Plastics: “The New Coal”

Plastics have yielded life-saving medical advances, supercharged technological advancements, helped send us to space, and transformed our lives in innumerable ways. But they are poisoning our people and our planet.

Plastics are ubiquitous. They’ve yielded life-saving medical advances, supercharged technological advancements, helped send us to space, and transformed our lives in innumerable ways. But they are poisoning our people and our planet. Move over, Industrial Age. Welcome to the Plastics Age.

The Human Cost

You, yes you, literally consume a credit card’s worth of plastic each week. Each. Week. Most of it comes from our drinking water (found in 90% of bottled water and 83 % of tap). Microplastics, first identified in the 1970s, don’t only contaminate the water and air, they’re also found in the fruits and vegetables we eat, deep in our lungs, our bloodstreams, and even in the placentas of human fetuses. Phatalates, which make plastics flexible, are linked to breast cancer, asthma, type 2 diabetes, obesity, autism spectrum disorders, reproductive issues, and a myriad of other health problems. And beyond that, certain compounds found in plastics have recently been found to release far more toxic chemicals than previously thought, causing cancer, memory loss, disrupting our endocrine systems, and who knows what else.

Plastics are an environmental justice issue. The resulting pollution and ill health more acutely affects Black and brown people and low-income communities around the world. According to a 2021 report from the United Nations, “the impacts of plastics on marginalized populations are severe, and exist at all stages of the production cycle, from extracting raw materials and manufacturing, through to consumption and disposal.”

We dispose of plastic in unjust ways. The U.S shipped 1.4 billion pounds of plastic trash overseas in 2020, largely to developing nations where it is often burned in public, discarded in waterways, or dumped into open pits due to insufficient waste management infrastructure. Sometimes called “waste colonialism,” this practice damages the health of local communities and carries a heavy carbon footprint.

And domestically, petrochemical and plastics manufacturing plants cause similarly unjust burdens on disadvantaged communities. Nearly 90% of reported pollution from U.S. plastics manufacturing is released into just 18 communities located mostly in Louisiana and Texas. Residents of the predominantly Black and low-income communities in “cancer alley” along the Mississippi River, for example, face severely elevated risks of cancer and report an unusually high incidence of miscarriages.

Environmental Impact

Plastic pollution and plastic production both continue to accelerate. Every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck filled with plastic is dumped into our oceans. During that same minute more than 1 million plastic bags are used – each with a “working life” of only 15 minutes. Half of all plastics ever manufactured were made in the last 15 years, and production is currently expected to double by 2050. The depressing statistics just keep coming. The Unites States produced 35.7 million tons of plastic waste in 2018, more than 90% of which was dumped in landfills or burned.

From the peaks of the Himalayas to the deepest trenches in the ocean, plastic contamination is found everywhere. We’re all familiar with the haunting images of sea turtles with straws jammed in their noses, seagulls strangled by six pack rings, and whales stuffed full of plastic trash. That’s just the tip of the melting iceberg.

But if nature isn’t your thing, consider the economics. The UN estimates the societal cost of plastic used in the consumer goods sector is $75 billion each year, because of “financial impacts resulting from issues such as pollution of the marine environment or air pollution caused by incinerating plastic.”

“The New Coal”

Plastics are not only a pollution and people problem, they’re a direct contributor to the climate crisis, contrary to what many seem to believe. A sobering report from Beyond Plastics details the greenhouse gas emissions of the industry, and calls plastics “the new coal.” To provide context, if plastics were a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, surpassing all but China, the U.S., India and Russia. The U.S. plastic industry’s contribution to climate change is on track to exceed that of coal-fired power generation by 2030. According to the report, the U.S. industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of CO2 emissions per year – equivalent to 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

And of course using plastic means using fossil fuels. By 2050, plastics are projected to account for 20% of global fossil fuel consumption.

So Where’s the Regulation?

Governments, unsurprisingly, have been slow to act. But glimmers of hope are emerging. In March, UN member states endorsed a landmark agreement that “addresses the full lifecycle of plastic from source to sea” and agreed to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee that will forge a global agreement on plastic pollution. In California, the attorney general just issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil for information on its role in causing the global plastic waste crisis. Inspired by an NPR and PBS Frontline report revealing that the fossil fuel industry financed a decades long, multi-billion dollar advertising campaign to mislead the public about recycling, the AG’s move is part of a broader investigation into “half-century campaign of deception and the ongoing harm caused to the State of California.” And more than a dozen states are considering laws requiring manufacturers, rather than taxpayers, to cover the cost of recycling, following Maine’s lead.

Where’s the Innovation?

Plastics are an inextricable part of human life at this point. To achieve the kind of “de-plasticization” we need will require major changes in products, business practices, and everyday lifestyles. A shift this massive will take time. We need to start now.

The global plastics market accounted for $621.9 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $758.6 billion by 2025. Plastic is big money and the entire sector is ripe for innovation. Startups are beginning to revolutionize packaging, recycling, and waste management, using bio-tech, AI, robots, and innovative circular economy models. Venture capital is starting to wake up to the opportunities.

Next week, we’ll continue examining plastic, taking a look at some companies disrupting the industry.

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Exxon Doubles Down on ‘Advanced Recycling’ Claims that Yield Few Results

The petroleum company is under investigation for misleading the public while exacerbating the global plastic pollution crisis.

Accused of misleading the public for decades on the promise of plastic recycling, oil and chemical companies are pushing a new idea: “advanced recycling”. Environmental advocates, however, say it’s more of the same old greenwash and litigators hope holding companies accountable for past lies might prevent the spread of a new one.

In late April, California attorney general Rob Bonta launched an investigation into ExxonMobil for its role in exacerbating the global plastic pollution crisis. Bonta says he was partly inspired by a 2020 investigation from NPR and Frontline that showed how companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Dow and Dupont were aware of the inefficacy of plastic recycling, yet they still strategized marketing campaigns that told a different story to the public.

For oil companies, those campaigns often included removing themselves from the story altogether. Even some climate advocates forget that plastic, which is made from either petroleum or ethane (a byproduct of fracking), is very much part of the climate crisis. Bonta says his investigation started with ExxonMobil because they’ve been a leader, in the plastics industry and in the messaging around recycling. A report out last year from the Mindaroo Foundation found that just 100 companies produce 90% of the world’s plastic pollution. It pinpointed ExxonMobil as the top producer in the world of single-use plastic.

In a statement responding to the investigation, ExxonMobil said it is “focused on solutions” like building the first “commercial-scale advanced recycling technology” and that “meritless allegations like these distract from the important collaborative work that is under way”.

But like regular old recycling, “advanced recycling” has so far shown little to no results.

Also known as pyrolysis or chemical recycling, the process entails using various chemical processes to turn plastic into other materials. The most common approach is warming plastic at very high heat to turn it into a low-grade fossil fuel, which can then be used either as fuel or as a feedstock for more plastic.

The technology is still in its infancy, but early studies have found that like earlier versions of plastic recycling, the “advanced” method is expensive, and that it’s difficult to collect and effectively recycle a wide variety of plastics. It also delivers few environmental benefits, not just because it’s used to create either fuel or more plastic, but also because the process itself is emissions intensive. One study commissioned by plastic manufacturers themselves found that advanced recycling generated more greenhouse gases than either landfilling plastic or burning it.

The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, a trade group for the chemical industry, has been pushing advanced recycling since China shut its borders to used plastic in 2018. The group has also been lobbying state governments to exempt their recycling process from various environmental regulations – 18 states have laws on the books that either side-step certain government oversight or designate advanced recycling facilities as eligible for subsidies.

It’s part of a strategy former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy called “getting ahead of government intervention” in a video interview with the Greenpeace-funded investigative journalism site UnEarthed in 2021. The journalists went undercover as corporate recruiters and got McCoy talking about various lobbying strategies on climate change. “The issue is going to be disposal and recycling of plastics,” McCoy said in previously unpublished portions of the interview that were shared with the Guardian. He also noted that the ACC has been working on this issue “almost exclusively, because [federal regulators] are talking about banning plastics and a lot of it has to do with plastics in the ocean and in waterways”.

A new report out this week from the groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup found that plastic recycling rates have actually fallen in the US since the emergence of “advanced recycling” in 2018, from its highest ever point of 9% to less than 6% today, compared with a 66% recycling rate for paper.

“They’re finally kind of admitting that recycling hasn’t worked,” Beyond Plastics president Judith Enck said of groups like ACC and its members that have been lobbying against environmental protections. “And it doesn’t work by design. It’s not like they’re surprised by this. They knew all along it wouldn’t work.”

And the plastic pollution crisis isn’t likely to let up. As Bonta noted in his investigation, the fossil fuel industry has spurred the expansion of plastic for years to come. “It’s their plan B as we reduce the use of fossil fuels in transportation and buildings,” he said. The International Energy Agency has said this as well, predicting that plastic production, which is forecasted to double by 2040, will be the biggest growth market for the oil industry over the next decade.

McCoy noted that oil companies like his former employer ExxonMobil were uniquely suited to handle the increased scrutiny on plastics because they could use the same strategy they have deployed on climate change. “You want to get smart on it, because you know it’s coming,” he said.

Environmental sociologist Dr Rebecca Altman, author of the forthcoming book An Intimate History of Plastics, points to the history of Exxon’s forefather, Standard Oil, as one of the four original companies that created the modern petrochemical industry. Mobil Oil also introduced the plastic grocery bag to American stores. “They really commercialized that and took on the paper bag, which was sort of the last bastion of paper in the US supermarket by the 1970s,” Altman said.

That meant Mobil was also entrenched in the various PR battles that the chemical and energy industries were dealing with in the 1970s. “The [petrochemical] industry was really trying to figure out: how do we show our positive value? And the answer was positive advertising and then working behind the scenes on energy policy and dealing with the first wave of environmental legislation,” Altman said. “And then in the 1980s and 1990s you have this big recycling boom.”

Bonta says he’d love to see advanced recycling work, but right now it’s just “words on paper”. A 2021 Reuters investigation found several examples of failed advanced recycling programs, noting that out of 30 projects operating around the world, all were either still operating on a modest scale or had shut down, and more than half were years behind schedule on previously announced commercial plans. A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council published in March noted that even when it “works” advanced recycling is not an environmentally friendly solution.

Bonta says his investigation will include not only what the industry said about recycling in the past, but also the way it is marketing advanced recycling today. The inquiry may very well broaden to include other companies, or trade groups like the ACC. “We’ll go where the documents lead us,” he said. As to whether the investigation might become a lawsuit, Bonta says that is “absolutely” a possibility. “We’re not investigating just to investigate,” he said.

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How Catastrophe Bonds Help Mitigate the Impact of Climate Change

By transferring the risk of natural disasters, countries improve economic resilience and have greater access to capital to provide relief to citizens if an extreme weather event does occur.

While the effects of climate change are severe and interconnected, collaboration among global stakeholders is growing to lessen its effects, and that can only be positive. In the financial sector, the best-kept secret may be a relatively young asset class known as catastrophe bonds.

Catastrophe bonds (or “cat bonds”), which mark their 25th anniversary as an asset class  this year, were created to diversify risk for insurers and increase coverage after the dual disasters of Florida’s Hurricane Andrew and California’s Northridge earthquake. The effect on the entire insurance industry could have been disastrous if Andrew had hit just 25 miles south in the city of Miami. Some might assume the insurance industry could have achieved sufficient insulation from too much loss through the use of reinsurance (i.e., the insurance of insurance by specialized players) and retrocessional insurance (that’s the insurance of insurance of, yes, insurance). Those tools helped, and in many cases still do, effectively. But in a time of increasingly severe weather events, an even deeper level of protection is necessary. As a result, cat bonds have become increasingly popular.

Last year, the insurance industry faced $343 billion in climate-related catastrophic losses, making it the third costliest year on record. The differential between economic losses and insured losses (aka the “protection gap”) was 62 percent. In total, there were over 400 environmental disasters—fewer than in 2020 but they were generally more extreme and more expensive. Also in 2021, Death Valley in California experienced the highest temperature on Earth ever recorded. Cat bonds meet the moment by transferring insurance risk to the wider capital market, which can absorb exponentially more losses.

The structures of this insurance-linked security (ILS) are sophisticated, and Aon, a leading global professional services firm, is leading the way. Says Paul Schultz, the CEO of Aon Securities, the largest structurer of catastrophe bonds, which, since the market’s inception in 1997, has provided its services to clients in 39% of all issuances: “We spend a lot of our time talking to and educating the markets about catastrophe bonds.”

So here’s how they operate, in relatively simple terms: Working with institutional clients, for the most part (deals typically start around $100 million) Aon and other structuring agents act as an investment bank in the transaction. They collaborate with clients to create a Special Purpose Vehicle, or SPV, that issues the bond, to develop the structure of the bond—which specifies which risks, whether hurricanes, earthquakes, floods et al., are covered—–and to determine how they will place it in the marketplace. Then, they communicate with investors to complete the deal. During the term of such bonds, usually three years, the funds are kept in a dedicated account. If the insured catastrophic event occurs, the money goes toward covering losses. If it doesn’t, investors get it back with interest attached. There are roughly three types of “triggers” for payouts: “indemnity,” which is closely aligned with actual losses incurred by the transaction’s sponsoring insurance company or insured; “industry loss,” which is similar to indemnity but aligned with losses incurred by the insurance industry as a whole; and “parametric,” which is based on a catastrophe’s physical characteristics, like a windstorm that occurs within a certain number of miles from a particular city, at a particular velocity. Those on both sides of the transaction like such vehicles because they have low correlation to financial markets, offering diversification from other types of investments, and historically they’ve offered better returns than conventional high-yield bonds.

To keep this investment as safe as possible both for protection buyers and for investors, sound analytical methods to calculate risk are necessary. And in the case of cat bonds, these are again novel. The traditional insurance industry credo that the-past-is-the-best-predictor-of-the-future isn’t as applicable when so little historical data exists for the kind of increasingly severe weather and climate events that were previously considered rare. Floods are one example. For perils that have data quality issues, there are non-indemnity triggers (i.e. parametric and index based solutions) that can help fill the gap. Predictive forward-looking modeling, which uses thousands of data points to assess a catastrophe’s probability and cost, is also key to helping shape better decisions. Aon is also a leader on this front.

Schultz notes that his division uses multiple commercial modeling types but that Aon also has its own “Impact Forecasting” team, a catastrophe modeling center of excellence that can help create a “better and a tighter fit for clients than you could if you relied on one single data point.” Aon, which advised on over half of the cat bonds issued last year, also has a strategic alliance with artificial intelligence and machine learning company Zesty.ai to develop first-of-their-kind models for severe convective storms and floods.

Among Aon’s clients is Arch Capital Group, which worked with the firm to structure a $150 million deal that covered a wide range of catastrophe types globally—and was Arch’s first such bond in the property arena. Emmanuel Durousseau, head of retrocession and ILS at Arch Reinsurance, says, “This deal is a good complement to our overall strategy. The multi-peril, multi-region and multi-year aspects make it more capital intensive for traditional solutions, which are subject to the annual fluctuations of their market. This is where ILS can bring value to the overall picture. The cat bond allows some syndication by delivering size that would have been constrained under a private structure.”

Commenting on Aon and its role in the deal, Durousseau says, “From a sponsor point of view, as the structuring agent and bookrunner, Aon brings knowledge, market relationships, and a global presence within the investor community.”

Some might ask, in the event of a significant climate event, how would this burgeoning asset class fare? “Hurricane Katrina is actually a good example of how the market expanded after a catastrophic event,” says Aon’s Schultz. “The market was still pretty small [before it] and the traditional insurance markets and reinsurance markets couldn’t provide enough capacity for all those that were looking to hedge hurricane risk in the U.S.” Cat bonds quickly grew to a $14 billion market and that growth has continued. A landmark $12.5 billion in cat bonds was issued in 2021, and there are now $32 billion of active cat bonds in the market.

When it comes to future development and trends, Schultz highlights opportunities for social impact, via relationships with governments, humanitarian organizations, and academic institutions. Aon has worked with the World Bank on several deals including the largest ever cat bond covering earthquakes, in Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, and another covering tropical cyclones that was sponsored by Jamaica—the first sponsored by a Caribbean country. The World Bank’s participation in issuing cat bonds highlights the fact that cat bonds are beneficial to governments and countries as well. By transferring the risk of natural disasters, countries improve their economic resilience and have greater access to capital to provide disaster relief to their citizens if an extreme weather event does occur. Particularly for underserved and emerging markets, cat bonds can offer an important economic lifeline.

Such structures are also groundbreaking because they allow investors across the globe to support economically disadvantaged countries, while potentially strengthening individual stakeholders and the broader industry as well. “We want to grow the entire market,” Schultz sums up. “But we also want to maximize the social impact from these transactions.”

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Hypocritical ‘Guns of Omaha’ Take Aim at Robinhood

For Buffett and Munger to slam Robinhood for behaving in the same way as their portfolio companies, is a hypocritical moral sham.

Back in February of last year, Robinhood ran their Super Bowl commercial arguing that investors aren’t made, but born.  That trading stock is as natural as sticking your thumb in your mouth and reaching for the mobile dangling over the crib.

My reaction was not subtle.  I wrote that:

“In an era where millions are easily seduced by immediate gratification and self-flattery, and suspicious of any kind of earned expertise, Robinhood’s “We Are All Investors” ad might be the most dangerously misleading commercial in Super Bowl history.”

Now a year later Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are echoing my sentiments, and have launched the ‘Guns of Omaha’ on Robinhood, with an apocalyptic Munger saying: “It was disgusting. Now it’s unraveling… God is getting just. … There’s been some justice.”

At last year’s Woodstock of capitalism, Munger also absurdly stated:  “We don’t want to make our money selling things that are bad for people.”  (For the record, here’s what drinking a can of Coke – 9.2% of the Berkshire portfolio – does to your body.)

Buffett has been on the record saying that Robinhood caters to the gambling instincts of investors and promotes casino-like behavior.

Do you hear something?  That noise is my hypocrisy meter going bonkers.

Activision, which represents over 9% of Berkshire Hathway’s portfolio, made $5.1 billion from in-game purchases in 2021.  That’s gambling with no chance of an economic victory, just the ability to get to the next level.

But wait, there’s even more.  Bank of America, which owns Merrill Lynch and represents 12.8% of the Berkshire portfolio, is sounding very much like Robinhood.   In fact, while Robinhood has pulled back from their “we are all natural investors” appeal – their website now modestly promises “Investing is Simple Here” – Merrill Lynch tells investors that their online trading platform gives you “guidance, insights and tools to confidently put your investing ideas into action.”

That’s no different than what the Robinhood platform offers.  You don’t need the experts, it promises, just your own good ideas.

Lastly, if Buffett and Munger are going to ride their moral high horses into battle with Robinhood, they need to explain why Itochu, which represents 5.6% of the portfolio, is continuing to do business with Russia.

I hold to my original perspective that preying on our cognitive biases, minimizing the expertise involved in investing, and manipulating hopefulness is wrong and I feel the same way about the proliferation of seductive online sports betting advertising unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision. For Buffett and Munger to slam Robinhood for behaving in the same way as their portfolio companies, is a hypocritical moral sham.

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For Buffett and Munger to slam Robinhood for behaving in the same way as their portfolio companies, is a hypocritical moral sham.

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For Buffett and Munger to slam Robinhood for behaving in the same way as their portfolio companies, is a hypocritical moral sham.

Most Genome Data Comes from White Folks. Scientists Are Trying to Fix That.

With a new genome sequence, more diverse data sets, and population-specific projects, scientists are making progress in representing humanity’s real DNA diversity.

Precision medicine, which aims to tailor medicine to each individual for better outcomes, is fueled by genomic data. Unfortunately, there’s a problem with the fuel. For the past couple of decades, genomic databases have been filled with information gathered from people of European descent — and precious little from other ancestries. That means white people have gotten the earliest benefits of precision medicine, while everyone else has to wait for genomic databases to catch up.

This was a predictable situation based on the early days of genomics, when some of the largest population studies were kicked off in European countries with little ethnic diversity. Since then, scientists have been working hard on programs designed to capture the full range of genetic diversity among humans, including the All of Us research project organized by the National Institutes of Health. Recently, several teams have reported progress in improving the diversity of genomic data.

A Whole New Genome

You probably know that the first human genome was sequenced during the Human Genome Project and declared complete in 2003. But unless you work in genomics, you probably didn’t know that the human genome was never really finished. If sequencing a genome is like reading a book, the book of the human genome is really old and badly neglected. Some sections are much harder to read than others. When the first human genome sequence was ‘complete,’ nearly 10% of it actually remained unread.

But now, all these years later, scientists deployed newer technologies to churn through the whole human genome, including those previously intractable regions. The final product, a “gap-free” sequence, is a critical new resource that will make it easier for other researchers to sequence population-specific genomes and quickly increase our understanding of genomic diversity.

“Truly finishing the human genome sequence was like putting on a new pair of glasses. Now that we can clearly see everything, we are one step closer to understanding what it all means,” said Adam Phillippy, an NIH scientist who helped lead the project, in a statement. He added, “In the future, when someone has their genome sequenced, we will be able to identify all of the variants in their DNA and use that information to better guide their healthcare.”

Screening in the City

For researchers looking to expand genomic data diversity, nothing beats a big city. In New York, a program called BioMe based at Mount Sinai’s medical school has been running to gather more diverse data and answer important questions about whether underrepresented communities are willing to participate in genomic research studies.

An update on this work was presented by Mount Sinai’s Noura Abul-Husn at the recent annual meeting of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics. In a BioMe-powered study that’s been running for the past two years, scientists have used genome screening to detect potentially dangerous genetic variants and then monitor patients for associated diseases. The idea is simple: rather than waiting for people to get sick and wind up in the emergency room where doctors have to figure out what’s wrong, why not use a genome-first approach to determine their biggest health risks and try to help them avoid getting sick in the first place?

The BioMe effort, which is broader than this particular program, represents the diversity of New York. In a typical genomic collection, some 70% of samples come from people of European descent; in BioMe, just 27% of samples fall into this category, Abul-Husn said at the conference.

The genomic screening program tests for genetic variants linked to five conditions, delivering results back to patients who have opted in to learn about their susceptibilities. Abul-Husn noted that across all ethnic groups, at least 90% of participants wanted to know their results, challenging assumptions that some groups — especially those historically mistreated by the medical community — would be reluctant to learn about their DNA.

The study is still underway, but the team is already learning from it. For example, one variant they’re testing for is related to a heart condition; the variant is more common in non-European populations. Among the patients found to have the variant, Abul-Husn said that not a single one had previously been diagnosed with the disease — not even those who had been treated for heart problems. A genome-first approach, then, has strong potential for helping to overcome existing disparities in healthcare.

Battling Cancer in Indigenous Populations

In the U.S., Native Americans suffer worse outcomes from cancer than any other ethnic group, in part due to poorer access to healthcare and to receiving fewer screening procedures for cancer. By working closely with tribal leaders and performing population-specific genome analysis, scientists are hoping to better understand cancer in these communities.

Cheryl Willman, who now runs the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center and previously led the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, reported on some of these efforts at the recent annual conference of the American Association for Cancer Research. For some types of cancer, she said, “cancer screening rates in some tribal communities are as low as 4%.” That means cancers aren’t caught early on; when they are eventually found, they are more advanced and less likely to respond well to treatment.

Making matters worse is that these groups are not often included in large-scale projects to study cancer. In one major cancer genome project, Willman said, less than 0.5% of samples came from American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and Hawaiian Pacific Islanders combined. To overcome this problem, she is part of a patient engagement project working with Native Americans in the southwest in which scientists will perform genome sequencing on cancer samples collected from tribal communities. The goal is to include as many as 1,000 cancer patients and cancer survivors, collecting several types of samples from each participant for a more comprehensive view of cancer and health in these communities. “It will be an extensive data set on each patient,” Willman said. Results will be returned to each participant.

In order to make this project successful, scientists are working closely with tribal leaders. Tribal representatives participate in an advisory council for the project, review its logistical details, and will have a say in how research results are reported to the public. Scientists must receive consent not just from each participant, but also from tribal leaders, in order to proceed with sample analysis. Willman said the team also hopes to generate a representative genome sequence for this population; this would improve their ability to benefit from precision medicine.

These are just a few examples of the many projects researchers have launched to address the lack of diversity in genomic databases. With rapidly falling prices for genomic technologies, the good news is that incorporating significant volumes of data from diverse populations now costs just a fraction of what it did when these genomic databases were first set up.

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With a new genome sequence, more diverse data sets, and population-specific projects, scientists are making progress in representing humanity’s real DNA diversity.

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With a new genome sequence, more diverse data sets, and population-specific projects, scientists are making progress in representing humanity’s real DNA diversity.

We Need to Change the Abortion Rights Narrative

Banning abortion pushes the U.S. towards the path of becoming a third rate power, with uneducated, unemployable citizens whose lives will need to be subsidized by government dollars. 

Looking at abortion as solely a women’s rights issue has not served women well.  It’s time to build a louder narrative around the larger economic issues, our country’s place in the world order, and overpopulation.

Typically I don’t overshare, but it’s time we all speak up. Eons ago, when I was a college student I had an abortion. I loved my partner very deeply but knew that I was not yet ready to raise myself, never mind a family. I had to do a lot of research and then travel to a different state to have the procedure, since Pennsylvania, where I lived, didn’t legalize abortion until 1982. I scraped together the money from friends. And I never told my parents.

Every woman who has a story about how abortion saved them from a very different life trajectory needs to speak up now.

I thought that the mostly bi-partisan war over the right to choose would last forever. It provided a clean, convenient wedge between party ideologies. Something we could disagree on in theory, while retaining our rights in perpetuity. I called that one wrong. I didn’t see SCOTUS, even the newly stacked one, as having the guts (polite word) to break the nearly five-decade old barricade of its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Collectively we’ll do the obligatory handwringing about whistleblowing and document leaking.  Women will be deservedly incensed about the loss of hard-won freedom. But we all know how the story ends. SCOTUS decides that it’s beyond their scope to decide the fate of a woman’s right to choose. It will become a state by state issue where the state that you live in becomes more important to abortion rights than religion, education, gender or pretty much any other factor. Twenty states (representing 40% of the country) are poised to ban abortion immediately following the court’s decision, which as Trevor Noah pointed out “will make living in South Dakota harsher than living in Afghanistan under Sharia law.”

Logic, like the fact that most people in this country don’t want to do away with  Roe v. Wade, no longer seems to matter. Protests demanding the right to choose only seem to increase the zealousness of the opposition. It’s time to broaden the abortion rights story so that it hits lawmakers where it hurts — their pocketbooks and their egos. The story needs to shift from just being about rights to a larger one about economics, population control, family planning, health, and most importantly, America’s waning influence in the modern world.

Which Country Do You Want to Look Like

Banning abortion puts the U.S. in some very bad company. Abortions are completely banned in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Those are really poor countries with a multitude of problems. Others that ban abortions include  Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Iraq, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Suriname, Tonga, and the West Bank & Gaza Strip – generally not happy places with vital economies.

There are, by contrast, no restrictions on abortions in Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and even in predominantly Catholic countries like Italy and Ireland. It’s reasonably clear that if you overlay the map of where abortions are banned on top of a map that delineates quality of life and prosperity, you see a pattern.

Even some of the most authoritarian countries like Iran and Russia have no restrictions on abortions. And China, which we love to fault for its human rights violations, has no nationwide ban on abortion. Instead there are governmental agencies whose job it is to help with family planning. Most countries fall on a spectrum where abortion laws are conditional, focused on saving a woman’s life, maintaining her health, mental health issues, rape and incest, fetal impairments and sometimes even the socioeconomic situation of the mother. In Cyprus, Hong Kong, Finland and Barbados, for example, you can be granted an abortion if you are not financially able to raise a child. The map is varied and complex, but if the U.S. were to leave abortion rights up to the states, a large swath of the country would quickly fall into lockstep with some of the poorest, least healthy countries on earth.

We All Pick Up the Tab

Abortions are going to happen whether they’re legal or not. Illegal ones are just more dangerous. Maternal health in the United States is already at the pathetic line. We’re tied for 57th place, and studies show that banning abortions would increase the rate of maternal death by 20-30%.

In our choiceless future, we’ll see more hungry babies born to mothers who can’t feed or educate them properly. Women will be held back from entering the workforce and earning good salaries because of unwanted pregnancies. Seriously-disabled and impaired children will be born into families that cannot provide for their needs. There will be enormous mental health repercussions of unwanted pregnancies.

The list goes on and on, but at the end it’s the taxpayers who will pick up the burden of bringing unwanted children into the world. In some states — Georgia, Mississippi, and Oklahoma — more than 80 percent of unplanned births are already paid for with public dollars. Unplanned pregnancies cost US taxpayers $21 billion each year, according to one analysis. And that’s what it’s been like while abortions have been legal.

A study by the Brookings Institution found that abortion access “profoundly affects women’s lives.” It explains that having that right helps determine “whether, when, and under what circumstances they become mothers, outcomes which then reverberate through their lives, affecting marriage patterns, educational attainment, labor force participation, and earnings.”  The bottom line, says the study, is that “Restricting, or outright eliminating, abortion access by overturning Roe v. Wade would diminish women’s personal and economic lives, as well as the lives of their families.”

I’m not a political scholar, but I understand how to tell stories.  When the “it’s the right thing to do” story stops resonating, turn up the volume on a new story. Banning abortion pushes the U.S. towards the path of becoming a third rate power, with uneducated, unemployable citizens whose lives will need to be subsidized by government dollars.

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The UN Sets Historic Targets for Global Connectivity

It’s no longer enough to just say people “need to be connected to the internet.” We require clear targets, especially since 2.9 billion people remain offline. So now the ITU and the UN Sec-General’s office have put on paper what connection really means. It is a set of guideposts and a mandate for action.

Absolutely everyone in the world older than 15 should be connected to the internet at an affordable price. Every home, business and school should have access. And the entire population of the world ought to be covered by a modern mobile network.

These are not crazy goals. Those of us privileged enough to already live under such conditions can barely imagine not living a connected life. Yet more than one-third of the world’s population remains offline. It’s a scandal. That’s why it’s important, and even historic, that the UN has finally come up with clear metrics to tell us how well we’re doing in connecting the planet. This is a critical element in achieving the 17 ambitious goals for the planet that all nations of the world agreed to–if you can believe it–back in the heady and visionary days of 2015, called the UN Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.

Image credit: ITU

But there was always one SDG missing—to connect everyone. While Goal 9–about improving global infrastructure–did address extending the internet, it was a subsidiary goal mentioned pretty far down in the verbiage: “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.” Well obviously even that understated goal was not met, as those 2.9 billion still-unconnected people could attest (if you could reach them to ask).

Many of us felt in 2015, and still feel, that it would be impossible to achieve almost any of the SDGs—which commit to reducing global poverty, ending hunger, and addressing the climate crisis, among other critical tasks–without connecting people so they could be informed and work together on all these challenges.

So it’s something to celebrate that the UN Secretary-General’s Acting Envoy on Technology, Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, together with the International Telecommunications Union, announced in April a set of concrete targets for digital connectivity for 2030. In effect this is a much-needed extension of the SDGs. The move is inspired by and connected to Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres’ own Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, which was itself a historic document released in 2020. (The UN under Gutteres, himself an engineer, has put far greater focus on digital issues than ever before.) These 15 new aspirational connectivity goals are meant to help set benchmarks so that from now on we can determine, for every country and geography, just how connected its people are. Up until now there has been no agreed-upon standard for what “connected” even meant.

In June, at the World Telecommunications Development Conference (WTDC) in Kigali, Rwanda, the ITU will release its first assessment of how well the world is doing to achieve these targets. In November Spatolisano and the ITU will launch a dashboard to track the progress of every country in achieving the goals.

Image credit: ITU

The targets are unequivocal about what constitutes connectivity. Everyone over 15 must have a mobile phone. Everyone should be able to connect to a modern mobile broadband network and/or have a broadband wired connection. All homes, businesses and schools must be connected. All fixed broadband connections should be 10 megabits per second (Mb/s) or faster. Every school needs access to a minimum speed of 20 Mb/s, with at least 50 kilobit per second available to each student. Every school gets storage of at least 200 Gigabytes. At least 70% of adults must have basic digital skills, and at least 50% intermediate skills.

Cost is addressed as well. An entry-level broadband subscription must be priced at less than 2% of average gross national income per capita, and also be less than 2% of the average income of the bottom 40% of the country’s population. Many countries are so far from such targets that the initial assessments are not going to be pretty, in some cases. But the point, of course, is to start methodically moving the needle in the right direction.

“Meaningful connectivity is key to achieve digital transformation,” says Doreen Bodgan-Martin, director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, which worked on the targets. “Among today’s estimated 4.9 billion internet users, many have to limit their usage because connectivity is unreliable, too slow, or too expensive.” So the targets will, of course, also improve the internet experience for people who already have some access.

The WTDC in Kigali, June 6-16, will be a global gathering of representatives from all the world’s nations, to help further drive forward this urgent need for progress on connectivity and related challenges. Delayed during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has returned with an even broader group of participants and this newly-ambitious mandate to bring everyone fully online by 2030. Anyone who cares about connectivity has cause to be there and participate in the many discussions. Major tech, telecoms and other companies, NGOs, and other groups that care about connecting the world are invited to take part.

Image credit: ITU

I myself will be there, and I’m quite excited about it. I’ve been working closely with the ITU for the last two years on a series of sessions as part of a related initiative called the Partner2Connect Digital Coalition (P2C). I’ve moderated multiple online and in-person meetings that have gathered participants from all over the world to examine various aspects of the connectivity challenge. In Kigali I will help moderate a three-day P2C meeting beginning June 6 that kicks off the 10-day WTDC gathering.

This issue should be a priority for every thinking person. The world faces a raft of grave challenges, notably climate change and the related challenge of climate-driven migration.  Getting people connected is a critical pathway to work on those issues, as well as move toward achieving all the SDGs. We must do it. All of our futures depend on it.

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Blockchain’s Fight Against Climate Change

The energy consumption of crypto mining has galvanized skeptics and proponents alike. But a new wave of crypto projects are pioneering ways to join that fight.

As cryptocurrency steams toward mainstream adoption, attracting investors and garnering increased attention, one issue has galvanized skeptics and proponents alike: the energy consumption of crypto mining. By some estimates, the proof-of-work (PoW) mining that powers Bitcoin consumes as much electricity as a small country each year, undercutting global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. (PoW requires powerful computer servers to simultaneously perform cryptographic calculations to validate transactions, thereby consuming significant amounts of energy.)

It would be a mistake for crypto proponents to dismiss these denunciations outright. But crypto skeptics should not dismiss blockchain innovations simply because of the energy consumption of a (shrinking number) of protocols. Ethereum, for instance, is moving away from PoW to proof-of-stake (PoS) – thereby committing to reducing the energy consumption on its blockchain, and most newer protocols have leapfrogged PoW entirely in favor of PoS, which does not depend on the same energy-intensive mining process as PoW. 

Those of us in the crypto community can add that crypto consumes much less electricity than the physical and technology operations of banks and other financial institutions. We should also note the energy required for other everyday activities – for example, household tumble dryers are responsible for 108 terawatt hours of energy each year in the United States alone, whereas Bitcoin mining uses 62 TWh each year globally. But making points like that is not enough. To answer criticisms about energy usage, it is also essential to highlight the real utility being provided by blockchain protocols in the fight against global warming.

Far from being purely speculative or frivolous, a new wave of crypto projects are pioneering ways to join that fight. KlimaDAO, for example, where I am a core contributor focused on product development, aims to democratize climate action through injecting transparency and liquidity into the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM). In simplified terms, this means that anyone can now access a fair market price for carbon and offset emissions immediately without needing to use a third party broker. If successful, KlimaDAO will open the door for citizens, companies, and entities in every country to easily participate in a proven solution for reducing global carbon emissions. 

To understand the promise of KlimaDAO requires an understanding of the Voluntary Carbon Market, as well as markets built on blockchain and smart contract technologies. The VCM entered mainstream discourse in the early 2000’s, and provided a marketplace for corporate entities (or governments) to reduce their carbon footprint by purchasing “offsets”’ matched to greenhouse gas emissions. The proceeds from these sales were earmarked for projects that advanced environmentally sustainable solutions, and the VCM was designed to increase the cost of emitting carbon – thereby driving commercial incentives to integrate green technologies. It also drove increased funding to decarbonization efforts. 

While laudable in its mission and respectable in the results achieved to date, the VCM has fallen short of its promise as a global transformative solution for reducing carbon emissions. The VCM lacks transparency, and operates inefficiently. It is dominated by non-public, over-the-counter transactions, so those with access to insider information are often able to profit off of inefficiencies. Buying carbon offsets on the VCM today requires going through a broker who chooses the offsets an entity is able to buy and sets prices. As a result, the vast majority of offsets bought today are purchased by massive corporations that are able to navigate this inefficiency and afford a broker’s services.

Enter the blockchain: crypto markets have greatly expanded and matured in recent years, providing safe, secure, and efficient platforms for users to exchange tokens which fuel innovations happening across the ecosystem. Through crypto markets, almost anyone with an internet connection can easily buy and sell crypto tokens with minimal transaction costs. 

KlimaDAO sits at the intersection of blockchain-based innovation in exchange platforms and the inefficient carbon-offset market. KlimaDAO enables users to buy and sell tokenized carbon offsets – verified by independent carbon credit standards bodies – on a transparent, publicly viewable, open-source market platform. Instead of needing to turn to private entities with high transaction costs and minimal price transparency, with KlimaDAO any government, corporation, or individual can in effect buy and sell carbon offsets directly.

This approach is a sea change from the status quo VCM – a transparent, publicly available market, open to all, and without costly middlemen – a potentially revolutionary innovation that can, at scale, play a major role in protecting our planet for future generations by realigning economic incentives. As the unceasing burning of fossil fuels continues to wreak havoc on our planet, we will need all hands on deck – the crypto/web3 community and activists alike.  We must all work towards solutions to build a cleaner, greener, and fairer world for all.

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We Can Change Minds, Says the World’s Most Popular Climate Scientist

In an exclusive interview at the recent Techonomy Climate conference, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe said that the most powerful tool we have in the fight against climate change is effective communication. The tech is here. It’s time to change hearts and minds.

In an exclusive interview at the recent Techonomy Climate conference, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe said that the most powerful tool we have in the fight against climate change is effective communication. The tech is here. It’s time to change hearts and minds.

Hayhoe was interviewed by Jeff Nesbit of nonprofit Climate Nexus communications firm. He rightly called Hayhoe “the most popular climate scientist on earth.” She has an enormous following on social media, her TED Talk has millions of views, and her book Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World is a recent best seller. (She’s an eminent professor at Texas Tech University and chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, as well.)

Hayhoe’s core philosophy for fighting climate change is “talk about it.” And when doing the talking, remember that empathy, compassion, and connection are just as important as the science.

“Back in the day, people thought if we just tell people the facts, surely they’ll change their minds,” she said. Clearly that’s not working. Hayhoe said there are two main roadblocks when it comes to changing hearts and minds. One is psychological distance. “We humans see this as a distant issue in space or time rather than being something that matters to us here and now in ways that are relevant to us today.” And the second one is people just don’t think we can fix it. “Either we feel a stunning lack of efficacy and we feel like there’s nothing we can do that could make a difference, or there are many people who feel that the cure is worse than the disease. They feel the solutions would leave us worse off than we would be just coping with the impacts.”

Hayhoe thinks of the American public in various categories, based on extensive polling done on this topic in recent years. She said about 8% of Americans are ‘dismissives.’ “It takes a miracle to change their minds.” And she’s not in the business of miracles. “But,” she continued, “they’re only 8%.” As for everyone else, the sentiments are more heartening: 70% of Americans are worried, 83% of moms are worried, and 86% of young people are worried. Yet 50% of us feel hopeless and helpless and don’t know what to do.”

Politics, of course, plays an outsized role. “The United States is now more politically polarized than it’s been any time since the Civil War,” she said. But it wasn’t always like this. “At the time when the first national climate assessment was enacted in 2000, Gallup polls indicated that Democrats and Republicans were pretty much on the same page when it came to climate change.”

“Did the science change?” she asked. “No. The science has been solid since the 1850s, when scientists connected digging up and burning fossil fuels to increasing levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. What changed was that we started to see the impacts, here and now, and that meant that action was necessary. As soon as action became necessary, that is when the denial began.”

Despite more than 150 years of scientific evidence, we’re torn apart by politics. “And social media plays a role in that, because experiment upon experiment has shown that the social media algorithms, which are just generated to basically make money, deliberately tribalize and in some cases even radicalize us.”

Hayhoe believes, nonetheless, social media platforms are tools that can be used for both good and bad. In fact, she’s found ample success in changing people’s minds via social media. But she cited many faults with the platforms, and called out YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, and most notably Facebook for their destructive policies.

Back in 2018, Facebook formally decided climate change was a political issue, and changed the way it moderated such discussions. The algorithm began downgrading Hayhoe’s posts. When she complained, administrators told her all she had to do was register as a political organization. “Over my dead and decomposing body am I, as a climate scientist, registering as a political organization.”

“A lot of social media companies went into this very naively. They didn’t realize how their platforms could literally be weaponized to foment dissent, to spread misinformation, to exacerbate the divisions between and within our societies,” she said. But we can no longer afford to be naive, said Hayhoe. “Companies are certainly making steps, but they are tripping over their shoelaces and landing on their faces.”

Connecting over what we all have in common is our best hope. “Research shows that if we talk about what’s happening where we live, here and now, in ways that affect us, like the safety of our homes or the quality of the air that we’re breathing, it can overcome our political divides because we’re focusing on something that we share that’s more relevant to our lives than something that divides us,” she said.

“We have everything we need to take action now,” she said. “In fact, we’ve already had most of what we need for quite some time now.”

But the tech doesn’t seem to be saving us. So what does Dr. Hayhoe recommend? “Every bit of warming matters, every year matters, every choice matters, and every action matters.” Quoting Bill McKibben she said “the most important thing an individual can do right now is not be such an individual.”

“We [must] look at how we influence the place we work, the place we live, the organizations that we’re part of when we use our voice…Call for action at every level, not just the federal level. Cities are much more nimble and much more bipartisan. States, corporations, universities, churches, neighborhoods, all kinds of organizations can take action together. That’s how change happens.”

Watch the full interview here.

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