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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios
The 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day today is a chance to look back at environmental progress — and forward to the enormous challenges that remain.
The big picture: By many measures, the air and water in the U.S. is far cleaner than it was in 1970, thanks in no small part to the activism that helped create Earth Day. But the next 50 years will require leaps of innovation to address climate change.
The state of play: Perhaps the most significant indicator of just how far behind we're falling on climate change is something that, on the surface, would seem like a positive: the drastic drop in carbon emissions due to COVID-19 lockdown policies.
My thought bubble: The COVID-19 experience is giving us an object lesson in what happens when the growth that drives the global economy halts and goes in reverse. It is not pleasant, and it's not an experience most of the world would choose to undergo voluntarily, even to save the climate.
What they're saying: "What we're experiencing today is a warning of things to come," says Clinton Moloney, managing director of sustainability solutions at ENGIE Impact. "Companies need to reconfigure their business models to continue to grow while decoupling from resource consumption and delivering on the Paris Climate Agreement."
Flashback: In 1970, the threat of climate change had barely scratched public consciousness. But it was impossible to ignore just how filthy and unhealthy America's environment had become.
The environmental movement that launched the first Earth Day was massive — by some estimates, a tenth of the U.S. population participated in events that day — and it helped spur the bipartisan passage of major legislation, which in turn led to visibly cleaner water and air today. But those same decades saw the rise of climate change as a global threat — and we've been nowhere near as successful in addressing it.
The bottom line: The first 50 Earth Days added up to a mixed environmental success, but the next 50 will be far tougher.
Fifteen years ago, the world was worried it would run out of oil, yet this week the crude market cratered, with prices for American oil temporarily going negative.
The big picture: While the recent price crash is largely due to unprecedented drops in demand for oil because of COVID-19 lockdown policies, technological advances over the past decade unlocked new supplies in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Background: The idea that the world would eventually run out of oil was prominently put forward by an American geologist named M. King Hubbert who predicted in 1956 (mostly accurately) that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. The theory received a boost in 1998 when Scientific American published an influential article by a pair of geologists arguing that global oil production would soon be unable to keep pace with rising demand.
But, but, but: The opposite happened. The fracking revolution, which allowed oil companies to drill for new supply in places like western Texas and North Dakota, inverted projections like the one in the chart above. U.S. oil production began rising, adding millions of barrels a day to the global market.
What's next: It's a bad time to be in the oil business, but the world is a long way from getting off crude, with global demand passing 100 million barrels a day before the COVID-19 crisis. Still, with alternative energy and electric vehicles on the rise, it's not impossible to imagine the true peak oil we could be facing is peak demand, not peak production.
The bottom line: Unexpected technological change reliably overthrows our predictions about the future — which doesn't stop us from making them.
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Why it matters:
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President Trump's announcement on Tuesday that he would temporarily suspend some kinds of immigration to the U.S. for 60 days will put pressure on hospitals and companies that depend on foreign expertise.
Why it matters: Immigrants make up a significant proportion of health care workers and the overall STEM workforce.
Driving the news: The order will only apply to individuals seeking permanent residency, not those entering the U.S. on a temporary basis, my Axios colleagues Stef Kight and Alayna Treene report.
Without immigrant labor, the U.S. response to the coronavirus would likely have been even worse than it already is.
My thought bubble: Over the longer term, cutting off immigration risks depleting a major source of innovation at a moment when the U.S. needs new ideas and new companies more than ever.
Last call for the bayou (Smithsonian Channel)
Inoculation (NPR — TED Radio Hour)
How the COVID-19 pandemic may reshape U.S. hospital design (Jeremy Hsu — Undark)
Why most post-pandemic predictions will be totally wrong (Rob Walker — Marker)
The author with a real cheeseburger in a virtual McDonald's. Photo background courtesy of DoorDash
Food delivery startup DoorDash is offering virtual backgrounds of restaurants like Auntie Anne's, Outback Steakhouse and Chili's.
Why it matters: With restaurants almost universally closed to diners because of social distancing rules, a virtual Zoom background of a McDonald's is just about the only way you can meet up with your friends for a Big Mac.
Restaurants have been forced by the coronavirus to switch to delivery and takeout service. That's been a boon for delivery apps like GrubHub or Uber Eats, but scarfing your burger at home alone isn't quite the same experience as going out to eat.
What they're saying: Some food critics are less than impressed.
The bottom line: Like so much else happening in the quarantine era, a virtual Zoom restaurant background for a remote food date is both innovative and a little depressing.