Teaching Moment 2: How Do we Vote?

When we vote in an election, we balance between what we perceive to be good for us personally and what we perceive to be good for society at large. If we are well-off with a good job, we may prioritize money and vote for the candidate that we believe will reduce our taxes. If we are a member of a minority that has experienced discrimination, we may vote for the candidate that we believe will work toward social justice, equity, and reform. In general, we look for candidates who will embody our priorities and shape our government to reflect our views on a better city/state/country.

I addressed some of these issues around the time that the newly-elected President Trump took us out of the Paris Accord in 2017. President Trump justified the withdrawal with his “America First” argument.

Thursday (June 1st) was an event to remember. President Trump did indeed turn his back on the world, declaring that he was elected to serve Pittsburg and not Paris – except for the small detail that Pittsburg didn’t vote for him. Allegany County gave 259,480 votes to Trump and 367, 617 votes to Clinton.

Aside from that small discrepancy from reality, the speech was an astronomical declaration that the US is an isolated planet unaffected by anything that happens around it. Strangely, there was not a word in the speech about the future. Last week’s blog focused on the conflict between globalism and nationalism. I wrote there that “me” and “them” are very well defined. “We” includes me but needs an additional description of the collective that is being referring to. I am especially interested in where we position our family members and friends on this spectrum. In my book (Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now), I defined “Now” in terms of the expected life span of my grandchildren, which approximately brings me to the end of the century.

On Tuesday, November 3, 2020, the American people voted President Trump out and elected VP Biden as our next president. Nevertheless, the following day, our withdrawal from the Paris accord became final.

I was reminded of the us vs. them issue when I read an Op-Ed in The New York Times that tried to explain why—in spite of his many policies blocking immigration—Latino voters didn’t overwhelmingly vote against President Trump:

“Some Latinos Voted for Trump. Get Over It: I’m Latina. I still don’t know what that means.
By Isvett Verde”

Many people were surprised, but they shouldn’t be. In 1984, 37 percent of Latinos voted for Ronald Reagan; 40 percent voted for George W. Bush in 2004. It would be easy to dismiss these voters as self hating, or racists. But that’s a simplistic way of viewing this wildly diverse and complex demographic.

The reason the “Latino vote” befuddles is because it doesn’t exist, nor do “Latino issues.” If we want to understand how Latinos vote, we should start by retiring the word “Latino” entirely — and maybe “Hispanic,” too, a term first used by the United States government in the 1970 census that is based solely on the language native to the European settlers who conquered the Americas. These labels have served only to reduce us to a two-dimensional caricature: poor brown immigrants who always vote Democrat.

Latinos, like all Americans, are motivated by the issues that affect them directly. Those can vary depending on factors like our religion, where we grew up, whether we are first generation or our ancestors lived in North America long before the United States existed. Many Democrats act as if Latinos care only about immigration policy. In fact, a recent survey by UnidosUS, an advocacy group, and Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm, found that Latinos are more concerned about jobs and the economy.

Her main argument was that Latinos are not a monolith. They don’t all vote in one bloc or have the same priorities. In other words, as with non-Latinos, “us” can mean a lot of different things.

Last year, in its “Learning Network” section, The New York Times, reprinted 24 figures from earlier articles in order to illustrate some of the many aspects of climate change. I find the following figure especially relevant here as it demonstrates another separation of “me vs. them.” It compares the distribution of people who think that climate change will directly harm Americans with those who think it will affect them personally:

This figure is based on an older article that cites a 2016 Yale survey. Here is the data on risk perception:

Worried about global warming Worried – 58% Not worried – 42%
Global warming is already harming people in the US Now/within 10 years – 51% 25 years/never – 49%
Global warming will harm me personally Great/moderate amount – 40% 50%
Global warming will harm people in the US Great/moderate amount – 58% 33%
Global warming will harm people in developing countries Great/moderate amount – 63% 25%
Global warming will harm future generations Great/moderate amount – 70%
Global warming will harm plants and animals Great/moderate amount – 69%

Almost 60% of Americans think that climate change will harm people within the US (them) but that number drops significantly when participants are asked if they would personally be affected (me).

The figure and chart above reflect the data gathered between 2008 and 2016 by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication. Of course, this data is 4 years old and constantly in flux but the new (2020) version hasn’t changed much:


What can we do about the imbalance between the “me,” “they,” and “us”? This is an issue that I have grappled with for most of my academic career. I am giving my students an end-of-semester assignment to compile similar data that reflects their own perspectives on the balance between “me vs. them.”

Next week I will finish my set of “Teaching Moments” blogs by going back to the drafting of the American Constitution. I’ll look at how the Founding Fathers attempted to balance power between the territories (e.g. states) and individuals in selecting the US government.

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 The Election as a Teachable Moment

Comic "Let's just consider this a teachable moment and move on"Like many others, I stayed up late on Tuesday evening to watch the election results. Like them, my wife and I went to sleep not knowing the end results of the election but sure about two things: the Democratic landslide that some had predicted didn’t materialize and the polls that had us expecting a Democratic presidential victory of more than 90% were dead wrong.

This semester I am teaching two classes. One is a General Education course on climate change and includes 50 students. The other, Physics and Society, is for 5 senior physics majors. Most of us came to class Wednesday morning with the emphasized knowledge that it is incredibly hard to predict the future. For me, this was a teachable moment.

Between last Wednesday’s classes and my next Gen Ed class on Monday, things changed rapidly. On Saturday, almost all of the networks called Pennsylvania for Biden and everyone except for President Trump and some Republicans acknowledged that Biden had won the presidential election. As things stood on Sunday morning, neither Georgia, Nevada, nor Arizona had been officially called but each maintained small leads for VP Biden. North Carolina and Alaska, also uncalled, had leads for President Trump (in Alaska by a large percentage).

I get my election information from Five-Thirty-Eight. From the counts so far, the site projects that Biden will win the popular vote by 4.3% (more than 75 million vs. over 70 million). We expect the total number of votes to be 160 million, compared to 138 million in 2016 (an increase of about 16%). This year about 239 million Americans were eligible to vote (an increase of around 12% from 2016).

Parallel to the election, pandemic cases in the US last week exceeded 100,000 (by Friday it passed 130,000 cases) per day and will likely continue to rise as the third wave buffets the nation.

We use measurable data from the past in order to extrapolate the future. This is especially true when we aim to demonstrate the impacts of climate change. Last year, in its “Learning Network” section, The New York Times, reprinted 24 figures from earlier articles in order to illustrate some of the many aspects of climate change.

Figure 1 is the graph that I think probably best illustrates the whole theme:

global warming, graph, hometown warming over time, climate changeFigure 1 – How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Than When You Were Born?

The graph illustrates an exercise that I often do with my students. The original 2017 version of the paper (link provided in the 2019 NYT piece) challenged readers to figure out the change in temperature where they were born by monitoring the number of days above 90oF in that place from 1960 till now. Figure 1 shows the example of someone born in St. Louis, MO in 1985. I tried the site for myself and my wife but we are both too old. The graph starts in 1960 and neither our places of birth are included.

The graph reflects the difficulty of figuring out the future by way of the orange shape that surrounds the line. It depicts the uncertainty in estimating the heating (number of days above 90oF), based on different modeling, and therefore how we measure the impact of climate change in that particular location.

Figure 1 is not too different from the more “professional” one presented by IPCC that I discussed in my October 14, 2014 blog and have reposted here as Figure 2. It shows the divergence between the past and future of global temperature based on a “business as usual” scenario (RCP8.5) and the most optimistic, “environmentally friendly,” scenario (RCP 2.6). I discussed the connections and uncertainties between the orange and purple bands in my May 16, 2017 blog.

IPCC graph of global average temperature change, climate change, global warming

Figure 2 from the October 28, 2014 blog

I also looked at the methodology of measuring aspects of the climate through number of heatwaves: number of days with temperature above 90oF in a particular location (“Do-It-Yourself Climate Monitoring,” August 18, 2020 blog).

The senior physics course, “Physics and Society,” includes two group research projects. One involves a projected addition to the latest congress-mandated periodical intelligence report (see Global Trends – 2035). The other project focuses on future pandemics that might result from ancient viruses released by melting permafrost. The uncertainty in predicting the future is paramount in both projects.

Throughout the more than 8 years that I have been writing this blog, the uncertainty involved in trying to predict the future has stood out as a key element. By January 5th, we should know not only the full count of the presidential results but also those of the Georgia senate runoff, which will tell us the “final” composition of the senate. Since Biden’s win of the presidency is now recognized by almost everyone, we will be watching to see whether or not he follows through on his promise to rejoin the Paris climate change agreement the day after his inauguration see the set of blogs starting in November 3, 2015). As a reminder, President Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Paris accord took effect last Wednesday, a day after the election.

Stay tuned.

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Freedom and Liberty

photo of statue of liberty, freedom, US, voteToday is election day. We’ll be voting for state and local officials but the race the whole world is watching is the one for US president. People everywhere are calling this the most important election of our lifetime. Of course, “our lifetime” is a relative concept. I am a senior citizen with a long past but a relatively short future. I hope that my grandchildren, who are at various stages in their college careers, will live until close to the end of the century (a much longer future—who knows what else will happen by then?). My whole family has already voted.

When I started to write this blog on Saturday, more than 90 million people had already voted. In the previous presidential election (2016), about 138 million people voted. In other words, with three days until the scheduled election, we already had a turnout of more than 65% of 2016’s total number. Meanwhile, the number of registered voters has increased significantly (an estimated rise from 200 to 250 million voters), as has the expected percentage of participating voters, in spite of the pandemic.

The truth is that we are stuck with the pandemic regardless of who wins. We expect that the present wave (second or third, depending where you are) will exceed everything that we have so far experienced in terms of number infected, hospitalized patients, and deaths. Estimates right now are that working vaccines will show up in the beginning of 2021, while it will take until around 2022 before life can return more or less to normal. In the meantime, we have to do what the scientists have been advocating since the beginning of the pandemic: wash our hands, wear masks, keep our distance, test as many people as we can, and contact trace those infected (whether or not they are symptomatic). By following these steps, we can save countless lives.

Almost everybody agrees that we don’t have to freeze the economy or mandate complete lockdowns in order to accomplish all of this. But it will require changes in the way that we live our lives. Many of the places that are now trying to systematize some of these changes are facing serious, sometime violent, resistance. Those pushing back claim that having to do these things infringes on their freedoms.

Which brings up the question of what we mean by freedom.

Historians, political scientists, other academics, and to some degree the rest of us, are dealing with this concept constantly. Wikipedia and the American Constitution, give us some background:

Freedom, generally, is having the ability to act or change without constraint. Something is “free” if it can change easily and is not constrained in its present state. In philosophy and religion, it is associated with having free will and being without undue or unjust constraints, or enslavement, and is an idea closely related to the concept of liberty. A person has the freedom to do things that will not, in theory or in practice, be prevented by other forces. Outside of the human realm, freedom generally does not have this political or psychological dimension. A rusty lock might be oiled so that the key has the freedom to turn, undergrowth may be hacked away to give a newly planted sapling freedom to grow, or a mathematician may study an equation having many degrees of freedom. In physics or engineering, the mathematical concept may also be applied to a body or system constrained by a set of equations, whose degrees of freedom describe the number of independent motions that are allowed to it.

Broadly speaking, liberty is the ability to do as one pleases.[1] It is a synonym for the word freedom. In modern politics, liberty is the state of being free within society from control or oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behaviour, or political views.[2][3][4] In philosophy, liberty involves free will as contrasted with determinism.[5] In theology, liberty is freedom from the effects of “sin, spiritual servitude, [or] worldly ties”.[6] Sometimes liberty is differentiated from freedom by using the word “freedom” primarily, if not exclusively, to mean the ability to do as one wills and what one has the power to do; and using the word “liberty” to mean the absence of arbitrary restraints, taking into account the rights of all involved. In this sense, the exercise of liberty is subject to capability and limited by the rights of others.[7] Thus liberty entails the responsible use of freedom under the rule of law without depriving anyone else of their freedom. Freedom is more broad in that it represents a total lack of restraint or the unrestrained ability to fulfill one’s desires. For example, a person can have the freedom to murder, but not have the liberty to murder, as the latter example deprives others of their right not to be harmed. Liberty can be taken away as a form of punishment. In many countries, people can be deprived of their liberty if they are convicted of criminal acts.

First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I included liberty here as well as freedom. The two concepts are often used interchangeably but I see them as separate entities. As the Wikipedia piece points out, freedom can be extrapolated back to physics. Restricting the concept to humanity, it has to do with individuals and the concept of “self.” Liberty, on the other hand, is mostly used the context of a collective (e.g. nation, state, minority, etc.). Liberty is broader, something that can be systematically attacked. Poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of education, and lack of medical care are all restrictions to individual freedom and collective liberties.

I grew up with a much simpler definition: freedom is the ability to do anything that you want as long as it doesn’t infringe on the freedom of others to do the same. We trust governments and others with authority to ensure that we enjoy the maximum freedoms compatible with the rights of others to enjoy the same.

Sticking to this latter definition, all the guidelines against the new coronavirus grow out of our present understanding about how the virus spreads. We know that it’s spread through moist air in the form of respiratory droplets of various sizes that we emit through breath, speech, and cough. A mask can block the virus from spreading from our noses and mouths before it can reach others. A mask also partially shields us from the droplets of other potential carriers, whether they are symptomatic or not. So if people refuse to put on a mask, they are infringing on the rights of those of us who want to stay healthy.

Some religions command that prayers and study be done in large groups but while the First Amendment guarantees religious freedoms, it does not prioritize them over the safety of everyone else.

The US is currently exceeding 100,000 new coronavirus cases daily but only around 3% of the population has been tested, meaning that number could be astronomically higher. Most people don’t get tested unless they have symptoms, so they don’t know if they are carriers or not. It is true that lockdowns have had many casualties in terms of our economic activity but the decision on how to proceed cannot be based on individual vs. collective freedom. Given the choice, many people would prioritize their individual freedoms but in order to get anywhere with our fight against the coronavirus, it is vital that we focus instead on the collective.

Almost every law on the books limits our freedom in order to benefit the collective good. Speeding, theft, violence, and other crimes are understood to have consequences. Sadly, in most places—especially in the US—we don’t have laws that require masks or social distance in public spaces, even though those who do not follow these guidelines infringe on others’ rights to safety and health.

If you are a US citizen living in the country and have not already voted, please VOTE!

I voted stickers, freedom, liberty, vote, US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There have already been some cases of this happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science Magazine delved a little deeper into the matter.

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

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

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

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Presidential Debates and Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last (Vice) Presidential Debate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arguing Over Different Realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Not Prophets

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

Comic of Homer Simpson making observation, scientific method, science

Figure 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1School in Wuhan

Figure 2School in Uruguay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Taylor Romine and Madeline Holcombe,

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

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

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

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Happy Jewish New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Contradictory Versions of “Too Expensive”

comic of man worried about big bill, expensive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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