Tag Archives: global

The global response to the pandemic has been “a collective failure”, according to independent health watchdog

The world is failing to learn the lessons of the pandemic and is still doing too little to address the issues it has caused, warns an independent watchdog set up by the World Health Organization and the World Bank.

A new report by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) explains in no uncertain terms that the global response to the pandemic has been very underwhelming, and is still plagued by issues. Instead of learning from such a traumatic event, we are leaving those that most need help behind, the report concludes.

The pandemic has exposed a world that is “unequal, divided, and unaccountable”, it concludes.

Leaves much to be desired

“If the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was defined by a collective failure to take preparedness seriously and act rapidly on the basis of science, the second has been marked by profound inequalities and a failure of leaders to understand our interconnectedness and act accordingly,” the report said.

“The health emergency ecosystem reflects this broken world. It is not fit for purpose and needs major reform.”

The report cites WHO estimates which place the overall death toll of the pandemic (both direct and indirect) at 17 million people. While that number in itself is frightening, the authors also point to a sharp — and growing — divide in the vaccination rates between wealthier and poorer areas of the globe.

Despite more than six billion vaccine doses being administered globally to date, only 1.4 percent of people in poor countries have been fully vaccinated, explained World Trade Organization chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala earlier this month.

The report comes in the wake of the 2020 GPMB report which was already pointing out how ill-prepared the world was for a global pandemic, despite numerous warnings from researchers and healthcare professionals that such an event was unavoidable.

“Scientific advancement during COVID-19, particularly the speed of vaccine development, gives us just cause for pride,” reads the report’s foreword, written by GPMB co-chair Elhadj As Sy.

“However, we must feel deep shame over multiple tragedies–vaccine hoarding, the devastating oxygen shortages in low-income countries, the generation of children deprived of education, the shattering of fragile economies and health systems. While this disaster should have brought us together, instead we are divided, fragmented, and living in worlds apart.”

The sheer loss of life caused by the pandemic is “neither normal nor acceptable,” he adds.

Against this backdrop, there’s little evidence that we’re actually learning from the pandemic. Deaths from COVID-19 are still mounting, while vaccination efforts are stalling in many areas of the globe. Areas of the world with the resources and infrastructure needed to distribute large quantities of vaccines are starting to ease into the illusion that the pandemic is over. On the other hand, poorer and less fortunate areas are seeing their national health system buckle and break under the strain of extra patients who need intensive care, while their own vaccination drives are progressing painfully slowly — due to a lack of resources, adequate infrastructure, or lack of trained personnel.

But in our interconnected world, there’s no feasible solution for beating this pandemic alone. The growing number of cases is a very real threat even for countries that have achieved high vaccination rates within their own borders. In a globalized society, there is no such thing as closing off your gates and weathering the storm outside.

The solution, GPMB proposes, is “a new global social contract to prevent and mitigate health emergencies”. They sum this contract up around six key points:

  • Strengthen global governance; adopt an international agreement on health emergency preparedness and response, and convene a Summit of Heads of State and Government, together with other stakeholders, on health emergency preparedness and response.
  • Build a strong WHO with greater resources, authority, and accountability.
  • Create an agile health emergency system that can deliver on equity through better information sharing and an end-to-end mechanism for research, development and equitable access to common goods.
  • Establish a collective financing mechanism for preparedness to ensure more sustainable, predictable, flexible, and scalable financing.
  • Empower communities and ensure engagement of civil society and the private sector.
  • Strengthen independent monitoring and mutual accountability.

It’s easy to read such material and feel defensive, even insulted. Haven’t we all suffered our share during this pandemic? Haven’t we all done our best to come through it? What more do these ‘organizations’ want from us, and what do they even know about us? And that’s certainly an understandable reaction.

But we have to look beyond that. Organizations such as the GPMB exist because they serve a role we as individuals, communities, governments, and countries cannot do on our own. Their job is to tell us when we all, as a species, are not acting in our own interest — and to hold us accountable. The hard truth is that our natural inclination during times of crisis is to hunker down and wait it out. But working together is the fastest and most efficient way of dealing with threats, including pandemics. We may not like the idea that our choices here can influence someone’s chances of survival half the world away, but they do. And while there’s precious little we as individuals can do, we can do our own little part, and we can hold those in charge accountable for doing their own, much larger part; both at home, and abroad.

The full report is available on the GPMB homepage.

Heatwaves are getting hotter, longer, more frequent globally

Heatwaves are becoming more frequent around the world, a new paper reports.

Image via Pixabay.

A worldwide analysis of heatwave patterns on the regional level reveals that these have been increasing in length and frequency in the last 70 years. Cumulative heat — the total amount of heat in individual heatwaves and heatwave seasons — has also been increasing. This property signifies the intensity of the heatwave season and represents “the product of all seasonal heatwave days and average heatwave intensity.”

Catching some (heat) waves

“Not only have we seen more and longer heatwaves worldwide over the past 70 years, but this trend has markedly accelerated,” said lead author Dr. Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes in Australia.

For the study, the researchers looked at heatwave trends over multi-decade intervals between 1950-2017 and found some very telling signs.

The Mediterranean region, for example, saw an overall increase in heatwave duration of two days per decade. When looking at the 1980-2017 time frame specifically, the team found an increase in heatwave days of 6.4 days per decade. This suggests that most if not all of the increase is focused during these last decades.

Regions like the Amazon, north-east Brazil, and West Asia are also experiencing a rapid increase in heatwaves and their intensity while areas like South Australia and northern Asia are seeing a slower rate of increase.

Virtually all areas of the globe are seeing longer, hotter heatwaves more often, but every region is affected differently. For example, Australia experienced an additional 80°C of cumulative heat during its worst heatwave season, whereas western Russia logged a mighty 240 °C of extra heat during its worst season.

The longer a heatwave season is, and the more intense its temperatures, the higher this cumulative heat value will be. On a global level, cumulative heat is rising by roughly 1°C-4.5°C per decade, according to the authors. Some areas are experiencing rises of “up to 10°C a decade,” according to Kirkpatrick.

Such changes will impact the lives of all of us, but poorer countries with more fragile infrastructures are bound to be hit hardest, the team believes. Furthermore, they explain that longer, more intense, more frequent heatwaves have “long” been identified as “a clear sign of global warming“, according to Kirkpatrick.

“The dramatic region-by-region change in heatwaves we have witnessed over the past 70 years and the rapid increase in the number of these events, are unequivocal indicators that global warming is now with us and accelerating,” he adds.

“This research is just the latest piece of evidence that should act as a clarion call to policymakers that urgent action is needed now if we are to prevent the worst outcomes of global warming. The time for inaction is over.”

The paper “Increasing trends in regional heatwaves” has been published in the journal Nature.

New climate models show that global warming will be faster than expected

Things are about to get hotter than we expected.

Image via Pixabay.

New research suggests that the greenhouse gases we’re putting into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels will heat the planet more quickly than we assumed. By 2100 mean temperatures could rise 6.5 to 7.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels if carbon emissions continue unabated, according to two separate models from leading research centers in France.

Tres hot

“With our two models, we see that the scenario known as SSP1 2.6 — which normally allows us to stay under 2°C — doesn’t quite get us [the intended results],” Olivier Boucher, head of the Institute Pierre Simon Laplace Climate Modelling Centre in Paris, told AFP.

The 6.5 to 7.0 degrees Celsius mark is two degrees higher than the equivalent scenario (SSP5) set out in the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2014 benchmark 5th Assessment Report. This difference in temperatures comes from refined predictions based on more complex and reliable climate scenarios, the team explains. They also suggest that the Paris Agreement goals of capping global warming at “well below” 2°C, and 1.5°C if possible, will be harder to reach, the scientists said.

It may not seem like a lot, but you have to keep in mind that the recent uptick in deadly heat waves, droughts, floods, and the intensity of tropical cyclones we’ve been seeing lately are happening with barely one degree Celsius of warming.

The two new models are part of a generation of around 30 new climate models collectively known as CMIP6; these will be used as a base for the IPCC’s next major report, scheduled for 2021. While they’re definitely not perfect, the models in CMIP6 are the best and most refined of their kind that we have. Their advantages include increased supercomputing power and sharper representations of weather systems, natural and man-made particles, and how clouds evolve in a warming world.

“We have better models now,” said Boucher. “They have better resolution, and they represent current climate trends more accurately.”

One of the core findings of these models is that increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere will warm Earth’s surface more easily than earlier calculations had suggested. The higher “equilibrium climate sensitivity” (or ECS) predicted by the models means that humanity’s carbon budget — how much we can emit before we see negative effects — is smaller than we previously assumed. Boiled down, a higher ECS means a greater likelihood of reaching higher levels of global warming, even with deeper emissions cuts.

Needless to say, this is bad news for global efforts to curb climate change.

The two French climate models, including one from France’s National Centre for Meteorological Research (CNRM), are to be unveiled at a press conference in Paris.

Climate change denial might soon be abhorred as slavery, says David Attenborough

As he appeared in front of a committee of the British Parliament, the famous naturalist said we are “we are right now in the beginning of a big change,” adding that one day, climate change denial might be view through the same lens as slavery.

“There was a time in the 19th century when it was perfectly acceptable for civilised human beings to think it was morally acceptable to actually own another human being as a slave,” Attenborough commented. “And somehow or other in the space of I suppose 20 or 30 years the public perception of that totally transformed. By the middle of the 19th century it was becoming intolerable.”

Few people in science communication command as much respect as David Attenborough. Attenborough is widely considered a national treasure in Britain, although he himself does not like the term. People, in Britain and above, listen to him. Just last year, Queen Elizabeth banned plastic straws and bottles on the royal estates after seeing a David Attenborough documentary, and just months after that, a national ban on plastic straws was implemented in the UK. I’m not saying it’s only owed to him, but the attention and respect that he commands is simply unparalleled. Attenborough is also not afraid to use his voice, as was the case when he recently appeared in front of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee on how to tackle the climate emergency.

“I am sorry that there are people who are in power … notably, of course, [in] the United States but also in Australia [who are climate change deniers], which is extraordinary because Australia is already facing having to deal with some of the most extreme manifestations of climate change.”

Attenborough is right. In the past century, Australia has experienced an increase of nearly 1 °C in average annual temperatures, with several areas experiencing substantially reduced rainfall and a higher likelihood of extreme weather events such as drought or wildfires. Attenborough recalls being in a state of shock when he dived to see the Great Barrier Reef 10 years ago, only to find a ghost — a shadow of the reef’s former self.

“I will never forget diving on the reef about 10 years ago and suddenly seeing that instead of this multitude of wonderful forms and life that it was stark white. It had bleached white because of the rising temperatures and the increasing acidity of the sea,” he said.

He emphatically spoke against climate change denial, but also said that the world shouldn’t stifle debate — it’s just that the debate shouldn’t focus on topics which are scientifically settled.

“It’s very, very important that voices of dissent should have a place where they’re heard and the arguments between the two sides can be worked out in public, and compared and analysed in public,” he said.

But there is also good news, Attenborough says. He praised the recent UK commitment to achieve zero net emissions by 2050, noting that it is a “tough target” which will “cost money”. But Attenborough sees the best reasons for optimism in the younger generations.

“The idealism of youth is something that should be treasured and respected,” he said.

He says that the younger generations are growing up with a new set of ideals and morals, despising pollution and greenhouse gas emissions the way we now despise slavery.

It’s an intriguing comparison. The similarities are there: it’s largely caused by the affluent parts of the world, and the less affluent are the ones who will suffer the most. The ethical resemblance is also there, and like slavery, climate change is already starting to cause social unrest.

“I’m OK, and all of us here are OK, because we don’t face the problems that are coming. But the problems in the next 30 years are really major problems that are going to cause social unrest, and great changes in the way that we live and what we eat. It’s going to happen,” Attenborough added.

It remains to be seen whether Attenborough speech resonates with the British parliament and politicians from other places of the world. We are indeed at a point where climate change denial is simply unacceptable. We are living in a climate emergency which affects each and every one of us — whether we like it or not.

Ocean dwellers are hit twice as hard by climate change as land-based species

Twice as many ocean-borne species have experienced local extinctions due to climate change than land-based ones, a new study reports.

Churning water.

Image via Pixabay.

They may be hidden from our sight, but ocean dwellers are also suffering from climate change. In fact, says a new study led by researchers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, they might be carrying the brunt of it. The rate of climate-change-induced extirpation in the oceans is double that seen on land, the paper explains. In addition to destabilizing marine environments, this may also significantly impact communities that rely on fish and shellfish for food or finance.

A thing of the deep

“We find that, globally, marine species are being eliminated from their habitats by warming temperatures twice as often as land species,” said lead author Malin Pinsky, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

“The findings suggest that new conservation efforts will be needed if the ocean is going to continue supporting human well-being, nutrition, and economic activity.”

The study is the first to compare cold-blooded marine and land species’ sensitivity to a warming climate, as well as their ability to find shelter from heat in their natural habitats, the authors write. It included data (recorded in studies around the world) on nearly 400 different species including fish, reptiles, and spiders. The study notes that ancient extinctions have often been concentrated at specific latitudes and in specific ecosystems when the climate changed rapidly. Future warming is likely to trigger the loss of more marine species from local habitats and more species turnover in the ocean.

The team calculated safe conditions for 88 marine and 294 land species, as well as the coolest temperatures they could expect, in their natural habitats, during the hottest months of the year. On average, marine species are more likely to live in temperature conditions that are on the edge of dangerous. They also can’t seek shelter from the heat in forests, underground, or in shaded areas like land-based animals can — which further compounds their woes.

Such findings are particularly troubling as they showcase how fragile marine species can be in the face of climate change. And, it needn’t be whole species that goes extinct for the damage to mount — the team says that even the loss of local populations can deplete a species’ genetic diversity and have cascading impacts on the ecosystems that benefit human society.

“Understanding which species and ecosystems will be most severely affected by warming as climate change advances is important for guiding conservation and management,” the study says.

The paper ” Greater vulnerability to warming of marine versus terrestrial ectotherms” has been published in the journal Nature.

CO2 emissions.

Atmospheric greenhouse gas levels hit new record. Just like in 2017… and 2016

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have hit a record high — again.

CO2 emissions.

Image credits Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research University Network / Flickr.

United Nations (UN) officials reported last week that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have hit a record high. The report, published in preparation for the COP24 climate summit to be held in Poland next month, also warns that the time to act is running short.

Too much bad gas

“Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth,” the head of the World Meteorological Organization Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

“The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”

The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin — the flagship annual report of the UN’s weather agency, WMO (World Meteorological Organization) — has been tracking the content of various gases in the atmosphere since 1750. This year’s report (covering data for 2017), puts CO2 content in the atmosphere at 405.5 ppm (parts per million). This is the single highest value we’ve ever seen during our time on the planet — it’s up from 403.3 ppm in 2016 and 400.1 ppm in 2015. Both years were record-setters in the CO2-content department themselves.

However, it’s not the first time our planet has experienced such levels of carbon dioxide. The WMO has reliable CO2 concentration estimates for the last 800,000 years, drawn from analysis of air bubbles locked in the ice sheets of Greenland or Antarctica. It also has rough estimates of the gas’ concentration in our atmosphere spanning the last five million years, mostly drawn from chemical analysis of fossils.

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer,” Taalas said.

The agency also points to rising concentrations of methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone-depleting gases (such as CFC-11) in addition to CO2. Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) all broke new records in 2017, with CO2 at 405.5 ppm, CH4 at 1859 ppm, and N2O at 329.9 ppb. These values represent, respectively, 146%, 257%, and 122% of pre-industrial (before 1750) levels.

We need to scrub

All in all, this isn’t good news. While the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is indeed a direct consequence of emissions, that’s only part of the picture. Emissions are how much of such compounds we release into the wild; the levels reported on by the WMO are what stays there after plants, oceans, and all sorts of other players are done absorbing their share. ‘Their share’ amounts to roughly 25% of all emissions for oceans and the biosphere, plus a little extra that goes into the lithosphere (i.e. rocks) and cryosphere (i.e. ice).

These atmospheric concentrations reported on by the WMO are, then, the year-after-year build-up of emissions that our planet can’t process. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body tasked with reviewing climate science and organizing the international effort against climate change, net emissions must be brought to zero in order to limit warming to below 1.5°Celsius.

This basically means either not emitting anything in the first place (which is highly unlikely to happen right now), or scrubbing as much greenhouse gas out of the air as we put out — whether this is done through natural or technological means isn’t really important. If we can’t rise up to the challenge, notes WMO’s deputy chief, Elena Manaenkova, all that CO2 will end up in the atmosphere and oceans — and plague us for hundreds of years. To put it in context, the cost of climate-related disasters topped $2.25 trillion worldwide from 1998 to 2017. The U.S. had “the worst” losses with $944.8 billion, followed by China with $492.2 billion, and Japan with $376.3 billion, Niall McCarthy writes for Forbes. The UN reports that 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. A warmer climate means more and more powerful disasters (such as droughts, storms, or disease).

“There is currently no magic wand to remove all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere,” she said. “Every fraction of a degree of global warming matters, and so does every part per million of greenhouse gases,” she said.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned in an open letter addressed to all member states at COP24 that the world faces dire consequences if we don’t change our ways. “Entire nations, ecosystems, peoples, and ways of life could simply cease to exist,” she said. She cited evidence that nations are not on track to meet the commitments made in Paris in support for her claims.

In response to a recent tweet from US president Donald Trump — “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?” — deputy WMO chief Elena Manaenkova chose to simply tell reporters that the science on global warming is “unequivocal.”


The report “WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin (GHG Bulletin) – No. 14: The State of Greenhouse Gases in the Atmosphere Based on Global Observations through 2017” is available on the WMO’s page here.

Last year was the warmest humanity ever recorded without El Niño, NASA warns

The Earth continues to heat up according to a NASA analysis that revealed 2017 was the second warmest year since global estimates became possible in 1880. More worryingly, it was only second to 2016, which saw increases in temperature caused by El Niño, the warm phase of the cyclical El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). When correcting for the phenomenon, 2017 takes the lead.


Image credits Cuddy Wifter.

The year continued the ignoble, decades-long warming trend of the globe — 17 out of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred between 2001 and today. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) reports that globally-averaged temperatures in 2017 were 1.6° Fahrenheit higher than the 1951-1980 mean.

It came second as the warmest-ever recorded year behind 2016. However, temperatures then were bumped up by El Niño, which pushes warmer fronts of water from the western tropical Pacific Ocean towards the coast of South America. This movement of warm water causes warming effects across the globe.

When El Niño is factored out, 2017 becomes the warmest year ever recorded by humanity.

The Earth warmed up overall, but weather dynamics mean that this effect wasn’t homogenous across the face of the planet — as such, different locations experienced different amounts of warming.

“Despite colder than average temperatures in any one part of the world, temperatures over the planet as a whole continue the rapid warming trend we’ve seen over the last 40 years,” said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt.

The strongest warming trends were seen in the Arctics, which continued to bleed ice cover and volume in 2017, the report adds.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers produced an independent analysis on the subject, which strongly confirms NASA’s findings, with the exception that NOAA lists 2017 as the third warmest year on record.

The two agencies used different methods to analyze temperatures across the globe, which created this small difference in ranking. NASA tracks temperatures using a combination of data from 6,300 weather stations, ship- and buoy-based recordings of sea-surface temperatures, as well as research stations in the Antarctic. The algorithm that data is fed through was designed to consider sources of interference to produce the global average temperature deviations from the baseline period of 1951 to 1980, according to NASA.

This processing (and the fact that NOAA uses its own algorithms) is why the two agencies’ results diverge slightly. However, the findings reported in both documents largely overlap, and both agree that the five warmest years on record have taken place since 2010.

Temp recording over time.

They say an image is worth a thousand words.
Image credits NASA.

“NOAA scientists used much of the same raw temperature data, but with a different baseline period, and different methods to analyze Earth’s polar regions and global temperatures,” the NASA report reads.

NASA estimates that the global mean change in temperature they calculated is accurate within 0.1°F with a 95% certainty level — which is very solid. Any uncertainty arises due to changes in measurement practices over time, and to some weather stations being relocated over the studied period.


Study ranks 63 countries by empathy, Ecuador tops the list

Michigan State University produced the first empathy-ranking of countries around the world. The team used data from more than a hundred thousand adults from 63 different countries. Ecuador ranked as the most empathetic country.

“Portrait of a Man.”
Work and image credits Gert Germeraad.

How does culture influence empathy? And how readily do people around the world place themselves in the shoes of others? Those are a few of the questions a Michigan State Uni team tried to answer in one of the most comprehensive global empathy distribution studies to date. The team collected data from 104,365 adult participants in 63 countries to measure their compassion for others and their tendency to imagine another’s point of view.

The data was acquired through online surveys, analyzing the links between empathetic feelings and a host of “prosocial” behaviors (such as volunteering or charitable donations) and various personality traits.

“To our knowledge, this study is by far the largest examination of cultural differences in empathy, with respect to both the number of individuals and the number of countries represented,” the researchers write.

So here’s the countries well on the path to empathy:

  1. Ecuador
  2. Saudi Arabia
  3. Peru
  4. Denmark
  5. United Arab Emirates
  6. Korea
  7. United States
  8. Taiwan
  9. Costa Rica
  10. Kuwait

On the other end of the spectrum, Lithuania, Venezuela, Estonia, Poland, and Bulgaria ranked the lowest on their Total Empathy scores. The team notes that 7 of the ten lowest-ranking countries are found in Eastern Europe. You can see the full rankings here.

Or here in lower resolution.
Image credits William J. Chopik et al., 2016 / MSU.

The team defined empathy as a tendency to tune in to others’ feelings and perspectives. They asked participants to answer a list of questions drawn from several standardized tests which reflected on personal and cultural qualities. The tests were designed to assess basic personality traits (such as agreeableness, conscientiousness, and personal well-being), prosociality, individualism/collectivism, and personal empathy. It also measured each individual’s self-esteem and feeling of wellbeing. The participants were also asked to rank a series of statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” or “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.” The team also asked how happy the participants felt with their lives, if and how often they donated money to charity or volunteered time to organizations.

After crunching all this data, the team found that ‘collectivistic’ countries — cultures who value tightly knit social groups and interdependence — ranked higher in empathy. Empathy across each country’s volunteers was linked with agreeableness, conscientiousness, self-esteem, subjective well-being, and prosocial behavior.

It’s a test done on a huge scale and it’s the first of its kind we’ve ever seen, so hats off to the researchers. That being said, there are a few issues with it that I’d like to point out.

First of all, the surveys were conducted in English and relied on self-reporting — language barriers and the differences between the perceived and real self could have a big impact on the quality of data. It also didn’t make a distinction between empathy for people in the participants’ own countries vs those in other countries, potentially driving up the score of collectivist societies. Finally, the sample size was unevenly distributed and for the scope of the study remains rather small.

Still, if you take the findings with a bit of salt they’re still valuable to paint a general picture. They give us insight into how empathy is expressed in different cultures, giving future research a solid foundation on which to build.

“Despite the strong influence that culture has on how we relate to others around us, researchers have generally relied on samples of North American college students when studying empathy,” they explain.

“Given the important role of empathy in everyday social life, we hope that the current study will stimulate research examining how empathy is expressed in different cultures and social settings, and help inform future research on the relationship between empathy and culture from a broader and a more representative perspective.”

The team says that their results are just “a snapshot of what empathy looks like at this very moment”, and expect the rankings to shift in the future.

The full paper “Differences in Empathic Concern and Perspective Taking Across 63 Countries” has been published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

Google used DeepMind to cut their electricity bill by a whopping 15%

Google is putting DeepMind’s machine learning to work on managing their sprawling data centers’ energy usage, and it’s is performing like a boss — the company reports a 15% drop in consumption since the AI took over.

Image via brionv/flickr

Google is undeniably a huge part of western civilization. We don’t search for something on the Internet anymore, we google it. The company’s data servers pretty much handle all of my mail at this point, along with YouTube, social media platforms and much more. But even so, it’s easy to forget that the Google we know and interact with every day is just the tip of the iceberg; it relies on huge data servers to process, transfer and store information — and all this hardware needs a lot of power.

So much power, in fact, that the company decided to do something about it. On Wednesday, Google said it had proved it could cut the energy use of its data centers by 15% using machine learning from DeepMind, the AI company it bought in 2014. These centers use up significant power to cool and maintain an ideal working environment for the servers — requiring constant adjustments of air temperature, pressure, and humidity.

“It’s one of those perfect examples of a setting where humans have a really good intuition they’ve developed over time but the machine learning algorithm has so much more data that describes real-world conditions [five years in this case]” said Mustafa Suleyman, DeepMind’s co-founder.

“It’s much more than any human has ever been able to experience, and it’s able to learn from all sorts of niche little edge cases seen in the data that a human wouldn’t be able to identify. So it’s able to tune the settings much more subtly and much more accurately.”

Suleyman said that the reduction in power use was achieved through a combination of factors. On one hand, DeepMind is able to more accurately predict incoming computational load — in other words, it could estimate when people accessed more data-heavy content such as YouTube videos. The system also matched that prediction more quickly to the required cooling load than human operators.

“It’s about tweaking all of the knobs simultaneously,” he said.

Ok, so Google’s electricity bill just went down; good for them, but what does this have to do with us? Well, a lot, actually. Data centers gobble up a lot of energy, and that means a lot of greenhouse gas emissions — combined, data centers have emission levels similar to those seen in aviation. When Google first disclosed its carbon footprint in 2011 it was roughly equivalent to Laos’s annual emissions but since then they claim they upped their game, getting 3.5 times as much computational power for the same amount of energy. Using machine learning is only the latest step in optimizing their system. The company began toying with this idea two years ago, and since then they’ve tested it on “more than 1%” of its servers, Suleyman said. It is now being used across a “double-digit percentage” of all Google’s data centers globally and will be applied across all of them by the end of the year.

Using machine learning is only the latest step in optimizing their system. The company began toying with this idea two years ago, and since then they’ve tested it on “more than 1%” of its servers, Suleyman said. It is now being used across a “double-digit percentage” of all Google’s data centers globally and will be applied across all of them by the end of the year. They haven’t released the exact amount of power their data centers use, but claims that in total its activity makes up 0.01% of global electricity use (and most of that probably goes towards the data centers.)

But DeepMind is leaving a considerable mark on their energy efficiency. It cut energy expenditure for cooling by 40%, which reduced the company’s overall power consumption by 15%.

“I really think this is just the beginning. There are lots more opportunities to find efficiencies in data centre infrastructure,” Suleyman added.

“One of the most exciting things is the kind of algorithms we develop are inherently general … that means the same machine learning system should be able to perform well in a wide variety of environments [think power generation facilities or energy networks].”

Sophia Flucker, the director of Operational Intelligence, a UK-based consultancy that advises data centers on their energy use, said it was feasible that Google had achieved such a big reduction.

“I’ve worked with some award-winning data centres, which still had plenty of room for improvement,” she said.


Climate change is impacting wine grape harvest dates in Switzerland and France, NASA finds

A new collaboration study between NASA and Harvard University found that climate change is breaking an important link between droughts and the grape harvests in France and Switzerland.

Image credits Wikimedia user Verita

By analyzing records of wine-grape harvests between 1600 and 2007, researchers found that during the latter half of the 20th century these began shifting dramatically; between 1600 to 1980, earlier harvests were recorded only in years with warmer, drier springs and summers. But, from 1981 onward, farmers harvested the grapes earlier even in years without drought. This all comes down to shifting climate patterns.

The finding is important because high quality wines typically come from earlier harvests in relatively colder grape-growing regions, such as France and Switzerland.

“Wine grapes are one of the world’s most valuable horticultural crops and there is increasing evidence that climate change has caused earlier harvest days in this region in recent decades,” said Ben Cook, lead author and climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York.

“Our research suggests that the climate drivers of these early harvests have changed.”

Wine ratings show that the best grapes are typically harvested in years with above-average rainfall early in the growing season, followed by late-season droughts.

“This gives vines plenty of heat and moisture to grow early in the season, while drier conditions later in the season shift them away from vegetative growth and toward greater fruit production” said the study’s co-author, ecologist Elizabeth Wolkovich of Arnold Arboretum and the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

“So far, a good year is a hot year,” she added.

However, she pointed out that the earliest French harvest ever recorded–2003, when a deadly heat wave hit Europe and grapes were picked a full month ahead of the once-usual time — did not produce particularly exceptional wines.

“That may be a good indicator of where we’re headed. If we keep pushing the heat up, vineyards can’t maintain that forever.”

The study looked at variability and trends in harvest dates over the last 400 years in Western Europe. It also took into account climate data recorded with instruments during the 20th century and (before these became available) reconstructions from tree rings and historical documents of temperature, precipitation and soil moisture all the way back to 1600.

The results were compared to wine quality from the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions in France based on the ratings of vintages over the past 100 years. Detailed quality information was available for those two regions in addition to the broader harvest data available throughout France and Switzerland.

The study’s results suggests that the role drought and moisture play in the time of harvest and the quality of the wine is undergoing a fundamental change; throughout history, warm temperatures have steadily led to earlier harvests and high-quality wines. Recent, large-scale climate shifts in the last few decades however have caused this effect to largely disappear.

“Wine quality also depends on a number of factors beyond climate, including grape varieties, soils, vineyard management and winemaker practices,” Cook said.

“However, our research suggests the large-scale climate drivers these local factors operate under has shifted. And that information may prove critical to wine producers as climate change intensifies during the coming decades in France, Switzerland and other wine-growing regions.”

In the long run, these shifts could be the bane of regions with deep traditions in wine-making, as the vines will struggle to adapt to their new climates.

The full paper, titled “Climate change decouples drought from early wine grape harvests in France” has been published online in the journal Nature Climate Change and can be read here.

Hans Rosling’s enlightening TED talks about world population and world health

Hans Rosling is one of the most remarkable people on the face of the Earth – even the most educated, well traveled and insightful have their perspectives shifted by Rosling. A professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, a member of Time’s most influential 100 people, as well as an accomplished sword swallower, he currently focuses on dispelling myths and preconceived beliefs about the world – be it the West, Africa, or the developing economies. But what makes him even more special is not only the quality and insight of the data he presents, but also the unique way he presents it – I guarantee it, you’ve never seen anything presented like this. Here are just a couple of his TED talks, for the full list, click here.

Stats that reshape your worldview

Global population growth, box by box

Taking a look at the ‘little ice age’ of 1810

ice-ageGlobal warming is one of the main concerns on everybody’s lips, causing more and more damage to the environment every year, sometimes in ways that seem hard to believe; everyday there seems to be a new report about something that went, is going, or will be going terribly wrong. However, in the early 1800s, the situation was in diametric contradiction with everybody being worried about a global cooling that seemed to come out of nowhere.

It all peaked in 1816, when in most places of the world there was actually no summer at all ! That year’s chill was blamed by climatologists on the eruption of the Indonesian volcano called Tambora, but why the few years before 1816 were also way colder than usually remained a mystery. However, newly uncovered evidence from the ice of Antarctica and Greenland suggests that another volcanic eruption was probably responsible for it.

Jihong Cole-Dai, a chemistry professor at South Dakota State University led the expeditions that cleared this intriguing question that seemed to be without an answer. He found evidence of another eruption some 6 years before the 1815 one (which was responsible for the 1816 cooling). Here’s why major volcano eruptions have such a big influence:  they practically dump immense quantities of sulfur dioxide and ash that act pretty much like an umbrella, shading the Earth and reflecting sunlight for several years.

However, it’s obvious that a single volcanic eruption couldn’t be responsible for ‘freezing’ a whole decade. Cole-Dai and his team found evidence of one more eruption that helped trigger the mini ice age. However, they weren’t able to pinpoint the volcano, saying that they only know it has to be somewhere close to the equator and really big. I don’t know for sure but I’m guessing that a more detailed analysis will give some more clues regarding this volcano and researchers will be able to find it, despite the fact that it seems to be a ‘needle in the haystack’ kind of search.

Fighting against soot – more important than ever

Most of the talk about global warming revolves around carbon dioxide, sometimes giving the false impression that it alone is responsible for global warming and all its implications. However, numerous studies have revealed a new enemy, one almost as dangerous as carbon dioxide: soot.


The black powdery pollutant is responsible for numerous climatic shifts, especially in the areas between the tropics. The main difference however, is that soot can be relatively very easy ‘defeated’. Soot, generally called black carbon by climatologists, originates mostly from power plants, diesel engines and activities mostly related with developing countries (burning the fields or open cooking stoves, for example).

What happens is that as it drifts into the atmosphere, soot attracts a lot of sunlight and heat, warms up and then radiates heat; it can do the same thing on the ground too. Changing pollution trends have affected the way it manifests, and for the worst. Until recently, soot was generally mixed with sulfate particles that reflected sunlight. However, the mix of sulfate and soot produces new particles that have an even greater ability of absorbing sunlight.

“That actually enhances the effect,” says Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University atmospheric scientist. “It can double the warming.”

There are still many things researchers have been unable to assess, but one thing’s for sure: at least in the Northern Hemisphere, soot has caused some dramatic changes. The thing is that unlike greenhouse gases that quickly disperse in the atmosphere, soot congregates above and stays there. Here’s what Al Gore says:

“A new understanding is emerging of soot. Black carbon is settling in the Himalayas. The air pollution levels in the upper Himalayas are now similar to those in Los Angeles.”, and he’s right.