Scientists estimate there are around 30 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.

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Scientists estimate there are around 30 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.

Are we alone in the universe? Astronomers have been debating this question for centuries, hunting for signs of life in a world that is not our own. Humans have built satellites, probed the stars, and in general just pondered the binary answers of “yes” and “no” for centuries.

However, a team of researchers have developed a new approach to help resolve life’s biggest mystery. Based on what we already know of how life evolved on Earth, they came to the stunning conclusion that there could be more than 30 intelligent civilizations across the galaxy that are active right now.The study, published Monday in The Astrophysical Journal, not only narrows down previous estimates of life in the wider cosmos, but also sheds light on the longevity of life here on Earth. If other civilizations don’t exist at the same time we do in the Milky Way, then maybe our time is rather short lived.

Is anybody out there? For a 100 years, humans have been trying to communicate with extraterrestrial civilizations. KTSDESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

THE SOLAR SYSTEM FORMED AROUND 4.5 BILLION YEARS AGO, and our home planet formed from a swirling disc of gas and dust millions of miles away from its host star. However, the first signs of microbial life appeared on Earth around 3.5 billion years ago, taking about a billion years to develop.

And it then took much longer for modern humans to evolve, dating back around 200,000 years, and for modern civilization to begin around 6,000 years ago.

Following all those years, human beings became an intelligent, communicating civilization around 100 years ago.

Considering that it took nearly 5 billion years for a technological civilization to exist on a planet, and assuming that life evolved on other planets the same way it did on Earth, the team of researchers behind the new study estimate that there could be 36 other alien civilizations or more in the Milky Way alone.

The criteria for these civilizations is based on how long they have been actively sending out signals of their existence out into the universe, such as radio transmissions, the same way that Earthlings have.

“The idea is looking at evolution, but on a cosmic scale,” Christopher Conselice, professor of Astrophysics at the University of Nottingham, and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “We call this calculation the Astrobiological Copernican Limit.”

Rather than the traditional method of looking for signs of extraterrestrial life in the distant cosmos by discovering and exploring alien planets, the study came up with an estimate based on how long it took for our own civilization to develop on Earth, and how long we have been around on this planet.

However, the researchers estimate that these extraterrestrial civilizations may be located around 17,000 light years away, which would make it hard to detect or communicate with them with our current technology. But, maybe they’re ahead of us with their own technology.

Of course, if it turns out that no other active modern civilization exists elsewhere in the Milky Way at the moment, it doesn’t bode very well for us. It could be an indication that the survival window for civilizations like ours is quite small, and we basically keep missing each other.

“Our new research suggests that searches for extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations not only reveals the existence of how life forms, but also gives us clues for how long our own civilization will last,” Conselice said. “If we find that intelligent life is common then this would reveal that our civilization could exist for much longer than a few hundred years, alternatively if we find that there are no active civilizations in our Galaxy it is a bad sign for our own long-term existence.”

Abstract: We present a cosmic perspective on the search for life and examine the likely number of Communicating Extra-Terrestrial Intelligent (CETI) civilizations in our Galaxy by utilizing the latest astrophysical information. Our calculation involves Galactic star formation histories, metallicity distributions, and the likelihood of stars hosting Earth-like planets in their habitable zones, under specific assumptions which we describe as the Astrobiological Copernican Weak and Strong conditions. These assumptions are based on the one situation in which intelligent, communicative life is known to exist—on our own planet. This type of life has developed in a metal-rich environment and has taken roughly 5 Gyr to do so. We investigate the possible number of CETI civilizations based on different scenarios. At one extreme is the Weak Astrobiological Copernican scenario—such that a planet forms intelligent life sometime after 5 Gyr, but not earlier. The other is the Strong Astrobiological Copernican scenario in which life must form between 4.5 and 5.5 Gyr, as on Earth. In the Strong scenario (under the strictest set of assumptions), we find there should be at least civilizations within our Galaxy: this is a lower limit, based on the assumption that the average lifetime, L, of a communicating civilization is 100 yr (since we know that our own civilization has had radio communications for this time). If spread uniformly throughout the Galaxy this would imply that the nearest CETI is at most lt-yr away and most likely hosted by a low-mass M-dwarf star, likely far surpassing our ability to detect it for the foreseeable future, and making interstellar communication impossible. Furthermore, the likelihood that the host stars for this life are solar-type stars is extremely small and most would have to be M dwarfs, which may not be stable enough to host life over long timescales. We furthermore explore other scenarios and explain the likely number of CETI there are within the Galaxy based on variations of our assumptions.


U.S added to list of most dangerous countries for journalists for first time.

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U.S added to list of most dangerous countries for journalists for first time.

The murder of the Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi — in a year when more than half of all journalists who were killed around the world were targeted deliberately — reflects a hatred of the media in many areas of society, a free-press advocacy group said Tuesday.

At least 63 professional journalists were killed doing their jobs in 2018, a 15 percent increase over last year, said the group, Reporters Without Borders. The number of deaths rises to 80 when all media workers and people classified as citizen journalists are included, it said in its annual report.

The world’s five deadliest countries for journalists include three — India, Mexico and, for the first time, the United States — where journalists were killed in cold blood, even though those countries weren’t at war or in conflict, the group said.

“The hatred of journalists that is voiced … by unscrupulous politicians, religious leaders and businessmen has tragic consequences on the ground, and has been reflected in this disturbing increase in violations against journalists,” Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement.

Khashoggi, a royal insider who became a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and began writing for The Washington Post after moving to the United States last year, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October.

His death sparked worldwide outrage. Saudi officials have rejected accusations that the crown prince ordered his death.

Reporters Without Borders said the three most dangerous countries for journalists to work in were Afghanistan, Syria and Mexico.

Meanwhile, the shooting deaths of five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, in June propelled the United States into the ranks of the most dangerous countries for the first time.

Reporters Without Borders said 348 journalists were being detained worldwide, compared with 326 at this time in 2017. China, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt hold more than half of the world’s imprisoned journalists, it said.

How to Safely and Ethically Film Police Misconduct.

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How to Safely and Ethically Film Police Misconduct.

On one of the first warm spring weekends in New York City, photos and videos circulated on social media featuring police officers handing out masks to groups of mostly white residents lounging in city parks. That same weekend, videos of police officers — some of whom weren’t wearing protective gear — using excessive force to arrest Black and Brown civilians for allegedly violating social distancing guidelines also circulated online. Videos, filmed by bystanders and community members, are helping to illuminate this new iteration of racist policing during COVID-19.

Over the past six years we’ve seen how critical video documentation can be in exposing violent and discriminatory policing, galvanizing public support around calls for accountability, and on rare occasions, even helping to secure justice in a courtroom. But far too often videos of police violence don’t lead to convictions, despite what appears to be clear evidence of abuse. While people are inclined to whip out their phones and film when they see something alarming happening, those videos are not always recorded in a way that can be used as evidence in a legal proceeding or to support advocacy tactics.

At the human rights organization WITNESS, where I work as the senior U.S. program coordinator, we’ve learned that video has a greater chance of making an impact when it’s filmed ethically and strategically, and released in coordination with advocacy and legal efforts. Using the camera in your pocket can be a valuable way to ensure the world bears witness to abusive policing and systemic racism, help hold authorities accountable, and advocate for the real safety of our communities. To help you film safely, ethically, and effectively, see the guidance below:

1. Safety first
The most important thing to consider when filming a police interaction is safety — your own and of the person you are filming. Filming or witnessing can escalate a situation, and sometimes bystanders become the target of police violence. The risk to your safety can depend on your identity — your background, race, gender, ethnicity, and so on — so it’s important to think about whether or not you feel comfortable filming before you press record. There are important ways to bear witness even if you don’t film, including standing in solidarity to let the person being targeted know they are not alone, or by taking notes. No footage is ever worth your safety.

2. Know your rights
In the United States, you have a 1st Amendment right to record law enforcement in public spaces as long as you don’t interfere — even during COVID-19. But remember:

Whether or not you are interfering is totally up to the police officer in the moment (and later up to a judge or jury), so it’s best to keep at least six feet of distance (or a car’s length) between you and the incident while filming, especially during social distancing.

If the police officer tells you to back up, comply with their orders. You can even film your feet as you’re backing up and say aloud, “I’m complying with orders.”

If the police officer tells you to stop filming, you can assert your right to film if you feel comfortable doing so.

You can stay safe and still film critical footage from a distance, like from a window, balcony, rooftop, or fire escape.

For more information, see Justice Committee’s COVID Copwatch Guidance

3. Prepare before you film
Even though an incident with police might occur without any notice, there are still ways you can prepare to ensure you are safe when filming:

Lock your phone with at least a six-digit passcode, not just the touch ID, face ID or pattern lock. For the most part, courts have ruled that you have a 5th Amendment constitutional right to not give up your cell phone passcode during a legal search. But that right is murkier when it comes to touch ID, face ID, or pattern lock, and courts have ruled both ways in the past. So it’s safest to just stick with a six-digit passcode for now.

Set your phone to automatically back up to a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive. That way even if you break your phone, lose it, or it gets confiscated for any reason, you’ll still have a backup of the video you filmed (we’ve seen this tactic work before). However, backing up footage to the cloud could leave the data vulnerable to legal requests from the police, depending on the company’s policy.

4. Tell a story with your footage
Ask yourself, “If I wasn’t here, what would I need to see to understand what happened?” Focus on details like:

Number of officers present, uniforms, badges, license plates, and any other identifying markers

Are the officers wearing masks and gloves? Are they practicing social distancing?

Are they using excessive force or violence? Are they using any racial slurs or discriminatory language?

Do they have weapons with them? Are they using them? Have they caused any property damage, ripped clothing, or injuries?

5. Try to provide evidence that your footage is real
In an era of fake news and rampant misinformation online, you want to make sure that your footage is as verifiable as possible. To do this:

Film street signs, landmarks, or exteriors of buildings to help determine the location.

Film a clock, phone home screen, newspaper, or something that helps verify the time and date.

It could be helpful to also state the time, date, and location out loud on camera, or write it down on a piece of paper and hold it up to the screen.

You can turn on GPS location services to help verify your location.

Film continuously instead of stopping and starting your camera; this will help fight against claims that footage was edited or manipulated.

6. To speak or not to speak
Sometimes it’s most powerful and helpful to stay quiet and let the footage speak for itself, like when the world heard Eric Garner utter his last words, “I can’t breathe.” But adding commentary to your footage can be a great way to help the audience understand what’s happening, especially if you’re unable to film at a close distance. If you decide to narrate:

Stick to the facts. Try not to include any biased or emotional language. This could hurt your chance of the footage being used as evidence in a legal proceeding.

Think like a sports commentator. Focus on time, date, location, i.e., “It’s 3 p.m. and four police officers just approached two women on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. The officers are holding tasers and are not wearing their masks properly.”

If you know the person being targeted, don’t allege anything about their criminal history or immigration status on camera. Something learned during an enforcement might be used against the person in a legal proceeding.

7. More filming tips
We’re all used to filming on our phones for fun, but filming for evidence and advocacy requires a little practice. Here are some tips on how to make your videos more valuable:

Film horizontally as opposed to vertically to capture more content in the frame.

Try to hold your shot for at least 10 seconds before moving your phone. This might feel uncomfortable, but lawyers, advocates, and investigators will need to be able to actually see what’s happening in the footage to use it. We often hear from the lawyers we work with that footage is too shaky or moving around too quickly for them to make sense of it.

Use slow and steady pans instead of quick, jerky movements.

Hold your elbows tight into your body, just over your hips (like a natural tripod for your camera). This will help save your arms from getting tired.

8. Sharing your video
So you filmed a video, what do you do now? The first thing to do is pause. Take a deep breath. You may have just witnessed a violent or traumatic event, so it’s important to take care of yourself. Wait before you post the footage to social media. Think through a strategy first, or work with a lawyer or advocacy organization to ensure your footage makes an impact. Before you share, ask yourself:

“Do I have consent from the person I just filmed?” Even if you filmed in a public space where people do not have an expectation of privacy, it can be a courtesy to check in with them or their friends/family before sharing footage of a vulnerable moment publicly. In most cases it might not be possible to get consent, but when possible, speak to them before sharing the footage, or give them the footage so they can decide how it’s used.

“Do I need to blur anyone’s face before uploading the footage in order to protect their identity or location?” YouTube offers a free tool for this (watch a tutorial on how to use it here).

“Do I want to share the footage with a lawyer?” If so, it’s best to share a completely unedited version with them. If you make any edits to the footage (including just changing the file name), do so from a copy; otherwise it could hurt the video’s chances of being used in a legal proceeding.

“Do I want my name associated with the video?” Having your name publicly tied to a video can make you vulnerable to aggressions from internet trolls or even the police. After Ramsey Orta filmed the death of his friend Eric Garner at the hands of Staten Island police, he says he and his family became a target of local police harassment. He was eventually arrested on drug charges, and was recently released from prison after serving a four-year sentence. In a Time magazine article that followed up with Orta one year after the event, he expressed regret for not sharing the video anonymously. At WITNESS, we’ve seen it can be helpful to first share your footage with a journalist or advocacy organization so that they can share the footage publicly instead.

“How can I make sure people see my video?” Unfortunately, just posting a video on social media and hoping it goes viral doesn’t usually work, and might not even be the most strategic option. It’s not about how many eyes see the video; it’s about which eyes see the video. To help a video reach the best audience, share your footage with an advocacy organization to support their campaign work and advocacy goals.

“When should I release the footage?” It’s helpful to collaborate with advocates or a lawyer to determine when to release your footage so that it makes the biggest impact. When Feiden Santana waited until the police report was released before sharing his video of a police officer fatally shooting Walter Scott in South Carolina, the video helped combat the official narrative. The police officer was eventually charged with second degree murder.


Before face masks, Americans went to war against seat belts.

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Before face masks, Americans went to war against seat belts.

A small but vocal minority of people in the US are protesting face-mask mandates.
In the early 1980s, the public safety battle was over seat belts. Most Americans didn’t use them and 65% opposed them being enforced by law. “There was a libertarian streak among resistors,” car safety pioneer Ralph Nader told Business Insider. “They took the stance that ‘you’re not going to tie the American people up in seat belts.'”
More than 50 years after “Unsafe at Any Speed,” Nader said “we are a very hard society to change cognitively.”

State and federal officials nationwide have ordered the use of protective face masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many businesses have instituted similar policies to protect customers and staff.

It’s a relatively straightforward precaution with proven public health benefits. Still, a small but vocal minority is resisting.

Some are fighting mask policies by invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act. Others are starting fistfights or even killing people.

Backlash against public health safeguards has plenty of precedents: When the influenza pandemic swept through San Francisco in 1919, hundreds of “mask slackers” disobeyed the law and were arrested.

Even the seat belt, one of the most ubiquitous safety devices in modern history, faced a contentious battle for acceptance.

The long road to seat-belt safety
As cars became increasingly popular through the 20th century, vehicular fatalities skyrocketed. Between 1920 and 1960, the rate of auto deaths doubled, from 11 people per 100,000 to 22 people.

Edward J. Claghorn first patented an automobile safety harness in 1885, mainly to help keep tourists from falling out of New York taxicabs. But it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that many carmakers even offered seat belts as an option.

Most motorists declined: In 1956, only 2% of Ford buyers took the $27 seat belt option, and the death toll kept rising.

In 1959, American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan described the situation as “the epidemic on the highways.”

Then came Ralph Nader.

In 1965, Nader, 31, penned “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a best-selling expose that claimed car manufacturers were sacrificing lives for style and profit.

Nader argued that Detroit willfully neglected advances in auto safety, like roll bars and seat belts, to keep costs down.

His investigation spurred Congress to create what eventually became the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which required all vehicles (except buses) to be fitted with seat belts in 1968.

But using them was strictly voluntary. And many Americans didn’t want to.

As late as 1983, less than 15% of Americans said they used seat belts consistently.

New York became the first state to pass a mandatory seat-belt law, in 1984. Other states soon followed.

While there was already clear evidence seat belts saved lives, these measures faced stiff opposition. A Gallup poll from July 1984 showed that 65% of Americans opposed mandatory belt laws, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In a survey one year later, drivers said they thought the restraints were “ineffective, inconvenient, and uncomfortable.”

Some argued — incorrectly — that it was safer to be thrown clear from a wreck than trapped inside one.

“In this country, saving freedom is more important than trying to regulate lives through legislation,” wrote one staunch opponent in a 1987 Chicago Tribune editorial.

The auto industry actually supported seat-belt requirements, mainly to circumvent legislation that would have mandated airbags.

But the public bristled.

Some people cut the belts out of their cars. Others challenged seat-belt laws in court.

Massachusetts radio personality Jerry Williams transformed his talk-show into a crusade against seat belts, gathering 45,000 signatures in three months. He managed to get a referendum on the ballot to repeal the state’s new belt law.

“We don’t feel we should be forced to buckle up and have a police officer sent in by the state to make sure we’re buckled up,” Williams told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1986.

“There was a libertarian streak among resistors,” Nader told Business Insider. “They took the stance that ‘you’re not going to tie the American people up in seat belts.'”

‘They’re not community people’
A similar ideology seems to be fueling pushback against face-covering during the pandemic.

Republican governor Mike DeWine of Ohio was forced to rescind his face-mask order, he told ABC News, when he realized Ohioans “were not going to accept the government telling them what to do.”

In California, an anti-lockdown protestor held a sign comparing wearing masks to slavery, Newsweek reported.

Nader says he believes most modern-day mask slackers are fueled by obstinance, not a political agenda.

“It’s just an ornery personality trait by some people,” he said. “They’re not community people.”

The former presidential candidate is quick to mention that few Americans oppose the current public health measures. A recent Washington Post poll found that fewer than 20% of Americans opposed wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

“It’s a tiny percent of the population — let’s not exaggerate,” Nader said.

Americans have grown comfortable with seat belts, too: More than 90% buckle up regularly. New Hampshire — whose license plates proclaim “Live free or die “— remains the only state without a mandatory seat belt law.

But that shift took time. It also took public service campaigns, legal enforcement, and even regular reminders from our cars themselves.

“We are a very hard society to change cognitively,” Nader said, some 55 years after publishing “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

He hopes holdouts against pandemic precautions come around more quickly.

“The same people who don’t want to do social distancing and face masks get in their car and put their seat belt on,” he said. “Nice irony, huh?”


Christian missionaries are setting fire to sacred Aboriginal objects.

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Christian missionaries are setting fire to sacred Aboriginal objects.

Christian missionaries are causing a fresh wave of upset in outback Australia, promising to bring people back from the dead, and promoting the idea traditional Aboriginal culture is a type of devil worship.

An investigation by Background Briefing has uncovered dramatic scenes in the Kimberley region, where Aboriginal followers of a Tongan-born preacher have set fire to artefacts considered sacred by many local elders, and dismantled and burned a spiritual law ground.

The approach of some recently arrived evangelists has been slammed by some Aboriginal leaders, including Labor senator Pat Dodson.

“They are a type of virus that has really got no credibility,” he said. “If they really understood the gospel then the gospel is about liberation.

“It’s about an accommodation of the diversity and differences that we have in our belief systems.”

He believes the destruction of traditional culture is “an act of bastardry”.

“It’s about the lowest act you could perform in trying to indicate to a fellow human being that you have total disdain for anything they represent.”

But the born-again Christian converts have defended their beliefs and practices, saying it is their decision to make, and finding God has brought them peace and happiness.

The bonfire at Wangkatjungka

The Aboriginal community of Wangkatjungka has been the site of some of the greatest tensions, after dozens of local people were ‘born again’ and baptised following the arrival of young Tongan preacher Ana Makahununiu in 2015.

Local women called her a ‘prophetess’, believing God spoke through her.

A year after Ms Makahununiu arrived, her followers built a bonfire to destroy ‘satanic’ objects they thought were cursing their community, and filmed the process.

One of the women who helped organise the bonfire said the devil had caused disruption and violence in the community.

“We used to getting bashed from our partners and smoking, drinking with them, every family,” she told Background Briefing. “It’s just not good for the kids.

“It’s not the people really who are getting wild, it’s the devil behind them getting wild.”

A grainy video of the bonfire shows people cheering as objects are thrown into the flames and black smoke billows into the air.

“For many years we have been deceived by Satan and his demonic beings,” an unidentified man narrates as the fire burns.

“Now we throw away all the things that have been keeping us in bondage and slavery.”

Local women have told Background Briefing people started burning things associated with ‘sinful’ behaviour, before escalating to cultural items.

“For me, I was a smoker,” one woman said. “I went back home and get a little bit of tobacco and a paper.

“I take it back to the fire and throw it down in the fire. From that day on, I never smoke and I thank the Lord for that.”

The women then burned the dresses they had worn for ‘women’s business’ — the cultural practices and gatherings shared by women — while a local man decided to destroy a bundle of weapons passed down to him by his ancestors.

Later, worshippers turned their attention on a nearby bough shed, or shade structure, where cultural elders gathered when putting local boys through traditional ‘law business’, or coming-of-age rituals.

“We got my car, my Landcruiser,” said one woman. “Then we just slowly moved it, all the bits and pieces, like tin everything, like poles.”

According to the woman, they burnt it all.

The ‘Prophetess’

Ms Makahununiu’s followers said they happily paid for her food and accommodation so she could stay in Wangkatjungka for about three years.

She now lives in Sydney, preaching at a Pentecostal church in Homebush and working cash-in-hand jobs, despite admitting she’s not legally allowed to work in Australia due to her visa status.

Ms Makahununiu said while she didn’t instruct the Wangkatjungka locals to burn sacred objects, she supported them in their decision to try to cleanse the community of evil.

“My focus was for the people who [were] addicted to drugs or alcohol, cigarettes, all those things,” she said.

“Most of them, they was shouting and happy,” she said. “It was really exciting for them.”

“The most important thing for me is to see the people happy and free not to live in bondage anymore.”

She said she started viewing traditional Aboriginal beliefs as devil-worship after arriving in the Kimberley and meeting local people.

“When they talk, and share the type of spirit they’re using, I can say is very demonic.

“I’ve been seeing that is all connected to witchcraft — that is not from God, that’s all from the devil.”

Some local Aboriginal women like Olive Knight agree. She helps run the small but strong Christian fellowship still operating in Wangkatjungka.

“The spiritism that I grew up with, it was so restrictive, there was lots of fear, retribution all the time,” she said.

“Would it be better to live in a culture that … there’s nothing but fear and retribution, or go to someone who’s loving, a loving God?”

Ana Makahununiu is planning on returning to the Kimberley soon, with a team of missionaries from Sydney.

“We are planning to rise up again and we’re going to travel to Wangkatjungka, and then I believe this will be a time we’re going to bring everybody all together.”

Pentecostalism rising in the Kimberley

Christian missionaries have a long history of trying to assimilate Aboriginal people in the Kimberley, and discouraging them from practicing their traditional religious beliefs.

Peter Murray is the CEO of the Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation south of Fitzroy Crossing.

He thinks some of the new wave Pentecostal preachers don’t understand Indigenous culture and are destroying it, instead of allowing Christianity and traditional culture to live side by side.

“People in the Kimberley are moving onto other churches,” he said. “People are choosing something more exciting that will give them blessings.”

Pentecostalism is the type of Christianity behind popular mega-churches like Hillsong and Horizon Church, which is attended by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The number of Pentecostals grew by 20 per cent in the decade to 2016, while other Christian denominations shrank.

But the Pentecostalism flourishing in remote areas is based on a more literal interpretation of the Bible and focuses on God’s ability to affect real-world change for followers. Practices like being ‘slain in the spirit’, with parishioners collapsing during prayer in religious ecstasy, as well as speaking in tongues are increasingly common.

‘Penetrate the Aboriginal’

Forward in Faith is one of the Pentecostal churches that has entered the Kimberley in recent years.

Founded in Zimbabwe, the church has 68 congregations in Australia, many in largely Aboriginal towns and communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

At a recent prayer meeting in the town of Port Hedland, Elder of the church Kenneth Chihwayi told Background Briefing Aboriginal spirituality is not compatible with Christian faith.

“We don’t touch on their culture, but you’ll find that slowly, slowly they will stop their culture, because there are some bad things in their culture which do not meet with the Christian faith,” he said.

“They were into drugs, they were drinking, they had broken marriages, they had bitterness, they had all these things,” he said.

“We preach the love of God, and when a person understands and accepted the love of God inside him, he will decide I want to stop drinking, this is not good. That’s how we have managed to penetrate the Aboriginal.”

Mr Chihwayi believes his church is particularly well placed to appeal to the Aboriginal community.

“Generally speaking, Aboriginals mistrust white people,” he said. “They consider Africans as brothers, so they open up to us.”

Aboriginal converts to Forward in Faith believe the church has helped them in their everyday lives, including Bidyadanga resident Sue Mandijello.

“In this Ministry, Forward in Faith, I have found that I changed my life,” she said. “Some years back I was on dialysis for five-and-a-half years and come 2011, I received a new kidney, so just believing God, this is a gift from him.”

But others are cynical about the promised benefits, including Karajarri man Gordon Marshall, who worked for more than 20 years as a police liaison officer in the Kimberley.

“These people, they’re vulnerable, and they [the church] come along and catch them and say, ‘I can help you’,” he said. “I think they just prey on vulnerable people.”

He said one of the most disturbing incidents he heard about was an attempt by born-again Christians in the central Kimberley to bring a baby back from the dead.

Raising the dead

A belief circulating among born-again Christians in several remote communities Background Briefing visited is deceased people can be resurrected through prayer.

Witnesses described distressing scenes at one funeral held in 2015, where Pentecostal converts attempted to resurrect a baby girl who’d died of an illness.

It’s understood the burial was delayed for several hours while people sang, danced and prayed for the baby to ‘wake’.

Witnesses have told Background Briefing the instigator for the resurrection attempt was a pastor with the Zimbabwean Church Forward in Faith.

A church spokesperson said they had no knowledge of the incident, and raising people from the dead was not “part of the Gospel we preach”.

He said the pastor allegedly involved has been on medical leave for about two years, and does not act on behalf of the church.

For Senator Dodson, promises faith could solve the problems of poverty and disenfranchisement are dangerous and misleading. He said real solutions still required work.

“It is about getting effective, real education into these locations,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s about strengthening leadership, and the leaders getting supported in their stands for what they understand and know are true to their cultures and societies.”


The Dunning-Kruger effect, or why the ignorant think they’re experts.

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The Dunning-Kruger effect, or why the ignorant think they’re experts.

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool,” wrote Shakespeare in As You Like It. Little did he know, but this line perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias first highlighted in literature by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in the (now-famous) 1999 study Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.

The study was borne from the shenanigans of one McArthur Wheeler who, in the broad daylight of a sunny April 19, 1995, decided to rob two saving banks in Pittsburgh. Wheeler carried a gun, but not a mask. Surveillance cameras recorded him in the act, and the police put his picture up in local news, receiving multiple tips almost immediately.

When they went to perform the arrest, Mr. Wheeler was visibly confused.

“But I wore the juice,” he managed, before officers carried him away.

There’s no such thing as ‘foolproof’

At one point in his life, Mr. Wheeler learned that lemon juice can be used as an ‘invisible ink’. Write something down on a piece of paper using lemon juice and you won’t see a thing — until you heat it up, making the scribblings visible. So, naturally, he covered his face in it and went to rob a bank, confident that his identity would remain secret to cameras as long as he didn’t come close to any sources of heat.

Still, credit where credit is due: Mr. Wheeler wouldn’t go out on blind faith. He actually did test out his theory by taking a selfie with a polaroid camera (there’s a budding scientist in all of us). For some reason or another, maybe the film was defective, we don’t know exactly why, the camera did return a blank image.

The news made the rounds, everybody had a good chuckle, and Mr. Wheeler was wheeled off to jail. The police concluded that he wasn’t crazy or on drugs, he actually believed his plan would work. “During his interaction with the police, he was incredulous on how his ignorance had failed him,” wrote Anupum Pant for Awesci.

David Dunning was working as a psychologist at Cornell University at the time, and the bizarre story caught his eye. Enlisting the help of Justin Kruger, one of his graduate students, he set out to understand how Mr. Wheeler could be so confident in a plan that was plainly stupid. The theory they developed is that almost all of us view our abilities in certain areas as above average and that most are likely to assess our skills as being much better than they objectively are — an “illusion of confidence” that underpins the Dunning-Kruger effect.

We’re all clueless

“If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent,” Dunning wrote in Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself.

“The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

In the 1999 study (the first they carried out on the topic), the duo asked undergrads at Cornell a series of questions about grammar, logic, and humor (these were used to gauge the students’ actual skills) and then asked each to estimate the overall score they would achieve, and how that related to the scores of the other participants. The lowest-ranking students, they found, consistently and substantially overestimated their own ability. Students in the bottom quartile (lowest 25% by score) thought that they out-performed two-thirds of the other students on average (i.e. that they ranked in the top 33% by score).

A follow-up study that the authors carried out at a gun range showed similar results. Dunning and Kruger used a similar methodology, asking hobbyists questions about gun safety and to estimate how well they performed on the quiz. Those who answered the fewest questions correctly also wildly overestimated their mastery of firearm knowledge.

It’s not specific only to technical skills but plagues all walks of human existence equally. One study found that 80% of drivers rate themselves as above average, which is literally impossible because that’s not how averages work. We tend to gauge our own relative popularity the same way.

It isn’t limited to people with low or nonexistent skills in a certain matter, either — it works on pretty much all of us. In their first study, Dunning and Kruger also found that students who scored in the top quartile (25%) routinely underestimated their own competence.

A fuller definition of the Dunning-Kruger effect would be that it represents a bias in estimating our own ability that stems from our limited perspective. When we have a poor or nonexistent grasp on a topic, we literally know too little of it to understand how little we know. Those who do possess the knowledge or skills, however, have a much better idea of where they sit. But they also think that if a task is clear and simple to them, it must be so for everyone else as well.

A person in the first group and one in the second group are equally liable to use their own experience and background as the baseline and kinda just take it for granted that everyone is near that baseline. They both partake in the “illusion of confidence” — for one, that confidence is in themselves, for the other, in everyone else.

But perhaps not equally clueless

To err is human. But, to confidently persist in erring is hilarious.

Dunning and Kruger did seem to find a way out of the effect they helped document. While we all seem to be equally likely to delude ourselves, there is one key difference between those who are confident yet unable and those able yet lacking in confidence — how we deal with and integrate feedback into our behavior.

Mr. Wheeler did try to check his theory. Yet, he looked at a blank polaroid he just shot — a pretty big giveaway that something didn’t work out properly — and saw no cause for concern; the only explanation he accepted was that his plan worked. Later, he receives feedback from the police, but this in no way shape or form manage to diminish his certainty; he was “incredulous on how his ignorance had failed him” even when he had absolute confirmation (being in jail) that it did fail him.

During their research, Dunning and Kruger found that good students would better predict their performance on future exams when given accurate feedback about the score they achieved currently and their relative ranking among the class. The poorest-performing students would not change their predictions even after clear and repeated feedback that they were performing badly. They simply insisted that their assumptions were correct.

Jokes aside, the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t a failing on our part; it’s simply a product of our subjective understanding of the world. If anything, it serves as a caution against assuming we’re always right and highlights the importance of keeping an open mind and a critical view of our own ability.

But if you’re afraid that you might be incompetent, you could check by seeing how feedback affects your view on your own work, knowledge, skills, and how that relates to others around you. If you truly are, you won’t change your mind and this process is basically a waste of time but fret not — someone will tell you you’re incompetent.

And you won’t believe them.


Vaclav Smil: “Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that.”

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Vaclav Smil: “Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that.”

Vaclav Smil is a distinguished professor emeritus in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Over more than 40 years, his books on the environment, population, food and energy have steadily grown in influence. He is now seen as one of the world’s foremost thinkers on development history and a master of statistical analysis. Bill Gates says he waits for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie. The latest is Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.

You are the nerd’s nerd. There is perhaps no other academic who paints pictures with numbers like you. You dug up the astonishing statistic that China has poured more cement every three years since 2003 than the US managed in the entire 20th century. You calculated that in 2000, the dry mass of all the humans in the world was 125m metric tonnes compared with just 10m tonnes for all wild vertebrates. And now you explore patterns of growth, from the healthy development of forests and brains to the unhealthy increase in obesity and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Before we get into those deeper issues, can I ask if you see yourself as a nerd?

Not at all. I’m just an old-fashioned scientist describing the world and the lay of the land as it is. That’s all there is to it. It’s not good enough just to say life is better or the trains are faster. You have to bring in the numbers. This book is an exercise in buttressing what I have to say with numbers so people see these are the facts and they are difficult to dispute.

Growth is a huge book – almost 200,000 words that synthesise many of your other studies, ranging across the world and exploring far into the past and future. Do you see this as your magnum opus?

I have deliberately set out to write the megabook on growth. In a way, it’s unwieldy and unreasonable. People can take any number of books out of it – economists can read about the growth of GDP and population; biologists can read about the growth of organisms and human bodies. But I wanted to put it all together under one roof so people could see how these things are inevitably connected and how it all shares one crystal clarity: that growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that.

I first came across your work while I was writing a book about the Chinese environment. Time and again, you had the data that I was looking for – and it often revealed how dubious many of the official statistics were. You have been described as a “slayer of bullshit”. Is that your goal?

I was brought up in Czechoslovakia during the era of the Soviet bloc. Having spent 26 years of my life in the evil empire, I do not tolerate nonsense. I grew up surrounded by commie propaganda – the bright tomorrow, the great future of mankind – so I’m as critical as they come. It’s not my opinion. These are the facts. I don’t write opinion pieces. I write things that are totally underlined by facts.

You debunk overly rosy projections by techno-optimists, who say we can solve all our problems with smarter computers, and economists, who promise endless capitalist growth. In many countries, the downside of material growth now seems greater than the upside, which leads to what you call “anthropogenic insults to ecosystems”. Is that a fair summary?

Yes, I think so. Without a biosphere in a good shape, there is no life on the planet. It’s very simple. That’s all you need to know. The economists will tell you we can decouple growth from material consumption, but that is total nonsense. The options are quite clear from the historical evidence. If you don’t manage decline, then you succumb to it and you are gone. The best hope is that you find some way to manage it. We are in a better position to do that now than we were 50 or 100 years ago, because our knowledge is much vaster. If we sit down, we can come up with something. It won’t be painless, but we can come up with ways to minimise that pain.

So we need to change our expectations of GDP growth?

Yes, the simple fact is that however you define happiness, we know – and we have known this for ages – that the amount of GDP is not going to improve your satisfaction with life, equanimity and sense of wellbeing. Look at Japan. They are pretty rich but they are among the unhappiest people on the planet. Then who is always in the top 10 of the happiest people? It is the Philippines, which is much poorer and smitten by typhoons, yet many times more happy than their neighbours in Japan. Once you reach a certain point, the benefits of GDP growth start to level off in terms of mortality, nutrition and education.

Is that point the golden mean? Is that what we should be aiming for rather than pushing until growth becomes malign, cancerous, obese and environmentally destructive?

Exactly. That would be nice. We could halve our energy and material consumption and this would put us back around the level of the 1960s. We could cut down without losing anything important. Life wasn’t horrible in 1960s or 70s Europe. People from Copenhagen would no longer be able to fly to Singapore for a three-day visit, but so what? Not much is going to happen to their lives. People don’t realise how much slack in the system we have.

The growth of information is not just a flood or an explosion. Those adjectives are inadequate. We are buried under information. It’s not doing anyone any good
You cite Kenneth Boulding’s distinction between the “cowboy economy” and the “spaceman economy”. The former is wide-open spaces and seemingly endless opportunities for resource consumption. The latter is a recognition that planet Earth is more like a closed spaceship on which we need to carefully manage our resources. The challenge is to shift from one way of thinking to another. But human history is thousands of years of cowboys and only a few decades of spacemen. Aren’t we hardwired?

There is a deep tradition both in the eastern and western traditions of frugality, living within your means and a contemplative life. It has always been like this. Now there is this louder voice calling for more consumption and a bigger bathroom and an SUV, but it’s increasingly apparent that cannot go on. It will be something like smoking, which was everywhere 50 years ago. But now that people realise the clear link to lung cancer, this is restricted. The same will happen when people realise where material growth is taking us. It is a matter of time I think.

How do we move in that direction before the risks become unmanageable?

To answer this, it’s important not to talk in global terms. There will be many approaches which have to be tailored and targeted to each different audience. There is this pernicious idea by this [Thomas] Friedman guy that the world is flat and everything is now the same, so what works in one place can work for everyone. But that’s totally wrong. For example, Denmark has nothing in common with Nigeria. What you do in each place will be different. What we need in Nigeria is more food, more growth. In Philippines we need a little more of it. And in Canada and Sweden, we need less of it. We have to look at it from different points of view. In some places we have to foster what economists call de-growth. In other places, we have to foster growth.

Your one-man statistical analysis is like the entire output of the World Bank. Did this research make you feel we are closer to the end of growth than you previously realised?

People ask me if I am an optimist or a pessimist and I say neither. I am not trying to be deliberately agnostic: this is the best conclusion I can come up with. In China, I told people how bad the environment was and the picture totally shocked people. They said: “When will it collapse?” And I’d answer: “It’s collapsing every day, but it’s also being fixed every day.” They used more coal and got more air pollution, but they also took billions from the World Bank and finally have modern water treatment in big cities. Now they are using modern farming, so they use less water for irrigation. This is how it is. This is what kind of species we are: we are stupid, we are negligent, we are tardy. But on the other hand, we are adaptable, we are smart and even as things are falling apart, we are trying to stitch them together. But the most difficult thing is to calculate the net effect. Are we up or down? For all the analysis, we don’t know this.

Your book notes that the entire library of Rome, 2,000 years ago, contained about 3 gigabytes of information, but now the global internet has more than a trillion times more. You are clearly sceptical this has been a net positive or that it has improved our ability to deal with our problems.

The growth of information is not just a flood or an explosion. Those adjectives are inadequate. We are buried under information. It’s not doing anyone any good. There are satellites above us producing huge amounts of information, but there are not enough people to analyse it. Yes, computers can help and shrink the amount, but someone still has to make decisions. There is too much to grasp.

Did you experience any statgasms (statistical orgasms) is the course of the research?

I am a biologist by training, so I was delighted to read new studies about the world’s biggest trees – the redwoods and eucalyptus. They never stop growing. And for elephants, they have indeterminate patterns of growth and never really stop until they die. We humans stop when we are 18 or 19. But the biggest species on the planet keep on growing until they die.

And on human population?

What is most remarkable is how rapid the decline has been. For more than a 100 years, the growth rate accelerated. The 1930s faster than the 20s, the 40s faster than the 30s and so on. By the 1960s, the world population was growing so fast that a famous paper in Science said that by 2024, it would be growing at an infinite rate – like a population singularity moment, which is, of course, absurd. Since then, the rate has declined every year. Population continues to grow in absolute terms, but in percentage terms it has been declining since the mid-60s.

Overall, I would say the tone of the book is pessimistic, but you also mention the possibility of a more optimistic scenario in which the global population does not expand beyond 9 billion – as is currently predicted – and in which the energy transition is faster than expected. Even if material demands peak before 2050, that still leaves us several decades of rising pressure. Given the already apparent strains on the climate, the soil, biodiversity and social stability, how do we get over this dangerous bulge?

That is the difficult part. In the western world and Japan, we are almost there. China still has a way to go because it is at the level of Spain in the 1960s in terms of energy. The real bulge is coming in Africa, where 1 billion more people will be born. Just to bring the current African population to a decent level of living, like Vietnam and Thailand, is tough. To do that with an extra billion will be extraordinarily hard. You can bring it all down to one figure – it is gigajoules of consumption of energy per person per year, but the unit is not important. Just consider the comparison. The US is about 300. Japan is about 170. The EU is about 150. China is now close to 100. India is 20. Nigeria is 5. Ethiopia is 2. To grow from Nigeria to China is a 20-fold increase just on per capita terms. Such is the scale of the bulge. So you can cut consumption in Copenhagen or Sussex, but not in Nigeria.

Is ageing Japan a model? It strikes me as incredible that the country has been able to weather a long decline of property prices, stock market values, population vitality and influence without sliding into chaos. Are there lessons there for others who face involuntary retreat?

Japan can only be a partial model, because until recently it was such a frugal and disciplined society that people there can tolerate what others would not accept. But we have slack. We are so fat in terms of material consumption. There is room to cut back. But there is no easy answer. If there were, we would have already done it.

Can businessmen accept an end to growth? Have you mentioned this to Bill Gates?

I don’t need to tell him. He knows a lot about the environment. Put aside the billions of dollars and he is just a guy who likes to understand the world. He reads dozens of books every year. Like me.

What Microsoft founder Bill Gates says about Vaclav Smil’s books

Energy and Civilization: A History
(MIT Press, 2017)

“Smil is one of my favourite authors and this is his masterpiece. He lays out how our need for energy has shaped human history – from the era of donkey-powered mills to today’s quest for renewable energy.”

Making the Modern World: Materials & Dematerialization
(Wiley, 2013)

“If anyone tries to tell you we’re using fewer materials, send him this book. With his usual scepticism and his love of data, Smil shows how our ability to make things with less material – say, soda cans that need less aluminium – makes them cheaper, which actually encourages more production. We’re using more stuff than ever.”

Harvesting the Biosphere
(MIT Press, 2013)

“Here [Smil] gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere… it tells a critical story if you care about the impact we’re having on the planet.”


Sudan criminalises female genital mutilation, welcoming new era for women’s rights in the country.

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Sudan criminalises female genital mutilation, welcoming new era for women’s rights in the country.

Sudan has criminalised female genital mutilation (FGM), making it punishable by three years in jail, a move campaigners said ushered in a ‘new era’ for women’s rights in the African nation.

Almost nine out of 10 women and girls in predominately Muslim Sudan have undergone FGM, United Nations data show. The procedure usually involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia and can cause a host of health problems.

The Sudanese government approved an amendment to its criminal legislation on 22 April, stating that anyone who performs FGM either inside a medical establishment or elsewhere faces three years’ imprisonment and a fine.

Female Sudanese demonstrators make the peace gesture as they arrive for the sit-in protest outside Defence Ministry in Khartoum, Sudan last April

Female Sudanese demonstrators make the peace gesture as they arrive for the sit-in protest outside Defence Ministry in Khartoum, Sudan last April


Women’s rights groups said the punishment would help to end FGM, but warned it would be difficult to change minds in communities that view the traditional practice as necessary to marry their daughters.


‘Having a law against FGM acts as an important deterrent, however, Sudan may face challenges in enforcing legislation. People who still believe in the practice might not report cases or act to stop FGM when they know it is happening.’

Communities may look for ways to avoid detection, while officials who believe in the practice may not uphold the law, warned Mohamed.

An estimated 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM, which is practised in at least 27 African countries and parts of Asia and the Middle East. Girls can bleed to death or die from infections, while FGM can also cause fatal childbirth complications later, say health experts. In Sudan, more than three-quarters of procedures are conducted by nurses, midwives or other medical personnel, says anti-FGM campaign group 28 Too Many.

In many cases, most of the vaginal opening is sewn up after removal of the external genitalia, a practice known as reinfibulation that can lead to cysts, injury to the urethra, painful sex and inability to orgasm.

Ex-female genital mutilation (FGM) cutter Monika Cheptilak, who stopped practicing after the country set an anti-FGM law in 2010, shows a homemade tool from a nail used for FGM, during the meeting of anti-FGM women group in Alakas village, bordering with Kenya, northeast Uganda on January 31, 2018

Ex-female genital mutilation (FGM) cutter Monika Cheptilak, who stopped practicing after the country set an anti-FGM law in 2010, shows a homemade tool from a nail used for FGM, during the meeting of anti-FGM women group in Alakas village, bordering with Kenya, northeast Uganda on January 31, 2018


Sudanese women face a barrage of threats, from child marriage to domestic violence and rape. Yet there are few policies in place to protect women and girls. Marital rape and child marriage, for example, are not considered crimes.

Women’s issues have however gained greater attention in the last year, following the prominent role women and girls played in nine-month-long street protests which ousted veteran autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April last year.

The transitional government has pledged to prioritise the women’s rights and Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok has appointed women to cabinet positions of foreign affairs, youth and sports, higher education and labour and social development.

The new regime also repealed its public order act, which tightly restricted women’s freedom of dress, movement, association, work and study during Bashir’s three-decade rule.

Anti-FGM campaigners said criminalisation of the internationally condemned practice was a sign of the new government’s commitment towards democracy and equality.

‘Sudan has truly entered a New Era for Girl Rights with Criminalisation of FGM. What an incredible day for my sisters and the future of Africa,’ tweeted Somali-born British campaigner Nimco Ali.

‘Sudan I am so proud of you. May Allah guide give you and your people the peace and democracy you have longed for. And thank you for placing the protection of women and girls at the heart of this new chapter.’


The world is on lockdown. So where are all the carbon emissions coming from?

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The world is on lockdown. So where are all the carbon emissions coming from?

Pedestrians have taken over city streets, people have almost entirely stopped flying, skies are blue (even in Los Angeles!) for the first time in decades, and global CO2 emissions are on-track to drop by … about 5.5 percent.

Wait, what? Even with the global economy at a near-standstill, the best analysis suggests that the world is still on track to release 95 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted in a typical year, continuing to heat up the planet and driving climate change even as we’re stuck at home.

A 5.5-percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions would still be the largest yearly change on record, beating out the financial crisis of 2008 and World War II. But it’s worth wondering: Where do all of those emissions come from? And if stopping most travel and transport isn’t enough to slow down climate change, what will be?

“I think the main issue is that people focus way, way too much on people’s personal footprints, and whether they fly or not, without really dealing with the structural things that really cause carbon dioxide levels to go up,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.

Transportation makes up a little over 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. (In the United States, it makes up around 28 percent.) That’s a significant chunk, but it also means that even if all travel were completely carbon-free (imagine a renewable-powered, electrified train system, combined with personal EVs and battery-powered airplanes), there’d still be another 80 percent of fossil fuel emissions billowing into the skies.

So where are all those emissions coming from? For one thing, utilities are still generating roughly the same amount of electricity — even if more of it’s going to houses instead of workplaces. Electricity and heating combined account for over 40 percent of global emissions. Many people around the world rely on wood, coal, and natural gas to keep their homes warm and cook their food — and in most places, electricity isn’t so green either.

Even with a bigger proportion of the world working from home, people still need the grid to keep the lights on and connect to the internet. “There’s a shift from offices to homes, but the power hasn’t been turned off, and that power is still being generated largely by fossil fuels,” Schmidt said. In the United States, 60 percent of electricity generation still comes from coal, oil, and natural gas. (There is evidence, however, that the lockdown is shifting when people use electricity, which has some consequences for renewables.)

Manufacturing, construction, and other types of industry account for approximately 20 percent of CO2 emissions. Certain industrial processes like steel production and aluminum smelting use huge amounts of fossil fuels — and so far, Schmidt says, that type of production has mostly continued despite the pandemic.

The reality is that emissions need to be cut by 7.6 percent every year to keep global warming from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — the threshold associated with the most dangerous climate threats — according to an analysis by the United Nations Environment Program. Even if the global lockdown and economic slump reduce emissions by 7.6 percent this year, emissions would have to fall even more the year after that. And the year after that. And so on.

In the middle of the pandemic, it’s become common to point to clear skies in Los Angeles and the cleaner waters of Venice as evidence that people can make a difference on climate change. “The newly iconic photos of a crystal-clear Los Angeles skyline without its usual shroud of smog are unwanted but compelling evidence of what can happen when individuals stop driving vehicles that pollute the air,” wrote Michael Grunwald in POLITICO magazine.

But these arguments conflate air and water pollution — crucial environmental issues in their own right! — with CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide is invisible, and power plants and oil refineries are still pumping it into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, natural gas companies and livestock farming (think cow burps) keep releasing methane.

“I think people should bike instead of driving, and they should take the train instead of flying,” said Schmidt. “But those are small, compared to the really big structural things that haven’t changed.”

It’s worth remembering that a dip in carbon emissions won’t lead to any changes in the Earth’s warming trend. Some scientists compare carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to water flowing into a leaky bathtub. The lockdown has turned the tap down, not off. Until we cut emissions to net-zero — so that emissions flowing into the atmosphere are equivalent to those flowing out — the Earth will continue warming.To first order, think of CO₂ concentrations in the atmosphere as the water in a bathtub & CO₂ emissions as the tap. The lockdowns mean the tap has been turned down slightly, so CO₂ is still streaming into the bathtub (& some leaks out the bottom)

That helps explain why 2020 is already on track to be the warmest ever recorded, beating out 2016. In a sad irony, the decrease in air pollution may make it even hotter. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego, explained that many polluting particles have a “masking” effect on global warming, reflecting the sun’s rays, canceling out some of the warming from greenhouse gas emissions. With that shield of pollution gone, Ramanathan said, “We could see an increase in warming.”

Appreciate the bluer skies and fresher air, while you can. But the emissions drop from the pandemic should be a warning, not a cause for celebration: a sign of how much further there is to go.


The Sun Is Asleep. Deep ‘Solar Minimum’ Feared As 2020 Sees Record-Setting 100-Day Slump.


The Sun Is Asleep. Deep ‘Solar Minimum’ Feared As 2020 Sees Record-Setting 100-Day Slump.

While we on Earth suffer from coronavirus, our star—the Sun—is having a lockdown all of its own. reports that already there have been 100 days in 2020 when our Sun has displayed zero sunspots.

That makes 2020 the second consecutive year of a record-setting low number of sunspots— which you can see (a complete absence of) here.

Note: never look at the Sun with the naked eye or through binoculars or a telescope that aren’t fitted with solar filters.

So are we in an eternal sunshine of the spotless kind?

“This is a sign that solar minimum is underway,” reads “So far this year, the Sun has been blank 76% of the time, a rate surpassed only once before in the Space Age. Last year, 2019, the Sun was blank 77% of the time. Two consecutive years of record-setting spotlessness adds up to a very deep solar minimum, indeed.”

What is a sunspot?

It’s an area of intense magnetic activity on the surface of the Sun—a storm—that appears as an area of darkness. Sunspots are indicative of solar activity, birthing solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Although sunspots seem like tiny specks, they can be colossal in size.

Sunspots have been continuously counted each day since 1838, which has allowed solar scientists to describe a repeating pattern in the wax and wane of activity on the Sun’s surface—the solar cycle.

MORE FROM FORBESIs Our Sun In A 9,000 Year ‘Feeble Phase?’ Similar Stars Are Five Times More Fickle, Find Scientists

What is the solar cycle?

The Sun has a cycle that lasts between nine and 14 years—typically 11 years, on average—and right now we’re in the trough. At the peak of that cycle—called solar maximum—the Sun produces more electrons and protons as huge solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

From a visual perspective, the solar cycle is a “sunspot cycle” since solar scientists can gauge where the Sun is in its cycle by counting sunspots on its surface.

How does the solar cycle affect Earth?

While there’s some evidence that the solar cycle affects Earth’s weather and climate, the status of the Sun has the most obvious effect on the intensity and frequency of aurora. The more charged-up the solar wind headed towards Earth, the brighter and more frequent are the displays of Northern Lights and Southern Lights. What’s known as the ‘auroral oval’ gets larger, too, so people who live in areas that normally don’t experience aurora—such as the USA and Western Europe—sometimes get to see them.

Either way, a solar maximum is historically when aurora are at their most frequent and spectacular.

MORE FROM FORBESHow To See A Bright ‘Parade Of Planets’ From Your Home: What You Can See In The Night Sky This Week

What is ‘solar minimum’?

Just as solar maximum sees many sunspots, the trough of solar minimum features zero sunspots—and that’s what’s going on now. However, it’s been continuing rather longer than expected, which means the Sun is in the midst of a particularly deep solar minimum. The most infamous happened between 1645 to 1715 when a “Maunder Minimum” saw a prolonged sunspot minimum when sunspots were very rare for an extended period.

The current record-breaking solar minimum is part of a longer pattern of wax and wane; in fact, it’s believed that the Sun may have been in a magnetic lull for the last 9,000 years at least.

It’s thought that the Sun will reach solar maximum in the mid-2020s, though exactly when sunspot frequency will peak is anyone’s guess. It’s something that can usually only be described in retrospect. The last solar maximum was in 2013/2014, but was was ranked among the weakest on record.

Once way to gauge what’s going on visually is by counting sunspots—and the other is by looking at the Sun’s mighty corona during a total solar eclipse.

Luckily, there’s one coming up in North America right on cue.

How the solar cycle affects solar eclipses

During a total solar eclipse it’s possible to see clear, naked eye evidence of where the Sun is in its cycle. Totality—when the Moon completely blocks the Sun’s bright disk—affords a brief view of the Sun’s corona, its hot outer atmosphere. During solar minimum the corona is relatively small and tightly bound to the surface. During solar maximum, the Sun’s corona is typically flared and stretching away into space.

How to see explosions on the Sun

When the Sun is at solar maximum the likelihood is increased of seeing prominences—huge solar flares and coronal mass ejections in action—around the limb of the Moon during a total solar eclipse.

Here’s an image (above) of some pink prominences that can be seen with the naked eye only during a total solar eclipse.

Why is this good news for North American eclipse-chasers?

All of this is well-timed for the next total solar eclipse in North America on April 8, 2024, since the Sun will, by then, be approaching solar maximum.

The 100-mile wide path of totality will, during the 139 minutes it’s over land, afford a stunning view (if skies are clear) of a flared and stretched corona from anyone within under the Moon’s shadow in:

U.S: Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Canada: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.