June 10, 2020
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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,662 words or about 6 minutes
1 big thing: Scientists caught between pandemic and protests
When protests broke out against the coronavirus lockdown, many public health experts were quick to warn about spreading the virus. When protests broke out after George Floyd's death, some of the same experts embraced the protests. That's led to charges of double standards among scientists, Axios' Alison Snyder and I write.
Why it matters: Scientists who are seen as changing recommendations based on political and social priorities, however important, risk losing public trust. That could cause people to disregard their advice should the pandemic require stricter lockdown policies.
- But some of the same experts are supporting the Black Lives Matter protests, arguing that addressing racial inequality is key to tackling the coronavirus epidemic.
- The systemic racism that protesters are decrying contributes to massive health disparities that can be seen in this pandemic — black Americans comprise 13% of the U.S. population, but make up around a quarter of deaths from COVID-19.
- "While everyone is concerned about the risk of COVID, there are risks with just being black in this country that almost outweigh that sometimes," Abby Hussein, an infectious disease fellow at the University of Washington, told CNN last week.
The difference in tone between how some public health experts are viewing the current protests and earlier ones focused on the lockdowns themselves was seized upon by a number of critics, as well as the Trump campaign.
- "It will deepen the idea that the intellectual classes are picking winners and losers among political causes," says Tom Nichols, author of the "The Death of Expertise."
- Politico reported that the Trump campaign plans to restart campaign rallies in the next two weeks, with advisers arguing that "recent massive protests in metropolitan areas will make it harder for liberals to criticize him" despite the ongoing pandemic.
The current debate underscores a larger question: What role should scientists play in policymaking?
- Peter Sandman, a professor of environmental journalism at Rutgers University, tells Axios that some scientists who supported one protest versus others "clearly damaged the credibility of public health as a scientific enterprise that struggles to be politically neutral."
- But some are pushing back against the very idea of scientific neutrality. "Science is part of how we got to our racist system in the first place," Susan Matthews wrote in Slate.
- Medical science has often betrayed the trust of black Americans, who receive less, and often worse, care than white Americans. That means — as Uché Blackstock, a physician and CEO of Advancing Health Equity, told NPR — that the pandemic presents "a crisis within a crisis."
The big picture: The debate risks exacerbating a partisan divide among Americans in their reported trust in scientists.
- 53% of Democrats polled in late April — about a month before Floyd's death — reported a "great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the public interests" versus 31% of Republicans.
- If science-driven policymaking continues to be seen as biased, it will have repercussions for public trust in issues beyond the pandemic, including climate change, AI and genetic engineering.
What to watch: If there is a rise in new cases in the coming weeks, there will be pressure to trace them — to protests, rallies and the reopening of states. How experts weigh in could affect how their recommendations will be viewed in the future — and whether the public, whatever their political leanings, will follow them again.
2. The new nerve center of news
The fast-moving world of Twitter has become the nerve center of the American news cycle — as evidenced by record-breaking downloads and engagement for the service last week, Axios' Sara Fischer and I write.
The big picture: Twitter and other online platforms have opened a wide path for powerful images — like those of the killing of George Floyd — to reach the public.
- But the constant flow of sensational content from everyday users, often unverified and lacking key context, also promotes polarization and the spread of misinformation.
Driving the news: Over the past few weeks, viral videos about race relations in America have driven the news cycle, creating micro social movements within themselves — for better or worse.
- Police protest supercut videos have proven wildly popular online, per the New York Times, helping to spur the #DefundThePolice movement growing alongside the racial protests.
- A video of a woman calling the police on a black bird watcher in Central Park on Memorial Day also racked up over 40 million views on Twitter.
By the numbers: Last Wednesday was the No. 1 day in Twitter's history for downloads with 677,000 globally, per app measurement company Apptopia. It also set a record for daily active users on Twitter in the U.S. that day, with 40 million.
3. How the pandemic helped open the door for mass protests
The effects of the pandemic and the lockdown may have helped opened the door to widespread Black Lives Matter protests.
The big picture: Floyd's death was the spark that lit the fire on these historic protests, but the conditions created by the pandemic meant there was plenty of fuel to keep it going.
Experts will spend years dissecting why the protests following Floyd's death grew so quickly and spread so far, from big cities to small towns in every state in the U.S.
- One theory, however, is the protests were fueled in part by the sheer number of people who were available to protest, due to the lingering effects of the pandemic and resulting lockdown policies.
Details: Stanford sociologist Douglas McAdam identified what he termed "biographical availability" as a driving force in many social movements. (Hat tip to policy professor George Hoberg, whose Twitter thread pointed out the possible connection to Black Lives Matter protests.)
- McAdam, writing about the Freedom Summer of 1964, defined biographical availability as the "absence of personal constraints that may increase the costs and risks of movement participation, such as full-time employment, marriage, and family responsibilities."
- With schools closed across the country as well as tens of millions of Americans out of work or working remotely, an unusually high number of people were likely biographically available to participate in the protests.
- This is especially true of black Americans, whose unemployment rate hit 16.8% in May, the highest level in more than a decade.
4. It takes a village to do carbon removal right
Widespread deployment of technology that sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere will require lots of cross-border cooperation and complex judgments about nations' varying responsibilities, a new peer-reviewed paper concludes, writes Axios' Ben Geman.
The big picture: "Building the global partnership needed for an efficient CDR [carbon dioxide removal] solution will not be easy owing to technical, political, regulatory, accounting and social acceptability challenges. However, potential mutual benefits are large," an analysis in Nature Climate Change states.
Why it matters: Holding global warming greatly in check will demand various methods such as bioenergy with carbon capture, direct air capture machines and large-scale forestation, the paper notes.
- It points to a late 2018 UN scientific review that found holding temperature rise to 1.5°C — the most ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement — means removing CO2, not just slowing and stopping new emissions.
- "[T]he most plausible and realistic pathways to meet our ambitious climate goals may be through strengthening CDR cooperative actions," it notes.
What they did: The authors of the paper created a global model for assigning nations CO2 removal "quotas" under "responsibility, capability and equality" principles.
What they found: The allocation for different regions, and even nations within those regions, varies — sometimes vastly — depending on which of those frameworks you apply.
- OECD countries would have 38% of the cumulative quotas by 2100 under the "responsibility" filter, 54% under "capability," but only 11% based on "equality."
- By 2100, Asia would have 7% under the "capability" filter, but 43% under the "equality" method of cumulative allotment.
- The United States' quota is roughly twice as high under "responsibility" as it is under "capability."
What's next: "One of the main takeaways from this preliminary analysis is that cooperation will be critical for successful deployment of CDR and so we are keen to further extend our analysis by exploring different mechanisms for cooperation," said David Reiner, a co-author of the paper.
5. Worthy of your time
To adapt to tech, we're heading into the shadows (Matt Beane — Wired)
- The history of innovation is one of pushing past barriers, sometimes messily, but intelligent technologies are taking us into dark territory.
Microsoft's robot editor confuses mixed-race Little Mix singers (Jim Waterson — The Guardian)
- There's a lot going on here, but to put it simply, even if you think we human journalists are doing a bad job, the robots would be even worse.
The death of engagement (Orville Schell — The Wire China)
- The dean of American China experts on the long, tortured record of U.S.-China engagement.
Uprisings after pandemics have happened before (Susan Wade — The Conversation)
- A look at the aftermath of the Black Death in 14th century England shows that protests often follow outbreaks.
6. 1 atomic thing: Nuking hurricanes
Why it matters: As Axios reported last year, President Trump has in the past suggested to national security advisers the possibility of using nukes to stop hurricanes from hitting the U.S. That would not be a good idea — but there's a surprisingly long history of considering using nuclear weapons on the natural world.
What's happening: On June 1, Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) introduced the Climate Change and Hurricane Correlation and Strategy Act, which would prohibit the president or any federal official from using nukes for the purposes of "altering weather patterns or addressing climate change.”
Flashback: Just months after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, scientists began musing about the possibility of using nukes to disrupt storms before they fully formed.
- In 1958, the U.S. conducted Operation Argus, a field test that involved detonating atomic bombs over 100 miles above the South Atlantic Ocean in an effort to create artificial radiation belts in the Earth's magnetic field.
Reality check: Even putting aside the international outcry that would result from using a nuclear weapon, there's little evidence to suggest that nukes could defend us against hurricanes.