Nimbly Resilient African Coffee Farmers Switch to Coffee Bean that Withstands Global Warming

(p. A1) First the bad news. The two types of coffee that most of us drink — Arabica and robusta — are at grave risk in the era of climate change.

Now the good news. Farmers in one of Africa’s biggest coffee exporting countries are growing a whole other variety that better withstands the heat, drought and disease supersized by global warming.

. . .

Catherine Kiwuka, a coffee specialist at the National Agricultural Research Organization, called Liberica excelsa “a neglected coffee species.” She is part of an experiment to introduce it to the world.

. . .

(p, A6) In 2016, she invited Aaron Davis, a coffee scientist from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England, to Zirobwe. He was skeptical at first. He had tasted Liberica elsewhere and found it to be like “vegetable soup,” he said.

But then, the next day, he ground the beans from Zirobwe in his hotel room. Yes, a coffee researcher always packs a portable grinder when traveling.

“Actually, this is not bad,” he recalled thinking. It had potential.

. . .

Dr. Kiwuka and Dr. Davis teamed up. They would encourage farmers to improve the harvesting and drying of their Liberica crop. Instead of tossing them in with the robusta beans, they would sell the Libericas separately. If they met certain standards, they would get a higher price.

“In a warming world, and in an era beset with supply chain disruption, Liberica coffee could re-emerge as a major crop plant,” they wrote in Nature, the scientific journal, this past December.

For the full story, see:

Somini Sengupta. “Hardier Brew: African Farmers Bet on Climate-Resistant Coffee.” The New York Times (Saturday, April 29, 2023): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 28, 2023, and has the title “What Climate Change Could Mean for the Coffee You Drink.”)

The article in Nature Plants mentioned above is:

Davis, Aaron P., Catherine Kiwuka, Aisyah Faruk, Mweru J. Walubiri, and James Kalema. “The Re-Emergence of Liberica Coffee as a Major Crop Plant.” Nature Plants 8, no. 12 (Dec. 2022): 1322-28.

Chinese Communists Extend Control of Firms by Buying “Golden Shares”

(p. A1) In its uneasy dance with China’s private sector, the Communist Party is moving away from a public battle with some of the country’s biggest companies. Instead, it is inching toward a quieter form of control.

At the center of the effort is a push by various levels of government to take stakes in the private companies that have long driven Chinese innovation and job creation.

The government stakes are sometimes very small, like the 1% holding that a fund of Beijing’s cyberspace watchdog recently took in the digital-media unit of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. But they tend to give the government board seats, voting power and sway over business decisions. Colloquially, they are known as golden shares.

For the companies, there is little choice: Selling such a stake to a government entity that seeks one is crucial for staying in business. For the state, the stakes mean more direct involvement in some of China’s most high-profile companies—digital cornerstones of Chinese life and, in some cases, darlings of global investors.

. . .

(p. A9) One result of the new normal of subtle influence is that the boundary between the party-state and the private sector is getting increasingly muddled. That reverses a trend dating to the late 1970s, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had the party-state step back from business control and let entrepreneurs flourish.

For the full story, see:

Lingling Wei. “Stakes in Firms Give Beijing New Control.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, April 11, 2023): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 8, 2023, and has the title “China’s New Way to Control Its Biggest Companies: Golden Shares.”)

Russians Are Reading Book on How to Remove Dictators

(p. A24) . . . the book, “The End of the Regime: How Three European Dictatorships Ended,” is not about Russia or Vladimir Putin. It’s about three dictatorships — those of Francisco Franco in Spain, Antonio Salazar in Portugal and the colonels in Greece — and how those countries became democracies, returning to the global fold. A large number of Russians haven’t suddenly taken an interest in the history of 20th-century Southern Europe. Rather, discussions of the book have common themes: How do prolonged right-wing dictatorships end? And can Russia become a democracy?

As one might expect, the book is being widely discussed by opposition groups and those calling for an end to the war. More surprisingly, it is also being read by the Russian nomenklatura — those at the apex of the Russian state. It seems that the book has become a pretext for discussion of taboo topics, such as political transition, the health and death of the leader, defeat in a colonial war, the end of isolation and, indeed, the end of the regime.

. . .

Russian readers have found much that is resonant in the book. How the Greek dictatorship, for example, collapsed after an attempt to annex Cyprus, which it regarded as a historical part of the country. Or how the Portuguese regime caved in as a result of a colonial, imperialist war that dragged on for years. Or how Salazar, plagued by health problems, was removed from power but continued to think that he was ruling the country. (To maintain the illusion, a special newspaper was published just for him.) And then there is the story of how in Spain, the idea of a transition to democracy slowly took hold and was brought about by the ruling elite itself.

For the full essay, see:

Alexander Baunov. “Russians Are Still Asking Questions About What’s Next.” The New York Times (Thursday, April 27, 2023): A24.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date April 26, 2023, and has the title “Russians Seem Very Interested in My Book About How Dictatorships End.”)

Baunov’s essay discusses his Russian-language book:

Baunov, Alexander. The End of the Regime: How Three European Dictatorships Ended.

Scarce Metals, Batteries, and Factories Needed for EVs Are Very Hard to Quickly Ramp-Up

(p. B1) The Biden administration’s plan to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles — reaching a two-thirds share of new cars in less than a decade — pushes automakers further in a direction they have already been going. But meeting the new timetable will be a challenge.

. . .

But the industry and its customers have a long way to go. While sales of electric vehicles are (p. B3) rising, they accounted for only 5.8 percent of the 13.8 million new cars and trucks sold in the United States last year.

. . .

The owner of a 2018 Ford F-150 pickup truck, he often has to haul around a trailer full of equipment for his job, and he sometimes tows a camper for vacations — driving patterns that are not very suitable for E.V.s. It’s also not unusual for him to have to drive 300 miles on a work trip, and farther when he visits relatives in Michigan.

“I’m a person who likes to go and not have a lot of stops,” he said. “If I’m working, I can’t really wait an hour or more to recharge an E.V.”

On top of that, he lives in an apartment, so he would have no way to charge an E.V. at home.

Whether Americans are willing to accept changes to their work and lifestyle to drive electric vehicles is only one of several hurdles and uncertainties. The biggest is perhaps lithium. The soft, silver-white metal is the key element in E.V. batteries, and the world produces only a small fraction of the amount that will be needed for a majority of car buyers to go electric in the United States, Europe and China, markets where more than 50 million cars were sold last year.

“Can we really produce enough lithium for that?” asked Mike Ramsey, a Gartner analyst who follows the electric car business. “We’re not even at 10 percent now, and it’s difficult for companies to get the lithium they need.”

While mining companies are racing to expand lithium production, the pace at which they can is unclear. In North Carolina, for example, Albemarle is trying to reopen a pit mine along Interstate 85 near Kings Mountain, 32 miles west of Charlotte.

The mine was in operation from the 1940s to the 1980s, and to reopen it the company must work out plans for protecting surrounding groundwater, determining if the mine’s steep walls are suitable for new operations and dealing with any contaminants that may be found in the pit lake at the mine’s bottom.

Extracting lithium from the hard ore at the site involves a more difficult and costly process than other sources, and residents in the area have begun working to block the resumption of mining operations.

The supply and production of other metals — including nickel, rare-earth metals, manganese and cobalt — must also increase to support a tenfold rise in E.V. sales.

On another front, the plants and assembly lines needed to produce millions of E.V.s every year don’t exist yet. While G.M., Ford and other manufacturers have plants under construction, they will have to produce twice or three times as many battery plants to hit their sales targets and those the Biden administration is setting.

Building and ramping up dozens of new plants will take years, and that process can be fraught.

For the full story, see:

Neal E. Boudette. “A Test for Automakers: Meeting Biden’s Deadline.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 11, 2023): B1 & B3.

(Note: ellipses added.]

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “Automakers Face Test in Reaching U.S. Target for Electric Vehicles.”)


China Still Seeks to Censor International Journals and Databases on Covid

(p. A1) Early in 2020, on the same day that a frightening new illness officially got the name Covid-19, a team of scientists from the United States and China released critical data showing how quickly the virus was spreading, and who was dying.

The study was cited in health warnings around the world and appeared to be a model of international collaboration in a moment of crisis.

Within days, though, the researchers quietly withdrew the paper, which was replaced online by a message telling scientists not to cite it. A few observers took note of the peculiar move, but the whole episode quickly faded amid the frenzy of the coronavirus pandemic.

What is now clear is that the study was not removed because of faulty research. Instead, it was withdrawn at the direction of Chinese health officials amid a crackdown on science. That effort kicked up a cloud of dust around the dates of early Covid cases, like those reported in the study.

“It was so hard to get any information out of China,” said one of the authors, Ira Longini, of the University of Florida, who described the back story of the removal publicly for the first time in a recent interview. “There was so much covered up, and so much hidden.”

That the Chinese government muzzled scientists, hindered international investigations and censored online discussion of the pandemic is well documented. But Beijing’s stranglehold on information goes far deeper than even many pandemic researchers are aware of. Its censorship campaign has targeted international journals and scientific databases, shaking the foundations of shared scientific knowledge, a New York Times investigation found.

Under pressure from their government, Chinese scientists have withheld data, withdrawn genetic sequences from public databases and altered crucial details in journal submissions. Western journal editors enabled those efforts by agreeing to those edits or withdrawing papers for murky reasons, a review by The Times of over a dozen retracted papers found.

Groups including the World Health Organization have given credence to muddled data and inaccurate timelines.

For the full story, see:

Mara Hvistendahl and Benjamin Mueller. “China Censors Are Thwarting Covid Science.” The New York Times (Monday, April 24, 2023): A1 & A9.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 23, 2023, and has the title “Chinese Censorship Is Quietly Rewriting the Covid-19 Story.”)

Local Chinese Governments Fund Bullet Trains and Green Spaces When People Want Higher Wages and Basic Bus Service

(p. B4) China is full of wasteful infrastructure that the government likes to brag about but that doesn’t serve the most urgent needs of the public.

The Chinese government likes to say the country has the longest and fastest high-speed railways in the world. But except for a couple of lines that connect the megacities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, most lines operate below capacity and at a great loss. About 80 percent of China’s high-speed railways constructed in the past decade were built in distant and poor regions, China State Railway Group said last year.

Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, warned in an article that high-speed railways could become the “gray rhino” that crushed the Chinese economy because many local governments had taken on a lot of debt to build them. But most of those railways move people, not freight. So they would make sense only in densely populated areas where people were willing to pay more for speed.

Local leaders are interested in infrastructure projects because their economic payoff, while minimal, is immediate — people get construction jobs, and companies get building contracts. Such a short-term approach dominates in China’s political system, in which cadres are deployed to run toward the goal set by their leader regardless of the financial or human cost.

The Shangqiu government brags that there is about 150 square feet of green space for each of the 2.3 million residents in the city’s central municipal area. One of Shangqiu’s biggest infrastructure projects this year is a wetlands park. After building many roads to nowhere, local governments have been spending big on urban beautification projects in recent years.

It’s nice to have green space for everyone. But like most inland Chinese cities, Shangqiu isn’t wealthy. Its college graduates are complaining on social media that it’s difficult to find a job that pays more than $300 a month. Its basic pension provides its seniors with $17.80 a month, after a $1.50 raise this year.

Many Chinese people who are at least 60 years old live on pensions like this. According to official data, in 2021, $54 billion in basic pensions was distributed to more than 162 million people, or about $28 a person each month on average. The residents would probably prefer that the government spent on unemployment protection, bus service and welfare instead of high-speed railways and green space.

Shangqiu is far from an exception.

A resident in Pucheng, in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, complained on the local government’s online messaging board in February [2023] that there was no bus service between downtown and the railway station.

“This is the most basic public service,” the resident, who signed with the name Li Hongbo, wrote. “I felt that people’s livelihood has deteriorated. I hope the leaders can pay some attention to it.”

For the full commentary, see:

Li Yuan. “THE NEW NEW WORLD; China’s Cities Splurge and Debt Piles Up.” The New York Times (Wednesday, March 29, 2023): B1 & B4.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 28, 2023, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; China’s Cities Are Buried in Debt, but They Keep Shoveling It On.”)

The Growing Pain of the Working-Class

Many of the working poor are indeed suffering. The solution is mainly to reduce government regulations, to allow a robustly redundant labor market and more opportunities for free-agent entrepreneurship. (See Openness to Creative Destruction.)

(p. 6) Ever since Bobbie Wert was 8 years old, her stomach has ached. “My tummy hurts,” was her refrain as a girl, and the discomfort was accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea that kept her out of school — sometimes for half the days in the school year.

Doctors poked and scanned but couldn’t figure out anything wrong. Over the years, they cut her open and removed bits and pieces yet couldn’t drive away the pain. So doctors prescribed opioids in increasing doses — even fentanyl patches — that left her addicted. At age 43, she now is off opioids but still suffers every single day, enduring chronic pain like an estimated 50 million other Americans.

Wert is part of a vast and mysterious panorama of pain that is increasing, sometimes with no obvious physical cause. And while chronic pain is a global problem, it is particularly puzzling in America. In other wealthy countries, it’s the elderly who report the most chronic pain, which makes some sense. But in the United States it’s the middle-aged — especially the jobless and people like Wert, who did not graduate from high school — who suffer the most. It is a plague on the less educated.

All this raises the question: Is this physical suffering a canary in the coal mine warning us of larger dysfunction in our society?

Here’s what we do know: Tens of millions of Americans are suffering pain. But chronic pain is not just a result of car accidents and workplace injuries but is also linked to troubled childhoods, loneliness, job insecurity and a hundred other pressures on working families.

. . .

“People’s lives are coming apart, and this leads to huge increases in physical pain,” said Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize winner in economics who with Anne Case popularized the term “deaths of despair.” He, Case and Arthur Stone warn in a recent article that “the mystery of American pain reveals a warning for the future.”

Americans die from deaths of despair — drugs, alcohol and suicide — at a rate of more than a quarter-million a year, and the number of walking wounded is far greater.

For the full commentary, see:

Nicholas Kristof. “Why So Many Americans Are Feeling More Pain.” The New York Times, SundayOpinion Section (Sunday, May 7, 2023): 6-7.

(Note: ellipsis added. In the original last paragraph, the words “want” and “all” are in italics.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 3, 2023, and has the title “Why Americans Feel More Pain.”)

The book by Deaton and Case alluded to above is:

Case, Anne, and Angus Deaton. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Fast Transition Away from Fossil Fuels Requires Fast and Huge Increase in Mining of Lithium, Cobalt, and Copper

(p. A17) The drive toward energy transition will increase demand for lithium, cobalt and other minerals many times over. An offshore wind project uses nine times the minerals of a natural-gas-fired power plant of the same generating capacity.

As countries roll out targets for “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, it’s becoming clear how difficult it will be to source this huge increase in minerals. The U.S. and Japanese governments, the European Union and a host of multilateral organizations have issued alarming reports about the magnitude of the challenge. The International Monetary Fund warns that striving to achieve net zero by 2050 will “spur unprecedented demand for some of the most crucial metals,” leading to price spikes that “could derail or delay the energy transition itself.”

Consider a recent S&P Global study on copper. Much of the energy transition is predicated on electrifying as much as possible, as fast as possible. That will require a huge amount of copper, as it is the “metal of electrification.” The report concludes that translating the 2050 net zero goals into the equipment and technologies that will be needed—electric-vehicle batteries and charging stations, offshore wind, onshore wind, solar panels, battery storage, etc.—adds up to a doubling of the need for copper by the mid-2030s.

. . .

Two countries mine about 40% of world’s copper supplies—Peru, where the government is in disarray after the president was impeached and arrested, and Chile, whose government is struggling between its populist agenda and the need for economic growth.

. . .

The quest for net zero emissions will face similar challenges with other commodities, where the growth in demand will be much greater. Seventy percent of cobalt, critical for electric-vehicle batteries, comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where large mining operations coexist with small, hand-dug mines in which both adults and children work.

There’s a further complication—about 60% of the world’s lithium is processed in China, and 47% of copper is smelted there. By comparison, the U.S. processes 4% of world copper. Once the U.S. had more than a dozen copper smelters; now it has two.

For the full commentary, see:

Daniel Yergin. “‘Net Zero’ Will Mean a Mining Boom.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, April 13, 2023): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 12, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

The S&P Global study mentioned above is:

Yergin, Daniel (Project Chairman). “The Future of Copper: Will the Looming Supply Gap Short-Circuit the Energy Transition?” S&P Global, July 2022.

Growing Research Suggests Neanderthals Were More Similar to Homo Sapiens in Behavior

(p. A16) Neanderthals might be getting a bad rap. In the movie “Night at the Museum,” when the exhibits come to life after sundown, the Neanderthals are depicted as dimwitted cave men who grunt and bash rocks together in futile attempts to generate a flame. When Ben Stiller’s night-guard character gives them a lighter, one promptly sets himself on fire.

Popular culture has often depicted our Neanderthal cousins much like these museum cave men—also-rans and unsophisticated brutes whose nomadic-hunter lifestyle precluded them from social gatherings and might have contributed to their demise.

But the past decade or so has changed our understanding of Neanderthals. A growing body of research shows these extinct relatives—who overlapped in time and space with anatomically modern humans, or Homo sapiens—were similar to us in many ways. Recent studies suggest Neanderthals altered the landscape around them with fire and were sophisticated hunters who could exploit a variety of prey in groups larger than paleoanthropologists once thought.

Studies show the species used fire to cook, constructed tools to manipulate meat and stone, built structures and made jewelry. They swam and dove for shells, which they used as tools and beads, and distilled birch bark to make tar. Neanderthals decorated and engraved bones and used red ochre—a natural clay pigment—to alter surfaces.

“The more we learn about Neanderthals, the more similar they look to us behaviorally,” said Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum in London.

For the full story, see:

Aylin Woodward. “Scientific Discoveries Elevate the Minds and Skills of Neanderthals.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, April 11, 2023): A16.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 10, 2023, and has the title “Neanderthals and Us: We’re More Alike Than Once Thought.” The wording in the last sentence quoted above is from the print version, rather than the shorter online version, of the sentence.)

Critique of Fed Claim That a Year of Above Average Temps Increases Odds of a Recession

(p. A17) . . . recently I published a critique of a study from the Federal Reserve Board claiming that a year of above-normal temperatures in countries around the world makes economic contraction more likely.

. . .

There are two main reasons why the Fed study appeared at first to show a statistically significant effect of temperatures on economic growth. First, each country in the sample had equal weight in the analysis. China had the same weight as St. Vincent though China’s population is 13,000 times as large. Equal weighting means that some small countries with unusual histories of economic growth greatly influenced the results.

The paper’s results disappeared when countries like Rwanda and Equatorial Guinea—which had economic catastrophes and bonanzas unrelated to climate change—were omitted. Omitting similar countries representing less than 1% of world gross domestic product was enough to eliminate the paper’s result. The complicated statistical techniques used in the Fed study magnified the influence of these unusual countries.

There’s a second reason why the Fed study appears to find that temperature affects growth: Many poor countries have warm climates. A warm climate doesn’t preclude economic growth, as is demonstrated by Florida, Arizona, Taiwan, Singapore and several Persian Gulf states. But the average poor country is warmer than the average rich country. Debate continues as to whether this correlation is random or causal, but the hypothesis of the Fed paper is that year-to-year increases in temperature reduce annual economic growth. The paper claims that its method controls for long-term differences in climate, but using simulated data I found that the Fed paper’s method can be fooled into finding an effect that doesn’t exist.

For the full commentary, see:

David Barker. “The Fed’s Climate Studies Are Full of Hot Air.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 10, 2023): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 9, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

Barker’s critique mentioned above is:

Barker, David. “Temperature and Economic Growth: Comment on Kiley.” Econ Journal Watch 20, no. 1 (March 2023): 69–84.

Universities Should Teach Students to Want to Hear Their Opponents

(p. A21) On April 8, 1991, when I was a sophomore at Brown University, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia came to campus to speak. Conservatives allegedly existed at Brown, but the school was as true to its left-leaning reputation then as it is now.

. . .

That April evening of Scalia’s talk, I lined up with my anti-Helms T-shirt on. I barely made it into a back row of the packed auditorium, where I awaited what would surely be a triumphant Q. and A. session. Once Scalia finished and we the righteous had a chance to speak truth to the evil one, we would rip apart his so-called originalism, his hypocrisies, his imperiousness. We were champing at the bit to have our say.

And then he wiped the floor with us. In answer to our indignant questions, he calmly cited rebutting cases. We fulminated and he reasoned, and when we seethed he lobbed back with charm. Within the hermetic bubble of my liberal upbringing and education, it had never occurred to me that even when finally presented with The Truth, someone from the other side could prevail. I’d been certain we would humiliate him. Instead, I left humbled.

. . .

According to “Brown University: A Short History,” by Janet M. Phillips, Vartan Gregorian, the school’s president when I attended, “bucked the trend of ‘political correctness’ to keep the Brown community hospitable to a wide range of views.” He invited not only Scalia but also the left-wing academic and activist Angela Davis, to “ensure a steady flow of diverse views and intellectual debate.” Gregorian, who died in 2021, Phillips wrote, “prided himself on the fact that during his tenure no speech, however controversial, was cut short by protest.”

We know universities can do a better job of preventing one form of speech from inhibiting another. The harder task, but perhaps the more important lesson, will be teaching students not to want to do so. They shouldn’t avoid opportunities to hear other perspectives but should actively seek them out and reckon with the humbling fact that what they already know — or think they already know — may not be all there is to know. Isn’t that, after all, precisely what learning is about?

For the full commentary, see:

Pamela Paul. “The Biggest Loss on Campus? Listening.” The New York Times (Friday, March 31, 2023): A21.

(Note: ellipses added. In the original last paragraph, the words “want” and “all” are in italics.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 30, 2023, and has the title “The Most Profound Loss on Campus Isn’t Free Speech. It’s Listening.”)

The book on Brown University mentioned above is:

Phillips, Janet M. Brown University, a Short History. Providence, RI: Brown University, Office of University Relations, 1992.