1.5 degrees, 'karemats' in Ukraine and very distant stars
Hi, I’m Gavin. This is my experimental newsletter that explores thinking - how we might think better and learn together as we do so.
I explore several key topics through the lens of several core themes: systems thinking, scenario planning, trends, and cross-disciplinary innovation. These often relate to key issues: climate change, pandemics, astronomy, physics, health, history, philosophy, culture, rocketry, conflict, the impact of technology on society and more (lol!). With a larger question behind it all: how do we progress and how do we progress better?
I hope you like where we go. (974 of us now! - welcome all new arrivals)
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Reading list - the best stuff to read
(The best reads I’ve come across, with excerpts, links, authors and how long it will take to read. Climate change, COVID and China are consistently the stories at the top so are semi-permanent)
🌏 Climate change & biodiversity destruction
Where do we start?
The 6th Assessment IPCC report (see here). The full report is 100 hours of reading so maybe go straight to the summary report for policy makers.
What are the chances that we somehow don’t hit 1.5 degrees? In my view the chances are now increasingly remote and the report’s lead author hints at it too. There will be enormous consequences for all life on Earth. We will have to collectively start making decisions about mitigating what we can in a short space of time. (4 mins by Jeff Tollegson)
This report is one of the most stringent warnings yet from the IPCC. The message? Time has almost run out. Models suggest that global emissions need to peak, at the latest, by 2025 and then decline rapidly for the world to have a 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 °C. Carbon emissions would need to nearly halve by 2030 and hit ‘net zero’ in the early 2050s to meet the goal. Given current policies, some scientists estimate that the world is on track for a rise of nearly 3 °C rise above pre-industrial levels.
The report makes clear that current energy, economic and political trends put the world on course to shoot well past 1.5 °C of warming. Scientists have long been warning of this, but some say it’s time to start thinking about what that means in terms of climate strategy.
“I think we are getting closer politically to a situation where we seriously have to ask how we are going to deal with that overshoot,” says Oliver Geden, a social scientist with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin and a lead author on the report. Although it still might be technically possible to limit warming to 1.5 °C, he says, the actions required would be unprecedented.
Nothing has worked. It’s now the eleventh hour and I feel terrified for my kids, and terrified for humanity. I feel deep grief over the loss of forests and corals and diminishing biodiversity. But I’ll keep fighting as hard as I can for this Earth, no matter how bad it gets, because it can always get worse. And it will continue to get worse until we end the fossil fuel industry and the exponential quest for ever more profit at the expense of everything else. There is no way to fool physics.
Microplastics are everywhere (as we’ve looked at before), including inside you.
The scientists said microplastic pollution was now ubiquitous across the planet, making human exposure unavoidable and meaning “there is an increasing concern regarding the hazards” to health.
Samples were taken from tissue removed from 13 patients undergoing surgery and microplastics were found in 11 cases. The most common particles were polypropylene, used in plastic packaging and pipes, and PET, used in bottles. Two previous studies had found microplastics at similarly high rates in lung tissue taken during autopsies.
News that Arizona’s Lake Powell is slowly but surely drying up has spread far and wide. The reservoir behind the 1,320-megawatt Glen Canyon Dam and power station, Lake Powell plays an important role in providing power for some 3 million customers in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.
But this year, the reservoir has hit a historic low, due to ongoing drought conditions in the region that have been attributed, at least in part, to climate change. The dam may even stop producing power if the situation continues to worsen, and this issue is not an isolated one in the American Southwest.
Part of the problem was how emphatic the WHO was at the beginning of the pandemic, says Heidi Tworek, a historian and public-policy specialist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “To say that COVID was definitively not airborne unfortunately meant there was a massive hill to climb to undo that,” she says. Right from the beginning, the WHO and other public-health authorities and governments should have emphasized that SARS-CoV-2 was a new coronavirus, and that guidelines would inevitably change, she says. “And when they do, it’s a good thing because it means we know more.”
“We’re really talking here about two failures, not one,” says Sandman. “Being reluctant to change your mind, and being reluctant to tell people you changed your mind.” Like other public-health and scientific organizations, the WHO “are afraid of losing credibility by acknowledging that they got something wrong”, he says.
Both teams were also able to show how SARS-CoV-2 can enter immune cells. Researchers have been puzzled over this because the cells don’t carry many ACE2 receptors, the virus’s main entry point.
In experiments with human and mouse cells, Sefik and Flavell found that SARS-CoV-2 could get into lung macrophages through the limited number of ACE2 receptors present. But the virus was also sneaking in through another surface protein, known as the Fcγ receptor, with the help of antibodies. When the virus encountered antibodies attached to the Fcy receptor, instead of the virus being disabled, it got scooped up into the cell.
Human challenge trials show that “it takes just a tiny virus-laden droplet -- about the width of a human blood cell -- to infect someone with Covid-19.”
🇨🇳 China / Taiwan
China is watching events in Ukraine closely. There’s been several interesting developments.
Investors might be starting to pull money out of authoritarian regimes, including China. (4 mins by Takeshi Kihara)
Investors are not simply adjusting positions for the short term, but reviewing their long-term strategy as they begin to pay closer attention to China's political structure and value system -- something many have largely ignored until now. "We are debating whether we should keep investing in China when concerns are mounting about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan," said an official at a leading Japanese pension fund, an active investor in Chinese securities.
A resurgence in coronavirus cases in China, with Shanghai imposing strict lockdown measures, could fuel further flight of foreign investment from the country.
While capital continues to flee China, demand is increasing for exchange traded funds specializing in securities from liberal countries.
The world continue to get more dangerous. China is accelerating its nuclear buildup (discussed in several previous newsletters). (7 mins by Alastair Gale)
Among recent developments, work has accelerated this year on more than 100 suspected missile silos in China’s remote western region that could be used to house nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the U.S., according to analysts that study satellite images of the area.
American leaders have said the thinking behind China’s nuclear advance is unclear. Independent security analysts who study nuclear proliferation say they are also in the dark about what is driving Beijing after exchanges between Chinese officials and analysts mostly dried up in the past few years.
Rather than set their aims aside, Chinese leaders might opt to adjust their methods or even double down on their preferred strategies. That could involve making nuclear threats right from the start to put the United States on the back foot and give allies like Japan cold feet. It could also entail imposing an air and maritime blockade against Taiwan to seal off the island at the outset and ensure that Washington would need to put its own forces in harm’s way to provide Taiwan with material assistance. And it could require early decapitation attacks on national and local leaders to disrupt Taiwan’s defenses and remove key figures that the international community could work with and rally behind.
A series of early blows that left Taiwan leaderless, cut off, and alone could be psychologically devastating to the defenders, shattering their will to resist. China could then more easily maneuver the island into submission without prolonged fighting, an ideal outcome for Chinese policymakers and commanders. Even if the Taiwanese proved to be more resilient than anticipated and refused to buckle under intense pressure, Beijing would still be able to fall back on its military might to impose its will on the island.
Binkov takes a look at the repercussions of a Taiwan invasion (22 mins)
🇺🇦 Ukraine / Russia
Why is Ukraine winning (thus far)? Phillips P O’Brien has been excellent on analysing the conflict. (See podcast recommendations also). (5 mins by Phillips P O’Brien)
In using light forces this way, the Ukrainians have shown that even in a conventional war between states—as opposed to an insurgency—a smaller force can engage the conventional forces of a larger and more technologically advanced enemy and fight them to a standstill. The Ukrainians have also reminded everyone that the American military, with its lavish logistical support and ability to dominate the air war and the electronic battlefield, is unusual. The Russian military is not some smaller, less-efficient version of the U.S. military. It is a significantly less advanced and less capable force that struggles to undertake many of the operations that the U.S. handles with relative ease. The Ukrainians did not make the mistake of overestimating the Russians, and were able to deal a huge blow to Russian power.
Ukraine, however, has not yet won the war…
Moscow’s forces were thwarted, too, by pieces of foam mat — the Ukrainians call them karemats — costing as little as £1.50. The mats prevent Russian thermal imaging drones from detecting human heat. “We held the karemats over our head”, said Konoko, explaining how his men moved stealthily in tiny groups at night. In that way soldiers armed with anti-tank weapons supplied by the US, Britain and others could sneak up on the Russians, fire their deadly and accurate missiles and then slip away.
As Russia appears to be pivoting to a more limited goal of securing the Donbas region and creating a land bridge to Crimea, Putin’s prospects for any sort of victory appear increasingly pyrrhic. Whether or not history assesses the Russian adventure as a loss, Russia is going to pay a terrible cost in dead soldiers and billions of dollars in destroyed equipment — a toll that is rising daily. Each insurgency has the potential advantage of copying techniques from those that proceeded it. Ukraine’s high-tech insurgency of drones, vehicle-based explosives, roadside bombs, and projectiles will also increasingly play out on social media. This will make the spectacle that much more visible — and horrible.
Newsletter subscriber Malachy Browne rebutted claims that Ukrainian forces had staged or otherwise faked the Bucha murders and that Russian forces were in control of the town while bodies lay on the streets.
MFA Russia 🇷🇺 @mfa_russia⚡ Official Statement by @mod_russia ⚡ All the photos and videos published by the Kiev regime in Bucha are just another provocation. Facts 👉 https://t.co/L91uGBs4r5 ❗ This confirms conclusively this is another #hoax by the Kiev regime for the Western media. https://t.co/VO3umSNwkE
🧠 Nature - nervous systems
“It doesn't have a nervous system, yet it exhibits complex behaviours. How is this possible?” Fascinating insights into how nervous systems came about. (6 mins)
🏛 Society - crypto
Some healthy criticism:
Also, this video from January: (138 mins)
The video creator was on Ezra Klein recently also too.
🔭 Space - Most distant star
We discovered the most distant star thus far - 12.9 billion light years away. (14 mins)
Philosophy Corner (a journey through thinking about thinking every week)
(A serialised section that started with Greek Tragedy and moved to philosophy. Something to spark ideas. Feel free to go backwards!).
“Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) is a strange and unsettling book about a world turned upside down. Usually classified as utopian or dystopian fiction, it also contains an eerie prophecy about the coming of intelligent machines. David explores the origins of Butler’s ideas and asks what they have to teach us about the oddity of how we choose to organise our societies, both then and now.”
(A good thing to watch - also serialised - so feel free to go back through past editions!)
Nothing this week!
(The best stuff I’ve listened to, or been recommended by subscribers)
Listen to Ezra Klein’s second interview with Fiona Hill re Russia and Ukraine (47 mins). Malachy Browne’s work (mentioned earlier) in the NYT gets a mention towards the end in relation to the atrocity in Bucha.
Listen to the excellent Phillips O’Brien interviewed by Michael Weiss on events in Ukraine. (52 mins)
Roy Foster was interviewed on Conversations with Tyler about Irish history. (60 mins)
Still in my tabs
(Or stuff I haven’t read yet, but looks promising)