Holidays During a Pandemic: Let the Young Lead the Way

My first entry for this blog was on April 22, 2012. April 22nd is Earth Day but we  will celebrate many other things throughout this coming month, including my wife’s birthday, spring, and many religious holidays, including the following:

April 2nd: Ramanavami (Hindu)

April 5th: Palm Sunday (Christian)

April 8th: Hanuman Jayanti (Hindu)

Evening of April 8th – evening of April 16th: Passover (Jewish)

April 9th: Maundy Thursday (Christian)

April 9th: Theravada New Year (Buddhist)

April 10th: Good Friday (Christian)

April 12th: Easter (Christian)

April 21st: Lailat al Bara’ah (Muslim)

Evening of April 23rd: start of Ramadan (Muslim)

May 19th: Laylat al Qadr (Muslim)

Evening of May 23rd: end of Ramadan (Muslim)

Evening of May 23rd – evening of May 24th: Eid-al-Fitr (Muslim)

The Jewish and Christian holidays are more familiar to me but this is a holy time for many religions.

Working and Learning Remotely

This April will obviously be different from any other. We are all facing the COVID-19 pandemic. It has forced us—in the best case—to be stuck at home trying to do everything remotely. Our kids, meanwhile, are having to make do with distance learning.

My wife and I are no exceptions. Our college (CUNY Brooklyn College) is closed so we are doing our best to teach our classes and do administrative work via video conferencing of one sort or another. This is much more challenging for my wife; she is the Dean of Science at BC, responsible for 10 academic departments.

One of the difficult issues that we are now trying to address is student equity. We found out that about 10% of our students at BC don’t have the tools (computers, hardware or Wi-Fi connectivity) necessary to participate in remote learning. Unfortunately, the school was unable to provide the usual remedy of inviting the students to do their work on campus. Instead, we paused all classes for close to a week so that we could distribute laptops and/or tablets to all students in need. As of this writing, however, I have no idea how the issue of connectivity is being addressed. We compensated for the time lost by shortening the approaching Spring Break.

Work and learning are not the only aspects of life that need to be adjusted. Family connection is another issue.


Many of the holidays I listed above involve religious ceremonies. Traditionally, these are also times when families get together and eat delicious traditional dishes. Clearly, this is not possible during the coming months. We have to keep our social distance from others, whether or not they are family. Many cases of self-quarantine extend to isolating ourselves from even our spouses and kids. A large number of those leading various organized religions have cancelled customary religious activities. Indeed, they have closed churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of religion en masse.

I am a (secular) Jew so I will expand on some of the suggestions to celebrate the Jewish Seders, the traditional dinners where we celebrate the beginning of Passover. The first Seder starts at sundown on Wednesday, April 8th. That’s not until next week but I can say for sure that our usual family get together will not be taking place.

Traditional Passover SederA traditional Passover Seder

Changes in Tradition

It turns out that some rabbis have officially sanctioned a modern version of the Seder that is consistent with social distancing:

In a startling ruling, a group of prominent Sephardic rabbis in Israel has permitted the use of Zoom videoconferencing at the upcoming Passover Seder so that families can convene virtually without violating restrictions on gatherings mandated by the coronavirus pandemic. The rabbis who issued the ruling, among them the spiritual leaders of several towns and communities in Israel, are all Orthodox.

According to the ruling, videoconferencing during the Seder will be permissible on a one-time basis this year so long as computers are turned on and everything is set up before the holiday sets in. Jewish religious law, or halakha, does not permit the use of electricity on Shabbat – a restriction that includes operating computers and other forms of technology. This ban on electricity use applies to the Jewish holidays as well, including Passover, though Sephardic rabbis tend to be more lenient than their Ashkenazi counterparts when it comes to this restriction, as they are on many others.

That is a big deal; the rule against electricity is taken very seriously. As should be obvious from the passage above, the suggestion was not universally accepted. Various sects are stricter than others when it comes to deviation from tradition.

Including the Younger Generations

I believe that the younger generations—hopefully high school or college students—will (and should) take charge. They are now the recipients of distance learning. They can put this into practice by changing roles: performing as distance teachers and organizers for their extended families. Many older folks struggle with this technology.

It’s obvious that the youngsters cannot be solely in charge of the food. Every household will have to do its best to take care of its members. But the youth can certainly take charge of the reading and the prayers. While they cannot be the sole readers, their contribution to organizing, reading, singing, and prayers will at least underline some of the best aspects of “normal” celebrations.

If you decide to participate in these new festivities, I hope you will include a short summary (including photographs) on the comments section of this blog.

Keep safe and happy holidays.

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We Stand Together (Separately)

January 27th, the first day of classes at Brooklyn College, also happened to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was also near the start of the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States—a few days after the first positive diagnosis outside of China and three days before the WHO (World Health Organization) declared a global health emergency (shortly followed by the organization reclassifying it as a global pandemic).

Below, I am trying to answer a question from Michelle Anderson, the president of Brooklyn College, during my talk that day: “When the Past Writes the Present: From Holocaust Survival to Climate Change.” It was part of President Anderson’s “We Stand Against Hate” series at Brooklyn College.

Q&A with Michelle Anderson after my talk

Two of my blogs following the event (February 4 and 11, 2020) addressed issues that we discussed during the Q&A segment of the talk and some of the ensuing correspondence.

By now, I have a pretty standard talk for such occasions. I speak about my family’s experiences during WWII and the connection that I draw between the Holocaust and the present threat of climate change (i.e. the general theme of this blog). While I have taught at BC for more than 40 years, most of the audience was not aware of my history.

At the time, I was scheduled to travel and speak at three other related events. April 15th in Farsleben, Germany, was to be the unveiling of the monument to the 75th anniversary of the British army’s liberation of Bergen-Belsen. My mother and I were imprisoned in that concentration camp for two years and were rescued by the American army near Farsleben. Shortly afterwards I was due in Scranton, Pennsylvania to take part in an annual Teen Symposium on the Holocaust that I have attended for the last eight years. In August, I was supposed to go to Poland for the publication of my mother’s book, Of Bombs and Mice. My mother wrote the book in Polish but for a variety of reasons it was never published there.

This itinerary called for a lot of traveling and a lot of Holocaust. Then the pandemic came.

Like most of the world, I am currently stuck in my apartment, trying to convert all of my teaching to online platforms. I’m also having to move the rest of my activities online or cancel them altogether. It is not surprising that the unveiling of the monument and the Bergen-Belsen commemoration have been postponed until next year. The Scranton symposium is still scheduled but I am doubtful that it will take place. The Warsaw event is five months away but nobody has a reliable prediction as to when the threat will disappear. This certainly requires some changes in thinking.

It took me until 1990 (the unification of Germany) to break my personal boycott of Germany. I had avoided traveling there. I sidestepped the country in large part to avoid the many apologies from younger generations who wanted to speak on behalf of the German people as a whole in denouncing the atrocities. After the unification of Germany, however, I realized that my attitude was not productive; that it stemmed from hate. I gave it a second thought, started to travel to Germany more often, and made good friends there. Only very recently have I started to realize that even just talking about my family’s Holocaust history brings out hate. There are obvious good guys and bad guys in such stories but the remedy is not to ignore this history. Instead, we must try to contrast the past with the present and stand against hate. While many of those in government are descendants of those who hatefully killed much of my family, most of them are now trying to prevent recurrence of an atmosphere that encourages such crimes. The Christian religion’s command, “Bless those who persecute you” (Romans 12:14) likely plays a part here.

I am Jewish and our current (and continuing) refrain is, “Never again.” But here my sentiment is a bit different. I am not looking to bless those who murdered my family. Rather, I want to bless anyone trying to prevent a future genocide in whatever form it takes.

The photos below show the construction of the monument in Germany – a large granite stone that will be engraved on three sides with “Liberation April 13, 1945” in three languages: German, English, and Hebrew. The fourth side will show the emblem of the American army’s 30th Infantry Division, which saved us in Farsleben on April 13, 1945.

Construction of the monument in Farsleben, Germany

The emblem of the American 30th Infantry Division

My German friends that live and work near Farlsleben, the site of our liberation, are the ones who constructed the monument. Most of them live in small suburbs of the city of Magdeburg. They include the teachers, students, and staff of the Krfurst-Joachim-Friedrich-Gymnasium in Wolmitstedt and my dear friend Anette Pilz, the Director of the Museum Wolmirstedt. I described my most recent visit to the area in my September 2019 blogs.

Almost every decision during the construction and preparation involved consultation with  myself (first generation, now living in the US), Michal Elbaum (second generation, now in Israel), and Ron Chaulet, an amateur historian from the Netherlands who came up with the original idea for the monument. The event’s postponement was a great disappointment to us all. We hope to be able to participate in the 2021 unveiling. I also hope to be able to visit the place earlier.

Back to the pandemic: many people who are required to isolate themselves from others and cannot move their work to online forums find themselves bored. This includes the Israeli actress Gal Gadot. She tried to follow in the footsteps of self-quarantined Italians who stood on their balconies and sang to their neighbors. Gadot tapped some of her famous friends to join in (from home) with her in singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

I found it appropriate to finish this blog with the full lyrics to the song. We’re all in this together, even if we’re separate. Stay safe, everyone!


John Lennon

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today… Aha-ah…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace… You…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world… You…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

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The 10 Plagues, Coronavirus, and Passover

The world is in a biologically-driven pandemic and trying to adjust to the coronavirus. I am obviously no exception. My university, like many others, has shifted all classes to online until the end of the semester. It’s given students and teachers a transition week to learn the technology. My granddaughter is now flying back home from Israel after spending two weeks in quarantine there.

Passover is approaching (beginning the evening of April 8th and ending on April 16th). I had originally planned to travel to Germany with my wife for the unveiling of a memorial for the liberation of the concentration camp that held my mother and me. We spent the last two years of WWII in Bergen-Belsen and were liberated by the American army 75 years ago. (You can type “Bergen-Belsen” into the search box to find my blogs that relate to the camp’s background or type “liberation” for more on how the American Army saved us). Following that trip, I had a commitment to speak at a yearly teen Holocaust symposium in Scranton, Pennsylvania. My wife and I have attended the symposium regularly over the last eight years. In August, depending on the situation, we are supposed to travel to Poland for the first publication of my mother’s book on our lives in Warsaw during the first half of WWII. While the book was originally written in Polish, it was never published in Poland.

Well, the trip to Germany is obviously off and we are going to spend Passover at home. Passover is a celebration of the Israelites’ (Jews’) journey, “from slavery to freedom” (it sounds more poetic in Hebrew because it consists of two words that rhyme). Essentially, the holiday’s whole theme is liberation. The unveiling of the monument to our liberation and the memorial to the liberation of the camp have been postponed until next year. The monument consists of a large stone, engraved on three of its sides with “Liberation – April 13, 1945,” in three languages: German, English, and Hebrew. In spite of fact that the unveiling was postponed, I will still focus the next series of blogs on the lessons that I planned to emphasize in those events.

Coming back to Passover, I—and likely everyone around me—am now relating more to the point of view of the Egyptians than that of the Israelites. We are all suffering from the plagues.

The book of Exodus in the Bible describes the story of Passover. The Egyptian pharaoh at the time was most likely Ramses II (1318-04 BCE). According to the biblical story, God forced the Egyptians to free the enslaved Israelites with the 10 Plagues, the list of which is shown in Figure 1. Each time the pharaoh refused, He sent another plague.

God’s message with each of the plagues is shown below for the second plague (frogs):

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 2If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country. 3The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. 4The frogs will come up on you and your people and all your officials.’”

plagues, Passover, coronavirus

Figure 1

Modern analogies and scientific theories for all ten of the plagues abound. For instance, here’s an example of what some of the plagues might have actually entailed, starting with the river of blood:

Red Algae      This theory — put forth by scientists like John S. Marr, an epidemiologist who wrote a 1996 journal article featured in the New York Times — argues that red algae could have sucked oxygen out of Egypt’s waterways, killed the fish and turned the water red. Just as in the volcano theory, frogs then leapt out looking for food, and died. Without frogs to eat the insects, the pests proliferated and feasted on corpses, a feeding frenzy for flies and locusts. The paper argued that the lice could have been a type of insect called culicoides, which can carry two diseases that could explain the livestock deaths: African horse sickness and Bluetongue. The boils on humans could have been caused by glanders, an airborne bacterial disease spread by flies or tainted meat. In this theory the darkness is coincidentally caused by a sandstorm. The darkness would have left the crops — well, whatever crops were left after the other problems — moldy, and the mold could have produced airborne toxins that might explain widespread childhood death.

It’s not too far-fetched to imagine the original ten plagues, or even some new ones, in association with climate change. However, two stand out in terms of their resemblance to what we are experiencing now: locusts and death. There is an infestation of locusts in East Africa that is starting to penetrate into the Middle East, and there is the global pandemic of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Figure 2 shows some of the locusts in East Africa and Figure 3 shows the global spread of the coronavirus.

Africa, locusts, plague

Figure 2 Locusts in East Africa



Figure 3Coronavirus as of March 13, 2020

The map in Figure 3 was published on Friday, March 13th in the New York Post. As of today, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the total confirmed coronavirus cases stands at 190,126, with the death toll standing at 7.517. These numbers are obviously changing on a daily basis.

Unlike the pharaoh, we have modern science and an understanding of what is happening around us. However, many local governments are failing to produce or implement coherent global strategies to fight these plagues.

Meanwhile, wash your hands and keep safe, everyone!!

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Do-It-Yourself Ranking: How We Measure

When I first became a professor, I taught chemistry and physics. Both are traditional sciences with well-defined prerequisites. For physics you must first learn about mechanics (Kepler, Newton, etc.); in chemistry you have to start with the periodic table before you can move forward. The speed and depth of a student’s progress depend strongly on their understanding of the fundamentals. Environmental science, meanwhile, requires a much broader background that expands beyond physical science. Social sciences—especially economics—play a very important role. When I started teaching about environmental issues, I had to change my approach. I find that ranking indicators—such as countries’ progress in sustainability—is a good starting place.

The fields of physics and chemistry change with time but at a relatively slow pace. They are also relegated to advanced classes in both undergraduate and K-12 curricula, meaning that they are not something most people think about. Environmental issues (the interactions between the physical world and human societies), meanwhile, change quickly and constantly and they affect us all. Policy changes have a relatively mild impact on physics and chemistry. The opposite is true for environmental issues, as we can see using environmental indexes.

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a convenient example:

Careful measurement of environmental trends and progress provides a foundation for effective policymaking. The 2018 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks 180 countries on 24 performance indicators across ten issue categories covering environmental health and ecosystem vitality. These metrics provide a gauge at a national scale of how close countries are to established environmental policy goals. The EPI thus offers a scorecard that highlights leaders and laggards in environmental performance, gives insight on best practices, and provides guidance for countries that aspire to be leaders in sustainability.

The first EPI index came out in 2002. It was designed to complement the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) (October 6, 2015 and March 3, 2020 blogs). Every two years, an updated EPI index is published.

Figure 1 shows the indicators and their corresponding weight in the 2018 index.

EPI, ranking, framework, environment, index

Figure 1Environmental Performance Framework 2018

I used an earlier version of EPI’s Environmental Performance Framework in an honor class to demonstrate the methodology. It’s essentially a map of what goes into the EPI scoring. (Think of a grading system where one test is worth 30% of the grade, etc.) One can adjust the indicators and their weight (percentage of the whole) depending on what one values most. If we want to use such indexes to incentivize policy makers to improve on certain categories like the environment, we must first consider those policy makers’ priorities. Some of them, especially those in less developed, poorer countries, may give the most weight to immediate-term issues such as food and medical care. Unsurprisingly, such countries do not tend to consider long-term sustainability a high priority.

The indicators are divided into two main groups: ecosystem vitality and environmental health. Even on this level, the division is largely subjective and arbitrary. The two groups impact each other (November 27, 2018).

Figure 2 shows a schematic of how the EPI ranks countries: the Proximity to Target Method.

ranking, proximity to target, method, country, EPI, target

Figure 2Proximity to Target Method of ranking

On a fundamental level, all indexes anchor on directly measurable indicators that are available via reputable databases (the outer circle in Figure 1). The subjective weights (given as a percentage in Figure 1) that we assign each category will determine how they move from the inner circuit to the outer circuits.

To make the indexing meaningful, it is essential to make sure that data are available for all the participants (in this case, countries) over the same time period.

Once direct data are available, we can scale them by putting the worst performer(s) as zero and the best performer as 100 and using the normalized data to get the overall index between 0 and 100, effectively ranking them. Alternatively, if we have targets for specific indicators from international treaties or scientific considerations, we can use those targets as the 100 markers.

Such indexing can influence more than just country-level policy makers. Schools and businesses are also subject to ranking but the datasets come from different sources.

For higher education institutions (see May 28, June 4, and June 18, 2019 blogs) the data are self-reported by campuses in response to a specific organization’s questions. The organization might analyze the information in-house or hand it over to an associated site, such as Sierra Club, which has a different set of priorities.

When the targets are companies, Bloomberg terminals can be tremendously helpful (January 8, 2019 blog). They include detailed information on ESG (Environmental, Social, and Government) indicators of various businesses, based on Thomson-Reuters scores. You can find more details here.

As an exercise, I often have students select 10 countries and rank them according to their own priorities, using the Proximity to Target technique. I challenge you to do the same. Make sure that you provide the reference for the data on which your ranking is based and post it as a comment on this blog.

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Weaponizing Climate Change Ranking

Since I started this blog, I have habitually ranked countries with regards to their climate change indicators. These include changes in carbon emissions, energy use, forms of sustainable energy, and various ratios such as energy intensity (energy divided by GDP) and carbon intensity. These rankings are my way of making sense of the global energy transition that we are going through. I want to figure out the consequences of our current actions and how they will affect our children and grandchildren’s future. All of these indicators use directly measurable parameters, which makes ranking them equivalent to counting.

The databases (such as the World Bank) from which we extract the parameters are reliable and use transparent methodologies. Anybody who wants to reproduce the results can do so without much difficulty. We make scientific observations based on these rankings. These observations are in keeping with the Popperian definition of the scientific method: “scientific theory could not be proved but could be disproved or falsified. He claimed that ‘It must be possible for a scientific system to be refuted by experience. A theory that is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific.’” Given that we are using simple observed data, we can classify the indicators as objective.

The difficulty with environmental issues—especially climate change—is that per definition they depend on both human actions and changes in the physical environment. Each one of these impacts comes with many indicators to follow. The weight that we assign to each action is to a large degree subjective. Thus, different individuals or organizations with their own agendas can produce different results—the opposite of the scientific method. For example:

The United Kingdom of Great Britain, which is composed of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Island, has been preparing for Brexit for the last several years. Finally, about a month ago, the UK was able to agree on how exactly to leave the European Union. The Brexit issue, obviously, was not the only issue on the agenda. A country with more than 66 million people has other issues to attend to. One of these was the major expansion of Heathrow airport—the largest airport in England and a gateway to much of its economic activity. A few days ago, the country (and much of the world) was shocked to hear that a judge had blocked the airport’s expansion, citing the UK’s commitments to the 2015 Paris agreement. A Pittsburgh paper covered the matter well:

LONDON — Heathrow Airport’s plans to increase capacity of Europe’s biggest travel hub by over 50% were stalled Thursday when a British court said the government failed to consider its commitment to combat climate change when it approved the project.

The ruling throws in doubt the future of the 14 billion-pound ($18 billion) plan to build a third runway at Heathrow, the west London hub that already handles more than 1,300 flights a day.

While Heathrow officials said they planned to appeal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government indicated it wouldn’t challenge the ruling by the Court of Appeal.

On November 2016, then Foreign Minister Boris Johnson ratified the Paris Agreement. The EU, which at that time included the UK, signed the agreement as 28-member block. Like all the other signatories to the Paris Agreement, the EU signed a Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by 40% of 1990 levels by 2030 and reach zero emission status by mid-century.

While the UK is no longer part of the EU, now Prime Minister Mr. Boris Johnson (whose party has a very solid majority in parliament) has declared that the government will not challenge the judge’s decision.

The UK decision followed the Supreme Court decision of another member of the EU: the Netherlands (See my December 31, 2019 blog):

… that ordered the government to cut greenhouse gas cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by the end of 2020. Because of climate change, “the lives, wellbeing and living circumstances of many people around the world, including in the Netherlands, are being threatened,” Kees Streefkerk, the chief justice, said in the decision. “Those consequences are happening already.”

There was nothing in the NDC that refers the Netherlands in specific or to the year 2020. Nor does it mention the very general statement about “combating climate change” that appears in the British judge’s argument. Instead, these two countries’ justice systems appear to have extrapolated the Paris Agreement’s necessary commitments and are holding their governments to their words. These decisions have major economic impacts. There is no obvious ranking here but the NDC itself reflects the willingness of the signatories to abide by the Paris agreement. The judge is making a subjective interpretation regarding whether the Heathrow expansion is consistent with the commitment.

The second example comes from China. A publication in Nature addresses the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (see my October 6, 2015 blog):

“Assessing progress towards sustainable development over space and time” by Zhenci Xu et al

To address global challenges1–4, 193 countries have committed to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)5. Quantifying progress towards achieving the SDGs is essential to track global efforts towards sustainable development and guide policy development and implementation. However, systematic methods for assessing spatio-temporal progress towards achieving the SDGs are lacking. Here we develop and test systematic methods to quantify progress towards the 17 SDGs at national and subnational levels in China. Our analyses indicate that China’s SDG Index score (an aggregate score representing the overall performance towards achieving all 17 SDGs) increased at the national level from 2000 to 2015. Every province also increased its SDG Index score over this period. There were large spatio-temporal variations across regions. For example, eastern China had a higher SDG Index score than western China in the 2000s, and southern China had a higher SDG Index score than northern China in 2015. At the national level, the scores of 13 of the 17 SDGs improved over time, but the scores of four SDGs declined. This study suggests the need to track the spatio-temporal [sic] ynamics of progress towards SDGs at the global level and in other nations.

Figure 1 shows the UN’s sustainable development goals that the paper analyzes.

Figure 1 – Sustainable Development Goals of the UN

The paper’s results are shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2 – Changes in China’s SDG index score and individual SDG scores.

The article contains two very dense pages with very subjective criteria that the authors use to weigh the original SDG scores shown in Figure 1 against the overall score shown in Figure 2. One of the reasons that the paper was accepted for publication in such a prestigious journal, in spite of its subjectivity, is that it can be duplicated in most other countries and thus compared. Unfortunately, this kind of work can be weaponized to serve the political ends of various governments. If they simply adjust the weight they give to contributions of individual components, they can achieve the impacts necessary to accomplish specific political ends.

Here again, there is no obvious ranking comparing the Chinese efforts to those of other countries but there is an analysis of the entire effort in terms of time scale. Since this comes with a very detailed methodology, any other country can compare China’s efforts to its own reality and in this way provide the data necessary for such ranking.

In the next blog I will expand on this issue and provide some details on the methodology so that we can all rank whatever we wish.

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Ranking: What’s the Best Choice?

Almost every fact-based decision-making involves some sort of ranking. In other words, once we set our criteria, we have a list of options to choose from, some of which are more desirable or compelling than others. In our digital society, almost all of us carry mobile phones; when we don’t know or can’t remember something, we Google it.

I obviously didn’t know the number of global mobile phone users off the top of my head, but Google told me it was 4.7 billion. To make some sense of this number, I did some more Googling. I found that the present global population is 7.7 billion and that 25% of those people are 0-14 years old. Initially, I assumed that most people start using mobile phones at age 10. In my short search, however, I couldn’t find the similar statistics for the percentage of the global population ages 0-10. Instead, I have settled for using age 14 as a starting point for individual mobile phone usage. Doing the simple math, the number of potential global phone users turns out to be 5.8 billion. So while the current 4.7 billion is only about 80% of what it could be if the world were more economically equal, that still means the vast majority of the world now uses a mobile phone.

In all, these searches took me less than 5 minutes. If you trust Google, or any available equivalent source, you can get almost any information very quickly. Granted, we can obviously get fake news just as swiftly. It is up to us to distinguish the difference. We are in the middle of a global transition in communication that is moving much faster than the global transition in energy use that I keep discussing (see my entry on a polar bears and her cubs – September 17, 2019).

What happens if I ask my electronic tools a slightly more complicated question, such as, “what state is the best to live in?” My search takes me immediately to an article in USA Today, “Where does your state rank? These are some of the best and worst states to live in: Analysis.” Rather than trying to answer my personal question individually, Google immediately transfers me to a ranked analysis. Nor did USA Today do its own study. It links to the Wall Street Journal, which used the following criteria:

One of the most common measures used for ranking the level of development and wealth of a given country or geography is gross national income adjusted for population – or GNI per capita. And by this measure, the U.S. compares very well to much of the world.

This measure, however, reveals very little about the well-being of the population. In order to address this shortcoming, the United Nations Development Programme designed the Human Development Index, or HDI, which consists of three core concepts of well-being: health, knowledge and education, and financial security.

24/7 Wall St. created its own index using the HDI model in order to rank the best and worst states to live in. Our index consists of three measures: life expectancy at birth, bachelor’s degree attainment and poverty.

The USA Today entry was, of course, not the only one that fit my query. There were many more entries, with a range of criteria and information from about 150 different sources. These included rankings for family life, cost of living, retirement, etc., as well as marking how such rankings have changed over the years (2018 vs. 2019 vs. 2020, etc.). Ranking is big part of the communication transition now.

I see ranking as fitting into three distinct categories: ranking with action in mind (e.g. where to live/move), ranking as filler, and quantified ranking regarding progress or regression or for the sake of comparison.

In this blog I will focus on the first two categories. Next week, I’ll look at the third category, with an emphasis on climate change.

  1. Ranking with action in mind:

My previous example of, “What state is the best to live in?” belongs to this category. Meanwhile, China is starting to introduce mandatory facial recognition protocols, based on artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms:

All mobile phone users in China registering new SIM cards must submit to facial recognition scans, according to a new rule that went into effect across the country on Sunday.

The guidelines, first issued in September, require telecoms companies to deploy “artificial intelligence and other technical methods” to check the identities of people registering SIM cards. All physical stores in the country have had until 1 December to begin implementing the new standards.

The measure, described by the ministry of industry and information as a way to “protect the legitimate rights and interest of citizens in cyberspace”, makes Chinese mobile phone and internet users easier to track.

Aerial applications of the facial recognition techniques to identify individuals in crowded cities are now in progress. The Chinese have long aimed to get as much information as possible about their 1.4 billion citizens. It is not farfetched to assume that the government plans to sort them according to their perceived danger to the state. Once this is done, some fraction of those deemed more dangerous might be candidates for treatment similar to what the Muslims in Xinjiang are already facing.

  1. Fillers

I use the Windows 10 operating system, with its standard browser, Microsoft Edge, on my computer. I regularly peruse its front page, which contains various articles. It is full of rankings of every sort, including entries about what/wherever is cheapest, most expensive, best, worst, richest, poorest, most common, least common, most conservative, most liberal, oldest, newest, most popular, etc. Sometimes these rankings show up as “news”; sometimes they are fronts for ads. In both cases, you have to click through the rankings page by page, bringing up a new set of ads with each entry.

ranking, filler, media, communication

The word “filler” has a broad range of uses, from Botox to TV episodes that do nothing to advance a plot but the cartoon above gives the general sense of the concept. Rankings (and their cousins, “listicles” ) are great for filling space on websites. They are relatively easy to make, they have major subjective components which make them difficult to refute, and they provide a rich platform for advertising and thus for income.

Next week I will show how we can make rankings more productive for confronting climate change.

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Solar Roads: Driving Into the Future

The last three blogs were not fun. Some of my readers have asked, “Where can we move that isn’t here?” The answer, sadly, is nowhere. We must try to fix this place. Many of us are already doing so. We are now in a global energy transition but it is way too slow and is most active as a grassroots operation (bottom-up). In fact, many of our global leaders are resisting the changes. Of course, almost every transition involves multiple failures and a few successes (polar bears and her cubs – September 17, 2019). Right now, we are failing in our efforts to accommodate those who are suffering in the transition.

An interesting step in the right direction is solar roads. I hadn’t heard about the idea until I saw news about local projects when I visited the Netherlands last summer. I generally try to follow through with topics as I encounter them but in this case I got distracted with other important issues. I am returning to the matter now.

France made the first attempt at solar roads for cars. Figure 1 shows the project, taken from an article that describes the technology.

solar road, France, Normandy, electricityFigure 1The first solar road to open in France (2016)

The article came out on December 22, 2016, roughly the same time as the road opened:

The world’s first solar road is here, in the small village of Tourouvre-au-Perche in Normandy, France. The 1 kilometer road was opened yesterday by French Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal and could generate enough electricity to power the street lights.

That might not sound very impressive for 30,000 square feet of solar panels — and it kind of isn’t, especially for its $5.2 million price tag. The panels have been covered in a silicon-based resin that allows them to withstand the weight of passing big rigs, and if the road performs as expected, Royal wants to see solar panels installed across 1,000 kilometers of French highway.

There are numerous issues, however. For one, flat solar panels are less effective than the angled panels that are installed on roofs, and they’re also massively more expensive than traditional panels. Colas, the company that installed the road, hopes to reduce the cost of the panels going forward and it has around 100 solar panel road projects in progress around the world.

It didn’t take long before the concept was deemed a failure:

Two years after the world’s first solar road — the Normandy road in France — was set up, it’s turned out to be a colossal failure, according to a report by Le Monde.

The road has deteriorated to a terrible state, it isn’t producing anywhere near the amount of energy it had previously pledged to, and the traffic it has brought with it is causing noise problems.

Though a US-based solar road has suffered a similarly discouraging fate, a Dutch project has provided a silver lining on the future of solar roads.

By mid-2018, people had started analyzing the pros and cons of the technology:

Naysayers of the technology have said solar highways are impractical. An article on the blog Extreme Tech calculated that covering all the roadways in American with solar panels would cost $56 trillion.

The technology behind Solar Roadways is feasible, according to experts, but does have certain limitations. For example, the performance of the solar panels decreases if they become grimy. To overcome this problem, Solar Roadways has proposed the use of self-cleaning glass, which uses chemically-engineered materials to keep dirt and water from sticking. However, this could make for a slippery road surface.

Regardless of such risks, as Wikipedia describes, commercial interest has started to develop. Other countries have also begun experimenting with these infrastructure technologies, including France, the US (near the Alabama-Georgia border), China, South Korea, and Hungary (near Budapest).

The Korean example was of special interest to me. It came out before the French attempt and it reflects a different concept of the solar road: here, rather than support driving cars, the solar cells act as shading roofs for a dedicated (and divided) bike lane.

Is this the greenest road ever? A highway in Korea features a stunning solar-powered bike lane running right down the middle. The lane is offset, protected by barriers, and sheltered by solar panels. The lane runs from Daejeon to Sejong, a distance of around 20 miles (32 km), which is a few hours’ drive from the capital city Seoul. It’s a fantastic idea that could pave the way for similar commuting-style bike lanes in the future.

solar road, bike lane, Korea

Figure 2 Solar road in South Korea

In September, when I described the Sustainable City in Dubai (September 10, 2019), I mentioned a smaller version of this concept. At the time, I was not yet familiar with the concept of solar roads so the Dubai version looked to me like a solar panel-shaded walkway. The internet description of the Korean road mentions that similar efforts can be extended to many bike lanes. A few years ago, my wife and I were directly involved in debates regarding efforts to cover New York City with bike lanes—another effort of the energy transition. New York Magazine focused on the perceived winners and losers in our particular neighborhood. Fortunately, we can now use social media as a communication channel for such experiments, such that each locality can discuss the proper balance between its future and its history.

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Anti-Semitism: Local, National & International

As I described last week, I participated in my college’s “We Stand Against Hate” series. While my talk commemorated International Holocaust Day, I didn’t speak directly about anti-Semitism. Instead, I focused on my experiences in the Holocaust and the connections that I have made between that horrible event and the eventualities of climate change under business as usual practices. I included my encounters with both Holocaust and climate change deniers.

I also showed some of the anti-Semitic caricatures that I received in my mailbox at the university (see my December 3, 2019 blog) and talked of British climate activist Roger Hallam’s alleged belittling of the Holocaust experience in comparison to the dangers we can expect from unmitigated climate change.

anti-Semitic, anti-Semitism, Jew, Jewish, discrimination, anti-Zionism, Palestine, Israel

One of the anti-Semitic cartoons I received in the mail

I talked to both my wife and the college president’s chief of staff when I was first considering using the caricatures in my talk. Both objected to the inclusion. My wife protested because she saw them as irrelevant to the talk; the chief of staff thought that the writing at the bottom would be unreadable. In the end, I kept them in regardless.

One of my colleagues in the Chemistry Department emailed me an Atlantic article by Walter Reich that came out the same day as my talk. I have emphasized the segment below that addresses the conflation of anti-Jewish sentiments with objections to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.

On January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz. The date is now consecrated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as the world vowed never to allow murderous anti-Semitism to recur. Yet 75 years later, attacking Jews has once again become socially acceptable in many countries—across the left-right ideological spectrum, and among different groups that blame Jews for their grievances and oppression.

The recent eruptions of anti- Semitism in America have awakened us to a prejudice that has long resided, in quiet ways and in many forms, in this country. And the part of it that now disguises itself as anti-Zionism—hatred of the Jewish state that was established in the wake of the Holocaust as a refuge for Jews—has even seemed, to some, virtuous, a sentiment they believe puts them in humanity’s moral vanguard.

And anti-Semitism has returned, in part, because the general public’s knowledge about the Holocaust— of what exactly it was, who exactly was murdered in it, how many were killed, and how anti-Semitism spawned it—has diminished. For a time, that knowledge discredited anti-Semitism and those who indulged in it. But the passing of survivors who experienced the Holocaust and could testify to it, the denial and minimization of the Holocaust, and the hijacking of the word itself to advance numerous other causes, great and small, all combined to diminish its memory. The horrifying knowledge of where anti-Semitism can lead has been, in large measure, lost in a miasma of forgetting, ignorance, denial, confusion, appropriation, and obfuscation.

Indeed, the writing at the bottom of the cartoon above talks about the suffering of the Palestinians. For me, however, the images sting much worse than the writing. They are based on old, anti-Semitic tropes and their message is clear: if the Nazis had finished their job and murdered all Jews, the Palestinian problem wouldn’t exist. That is anti-Semitism reduced to its essence.

Figures 1 and 2, compiled from Anti-Defamation League data, show some recent trends. Anti-Semitic incidents in the US are clearly on the rise, as is the anti-Semitic sentimentally within the Middle East and the North African countries. These clearly reflect the consequences of successfully equating anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiments.

anti-Semitic, anti-Semitism, Jew, Jewish, discrimination, ADL, Anti-Defamation League,

Figure 1Anti-Semitism within the US

anti-Semitic, anti-Semitism, Jew, Jewish, discrimination, anti-Zionism, Palestine, Israel

Figure 2Global anti-Semitism

One can argue with the Anti-Defamation League’s definition of anti-Semitism; it is, itself, a Jewish organization. However, it is much more difficult to argue with the statement that the cartoons make about people of my background.

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Noah’s Ark and Humanity’s Survival

January 27th was both International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD) and the beginning of a new semester at my school (Brooklyn College of CUNY). To commemorate the day, my school invited me to speak about my Holocaust experiences and explain how they tie in with my teaching. My talk was the first in a BC series of “We Stand Against Hate” seminars, which will also address diversity and equity within Brooklyn College, Japanese American Internment Day of Remembrance, Jewish refugees in Shanghai, and Indigenous people, among other topics

President Michelle Anderson’s “We Stand Against Hate” series has been a campus fixture since spring 2017. Throughout the year, the initiative often features lectures, workshops, concerts, programs, and events that reflect our ongoing commitment to elevating dialogue, enhancing understanding and compassion, and celebrating the voices that make up our diverse campus community.

In my talk, “When the Past Writes the Present: From Holocaust Survival to Climate Change,” I tried to echo my goals here on this blog: connect my early life experiences of the Holocaust with a warning about the global consequences of unmitigated climate change.

During the question and answer period following my talk, one of my friends and colleagues—a professor in the Judaic Studies Department in my school—brought up the Biblical flood.

I had seen this analogy before, in Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, We Are the Weather. It includes a small chapter, “The Flood and the Ark,” in which the author describes a series of collective suicides in Jewish history in spite of the fact that Judaism forbids the act.

He mentions the Siege of Masada as one of the largest mass suicides in Jewish history (Masada is now the number one tourist attraction in Israel). Our knowledge of Masada comes to us mainly through the writings of Flavius Josephus, who described it as a full collective suicide: the Jews decided they would rather die than submit to the invading Romans. Foer follows the subject with a look at the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. I was there as a baby and most of my family was murdered during this event. We know about the Ghetto uprising in large part from the Oneg Shabbat milk cans, Emanuel Ringenblum’s ingenious information storage system. The people didn’t directly commit suicide in either case—i.e. they didn’t kill themselves.

In Masada they killed each other en masse. In the Warsaw Ghetto, to my knowledge, nobody killed himself or arranged for somebody else to do so but all those who rose up knew that they would ultimately be unsuccessful and be crushed brutally. The uprising started on April 19, 1943 and ended with the burning of the Ghetto on May 16th, 1943.

The Germans invaded Poland at the start of WWII on September 1, 1939 and the last resistance was recorded on October 6th of the same year. It lasted only a few days longer than the one in the Ghetto. That Ghetto uprising came in the wake of the Great Deportation, where—between July and September 1942—about 300,000 Jews were deported to and murdered at Treblinka with no resistance from any party. That uprising was not a suicide; it was a resistance meant to show that the murder of Jews could have a price.

From these two examples of uprising/suicide, the book moves to two current attempts to store collections of thousands of samples of DNA in case a global cataclysmic event destroys present life on this planet. One such storage space is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which got some press recently when it flooded with melting snow. There is another facility under construction: the “Noah’s Ark” at the Moscow State University. Given the name of the latter and the aims of both, it was not a stretch to consider the biblical flood and Noah’s Ark, which was, itself, constructed as a sort of living bank of DNA samples.

Genesis, flood, Noah, Ark

1859 German Drawing of Biblical Genesis Flood and Noah’s Ark

The story of the cataclysmic flood shows up in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and as early as the epic of Gilgamesh. Wikipedia gives good sources for related stories—including some geological indications that some accounts of these events have seeds in the physical history of Earth.

Jonathan Safran Foer brings it up mainly to make the point that it took Noah considerably longer to build the ark than we have in a projected business as usual scenario before the climate change-fueled floods advance in full.

I strongly suspect that my Judaic studies friend explored the concept at a considerably deeper level than the element of DNA preservation. According to the Bible, the flood came about as a sort of attempt to “reverse” creation because God wasn’t happy with the end result of his first draft. In other words, mankind’s sins brought down the wrath of God. But God didn’t like this solution either and after the flood He made a deal with Noah not to repeat the exercise

It is, however, interesting to guess how long it took Noah to build the ark. There are countless estimates available. For example:

Genesis, flood, Noah, ark

Accordingly, this would mean it took him 100 years to build the ark, a number that almost precisely matches the estimated time it will take us to build the mitigation and adaptation infrastructures necessary to counter our own extinction—but longer than we actually have to act.

To my shame, in spite of having the Jewish Bible as an important anchor in my education, I had never made the connection before.

I want to thank my Judaic studies friend for putting me on the right track.

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Climate Change Refugees: Where Will They Go?

I have seen some alarming new reports of late. Two of them describe the start of environmental, climate change-powered migrations within rich countries. In the US, the key motivator is sea level rise:

The Great Climate Retreat is beginning with tiny steps, like taxpayer buyouts for homeowners in flood-prone areas from Staten Island, New York, to Houston and New Orleans — and now Rittel’s Marathon Key. Florida, the state with the most people and real estate at risk, is just starting to buy homes, wrecked or not, and bulldoze them to clear a path for swelling seas before whole neighborhoods get wiped off the map.

By the end of the century, 13 million Americans will need to move just because of rising sea levels, at a cost of $1 million each, according to Florida State University demographer Mathew Haeur, who studies climate migration. Even in a “managed retreat,” coordinated and funded at the federal level, the economic disruption could resemble the housing crash of 2008.

Australia’s raging bushfires are also starting to trigger major displacements that it is ill equipped to handle.

As Al Jazeera reports, the Davos forum (see last week’s blog) addressed the problem on a global scale. “Davos: World needs to prepare for ‘millions’ of climate refugees – Richer countries may become a rising source of refugees as climate change forces people to flee their countries.”

The world needs to prepare for a surge in refugees with potentially millions of people being driven from their homes by the impact of climate change, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said on Tuesday.

Speaking to Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, UN Commissioner Filippo Grandi said a UN ruling this week meant those fleeing as a result of climate change had to be treated by recipient countries as refugees, with broad implications for governments.

President Trump’s Davos response was a complete dismissal of climate science and scientists:

“They are the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers,” the president said. “They predicted an overpopulation crisis in the 1960s, a mass starvation in the 70s, and an end of oil in the 1990s.”

“This is not a time for pessimism,” Mr. Trump declared, adding, “Fear and doubt is not a good thought process.”

Over my nearly nine years writing this blog, I have frequently talked about climate change refugees (see June 29July 12, 2016; April 310, 2018 blogs). I have consistently focused on those coming from developing countries, who are knocking on the borders of rich countries in search of safety. Clearly, at Davos, the UN recognized the trend and tried to convince these rich countries to recognize climate refugees as having similar rights to political ones.

Now the situation is quickly developing wherein rich countries are creating their own climate refugees. Where are these refugees supposed to go?

Well, last week, the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE (from the Public Library of Science) published a paper that attempts to address this question within the United States:

Robinson C, Dilkina B, Moreno-Cruz J (2020) Modeling migration patterns in the USA under sea level rise. PLOS ONE 15(1): e0227436.

Sea level rise in the United States will lead to large scale migration in the future. We propose a framework to examine future climate migration patterns using models of human migration. Our framework requires that we distinguish between historical versus climate driven migration and recognizes how the impacts of climate change can extend beyond the affected area. We apply our framework to simulate how migration, driven by sea level rise, differs from baseline migration patterns. Specifically, we couple a sea level rise model with a data-driven model of human migration and future population projections, creating a generalized joint model of climate driven migration that can be used to simulate population distributions under potential future sea level rise scenarios. The results of our case study suggest that the effects of sea level rise are pervasive, expanding beyond coastal areas via increased migration, and disproportionately affecting some areas of the United States.

In general, we find that previously “unpopular” migrant destinations (areas with relatively low numbers of incoming migrants) would be more popular solely due to their close proximity to counties that experience “direct effects”. The East Coast will experience larger effects than the West coast because of the large coastal population centers and shallower coastlines, indeed, all counties adjacent to coastal counties on the East coast are marked as indirectly affected. Existing urban areas will receive the largest magnitudes of migrants, as they represent the most attractive destinations, which will accelerate the existing trends of urbanization. We find that the southeast portion of the United States will experience disproportionately high effects from SLR-driven flooding due to the large vulnerable populations in New Orleans and Miami. These results show that by driving human migration, the impacts of SLR have the potential to be much farther reaching than the coastal areas which they will flood.

In other words, people will likely start moving to more rural, inland areas of the country in addition to flooding into already crowded cities. There is no question that the escalating environmental refugee issue poses—in addition to a massive humanitarian and economic challenge—a major security issue.

The Army

Indeed, a May 2019 publication by the US Army demonstrates the challenge:

According to a new U.S. Army report, Americans could face a horrifically grim future from climate change involving blackouts, disease, thirst, starvation and war. The study found that the US military itself might also collapse. This could all happen over the next two decades, the report notes.

The senior US government officials who wrote the report are from several key agencies including the Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, and NASA. The study called on the Pentagon to urgently prepare re for the possibility that domestic power, water, and food systems might collapse due to the impacts of climate change as we near mid-century.

I went to the original report. As far as reports go, it’s relatively short (50 pages). I strongly recommend reading it (I intend to use it in my classes).

While the Army is only one of four branches of the US armed forces—the rest include: the Air Force, Navy, and Marines—it is submitting its own climate change report. We have talked about this before. On September 9, 2014, I briefly mentioned a climate change report, “Global Trends 2030,” by the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) on the impacts of climate change on US national security. Congress has mandated that the NIC produce one every four years. That report also stresses the main details of climate change, including the important role that sea level rise and the surge of environmental refugees play in impacting US security.

However, the next report in this series, “Global Trends 2035,” which I covered on May 23, 2017, presented a very different vista. It came out about five months after the inauguration of President Trump. Initially, when it was posted, it looked like it would be a continuation of the previous “Global Trends 2030.” But shortly after, clicking on the posted report brought up something that was hardly recognizable. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to find the phrase “climate change” in it—an almost complete denial of the issue, expressed as deliberate blindness. Nor was the change of wording an anomaly. The federal government has made widespread attempts to eliminate climate change from its vocabulary.

There have been exceptions – a movie, “The Age of Consequences” (see April 9, 2019 blog), made with overwhelming participation from uniformed soldiers, described climate change as a major destabilizer and an important accelerator of global insecurity. Even in this context, however, the film framed the growing number of global environmental refugees as the main culprit.

The newest Army report that I mentioned above came out one year before the next election. It’s becoming more difficult to deny that climate change is occurring, given that we are seeing its effects everywhere. In a sense, the writers try to walk the line between two contradicting political landscapes. They emphasize certain aspects of the problem while pointedly ignoring others. For instance, they don’t distinguish between anthropogenic (man-made) and natural climate change, although they know full well that most data and most scientists attribute nearly 100% of climate change (distinguished from specific weather) to humans.

On the other hand, the report takes a novel step—its Executive Summary lists all the steps that must be taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change and approximates the resources needed to accomplish them. The steps themselves are neither groundbreaking nor army-specific; they are ones that every country, city, and industry needs to take. The report starts by identifying specific problems:

  • Lack of Organizational Accountability for and Coordination of Climate Change-Relat­ed Response and Mitigation Activities
  • The Lack of a Culture of Environmental Stewardship
  • Potential disruptions to readiness due to restrictions on fuel use.
  • Lack of coordination and consolidation in climate-change related intelligence.
  • Lack of Organizational Accountability for and Coordination of Climate Change-Related Response and Mitigation Activities
  • Lack of Climate Change-Oriented Campaign Planning and Preparation
  • Problem: Power Grid Vulnerabilities
  • Climate Change and Threats to Nuclear Weapons Infrastructure

The report is also unique in that it discusses the thawing of the Arctic and the advantages that Russia, one of our “traditional” enemies can derive from that. The map below, taken from the report, demonstrates this threat.

Russia, military, climate change, Arctic, security

Clearly, climate change represents a security threat not just in terms of the refugees it produces but also militarily. I wish us all good luck in dealing with this mounting crisis. We’ll need it.

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