An Electric Prayer

(p. A4) BEIRUT, Lebanon — The second the light above Hasmik Tutunjian’s bed came on at midnight, she said a prayer of thanks and got up quickly. She did not know how much time she had before she would be plunged back into darkness.

First, Ms. Tutunjian, 66, stripped the sheets off the bed — soaked with sweat from Beirut’s stifling and humid heat. She grabbed a phone charger hanging on a hook next to a tote bag that reads, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” and plugged it in. Then she moved into the living room to plug in three chargeable lights. Finally, she put in the first of as many loads of laundry as the electricity would allow.

. . .

Power cuts have long been a part of life in this country because of a dysfunctional electricity sector. But over the past year, they have worsened with acute fuel shortages leading to severe blackouts across Lebanon and state-supplied power coming on for only an hour or two a day — at most — and on no set schedule.

. . .

. . . with Lebanese inflation rising to 168 percent in the year that ended in July [2022], and unemployment skyrocketing, a dwindling number of people can afford the extra generator power. And some of the generators provide only a few amps — enough to power a refrigerator, a fan and the television.

Ms. Tutunjian cannot afford any amps.

She has a chargeable fan, but the power does not come on long enough to fully charge it. She tries to cool herself with a folding fan, which does little to fight the suffocating heat of a Beirut summer.

“Sometimes I tell myself I’m not going to get sad, but I can’t help it,” she said, sitting in her living room. “At night, I get into bed angry, I cry.”

. . .

Last month, an armed 42-year-old man held a Beirut bank hostage for hours, demanding that he be allowed to withdraw his entire life’s savings — more than $200,000. But the amount far exceeded the paltry caps on cash withdrawals.

He said he needed the money to pay for an operation for his father, and threatened to kill everyone inside the bank and to set himself on fire.

“That man, good what he did,” Ms. Tutunjian said.

Eventually, he was allowed to take out a small portion of his savings in exchange for his surrender and arrest. He became an instant hero, capturing a nation’s frustrations, and was released days later amid an outpouring of public support.

“He said he’ll do it again,” Ms. Tutunjian said.

For the full story, see:

Raja Abdulrahim and Laura Boushnak. “Chasing a Few Hours of Electricity In the Middle of the Night.” The New York Times (Saturday, September 13, 2022): A4.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version was updated on Sept. 21, 2022, and has the title “Oppressive Blackouts Force Lebanese to Change Rhythm of Life.”)

Paddington Bear Condemned as an Unsustainable Tribute to Queen

(p. A12) Amid the outpouring of grief after the death of queen Elizabeth II at 96, Britons have laid many a tribute in parks and outside palace gates in England. But the charity responsible for all the royal acres in the land has a plea: Bouquets of flowers are ever so lovely, but please skip the teddy bears and balloons.

The charity, Royal Parks, asks well-wishers to bring only “organic or compostable material” . . .

Mourners have already contributed stuffed Paddington Bears, . . .

Paddington is an especially popular tribute because of a video released around the time of Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee in June [2022], in which the queen and the bear have tea and discuss keeping marmalade sandwiches on hand for emergencies. (He keeps one in his hat; she, supposedly, kept one in her purse.)

But Royal Parks says mourners should choose their tributes “in the interests of sustainability.”

For the full story, see:

JOSEPH, YONETTE. “Flowers, Yes. But Bears? Please Don’t.” The New York Times (Saturday, September 13, 2022): A12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: after substantial search, I could not find that the article had been posted online by the NYT.)

Europe Subsidizes Burning Old Trees That Release More Carbon Dioxide Than Released by Burning Coal

(p. A24) Across Central Europe, companies are clear-cutting forests and at times grinding up centuries-old trees in the name of renewable energy. All of this is legal.
In fact, it is encouraged by government subsidies meant to help the European Union reach its renewable energy goals.

In reality, though, burning wood can be even dirtier than burning coal.

New York Times journalists followed six truckloads to the factory on a recent day and watched as logs from one of the continent’s most important conservation areas were churned into sawdust.

Wood was never supposed to be the cornerstone of the European Union’s green energy strategy.

When the bloc began subsidizing wood burning over a decade ago, it was seen as a quick boost for renewable fuel and an incentive to move homes and power plants away from coal and gas. Chips and pellets were marketed as a way to turn sawdust waste (p. A10) into green power.

Those subsidies gave rise to a booming market, to the point that wood is now Europe’s largest renewable energy source, far ahead of wind and solar.

But today, as demand surges amid a Russian energy crunch, whole trees are being harvested for power. And evidence is mounting that Europe’s bet on wood to address climate change has not paid off.

. . .

And while European nations can count wood power toward their clean-energy targets, the E.U. scientific research agency said last year that burning wood released more carbon dioxide than would have been emitted had that energy come from fossil fuels.

“People buy wood pellets thinking they’re the sustainable choice, but in reality, they’re driving the destruction of Europe’s last wild forests,” said David Gehl of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington-based advocacy group that has studied wood use in Central Europe.

. . .

Scientists have calculated that, per unit of energy, burning wood actually releases more greenhouse gas emissions than burning gas, oil, or even coal.

. . .

(p. A11) The association opposes cutting subsidies or changing the way clean energy is defined. If the European Union no longer considers energy from burnt wood to be carbon-neutral, it would immediately throw many countries off track to hit renewable-energy targets.

That would have major consequences for countries like Italy, the continent’s largest consumer of wood pellets. More than a third of its renewable energy comes from burning plant material. For years, the Italian government has offered tax deductions to encourage buying pellet stoves.

For the full story see:

Sarah Hurtes and Weiyi Cai. “Sacrificing Centuries-Old Trees In Name of Renewable Energy.” The New York Times (Saturday, September 10, 2022): A1 & A10-A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 7, 2022, and has the title “Europe Is Sacrificing Its Ancient Forests for Energy.” Where the wording and content of the versions differs, the passages quoted above follow the print version.)

Deep-Sea Nodules Are a New Source of Scarce Metals

(p. B11) Companies could start mining the ocean floor for metals used to make electric-vehicle batteries within the next year, a development that could occur despite broad concerns about the environmental impact of deep-sea mining.

The International Seabed Authority, a United Nations observer organization that regulates deep-sea mining in international waters, is drawing up a final regulatory framework for deep-sea mining that all 168 members would need to agree to within the next 12 months. The U.S. isn’t a member of the ISA. With or without the finalized rules, the ISA will permit seabed mining by July 2023, according to people familiar with the matter.

The intent of deep-sea mining is to scrape the ocean floor for polymetallic nodules—tennis-ball-size pieces of rock that contain iron and manganese oxide layers. A seabed in the Pacific Ocean called the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which cover 1.7 million square miles between Mexico and Hawaii, contains a high volume of nodules made of battery metals, such as cobalt, manganese and lithium. The International Seabed Authority in 2010 estimated the zone had roughly 30 billion metric tons of nodules. Cobalt and other metals used in making rechargeable batteries that power products from phones to electric vehicles are in high demand, setting off a race to find and procure them. Prices of these metals are soaring as mining for them comes under scrutiny, curtailing supply.

For the full story see:

Yusuf Khan. “Deep-Sea Mining Nears Reality.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022): B11.

(Note: as of Sept. 9, 2022, the article was not available online.)

Musk Says World Needs More Oil, Gas, and Nuclear Power

(p. A8) Tesla Inc. TSLA 3.60%▲ boss Elon Musk told European energy leaders that the world needs more oil and natural gas and should continue operating nuclear power plants while investing heavily in renewable energy sources.

“I think we actually need more oil and gas, not less, but simultaneously moving as fast as we can to a sustainable energy economy,” Mr. Musk, Tesla’s chief executive and largest shareholder, told a conference in Stavanger, Norway.

Mr. Musk said work on developing battery-storage technology is key to making the most of investments in wind, solar and geothermal energy. “I’m also pronuclear,” Mr. Musk said.

“We should really keep going with the nuclear plants. I know this may be an unpopular view in some quarters. But I think if you have a well-designed nuclear power plant, you should not shut it down, especially right now,” he said.

For the full story see:

Jenny Strasburg. “Musk Says the World Needs More Oil, Gas.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022): A8.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 29, 2022, and has the title “Elon Musk Says World Needs More Oil and Gas.”)

Trang Almost Did Not Perform Simple Experiment Because “People Would Have Known This Already”

(p. D3) A team of scientists has found a cheap, effective way to destroy so-called forever chemicals, a group of compounds that pose a global threat to human health.

The chemicals — known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are found in a spectrum of products and contaminate water and soil around the world. Left on their own, they are remarkably durable, remaining dangerous for generations.

Scientists have been searching for ways to destroy them for years. In a study, published Thursday [Aug. 18, 2022] in the journal Science, a team of researchers rendered PFAS molecules harmless by mixing them with two inexpensive compounds at a low boil. In a matter of hours, the PFAS molecules fell apart.

. . .

At the end of a PFAS molecule’s carbon-fluorine chain, it is capped by a cluster of other atoms. Many types of PFAS molecules have heads made of a carbon atom connected to a pair of oxygen atoms, for example.

Dr. Dichtel came across a study in which chemists at the University of Alberta found an easy way to pry carbon-oxygen heads off other chains. He suggested to his graduate student, Brittany Trang, that she give it a try on PFAS molecules.

Dr. Trang was skeptical. She had tried to pry off carbon-oxygen heads from PFAS molecules for months without any luck. According to the Alberta recipe, all she’d need to do was mix PFAS with a common solvent called dimethyl sulfoxide, or DMSO, and bring it to a boil.

“I didn’t want to try it initially because I thought it was too simple,” Dr. Trang said. “If this happens, people would have known this already.”

An older grad student advised her to give it a shot. To her surprise, the carbon-oxygen head fell off.

It appears that DMSO makes the head fragile by altering the electric field around the PFAS molecule, and without the head, the bonds between the carbon atoms and the fluorine atoms become weak as well. “This oddly simple method worked,” said Dr. Trang, who finished her Ph.D. last month and is now a journalist.

For the full commentary see:

Carl Zimmer. “MATTER; Fighting Forever Chemicals With Chemicals.” The New York Times (Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022): D3.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 18, 2022, and has the title “MATTER; Forever Chemicals No More? PFAS Are Destroyed With New Technique.”)

The research summarized in the passages quoted above was published in:

Trang, Brittany, Yuli Li, Xiao-Song Xue, Mohamed Ateia, K. N. Houk, and William R. Dichtel. “Low-Temperature Mineralization of Perfluorocarboxylic Acids.” Science 377, no. 6608 (Aug. 18, 2022): 839-45.

Wittgenstein Center’s Scenario Has Global Population Peak in 2050 at 8.7 Billion

(p. A2) Since the 1960s, when the global number of people first hit three billion, it has taken a bit over a decade to cross each new billion-person milestone, and so it might seem natural to assume that nine billion humans and then 10 billion are, inexorably, just around the corner. That is exactly what the latest population projections from the U.N. and the U.S. Census Bureau have calculated.

. . .

The U.N.’s projections are the best known. But an alternate set of projections has been gaining attention in recent years, spearheaded by the demographer Wolfgang Lutz, under the auspices of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital at the University of Vienna, of which Mr. Lutz is founding director.

. . .

“There’s two big questions,” Mr. Lutz explains, that determine whether his forecasts or the U.N.’s end up closer to the mark. “First, how rapidly fertility will decline in Africa…. The other question is China, and countries with very low fertility, if they will recover and how fast they will recover.”

. . .

The Wittgenstein forecasts, by contrast, look not only at historical patterns, but attempt to ask why birthrates rise and fall. A big factor, not formally included in the U.N.’s models, is education levels. Put simply: As people, especially women, have greater opportunities to pursue education, they have smaller families.

. . .

The U.N. projects Africa’s population will grow from 1.3 billion today to 3.9 billion by century’s end.

Once education is accounted for, Wittgenstein’s baseline scenario projects Africa’s population will rise to 2.9 billion during that time period. In another scenario from Wittgenstein, which it calls the “rapid development” scenario, the population of Africa will only reach 1.7 billion by century’s end.

Wittgenstein’s phrase “rapid development” is revealing: This isn’t a forecast of doom and decline, but rather one in which health and education simply improve, a world with better human well-being, lower mortality, and medium levels of immigration.

. . .

Wittgenstein’s rapid-development scenario has the global population topping out at 8.7 billion in 2050.

For the full commentary see:

Josh Zumbrun. “THE NUMBERS; As Population Nears 8 Billion, Some See Peak.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2022): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 12, 2022, and has the title “THE NUMBERS; Global Population Is About to Hit 8 Billion—and Some Argue It Is Near Its Peak.”)

River Erosion from Severe Storms Creates a “Huge Carbon Sink”

(p. D3) When it comes to carbon balance, some rivers are doing the world a favor. In areas of high erosion, a river carries bits of soil and vegetation to the sea. Those bits contain much organic carbon, converted from atmospheric carbon dioxide by plants, so if they end up at the bottom of the ocean, the river has served as the transport mechanism for a huge carbon sink.

. . .

In a report in Nature Geoscience, the researchers calculate that the typhoon effect is so great that over several decades, almost all of the transport of organic carbon by the river occurs during storm-caused floods.

For the full story see:

Henry Fountain. “An Upside to Floods: Rivers Act as Transport For Huge Carbon Sinks.” The New York Times (Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 20, 2008, and has the title “Rivers Act as Transport for Huge Carbon Sinks.”)

The research briefly summarized in the passages quoted above appeared in the academic article:

Hilton, Robert G., Albert Galy, Niels Hovius, Meng-Chiang Chen, Ming-Jame Horng, and Hongey Chen. “Tropical-Cyclone-Driven Erosion of the Terrestrial Biosphere from Mountains.” Nature Geoscience 1, no. 11 (Nov. 2008): 759-62.

To Avoid Death, Northwestern U.S. Finally Embraces Air-Conditioning

(p. A15) SEATTLE — Road crews sprayed water on century-old bridges in Seattle on Thursday to keep the steel from expanding in the sizzling heat. In Portland, Ore., where heat has already killed dozens of people this summer, volunteers delivered water door to door. Restaurants and even some ice cream shops decided it was too hot to open.

For the second time this summer, a part of the country known for its snow-capped mountains and fleece-clad inhabitants was enduring a heat wave so intense that it threatened lives and critical infrastructure.

. . .

It is not just a matter of comfort. The region is still tallying a death toll from the June heat wave, and mortality data analyzed by The New York Times shows that about 600 more people died in Washington and Oregon during that week than would have been typical.

Officials in Portland’s Multnomah County pointed to a lack of air conditioning in homes as a key factor in deaths. Unlike large swaths of the country where air conditioning is now standard, many in the Pacific Northwest live without such relief. Just 44 percent of residents in Seattle reported having some sort of air conditioning in 2019, although those numbers have been on the rise, with installers struggling to keep up with demand.

. . .

The warming particularly threatens residents of low-income neighborhoods. During the last heat wave, Vivek Shandas, a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University, went to the poorest parts of the city with a calibrated thermometer and got a reading of 121 degrees, five degrees higher than the official high for the day, recorded at the airport.

For the full story see:

Mike Baker and Sergio Olmos. “Broiling Today, Northwest Knows It Must Adapt for a Hotter Tomorrow.” The New York Times (Saturday, August 14, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Aug. 13, 2021, and has the title “The Pacific Northwest, Built for Mild Summers, Is Scorching Yet Again.”

“Overzealous Environmentalism” Hurts Poor Poaching “Misunderstood Outcasts”

(p. 17) In the journalist Lyndsie Bourgon’s telling, . . ., the poachers are not quite villains. Instead, they are responding — if not justifiably then at least predictably — to a lack of economic opportunities and the perception that the rules governing forests are arbitrary and heavy-handed.

Bourgon puts herself in the poacher’s shoes, and the result is a refreshing and compassionate warning about the perils of well-intentioned but overzealous environmentalism.

. . .

. . . she regards the history of the American conservation movement with something approaching scorn. It was hatched, she writes, to serve the whims of wealthy urban vacationers who wanted access to lands unspoiled by their longtime inhabitants. National parks were conceived as vehicles to resist “any attempt to turn to utilitarian purposes the resources represented by the forest,” as one booster put it.

At times, the motives were even less pure. Bourgon describes how ultrarich environmentalists in the early 1900s saw conservation — and in particular the protection of California’s redwoods — “as part of a mission to enshrine a white, masculine dominance over the wilderness.” Some conservationists, she notes, were “eugenicists who saw parallels between environmental destruction and the decline of Nordic supremacy.”

. . .

This is the backdrop for Bourgon’s depiction of “tree thieves” as misunderstood outcasts. “I have begun to see the act of timber poaching as not simply a dramatic environmental crime, but something deeper — an act to reclaim one’s place in a rapidly changing world,” she writes, tracing that desire back to 16th-century England, where poachers in royal forests were celebrated as folk heroes.

Bourgon immersed herself with a small handful of these men in the Northwest, and a picture emerges of a fractious band of down-on-their-luck crooks. A number abuse drugs. The poachers acknowledge that what they’re doing is illegal, but they frame it as principled, akin to stealing a loaf of bread to feed their families.

. . .

On the one hand, unemployed loggers and others who are suffering economically because of stringent enforcement of conservation laws are facing poverty. On the other hand, the damage that poachers are inflicting on forests appears to be, in the grand scheme of things, modest.

For the full review, see:

David Enrich. “No Clear-Cut Villains.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, July 24, 2022): 17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June [sic] 21, 2022, and has the title “When It Comes to Timber Theft, There Are No Clear-Cut Villains.” Where the online version has “misunderstood poacher’s” [sic], the print version quoted above has “misunderstood outcasts.”)

The book under review is:

Bourgon, Lyndsie. Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods. New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2022.

U.S. Climate “Net-Zero” by 2050 Costs $11,300 per Person per Year

(p. A19) . . . Mr. Biden’s current promise—100% carbon emission reduction by 2050—will be . . . phenomenally expensive.

A new study in Nature finds that a 95% reduction in American carbon emissions by 2050 will annually cost 11.9% of U.S. gross domestic product. To put that in perspective: Total expenditure on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid came to 11.6% of GDP in 2019. The annual cost of trying to hit Mr. Biden’s target will rise to $4.4 trillion by 2050. That’s more than everything the federal government is projected to take in this year in tax revenue. It breaks down to $11,300 per person per year, or almost 500 times more than what a majority of Americans is willing to pay.

Although the U.S. is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses right now, America’s reaching net zero would matter little for the global temperature. If the whole country went carbon-neutral tomorrow, the standard United Nations climate model shows the difference by the end of the century would be a barely noticeable reduction in temperature of 0.3 degree Fahrenheit. This is because the U.S. will make up an ever-smaller share of emissions as the populations of China, India and Africa grow and get richer.

For the full commentary see:

Bjorn Lomborg. “Biden’s Climate Ambitions Are Too Costly for Voters.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, October 14, 2021): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated Oct. 14, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)