Welcome to Axios Future, where like the people of Iceland, we've taken to hugging trees to get us through this crisis.
Today's issue is 1,669 words, a 6-minute read.
Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images
The World Health Organization made mistakes in its initial response to COVID-19, but as it comes under criticism, it's important to remember the world still needs the agency.
Why it matters: President Trump's decision this week to withhold money from the agency could damage its efforts to fight the next pandemic and other health threats. For all its problems, the WHO remains the only global institution charged with combating the global threat of infectious disease.
Background: Despite its grand name and purpose — to "keep the world safe" — the actual scope of the WHO is limited by both its budget and the political realities of international governance.
With a biennial budget of $6.3 billion, the WHO has about as much cash to spend as a large urban hospital system in the U.S., and significantly less than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Early on, many WHO officials appeared to underplay the potential global threat posed by the novel coronavirus.
What's next: Without a revolution in how national governments treat international governance, the WHO will likely continue operating under inherent limitations. But there are steps the agency could take to improve global disease response in particular.
In an increasingly politically divided world, the need for a global broker of some kind on infectious disease will only grow. Geopolitics may still be driven by nation-states, but as we've learned with COVID-19, viruses do not respect borders.
The bottom line: An imperfect WHO is still better than a nonexistent one, and policymakers can make the best use of the agency if they fully understand what it can and cannot do.
Carbios has developed specialized enzymes that can recycle plastics. Photo: Carbios
A French startup has pioneered a new way of using enzymes to recycle plastics more efficiently than current methods.
Why it matters: Existing recycling procedures for many plastics downgrade the material, only staving off the day in which it will end up in a landfill. A method that could fully recycle plastics would be a game-changer.
The startup Carbios, founded in 2011, has discovered enzymes that can break down a plastic bottle in a matter of hours, producing leftover material good enough to reconstitute into new bottles.
How it works: The company analyzed tens of thousands of different enzymes found in environments polluted by PET. One enzyme, found in a heap of leaf compost, proved capable of reducing a PET bottle into chemical building blocks that could be used to make new, high-quality plastic bottles.
"There is such a high demand for recycled plastic that we won't be able to meet the goals set by regulators and big brands without the introduction of new technology like this."— Martin Stephan, Carbios deputy CEO
Yes, but: Like all new technologies, the key will be ensuring the process makes economic sense for recyclers at the commercial level.
An aerial image of Lake Mead in Nevada in January 2020. Photo: Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images
A large portion of the American Southwest is in the grip of a climate change-induced megadrought, a new study finds.
The big picture: This is the first megadrought of the climate change era, and it comes at a time when expanding cities and farms in the region are demanding more and more water.
A megadrought is a severe drought that lasts not for months or even years but for decades, often over a vast amount of land.
Driving the news: The new research, published in Science, indicates the current megadrought is at least partially due to human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases. The resulting warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt have intensified the drought, which now ranks as the second-worst over the past 1,200 years.
What they're saying: "The real take-home is that the Southwest is being baked by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities, and the future implications are dire if we don’t stop climate change," University of Michigan climate researcher Jonathan Overpeck told the Washington Post.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
If you haven't changed your mind, you haven't been paying attention. The coronavirus crisis has moved so fast, in so many different directions, that everybody who's intellectually honest has had to recalibrate their beliefs multiple times to take account of new information, my Axios colleague Felix Salmon writes.
Why it matters: Known unknowns are almost inconceivably enormous. For instance, how many people will die of COVID-19 in the U.S.? The answer could be tens of thousands, roughly where it is now — or it could be millions, if no vaccine is found and the virus ends up infecting most of the population.
The big picture: Extreme actions — whether they come in the form of U.S. monetary policy or strict New Zealand-style lockdowns — are often taken not because of what we know but more because of what we don't know.
The bottom line: We need to trust the individuals in authority, or else their actions will never have any real effect. If what they say one day (you must wear masks!) contradicts what they said the previous day, that just means they're responsibly changing their message in light of new information.
Hollywood is all but writing off 2020. What does that mean for the future of movies? (Chris Lee — Vulture)
Higher ed institutions should seize on the crisis to create better admission standards (Conor P. Williams — The 74 Million)
Lives vs. the economy (Sarah Gonzalez and Kenny Malone — Planet Money)
How the lockdown could create a new working class (Olga Khazan — Atlantic)
Seems totally harmless. Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images
April 17 was International Bat Appreciation Day, so I hope you thanked your local chiroptera.
Why it matters: Bats are amazing animals that can see in the dark and keep the world clean of dangerous insects like mosquitoes, and they're the only mammals capable of sustained flight. Yes, they may be the source of the novel coronavirus, but no one's perfect.
Bats have been getting a bad rap for a while, which, admittedly, they could do more to dispel.
How it works: It's not clear why bats are so often connected to viral spillovers from animals to humans. One theory goes that there is something in the immune system of bats that seems to speed up viral evolution, which makes them more likely to produce pathogens that can jump the species barrier.
Whatever they might be doing to humans, bats are having a hard enough time on their own.
The bottom line: Bats are more scared of you than you are of them, so appreciate a bat today — ideally from a safe and healthy distance.
A correction from last edition: The biosecurity researcher Sam Weiss Evans is primarily affiliated with Harvard University, not Tufts.