Meta (Facebook) and Cherry Picking

A recent announcement from Facebook informed us all that “Connection is evolving so are we … welcome to Meta.”

While I was not born there, I grew up in Israel, so Hebrew is my “native” language. In Hebrew, “meta” refers to a dead female. Following this line of thinking, Facebook chose to describe itself as a dead female company. However, according to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, meta is an adjective: “(of a film, work of literature, art, etc.) showing awareness of itself or its genre.” Its synonym is “self-referential.” In this context, the company presents itself as a self-referential communicator of reality. I am paying attention.

As I have often mentioned on this blog, I teach three courses at the undergraduate level: one on cosmology and two that focus on climate change. In these courses, I use reality to construct my syllabi. I have been using this blog to describe the three global transitions that we are now going through: the pandemic, climate change, and the shrinking global population. In both my teaching and my writing, my main objective is to help my students and readers make sense of the science that drives these transitions, using language that overcomes the need for prerequisites like traditional science courses.

One of these transitions, the COVID pandemic, is short-lived, with an end in sight (hopefully). The other two are projected to grow throughout the lifetime of my students (the “end of now” in my book on climate change).

I am trying to teach basic principles that will stay with the students (and everybody else) throughout all of these transitions and thus facilitate their adaptation to changes in their respective realities. The first thing that I am trying to share with you and my students is that while all of us are part of a collective reality, we each have biases that shape our own perception of reality. Some of these are shared biases, some are our own and come from our life experiences (see the November 2128 2017 blogs on “Collective Irrationality and Individual Biases”).

From FunkyEnglish.com

When I present to my classes and this blog, I am in a position of some authority, so my biases hold some weight. This is probably more important for my students than my readers because they are dependent on my grading and often need recommendation letters to facilitate their entry into other parts of life. It is unavoidable that all of us: teachers, students, and readers, cherry-pick details and data that will enforce some of our biases. In the past, I have described such cherry-picking in terms of Godwin’s law for applying lessons from the Holocaust (January 19, 2021), the economic risks of climate change (December 24, 2019), and who is to blame for climate change (June 20, 2017). Wikipedia has an entry that describes the practice:

Cherry pickingsuppressing evidence, or the fallacy of incomplete evidence is the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position while ignoring a significant portion of related and similar cases or data that may contradict that position. Cherry picking may be committed intentionally or unintentionally.[1]

The term is based on the perceived process of harvesting fruit, such as cherries. The picker would be expected to select only the ripest and healthiest fruits. An observer who sees only the selected fruit may thus wrongly conclude that most, or even all, of the tree’s fruit is in a likewise good condition. This can also give a false impression of the quality of the fruit (since it is only a sample and is not a representative sample). A concept sometimes confused with cherry picking is the idea of gathering only the fruit that is easy to harvest, while ignoring other fruit that is higher up on the tree and thus more difficult to obtain (see low-hanging fruit).

Cherry picking has a negative connotation as the practice neglects, overlooks or directly suppresses evidence that could lead to a complete picture.

Cherry picking can be found in many logical fallacies. For example, the “fallacy of anecdotal evidence” tends to overlook large amounts of data in favor of that known personally, “selective use of evidence” rejects material unfavorable to an argument, while a false dichotomy picks only two options when more are available. Some scholars classify cherry-picking as a fallacy of selective attention, the most common example of which is the confirmation bias.[2] Cherry picking can refer to the selection of data or data sets so a study or survey will give desired, predictable results which may be misleading or even completely contrary to reality.[3]

A video of Rand Paul recently re-surfaced that demonstrates the danger of such misinformation.

None of us is completely free of bias; those few who strive for “objectivity” must understand their own while filtering through those of others. This burden falls not only on the teacher or writer but must also be shared with the students and readers. This is not an easy task, however. For students, most class material is new, making it very hard for them to identify cherry-picking and biases. It is, therefore, the responsibility of the educational system to come up with a methodology that enables students to do so. This is a researchable issue that falls under the more general field of communication. A 2017 study by Luke Lefebre, Leah Lefebre, and Dale Anderson looked at 47 communication centers within US universities and tracked the changing trends in their organization, operation, services, etc.

Such centers focus on the usual tools of communication, including writing and speaking, as well as the more recent platforms for digital communications, in which Meta features heavily. I haven’t done any research on this issue yet, so I have no idea what resources these centers have to investigate biases.

Biases used to play the smallest role in physical sciences, probably because the self was removed from these disciplines. This is no more.

In an earlier blog (February 2, 2021), I discussed the connection between physics and reality. Traditionally, physics has been taught as disconnected from humans; everything connected with humans fell under the disciplines of social studies, humanities, and art, as opposed to “physical” or “natural sciences.” Now, things are changing. At Brooklyn College, where I teach, they all fall under the School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences (NBS), which includes psychology, anthropology, kinesiology, and interdisciplinary studies such as climate change (see my December 28, 2021 blog on the latter).

There are attractive opportunities for detailed studies of the global transformations that are taking place in front of all our eyes: they offer to prepare students to be part of these transitions after they finish school. The government has imposed certain mandates aimed at adapting to these various transitions. In the same way that I discussed in my “Campus Transition into Sustainability Teaching Laboratory” blog (June 18, 2019), we can use these as laboratories through which to learn the fundamentals of the disciplines that we are trying to master.

In the US, much of the funding for government-supported research comes from the NSF (National Science Foundation). When academics are applying for funds to conduct original research—whether new teaching methodology or pure scientific research, they submit proposals, which are judged on two criteria:

  • Intellectual Merit: The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge.
  • Broader Impacts: The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

The structure of the NSF is based on directorates and it mostly reflects the disciplinary academic structure of the sciences. However, it is slowly changing and has added two new directorates to reflect the more general, interdisciplinary issues that society is now facing:

Directorate for Social Behavioral & Economic Sciences

SBE Office of Multidisciplinary Activities (SMA)

SBE’s Office of Multidisciplinary Activities supports interdisciplinary research and training in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, including SBE’s intersections with other science and engineering fields.

Directorate for Education & Human Resources

Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL)

DRL invests in the improvement of STEM learning for people of all ages by promoting innovative research, development, and evaluation of learning and teaching across all STEM disciplines in formal and informal learning settings.

Undergraduate Education (DUE)

DUE’s programs are intended to strengthen STEM education at two- and four-year colleges and universities by improving curricula, instruction, laboratories, infrastructure, assessment, diversity of students and faculty, and collaborations.

The alternative to government-supported research on biases might return us to Meta (Facebook). The net worth of Meta is approaching $2 trillion. It might be worthwhile for the company to support self-centered communication as a business expense.

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Population Transition Projections For the End of the Century

In last week’s blog, I mentioned a prediction that the global population would peak before the end of the century. This prediction was based on an analysis that was conducted by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and published in The Lancet. The IHME projections differ from the UN projections that most demographers use. The two organizations use different estimates of demographic parameters such as life expectancy, migration rates, and fertility rates. Both are highly credible. Visual Capitalist, my favorite infographics site (you can find more examples by using the search box), illustrated the difference between their projections. I have included the graphic in Figure 1, along with VC’s detailed comparison of the 15 most populated countries in 2017 and those predicted to fill those slots at the end of the century. IHME’s projections also estimate that by the end of the century, about 26% of the global population will be older than 65.

Figure 1

The end of the century is knocking on most of our doors. Today’s children already have a life expectancy that will take them there. The world may face immense changes in the size and age of its population; humanity’s ability to adapt will be equally challenged in this and the anthropogenic climate change that is now taking place. I have repeatedly discussed the correlation between these two transitions throughout this blog (just put IPAT in the search box).

Last week’s blog focused on the global decline of fertility and childbirth and the resulting changes in population pyramids. Other demographic parameters play an important role as well.

Figures 2 and 3, taken from the UN demographics site, show the changes in birth rate, death rate, and life expectancy at birth from 1950 extrapolated through the end of the century. We see the death rate reaching its minimum a few years from today, then increasing slightly until the end of the century; meanwhile, the life expectancy at birth continues to increase until the end of the century.

population, birth rate, death rate, UN

Figure 2

population, life expectancy, birth, UN

Figure 3

Figure 4, which looks at the demographics of the US, tracks both the “natural increase” of the internal population (births vs. deaths) and net international migration. Both have fallen in recent years, which the Brookings Institute credits to economic factors like the Great Recession, health issues like the pandemic, and policy restrictions on immigration.

population, natural increase, migration

Figure 4

China is probably the only major country to try to adjust its demographics through top-down dictates. For many years, its objective was to constrain population growth. However, the one-child campaign worked “too well” and China is now finding itself with a population pyramid like the ones I described in last week’s blog. Now, China is trying to lean in the opposite direction. According to the South China Morning Post:

China had just 12 million babies last year, down from 14.65 million in 2019, marking an 18 per cent decline year on year.

Authorities are rolling out a variety of measures to address the issue, from financial incentives to grandparenting classes.

Some regions saw births fall more than 10 per cent, while Chizhou city in Anhui province said the number of newborns in the first 10 months of the year plummeted by 21 per cent compared to a year earlier.

In cities such as Beijing, Tianjin and Jiangsu, birth rates have been below one per cent for more than two decades.

The coronavirus pandemic has dampened the willingness of women under age 30 to give birth even further, according to researchers at Renmin University, as the number of Chinese newborns dropped by 45 per cent in the last two months of 2020 compared to the final year of the controversial one-child policy in 2016.

Experts predict China’s population could go into decline as early as this year.

To address the crisis, China in May allowed couples to have three children, ending the two-child policy introduced five years earlier. Since then, authorities at both local and national levels have responded with a variety of appeals and policy changes.

In addition to “allowing” more than three children, China is taking additional steps on the provincial level: expanding maternity leave, providing financial support, creating dating service databases for singles, freezing eggs and collecting donated ones, and providing grandparenting classes. These steps do not seem to include any mention of automation.

I haven’t spoken much about the impact of the pandemic over the last two blogs. Relative to the energy transition, climate change, and population transition, we expect (or hope) that the pandemic will be shorter in duration and more limited in terms of impact. However, there is a high probability that it will result in permanent changes in our working habits. For instance, work from home (WFH) will probably become and remain more common. Such a shift might be important to various adaptation efforts. Here is what The Economist wrote:

For workers, the great wfh experiment has gone fairly well. Adjusting to the new regime was not easy for everyone—especially those living in small flats, or with children to home-school. Yet on average workers report higher levels of satisfaction and happiness. Respondents to surveys suggest that they would like to work from home nearly 50% of the time, up from 5% before the pandemic, with the remainder in the office. But people’s actual behaviour suggests that their true preference is to spend even more time in their pyjamas. How else to explain why, even in places where the threat from covid-19 is low, offices are only a third full?

Time will tell which adaptive steps will turn out to be productive in these transitions.

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Population Transition

Happy New Year

2021 was not a great year. We are all hoping that 2022 will be better but I doubt that will be the case. I do think, however, that we will be up to the challenges it brings.

Most of the challenges of 2021 fell under two categories of global disaster: the COVID-19 pandemic and anthropogenic climate change. I expect that the pandemic will eventually downgrade to epidemic status and that by then we will have the tools to fight it wherever it rises. Conversely, I expect the impact of climate change to get worse, with no end in sight to its impact. We have the tools to fight it, too, but our global commitments to use them are in question.

The last two months of 2021 reflected these two massive issues: due to the COP26 meeting, much of the news in November focused on climate change; December news, on the other hand, focused on COVID-19 and the emergence of the new omicron variant.

Parallel to these two disasters, another major global change emerged in the news—one that will require more and more of our attention in the coming years—population transition: fertility rates and birth rates are decreasing globally. There are a growing number of countries whose fertility rates have fallen below replacement value (around 2.1). All of this strongly suggests that soon the world population will reach its maxima even as it tends toward a shrinkage: a sort of “it gets worse before it gets better” situation, depending on your definition of “worse” or “better.” These trends result in major changes in population pyramids, decreasing the number of younger people—and the size of the workforce (roughly ages 20–65)—and increasing the number of older people.

I addressed these issues about eight years ago. You can refer to the series of blogs from December 2013 through February 2014 if some of the terms that I used in the last paragraph are unfamiliar. You will find detailed explanations with data for that period. The series of blogs includes a guest blog written by Jim Foreit (January 14, 2014), a professional demographer who actually knows what he is talking about.

This blog, and the one that will follow next week, should be considered as updates to the 2014 series. It will consist of a few recent links that indicate the accelerated pace of the global demographic transition, as well as a series of recent maps of birth and fertility rates by country.

Stacker has a decent anecdotal summary of the global demographic changes currently taking place.

Figures 1–3 describe the current global birth and fertility rates, in addition to population and annual population growth from 1700 until the end of the current century. The seriousness of the situation is reflected in the somewhat unusual voice of the Pope:

In his weekly address in front of St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, the Pope expressed his disappointment in Italy’s falling birth rate, or as he called it – a “demographic winter.” The Pope framed the country’s birth rate – which hit its lowest level last year since the nation’s 1861 unification – as a threat to its future wellbeing. “It seems that a lot of people have lost the wish to have children,” he said. “Lots of couples prefer to remain childless or to have one child only…It’s a tragedy…which runs counter to our families, our country and our future.” The ongoing pandemic appears to have added a new contributing factor to the country’s century-long population decline, which has continued into this year.

birth rate, population, global

Figure 1 Countries by birth rate in 2020

fertility rate, global, population

By Korakys – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92951369

Figure 2 Map of global fertility rate

population, global, growth

Data sources: Our World in Data based on HYDE, UN, and UN Population Division (2019 Revision). Licensed under CC-by the author Max Roser.

Figure 3 World population growth and annual global population growth

Other voices that emphasize various aspects of the transition are given below:

The Economist examines the acceleration of the transition.

WION gives predictions for population maximum before the end of the century: “Currently, there are about 7.8 billion people in the world. The study has predicted that the peak in the global population would expectedly be around 9.7 billion in 2064 and then decline to 8.79 billion in 2100.”

MedicalXpress.com posits a correlation between fossil fuel use and fertility:

Chemical pollution from burning fossil fuels could play a significant part in global decline in sperm counts, a fresh study finds.

An in-depth analysis in the journal Nature Reviews Endocrinology says “industrialized regions now have rates below levels required to sustain their populations.”

Results show “reproductive health problems are partly linked to increasing exposures to chemicals originating directly or indirectly from fossil fuels” plus to pollution from using oil to make plastics and industrial chemicals.

Figures 4–6 describe the ramifications of the population changes on age distribution (population pyramids). Figure 4 shows the global changes from 1950 with projections through the end of the century.

population, global, age, Figure 4 Global population pyramid 1950–2100

Figure 5 shows, in more detail, the situation in Japan, one of the developed countries whose fertility rate has been below replacement for the longest time. The Economist gives an account of how Japan is managing this demographic change. The changes in the population pyramid are quantified in terms of three main age brackets. We can see that the ratio of the oldest bracket to the youngest bracket above goes from roughly 14% in 1950 to a projected 460% by 2050.

population, global, age, Japan

Abe, Shigeyuki. (2009). Philippines’ competitiveness and global financial meltdown : a question of Japan’s role. Philippine Review of Economics. 46. 103-123.

Figure 5 Changes of the global population pyramid of Japan 1950–2050

Figure 6 shows the changes that took place in the population pyramids of two large, medium-wealth countries (Brazil and China) and two large, rich countries (France and Japan) over two 35-year intervals. The graphs are set up so that blue represents males and red represents females. As we follow each country down its column, we see that the bottom-most bracket has shrunk in all of them from 1950–2020, albeit by different amounts.

population, age, Brazil, China, France, JapanFigure 6 Changes in the population pyramids of Brazil, China, France, and Japan in 1950, 1985, and 2020

Birth rates and fertility rates are not the only contributors to the demographics of countries. Death rates and immigration are also important contributors. The next blog will focus on these two indicators.

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“Me” and “They” and “Us” in Campus Politics

This is my last blog of 2021, a year that has been—to put it mildly—not great for almost anybody. Let us hope that 2022 will unfold to be a better one. It is a challenge to write the last blog in a bad year; a summary is not going to do the trick. So, I am just going to stick to the subject I have discussed in the last few blogs: the conflicts between the “me,” the “they,” and the “us” on a scale that is more familiar to me: that of the university.

interdisciplinary

Figure 1 Multidisciplinary study

The intensity of academic politics is so well known that the phenomenon is popularly known as “Sayre’s law”:

On 20 December 1973, the Wall Street Journal quoted Sayre as: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Political scientist Herbert Kaufman, a colleague and coauthor of Sayre, has attested to Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, that Sayre usually stated his claim as “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low”, and that Sayre originated the quip by the early 1950s.

This observation is routinely attributed to Henry Kissinger who in a 1997 speech at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, said: “I formulated the rule that the intensity of academic politics and the bitterness of it is in inverse proportion to the importance of the subject they’re discussing. And I promise you at Harvard, they are passionately intense and the subjects are extremely unimportant.”[2]

Probably the most important driving force for Sayre’s law is the departmental structure of almost all higher education institutions. These departments, which generally reflect the various disciplines offered for degrees (major or minor) also start the chain that controls faculty career milestones (tenure, promotion, dismissal, etc.).

Usually, curriculum falls under the purview of the faculty, although budgetary issues can lead to some tension with a school’s administration. In some disciplines, the university’s main role is to prepare students for direct certification by the appropriate professional organization. One good example for such a major is clinical psychology. I have included the licensing requirements below:

The practice of clinical psychology requires a license in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and many other countries. Although each of the U.S. states is somewhat different in terms of requirements and licenses, there are three common elements:[24]

  1. Graduation from an accredited school with the appropriate degree

  2. Completion of supervised clinical experience or internship

  3. Passing a written examination and, in some states, an oral examination

Other disciplines, such as my own (physics) don’t require licensing unless you plan to use the degree to teach courses in public schools:

You will be required to have a state-issued certification or licensure to work as a public- school teacher in any state. However, before becoming licensed, you’ll need to complete at least a bachelor’s degree program in the field of physics and a teacher training program. Academic programs in education usually contain practical experience requirements, allowing you to observe and participate in actual classroom teaching under the supervision of a licensed or certified teacher.

However, if this were the whole picture of what universities do, there wouldn’t be much difference between them and professional schools. Community colleges perform many job-preparation functions but they also serve as an important steppingstone, facilitating students’ transferring to four-year colleges.

Almost all universities provide education well beyond the undergraduate level. Often, this involves a combination between research and formal education. Such advanced studies may also require the foundation provided by general education courses and electives that fall well outside the major.

However, these activities are all maintained within the basic departmental structure. These are the building blocks of most academic institutions. Within such a structure, individual departments represent the “me,” other departments represent the “they,” and the university is the collective “us.”

I emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of climate change in an earlier series of blogs about “Educating for the Anthropocene” (May-June, 2016). Within the departmental structure, interdisciplinary education often has a hard time finding its place. However, academic institutions are starting to adapt to the interdisciplinary training and research that are demanding more and more of their attention. For instance, in some academic institutions, students are constructing their own majors, often from components that are under the purview of more than one department. CUNY has such a program:

The program is intended for students who previously earned at least 12 college credits and have the vision and drive to design, with CUNY faculty mentors, their own “majors,” which are unique and interdisciplinary areas of concentration (AOCs).

CUNY BA offers highly motivated, academically strong students a flexible, challenging, and individualized way to earn their degrees by granting students greater responsibility for the design of their course of study, relative to students earning traditional undergraduate degrees. The program is intended for students who have the vision and drive to design their own unique and interdisciplinary areas of concentration (AOCs) with CUNY faculty mentors.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which kept many campuses virtual for the greater part of the last two years, also triggered major progress in the technology and acceptance of online learning. An extreme example of that trend is the University of Southern New Hampshire, “one of the fastest-growing universities nationwide with 135,000 online students and 3,000 on campus.”

The evolution of online teaching and learning has also accelerated the shift away from local institutions toward more global institutions, as well as accelerated the development of open universities:

An open university is a university with an open-door academic policy, with minimal or no entry requirements.[1] Open universities may employ specific teaching methods, such as open supported learning or distance education. However, not all open universities focus on distance education, nor do distance-education universities necessarily have open admission policies.

Personally, I was not able to stay away from Sayre’s Law in the fights between the “me,” “they” and “us.” I co-founded the Environmental Studies Program in Brooklyn College (one of the senior colleges in CUNY) in 1996, and directed the program for 15 years. According to the recruitment brochure:

The Environmental Studies Program aims at educating students to be fluent in the languages of the social and physical sciences in the range of areas related to the environment, broadly construed. The program includes a major in Environmental Studies that currently has two concentrations: Environmental Studies and Environmental Management. The major draws on courses from 14 academic departments. The program includes a minor for students that do not choose to major in Environmental Studies but wish to complement their major with environmental education. The Major and the Minor require students to take approximately half their credits in the Social Sciences and Humanities and half their credits in the Physical Sciences. Environmental Studies students (Majors and Minors) are required to take Environmental Studies 1 and Environmental Studies 75. The program is developing a paid internship component, which will be coordinated with community service, industry, and on-campus research activities.

In 2011, however, the program was renamed and refocused. I lost the battle and was replaced. (I have tenure, so I kept my job in the school).

There is an increasing urgency in understanding and learning how to intervene in interdisciplinary issues, such as climate change, global pandemics, global inequity, and global nuclear threats. Funding institutions recognize this change and they are shifting resources to address these issues within their capabilities. Applicants for funding must now demonstrate not only the potential to generate new knowledge but also indicate the common benefits that such new knowledge will produce.

Institutions are trying to adapt. Stay tuned!

Happy New Year.

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“Me” and “They” in the Climate and COVID Disasters

vaccination, anti-vax, covid, science, Kevin Siers, death

Figure 1

Figure 1 reflects the deadly strength of anti-vaccination sentiment. Its resistance to science, policy, and any desire to ensure continued public safety seems to be equally relevant for denial of climate change.

My November 17, 2020 blog, “Teaching Moment 2: How Do We Vote?” discussed the US attitude toward climate change: about 60% of respondents agreed with the statement “global warming will harm people in the US,” while 30% agreed that “global warming will harm me personally.” In other words, almost uniformly across the US, about 30% of the population separated the “me” from the “us” (personal vs. collective) in terms of consequences. If you search this blog for “climate change deniers,” you’ll find multiple entries posted over its nine-year run, starting on September 3, 2012, with the blog, “Three Shades of Deniers.” It feels like I’ve written enough about climate deniers for the moment, so this blog will focus instead on vaccine deniers (or, as they are often labeled, “anti-vaxxers”).

Anti-vaxxers are more complex than climate change deniers. Their variety of reasoning is summarized well in a Harvard blog:

Different people, different reasons for not getting vaccinated

A monthly poll tracking vaccine attitudes and experiences in the US reported in June 2021 that the top reasons people gave for deferring vaccination are:

  • the vaccines are too new or were rushed to market too fast
  • concerns about side effects or safety
  • distrust in the government or medicine, especially from people of color and others who have experienced betrayal of their trust
  • questioning the benefit of vaccination based on breakthrough infections — which typically do not cause serious illness or death, by the way — or because people would rather rely on their own immune system to fight off the virus.

The poll notes other reasons, too. More than one in 10 of people surveyed said the main reason they had not been vaccinated was one of the following:

While it may be a personal decision not to get vaccinated, the large numbers of anti-vaxxers make it a social phenomenon. Climate denial in large numbers makes mitigation and adaptation much more difficult. Often, climate change denial is anchored to political or economic consideration—not being willing to sacrifice present advantages for the benefit of future considerations. We discussed this in the context of the oil companies and the political divide.

Science Magazine described a symposium that discussed the dichotomy between anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers:

The presenters included a philosopher, a medical historian, a plant scientist, and a technology historian. Their talks underscored that the people who worry about vaccinating their children are not necessarily doubters of climate change or even against GMOs. “There are a variety of different concerns behind the resistance in each of these three areas,” said Roberta Millstein, a philosopher at the University of California, Davis. “There’s no overall organized attack going on here.” She said the two sides in each debate might even agree on the facts and the potential risks, but they have difficulty seeing eye to eye on the significance of the risks”

The anti-vax sentiment is not specific to the US and almost all the arguments that the Harvard blog mentioned have also manifested in other countries. A good example comes from a small village in Italy:

The province of Bolzano has the country’s highest level of coronavirus infection and lowest vaccination rate, as many people there prefer to rely on the pure air and herbal remedies.

With about 70 percent of the province fully vaccinated, Bolzano has the highest number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in Italy, and the highest share of intensive care unit beds occupied by coronavirus patients. All of the patients in intensive care were unvaccinated, Dr. Franzoni said.

Perhaps the complexity of the dichotomy of comparing the climate change denier with the vaccine denier can best be demonstrated within a single individual, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.:

While many nonprofits and businesses have struggled during the pandemic, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine group has thrived.

An investigation by The Associated Press finds that Children’s Health Defense has raked in funding and followers as Kennedy used his star power as a member of one of America’s most famous families to open doors, raise money and lend his group credibility. Filings with charity regulators show revenue more than doubled in 2020, to $6.8 million.

Since the pandemic started, Children’s Health Defense has expanded the reach of its newsletter, launched an internet TV channel and started a movie studio. In addition to opening new US branches, it now boasts outposts in Canada, Europe and Australia and is translating articles into French, German, Italian and Spanish.

Kennedy’s environmental stewardship and its apparent contradiction with his anti-vax attitude are best described in his profile description on Wikipedia:

Since 2005, he has promoted the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism,[4] and is founder and chairman of Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine advocacy group.

In 1998, Kennedy, Chris Bartle and John Hoving created a bottled-water company, Keeper Springs, which donated all of its profits to Waterkeeper Alliance.[62] In 2013, Kennedy and his partner sold the brand to Nestlé in exchange for a donation to local Waterkeepers.[63]

Kennedy was a venture partner and senior advisor at VantagePoint Capital Partners, one of the world’s largest cleantech venture capital firms. Among other activities, VantagePoint was the original and largest pre-IPO institutional investor in Tesla. VantagePoint also backed BrightSource Energy and Solazyme, amongst others. Kennedy is a board member and counselor to several of Vantage Point’s portfolio companies in the water and energy space, including Ostara, a Vancouver-based company that markets the technology to remove phosphorus and other excessive nutrients from wastewater, transforming otherwise pollution directly into high-grade fertilizer.[64] He is also a senior advisor to Starwood Energy Group and has played a key role in a number of the firm’s investments.[65]

He is on the board of Vionx, a Massachusetts-based utility scale vanadium flow battery systems manufacturer. On October 5, 2017, Vionx, National Grid and the US Department of Energy completed the installation of advanced flow batteries at Holy Name High School in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. The collaboration also includes Siemens and the United Technologies Research Center and constitutes one of the largest energy storage facilities in Massachusetts.[66]

Kennedy is a Partner in ColorZen, which offers a turnkey cotton fiber pre-treatment solution that reduces water usage and toxic discharges in the cotton dyeing process.[67]

Kennedy was a co-owner and Director of the smart grid company Utility Integration Solutions (UISol),[68] which was acquired by Alstom. He is presently a co-owner and Director of GridBright, the market-leading grid management specialist.[69]

In October 2011, Kennedy co-founded EcoWatch, an environmental news site. He resigned from the board of directors in January 2018.

It is striking to see the juxtaposition between Kennedy’s active support for scientific endeavors that aim to mitigate climate change and his insistence on supporting the debunked anti-science, anti-vax movement. Next week, I will go smaller and try to describe the conflicts between “me” and “they” in an academic setting, with an emphasis on my own campus.

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Integrate “Them” with “Me” and “We”: Omicron, Climate Change and Global Threats

Fall classes are over for the semester at my school (final exams are still coming, though, so it’s not over for the students). Christmas and New Year are around the corner and now’s the time to think and make wishes. COVID-19 is not yet over so, at least for me, travel is highly restricted. We are still in the middle of a unique double global transition that requires all of us to act in ways that we are not used to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of “Them” vs. “Me” vs. “We”; it’s a theme that I have covered through this blog’s nine-year run. For example:

Inequity: The Intersection of Coronavirus, Poverty & other Expected Trends

Collective Irrationality and Individual Biases: Climate Change II

Me vs. Them vs. We – Time

Me vs. Them vs. We – Nationalism/Populism vs. Globalism

Teaching Moment 2: How Do we Vote?

It’s a sort of cumbersome concept and I asked my wife, a professor of psychology, to suggest a more compact expression. She suggested, “all of us.” I thought about it and responded that it is compact enough but it misses the dynamics of the interactions between the three components. So, she added, “all of us, uniquely.” I am still trying to figure out how I feel about that, so in the meantime, I will stick with what I had and proceed with the specifics on all the scales that I have in mind. After that, I’ll wait for your input. In this and the coming blogs, I will refer to Me, We, and Them as the “three components.”

This blog will focus on the interactions between the three components in both the energy transition and the COVID-19 pandemic. Future blogs will focus on the same two disasters, only in consecutively smaller scales of interactions within: my country, my school, and me.

Figure 1 demonstrates recent data on the global distribution of the vaccination, while Figure 2 does the same with the global distribution of carbon emissions.

Figure 1 – COVID-19 Vaccinations

The omicron variant of COVID-19 was discovered in Botswana and South Africa. Figure 1 shows that the partially vaccinated rate in each of these countries is about 30%. The NYT wrote about the correlation between low vaccination rate and the evolution of new viruses that can easily spread globally:

Most wealthy countries have vaccinated significant shares of their populations and have rapidly moved into the booster-dose phase. But one year into the global vaccine rollout, the gap between vaccination rates in high- and low-income countries is wider than ever.

Poorly vaccinated countries face several challenges. Early in the rollout process, some countries were not able to secure enough doses to inoculate their residents, and many still face shortages. In others, supply is only part of the story. A New York Times analysis of available data highlights the countries where infrastructure issues and the public’s level of willingness to get vaccinated may pose larger obstacles than supply.

Some countries that have below-average vaccination rates are using most of the vaccine doses they have on hand, and some are not. Most countries with high vaccination rates have used most of the doses delivered to them; they are clustered to the right side of the chart above.

As new viruses, such as omicron, start evolving and spreading globally, the rich countries feel compelled to recommend booster shots, which only enhances the shortages in the poor countries:

As the emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has spurred governments of wealthy nations to step up booster-shot campaigns, the World Health Organization again expressed concern Thursday that the push could further undermine global vaccine equity.

“Broad-based administration of booster doses risks exacerbating inequities in vaccine access,” Alejandro Cravioto, chair of the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization, told reporters.

The administration of boosters is now outpacing first shots around the world.

On issues such as the pandemic and as we will see, climate change, slogans such as MAGA (Make America Great Again) are unhelpful—we’re all in this together, meaning that in such matters we don’t actually have an Us or Them—almost any disaster tends to spread globally.

Climate change doesn’t spread through viruses, but the impact is global, and while the rich countries have the resources to help poor countries to adapt (to a point), they mostly don’t seem to be doing so. The problem is that when people cannot make a living, they will try to move to places where they have a higher probability of adaptation and acceptance. The result is a major global instability with security threats to everybody. I have covered this issue in past blogs as well (See January 28, 2020).

Figure 2 comes from my favorite infographics site, VisualCapitalist, and illustrates global carbon dioxide emissions per capita.

Figure 2Visualizing Global Per Capita CO2 Emissions

The Guardian reminds us below that rich countries have contributed more than 50% of the carbon emissions, even though them make up less than 10% of the population.

“The richest 10% produce about half of greenhouse gas emissions. They should pay to fix the climate”

There is a fundamental problem in contemporary discussion of climate policy: it rarely acknowledges inequality. Poorer households, which are low CO2 emitters, rightly anticipate that climate policies will limit their purchasing power. In return, policymakers fear a political backlash should they demand faster climate action. The problem with this vicious circle is that it has lost us a lot of time. The good news is that we can end it.

Let’s first look at the facts: 10% of the world’s population are responsible for about half of all greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom half of the world contributes just 12% of all emissions. This is not simply a rich versus poor countries divide: there are huge emitters in poor countries, and low emitters in rich countries.

For the full record, see Our World in Data.

This fact had a strong impact on the recent COP26 meeting in the unanimous final resolution in the COP26 meeting (see the November 23rd blog). The relevant entries are below:

  1. Finance, technology transfer and capacity-building for mitigation and adaptation
  2. Urges developed country Parties to provide enhanced support, including through financial resources, technology transfer and capacity-building, to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation, in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention, and encourages other Parties to provide or continue to provide such support voluntarily;
  3. Urges developed country Parties to fully deliver on the USD 100 billion goal urgently and through to 2025, and emphasizes the importance of transparency in the implementation of their pledges; 28. Urges the operating entities of the Financial Mechanism, multilateral development banks and other financial institutions to further scale up investments in climate action, and calls for a continued increase in the scale and effectiveness of climate finance from all sources globally, including grants and other highly concessional forms of finance;
  4. Loss and damage
  5. Resolves to strengthen partnerships between developing and developed countries, funds, technical agencies, civil society, and communities to enhance understanding of how approaches to averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage can be improved.

One of my earlier posts that I mentioned in the beginning of this blog uses a Venn diagram with circles that represent climate change, COVID-19, population, and jobs, with a central circuit that overlaps with the previous four that represents equity. The meaning of equity is broad. It can mean purposeful redistribution of resources so that everyone experiences equal gain and/or equal suffering but it can also be less purposeful: the winners may become more vulnerable as they are eventually affected by losers’ losses (e.g. refugees from poor countries fleeing to rich ones). Both aspects are important. Thus, equity is a central managing tool for society to flourish and try to make everybody better. Everyone should be involved. As I mentioned before, this is the end of the semester in my school. In the next few weeks, I am supposed to have more time. Knowing that, my French family recommended that I read Thomas Piketty’s new book, Time for Socialism. I bought it and when I scanned it, it became obvious to me that Piketty doesn’t use “socialism” the way either my extreme left French cousin or Senator Sanders and his followers do. It seems much more in the same vein as European Social Democrats or American Democratic party. I’ll let you know how it is.

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The Math of the American Commitment

A short entry appeared in the Scientific American journal in the middle of the COP26 meeting: “Doing the Math on Biden’s Climate Pledge.” The author was trying to explain how the Biden administration—only three months after assuming control from an administration that basically refused to recognize climate change as a threat—had already made a hefty new emissions commitment, promising to reduce US CO2 emissions by 50%, compared to 2005 levels. To a large degree, the commitment was based on computer simulations by the Rhodium Group:

The Rhodium Group released a report last month that attempted to show how the U.S. could reach Biden’s 2030 target (Climatewire, Oct. 19). It assumed Congress passed a climate spending bill that lacked both the CEPP—which is out of the bill—and a fee on methane emissions from energy production—which, for the moment, is still in the bill.

“We haven’t modeled the announced package on its own, but from what we know so far, yes, it’s roughly in line with what we modeled for congressional action in our ’Pathways to Paris’ report,” said Maggie Young, a spokeswoman for Rhodium. “So, if this were to pass, along with the subsequent executive branch and subnational actions that we modeled in the report, this combination of actions would likely put the 2030 target within reach.”

But to get there, Rhodium assumed EPA and other agencies would create a host of rules for sectors that have yet to be regulated for greenhouse gases, from chemical factories to liquefied natural gas terminals to petroleum refineries.

It also envisioned muscular rules for sectors that have been regulated for carbon—like power plants—that would leave Obama-era regulations in the dust and test the boundaries of legal defensibility.

For example, the Obama-era rule for new power plants—which is still on the books—mandates that coal-fired power plants capture 40 percent of their emissions via carbon capture and storage. That requirement would be replaced with a 90 percent CCS mandate for new coal- and gas-fired power plants in a rule that would take effect next year, under the Rhodium analysis.

For existing power plants, Rhodium sees an 80 percent CCS mandate phased in for coal- and gas-fired units by 2030.

The Rhodium Group analysis was obviously not the only source of data analyzed for the commitment. Within days of the commitment’s announcement, the NYT and WSJ (among others) provided additional sources.

One important thing to consider is that the commitment ties into this administration’s goal to reclaim America’s leadership in confronting climate change among developed countries.

However, less than two weeks before the start of the COP26 meeting, the Rhodium Group issued a detailed, 35-page report on how the US can fulfill this ambitious commitment. Since the previous two blogs focused on where the commitment stands now, I thought that it would be worthwhile to use pieces of the report to summarize some of the Rhodium Group’s insights.

According to the report:

Rhodium Group is an independent research provider combining economic data and policy insight to analyze global trends. Rhodium’s Energy & Climate team analyzes the market impact of energy and climate policy and the economic risks of global climate change. This interdisciplinary group of policy experts, economic analysts, energy modelers, data engineers, and climate scientists supports decision-makers in the public, financial services, corporate, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors. More information is available at www.rhg.com.

The Executive Summary seems rather long in comparison to the rest but it is important enough that I am duplicating most of it below with the hope that it will convince some of you to read the full report:

Figure 1, from the Executive Summary of the Rhodium Group report

Without new action, the US will not meet its 2030 target

Under current policy as of May 2021, with no new action, the US is on track to reduce GHG emissions 17- 25% below 2005 levels in 2030. The range reflects uncertainty around energy markets, clean technology costs and the ability of natural systems to remove carbon from the atmosphere. This leaves a gap of 1.7-2.3 billion metric tons of emission reductions required to achieve the US target in 2030 (Figure ES1). The gap is roughly equal to all 2020 emissions from the transportation sector on the low end and all emissions from electric power and agriculture combined on the high end. While the challenge of closing the gap is daunting, achieving the target is in line with what’s required to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Not following through on this commitment risks undermining the credibility of the US and reduces the chances of an ambitious multilateral response to climate change.

Joint action by Congress, the executive branch, and subnational leaders can put the 2030 target within reach, but all must act

Our analysis demonstrates that meeting the US’s 2030 target is achievable, if Congress, the executive branch, and subnational leaders all take a series of practical and feasible policy actions—what we refer to as our “joint action” scenario (Figure ES2). This scenario represents passage this year of the infrastructure bill and budget reconciliation package in Congress, coupled with a steady stream of standards and regulations by federal agencies and accelerated action by leading states and companies. Combined, these actions can cut US net GHG emissions to 45-51% below 2005 levels in 2030.

At each level of government, we identify practical policy actions under clearly established authorities (where applicable) that, if pursued on reasonable timelines, can help achieve the target. No one level of government alone can deliver on the target. None of the policies we identify are novel or new, and all federal regulatory action can be implemented with existing legal authority. To close the emissions gap, agencies and states will need to pursue new actions at a pace, scope, and level of ambition that has not been seen to date, but which are also practical and within reach.

Action across all sectors of the economy is required to achieve the 2030 target

We find that the biggest opportunities for emission reductions in this decade reside in the electric power sector—covering 39-41% of total reductions achieved in the joint action scenario. If actions to cut electric power sector emissions are not successful, then achieving the 2030 target may not be possible. Even so, achieving the target will require successful emission reduction actions across all sectors of the US economy, not just the power sector, as well as increased natural and technological removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

Achieving the 2030 target can also cut harmful air pollutants and consumer bills

Getting US emissions on track to reach the 2030 target can be done with little cost to consumers. Long-term tax credits, investments in energy efficiency and other factors cushion consumers from price increases associated with new standards and regulations. On a national average basis, households save roughly $500 a year in energy costs in 2030 in our joint action scenario. Many policy actions that cut emissions also reduce harmful air pollutants. For example, SO2 emissions in the electric power sector decline to near zero by 2030.

If Congress fails to act, the 2030 target may be in jeopardy

Congressional action is critical to achieving the 2030 target for two reasons. First, measures in the infrastructure and budget packages can enable and accelerate clean technology deployment and on their own cut emissions significantly. Second, those same programs reduce consumer and compliance costs of federal and state actions that, combined with congressional actions, put the target within reach. Without the cost reduction assistance of congressional actions, federal and state leaders will face higher technical and political hurdles as they pursue the ambitious policies required to get to the 50-52% target. Congressional investments in emerging clean technologies will also drive innovation to enable the next wave of decarbonization after the 2030 target is reached.

Achieving the target will be a historic feat but is only halfway to the net-zero finish line

If all actors successfully pursue all aspects of the joint action scenario and achieve the 2030 target, it will represent one of the most monumental national achievements in recent decades. Even then, achieving the ambitious goal puts the nation just halfway to the longer-term goal of net-zero emissions by mid-century, which is the level required for the US to play its role in a robust global response to the threat of climate change. Getting to net-zero will require new policies and the commercial scale-up of a suite of emerging technologies like clean hydrogen, direct air capture, and advanced zero-emission electric generation, as well as continued electrification of transportation and buildings. Without near-term progress on these fronts in the years ahead, closing the gap to net-zero emissions by 2050 will be even more challenging than getting to the 2030 target.

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, we are in the middle of the story. The $1.2 trillion (new and old money) Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was approved by Congress and signed by the president. Meanwhile, the $1.85 trillion Social Policy and Climate Change Package is still under discussion. Stay tuned.

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The American Commitment

COP26 ended with a unanimous decision on how to accelerate the global effort to mitigate climate change. This included plans to assist developing countries in their adaptation efforts and to monitor progress in these areas on an annual basis.

It’s now time to start to monitor the progress. In one of my classes, each student selected a country and has been charged to do just that. I focused on the US and how local efforts translate to global ones. This blog starts my coverage of mitigation efforts, while next week’s blog will be focused on the US and the current administration’s April 20th re-commitment to the original Paris agreement:

NATIONALLY DETERMINED CONTRIBUTION

The nationally determined contribution of the United States of America is: To achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its net greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent below 2005 levels in 2030.

It took several months for the practical steps that the US was taking to fulfill this commitment to come to light. These efforts were incorporated into two resolutions drafted in collaboration with Congress and represent a summary of the present administration’s efforts to redefine the role of government in the American economy.

One resolution, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed into law on Monday, November 15, 2021. Figure 1, from corporate services company EY, outlines the spending in that resolution. While it includes a full list of categories and their allotted budgets, it does not explicitly label climate change anywhere. However, the legislation itself features a relatively minor category addressing energy & climate, which identifies mitigation-related “key words” such as clean energy and grid—two essential concepts relating to changing our energy sources. A more in-depth examination reveals that if the executive branch of the government strongly believes in the necessity of taking a leadership position in fulfilling our COP26 commitment, most of the other categories can serve as legitimate vehicles to achieve it.

Figure 1 Budgets for each category in the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act

EY—the company that created Figure 1 using data from the White House record—wrote a description of the resolution:

Infrastructure in the Unites States is deteriorating. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA or the Infrastructure Bill) would provide for $1.2 trillion in spending, $550 billion of which would be new federal spending to be allocated over the next five years. The historic investments included in the IIJA, from clean energy to broadband, would significantly reframe the future of infrastructure in the US.

In other words, the $550B marks the new money that has not yet been allocated through the normal budget allocation process.

Meanwhile, looking at other categories, one does not need a vivid imagination to connect improvements in public transportation with a decrease in use of private cars. As long as the majority of private cars continue to run on fossil fuels, any decrease in their use will reduce carbon emissions. This is also true for electric vehicles, unless the electricity used to charge their batteries is sourced from something other than fossil fuels.

I have explored the connections between water infrastructure and climate change multiple times (for the latest entry, see the October 26, 2021 post that deals with the Water-Energy nexus). Additionally, albeit indirectly, the category of infrastructure resilience deals with climate change: specifically, the enhanced intensity and probability of major, climate-related disasters.

As this discussion has hopefully made clear, direct calculation of how much of the infrastructure budget is allocated to addressing climate change will depend strongly on the administration that oversees that spending. By any account, even this resolution will not be enough to fulfill Mr. Biden’s pledge to halve US emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.

The largest part of President Biden’s effort to fight climate change is included in his $1.85 trillion social policy and climate change package. Below are some highlights of this package:

Climate has emerged as the single largest category in President Biden’s new framework for a huge spending bill, placing global warming at the center of his party’s domestic agenda in a way that was hard to imagine just a few years ago.

As the bill was pared down from $3.5 trillion to $1.85 trillion, paid family leave, free community college, lower prescription drugs for seniors and other Democratic priorities were dropped — casualties of negotiations between progressives and moderates in the party. But $555 billion in climate programs remained.

It was unclear on Thursday if all Democrats will support the package, which will be necessary if it is to pass without Republican support in a closely divided Congress. Progressive Democrats in the House and two pivotal moderates in the Senate, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, did not explicitly endorse the president’s framework. But Mr. Biden expressed confidence that a deal was in sight.

The centerpiece of the climate spending is $300 billion in tax incentives for producers and purchasers of wind, solar and nuclear power, inducements intended to speed up a transition away from oil, gas and coal. Buyers of electric vehicles would also benefit, receiving up to $12,500 in tax credits — depending on what portion of the vehicle parts were made in America.

The rest would be distributed among a mix of programs, including money to construct charging stations for electric vehicles and update the electric grid to make it more conducive to transmitting wind and solar power, and money to promote climate-friendly farming and forestry programs.

This package recently passed the House but its fortune in the US Senate is still unknown. The big question remains, who is going to pay for it. Below is the latest background on this issue:

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s pledge to fully pay for his $1.85 trillion social policy and climate spending package depends in large part on having a beefed-up Internal Revenue Service crack down on tax evaders, which the White House says will raise hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue.

But the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said on Monday that the I.R.S. proposal would yield far less than what the White House was counting on to help pay for its bill — about $120 billion over a decade versus the $400 billion that the administration is counting on.

It is obvious that the Congressional Budget Office, which evaluated the bill, didn’t factor in the physical or fiscal damages that will result from a failure to mitigate and adapt to uncontrolled climate change (see blogs dated November 21, 2017, September 15, 2020, January 21, 2020).

Stay tuned. Next week, I will explore the calculations that the US administration made public that led to the April 20, 2021 commitments.

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Conclusions From COP26

This semester, I am teaching two courses directly related to climate change. I start both with an exploration of the basic science involved. It’s a multidisciplinary topic that requires using first principles to address the overlap of the physical, natural, and social sciences. For the second half of the semester, I turn to helping my students understand—from both observer and participant perspectives— how global current events relate to climate change. This semester provided us with a rich selection of such events, culminating in COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.

The observation part of both courses was to compile an individual e-journal of the global developments, ending with a summary of the global climate picture, as they saw it developing. In terms of participation, for the first course, each student had to select a country whose developments in the global climate challenge they would track and summarize. They were asked to give short class presentations following any important developments. Students chose countries based on personal connections, including birth, affiliation of relatives, and special affinity. I personally covered both the United States and the global trends.

The participant part of the second course was targeted at our “campus as a lab” effort to decarbonize campus (type Brooklyn College into the search box to follow my efforts on this line) through students’ bottom-up efforts. This is part of a multi-year project, which includes several similar courses. We have summarized the results of this effort on a webpage that is being sent to decision-makers; we hope that some of the proposals will be implemented.

COP26 was concluded on Saturday, November 13th. As is the usual practice of such meetings, it ended with a successful unanimous decision by the 197 official participation countries.

To their credit, Wikipedia contributors were able to post an objective summary of the most important accomplishments of the meeting only a few days after the conclusion of the meeting:

The number of countries pledged to reach net-zero emissions passed 140. This target includes 90% of current global greenhouse gas emissions.[6]

More than 100 countries, including Brazil, pledged to reverse deforestation by 2030.

More than 40 countries pledged to move away from coal.

India promised to draw half of its energy requirement from renewable sources by 2030.[7]

The governments of 24 developed countries and a group of major car manufacturers including GM, Ford, Volvo, BYD Auto, Jaguar Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz committed to “work towards all sales of new cars and vans being zero emission globally by 2040, and by no later than 2035 in leading markets”.[8][9] Major car manufacturing nations like the US, Germany, China, Japan and South Korea, as well as Volkswagen, Toyota, Peugeot, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai, did not pledge.[10]

Most of the sources I saw (including press, TV, and social media) criticized the results, saying either that the decision didn’t go far enough or that it went too far.

To keep some balance, I’m including what I find to be the most significant entries in each category of the latest draft of the final resolution that was available to me. The final resolution (COP26 cover decision) is not long (around 7 pages) and I strongly recommended that you read it in its entirety so you can form your own opinion:

Glasgow Climate Pact

Acknowledging the devastating impacts of the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic and the importance of ensuring a sustainable, resilient and inclusive global recovery, showing solidarity particularly with developing country Parties,

  1. Science and urgency
  2. Expresses alarm and utmost concern that human activities have caused around 1.1 °C of global warming to date and that impacts are already being felt in every region;
  3. Adaptation
  4. Emphasizes the urgency of scaling up action and support, including finance, capacitybuilding and technology transfer, to enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change in line with the best available science, taking into account the priorities and needs of developing country Parties;

III. Adaptation finance

  1. Urges developed country Parties to urgently and significantly scale up their provision of climate finance, technology transfer and capacity-building for adaptation so as to respond to the needs of developing country Parties as part of a global effort, including for the formulation and implementation of national adaptation plans;
  2. Mitigation
  3. Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition;
  4. Finance, technology transfer and capacity-building for mitigation and adaptation
  5. Urges developed country Parties to provide enhanced support, including through financial resources, technology transfer and capacity-building, to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation, in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention, and encourages other Parties to provide or continue to provide such support voluntarily;
  6. Urges developed country Parties to fully deliver on the USD 100 billion goal urgently and through to 2025, and emphasizes the importance of transparency in the implementation of their pledges; 28. Urges the operating entities of the Financial Mechanism, multilateral development banks and other financial institutions to further scale up investments in climate action, and calls for a continued increase in the scale and effectiveness of climate finance from all sources globally, including grants and other highly concessional forms of finance;
  7. Loss and damage
  8. Resolves to strengthen partnerships between developing and developed countries, funds, technical agencies, civil society and communities to enhance understanding of how approaches to averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage can be improved;

VII. Implementation

  1. Strongly urges all Parties that have not yet done so to meet any outstanding pledges under the Convention as soon as possible;

VIII. Collaboration

53. Recognizes the importance of international collaboration on innovative climate action, including technological advancement, across all actors of society, sectors and regions, in contributing to progress towards the objective of the Convention and the goals of the Paris Agreement

As you can tell from the Wikipedia summary, the final resolution is not the only outcome of the conference. Figure 1 shows a snapshot of the 31 separate outcomes that passed without unanimous decisions.

Figure 1 – Screenshot of the main page of COP26 outcomes

I chose to highlight two of these outcomes. One—the ARA—the first in Figure 1, includes not only several member states but also signatories from of cities, companies, and other large entities. This coalition strengthens the belief that strong bottom-up commitments to fight climate change are the best way forward. The second one, not visible in Figure 1, calls for instituting an annual global checkpoint process by 2022:

These statements and declarations are the high-level outcomes from the World Leaders Summit and presidency theme days of the two-week programme of COP26.

We the undersigned, representing over 100 organisations across 35 economies, have gathered here at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change conference (COP26), in Glasgow, United Kingdom, to launch the Adaptation Research Alliance (ARA).

A bold new coalition of global adaptation actors, the ARA will catalyse and scale investment in action-oriented research and innovation for adaptation that strengthens resilience in communities most vulnerable to climate change.

Breakthrough agenda – launching an annual global checkpoint process in 2022

The breakthrough agenda launched at the world leaders summit commits countries to work together to make clean technologies and sustainable solutions the most affordable, accessible and attractive option in each emitting sector globally before 2030.

Wikipedia rightly lists this annual checkpoint process as the biggest accomplishment of the meeting. I fully agree. Hopefully, it will guarantee that the large groups interested in global climate change mitigation will shift from future commitments to ongoing accomplishments in the wake of the COP26 meeting.

I will end this blog by stating my belief that the outcome of COP26 probably would have felt much more discouraging if not for the unexpected announcement of an agreement between the US and China to work together to slow the impact of global warming and to ensure a successful conclusion of COP26.

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Managing the Energy Transition: Specifics

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, may have asked, “what good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” (September 21, 2021) but this week, in the context of COP26, the current CEO of Exxon expressed a different opinion:

Darren W. Woods, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, made the case for his company to play a role in helping the global economy transition to clean energy at the DealBook Online Summit on Wednesday.

“There are a lot of sectors of the economy which are critical to supporting modern life that aren’t easy to decarbonize, where we don’t have a good solution,” Mr. Woods said in an interview with DealBook’s Andrew Ross Sorkin. “Frankly, that’s where I think a company like Exxon Mobil can bring value,” he said, by finding ways to “bridge that gap between what’s needed today and what we want for tomorrow.”

Not surprisingly, oil companies had a large representation at COP26; the final conclusions of the meeting might reflect it.

By the time that this blog is posted, the COP26 meeting will be over (officially, the meeting closed on Friday; however, attempts to reach a unanimous decision often overflow into the day after the official closing). Given that I write my blogs ahead of time, I will wait until next week to give my take on the meeting’s closing.

This blog is a continuation of last week’s post, with an emphasis on some specifics in the efforts to transition the global energy supply away from carbon sources. I will start with an industry-friendly description about managing the balance between the need to decarbonize our energy source and our ability to generate a sufficient amount of energy from alternative sources:

The world wants to “transition” away from fossil fuels toward green energy, but the difficult reality is this: Dirty fuels are not going away — or even declining — anytime soon.

The total amount of renewable energy that’s available is growing. That’s good news for a world threatened by potentially devastating climate change.

But the increase in renewable energy is still lower than the increase in global energy demand overall. A “transition” from fossil fuels may come someday, but for now, renewable energy isn’t even keeping pace with rising energy demand — so fossil fuel demand is still growing.

“The global power market is experiencing rapid power demand growth as markets recover from the pandemic. Despite all the capacity additions in renewables generation, the amount of power currently generated by renewables is still not enough to meet this increased demand,” Matthew Boyle, manager of global coal and Asia power analytics at S&P Global Platts, told CNBC.

The global supply of renewables will grow by 35 gigawatts from 2021 to 2022, but global power demand growth will go up by 100 gigawatts over the same period, according to Boyle. Countries will have to tap traditional fuel sources to meet the rest of the demand. A gigawatt is 1 billion watts.

Now that we are (hopefully) at the tail-end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global economy is starting to rebuild. Of course, this means an accelerated demand for energy that must be synchronized with available supply (see last week’s post on how natural gas ties in here).

Coal was a major topic at the COP26—specifically, how to secure commitments to stop using it as an energy source. That’s easier said than done, though:

Coal was supposed to be headed to the dust bin of history as the world increasingly embraces renewable energy.

After all, many countries were shutting down these sooty, air-choking power plants. Mines closed, coal companies went bankrupt, and utilities started to replace coal-fired electricity generation with natural gas or wind and solar energy.

But it turns out that weaning the world off fossil fuels, particularly the dirtiest fuel of them all, isn’t going to be easy or quick, as coal’s price and demand have been revived this year. Transitions take time.

“From our point of view, the energy transition was always a multi-decade story,” said Biff Ourso, senior managing director, Nuveen Real Assets. “And there’s invariably going to be periods of spikes in demand, or supply/demand imbalances that was going to cause a resurgence in carbon-based generation sources.”

Coal is likely to stick around as countries rely on it to ensure the lights stay on and the economy hums along. Coal’s resurgence also shines a light on the need for improved battery storage for renewables if the world is going to decarbonize.

One of the apparent low-lying fruits, which some hope will emerge out of this meeting, is for all participating governments to agree to stop subsidizing fossil fuels:

The head of the United Nations Development Programme told CNBC that $423 billion of taxpayers’ money is being spent on subsidizing fossil fuel use each year, and is preventing a transition toward cleaner energy.

Speaking around the launch of its new campaign, “Don’t Choose Extinction,” UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner said he was “very worried” that we are in a “historical moment in time” with all the means to tackle climate change, but not taking the decisions necessary to make it happen.

The new UNDP campaign against fossil fuel subsidies sees a dinosaur, voiced by global stars in various languages including Jack Black, Eiza Gonzalez, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Aïssa Maïga, addressing the United Nations in New York, urging the world not to make choices that could lead them to follow dinosaurs into extinction.

The global approach could be helpful if all of the countries signed on, however, this is so far not the case. Among the rich countries, Australia, at least under its present government, wants to find its own way forward. It is one of the largest exporters of coal and it would like to continue to enjoy the advantages that this lucrative business brings:

“Australia’s energy and natural resources sectors have evolved and reduced emissions much faster than we expected a decade ago,” Mr Taylor said when asked what the energy landscape would look like in 2030.

He said he believed hydrogen – made from either renewable energy or from natural gas combined with a process to trap and bury the carbon dioxide released – would be more competitive by then and help cut emissions in parts of the economy that could not be easily electrified.

“The extraordinary uptake of renewables, particularly household solar, towards the end of the 2010s, has been matched by huge growth in the 2020s of a range of new low-emissions energy technologies,” Mr Taylor said.

While many experts agree government policy is needed to help phase out planet-heating fossil fuels, the Morrison government has adopted an approach of “technology not taxes” to drive commercial uptake of lower-carbon energy. It has resisted setting industry emission targets, a carbon price or moves to reduce fossil fuels’ role in the grid in coming years.

The difficulties of the transition are not confined to finding enough supply of decarbonized energy sources. The global objective of the transition is to emit less carbon dioxide overall but some industries need carbon dioxide for their industrial production—it is an essential part of their supply chain. Below is an example from England:

Britain’s pig farmers are the latest casualty of the worsening energy crisis which threatens to trigger a shortage of carbon dioxide used across the food and drinks industry. Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said: “We urgently need the secretary of state for business to convene the big CO2 manufacturers to demand that they coordinate to minimise disruption, and provide information to Britain’s businesses so contingency plans can be made.”

Rocketing gas prices have caused a Europe-wide slowdown for some chemical factories that produce fertiliser, a byproduct of which is carbon dioxide, used in fizzy drinks and beer as well as in the meat industry to stun animals before slaughter.

Meat industry representatives have warned that farmers may imminently be required to begin “humane” pig culls because of a looming shortage of carbon dioxide to slaughter the backlog of animals destined for abattoirs that are already understaffed amid labour shortages.

Probably the most difficult and important issue that the COP26 meeting tackled was how to mitigate the impacts of the immense, destructive powers of climate change while also seeing to the financial and energy needs of developing countries. In next week’s blog, I will try to share my views on the strengths, weaknesses, and overall outcome of COP26.

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