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7 expert perspectives on what COVID-19 means for the planet
At the height of the first wave, many people took heart from the drop in air pollution resulting from global lockdowns.
Experts agree that the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for years, even after the immediate threat has passed.
The way we live may have changed, perhaps for ever, but what about the impact on our planet? Here are 7 perspectives on what's happening – and what we can do about it.
1. COVID-19 may have cut air pollution but we haven't beaten climate change
At the height of the pandemic, many people took heart from the drop in air pollution resulting from global lockdowns. The reduction in economic activity took us back to daily levels last seen in 2006. But concentrations of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere are still rising.
Larissa Basso, a postdoctoral fellow at Stockholm University, says that's because CO2 molecules can persist in the atmosphere for up to 200 years. And, regardless, she says the drop in emissions will only be temporary unless we address the root causes by changing the way we live.
The International Energy Agency has called for a global investment of $1 trillion to accelerate the move to zero-carbon energy. Its plan would create 9 million jobs a year, reduce emissions by 4.5 billion tonnes globally and deliver a sustainable recovery.
2. The food waste problem has been made worse
Mountains of food have been thrown away because the pandemic has closed restaurants, shops and takeaway food outlets. And, with much of the waste dumped in landfills, methane levels could rise as a result.
Methane is 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas and is thought to have been responsible for approaching a fifth of historic global warming. It makes up at least half of all emissions from landfills.
The World Economic Forum initiative 'The Great Reset' calls for urgent action to manage the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, including food waste at a time of rising global poverty. "We must invest in the future and transform our food systems to build a more inclusive and sustainable world," the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said recently.
3. Single-use plastics are on the rise too
Plastic has played a vital role in keeping us safe and treating people suffering from COVID-19 – think masks and plastic cups. But some experts say it's being used so much that we are storing up a plastics crisis for the future.
The pandemic threatens to stall or even reverse progress to reduce global plastic waste, says Jacob Duer, President and CEO, Alliance to End Plastic Waste. In the UK, illegal dumping of trash has risen 300% during the crisis.
In Thailand, the Environment Institute blames soaring home food deliveries for increasing levels of plastic waste from about 1,500 tonnes a day to about 6,000 tonnes. Duer urges companies and governments to work together to reduce plastic use and improve waste management.
4. Millions more people will be driven into poverty
The World Bank says as many as 100 million extra people could be pushed into extreme poverty by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the global economy. That's 100 million people forced to live on less than $1.90 a day.
Shrinking global GDP risks reversing recent progress in reducing the numbers of the world's poorest people. A total of half a billion people could be pushed into poverty by COVID-19, according to Oxfam.
Of the 176 million people the World Bank expects to be pushed into poverty with an income below $3.20 a day, two-thirds are in South Asia. Only a robust global recovery will reverse this trend, it says.
5. Immunization has been set back by the pandemic
While the world has been focused on fighting coronavirus, deadly diseases have not gone away. But efforts to combat them by immunization have taken a back seat to combatting COVID-19, and the results could be serious unless inoculations pick up the pace.
UNICEF estimates that 80 million children under the age of one could go unvaccinated due to the disruption of immunization programmes. "Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health," says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization Director-General.
"Disruption to immunization programmes from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles," he adds. UNICEF agrees: "As we recover from COVID-19, our aim should not be to just make up lost ground, but to break through the long stagnation that has held us back for the last decade."
6. 'Building back better' must put the environment and fairness first
IKEA may be best known around the word for its flat-pack furniture. But Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, wants us all to collectively work to build something bigger – a better world for future generations.
Writing for the World Economic Forum, Heggenes set out a five-point programme for a fairer and more sustainable post-COVID world: protect the planet; renewable energy for all; a changed relationship to food; dignified work and entrepreneurship; and leave no one behind.
"Challenging situations can bring out the best in people. Solidarity, unprecedented collaboration and new ways of thinking can help us emerge stronger and smarter from this pandemic," Heggenes says.
7. Looking after the environment could help prevent future pandemics
Protecting nature is the key to avoiding future pandemics, scientists believe. Writing in a guest article for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, four leading biodiversity experts lay the blame for the current crisis at the door of humanity.
Warning that 1.7 million viruses, known to infect humans, exist in mammals and water birds, they say deforestation, intensive farming, mining and development, coupled with the exploitation of wild species have created a "perfect storm" for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.
But if we are the problem we can also be the solution. "We can build back better and emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever – but to do so means choosing policies and actions that protect nature – so that nature can help to protect us," they say.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.