis to promote divisive, xenophobic and racist narratives “to sow division” and create social discord.

The commission said it had heard reports of misinformation and harmful propaganda across the ideological spectrum: Islamist groups were “propagating anti-democratic and anti-Western narratives,” claiming that Covid-19 is divine punishment on the West for alleged “degeneracy,” or punishment on China for the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims.

Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was born in July 1947 in Austria and moved to the US in 1968, tweeted a video likening the January 6th mob attack on the US Capitol to Kristallnacht (1938):

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger posted a heartfelt video to Twitter on Sunday, recounting his childhood in Austria after World War II and denouncing the violent mob that overtook the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

The video, nearly eight minutes long and set to swelling music, starts by recalling Kristallnacht — or the Night of Broken Glass — an infamous night in 1938 when a mob of Nazi sympathizers stormed through Jewish neighborhoods in Germany, destroying thousands of businesses, rounding up Jewish men to be sent to concentration camps and killing dozens of people in the process. The night was named for the broken glass from Jewish homes and businesses that littered the streets, and it came to symbolize shattered Jewish lives.

“Wednesday was the day of broken glass right here in the United States,” Schwarzenegger says in the video, which by Sunday afternoon had been viewed nearly 12 million times. “The broken glass was in the windows of the United States Capitol. But the mob did not just shatter the windows of the Capitol. They shattered the ideals we took for granted. They did not just break down the doors of the building that housed American democracy. They trampled the very principles on which our country was founded.”

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Shame!

My dear friends who now live in Poland sent me the image above. Both are now infected with and trying to recuperate from COVID-19 but they didn’t want my sympathy. They contacted me to say that they felt sorry for us, given recent events in Washington, DC. They didn’t send me the original link to the image but it was easy to find. I searched Google for, “Statue of Liberty in shame” and found a hit on the first try.

Well, I can see the actual Statue of Liberty from my terrace. I had to double check to make sure that it hadn’t changed. It hadn’t but America has.

The Statue of Liberty a few hours before I wrote this blog.

Wednesday, January 7th was the last step in Congress’ confirmation of the November 3rd presidential election. The congressional approval process is supposed to be a ceremonial event. The American people already decided on a winner and the vote has been certified by all of the states. The only step left is the inauguration of Mr. Biden on January 20th. Yet, Mr. Trump still hasn’t admitted that he lost and has instead done everything possible to portray this election as illegitimate. He convinced his core, both in the legislature and on the streets, to take matters into their own hands—to change the verdict and declare him as the winner. On Wednesday, he went so far as to incite a riot at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

The police department gave a summary of what happened on Thursday:

Washington, D.C., officials say four people have died, including one in a shooting inside the U.S. Capitol, and more than a dozen police officers were injured after a mob of supporters of President Trump stormed the nation’s legislative building, temporarily shutting down a vote to certify his successor’s win.

“Thousands of individuals involved in violent riotous actions” stormed the building that houses Congress, the Capitol Police said late Thursday morning, in its first statement about the events. The extremists attacked police “with metal pipes, discharged chemical irritants, and took up other weapons against our officers.”

The number of deaths has since risen to five.

A scene from the riot at the capitol

Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican senator from the state of Utah, had this to say on Wednesday:

We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning. What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States. Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy. They will be remembered for their role in this shameful episode in American history. That will be their legacy.

This was a coup attempt by the president of the United States. The coup interrupted the congressional meeting but congress re-met in the evening to complete the process.

The final results were that the Trump Republican core continued to question the results in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Both houses had to vote on acceptance or rejection of the state’s electoral reports. The results were as follows:

Pennsylvania: House: 282 approved, 138 disapproved (total number of Republican votes – 211); Senate: 92 approved, 7 disapproved.

Arizona: House: 303 approved, 121 disapproved; Senate: 93 approved, 6 disapproved

If both houses had disapproved of electoral reports, these states’ votes would have been removed from the tally. There were no legitimate reasons to reject the electoral votes. None of the president’s claims have any basis in fact.

All of this was so unusual that The New York Times felt compelled to include photographs and names of each of the 147 congressmembers who voted to disapprove the states’ tallies. I agree with the NYT on its importance and am reproducing the photographs and the names below:

Senate

Tommy Tuberville, Ala.; Rick Scott, Fla.; Roger Marshall, Kan.; John Kennedy, La.;

Cindy Hyde-Smith, Miss.; Josh Hawley, Mo.; Ted Cruz, Texas; Cynthia Lummis, Wyo.

House

Robert B. Aderholt, Ala.; Mo Brooks, Ala.; Jerry Carl, Ala.; Barry Moore, Ala.; Gary Palmer, Ala.;

Mike Rogers, Ala.; Andy Biggs, Ariz.; Paul Gosar, Ariz.; Debbie Lesko, Ariz.;

David Schweikert, Ariz.; Rick Crawford, Ark.; Ken Calvert, Calif.; Mike Garcia, Calif.;

Darrell Issa, Calif.; Doug LaMalfa, Calif.;  Kevin McCarthy, Calif.; Devin Nunes, Calif.;

Jay Obernolte, Calif.; Lauren Boebert, Colo.; Doug Lamborn, Colo.; Kat Cammack, Fla.

Mario Diaz-Balart, Fla.; Byron Donalds, Fla.; Neal Dunn, Fla.; Scott Franklin, Fla.;

Matt Gaetz, Fla.; Carlos Gimenez, Fla.; Brian Mast, Fla.; Bill Posey, Fla.; John Rutherford, Fla.;

Greg Steube, Fla.; Daniel Webster, Fla.; Rick Allen, Ga.; Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, Ga.;

Andrew Clyde, Ga.; Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ga.; Jody Hice, Ga.; Barry Loudermilk, Ga.;

Russ Fulcher, Idaho; Mike Bost, Ill.; Mary Miller, Ill.; Jim Baird, Ind.; Jim Banks, Ind.;

Greg Pence, Ind.; Jackie Walorski, Ind.; Ron Estes, Kan.; Jacob LaTurner, Kan.;

Tracey Mann, Kan.; Harold Rogers, Ky.; Garret Graves, La.; Clay Higgins, La.; Mike Johnson, La.;

Steve Scalise, La. Andy Harris, Md.; Jack Bergman, Mich.; Lisa McClain, Mich.;

Tim Walberg, Mich.; Michelle Fischbach, Minn.; Jim Hagedorn, Minn.; Michael Guest, Miss.;

Trent Kelly, Miss.; Steven Palazzo, Miss.; Sam Graves, Mo.; Vicky Hartzler, Mo.; Billy Long, Mo.;

Blaine Luetkemeyer, Mo.; Jason Smith, Mo.; Matt Rosendale, Mont.; Dan Bishop, N.C.;

Ted Budd, N.C.; Madison Cawthorn, N.C.; Virginia Foxx, N.C.; Richard Hudson, N.C.;

Gregory F. Murphy, N.C.; David Rouzer, N.C.; Jeff Van Drew, N.J.; Yvette Herrell, N.M.;

Chris Jacobs, N.Y.; Nicole Malliotakis, N.Y.; Elise M. Stefanik, N.Y.; Lee Zeldin, N.Y.;

Adrian Smith, Neb.; Steve Chabot, Ohio; Warren Davidson, Ohio; Bob Gibbs, Ohio;

Bill Johnson, Ohio; Jim Jordan, Ohio; Stephanie Bice, Okla.; Tom Cole, Okla.; Kevin Hern, Okla.;

Frank Lucas, Okla.; Markwayne Mullin, Okla.; Cliff Bentz, Ore.; John Joyce, Pa.; Fred Keller, Pa.;

Mike Kelly, Pa.; Daniel Meuser, Pa.; Scott Perry, Pa.; Guy Reschenthaler, Pa.;

Lloyd Smucker, Pa.; Glenn Thompson, Pa.; Jeff Duncan, S.C.; Ralph Norman, S.C.; Tom Rice, S.C.;

William Timmons, S.C.; Joe Wilson, S.C.; Tim Burchett, Tenn.; Scott DesJarlais, Tenn.;

Chuck Fleischmann, Tenn.; Mark E. Green, Tenn.; Diana Harshbarger, Tenn.;

David Kustoff, Tenn.; John Rose, Tenn.; Jodey Arrington, Texas; Brian Babin, Texas;

Michael C. Burgess, Texas; John R. Carter, Texas; Michael Cloud, Texas; Pat Fallon, Texas;

Louie Gohmert, Texas; Lance Gooden, Texas; Ronny Jackson, Texas; Troy Nehls, Texas;

August Pfluger, Texas; Pete Sessions, Texas; Beth Van Duyne, Texas; Randy Weber, Texas;

Roger Williams, Texas; Ron Wright, Texas; Burgess Owens, Utah; Chris Stewart, Utah;

Ben Cline, Va.; Bob Good, Va.; Morgan Griffith, Va.; Robert J. Wittman, Va.; Carol Miller, W.Va.;

Alexander X. Mooney, W.Va.; Scott Fitzgerald, Wis.; Tom Tiffany, Wis.

Almost everybody who was born in Poland knows the history of the Nazi party. We know how the party of hate and fascism rose to power. My Polish friends and I are not the only ones worried, though. What happened in the US on Wednesday evoked fear worldwide and requires some examination. I will expand on this soon.

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K-Shaped Global Disasters

Handwritten letter K

In an earlier blog (August 4, 2020), I presented anthropogenic climate change, COVID-19, population, jobs, and equity as circles in a Venn Diagram. COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to quantify those relationships. In this case, jobs represent the economic impact of the global disasters. The economy that will result from the pandemic is unclear but there are several common predictions, which Figure 1 demonstrates.

Economic recovery letter shapes

Figure 1 NatWest’s letter-shaped economic recovery models

While this collection uses the letters L, U, V, W, and a “swoosh” to describe the potential shapes of our economic recovery, it is notably lacking the letter K. In the K model, one arm goes up and one arm goes down, indicating a massive increase in inequality.

Figure 2 illustrates several uneven indicators from the past year.  As with other disasters, recovery and adaptation to COVID-19 has involved winners and losers. The winners in Figure 2 are shown in light green, the losers are shown in light blue. In a linear graph representing these trends, the winners rise up one “arm,” while the losers split off to form a downward “arm.” Almost all of the indicators in the figure are focused on stock markets and “investment opportunities,” reflecting the fact that its intended audience is people who have money to invest.

Figure 2 – Asset performances in 2020

If we focus exclusively on the stock market, we see a rise in the values of those companies which have made a lot of our lives bearable during the social distancing of the pandemic (many in the tech sector). Tesla’s stocks increased by a factor of more than 7 over 2020, Amazon by more than 70%, Apple by 77%, Facebook by 30%, Microsoft by 37%, and Alphabet (Google) by 28%. Zoom, which many of us rely on completely for work, increased by a factor of 4. Netflix increased by more than 50%. Interestingly, the developers of the vaccines that offer the best hope for ending the pandemic do not all follow the same upward path. The small companies saw a meteoric rise: Moderna’s stock rose by a factor of 4.5, BioNTech by more than a factor of 2. However, the values of the big companies associated with some of the vaccines, such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca, hardly moved.

Of course, the stock market is not the economy. Figure 3 shows that until the pandemic, the GDP had been rising at an almost constant rate. At the start of the pandemic, life came to an almost stand-still; in less than 2 months, the GDP fell by more than 10%. Partial adaptation started around mid-April, and the GDP responded by rising to its approximate level from two years ago.

Figure 3

Figure 4 shows a K structure on another level. While employment for college-educated people hardly changed, unemployment grew by about 25% among people without college education.

Figure 4US employment during COVID-19 by education attainment

All the data I have cited above has focused on the US. Figure 5 shows that the increase of inequality during the pandemic has been global and reproducible. I have discussed the Gini coefficient as a measure of inequality before (August 4, 2015). As I mentioned then, a Gini coefficient of zero indicates maximum equality, whereas a Gini coefficient of 1 indicates maximum inequality. In Figure 5, the Gini coefficient change is expressed in % and it indicates that globally, inequality is rising as we move away from pandemic events.

Figure 5 – From The Economist Espresso: Unequal impact: inequality after the pandemic

As the stylized letter at the top of the blog implies, the post-pandemic K shape of the future is not a simple, sans-serif letter. The elegant curves of the letter’s two arms eventually move in toward each other, minimizing the inequality.

Almost any major economic or social transition involves winners and losers. The losers try to block the transition while the winners try to accelerate it. To a large degree, the success or failure of such a transition depends on our ability to reallocate some of the winners’ gains to the losers. I used two examples of such impacts in earlier blogs, both of which connect to climate change. In France (see the Dec 18, 2018 blog), the Yellow Vest demonstrations tried to stop—and succeeded in slowing—the transition to the use of more sustainable energy sources. In Germany, on the other hand (October 8, 2019), the government combined its commitments to withdraw from coal with subsidies to the coal-producing states, resulting in minimal objections to the transition.

I will continue to present additional examples, including cases where there is a downward trajectory that some are falsely (and catastrophically) trying to present as a K transition.

Stay tuned.

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The End of the Beginning

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill made this declaration in his speech after the British won the second battle of El Alamein against the Germans in 1942. One of my English friends emailed me the following cartoon; it seems like a good fit for the opening of my last blog of 2020 (even though the COVID-19 vaccines all go in the arm).

vaccine, hope, new year, 2021

I just finished a semester teaching four online courses at various levels, I continue to write this blog, and as always, I work hard to be a decent human being. My wife and I are also participating in stage 3 of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine trial.

I try to find the time to read recent works on WWII. There’s a new collection of books that makes use of Russian archives from that period. I’m particularly interested in the writings by German historians. Close to the start of the pandemic, I started to read Volker Ullrich’s second book about Adolph Hitler that was recently translated to English: Hitler: Downfall: 1939-1945. Unconsciously, I find myself comparing our present situation to WWII.

I started this blog on April 22, 2012 with a short personal history of myself and my family, starting during WWII. This is not the first tigme I have drawn parallels to the present. I am not going to compare individual events. My focus is on turning points. The battle of EA took place more than 80 years ago. We now know how both it and WWII ended. When he made his famous speech, Churchill knew how the battle of El-Alamein had ended but could not have predicted the outcome of the battle of Stalingrad. We don’t fully know how (or if???) Trump’s presidency will end on fJanuary 20th.

Two turning points stand out in WWII. The Battle of El Amein took place from, October 23 – November 05, 1942, with Bernard Montgomery leading the British forces against Erwin Rommel’s German ones. In the battle of Stalingrad (Battle of Stalingrad – Wikipedia), August 1942 – February 1943, Gregory Zhukov’s Russian forces faced off against Friedrich Paulus’ German ones. The number of casualties (dead and wounded) in the Battle of EA is estimated at 14,000 British and 60,000 Germans. The casualties in the battle of Stalingrad are estimated at 800,000 Germans and 1.1 million Russians.

From the start of WWII, with the German invasion of Poland, the Germans scored a set of nonstop  victories. There was a very real threat that the Nazis would, in no time, be able to control the entire European continent. This belief was shattered with the German battlefield losses toward the end of 1942, which serve as the background of Churchill’s speech. On a more general level, Germany’s invasion (Operation Barbarossa) of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and the addition of American forces to the Allies as of December 1941 made Germany’s (and the Axis powers’) loss of the war almost inevitable.

Almost three years passed between Churchill’s “End of the Beginning” speech and the end of the war. Most of the WWII deaths and murders, including those of the majority of my direct family, took place after the battle of El-Alamein. WWII in Europe ended on May 8, 1945 (Victory Europe Day). I was liberated on April 13, 1945 by the American army.

Back to the present pandemic. The virus that causes COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. As of last week (December 24, 2020), there were close to 80 million coronavirus cases estimated globally, with roughly 1.7 million dead. The number of infections is probably much larger because most testing (throughout the world) has been done on people with symptoms.

The UK, Canada, and Bahrain’s temporary approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as of December 10th marked what we hope will be the end of the beginning of our current struggle. The US, the EU, and other countries have followed suit in approving the Pfizer vaccine and some countries have since approved the Moderna vaccine.

Following these approvals, a massive vaccination effort has started to take shape. My wife and I are participating in the Oxford/AstraZeneca phase 3 testing. We do not know how long it will take for the world to return to normal—such an occurrence will require some sort of herd-immunity that it is now estimated will require more than 80% of the population to receive a vaccine—but we now have reason to hope it will be soon.

Our current pandemic can be compared on various levels to the Spanish Flu that took place at the tail-end of WWI (May 12, 2020 blog). Most of the people that lived through the Spanish Flu lived also through WWI, so comparisons of the miseries, including number of deaths, were abundant (40 million in WWI vs. 50 million from the Spanish Flu).

The number of people who lived through WWII, and are now living through the current pandemic, is fast shrinking. I am one of them, so, I have the “license” to compare. I have lived with the term, “survivor” in relation to the Holocaust for many years. I’ve never liked the term. It is too passive. I was a child during WWII and I had no way to take action. Now I have a choice. My wife and I volunteered to participate in the AstraZeneca phase 3 trial in part because it was a way to do something in the face of this crisis.

Over the last week of 2020, I saw two new movies that will be relevant to our 2021 discussion of anthropogenic (human-made) global disasters. One was Wonder Woman 1984, which depicts the disastrous consequences of everyone in the world being granted a wish. It ends with a simple, if predictable solution for how to save our planet and society. The second movie was George Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky,” which, while it focuses on our planet’s destruction from some unknown cause, does not offer a solution.

Have a safe and happy New Year.

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Birobidzhan and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast

If you search this blog for the term, “environmental immigration,” you’ll find about 16 entries, including several guest blogs that my students wrote as their concluding research projects. The post from April 3, 2018 summarizes some of the findings from the 2017 Intelligence Report regarding the hazards such migration poses:

Changing climate conditions challenged the capacity of many governments to cope, especially in the Middle East and Africa, where extended droughts reduced food and water supplies and high temperatures suppressed the ability of people to work outdoors. Large numbers of displaced persons from the region often found they had no place to go as a series of dramatic terrorist attacks in Western countries drove those governments to adopt stringent security policies that restricted immigration.

My students and I continue to follow the subject. Of course, since much of our attention is focused on the US, we dwell a lot on climate change’s negative impacts on immigration. We look at both the populations that are forced to leave their homes and the recipient countries that often view such migrants as threats to their national security and economic well being.

However, I have several students from northern countries—mostly from Russia—who have a very different perception of the impact of climate change. From the perspective of their native lands, climate change can be a blessing.

While the lists of the coldest countries in the world vary, they invariably include those that border on the Arctic Circle. The website, “Swedish Nomad” gives Russia the top spot, followed by Greenland, Canada, and the US. All of them border the Arctic. “Wow Travel” puts Antarctica first (a slightly awkward choice because, while there are no countries in Antarctica, seven nations claim different parts of it), followed by the US (mainly due to Alaska), Russia (Siberia), Norway, and Mongolia.

In that context, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I recently found a New York Times Magazine article about the countries (and states) that will benefit from the environmental migrants that climate change produces: “How Russia Wins the Climate CrisisClimate change and its enormous human migrations will transform agriculture and remake the world order – and no country stands to gain more than Russia.”

… Across Eastern Russia, wild forests, swamps and grasslands are slowly being transformed into orderly grids of soybeans, corn and wheat. It’s a process that is likely to accelerate: Russia hopes to seize on the warming temperatures and longer growing seasons brought by climate change to refashion itself as one of the planet’s largest producers of food.

Around the world, climate change is becoming an epochal crisis, a nightmare of drought, desertification, flooding and unbearable heat, threatening to make vast regions less habitable and drive the greatest migration of refugees in history. But for a few nations, climate change will present an unparalleled opportunity, as the planet’s coldest regions become more temperate. There is plenty of reason to think that those places will also receive an extraordinary influx of people displaced from the hottest parts of the world as the climate warms. Human migration, historically, has been driven by the pursuit of prosperity even more so than it has by environmental strife. With climate change, prosperity and habitability — haven and economic opportunity — will soon become one and the same.

And no country may be better positioned to capitalize on climate change than Russia. Russia has the largest land mass by far of any northern nation. It is positioned farther north than all of its South Asian neighbors, which collectively are home to the largest global population fending off displacement from rising seas, drought and an overheating climate. Like Canada, Russia is rich in resources and land, with room to grow. Its crop production is expected to be boosted by warming temperatures over the coming decades even as farm yields in the United States, Europe and India are all forecast to decrease. And whether by accident or cunning strategy or, most likely, some combination of the two, the steps its leaders have steadily taken — planting flags in the Arctic and propping up domestic grain production among them — have increasingly positioned Russia to regain its superpower mantle in a warmer world.

The article describes the, “small village of Dimitrovo, which sits just 35 miles north of the Chinese border in a remote part of eastern Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region.”

That last phrase caught me completely by surprise; I didn’t know that it still existed. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, I grew up in Israel and completed my education there, so I was familiar with the history of that Jewish state. I am almost certain, however, that most of you reading this blog have never heard of it, so I think that some background is appropriate. As usual, I will reference Wikipedia:

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO; Russian: Евре́йская автоно́мная о́бласть, Yevreyskaya avtonomnaya oblast; Yiddish: ייִדישע אװטאָנאָמע געגנט‎, yidishe avtonome Gegnt)[14] is a federal subject of Russia in the Russian Far East, bordering Khabarovsk Krai and Amur Oblast in Russia and Heilongjiang province in China.[15] Its administrative center is the town of Birobidzhan.

At its height in the late 1940s, the Jewish population in the region peaked at around 46,000–50,000, around 25% of the entire population.[16] As of the 2010 Census, JAO’s population was 176,558 people,[10] or 0.1% of the total population of Russia. By 2010, according to data provided by the Russian Census Bureau, there were only 1,628 Jews remaining in the JAO (less than 1% of the population), while ethnic Russians made up 92.7% of the JAO population.[17] Judaism is practiced by only 0.2% of the population of the JAO.[18]

Article 65 of the Constitution of Russia provides that the JAO is Russia’s only autonomous oblast. It is one of two official Jewish jurisdictions in the world, the other being Israel.

Map of Russia with the JAO on the south side of Siberia, marked in red (source: Stasyan117, Wikipedia)

Menorah at the center of Birobidzhan

Figure 2 shows a structure in the center of the JAO’s administrative center, Birobidzhan, which features a large Jewish menorah with seven candles. It is a symbol that one can find in many synagogues and other Jewish structures. It is similar to the nine-candle menorah used to celebrate Hanukkah (which ended last Thursday evening).

Wikipedia gives us more about the JAO’s origins:

Although Judaism as a religion ran counter to the Bolshevik party’s policy of atheism, Vladimir Lenin wanted to appease minority groups to gain their support and provide examples of tolerance.[22]

In 1924, the unemployment rate among Jews exceeded 30%, partially as a result of pogroms[23] but also as a result of the policies of the USSR, which prohibited people from being craftspeople and small businessmen.[24] With the goal of getting Jews back to work to be more productive members of society, the government established Komzet, the committee for the agricultural settlement of Jews.[23]The Soviet government entertained the idea of resettling all Jews in the USSR in a designated territory where they would be able to pursue a lifestyle that was “socialist in content and national in form”. The Soviets also wanted to offer an alternative to Zionism, the establishment of Palestine as a Jewish homeland. Socialist Zionists such as Ber Borochov were gaining followers at that time and Zionism was a rival ideology to Marxism among left-wing Jews.[19] The location that was initially considered in the early 1920s was Crimea, which already had a significant Jewish population[19] Two Jewish districts (raiony) were formed in Crimea and three in south Ukraine.[23][25] However, an alternative scheme, perceived as more advantageous, was put into practice.[19]

I learned about the JAO in the context of other attempts during the last two hundred years to establish a Jewish state, including the modern version of Zionism, which started with Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). My schooling taught that the JAO was a failed effort that didn’t deserve a second thought. Now, climate change is resurrecting the area, transforming it into a place that may flourish as a global refuge for climate migrants, irrespective of their religion (as the NYT article makes clear, most of the climate refugees who flee to the JAO will probably be Chinese).

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