COVID and Climate: Learning From One to Use On the Other

I have mentioned the concept of “constructive destruction” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic before (June 16, 2020). By necessity, our status quo is being disrupted, but that also means we are beginning to grow in unexpected ways. At my college, we are now completely focused on remote teaching. We are trying to optimize it, given that it might continue to be a good teaching tool even after the pandemic ends.

We are currently in the middle of two global disasters that make our life miserable. One, COVID-19, was caused by the emergence of a deadly, contagious virus; the other, climate change, is being triggered by our economic activities and their subsequent disruptions of the atmospheric chemistry. COVID-19, by its nature, is a relatively fast event. It is growing exponentially, with a doubling time that can be measured in days or weeks. Climate change is a longer-term disaster but its growth is also exponential, with a doubling time that we can measure in generations (25 years). Most of its growth comes as feedback from the original disruption of greenhouse gases (July 10, 2018). COVID-19 is a self-limiting pandemic since its replication depends on the availability of carriers. This limit can come either from herd immunity (May 12, 2020) or an effective and available vaccine and/or medications. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people will likely lose their lives.

The last global viral pandemic of this scale was the Spanish flu, which raged from 1918-1920. As we fight to minimize the current pandemic, maybe we can learn strategies that will aid in climate change mitigation. Climate change is not self-limiting and it is not an exaggeration to say that it could lead to the extinction of humanity.

Studies have been done on the impact of climate change on human health (November 27, 2018) so it’s no surprise that the National Academy of Medicine dedicated a special event to discussing connections between COVID-19 and climate change. I got an invitation to attend. One of the “advantages” of the lockdown is that you don’t have to factor in traveling and hotel reservations to attend conferences that you might be interested in (good for me, bad for the tourist industry, especially for airlines and hotels).

Bill Gates, the keynote speaker at the event, connected the two disasters and warned that as bad as COVID-19 is, climate change will be much worse. In both disasters, changing our behavior is key to mitigation efforts. We need to learn from the pandemic both how to cooperate globally and how to set up (and follow) concrete plans for the future. Dr. Anthony Fauci was the keynote speaker for the session on COVID-19, while Sir Andrew Haines played the same role in the climate change session and Dr. Sanjay Gupta served as moderator.

We can look at the connections between COVID-19 and climate change from several angles, both past and future.

Not only did people discover 2,000 year old palm seeds in Israel several years ago, they were able to propagate a new palm tree from them.

A tree grown from a 2,000-year-old seed may bring its sub-species back to Israel, where it once flourished, after a millennium-long absence.

The seed was one of six discovered in 1963, in a jar in Herod the Great’s palace at the Masada fortress in Israel. Radiocarbon dating found that the seeds, preserved by the arid climate, were from sometime between 155 B.C. and A.D. 64.

Unfortunately, not all ancient things being uncovered are good ones. Climate change-triggered thawing of permafrost may resurrect terrifying disease-causing agents that could put COVID-19 to shame:

The thawing of the permafrost also threatens to unlock disease-causing bacteria and viruses long trapped in the ice.​

There have already been some cases of this happening.

In 2016 a child died in Russia’s far northern Siberia in an outbreak of anthrax that scientists said seemed to have come from the corpses of infected reindeers buried 70 years before but uncovered by melting permafrost.

Released from the ice, the anthrax seems to have been passed to grazing herds.

Scientists have also warned that other dormant pathogens entombed in frozen soil may be roused by global warming, such as from old smallpox graves.​

In 2014 scientists revived a giant but harmless virus, dubbed Pithovirus sibericum, that had been locked in the Siberian permafrost for more than 30,000 years.

In truth, however, regardless of how much we learn about disaster mitigation from COVID-19, any such efforts for climate change will require leadership. A week from now, the US will elect a president, congress, and one third of the senate, not to mention many local government officials.

The second and last presidential debate took place in Nashville, Tennessee. Comparatively, it was exemplary. The Commission on Presidential Debates proved that it is made up of fast learners. Unlike the first debate (see October 6th blog), they limited this one to only 6 topics. The newly imposed mute button afforded each candidate two uninterrupted minutes for each of the 6 segments before they could contradict each other. It worked. That, in combination with the much more effective moderator (Kristen Welker of NBC) produced a much more “civilized” debate. Of course, this is no accident. It is very difficult to moderate a discussion when the participants talk on top of each other, so a mute button made things much more controllable. The personalities of the two candidates came clearly through and both got the full opportunity to state their cases. The factual grounding of the discussion was much more problematic. Indeed, almost every publication devoted huge swaths of space to fact checking the candidates’ statements. Some print versions lent less space, making the topic much more manageable (in The New York Times at least). The Washington Post announced, “At debate, Biden makes relatively few gaffes while Trump breaks fact-check meter.”

I was waiting for the climate change section, which ended up being the last full topic and garnered about ten minutes of discussion. In his two minutes of uninterrupted presentation, President Trump provided an unintelligible version of his take of the Biden’s climate change plan.  Here is how Forbes (a publication that often favors Trump) covered it:

Why Does Trump Think Biden Wants To Shrink Everybody’s Windows?

President Donald Trump insisted Thursday night during the final presidential debate that Democratic opponent Joe Biden is pining to knock down buildings and shrink their windows, a bizarre and inaccurate riff on Biden’s climate plan that has quickly turned into one of Trump’s go-to attack lines.

Science Magazine delved a little deeper into the matter.

Anybody who is even slightly familiar with climate change knows that mitigation requires global energy transition to zero-carbon-emitting fuels. You can only continue to use fossil fuels if you can capture the carbon dioxide they produce before it gets to the atmosphere. The timeline for that transition is in general agreement: by mid-century. The somewhat controversial part is how to get there with minimal economic drawbacks. VP Biden proposed a plan for how to do so. President Trump, in his two minutes, “redefined” Biden’s strategy as a commitment to destroy the oil industry. Republicans later claimed this as the key takeaway from the entire debate. This was a strategy particularly aimed at Texas and Pennsylvania. Both states have long histories with the fossil fuel industry and their votes could sway the election.

Meanwhile, to the contrary, the oil companies themselves seemed much less concerned. Many of them (more in Europe than the US) are already busy incorporating the transition into their own business models, and will continue to do so no matter who wins the election.

In their National Academy of Medicine presentations, Mr. Gates and Dr. Fauci touched on the similarities between COVID-19 and climate change in how they impact our everyday behaviors. I will try to expand on this issue in the future.

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Presidential Debates and Science

Cartoon of politician "I like to think we aren't so much anti-science as we are pro-myth"After President Trump refused to take part in the newly virtual debate following his coronavirus diagnosis, the debate was cancelled. However, the debate didn’t stay cancelled, per se; it merely changed form. Originally meant to be one town hall, the event instead became two concurrent ones on separate channels. As always in town hall discussions, it was a matter of the candidates addressing questions from the audience. President Trump’s Miami town hall, moderated by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, clashed for air time with VP Biden’s Philadelphia event on ABC, which George Stephanopoulos moderated. Pressing one button on the remote could take me from one event to the other. In fact, aside from having to switch back and forth, I found it to be a great “debate” format—much more productive than the last one.

Both candidates had plenty of time to make their cases. One moderator (Ms. Guthrie) was much more aggressive than the other but based on their earlier debate performances and the room Ms. Guthrie allowed him to elaborate on his claims, President Trump shouldn’t complain.

Also in the news this past week: the process of confirmation of the supreme court candidate that President Trump has proposed to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her views on climate change are dismaying.

Here is a short summary of what she had to say about climate change:

During two grueling days of questioning over her Supreme Court confirmation, Judge Amy Coney Barrett did her best to avoid controversy. But her efforts to play it safe on the subject of climate change have created perhaps the most tangible backlash of her hearings. In her responses, the nominee to take the place of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an environmental stalwart, used language that alarmed some environmentalists and suggested rough going for initiatives to fight climate change, if as expected she wins confirmation and cements a 6-3 conservative majority on the court.

But with Senator Kamala Harris of California, the Democratic candidate for vice president, Judge Barrett, the daughter of an oil executive, went further. She described the settled science of climate change as still in dispute, compared to Ms. Harris’s other examples, including whether smoking causes cancer and the coronavirus is infectious.

“Do you believe that climate change is happening and threatening the air we breathe and the water that we drink?” Ms. Harris asked.

Judge Barrett responded, “You asked me uncontroversial questions, like Covid-19 being infectious or if smoking causes cancer” to solicit “an opinion from me on a very contentious matter of public debate,” climate change.

“I will not do that,” Judge Barrett concluded. “I will not express a view on a matter of public policy, especially one that is politically controversial.”

This can be interpreted to suggest that she doesn’t believe there are concrete facts on which courts should base their decisions. Under this philosophy, everything becomes politicized, especially if it has to do with science. It is true that the role of supreme court justices is to interpret what the original legislators had in mind but everyone has opinions and biases, no matter how impartial they present themselves. Judge Barrett’s refusal to admit the clear evidence of climate change is consistent with President Trump’s approach to science. His response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has already killed more than 200,000 people in the US has been to downplay its severity. The president’s attitude to scientific research is roughly as follows:

Former vice president Joe Biden’s plans and President Donald Trump’s records on research funding are a part of the picture, of course, and of utmost importance to many academics and higher education leaders. But many scientists believe a more fundamental issue — respect for science in government — is at stake in this election.

Trump’s continued efforts to downplay the severity of the pandemic, seen most recently in the wake of his own COVID-19 diagnosis, his rejection of public health guidance — including, perhaps most consequentially, his mockery and failure of role modeling when it comes to face masks — and reported efforts by his administration to interfere in scientific decision making in the nation’s public health agencies and sideline experts have raised alarms among scientists and many others. Scientists have criticized the president for rejecting scientific and other forms of expertise, including by forcing out or muzzling government-employed scientists and by eliminating many advisory committees comprised of outside experts.

In fact, on Sunday, President Trump mocked VP Biden for doing the opposite*:

President Trump mockingly warned at his rally in Nevada late Sunday that  Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would “listen to the scientists” if elected and there would be more lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Trump told attendees in Carson City that supporters of his opponent would surrender their “future to the virus,” saying: “He’s gonna want to lockdown.”

“He’ll listen to the scientists,” Trump added in a mocking tone before saying, “If I listened totally to the scientists, we would right now have a country that would be in a massive depression instead — we’re like a rocket ship. Take a look at the numbers.”

 

To put things in perspective about championing science and healing some of this attitude, in Britain, Prince William announced a new prize aimed at “repairing’ the planet:

LONDON — Prince William on Thursday announced the establishment of an environmental prize worth 50 million pounds, or $65 million, that will reward climate change solutions over the next 10 years, saying it was an effort to “turn the current pessimism surrounding environmental issues into optimism.”

Sir David Attenborough, the naturalist behind dozens of documentaries chronicling the planet’s biodiversity, has joined a council overseeing the prize and helped promote its launch through promotional videos and joint interviews with Prince William.

Prince William said the “Earthshot Prize” was inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s launch in 1961 of a decade-long research program, “Moonshot,” to send the first person to the moon.

It will comprise five awards of £1 million each for each of the next 10 years, centered on “earthshots,” or goals — fixing the climate, cleaning the air, protecting and restoring nature, reviving oceans, and tackling waste.

The last “real” presidential debate is scheduled for two days from now (I am not holding my breath). Ten days after that is Election Day. More than 10 million people had already voted as of Sunday, October 18th. No one is sure what the outcome will be but it’s high time we start considering the shape of the future and how we can heal the country’s divides—including regarding climate change.

*My editor caught this exchange and brought it to my attention.

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Last (Vice) Presidential Debate?

Like many others, I watched the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday evening (October 7th) with relatively low expectations. I figured that it would be much more civilized than the first presidential debate but would not have much new to offer. That’s exactly what I found. However, the next morning, President Trump announced that he would not participate in the October 15th debate due to its change from an in-person to a virtual event.

As we know, this change in venue was a response to the president’s contraction of the coronavirus. When he refused to participate in a remote presidential debate, the independent debate commission cancelled it. That means the vice-presidential debate may now be the last presidential event in this election cycle. We had better pay attention. So, another look is in order.

The normal kinds of fact checking that we discussed last week after the presidential debate will not serve us here. Sure, there were inaccuracies in the debate that can be classified as lies, fake news, etc. but there was nothing that I found to be completely outside the norms of political debates. Nor could various outlets determine a clear “winner” in terms of who persuaded new segments of voters to change their votes.

The morning after the debate, Bloomberg declared, “Harris Rips Trump Over Virus as Pence Hits Biden on Taxes, Court.”  However, the candidates had only 90 minutes to debate 12 issues. We are living in very trying times right now and all the issues raised were very important—there simply wasn’t enough time to discuss almost any of them. This was compounded by both candidates using the classic politician strategy of completely ignoring certain questions. They pivoted instead to well-practiced talking points meant to appeal to voters.

While the debate featured far fewer interruptions than its presidential counterpart, one particular exchange led to Senator Harris’ thoroughly quotable line, “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.” That line has since been printed on all sorts of political merchandise, including shirts and mugs.

I propose an alternative approach to trying to cram such a large list of topics into such a short time: let the debaters use their opening speeches to address why they deserve re-election to the position (in the case of the vice president) or why a replacement is necessary (Senator Harris). The rest of the debate would be confined to a combination of the issues that they raised in their opening speeches and one or two responses to public questions.

Since COVID-19 is the dominant event that has shaped our life over the last nine months, it was unsurprising that Senator Harris attacked the administration on its mishandling of the pandemic. Naturally, the vice president tried to defend the administration on how it has handled this issue. In both cases, the comparison of the pandemic’s impact on the US to that of other countries (normalized for population) was relevant.

The moderator asked Senator Harris what first steps Vice President Biden has planned, should he win the election. Her response was that their administration would immediately implement all of the relevant scientific recommendations regarding coronavirus. That includes mandates on mask wearing, keeping safely distanced, washing hands, and shutting down high-contagion establishments and activities.

VP Pence responded that this is the same policy that the administration has already been implementing and accused the Biden campaign of plagiarism. This was sort of a clever jab as it tried to remind voters that over his long career, Biden has had some issues with plagiarism. That said, there’s no secret about what would help quell the virus. Part of the tragedy of the situation is that the Trump administration knows very well what needs to be done but they continually refuse to do it. Senator Harris didn’t have time to respond and had to end the discussion with a sarcastic smile. Similar dynamics took place on many of the other issues.

When the moderator asked about the availability and timeline of a vaccine, Senator Harris responded that if the scientists certify a vaccine, she will be the first in line to try to get it. If, instead, President Trump were the only one vouching for the vaccine, she said, she would absolutely not take it. VP Pence claimed this meant she would be putting the American public in danger by questioning the effectiveness of the vaccine and discouraging people from taking it.

This sort of extreme politicization of the coronavirus is at the heart of the US failure in confronting the pandemic. Hopefully, once the election is over, we can focus on following the science and making progress in our country’s fight against this disease.

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Arguing Over Different Realities

The morning after it took place, I got an email from my Australian family about the debate: “Well, from what was shown here what a DEBACLE not a debate. Still laughing about Trump making fun of Biden’s son saying he was not smart as he graduated in the lower percentile of his class. An international embarrassment.”

I couldn’t agree more. It makes the Trumpian slogan, “Make America Great Again,” seem all the more ridiculous. Aside from this, the debate raised some serious questions in my mind.

Ten minutes after the debate started, my wife suggested we just turn the TV off. It was a cacophony of voices: the two candidates talking over the moderator’s failed attempts to establish some semblance of order. We couldn’t extract any useful content from the mess. Given how important it was and how historically relevant it might turn out, though, we ended up watching the whole thing.

President Trump was the star and a co-producer of the reality TV show, “The Apprentice.” But his concept of reality, as we have seen over the last few years, is different from that of his opponents. I started to wonder: how can people with different concepts of reality debate each other?

I teach about climate change so this is a relevant question. The political debate between those who deny and those who believe in the science of climate change, has raged for years. Instead of massive global progress, we have seen the continued stagnation of mitigation efforts.

The basic components of reality are facts that can be observed and refuted. When things presented as facts are successfully contradicted, they become either lies or “fake news,” depending whether the side that presented these facts knew that they are wrong. From the debate, for instance:

  • President Trump, confronted with the 200,000 COVID-19 deaths that have happened on his watch, claimed (baselessly) that if Vice President Biden had been in charge, that number would have run to 2 million. This is neither fake news nor a lie. It cannot be refuted by anybody and thus it is an empty statement. However, when an authority figure utters such a statement, it becomes news. The word of the president of the United States is immensely powerful and can have an important impact.
  • The expression used on both sides of the aisle, “he will destroy the country,” falls into the same category of not being fact. The same is true for almost any description of what an opponent will do in in the future—unless he or she has already expressed the wish to do so. Once one of the debaters has expressed the wish to do something it becomes part of his or her plan for the future. The truth is the plan itself, not its later success or failure.
  • Nor does labeling anything that your opponent wants to do as “socialist” (when it isn’t) count as truth.
  • When President Trump claimed that COVID-19 only hits Democratic-run states and cities, many people (whether the next day or a mere few seconds after the sentence was uttered) were able to find the data to prove that statement incorrect. In other words, it wasn’t fake news but a provable lie. Not only were the statistics readily available to everybody but he himself was well aware that what he said is not true.
  • Meanwhile, when the president claimed that, “There aren’t 100 million people with pre-existing conditions,” he was trying to contradict one of VP Biden’s statements. He was trying to do his own fact checking but was later proven to be wrong. We can call this fake news rather than a lie because he is probably unaware of just how many people with preexisting conditions are around.

When VP Biden is asked how he would handle COVID-19 or climate change, he often responds that he would follow the science. President Trump, conversely, refuses to believe the science because he thinks that scientists don’t like him.

Scientists observe reality with the “scientific method.” You can search for the term on this blog and will find many entries. Specifically, the following paragraph from the June 18, 2012 blog defines the concept:

We Are Not Prophets

The Popperian scientific method is based on refutability. We develop a hypothesis and/or theory based on everything that we know, and we should be able to test the theory based on predictions for observations that we haven’t yet made. If the tests fail, we change the theory.  This amounts to prediction of future results. Since we are part of the system, failure might mean closing the window that allows us to survive. The science we’re talking about here is more like medicine – we have to make a rational diagnosis about the changes that take place in the physical world, but if our predictions might result in a harmful impact, we will need to act. On this scale, actions to restore equilibrium must become part of the science that we practice.

Comic of Homer Simpson making observation, scientific method, science

Figure 1

Figure 1 demonstrates the practice with a character who can talk about what he sees but is not known for his deductive reasoning.

At one time, before the debate, some people suggested that VP Biden could serve as Trump’s real-time fact checker. However, they soon realized that if Biden were to take on that role it would mean letting the president drive the discussion—not a great idea. Nor would he likely be the most effective/accurate fact checker.

The Washington Post compiled a list of fact-checked statements for both candidates the next day. Avalanches of similar fact checks soon emerged. Many of these lists featured an especially large quotient of statements by President Trump’s side but VP Biden had several of his own entries.

When scientists write a paper they often start with their observations. This would be a great basis for political debates: start with some agreed-upon sets of facts and have each candidate tell us what they intend to do with them once they occupy the office that they are running for.

On another note, President Trump, his wife, and several other people directly associated with the White House tested positive to the coronavirus. I wish them well.

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Can We Reopen Schools? Who Loses Out if We Don’t?

I just read an important op-ed in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, “‘Remote Learning’ Is Often an Oxymoron: We need to try harder to get kids back in school.” The essence of the piece is that, while rich kids have all the tools and support systems necessary to learn successfully either on- or offline, millions of less fortunate kids don’t have such resources. Kristof posits that not only will their education suffer, that fact will also deprive them of advantages in their future.

While President Trump has insisted that schools physically reopen, the private school his son Barron is attending is sticking with remote learning.

Yes, that feels like a double standard, but it’s more complicated than that. Barron will have a computer and internet access at home. He’ll have adults making sure he does his work, and he’ll be able to eat his fill without free school lunches.

In short, affluent children will mostly be fine even without in-person classes. But one study found that almost 17 million American children live in homes without high-speed internet, and more than seven million don’t have a computer at home. For disadvantaged kids, “online learning” is an oxymoron.

Prolonged school closures will worsen dropout rates across the nation, for missing just 10 percent of class days is associated with a sevenfold increased risk of dropping out. Even in normal times, only 53 percent of children attending Bureau of Indian Education schools finish high school. Closures after Hurricane Katrina led many students to leave school for good.

Kristof judges that some of these less fortunate students will not learn nearly as much remotely as they would in a physical classroom setting. Others have made similar arguments based on a different perspective. They have pointed out that, especially for small children, online learning requires direct parental involvement. That’s a big hurdle for parents’ ability to work—even if some or all of their work can be done remotely. Again here, low-income families suffer the most. The truth of all of this is almost self-evident. Clearly, we need to find out a way to get back to classrooms but that’s easier said than done. Kristof also points out that, although President Trump appears to be correct that children are much less vulnerable to the coronavirus than adults or the elderly, they are also vector points that can easily transmit the virus to teachers, parents, grandparents, administrative personnel, and others.

Two weeks ago (September 15th), I discussed the balance between taking action and not doing anything. I cited a Forbes piece that argued renewable power sources are too expensive. It ignored the expenses incurred by the worsening consequences of climate change that will come from not shifting to renewable sources. In a school setting, the key balance is between safety and disruption. I am teaching at a university that is now almost completely online and my grandchildren are going to schools with mixed online/offline classes so I am getting a first-hand view of both sides.

I spent my early childhood in the Warsaw Ghetto, followed by the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp but was liberated by the American army one month short of my 6th birthday. This meant I was able to start school at the same age as all of the other kids in my class (April 22, 2012, August 25, 2020 blogs). I have family members a few years older than me. They too survived the Holocaust but they started school later. This, combined with the increased awareness of what they had been through, left a much stronger impact on them. That said, my wife is a developmental psychologist and she has noted that we are giving too little credit to children’s adaptability. Children are resilient, at least up to a point.

There is no question (at least in my mind) that when safety is not an issue, everybody prefers face-to-face learning. Some schools around the world have been able to adapt to the pandemic. In these instances, children, teachers, and administrators are back to the usual face-to-face learning model. Here are two such schools, from opposites side of the world:

Figure 1School in Wuhan

Figure 2School in Uruguay

Adapting to this level of safety is very expensive, though, and many schools don’t have the resources to do so. Schools that can’t follow the necessary safety precautions must weigh potential delayed development and other effects of waiting or distanced learning with the certain exposure that in-person learning brings to more vulnerable populations. For me, this choice is a no-brainer – I will always vote for life over education.

Unfortunately, not everyone has taken the same stance. Plenty of colleges have opened their campuses without completing or enforcing known safety precautions:

“A New Front in America’s Pandemic: College Towns”  by Sarah Watson, Shawn Hubler, Danielle Ivory and Robert Gebeloff

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Last month, facing a budget shortfall of at least $75 million because of the pandemic, the University of Iowa welcomed thousands of students back to its campus — and into the surrounding community.

Iowa City braced, cautious optimism mixing with rising panic. The university had taken precautions, and only about a quarter of classes would be delivered in person. But each fresh face in town could also carry the virus, and more than 26,000 area residents were university employees.

“Covid has a way of coming in,” said Bruce Teague, the city’s mayor, “even when you’re doing all the right things.”

Within days, students were complaining that they couldn’t get coronavirus tests or were bumping into people who were supposed to be in isolation. Undergraduates were jamming sidewalks and downtown bars, masks hanging below their chins, never mind the city’s mask mandate.

Now, Iowa City is a full-blown pandemic hot spot — one of about 100 college communities around the country where infections have spiked in recent weeks as students have returned for the fall semester. Though the rate of infection has bent downward in the Northeast, where the virus first peaked in the U.S., it continues to remain high across many states in the Midwest and South — and evidence suggests that students returning to big campuses are a major factor.

Unfortunately, some of the most serious safety issues have less to do with schools’ insufficient care/adaptability than they do with the sheer selfish dishonesty of some parents and students:

Parents send student to school while knowingly infected with coronavirus, mayor says

by Taylor Romine and Madeline Holcombe,

Almost 30 teenagers have to quarantine after parents sent their child to a Massachusetts school despite knowing they were positive with Covid-19, according to Attleboro Public Schools and the town’s mayor.

A Covid-19 positive student attended class on Monday, but the school wasn’t notified of their diagnosis until the next day, Attleboro High School superintendent David Sawyer said in a letter sent out to families Tuesday night. Twenty-eight students who had close contact with the infected person have been notified and asked to quarantine for 14 days, Sawyer said.

I will finish this piece on a lighter note: the University of Arizona is using a creative method to track COVID-19 presence on its campus via virus particles in the sewer. (“How the University of Arizona used No. 2 to solve its No. 1 problem: The coronavirus”).

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Happy Jewish New Year

 Let This Year be as Short as Possible and Mark the End of the Virus

I started to write a blog about opening schools—a timely topic right now. However, I got a message from my Australian family for Rosh Hashana—the Jewish New Year (the evening of September 18th marked the start of the year 5781 in the Jewish calendar) and changed my mind. My Australian relatives weren’t overly optimistic about the coming year. They wished us all a safe, sanitized, distanced, and happy new year. They hoped we would stay healthy (especially COVID-free) and would be able to weather all of the new restrictions and limitations that will continue to change everyone’s lives for at least the next 2-3 years. The Islamic New Year was on August 19th; I would not be surprised if Muslims celebrated the holiday in a similar spirit. This is definitely different from the evening of December 31, 2019, when we all wished everybody an uncomplicated, “Happy New Year!”

I wrote a blog on August 14, 2018 (“Giving Up is Not an Option: Let’s Focus on What We Still Can Do”), where I took my inspiration from the game of bridge. The logic fits the present situation even better than that of two years ago:

A “golden” rule of bridge (as conveyed to me) is to play based only on information that can help you immediately and ignore everything else, even if it might impact your ultimate success.

I came to realize that such a strategy is essential for survival in this age of climate change and there is no better time to start implementing it than now.

Right now, on top of climate change, we are grappling with COVID-19. The western US is ablaze and Alabama and northern Florida are drowning. Europe is starting to experience a second wave of the coronavirus and Victoria, Australia is back in a lockdown and waiting for the almost inevitable bush fires in the coming summer. I have close family in all of these places. Everything has become personal.

I am focusing with my students on finding ways to extract some good news from the coronavirus so we can learn how to confront future disasters. For instance, we survey the successes and failures in coronavirus responses around the world and judge how relevant they are to our confrontation with the longer-term disaster of climate change. I will write about some of these projects soon and have my students write guest blogs as well.

We celebrated Rosh Hashana with a sweet potato and dried fruit dish called tzimmes, honey chicken, and wine. For the first time since the lockdown, we went to visit friends, sitting on the terrace, keeping social distance, and wearing masks when we needed to move around. We shared our homemade tzimmes and they made an excellent kugel. Many of the traditional foods for the Jewish New Year are sweet. They reflect the hope for a sweet year.

Enjoying the dishes, I reflected that my wishes for this new year are a bit different from usual. Mostly, I just wanted this past year—and all the baggage that it carried—to be over. I thought that this new year might be more accurately celebrated with the bitter herbs that are traditional for Passover—a symbol of suffering and sorrow. Of course, I eventually decided it might be better for my mental health to approach this period with a positive outlook, hoping for minimum damage. Despair, too, can be dangerous to both the mind and the body.

Shana tova, everyone. May your new year be sweet and safe.

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Two Contradictory Versions of “Too Expensive”

comic of man worried about big bill, expensive

I’m still in lockdown but I have the resources to communicate with the world. I have the opportunity to expose myself to different kinds of information while avoiding exposure to the pandemic. The piece below came from Forbes magazine, which, in turn, quotes a piece from the German magazine, Der Spiegel. The Forbes piece controversially declares that renewables cannot power modern civilization on their own. The author offers as “evidence,” the fact that Germany (the celebrated leader in the energy transition) has not met its intended timeline of phasing out coal-based energy and does not look likely to do so anytime soon.

I have written extensively on Germany’s efforts in the energy transition. The country is in the midst of one of the world’s strongest transitions to sustainable energy sources. Germany has a detailed policy addressing both the winners (all of us) and the losers (stakeholders in the fossil fuel industries, especially coal):

The Reason Renewables Can’t Power Modern Civilization Is Because They Were Never Meant To
by Michael Shellenberger.

Over the last decade, journalists have held up Germany’s renewables energy transition, the Energiewende, as an environmental model for the world.

“Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset,” thanks to the Energiewende, wrote a New York Times reporter in 2014.

With Germany as inspiration, the United Nations and World Bank poured billions into renewables like wind, solar, and hydro in developing nations like Kenya.

But then, last year, Germany was forced to acknowledge that it had to delay its phase-out of coal, and would not meet its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction commitments. It announced plans to bulldoze an ancient church and forest in order to get at the coal underneath it.

Now comes a major article in the country’s largest newsweekly magazine, Der Spiegel, titled, “A Botched Job in Germany” (“Murks in Germany“). The magazine’s cover shows broken wind turbines and incomplete electrical transmission towers against a dark silhouette of Berlin

“The Energiewende — the biggest political project since reunification — threatens to fail,” write Der Spiegel’s Frank Dohmen, Alexander Jung, Stefan Schultz, Gerald Traufetter in their a 5,700-word investigative story.

Over the past five years alone, the Energiewende has cost Germany €32 billion ($36 billion) annually, and opposition to renewables is growing in the German countryside.

“The politicians fear citizen resistance” Der Spiegel reports. “There is hardly a wind energy project that is not fought.”

In response, politicians sometimes order “electrical lines be buried underground but that is many times more expensive and takes years longer.”

As a result, the deployment of renewables and related transmission lines is slowing rapidly. Less than half as many wind turbines (743) were installed in 2018 as were installed in 2017, and just 30 kilometers of new transmission were added in 2017.

Der Spiegel cites a recent estimate that it would cost Germany “€3.4 trillion ($3.8 trillion),” or seven times more than it spent from 2000 to 2025, to increase solar and wind three to five-fold by 2050.

Between 2000 and 2019, Germany grew renewables from 7% to 35% of its electricity. And as much of Germany’s renewable electricity comes from biomass, which scientists view as polluting and environmentally degrading, as from solar.

But no amount of marketing could change the poor physics of resource-intensive and land-intensive renewables. Solar farms take 450 times more land than nuclear plants, and wind farms take 700 times more land than natural gas wells, to produce the same amount of energy.

Efforts to export the Energiewende to developing nations may prove even more devastating.

The new wind farm in Kenya, inspired and financed by Germany and other well-meaning Western nations, is located on a major flight path of migratory birds. Scientists say it will kill hundreds of endangered eagles.

The main argument above is that sustainable energy sources are too expensive to power modern civilization. But they’re missing a “small detail”: expensive compared to what? I assume that they mean compared to continued use of fossil fuels, specifically coal. Meanwhile, major climate change-induced fire storms are raging in California, Oregon, and Washington state. Such fires in the western states are now recurring and accelerating every year. They are projected to further accelerate to such a degree that they will make the areas unlivable (see my December 10, 2019 blog). This, too, is expensive.

Many publications have been covering the economic cost of failing to take steps to mitigate climate change:

Wildfires Hasten Another Climate Crisis: Homeowners Who Can’t Get Insurance

Insurers, facing huge losses, have been pulling back from fire-prone areas across California. “The marketplace has largely collapsed,” an advocate for counties in the state said.  

As wildfires burn homes across California, the state is also grappling with a different kind of climate predicament: How to stop insurers from abandoning fire-prone areas, leaving countless homeowners at risk.

Years of megafires have caused huge losses for insurance companies, a problem so severe that, last year, California temporarily banned insurers from canceling policies on some 800,000 homes in or near risky parts of the state. However, that ban is about expire and can’t be renewed, and a recent plan to deal with the problem fell apart in a clash between insurers and consumer advocates.

The insurance crisis is making California a test case for the financial dangers of climate change nationwide, as wildfires, floods and other disasters create economic shocks well beyond the physical damage of the disasters themselves. Those changes have already started to affect home prices, the mortgage industry and the bond market.

The challenges are especially pronounced in California, where regulations lean toward consumer protection. The state forbids insurance companies from setting rates based on what they expect in future damages. Insurers are allowed to set rates only based on prior losses.

For those confused about the correlation between wildfires and climate change, this article might help.

In an earlier blog (“Collective Irrationality and Individual Biases: Climate Change II,” November 28, 2017), I tried to examine the psychology behind certain aspects of behavioral economics. Specifically, I looked at instances where people irrationally cherry pick data without looking at the broader picture and its consequences. It’s called prospect theory and it has to do with how you look at an idea. The encyclopedia Britannica summarizes the phenomenon:

Prospect theory encompasses two distinct phases: (1) an editing phase and (2) an evaluation phase. The editing phase refers to the way in which individuals characterize options for choice. Most frequently, these are referred to as framing effects. Framing effects demonstrate the way in which the substance of a person’s choice can be affected by the order, method, or wording in which it is presented. The classic demonstration of this effect took place in the so-called Asian disease paradigm, in which people were asked to make a choice among public policy plans for responding to a disease outbreak. Although the actual statistical probabilities remained identical, the percentage of people supporting a given plan changed dramatically based on whether or not the outcomes were presented in terms of the number of people who would live versus the number of people who would die. In perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of this effect, real-world patients suffering from cancer made different choices of whether to undergo surgery or chemotherapy for treatment of their illness based on whether the outcome percentages were presented in terms of survival or mortality. Once people are presented with both choices side by side, they can easily see that the substance of the decision remains the same, even if the psychic pull to perceive them differently remains.

If, instead of the “Asian disease,” we apply the phenomenon to climate change, we see two separate views. We can analyze the physical and economic consequences of acting vs. not acting on climate change mitigation. As it stands, nothing can replace coal in fueling modern civilization, but by continuing its use, we will continue to pay with the destruction of our planet.

To finish this blog on a cheerier note: over the last year, the world added more solar and wind than any other form of energy. For the first time ever, solar and wind made up the majority of the world’s new power generation — marking a seismic shift in how nations get their electricity.

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Big Oil’s in Trouble: What’s Next?

The political fight over mitigation of climate change now spans more than two generations. The fossil fuel industry has long seen mitigation as a direct threat to its business model. It has, whether directly or indirectly, used institutions such as the Heartland Institute to deny climate change. This is unsurprising; a lot of climate change mitigation calls for a shift to non-carbon-based energy sources and/or the reduction of energy use through increased efficiency. But COVID-19 and the very apparent effects of climate change (e.g. extreme weather) seem to be triggering a change in attitude for some members of the oil industry.

In the US, the attempt to make the country energy independent (“Second U.S. shale boom’s legacy: Overpriced deals, unwanted assets“) created a boom in the industry. It especially meant increases in fracking oil and gas. However, that boom has come to an end. Figure 1 shows the changes in the drilling activities that have taken place over the last few years. They culminated in a major imbalance between supply and demand and lack of storage facilities, which led to negative oil prices (June 9, 2020 blog) in April 2020. By July, the international rig count fell drastically, meaning that the number of active rigs outside of North America was at its lowest since 2003. Since then, the prices have somewhat stabilized around 40-50 US$/barrel, well below the production costs of many US facilities.


Figure 1 – Drilling activities

Those oil companies who couldn’t adapt went bankrupt. The economic model had to change:

Texas-based Gavilan Resources last month filed for Chapter 11 protection, saying it intends to sell its business and assets.

It cited the coronavirus pandemic and the oil price rout along with an ongoing dispute with a joint venture partner in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, Kallanish Energy reports.

It is among 19 new bankruptcies filed in 2020 through May 31 by U.S. energy companies, according to a list maintained by the Haynes and Boone law firm.

The firm with headquarters in Dallas, Texas, said the 19 filings reflected a total debt of $13.1 billion.

Other firms filing for federal protection include Whiting Petroleum, Echo Energy Partners, Ultra Petroleum, Skylar Exploration, Diamond Offshore, Freedom Oil and Gas, and Templar Energy.

There were 51 bankruptcy filings from Jan. 1 through May 31 in 2016; 14 in 2017, 18 in 2018, and 18 in 2019, the law firm said in its Oil Patch Bankruptcy Monitor.

Overall, there are about 225 bankruptcy cases across the country pending in federal bankruptcy courts, as of May 31, it said.

There have been predictions that a wave of Chapter 11 filings is coming and that more than 100 U.S. energy companies may be forced to declare bankruptcy this year after the coronavirus pandemic and the oil price rout.

According to Haynes and Boone, there have been 13 bankruptcies by oilfield service companies in 2020, through May 31.

Those filings had a total debt of $11.6 billion, it said.

That compares to 28 bankruptcies from Jan. 1 through May 31 in 2017, eight in 2018 and four in 2019, the law firm said in a separate listing of wellfield service companies.

All I can say is wow! That many bankruptcies have sparked a change in approach. One new alternative economic model involves slashing stock value and shareholder dividends as steps toward eventual zero-carbon energy sourcing. This shift is global. I show some examples from Europe (Shell), Israel, and the US (Duke) below:

Europe:

Two of the world’s oil supermajors suggested this week that oil demand may never fully recover from the coronavirus crisis.

Shell just did the thing CEO Ben van Beurden said no leader of the company would ever want on their record: cut its shareholder dividend for the first time since World War II.

In slashing Shell’s dividend on Thursday from 47 to 16 cents per share, van Beurden made a dramatic statement on the global oil industry’s current predicament. But what the supermajor and its peer BP are not cutting is also very telling.

Both BP and Shell released their earnings results this week, their first since the oil price crash and the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic — and since declaring their own net-zero ambitions. Despite the chaos in global oil markets, the pair of supermajors have committed to maintaining their low-carbon investment plans and spoken of an accelerating energy transition.

Also in Europe:

Europe’s Big Oil Companies Are Turning Electric: Under pressure from governments and investors, industry leaders like BP and Shell are accelerating their production of cleaner energy.

This may turn out to be the year that oil giants, especially in Europe, started looking more like electric companies.

Late last month, Royal Dutch Shell won a deal to build a vast wind farm off the coast of the Netherlands. Earlier in the year, France’s Total, which owns a battery maker, agreed to make several large investments in solar power in Spain and a wind farm off Scotland. Total also bought an electric and natural gas utility in Spain and is joining Shell and BP in expanding its electric vehicle charging business.

At the same time, the companies are ditching plans to drill more wells as they chop back capital budgets. Shell recently said it would delay new fields in the Gulf of Mexico and in the North Sea, while BP has promised not to hunt for oil in any new countries.

Israel:

Government seeks to nix half of planned gas power stations as renewables rise

In move welcomed by environmentalists, Energy Ministry says advances in technology will enable it to reach 30% renewables by 2030, but notes it will still need natural gas backup. The Energy Ministry on Sunday asked the National Planning and Building Council to slash its plans for new gas-fired power stations by more than half in a move welcomed by both the Environmental Protection Ministry and civilian campaigners for more renewable energy. The ministry asked the planners to strike off four projects being designed, with a combined output of 4,860 Megawatts (MW).

USA:

After Scrapping Gas Pipeline, Duke Looks to Plug Hole With Renewables, Grid Investments: Duke is considering additional solar investments and “will address” its offshore wind plans later this year, says CEO Lynn Good. By Jeff St. John (August 10, 2020).

Duke Energy on Monday reported a $1.6 billion charge related to abandoning the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The utility also laid out how its renewable energy and grid modernization plans will fill in the capital-investments hole left by the canceled multibillion-dollar natural-gas project.

Meanwhile, if everything else fails, the oil industry has plans to use the excess fuel to make mountains of plastic and dump it on Africa—even though that will end up killing off life in all of our oceans.

Big Oil Is in Trouble. Its Plan: Flood Africa With Plastic: Faced with plunging profits and a climate crisis that threatens fossil fuels, the industry is demanding a trade deal that weakens Kenya’s rules on plastics and on imports of American trash.

Confronting a climate crisis that threatens the fossil fuel industry, oil companies are racing to make more plastic. But they face two problems: Many markets are already awash with plastic, and few countries are willing to be dumping grounds for the world’s plastic waste.

The industry thinks it has found a solution to both problems in Africa.

According to documents reviewed by The New York Times, an industry group representing the world’s largest chemical makers and fossil fuel companies is lobbying to influence United States trade negotiations with Kenya, one of Africa’s biggest economies, to reverse its strict limits on plastics — including a tough plastic-bag ban. It is also pressing for Kenya to continue importing foreign plastic garbage, a practice it has pledged to limit.

As I said, this would have disastrous consequences. A lot of plastics eventually end up in the oceans, including in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. At almost 617,000 square miles (1.6 million square kilometers), it’s the largest of the 5 vortexes globally that contain large concentrations of plastics, from large pieces to microplastics. Even though they aren’t solid islands of trash floating on the surface, those pieces add up and they affect ocean flora and fauna.

We’ll see how all of these tactics play out. Hopefully this new push toward more sustainable energy sources, even if it is financially motivated, will help with global mitigation efforts.

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Simultaneous Global Disasters

About a month ago (August 4th), I wrote a blog that used a Venn diagram to show the overlap of climate change, COVID-19, projected population change, job availability, and socio-economic status. My discussion was relatively abstract. Now, only one month later, so many worrisome things are overlapping at once that apocalyptic fears are widespread.

apocalypse, apocalyptic, Durer, horsemen

Albrecht Dürer’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498)

Albrecht Dürer’s powerful woodcut from the end of the 15th century illustrates the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Death, Famine, War, and Plague). The concept of the apocalypse runs through the writing of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In many of these manifestations, it symbolizes God’s punishment for humanity’s sins. Many are living under the impression that this judgement is now upon us.

However, for those of us who are trying to view the world through the eyes of science rather than religion, perhaps a more fitting image would be humanity astride a horse that represents the physical environment. We are riding toward extinction. This vision is perhaps even more frightening than Dürer’s because we are the ones in control. We know where we are going and we know what we have to do to change direction; we just refuse to do so.

The concept of humanity steering the physical environment is what we call the Anthropocene. Humans have had a huge impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems and our contributions such as anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change define the time period. Scientists have posited it as a geological epoch (like the Triassic or Jurassic) for over two generations. The Anthropocene is one of the main concepts that drove me to start this blog. You can type the term into the search box for more information or visit Wikipedia for a summary of where we stand in the context of the Anthropocene.

Meanwhile, some of the disasters that were still abstract a month ago are now showing up in concrete form:

Tropical storm Marco raced hurricane Laura to the coastline near the Texas-Louisiana border. While the former made a smaller impact than at first feared, Laura landed as category 4 hurricane, then moved northeast. It left more than 20 dead and tens of thousands in the Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico without power or running water. We are now approaching the peak of a hurricane season that looks to be unusually busy—and people are understandably concerned, especially since this region is also a COVID-19 hot spot.

Meanwhile, heat waves almost everywhere have intensified, even as most of us are still in lockdown because of the pandemic. If you don’t have air conditioning to adjust the indoor temperature you are in serious trouble. New York City has started to offer older New Yorkers free air conditioners but many are still waiting.

Even among those of us lucky enough to have air conditioners, there are problems. Namely, too many of us are running them at the same time. This happened in California and the resulting surge in electricity usage was too much for the grid to handle. Millions experienced blackouts at a time when most of our activities—whether professional or recreational—require electrical power. In California, almost immediately after the blackout, massive fires engulfed the state, costing many lives and large swaths of property.

As if all of this were not enough, a small asteroid is on its way towards Earth, scheduled to reach us (there’s a less than 0.5% probability that it will hit) just a day or two before the US presidential election.

Aside from the coronavirus and the asteroid, we still have all of the disasters generated by our continued contributions to climate change. On top of all this, we also have abundant social and political disasters. For instance, the Kenosha and Minneapolis police’s deadly violence against unarmed black citizens in the US are triggering desperate demonstrations throughout the world, as are crackdowns in autocratic regimes such as Belarus.

“We shall overcome,” has long been a hopeful refrain. I hope that we can do this in the upcoming elections. This November 3rd might be the ultimate test in the US. Not only do we need to stem our contributions to climate change, we must do the same with our input to social injustice. We need policies to help achieve these goals and take better control of the reins.

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School Curriculum: The NYT

Why do we send our kids to school? Why did our parents send us to school? People are wondering this more than ever, now that many schools are still closed physically and have moved to an online educational experience. But it’s not a new question and will stay with us (likely to a considerably smaller degree) after the pandemic is over.

As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, I was born three months before the start of WWII in Warsaw, Poland and my early childhood was dominated by my Holocaust experiences (namely, the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen). But I was fortunate to be liberated by American soldiers in 1945. I was six weeks short of my sixth birthday. Soon after I turned six, I was able to start school in Israel (Palestine at the time)—a pretty normal starting age. I don’t think I would be the same person if I had started school later, for example at age 12.

Now that I teach in a college, we are constantly wondering: what do students, parents, and society in general expect us to provide in our education?

I see the educational experience as a necessary ingredient in preparing students for the future. On one side, students need to master certain skills in order to pursue various employment opportunities. On the other, we also regard education as key to helping make our students happy and productive individuals prepared to face the future. Of course, none of us—parents, students, or educators—are able to predict what that future will bring. The present pandemic is only the most recent evidence of this inability. We rely on the belief that understanding the past and the ever-changing present is the best and perhaps the only way to be able to confront the future.

Which brings me back to last week’s blog about The New York Times Weather Report. The NYT cares a lot about learning. Like many other publications, it offers deeply discounted (often free) academic rates for students and educators. The paper also has a whole Learning Network section online, which aims to:

1) Connect the classroom to the world.

2) Give students a voice — and strengthen literacy skills along the way.

3) Promote critical and creative thinking through multimedia.

The NYT summarizes the site in this way:

Welcome to The Learning Network. Here are three quick facts about our site:

  • The Learning Network publishes about 1,000 teaching resources each school year, all based on using Times content — articles, essays, images, videos, graphics and podcasts — as teaching tools across subject areas.

  • Most of our resources are free (only our lesson plans are limited to five per month for nonsubscribers).

  • Our intended audience is middle and high school teachers and students (teenagers 13 and up). That said, we know that our content is used in elementary schools and colleges as well, and much of it is appropriate for both.

The Learning Network section features over 100 lesson plans based on NYT articles. The areas of study include Science Technology and Health; Education; The Arts and Culture; Sports; American Politics, History and Civics; and Global History, Politics and Culture.

I, of course, searched for content related to either climate change or COVID-19. While I didn’t find a direct lesson plan on either of these topics, I found one about environmental issues and one that indirectly relates to climate change: “The World Can Make More Water From the Sea, but at What Cost.” I wrote some blogs about the latter (just put desalination in the search box) and the NYT has a full lesson on desalination:

Lesson of the Day: ‘The World Can Make More Water From the Sea, but at What Cost?’

In this lesson, students will explore the issue of access to clean and safe water and weigh the pros and cons of desalination as a possible solution to water scarcity.

Lesson Overview

Featured Article: “The World Can Make More Water From the Sea, but at What Cost?

The issue of water quantity and quality is increasingly a global problem. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 80 percent of the world is covered in water, but only 3 percent is fresh water. As more places face water scarcity, desalination is seen as a possible answer. However, energy and financial requirements limit how widely that process can be used.

In this lesson, students will explore the issue of water access, examine how desalination presents a potential solution, and finally, weigh the costs and benefits of various approaches to water scarcity.

Warm Up

Do you have access to clean and safe water? How concerned are you about access to quality water now or in the future?

Do you believe that your family, and Americans in general, use water wisely? Or do you think we take this vital resource for granted?

Before reading, look at the graph below and answer the following questions:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do you wonder? What are you curious about that comes from what you notice in the graph?
  • What story does the graph tell? Write a catchy headline that captures its main idea. If your headline makes a claim, tell us what you noticed that supports your claim.

water stress, fresh water

Questions for Writing and Discussion

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

  1. Scroll through the photos in the article: What do you notice? Which image stands out to you and why? What story do these photos tell?
  2. The article begins, “Desalinated seawater is the lifeblood of Saudi Arabia, no more so than at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.” Why did Henry Fountain, the author, start by describing the water uses of one university? How does this single institution illustrate the needs of the entire country?
  3. How big a problem is water quality and quantity globally? What are the major causes of water scarcity worldwide?
  4. What challenges do Saudi Arabia and other countries face in making desalination affordable and sustainable? In what ways are engineers and researchers addressing these challenges?
  5. In your own words, describe the desalination process. Explain reverse osmosis.
  6. How is Saudi Arabia’s effort to find renewable and sustainable water sources linked to finding sustainable energy sources?
  7. What is your reaction to the article? What was most interesting, surprising or provocative to you? How does this article alter your opinion of the way you, your family and your community use water? What responsibility do we all have to using water responsibility?

Going Further

Imagine you are a member of local government in one of the high water-stress locations identified on the map in the warm-up activity. Should you invest in desalination technology? What factors would you consider? What are the pros and cons of using desalination to solve the problem of water scarcity?

As part of your analysis, consider whether other possible solutions might be more desirable, such as changing individual water consumption patterns, recycling sewage into drinking watercombating water pollutionincreasing agricultural efficiencyinvesting in green infrastructure and taxing water use?

(You can find more information on the countries facing water stress in “A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crises.”)

What would you recommend?

The original article by Henry Fountain describes a desalination plant in Saudi Arabia. It mentions the financial cost as well as the environmental issues associated with having to dispose of the highly concentrated salt water that is the byproduct of the process. It also talks about trying to transition to sustainable energy sources like solar to drive the process. Many of the photographs included in the article illustrate life around the plant (guys playing golf and an empty Olympic swimming pool) rather than the facility itself.

One of the questions in the lesson plan directly relates to the global scarcity of fresh water (water stress). I especially applaud the lesson plan for urging students to look into other strategies and solutions for water stress. Unfortunately, the article itself is behind a paywall but you don’t need a subscription to look at a few lesson plans.

The NYT should be commended for running such a site. As I mentioned last week, I hope to convince the editors to digitize the Weather Report and make it public under the Learning Network section. Meanwhile, I strongly recommend heading over to the Learning Network site and looking at some of the great resources there.

Like the NYT, other publications and many universities—including mine—are starting to pay more and more attention to databases as a raw material for teaching students to quantitatively mobilize various aspects of the present in preparation for confronting the future. The NYT is collecting one of the most extensive databases on the new coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19. The database serves as an important source for understanding the impacts of the pandemic.

The Economist provides other useful databases that we can use to mobilize the present in the service of the future: the Democracy Index and the “Big Mac Index.” The latter uses the cost of a hamburger in different countries to compare the value of one currency against another, and whether they differ from official exchange rates.

Next week, I will get back to the multiple global threats that we are facing now.

Stay safe.

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