The problems with climate scenarios, and how to fix them

Faced with the uncertainties surrounding climate change, policymakers and investors need to know what can happen and how likely these outcomes may be. Unfortunately, current scenarios answer only the first question – and at that, only partially. Research carried out at the EDHEC Risk Climate Institute tries to provide approximate but “actionable” answers to the second.

Climate stress testing dates back to the 1990s, when teams of scientists collaborated to create a scenario framework that was to set the analytical standards for decades to come.

They did so by sketching out a handful of narratives about how the world may evolve, socially and economically. These are now referred to as shared socioeconomic pathways (SSPs). The narratives were combined with a range of projected carbon emissions, known as representative carbon pathways (RCPs). Each narrative was run through every emission projection using process-based integrated assessment models (IAMS), which were fine-tuned on a case-by-case basis to reflect as closely as possible each of the narratives. At this point, the only degree of freedom left to match the narrative with the emission projection was the social cost of carbon – roughly speaking, the tax that should be levied on the “consumers” of carbon emissions, and whose proceeds should be channeled to emission reductions.

The SSP-RCP approach, as it is now known, was endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and has deservedly became a standard framework.

An analysis framework that’s showing its age

Despite its strengths, the SSP-RCP approach isn’t perfect, nor does it adequately fulfills the need of all scenario users. Indeed, two decades after their introduction, the SSP-RCP approach is showing signs of ageing.

We argue that its revision should be carried out along three distinct lines, each addressing one of the problems with the present modelling framework:

Let’s consider the narratives first. They are presented in a rich and colourful language (there is mention of “resurgent nationalism”, “growing inequality”, etc.), but the only levers at the disposal of the models that try to capture these narratives are the rates of demographic and economic growth, the carbon intensity (emissions per unit of energy) and the energy intensity (energy per unit of GDP). If each of these variables can just exist in three possible states – say, high, medium, and low – that gives us 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 = 81 narratives. So, the six narratives chosen by the IPCC are but a small subset of all the possible worlds that may occur.
Could the IPCC’s six narratives be the most likely ones? We cannot tell, because no probabilities were associated to the scenarios – and this, we contend, is the second big shortcoming of current scenarios. Without any probabilistic information, we cannot tell which scenarios we should really worry about, and which can be safely set aside.
The third problem is the modelling choice in the SSP/RCP set-up, where each narrative is associated with the most likely trajectory for each of the driving variables. This is reasonable, but fails to convey the huge uncertainty around the key estimates. This creates a misplaced sense of predictability, often expressed in tenth-of-degree precision. In reality, knowing how uncertain we are about an outcome can be as important as knowing the expected value for this outcome.

Doing better

How can these shortcomings be fixed? An attractive strategy can be sketched along the following lines. First, we can simplify the problem by recognizing that carbon intensity, energy intensity and the rate of demographic growth are all linked to how rich a region is: richer countries tend to have lower fertility; to use more services than goods (lowering their carbon footprint); and to use fewer emissions to generate one unit of energy.

So if we can model economic growth (and its uncertainty!), we can estimate GDP per person on the one hand, and all the other main drivers of climate change on the other. This is helpful, because economists have devoted decades of work to modelling economic growth – work that can be adapted to the needs of climate-scenario modelling, allowing us to estimate with some confidence how GDP per person evolves over time (after taking climate damages into account). From this we can infer how population growth and the decarbonization of the economy are likely to evolve. While challenging, the task is well defined.

Figures 1 and 2 give an idea of what this approach can yield. To create them, we have assumed that each of the four key variables (economic growth, carbon intensity, energy intensity and population growth, in order) can exist in a “low”, “medium” or “high” state (associated with the first, second, or third tercile of their distributions, respectively, and labelled a, b and c). Figure 1 then shows the 10 most likely scenarios, and Figure 2 displays the average temperature in each of these scenarios (given an emission pathway).

Temperatures in the various scenarios

Figure 1: The probabilities of the ten most likely scenarios, which together account for more than 60% of the total probability.
CC BY

An example of one question this analysis can answer is the following: are lower temperatures obtained in states of high or low economic growth? The answer is not obvious, because high GDP generates more emissions, but also reduces population growth and carbon and energy intensities. This means that there is a tug of war between economic growth (with the attending increased use of energy), and the reduction in carbon intensity and population growth associated with richer economies.

Figure 2 reveals that the higher temperatures occur in the states of high economic growth, suggesting that – as least for the abatement schedule examined and the model used – the GDP effect dominates: we cannot just grow our way out of our climate predicament.

Scenario probabilities

Figure 2: The temperature anomalies (in degrees C) associated with the 10 most likely scenarios. Labelling on the x axis as in figure 1.
CC BY

What we have presented should not be regarded as the final word on the matter, but as a work in progress project. Despite its limitations, we think our approach is a useful first step in the probabilistic direction toward which scenarios must move. Läs mer…

‘Loyal to the Oil’: Finding religion in the Stanley Cup finals

Hockey’s biggest prize is the Stanley Cup, and for the first time in nearly two decades, the Edmonton Oilers are vying for it. Hoping to stage a comeback against the Florida Panthers, the Oilers are two wins away from becoming National Hockey League champions.

The finals are bringing new attention to Edmonton, former team of the legendary Wayne Gretzky. But they’re also bringing attention to some of Canada’s biggest exports: hockey and oil.

Novelist Leslie McFarlane once observed that for Canadians, “hockey is more than a game; it is almost a religion.” Now that the Oilers have a chance to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada for the first time in nearly 30 years, prayers and superstitions abound, from wearing special clothing to fans averting their eyes during penalty shots.

The Oilers also evoke another aspect of Canadian society with almost religious importance: resource extraction. In American and Canadian culture, oil has long been entangled with religion. It’s a national blessing from God, in some people’s eyes, and a means to the “good life” for those who persevere to find it.

We are scholars of religion who study sports and how oil shapes society, or petro-cultures. The Edmonton Oilers showcase a worldview in which triumph, luck and rugged work pay off – beliefs at home on the ice or in the oil field. The Stanley Cup Final offers a glimpse into how the oil industry has helped shaped the religious fervor around Canada’s favorite sport.

Edmonton Oilers fan Dale Steil’s boots before the team’s playoff game against the Los Angeles Kings on April 26, 2024.
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Boomtown

Edmonton is the capital of Alberta, a province known for its massive oil, gas and oil sands reserves. With five refineries producing an average of 3.8 million barrels a day, oil and gas is Alberta’s biggest industry – and a way of life.

This is especially true in Edmonton, known as the “Oil Capital of Canada.” Here, oil not only structures the local economy, but it also shapes identities, architecture and everyday experiences.

Visit the West Edmonton Mall, for example, and you’ll see a statue of three oil workers drilling, reminding shoppers that petroleum is the bedrock of their commerce. Visit the Canadian Energy Museum to learn how oil and gas have remade the region since the late 1940s, and glimpse items such as engraved hard hats and the “Oil Patch Kid,” a spin on the iconic “Cabbage Patch Kids” toys. Tour the greater Edmonton area and see how pump jacks dot the horizon. Oil is everywhere, shaping futures, fortunes and possibility.

Pumpjacks near Acme, Alberta, Canada – a regular sight.
Michael Interisano/Design Pics Editorial/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Set against this backdrop, the Oilers’ name is unsurprising. It is not uncommon, after all, to name teams after local industries. Football’s Pittsburgh Steelers pay homage to the steel mills that once employed much of the team’s fan base. The Tennessee Oilers were originally the Houston Oilers, prompting other Texas teams such as the XFL’s Roughnecks to follow suit. Further north, the name of basketball’s Detroit Pistons references car manufacturing.

Teams with industry-inspired names play double duty, venerating both a place and a trade. Some fans are not only cheering for the home team but cheering for themselves – affirming that their industry and their labor matters.

Ales Hemsky of the Edmonton Oilers skates out from under the oil derrick for a game at Rexall Place in 2008 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

In a recent TikTok video, a man overcome with joy at the Oilers’ victory over the Dallas Stars claps his hands and hops around his living room. The caption reads, “My first-generation immigrant oil rig working Filipino father who has never played a second of hockey in his life…happily cheering for the Oilers advancing in the playoffs. Better Bring that cup home for him oily boys.” He appears to be cheering for the Oilers not because they are a hockey team, but because they are an oil team.

And indeed, the Oilers are an oily team. The Oilers’ Oilfield Network, for example, describes itself as “exclusively promot[ing] companies in the Oil and Gas industry,” allowing leaders to connect “through the power of Oilers hockey.”

The Oilers’ connection with industry is further underscored by their logos. The current one features a simple drop of oil, but past designs featured machinery gears and an oil worker pulling a lever shaped like a hockey stick.

Liquid gold

There is a long tradition of pairing hockey with oil – and with Canada itself.

After the British North America Act founded Canada in 1867, the new nation searched for a distinctive identity through sport and other cultural forms.

Enter hockey. The winter game evolved in Canada from the Gaelic game of “shinty” and the First Nations’ game of lacrosse and soon became part of the glue holding the nation together.

Ever since, media, politicians, sports groups and major industries have helped fuel fan fervor and promoted hockey as integral to Canada’s rugged frontiersman character.

The Montreal Amateur Athletic Association posing with the first Stanley Cup in 1893.
Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

In 1936, Imperial Oil, one of Canada’s largest petroleum companies, began sponsoring Hockey Night in Canada, a national radio show that reached millions each week. Several years later, Imperial Oil played a major role in bringing the show to television, where the Imperial Oil Choir sang the theme song. Imperial Oil and its gas stations, Esso, also sponsored youth hockey programs across the nation. In 2019, Imperial inked a deal to be the National Hockey League’s “official retail fuel” in Canada.

Striking it rich

Connections between hockey and industry in Alberta’s oil country aren’t just about sponsorships. Central to both cultures is the idea of luck – historically, one of the many things it takes to extract fossil fuels. “Striking it rich” in the oil fields has become entangled with the idea of divine providence, especially among the many Christian laborers.

Philosopher Terra Schwerin Rowe has written about North America’s “petro-theology,” explaining how many perceive oil as a free-flowing gift from God meant to be taken from the Earth – if you can find it.

A Canadian oil worker kisses his wife and daughter goodbye as he sets off to work in northern Alberta in the 1950s.
John Chillingworth/Getty Images

Oil represents fortune, and who wouldn’t want to borrow a bit of that for their team? Sports are thrilling because sometimes talent, team chemistry and the home-field advantage still lose to a stroke of good luck. Oil culture pairs the idea of divine favor with an insistence on rough-and-tumble endurance, similar to hockey.

Right now, fans from around the world are joining Edmonton locals in rooting for the Oilers. They’ll throw their hands up in despair if captain Connor McDavid enters the “sin bin” – i.e., the penalty box – or dance in celebration to the Oilers’ theme, “La Bamba.” They’ll be cheering, too, for oil. Läs mer…

Canada’s family-based immigration program for Sudanese fleeing war is too little, too late

Sudan’s civil war has forcibly displaced more than 9.2 million people since it began in April 2023. This represents not only the largest internal displacement situation globally, it’s also a growing humanitarian emergency affecting 25 million people.

In February 2024, the Canadian government launched a humanitarian immigration program for Sudanese with a family “anchor” in Canada. Capped at 3,250 applications, the program was no longer accepting submissions as of May 6, 2024, despite stringent requirements.

Canada’s immigration policy for Sudanese people is an insufficient response to the scale and gravity of displacement in and from Sudan.

Deep-rooted conflict

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2023.
(AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Sudan became embroiled in civil war due to a derailed political transition and failed state formation. The conflict is fuelled by power struggles between two military leaders, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Fourteen months after the conflict erupted, neither of the conflicting parties have declared victory. The recent SRF attack in Wad Al-Noura, Gezira State, killed 200 people, including 35 children.

Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, is seen in a May 2019 photo.
(AP Photo)

The conflict is likely to persist, and has the potential to expand since each party has invited governments of neighbouring countries to participate in the conflict on their respective sides.

The Jeddah Talks and commitments made in November 2023 between the warring parties have not borne fruit. If the war continues unabated, it will further militarize Sudanese society, reduce the state to a battleground for various warlords and potentially cause one of the largest refugee situations in Africa.

Read more:
Sudan’s civil war is rooted in its historical favouritism of Arab and Islamic identity

Canada’s insufficient response

The federal government waited 10 months after civil war broke out before announcing the limited family reunification program disguised as a humanitarian refugee pathway. The permanent residence program is restricted to people who “resided in Sudan when the conflict began on April 15, 2023” and who “are the child, grandchild, parent or sibling” of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident residing in Canada outside the province of Québec.

Read more:
Asylum seekers from Gaza and Sudan face prejudiced policies and bureaucratic hurdles

The family “anchor” in Canada must sign an agreement to support their family members from Sudan. They must also provide proof of minimum income to demonstrate they have the financial capacity to provide “basic needs, including housing, food, clothing and other basic necessities of life.”

This downloads integration and settlement responsibilities onto Canada-based family members. And by capping applications at 3,250 and limiting eligibility to Sudanese with family in Canada, the Canadian government is leaving millions behind.

People prepare food in a Khartoum neighbourhood in June 2023.
(AP Photo)

Three recommendations

In the face of the largest displacement situation in the world, we urge the Canadian government to take leadership in three key areas:

It must offer other refugee resettlement pathways, including through established private sponsorship and government assistance routes. Recently, Canada has led global efforts to resettle Syrians and Afghans. Now is the time to act for displaced Sudanese people facing an escalating humanitarian emergency.
It must scale up humanitarian assistance to displaced and war-affected populations in Sudan and neighbouring countries. While the UN has appealed for US$4.1 billion from the international community, Canada has only announced CA$132.2 million. Relief agencies have repeatedly raised the alarm about the dire consequences of chronically underfunding humanitarian assistance to Sudan. The UN emergency relief chief recently called on G7 countries, including Canada, to act immediately to prevent starvation of five million people in Sudan.
It must pursue all diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict, including through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in Eastern Africa and the African Union. The Canadian government must also work with its powerful western allies at the G7 to put maximum pressure on the parties to agree to an immediate ceasefire and work towards a negotiated peaceful settlement. Läs mer…

Somalia army vs al-Shabaab: as African Union troops leave, which is the stronger military force?

The African Union (AU) has gradually reduced its troop numbers in Somalia since late 2017, from a peak of over 22,000 to about 14,000 today. Another 4,000 AU peacekeepers are scheduled to withdraw by the end of September and the entire AU Transition Mission in Somalia is scheduled to leave by 31 December 2024.

African Union peacekeepers were first deployed to Mogadishu in March 2007. Their mandate was to protect the then Transitional Federal Government and support dialogue and reconciliation in Somalia.

Since then, the AU mission has played a vital role in the fight against the Islamist militant group, al-Shabaab. They pushed al-Shabaab forces out of Mogadishu in 2011, recovered dozens of settlements across south-central Somalia between 2012 and 2014, and helped to establish and secure four new federal member sates in Somalia between 2013 and 2017. Nevertheless, al-Shabaab was not defeated and remains one of Africa’s most deadly insurgencies.

The AU transition mission is leaving because the federal government of Somalia is confident it no longer needs the mission. But it’s also, in part, because external partners have baulked at the cost of financing it.

Without the AU there, would the Somali National Army or al-Shabaab be stronger militarily? This was the question I posed in an assessment of the two forces published recently.

I have researched the effectiveness of peace operations and the dynamics of warfare in Africa for more than two decades. I have published numerous articles and books, including Fighting for Peace in Somalia – a history and analysis of the African Union Mission in Somalia.

My assessment considered seven factors: size, material resources (finance and technology), external support, force employment, cohesion, psychological operations, and morale.

I concluded that the Somali National Army would retain an advantage in terms of size, material resources and external support, but performs poorly on the non-material dimensions. It would remain dependent upon external finance and security assistance. Overall, al-Shabaab would be militarily stronger because of its advantages across the non-material dimensions related to force employment, cohesion and psychological operations, as well as the sustainability of its forces.

What follows briefly summarises that longer study.

Comparing the Somali army and al-Shabaab

Size: At around 20,000 troops, the Somali army is probably already over twice the size of al-Shabaab. If its current recruiting plan succeeds, it will be well over three times as large. However, measuring each side’s mobile forces – the number of troops with vehicles able to conduct operations over large distances – reveals much greater parity. Moreover, while al-Shabaab’s true strength remains unknown, the militants have consistently replenished their losses through forcible recruitment and attracting new supporters.

Assessment: Somali army advantage, but rough parity of mobile forces.

Material resources: Al-Shabaab has a much leaner and less technically sophisticated fighting force than the Somali army. It is therefore cheaper to maintain. The militants also maintain diverse revenue streams. The army has the technological edge, but its greater numbers, administrative and support elements require more funding, currently more than the federal government can afford alone. It is an open question how long Somalia’s external partners will continue to pay for assistance for the army.

Assessment: The army has a financial advantage in absolute terms, but is dependent on external partners. Al-Shabaab advantage in terms of sustainability. Army has a slight and growing technical advantage.

External support: Even without the African Transition Mission in Somalia, the Somali army would likely retain considerable security assistance from about ten external partners. But it can also create unhelpful dependencies, fragment the force, and generate coordination and capacity challenges. Al-Shabaab receives only limited funding and technical expertise from al-Qaeda.

Assessment: Army advantage, but al-Shabaab has few external dependencies.

Force employment: Al-Shabaab is waging a war of destabilisation using guerrilla tactics, which are cheap and effective. The army, in contrast, is spread over many operating bases and trying to control territory, urban settlements and supply routes. An African Mission withdrawal would take pressure off al-Shabaab, enabling them to focus more attacks on the army.

Assessment: Al-Shabaab advantage.

Cohesion: The army remains fragmented for two principal reasons. First, Somalia’s bickering political leaders have failed to clarify force structures and the relationship between the federal government and the country’s federal member states. Second, the army has been built by multiple security partners who have used different doctrines, techniques and equipment. Al-Shabaab’s fighting force is more cohesive, despite some clan-related tensions.

Assessment: Al-Shabaab advantage.

Psychological operations: Al-Shabaab continues to send out its strategic messages about endurance, inevitability and invincibility. Those themes resonate with a variety of local audiences in Somalia. The federal government has been reactive and fixated on casualty counts and “recovered” territory while struggling to undermine al-Shabaab’s legitimacy and its strategic narratives.

Assessment: Al-Shabaab advantage.

Morale: Overall, al-Shabaab’s leadership and much of the rank-and-file appear to have maintained consistently higher levels of confidence than most of the army. Al-Shabaab’s superior morale stems from the belief that they can withstand army offensives and exploit army weaknesses. In comparison, the army’s morale has deflated after the initial progress made during the 2022 offensive. Moreover, the recent positive news about lifting the UN arms embargo, increasing funds and fresh recruits is largely offset by concerns that its international partners may grow weary.

Assessment: Slight al-Shabaab advantage.

Implications

My analysis has implications for how to tilt the military balance in Somalia in the federal government’s favour.

First, even without an AU force, the policy challenge for Somalia’s remaining external partners remains the same: how to provide assistance without creating military dependency.

Second, although the army’s material advantages over al-Shabaab are important, they have depended on external support that is no longer guaranteed. After the AU Transition Mission, the army will become even more reliant on its other external partners, especially the United States, Turkey, the UAE and Qatar. Those partners must coordinate and align their political agendas for Somalia.

Third, given the importance of non-material factors in the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, this assessment should serve as a warning that reforms are needed. The federal government of Somalia should focus on improving the central non-material issues. It is also risky to put too much emphasis on what can be achieved by rapidly trained new recruits.

Finally, without the AU Transition Mission, the Somali army should prepare to face several hundred additional attacks each year. Most of these attacks would have previously targeted AU forces. Since al-Shabaab’s weapon of choice remains improvised explosive devices, the army should prioritise improving capabilities against this threat. Läs mer…

Heat exposure during pregnancy can lead to a lifetime of health problems

Climate change is one of the greatest public health threats humanity has ever faced.

Global warming is part of this threat. Increasing temperatures are linked to deteriorating health, especially in vulnerable populations, including pregnant women and children.

Scientists have previously shown that heat exposure increases the risk of preterm birth and stillbirth. New research continues to uncover worrying links to poor outcomes for mothers and their babies. Congenital abnormalities, hypertension in pregnancy and low birth weight are some of the dangers of increasing heat.

One area that has not received as much attention is the long-term effect that heat exposure during pregnancy might have on the baby. To explore this question, we conducted a systematic review of all the existing research on the effects of heat exposure in pregnancy on health and socioeconomic consequences in later life.

Systematic reviews are designed to provide the highest level of medical evidence, collating and summarising all the findings of qualifying research, rather than relying on just one study.

Our findings were clear. They showed that people who had been exposed to excessive heat before they were born suffered alarming lifelong effects.

Long-term effects

The most common measure of heat is the average air temperature, but some studies used more complex measures that adjusted for the humidity, and other factors that influence how an individual experiences heat.

How we define dangerous levels of heat for pregnant women is an ongoing focus of our research. The most likely scenario is that it is influenced by location, context and individual vulnerabilities. Different conditions may also have different harmful thresholds and periods of susceptibility.

We found 29 studies covering more than 100 years, allowing us to see effects throughout an individual’s lifespan. Some studies followed pregnancies closely to observe any ill-effects on the child. Others relied on population registries which recorded date and place of birth, allowing researchers to estimate the individual’s in-utero heat exposure.

More than 60% of studies were conducted in high-income countries in the global north, which often have cooler climates. This research relied on observing naturally occurring differences in heat exposure, rather than controlled trials.

Despite those research limitations, we found the majority of studies linked harmful long-term effects with increased heat exposure during pregnancy.

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In particular, we found associations with worse educational performances and lower income in later life.

For example, in the US, annual income at the age of 30 was reduced by US$56 (2008 equivalent) for every additional day with temperatures above 32°C during the first trimester of the mother’s pregnancy.

We also found harmful health effects including increased risk of heart disease and hypertension, as well as childhood asthma and pneumonia.

Childhood pneumonia risks were estimated to increase by 85% for every degree Celsius increase in temperature over the course of the pregnancy.

In Africa, the risk of malnutrition in children went up with increasing heat exposure in pregnancy. In the US, one study found a link with increasing risk of obesity.

Read more:
Five questions for African countries that want to build climate-resilient health systems

Many studies also showed links to mental illnesses, including increased risk of eating disorders and schizophrenia. In fact, previous research has shown the month a baby is born has been long associated with the risk of mental illness. Our research suggests heat exposure could be one of the reasons behind this.

These effects seem to culminate in an association with lower life expectancy, where people who had been exposed to increased heat while in the womb were found to die younger.

We also found that the effects seemed worse for female foetuses in studies exploring sub-group vulnerabilities.

Multiple pathways

Understanding how and why these effects might be seen across completely different body systems was an important part of our research. We drew on our team of experts in human development, on research being conducted into the direct effects of heat on pregnant women, and on animal studies.

Read more:
From fatal allergies to heart attacks and malaria – the devastating health effects of global warming in Africa

We propose that the effects of heat in pregnancy on the unborn baby likely occur through multiple pathways, including:

worsening the health of the mother through illnesses like pre-eclampsia and diabetes
directly affecting the baby’s development, especially the nervous system (heat can cause birth defects)
increasing the risk of preterm birth and other problems at the time of birth
directly changing the unborn baby’s DNA. This is likely to occur through changes in the epigenetic signature, an evolutionary mechanism that allows us to rapidly adapt to our environment by switching genes on and off.

One study even noted shortening of the unborn baby’s telomeres, the biological clock in our DNA that is linked to our limited lifespan.

There is an urgent need to conduct more research into this area and explore how and why these effects occur.

Call to action

Although the research is limited, our findings are worrying and support immediate individual, community and global action to protect pregnant women and their unborn babies from heat.

It is our duty to speak out for those with no voice, who played no part in causing this public health emergency and who are likely to experience the worst consequences of our inaction. Läs mer…

Nigeria’s mountain streams are a haven for special creatures – they need protection

Nigeria has many freshwater ecotourism attractions. Among them are the Ikogosi warm spring, the Osun-Osogbo river, and the Olumirin, Owu, Arinta and Ekor waterfalls.

Their scenic beauty and lush forests make these sites popular, but the impacts of human activities are likely to pose a growing threat to once-pristine freshwater systems.

The biodiversity and conservation value of these places has not been well researched. The conservation value of a freshwater ecosystem lies in its ability to support rare and threatened species, as well as species that indicate high ecological integrity. This is the ability of an ecosystem to support and maintain ecological processes and a diverse community of organisms.

To fill some of the gaps, my freshwater biodiversity research group collected samples of insects and other small creatures from four freshwater systems in the Obudu mountains, along the border of Nigeria and Cameroon. The area falls into the Lower Guinea Forest Biodiversity hotspot, where endemic and threatened species like western gorilla, red-eared monkey and drill gorilla are found.

There has been no previous study on the freshwater conservation value of the mountains, despite their known importance for biodiversity on land.

We also collected samples of invertebrate species from the Agbokim waterfalls and the Kwa river of the Cross River National Park, all along the Cameroon border.

Our findings revealed that the sites have very high conservation values. They have rare, notable and threatened invertebrates in the freshwater systems. These should be protected better.

Freshwater macroinvertebrates

Freshwater macroinvertebrates include aquatic insects like dragonflies, mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, bugs and beetles; molluscs like snails and mussels; crustaceans like crabs and shrimps; and annelids (segmented worms). Macroinvertebrates, particularly the stress-sensitive ones like mayfly, stonefly, and caddisfly, have been described as the best indicators of freshwater quality. Stress-sensitive insects are insects that decline in population when their environment is disturbed.

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Understandably, conservation attention is often focused on larger animals like crocodiles, monkeys and gorillas. These are the flagship species often used to draw attention to a conservation area.

But the biodiversity and conservation value of the freshwater ecosystems are also important. Healthy freshwater systems are an essential requirement for animal and human life on land.

Freshwater macroinvertebrates are ecological engineers with several functions in freshwater ecosystems. They serve as food for fish in the water. The adult insects that emerge from the water are food for animals in the forests near the water.

Also, the presence of certain invertebrate species is a good indicator of good water and environmental quality.

Importance of this border area

We found that the freshwater systems of the Obudu mountains had more species of stress-sensitive mayfly, stonefly and caddisfly larvae when compared with similar studies in Nigeria. The Afundu stream in the mountains in particular had as many as 30 species of these stress-sensitive insects. The Kwa river of the Cross River National Park ranked second in terms of stress-sensitive insects, that is below 30 species.

This is a good indicator of a pristine natural environment. There is a direct correlation between their diversity and the health of a freshwater ecosystem and its adjacent forest. The presence of many species is an extra sign of a healthy freshwater system.

We also found two endangered damselflies, Africocypha centripunctata and Allocnemis vicki, in the Obudu mountains, and some rare mayfly species at Agbokim waterfalls, Kwa river and the Obudu mountains. The three sites have very high conservation values based on their species compositions and several biological indices.

The endangered damselflies are found only along the Nigeria-Cameroon border. With such a narrow range of distribution, endemic species like these are easily eradicated. Once gone, they can’t be replaced. That is why any environment that is home to one of these species is usually given very high conservation attention.

Looking forward

The three sites in our study appear to be havens for freshwater biodiversity. They are also candidate sites for conservation in Nigeria. Aside from the section of the Kwa river that we studied and a stream in the Obudu mountains (the Becheve Nature Reserve stream), the streams we investigated are not currently receiving due conservation attention. Considering the fact that ecotourists often visit the sites, they need to be well protected.

Read more:
Why microplastics found in Nigeria’s freshwaters raise a red flag

Since the Cross River National Park shares borders with the Obudu mountains, biodiversity conservation in the region would be greatly enhanced if the National Park Service of Nigeria extended its operations in the mountains. It could also partner with other organisations to do this.

Currently, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation focuses only on the Becheve Nature Reserve. The site that had the highest number of stress-sensitive insects in our study, Afundu stream, was not under the management of any statutory organisation.

These sites need protection because they could support other rare and threatened plants and animals – not all of them aquatic.

There is also a need for a more detailed ecological inventory of plants and animals in the pristine freshwater systems of Nigeria and their associated riparian forests. Without detailed studies, natural sites in Nigeria may, as a result of human activities, lose rare and threatened species before they are reported. Läs mer…

Why expanding access to algebra is a matter of civil rights

Bob Moses, who helped register Black residents to vote in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, believed civil rights went beyond the ballot box. To Moses, who was a teacher as well as an activist, math literacy is a civil right: a requirement to earning a living wage in modern society. In 1982, he founded the Algebra Project to ensure that “students at the bottom get the math literacy they need.”

As a researcher who studies ways to improve the math experiences of students, I believe a new approach that expands access to algebra may help more students get the math literacy Moses, who died in 2021, viewed as so important. It’s a goal districts have long been struggling to meet.

Efforts to improve student achievement in algebra have been taking place for decades. Unfortunately, the math pipeline in the United States is fraught with persistent opportunity gaps. According to the Nation’s Report Card – a congressionally mandated project administered by the Department of Education – in 2022 only 29% of U.S. fourth graders and 20% of U.S. eighth graders were proficient in math. Low-income students, students of color and multilingual learners, who tend to have lower scores on math assessments, often do not have the same access as others to qualified teachers, high-quality curriculum and well-resourced classrooms.

A new approach

The Dallas Independent School District – or Dallas ISD – is gaining national attention for increasing opportunities to learn by raising expectations for all students. Following in the footsteps of more than 60 districts in the state of Washington, in 2019 the Dallas ISD implemented an innovative approach of having students be automatically enrolled rather than opt in to honors math in middle school.

Under an opt-in policy, students need a parent or teacher recommendation to take honors math in middle school and Algebra 1 in eighth grade. That policy led both to low enrollment and very little diversity in honors math. Some parents, especially those who are Black or Latino, were not aware how to enroll their students in advanced classes due to a lack of communication in many districts.

In addition, implicit bias, which exists in all demographic groups, may influence teachers’ perceptions of the behavior and academic potential of students, and therefore their subsequent recommendations. Public school teachers in the U.S. are far less racially and ethnically diverse than the students they serve.

Dallas ISD’s policy overhaul aimed to foster inclusivity and bridge educational gaps among students. Through this initiative, every middle school student, regardless of background, was enrolled in honors math, the pathway that leads to taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade, unless they opted out.

Flipping the switch from opt-in to opt-out led to a dramatic increase in the number of Black and Latino learners, who constitute the majority of Dallas students. And the district’s overall math scores remained steady. About 60% of Dallas ISD eighth graders are now taking Algebra 1, triple the prior level. Moreover, more than 90% are passing the state exam.

Civil rights activist Bob Moses believed math literacy was critical for students to be able to make a living.
Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films via Getty Images

Efforts spread

Other cities are taking notice of the effects of Dallas ISD’s shifting policy. The San Francisco Unified School District, for example, announced plans in February 2024 to implement Algebra 1 in eighth grade in all schools by the 2026-27 school year.

In fall 2024, the district will pilot three programs to offer Algebra 1 in eighth grade. The pilots range from an opt-out program for all eighth graders – with extra support for students who are not proficient – to a program that automatically enrolls proficient students in Algebra 1, offered as an extra math class during the school day. Students who are not proficient can choose to opt in.

Nationwide, however, districts that enroll all students in Algebra 1 and allow them to opt out are still in the minority. And some stopped offering eighth grade Algebra 1 entirely, leaving students with only pre-algebra classes. Cambridge, Massachusetts – the city in which Bob Moses founded the Algebra Project – is among them.

Equity concerns linger

Between 2017 and 2019, district leaders in the Cambridge Public Schools phased out the practice of placing middle school students into “accelerated” or “grade-level” math classes. Few middle schools in the district now offer Algebra 1 in eighth grade.

The policy shift, designed to improve overall educational outcomes, was driven by concerns over significant racial disparities in advanced math enrollment in high school. Completion of Algebra 1 in eighth grade allows students to climb the math ladder to more difficult classes, like calculus, in high school. In Cambridge, the students who took eighth grade Algebra 1 were primarily white and Asian; Black and Latino students enrolled, for the most part, in grade-level math.

Some families and educators contend that the district’s decision made access to advanced math classes even more inequitable. Now, advanced math in high school is more likely to be restricted to students whose parents can afford to help them prepare with private lessons, after-school programs or private schooling, they said.

While the district has tried to improve access to advanced math in high school by offering a free online summer program for incoming ninth graders, achievement gaps have remained persistently wide.

Perhaps striking a balance between top-down policy and bottom-up support will help schools across the U.S. realize the vision Moses dreamed of in 1982 when he founded the Algebra Project: “That in the 21st century every child has a civil right to secure math literacy – the ability to read, write and reason with the symbol systems of mathematics.” Läs mer…

Court blocks grants to Black women entrepreneurs in case that could restrict DEI efforts by companies and charities

In a 2-1 vote on June 3, 2024, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that the Fearless Foundation – the charitable arm of the Fearless Fund venture capital firm – must suspend its Strivers Grant Contest. The contest is limited to Black women who are majority owners of businesses.

The Conversation asked Angela R. Logan, a scholar of nonprofit administration and diversity, equity and inclusion policies, to explain the significance of this case, American Alliance for Equal Rights v. Fearless Fund Management, and what’s at stake.

What is the Fearless Fund?

Ayana Parsons and Arian Simone, two experienced Black entrepreneurs, established the Fearless Fund in 2018 to provide financial and technical support to businesses led by other Black women.

The Fearless Fund also runs a charity, the Fearless Foundation. Among other things, it runs the Strivers Grant Contest, which provides four winners with US$20,000 and mentoring to help them grow their businesses.

The Fearless Foundation received $332,000 in revenue and had just $141,560 in net assets in 2022, the most recent year for which this information is available. In other words, it’s very small. Large U.S. foundations have multibillion-dollar endowments.

What is the American Alliance for Equal Rights?

The American Alliance for Equal Rights says it filed this lawsuit because it believes that denying non-Black people the opportunity to win a contract through the contest violates their civil rights.

The group, led by former stock broker and activist Edward Blum, is best known for its use of litigation to block affirmative action in higher education.

In June 2023, a majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled on two cases the alliance brought on behalf of Asian American students who wanted to attend Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The court found that race-conscious admissions in higher education were unconstitutional, effectively eliminating affirmative action for college and university admissions.

Unlike with their education cases, none of the plaintiffs whom Blum’s group is representing in this new case actually entered the Fearless Fund grant contest, because they believed they wouldn’t be awarded funding. They are also anonymous.

The American Alliance for Equal Rights responded to the ruling by saying it “is grateful” that the court has ruled in its favor, adding “our nation’s civil rights laws do not permit racial distinctions because some groups are overrepresented in various endeavors, while others are underrepresented.”

Affirmative action opponent Edward Blum leaves the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022.
Eric Lee for The Washington Post via Getty Images

What does the ruling suggest about the status of DEI efforts?

This case is setting an important precedent by alleging that the Fearless Foundation’s contest violates a federal statute enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1866: 42 U.S.C. Section 1981. That statute prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in contracts.

That law, passed right after the Civil War, was specifically supposed to protect recently emancipated Black people from discrimination.

In my view, shared by leading philanthropic organizations, the alliance is distorting U.S. racial history by using that statute to argue that it’s unconstitutional to help Black businesswomen overcome their lack of access to capital.

This litigation also is problematic because it is at odds with the traditional role that nonprofits play in the United States. By providing services that for-profit enterprises and the government do not offer, nonprofits bridge gaps. They have a long and storied history of assisting those on the margins of society: immigrant communities, people with different physical and mental abilities, and those living in poverty.

And because this case could set the stage for larger, more aggressive actions to dismantle corporate diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, I believe this ruling has struck another blow against attempts to make the nation’s economy and society more equitable, just and inclusive.

Why does this matter?

It is extremely hard for Black women with startups to build their businesses. Among all Black-led startups, financial support has declined steadily since it surged in the summer of 2020.

Businesses owned by Black and Latino women get less than 1% of all venture capital funding.

Not long ago, it seemed like this trend might turn around.

Following the outrage that followed the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, the private sector and nonprofits alike marshaled efforts to increase their giving and provide other kinds of support for Black people. Although the Fearless Fund was established before Floyd’s murder, it, too, saw increased interest and support – especially in 2021.

But as the general public’s attention and interest in justice for Black Americans has waned, so, too, have these commitments.

This diminished engagement has coincided with some states restricting or even banning DEI efforts altogether at public colleges and universities, including Florida and Texas. At least seven other states have passed similar laws restricting DEI programs and instruction tied to racial justice, and bills have been proposed in another 15 states.

This ruling could now make foundations leery of contributing to nonprofits that assist women and people of color out of a fear that they will be sued.

Where do you think this case is heading?

I think this case will eventually be heard by the Supreme Court.

If that happens, I hope the justices realize that opportunities for entrepreneurs of color remain limited. I believe they should recognize the need for efforts like the Fearless Fund and its Strivers Grant Contest that seek to level the playing field for Black women. Läs mer…

Lynn Conway was a trans woman in tech − and underappreciated for decades after she helped launch the computing revolution

Lynn Conway may hold the record for longest delay between being unfairly fired and receiving an apology for it. In 1968, IBM – a company that now covers its logo in a rainbow flag each June for Pride Month – fired Conway, who died on June 9, 2024, at 86, when she expressed her intention to transition. IBM eventually apologized to the now-famous computing expert, but only 52 years later, when Conway was 82 years old.

Although Conway’s start as a trans woman while at IBM was inauspicious, she quickly found a new job under her post-transition name and identity at the prestigious Xerox PARC and for many years kept the fact that she was trans from her employers to avoid being unfairly dismissed again. In so doing, Conway escaped becoming a target of the sensationalistic and harmful news coverage about trans people that dominated mainstream media in the 20th century. At the same time, however, this meant she was also not able to fully tell her story.

Even today, mainstream media coverage of trans people often positions them as unfortunate victims or questions trans people’s right to exist at all.

Through her groundbreaking work on chip design, Conway joined a long line of illustrious women in computing in the 20th century who made computers into the powerful and flexible tools that they are today. Conway’s co-invention of very large-scale integration, or VLSI, rocketed chip design into the future. VLSI allowed etching circuits on a computer chip’s surface to be as space efficient as possible, ensuring the maximum number of transistors on a chip.

Lynn Conway on the role she played in the computing revolution.

Maximizing the number of transistors on a chip meant that the resulting computer using that chip could be as fast and powerful as possible. For this innovation, Conway received industry and academic recognition. However, that recognition was long delayed.

The ‘Conway Effect’

Like many other women in computing, however, Conway felt that she had been denied her due credit because of the way that her male co-inventor of VLSI, Carver Mead, was repeatedly given more credit and incorrectly perceived as the lead on the project that led to this important innovation. Although Mead did not necessarily seek to unfairly take credit for himself, what Conway dubbed the Conway Effect led to him getting more, or sometimes all, of the credit.

The Conway Effect is a slightly modified version of what is known as the Mathilda Effect: Women’s scientific contributions are often attributed to the nearest man working on the same topic. The Conway Effect states that people who are “othered” in computing, including women and people of color of all genders, form a group that society does not expect to make great advances, and so they are not given full credit when they do because they are literally overlooked.

Conway pointed out that, after some initial recognition together, Mead was given sole awards for their joint work, as well as being celebrated along with other men at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. She and other women who had done the same work, even when they were in leadership positions, were not invited or similarly recognized.

Conway wrote about her experience in the essay where she introduced the “Conway Effect.”

In 2009, my disappearance was complete after the Computer History Museum’s gala celebration of the 50th anniversary of the integrated circuit. Sixteen men were described by the media as “the Valley’s founding fathers.” They were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for their contributions to microelectronics. Top billing went to Gordon Moore and Carver Mead. I was not invited to the event, and didn’t even know it was happening.

Conway was added to the Computer History Museum in 2014, 12 years after Mead. Even how the computing field refers to their innovation as the “Mead-Conway method,” with Mead’s name first despite not being first alphabetically, shows this unfortunate effect.

Lynn Conway in her office at Xerox PARC in 1983.
photo by Margaret Moulton

Out and into a new role

Conway worked and lived quietly for much of her career, making important strides that reshaped the field of computing while trying not to out herself as a trans woman working in a conservative industry. Later in her life, she realized that the low profile she had sought to keep would be untenable if her career were to make it into the history books, which it eventually did. She also wanted to take credit for her earlier, pre-transition innovations.

As a result, in 1999 she came out publicly as trans and became a vocal supporter of trans rights and of other trans people in high tech. She kept a detailed website that talked about her trans experience in order to try to help other trans people, especially trans women on the verge of coming out, feel less alone. She even participated in a version of “The Vagina Monologues” in 2004 that starred trans women.

Despite Conway’s earliest career setback, which nearly cost her both her livelihood and her family, she went on to have an illustrious career in computing. Her assessment of both her place and the place of other women in the field continues to teach us an important lesson about gender and computing – just as the chip architecture that she co-designed continues to shape what is possible for people to do with the computers that shape our work and personal lives. Läs mer…

Raw milk health risks significantly outweigh any potential benefits − food scientists and nutritionists explain why

Despite an ongoing outbreak of bird flu in dairy cows, the popularity of raw milk has only risen. Advocates claim raw milk has superior health benefits over pasteurized milk. There is little evidence to support these claims, however, and the risk of serious illness is much greater.

Mississippi State University food scientists Juan Silva and Joel Komakech and nutritionist Mandy Conrad explain the difference between pasteurized and raw milk, addressing common misconceptions about the health risks and purported benefits of consuming unpasteurized milk. These questions are more important than ever, since cattle can shed viral material into their milk. Not only can pathogens end up in milk, but at least three farmworkers reportedly have contracted H5N1, the virus that causes avian influenza, in 2024. Farmworkers can get sick by handling infected animals or their byproducts, such as raw milk.

What is pasteurization? Does it destroy nutrients?

Pasteurization is a process that involves heating beverages and foods at high temperatures – over 145 degrees Fahrenheit (62.78 degrees Celsius) – to kill harmful microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. This reduces the total number of microorganisms in the product and also inactivates enzymes that could contribute to spoilage.

The taste, nutritional value and quality of pasteurized products aren’t significantly affected by the process.

While pasteurization can lead to some nutrient losses, the changes are generally minimal and outweighed by the benefits. Pasteurization typically causes minor denaturation of proteins and has little effect on fats and carbohydrates. While water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C and some B vitamins, usually not abundant in milk except vitamin B2, can be partially degraded during pasteurization, fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K, found in significant amounts in milk) are more heat stable and suffer minimal loss.

Thus, nutritional losses in milk due to pasteurization are generally small compared with the significant benefits of reducing foodborne illnesses and spoilage.

Is raw milk healthier than pasteurized milk?

Studies have compared the benefits of raw milk with pasteurized milk and have found little evidence that raw milk is superior to pasteurized milk. The perceived advantages of raw milk are outweighed by its health risks.

First, raw milk does not improve lactose intolerance.

Raw milk also does not have more vitamins than pasteurized milk. Milk is not a good source of vitamin C or other heat-sensitive vitamins, and pasteurization does little to reduce vitamin B2 or riboflavin, which is not as sensitive to heat. Moreover, Vitamin D is added to pasteurized milk to enhance your body’s ability to absorb the calcium in milk.

Pasteurized milk is fortified with vitamin D and other nutrients.
Burke/Triolo Productions/The Image Bank via Getty Images

Fortified milk replaces nutrients that may be lost in the pasteurization process. Vitamin D is added to milk to enhance uptake of the calcium found in the milk. No single food is perfect, so it is OK for milk to lack some nutrients, as these can be obtained from other foods.

Some people believe that probiotics – foods or supplements that contain live bacteria beneficial to health – are more prevalent in unpasteurized milk and products made from raw milk. However, raw milk is generally lacking in probiotics and has significantly more harmful bacteria. Probiotics are added to many dairy foods such as yogurt after pasteurization.

Furthermore, a 2011 review of the available research on the health benefits of raw milk found that many of these studies were conducted with poor methods, meaning their results should be interpreted with caution.

What are the health risks of consuming raw milk?

The health risks of consuming raw, unpasteurized milk come from the harmful microorganisms that may be present.

Raw milk has been associated with hundreds of foodborne disease outbreaks. Between 1998 and 2018, 202 outbreaks resulted in 2,645 illnesses and 228 hospitalizations. More recently, from 2022 to 2023, there were 18 outbreaks and recalls associated with raw milk. A number of outbreaks and recalls associated with pathogens in raw milk have already occurred in 2024. In all cases, pathogens in the raw milk that cause human diseases were directly responsible for these illnesses.

Pathogens from infected cattle can be found in their raw milk.
Tunvarat Pruksachat/Moment via Getty Images

Some illnesses from the pathogens in raw milk can have serious long-term effects, including paralysis, kidney failure and death.

Researchers found that areas where raw milk was legally sold in the U.S. from 1998 to 2018 had over three times more outbreaks than areas where selling raw milk was illegal. Areas where raw milk was allowed to be sold in retail stores had nearly four times more outbreaks than areas where sales were allowed only on farms.

Is it safe to eat foods made from raw milk?

Many, if not all, dairy products made from unpasteurized milk are not safe to eat. A number of products can be made from raw milk, including soft cheeses, such as brie and Camembert; Mexican-style soft cheeses, such as queso fresco, panela, asadero and queso blanco; yogurt and puddings; and ice cream or frozen yogurt. Pathogens in raw milk can survive the processes involved in making these types of dairy products and thus be unsafe for consumption.

Only products that undergo a process to inhibit or kill harmful microorganisms may be safe enough to be made from unpasteurized milk. However, the potential for cross contamination of raw and cooked food as well as the survival of pathogens from inadequate processing is high when products are made with raw milk.

Can pasteurized milk still get you sick?

The few reported outbreaks associated with pasteurized milk can be traced to contamination after pasteurization. When handled properly, pasteurized milk is a very safe product.

The U.S. government requires farmers to destroy milk from herds infected with avian influenza. As of June 2024, 12 states have reported herds positive with H1N5, the virus that causes bird flu.

There is currently no evidence that consuming pasteurized milk from infected cows causes illness in people. Based on the evidence available, the Food and Drug Administration currently states that pasteurization is able to destroy or inactivate heat-sensitive viruses such as H5N1 in milk.

Consuming raw milk, however, may pose a risk of disease transmission to people.

Can you gain immunity from H5N1 from drinking raw milk?

Some people believe that drinking raw milk can strengthen their immune system. However, there is no scientific evidence to support that drinking raw milk can improve immunity against disease.

Vaccines train your body to protect itself from future infections without actually getting sick from that infection. They do this by exposing your immune system to very small amounts of dead or significantly weakened pathogen.

Bird flu is spreading among dairy cows in the U.S.

Raw milk contains live H5N1 virus, meaning it could still infect you and make you sick. Rather than contributing to your immunity, raw milk exposes you to the virus at its full strength and can result in severe illness. Any protective antibodies that may be present in raw milk are likely degraded in stomach acid.

Moreover, people who contract bird flu from raw milk run the risk of transmitting it to other people or animals by giving the virus a chance to adapt and improve its ability to spread between people. This increases the risk of more widespread disease outbreaks. Läs mer…