Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst: COVID-19

Last week, I promised to shift my focus to COVID-19’s impact on developing countries. So far, most of the media attention has been limited to the coronavirus’ impact on richer countries (e.g. US, Europe, Australia, Canada, etc.). The exact definition of “rich” or “developed” differs by source but generally makes up roughly 15% of the population, globally. This leaves 85% of the global population unaccounted for. Given that COVID-19 is a global pandemic, we cannot stop it unless and until we address the ability of developing countries to fight it.

I have decided, however, to momentarily shelve that topic. Many of those wealthy countries are shifting their discussions from fighting the virus’ spread (flattening the curve) to mitigating its disastrous effects on the economy.

Countries have adopted social distancing policies, urging or demanding that their citizens stay home, since the virus emerged. China started these measures at the end of January; the US and Europe followed at the beginning of March (my school in NYC closed on March 11th). In the beginning of April, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, revealed the virus’ frightening impact in the US. She showed a model predicting the future development of the pandemic in the US, assuming continued social distancing.

Predicting the Future

I discussed her presentation in a previous blog (April 7th, 2020) but I didn’t go to any details about the model on which the predictions were based. At that time, we were looking at a possible 100,000-240,000 deaths just in the US. The curve shows the number of deaths per day vs. the expected number of days of the pandemic.

Deborah Birx, COVID-19, coronavirus, chart, prediction, model, modeling

Figure 1 Dr. Deborah Birx on March 31st

The curve in her chart comes from a model developed by Dr. Chris Murray from the University of Washington. His methodology incorporates almost everything we know about the pandemic. It is updated on an almost daily basis, using public sources.

IHME

The latest report from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) came out on April 21st and included the data shown in Figure 2. It shows the number of deaths in the US starting to stabilize by the end of April, around 60,000.

COVID 19, coronavirus, IHME, report, forecast, future, model, deathsFigure 2 – Total number of deaths in the US, the predicted increases, and the estimates of the uncertainty in these predictions in the recent version of the IHME report.

Summary 

Background: Hospitals need to plan for the surge in demand in each state or region in the United States and the European Economic Area (EEA) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Planners need forecasts of the most likely trajectory in the coming weeks and will want to plan for the higher values in the range of those forecasts. To date, forecasts of what is most likely to occur in the weeks ahead are not available for states in the USA or for all countries in the EEA.

 Methods: This study used data on confirmed COVID-19 deaths by day from local and national government websites and WHO. Data on hospital capacity and utilization and observed COVID 19 utilization data from select locations were obtained from publicly available sources and direct contributions of data from select local governments. We develop a mixed effects non-linear regression framework to estimate the trajectory of the cumulative and daily death rate as a function of the implementation of social distancing measures, supported by additional evidence from mobile phone data. An extended mixture model was used in data rich settings to capture asymmetric daily death patterns. Health service needs were forecast using a micro-simulation model that estimates hospital admissions, ICU admissions, length of stay, and ventilator need using available data on clinical practices in COVID-19 patients. We assume that those jurisdictions that have not implemented school closures, non-essential business closures, and stay at home orders will do so within twenty-one days.

Findings: Compared to licensed capacity and average annual occupancy rates, excess demand in the USA from COVID-19 at the estimated peak of the epidemic (the end of the second week of April) is predicted to be 9,079 (95% UI 253–61,937) total beds and 9,356 (3,526–29,714) ICU beds. At the peak of the epidemic, ventilator use is predicted to be 16,545 (8,083–41,991). The corresponding numbers for EEA countries are 120,080 (119,183–121,107), 32,291 (32,157– 32,425) and 28,973 (28,868–29,085) at a peak of April 6. The date of peak daily deaths varies from March 30 through May 12 by state in the USA and March 27 through May 4 by country in 31 the EEA. We estimate that through the end of July, there will be 60,308 (34,063–140,381) deaths from COVID-19 in the USA and 143,088 (101,131–253,163) deaths in the EEA. Deaths from COVID-19 are estimated to drop below 0.3 per million between May 4 and June 29 by state in the USA and between May 4 and July 13 by country in the EEA. Timing of the peak need for   hospital resource requirements varies considerably across states in the USA and across regions of Europe.

The IHME models and most other similar models worldwide are not designed as tools for policy makers and/or societies to decide when to start to relax lockdowns. They are meant to predict the capacity that health care systems will need to take care of the infected people. As everybody has seen, especially in hot spots such as New York City, when the flow of serious symptomatic infections exceeds the capacity of the healthcare system to handle these patients, many people die unnecessarily. Sending more people to already overcrowded healthcare facilities in the middle of pandemics is not the way to go. We have to be prepared.

The PDF format of the full report is a must-read. It lays out the methodology in great detail (some high math is involved) and points to the up-to-date global information on which the models are based. As in most predictive models, it includes three elements: past, future, and uncertainty (we can see them clearly in Figures 1 and 2). In Figure 1, the curve starts at the beginning of the impact in the US (18 deaths/day); in Figure 2 the starting point is basically the same. Close to three weeks later (April 20th), the total number of confirmed dead from COVID-19 in the US reached 40,000. From that point we start the prediction stage, including the range of uncertainty associated with these predictions.

Testing Antibodies

In the case of COVID-19, the main source of uncertainty is the global inability to measure the virus’ level of penetration. We have made some progress in this area, albeit small. The governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, just announced the results of a blood test of 3,000 randomly chosen NYC residents for new coronavirus antibodies. When a person is infected, his/her immune system creates specific antibodies that can fight the infection. Detection of these antibodies is one of the best indicators that a given person was infected with the virus.

The tests indicated 14% of the cases were positive. If we try (as the Governor did very cautiously) to expand this result to the entire population of New York State (about 20 million) and assume that the 3,000 people tested in NYC is a representative sample of the state population, the testing suggests that 14% of 20 million = 2.8 million people were infected. As of four days ago, the state officially reported about 260,000 positive cases, with mortalities close to 16,000 to date. Comparing these results would indicate that only 1 in 10 infected New Yorkers is being confirmed through testing. It would also indicate that the mortality rate of this pandemic in NYS is 0.5%, way below the 3.4% reported earlier by the WHO.

However, by universal admission (including that of Governor Cuomo) the sample of 3,000 from NYC is not representative of the rest of the state. Many of the infections throughout the world, including in NYC, are taking place in hot spots such as nursing homes, low-income neighborhoods, highly concentrated observant religious communities, etc. It will take many more tests to obtain reliable information—thus the uncertainty in the models.

Antibody test in various forms have already been taking place on an experimental basis throughout the world. But the tests are not reliably accurate. The results range from around 5% to 14% positive. There is agreement that such tests have the potential to give a wider view of the degree of infection than direct testing—especially because most of the latter goes to symptomatic cases.

After a Peak (If There Is One)

Nor do we know how exactly the pandemic will decline. It could be a single smooth event as shown directly in Figure 1 and indirectly in Figure 2 (Figure 2 shows cumulative deaths and daily deaths). Or it could—and most likely will—include several waves of infection before it plays out. The only valid “recent” precedent is the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, which had an estimated fatality of one third of the global population. That pandemic ended after three waves, the middle one being the deadliest.

Let me now move to climate change. The issues are connected because, similarly to the present pandemic, we need to prepare in order to minimize the immense impacts. Preparation needs modeling of the future. We’ve discussed such modeling of climate change in previous blogs (type carbon intensity in the search box). Figure 3, for example, comes from my July 10, 2018 blog.

GHG, global warming, stabilization, carbon intensity, modeling

Figure 3 – Projected carbon intensity of global temperature increase caused by climate change

The emission of carbon dioxide is a measurable quantity. The impact of the increase in global temperature is shown on the vertical axis. The area between the top line and the bottom line in the figure is an estimate of the uncertainty (as in Figures 1 and 2). In this case, the uncertainty is not caused by the lack of measurements but rather by unpredictable contributions from feedbacks (see again the July 10, 2018 blog). For instance, the enhanced evaporation of water vapor serves as an effective greenhouse gas. One of the important differences between Figure 1 and Figure 3 is that Figure 1 has a maximum, after which the impact decreases until it disappears (not counting possible waves). Figure 3 doesn’t have one, at least within a human timescale. Climate change is an even larger existential threat than COVID-19. We can’t go backward in time to prevent the coronavirus but it’s not too early to minimize anthropogenic climate impacts through changes in the way we live.

Posted in Anthropogenic, Climate Change, coronavirus | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Earth Day in a Pandemic

Tomorrow is the 50th Earth Day, my wife’s birthday, and the 8th birthday of this blog. Happy Birthday to everybody.

This year, however, Earth Day will not be the same festive occasion that will include community events out in the streets, although there will be some online events. Most of us are in lockdown, prisoners in our own homes if we are lucky enough to have them. Worldwide, the only news that we get is pandemic-related.

Meanwhile, the advance of climate change continues. Both of these malignant forces are global but they have very different rates of progress. The COVID-19 pandemic started with a doubling time of a few days in China and quickly expanded globally from there. As I have mentioned before, we still don’t know yet (or have the resources to determine) how to exactly to measure its expansion. The current procedure of focusing only on symptomatic cases is not very helpful given recent news of how many of the infected are asymptomatic. Aside from China, we have concentrated almost exclusively on the US and other (primarily European) rich countries. Next week I will look into coronavirus’ impact on the vast majority of humanity in the developing world.

We measure the progress of climate change, on the other hand, in generations. Many of us use the end of the century as the endpoint or target of our studies.

Earth Day is an appropriate occasion to try to connect the two disasters. Pope Francis did this as we approached Good Friday:

Pope Francis has said the coronavirus pandemic is one of “nature’s responses” to humans ignoring the current ecological crisis.

In an email interview published Wednesday in The Tablet and Commonwealth magazines, the pontiff said the outbreak offered an opportunity to slow down the rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world.

“We did not respond to the partial catastrophes. Who now speaks of the fires in Australia, or remembers that 18 months ago a boat could cross the North Pole because the glaciers had all melted? Who speaks now of the floods?” the Pope said.

“I don’t know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses,” he added.

Meanwhile, rather than move to mitigate the ravages of climate change, President Trump rolled back the EPA’s emission standards:

The White House on Tuesday confirmed it would reject the federal fuel economy standards set under the Obama administration, lowering the minimum mileage of the average 2025 vehicle from 46.7 miles per gallon to 40.4 miles per gallon.

The move was billed by the administration as a way to reduce the cost of owning a vehicle while also saving lives, according to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who said on Tuesday the new standards “will get more Americans into newer, cleaner, safer vehicles.”

President Trump may be contributing to higher emissions but that is not the trend everywhere.

Big things have been happening during the last two months:

For starters, coronavirus shutdowns have brought about a (temporary) decline in carbon emissions. China has seen decline of 18% (250 million metric tons) from early February to mid-March. In Europe, 2020 has shown an estimated decline of 400 million metric tons. We don’t have exact numbers for the US yet but a sharp decline is anticipated. From India’s capital, New Delhi, you can start to see the snowy Himalayan Mountains, a rare feat that hasn’t been possible for many years.

Most people and business are frozen at home, resulting in steeply plunging GDPs, usually the main drivers of carbon emissions.

This has also resulted in an almost total collapse of the price of oil and a saturation of storage capacity of unused oil.

oil, price, pandemic, economy, coronavirus, COVID-19

While these graphs show Brent crude oil and WTI, respectively, both numbers are historic.

The flip side of the decline in oil is a potential boon for renewable energy:

Oil Companies Are Collapsing, but Wind and Solar Energy Keep Growing

A few years ago, the kind of double-digit drop in oil and gas prices the world is experiencing now because of the coronavirus pandemic might have increased the use of fossil fuels and hurt renewable energy sources like wind and solar farms.

That is not happening.

In fact, renewable energy sources are set to account for nearly 21 percent of the electricity the United States uses for the first time this year, up from about 18 percent last year and 10 percent in 2010, according to one forecast published last week. And while work on some solar and wind projects has been delayed by the outbreak, industry executives and analysts expect the renewable business to continue growing in 2020 and next year even as oil, gas and coal companies struggle financially or seek bankruptcy protection.

In many parts of the world, including California and Texas, wind turbines and solar panels now produce electricity more cheaply than natural gas and coal. That has made them attractive to electric utilities and investors alike. It also helps that while oil prices have been more than halved since the pandemic forced most state governments to order people to stay home, natural gas and coal prices have not dropped nearly as much.

Even the decline in electricity use in recent weeks as businesses halted operations could help renewables, according to analysts at Raymond James & Associates. That’s because utilities, as revenue suffers, will try to get more electricity from wind and solar farms, which cost little to operate, and less from power plants fueled by fossil fuels.

Many of these changes are temporary and will revert to normal once the pandemic runs its course. When and how is still largely unknown.

In the meantime, the United States’ Southwest is experiencing a severe, climate change-driven drought (coined a megadrought) that might last a generation.

Dr. Williams and his colleagues reconstructed drought conditions in the Southwest for every year back to 800 A.D., using tree growth as a proxy for soil moisture content. Examining nearly 1,600 tree-ring records, they found four periods of more than two decades each during which soil moisture content was far below the baseline for the entire 1,200 years, indicating severe drought conditions of lack of precipitation and increased dryness. One of these megadroughts, in the 13th century, lasted more than 90 years.

Their analysis showed that, as measured by soil moisture content, the current drought is more severe than three of the ancient ones. Only one in the late 1500s was worse, and not by much, the researchers said.

We’ll have to wait and see what all of these things mean for our futures.

Stay tuned and keep safe.

Posted in Climate Change, coronavirus, Energy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Propagation of Pandemics: Please Stay Inside!

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the day the 30th Infantry Division of the American army liberated me after two years of imprisonment in Bergen-Belsen. I was supposed to memorialize this event with my wife, other survivors and liberators, and their families. We would also have celebrated with our many German friends who worked very hard to make the event possible. Instead, almost all of us are staying home, imprisoned by coronavirus lockdown orders. It is spring both in the US and Germany, with beautiful weather that seems to invite us to spend as much time as possible outside. Here is an imaginary picture of what we are missing.

Earlier this month, an Israeli friend shared this picture with me on Facebook. It’s a powerful visual. The rhetorical question says it all.

coronavirus, COVID 19, visual, virus

The picture itself is obviously somewhat of an exaggeration but like most good science fiction, it includes a seed of reality to help us change the way we view the real world. It imagines a world where the coronavirus is clearly visible. We can estimate the magnification: The novel (new) coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has an approximate size of 50 nanometers (1nm = one billionth of a meter). The size of the frightening objects above appears to be approximately half a floor. Given that the average floor height is approximately 14ft (4.2 meters), the picture magnifies our virus approximately 100 million times.

If the virus were this big, the danger would be obvious. Knowing the harm that being hit by one of these viruses could cause, we would be especially wary to go outside. Of course, (as is currently the case), homeless people and people in general who cannot participate in such a lockdown would be the first to suffer. What is not obvious in the picture is that once the virus hits us it multiplies, generating within our bodies and spreading an avalanche of chain reactions. The chain-reaction mechanism is similar to exponential growth or a positive feedback amplification of impact. The more viruses are around, the higher the probability that all of us will be directly affected. Thus the current pandemic.

Measuring the Spread

Epidemiologists have a professional term for the impact of such a chain reaction – “R0.” The R0 factor (see below) is the average number of individuals that are impacted in a given situation. If the R0 factor is larger than 1 we get amplification of the virus. As a result, for a given concentration of targets (humans), the R0 factor will increase. The R0 factors for some recent viral attacks are shown below.

Table 1 – R0 factors of some known epidemics

DISEASE REPRODUCTION NUMBER R0
Ebola, 2014 1.51 to 2.53
H1N1 Influenza, 2009 1.46 to 1.48
Seasonal Influenza 0.9 to 2.1
Measles 12 to 18
MERS around 1
Polio 5 to 7
SARS <1 to 2.75
Smallpox 5 to 7
SARS-CoV-2 (causes COVID-19) 1.5 to 3.5

You can clearly see that the claim that coronavirus is the same as the common flu is a fallacy.

All the R0 factors in Table 1 have a range. The range is determined by a few additional properties.

First: as I mentioned last week, viruses have a finite lifetime. If we could institute a complete lockdown where the streets above could stay completely empty of carriers, the R0 would eventually reduce to zero, the virus would die, and the pandemic would be over.

But humans are not the only possible carriers. The original SARS-CoV-2 (the cause of COVID-19) virus is now associated with bats and scientists have already found an infected tiger and cats (dogs seem somewhat less susceptible). In other words, even if we could empty our streets of humans, if they were instead full of roaming tigers, the R0 would still be above zero until they were all gone.

Of course, viruses don’t have the terrain to themselves. All of us carriers have evolved with immune systems to fight such malignant foreign objects. When a virus tries to invade, our immune system creates antibodies that fight back. Things can get a bit complicated. Every carrier that is infected with a virus is locked in a deadly struggle. If the virus wins, its spread escalates unhindered, increasing the R0 factor and infecting more people. If the antibodies win and a carrier recovers, the antibodies stay with him or her and (theoretically) prevent reinfection. However, we still have no idea how long these newly created antibodies stick around—do they make the carrier immune to further attacks or is the protection short-lived? Initial results show that some recovered carriers can be infected again. Clearly, it will be a while before we can declare victory against the virus.

Next week we will move from the virtual world to the real world during COVID-19. Next week will also bring Earth Day, my wife’s birthday, and the anniversary of this blog. I’ll try to make some connections.

Stay safe.

Posted in coronavirus | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Corona and Climate Change: Is Climate Change a Pandemic?

I started to address COVID-19 in my March 17th blog, a few days after my college and almost everything else around me closed to try to minimize infection. In the eight years that I have been writing this blog, I have focused on climate change and what we can do to minimize the existential global threat by the end of the century. Any global indicator that strongly contributes to climate change such as carbon emission, global population or wealth (measured in GDP/capita) has a doubling time between 1-2% (population: 1%; GDP/capita: 2%, carbon emissions/capita: 0-3%). As I explained (December 24, 2013), these indicators are all subject to exponential growth (mainly driven by population growth) that puts the doubling time at 70 years (I took 1% as the standard)—near the end of the century.

The doubling time of the current COVID-19 pandemic ranges between 3 days and a week in many locations.

Merriam-Webster (MW) defines pandemics in the following way:

Adjectiveoccurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population pandemic malaria; the 1918 flu was pandemic and claimed millions of lives.

Noun: an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population:a pandemic outbreak of a disease

The word comes from ancient Greek for, “belonging to all people.” The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified COVID-19 as a pandemic, but how do they decide what constitutes an “exceptionally high proportion” of the population? The world population is more than 7.5 billion and the present number of known infected people is around one million.

I have wondered if climate change could also be classed as a pandemic but given that it is not itself a disease (although it is the root cause of many), it does not meet the definition.

During my (indefinite) anticipated home confinement, I plan to compare COVID-19 with future anticipated pandemics and see what we can learn from the current situation.

The most basic indicator of the COVID-19 pandemic is the global number of infected people with the novel coronavirus. The data in the map below is from about two weeks ago. Over that time, the reported number of cases worldwide more than quadrupled and it now exceeds one million.

The global COVID-19 Pandemic, as of March 19th

While the official date for the end of social distancing policy in the US was initially Easter (April 12th), on March 30th, President Trump extended the timeline through end of April. We can likely thank the two most credible scientists in the Federal Coronavirus Task Force for this change. Dr. Debora Birx, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, wrote a critically important report:

President Trump and the physicians advising the federal pandemic response on Tuesday delivered a bleak outlook for the novel coronavirus’s spread across the country, predicting a best-case scenario of 100,000 to 240,000 fatalities in the United States and summoning all Americans to make additional sacrifices to slow the spread

Trump and his coronavirus task force members said that community mitigation practices in place for the past 15 days have worked and that extending them is essential. The mathematical modeling the White House presented suggests doing so could save hundreds of thousands of lives. Without community mitigation, the models predict, 1.5 million to 2.2 million Americans could die of covid-19, the disease the virus causes, though no time frames or other details were provided for the figures.

The scientists extrapolated the number of deaths from COVID-19 based on the progress in estimating the number of infections. The problem is that we still have no idea how many people are actually infected. I don’t know if I am infected and most likely, neither do most of you. One of the main reasons for this ignorance is that we don’t have tests to check everybody. We also know that a large fraction of the people that are infected don’t show any symptoms.

Attempts at controlled experiments to estimate untested, asymptomatic infections have produced a broad range of possible infected people: they found 25% to a factor of 10.

Given how contagious the virus is, the CDC has issued a strong recommendation that all people out in public should wear masks. The CDC has also repeated that individuals should only leave their homes for essential tasks—whether for basic, necessary supplies or as essential workers. At this point, given how many asymptomatic cases there are, a mask serves to protect others from you as much as or more than to protect you from others. If you sneeze, cough, or even just talk, the droplets can spread. A mask helps contain them. President Trump, in announcing this update, added that this is not a mandate but a recommendation, which he does not intend to follow.

Our understanding of the numbers doesn’t have to be this bad. There are global attempts to develop COVID-19 tests that are as abundant and available as pregnancy tests. There are also attempts for randomized blood tests for antibodies to COVID-19 that develop in people that have rebounded from the infection. Properly randomized, such tests can give us information on how many people were infected. But we can have a decent global picture of how many people are infected and might be acting as carriers without needing to test everybody. We are actually doing something similar on a regular basis with election results. Some of the recent presidential primary results in early March were declared minutes after the polls were closed. This was done mostly through exit polls.

Following similar methodology, we need to test groups of people that are representative of a specific collective. We can focus on known hot spots such as homeless shelters, nursing homes, and religious centers that refuse to move services online. On a broader scale, we can look at states that refuse to enforce social distancing or countries whose governments lack the discipline to enforce social distancing. Credible exit polls always come with error margins of 3-5%. But these margins are much better than the present uncertainty of infections, with margins up to a factor of 10 (30-50%).

Once we have the information about infected individuals, we can much more reliably calculate derivative parameters such as hospitalization, death rate, and recovery and try to devise specific policies to address these situations. Early attempts at such location-specific targeting are already taking place in some countries. I will expand on these aspects in the next blog.

The parallel indicator in climate change is attribution (January 23 & 30, 2018; October 3, 2017). It requires tools to distinguish between “natural” climate fluctuations and anthropogenic ones that can be associated with man-made climate change. One basic difference between climate change and viral pandemics such as COVID-19 is that the latter have apexes after which they decline. I’ll be discussing this bell-shaped curve in more detail next week.

Climate change impact doesn’t necessarily have an apex. It can continue to grow indefinitely, transforming Earth to an uninhabitable wasteland. As far as we know there’s still no other planet in the universe that supports life.

The very fast nature of pandemics necessitates timely remediation such as vaccines, treatments, or short of these two, social distancing to slow down transmission. We also need tests that can be administered and processed quickly. This sort of rapid response is impossible with slow moving (by human scale) disasters such as climate change. As we are seeing, energy transition away from fossil fuels can take a long time. We are all struggling with the consequences.

Keep safe, everyone!

Posted in Climate Change | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Celebrations

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.

Posted in Climate Change | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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!

Imagine

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…

[CHORUS]
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…

[CHORUS]
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

Posted in Holocaust | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

 

coronavirus

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!!

Posted in Climate Change | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Anthropogenic, assessment, Climate Change, Energy, Sustainability, UN | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Climate Change, law, Sustainability, UN, UNFCCC | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Climate Change | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment