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Biden directs billions in federal spending power to climate change

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Biden directs billions in federal spending power to climate change


President Joe Biden continues to make good on his campaign pledge to accelerate progress on climate change, rapidly working down the list of what he can accomplish on his own in his early days in office.

On Wednesday, January 27, he will sign a second set of executive orders and memorandums on climate change that promise to bring about major changes in US energy policies and priorities: directing federal agencies to purchase US-made, zero-emissions vehicles and carbon-free electricity, halting nearly all new oil and gas leases on public lands, and eliminating most fossil-fuel subsidies.

Biden also placed climate change at the center of national security planning, requiring federal agencies to evaluate how increasingly severe heat waves, fires, floods, and famines could inflame global conflicts. The actions will also begin the process of creating bolder emissions reductions targets for the US under the Paris climate agreement.

The latest directives follow Biden’s climate actions on his first day in office, which included kick-starting the process of rejoining the Paris agreement and establishing new regulations on methane emissions, vehicle fuel economy standards, and much more.

A big market boost

The orders will provide a major boost to the domestic market for renewables like wind, solar and geothermal plants, as well as electric or hydrogen vehicles. They will direct billions of federals dollars to these industries while creating regulatory certainty that will make it easier to finance new projects and factories, says Josh Freed, who leads the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC.

The vehicle order, for instance, could eventually add up to around 650,000 government cars, trucks, and buses, potentially increasing the size of the domestic market by nearly 40%. Only an estimated 1.6 million plug-in electric vehicles had been sold in the US as of late last year, and fewer than 10,000 hydrogen vehicles since 2012, according to InsideEVs.

Agencies, however, will probably not replace vehicles until they reach the end of their useful lives, so the full turnover will surely take years.

The full text of the executive order states that the federal government will use all of its purchasing authority to achieve a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035, reiterating a key goal of Biden’s since the campaign.

“Transforming the American electric sector to produce power without carbon pollution will be a tremendous spur to job creation and economic competitiveness in the 21st century, not to mention the benefits to our health and our environment,” Biden said during a press conference.

But it’s not yet clear how the order will work or what it will achieve in the next few years, including whether it will require agencies to obtain a certain percentage or all of their electricity through low-carbon sources like wind, solar and nuclear power. It’s also not immediately apparent how government agencies will reach those goals given limited control over the mix of sources generating electricity on local grids.

Erin Sikorsky, deputy director of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, DC, applauded the order’s focus on national security.

Without incorporating detailed assessments of increasingly volatile climate conditions, she says, the US won’t recognize the potential for regional conflicts that can stem from things like prolonged droughts; can’t properly prepare and equip its overseas troops and bases; and won’t grasp how power dynamics are likely to shift among nations and non-state actors. For instance, famines could boost recruitment among terrorist groups, and warming conditions could increase the economic output and regional influence of countries like Russia.

Elevating environmental justice

The new executive orders included numerous additional directives and announcements. Among them:

  • Biden will host a climate summit with other world leaders on April 22, Earth Day, in a clear bid to reset the nation’s climate diplomacy efforts.
  • He also directed agencies to take steps to address the outsize impact of environmental and climate threats on disadvantaged communities, and to ensure that they receive “40% of the benefits” from any related federal investments.
  • The president also directed the secretary of agriculture to begin exploring ways of encouraging farming practices that can reduce emissions and store more carbon in soil. In addition, he called for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative to put Americans to work planting trees and otherwise restoring public lands and waters.
  • A new memorandum elevates the role of science and expertise in federal policymaking, directing agencies to “make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.”
  • Biden also set up or reestablished numerous climate and science advisory groups, including the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Interagency Council and a National Climate Task Force that will pull leaders from 21 agencies and departments.

The limits of executive orders

At this stage, Biden is effectively checking off the things he can accomplish on climate change through executive orders rather than pushing new laws through Congress.

But there are limits on how much he can achieve through this approach. Executive orders are effectively instructions on how federal agencies should operate, but they can’t reverse existing laws or create new powers for the presidency. Presidents also generally can’t spend money that Congress hasn’t already authorized, although they can direct how it’s spent, as Biden seems to be doing with clean electricity and vehicles.

The precise boundaries of what can and can’t be achieved through executive orders is a subject of heated debate and frequent court challenges. The other downside is that they can be unilaterally overturned from one administration to the next, as Trump did with many of President Barack Obama’s orders and Biden is now doing with Trump’s.

Accelerating the shift to zero-emissions technologies enough to prevent 2 ˚C of warming, the stated goal of the Paris agreement, will clearly require legislation. The real test for Biden’s climate agenda will be whether he can get that done with only slim Democratic control of the Senate.



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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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