International Day of Clear Blue Skies

Aside from Labor Day in the U.S., today is the first International Day of Clear Blue Skies, which was established by the United Nations General Assembly to bring awareness to the largest environmental risk to public health globally: air pollution.

Over 90% of our world is exposed to polluted air, which causes an estimated seven million premature deaths every year (more than cigarette smoking) and leaves millions more with chronic health problems like asthma and cognitive decline.

Fortunately, the world has a precedent for successful action: Over 30 years ago this month, the UN-sponsored Montreal Protocol saw literally every country commit to working together to eliminate CFCs, which were causing severe depletion of the ozone layer; it remains one of the few treaties with universal agreement. It took only 14 years between the discovery of the problem and the world committing to resolve it—and we’ve already seen the results.

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A few years ago, it was confirmed that the ozone layer is slowly recovering, and most projections show it fully healing within the next four decades. In an era of rising conflict and poor global leadership, this unlikely and little known success story of international cooperation is a glimmer of hope.

Food Stamps Are an Investment in the Future

That, in essence, is the finding of one of the largest studies of its kind on what is officially known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Since being nationally mandated in 1975, SNAP has remained the largest national anti-hunger program: last year along, more than 40 million poor working families, people with disabilities and seniors received assistance averaging to about $125 monthly; 70 percent live in households with children.

Whatever the moral case for supporting SNAP, there is certainly an economic one, as one of the largest studies of its kind recently proved.

From Bloomberg:

The economists focus on people born between 1956 and 1981, who were young children when the program was expanding, and who grew up in families with a parent with less than a high school education. They find that access to the program as a young child significantly improved economic outcomes and health status as an adult.

In particular, food stamp access as a child was associated with much lower risk of metabolic syndrome as an adult and, especially for women, higher levels of educational attainment and income along with lower participation on means-tested benefit programs. For example, food stamp access during childhood is linked to a 5 percentage point reduction in heart disease and an 18 percentage point increase in high school completion rates, compared to those who lacked access.

This evidence contradicts some critiques of food stamps, which misleadingly argue that it’s an inefficient and ineffective program.

The authors also highlight that access seems to matter most in utero and up until age 5. Gaining access to food stamps after age 5, by contrast, didn’t improve health outcomes as an adult, perhaps because the person had already been put on a particular health trajectory by that age.

As typical in such studies, there is a question of “correlation versus causation”, but the gradual rollout of SNAP allowed the researchers to account for this because “children living in otherwise similar families either did or didn’t receive benefits depending on whether their county voluntarily participated at the time. (The researchers show that county choice seems to be unrelated to other factors that may have substantially affected children living there.)”

The study also demonstrates the importance of taking a long-term view of these sorts of programs, especially when children are involved. Various other studies suggest that investing in the formative early years of one’s life pays huge dividends later; that is obviously lost on those who focus only during the year the benefit is received. 

Over 70% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Comes from 100 Companies

While we should all do our part to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, a recent study reported in the Guardian finds that such efforts will frankly be worthless so long as a handful of powerful private entities account for the vast majority of climate change-causing pollution.

The Carbon Majors Report (pdf) “pinpoints how a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions,” says Pedro Faria, technical director at environmental non-profit CDP, which published the report in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute.

Traditionally, large scale greenhouse gas emissions data is collected at a national level but this report focuses on fossil fuel producers. Compiled from a database of publicly available emissions figures, it is intended as the first in a series of publications to highlight the role companies and their investors could play in tackling climate change.

The report found that more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988 – the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established – can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities. The scale of historical emissions associated with these fossil fuel producers is large enough to have contributed significantly to climate change, according to the report.

ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron are identified as among the highest emitting investor-owned companies since 1988. If fossil fuels continue to be extracted at the same rate over the next 28 years as they were between 1988 and 2017, says the report, global average temperatures would be on course to rise by 4C by the end of the century. This is likely to have catastrophic consequences including substantial species extinction and global food scarcity risks.

This puts addressing climate change square in the hands of executives, investors, and shareholders–the narrow class of individuals less likely to be impacted by climate change, best equipped to adapt to it, and most likely to be wrapped up in short-term gains ahead of long-term consequences.

Investors should move out of fossil fuels, says Michael Brune, executive director of US environmental organisation the Sierra Club. “Not only is it morally risky, it’s economically risky. The world is moving away from fossil fuels towards clean energy and is doing so at an accelerated pace. Those left holding investments in fossil fuel companies will find their investments becoming more and more risky over time.”

There is a “growing wave of companies that are acting in the opposite manner to the companies in this report,” says Brune. Nearly 100 companies including Apple, Facebook, Google and Ikea have committed to 100% renewable power under the RE100 initiativeVolvo recently announced that all its cars would be electric or hybrid from 2019.

And oil and gas companies are also embarking on green investments. Shell set up a renewables arm in 2015 with a $1.7bn investment attached and a spokesperson for Chevron says it’s “committed to managing its [greenhouse gas] emissions” and is investing in two of the world’s largest carbon dioxide injection projects to capture and store carbon. A BP spokesperson says its “determined to be part of the solution” for climate change and is “investing in renewables and low-carbon innovation.” And ExxonMobil, which has faced heavy criticism for its environmental record, has been exploring carbon capture and storage.

But for many the sums involved and pace of change are nowhere near enough. A research paper published last year by Paul Stevens, an academic at think tank Chatham House, said international oil companies were no longer fit for purpose and warned these multinationals that they faced a “nasty, brutish and short” end within the next 10 years if they did not completely change their business models.

It is also worth pointing out that while a large number of the corporate culprits are based in the West, overall they span most of the world: rich and poor, developed and developing, democratic and autocratic:

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Most of these companies are not household names, which reflects the low-key nature of the global energy industry: many of us in the developed world take for granted the seemingly endless supply of electricity, gasoline, and other energy supplies. The extraction, production, refinement, and delivery of these fossil fuels occurs unseen, involving a complex network of companies dispersed around the globe.

Thus, as with so many other solutions to climate change, there will need to be a comprehensive, globally coordinated effort by the international community to reign in on pollution and environmental degradation, in cooperation with–or even in opposition to–some of the most powerful corporate interests in the world.

Is there any possibility that the global masses can apply pressure their governments (and to a lesser degree their businesses) to take action? Are these individuals and institutions too wealthy and far removed from the public to be influenced and accountable to either governments or their constituents? What are your thoughts?

When Schizophrenia Isn’t a Mental Illness

Culture may play a huge role in how schizophrenia manifests, according to one study published in a leading British psychiatric journal. It interviewed 60 adults diagnosed with schizophrenia – 20 each from the U.S., Ghana, and India – and found one stark difference between the nationalities: while American subjects were likelier to report violent, sadistic, and hateful voices, most of the subjects from Africa and Asian claimed to hear generally positive voices – which not a single American reported. Continue reading

What Parasites Can Teach Us About Society

Who knew that the workings of a tapeworm could provide some very relevant implications about human nature and social control? Like many parasites, Schistocephalus solidus has a complex life cycle: it reproduces in the guts of waterbirds, from whose droppings its eggs are deposited; they hatch and the larva infect small crustaceans, which are eaten by stickleback fish, which are then eaten by the waterbirds, and…you get the picture.

So far, so typical of parasites. But as The Atlantic reports, the transition from one lifeform to another is facilitated by a pretty insidious form of mind control, which works far beyond the immediately infected animals. Continue reading

What Worries the World

The wave of populism sweeping across the world — particularly, but not exclusively, in the West — is largely product of widespread discontent among the masses. But the causes of anxiety and cynicism vary from country to country, with each society facing its own unique challenges or trajectories.

A recent poll of 25 countries conducted by Ipsos MORI, a leading market research group based in the U.K., uncovered the main issue that worries each nation and whether they think things are going on the right track. Here are the results, courtesy of The Economist: Continue reading

The Impact of Vaccines

Most of developed world take vaccines for granted. Indeed, there is a growing number  of people in wealthy countries, often the most privileged, who outright fear and dislike vaccines. Yet the data are overwhelming: vaccines have not only been pivotal to virtually extinguishing all sorts of previously common diseases (measles, polio, pertussis, etc.), but they have continued to reap dividends for the millions of human who live in the developing world, where public health otherwise remains weak.

As reported in IFLS:

Vaccines are well regarded as one of the most cost-effective health care actions that a country can pursue, and since 2001 the United Nations has been running a program in 73 low and middle-income countries to prevent 10 diseases. It is now expected that when the project is completed in 2020, it will have resulted in averting around 20 million deaths, while at the same time saving a staggering $820 billion.

“Our examination of the broader economic and social value of vaccines illustrates the substantial gains associated with vaccination,” explained Sachiko Ozawa, who led the research, in a statement. “Unlike previous estimates that only examine the averted costs of treatment, our estimates of the broader economic and social value of vaccines reflect the intrinsic value that people place on living longer and healthier lives.”

And these economic benefits, it turns out, are huge. The researchers have calculated that when the vaccination program comes to an end in 2020, it will have saved around $350 billion when it comes to health, but overall this balloons to an astonishing $820 billion across the 73 low and middle-income countries in which Gavi is operating.

This is not only through reduced health care costs as diseases are prevented before they become an issue, but also due to those who are vaccinated being healthier and so working for longer and thus increasing productivity in these nations over their entire lifetimes.

Social and economic benefits aside, the most important results are the human ones: the prevention of over 500 million illnesses, 20 million child deaths, and 9 million cases of long-term disabilities. So much pain and suffering and loss will be unknown — and unfortunately unappreciated — because of such a cheap and relatively easy intervention.

What is Christianity? An Interview With Bart Ehrman

This is a really good interview with Bart Ehrman, a scholar with degrees from three prominent biblical and theological colleges who specializes in textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity.

He points out a lot of interesting facts, such as evidence that Jesus’ teachings and behavior suggest he was a Jewish reformer with no intention of creating a new religion; that the spreading the faith to non-Jews (and ultimately the world) was an innovation of Paul that was strenuously opposed by Peter; and that early Christianity and Judaism may have been “henotheistic“, in that they did not rule out the existence of other gods but simply argued that only one of them should be worshiped ahead of the others.

Regardless of your religious persuasion or lack thereof (I am a secular humanist), the two hour interview is well worth checking out just from an academic point of view. (Ehrman is a former born again Christian who during his studies became agnostic, but he takes a fairly charitable view of Christians overall.)

Let me know  what you think and feel free to share your thoughts.

The Best Countries for Talented People

According to the 2018 Global Talent Competitiveness Index published by INSEAD, a leading French business school, Switzerland ranks as the best place in the world for attracting and cultivating talent.

Singapore ranked second — the highest in Asia for the fifth straight year — followed by the United States, Norway, and Sweden. Eight of the top ten were European.

The index assesses a country’s ability to not only draw the world’s skilled and educated workers, but to develop and retain them at home. Hence the highest ranking countries tended to have good education systems, healthy and open business environments (in terms of regulations, rule of law, etc.) and reliable infrastructure and telecommunications, to name but a few factors. They were also cosmopolitan, with greater openness to immigration and multiculturalism (which makes sense if you want to attract as many talented people as possible regardless of background).

For a more detailed and interactive breakdown of the data, click here.

H/T: Bloomberg

 

How an International Coalition is Tackling One of the World’s Most Widespread Diseases

Hepatitis C is a nasty and virulent liver disease that affects over 71 million people worldwide and kills 400,000 people annually. While highly effective medicines are available, their high cost — from $12,000 in Chile to over $84,000 in the U.S. for a 12-week treatment course — means barely 3 million people get treatment.

Enter globalization: a Swiss nonprofit dedicated to providing low-cost medical treatments, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), has teamed up with an Egyptian drugmaker, Pharco Pharmaceuticals, to create a cheaper treatment program based on two U.S.-made drugs that are too expensive for most people.

Continue reading