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Biden’s first steps as president: Action on covid and climate

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Biden’s first steps as president: Action on covid and climate


A flurry of executive orders is expected to take place over the next few days from the new US president as he takes residence in the White House. Here are the highlights of those he has signed so far.

The “100 day mask challenge”

Biden’s first order is part recommendation, part requirement: it requires people to wear masks on all federal property, and recommend that governors and local elected officials follow suit. The wording also attempts to turn masking, a vital public health recommendation that can help to stop the spread of covid-19, into a public challenge, calling for all Americans to stick to wearing masks for the next 100 days. —Abby Ohlheiser

Rejoining the Paris climate accords

Biden wasted no time setting a new tone on climate change, an issue he has pledged to make a centerpiece of his presidency. As promised throughout the campaign and after, Biden began the process of bringing the nation back into the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office.

Rejoining the Paris agreement, which will officially take a few more weeks, doesn’t create any new binding climate policies in itself. But it will require the US to submit revamped emissions targets before the UN climate conference later this year, as well as a plan for deep reductions by mid-century. The grand hope is that the world’s second largest emitter returning the international fold will get more momentum behind the global goal of preventing 2 ̊C of warming. After four years under Trump, however, the US will need to repair extensive damage to its international relationships and achieve real progress on its domestic climate policies before it will be seen as a leader rather than laggard on the issue. —James Temple

Canceling Keystone

As expected, Biden also canceled permits for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Canada to Illinois.

Federal covid response

Following up on the recent announcement of a proposed $1.9 trillion covid relief and action plan, the president signed an order that will shift around some key positions within the federal government that will be crucial to the new administration’s pandemic response. Biden will be reinstating the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which Obama created after the Ebola epidemic. Under Trump, the directorate’s staff—along with its work and general mission—were largely absorbed by other offices in the National Security Council. Biden has in the past, somewhat misleadingly implied that the office was completely eliminated. —Abby Ohlheiser

Rejoining the WHO

In the middle of a global pandemic, Trump began the process of formally withdrawing the US from the World Health Organization. Biden’s first-day order would halt that process. —Abby Ohlheiser

Changes to immigration rules

Biden plans to undo many of President Trump’s controversial immigration policies through a combination of executive orders and proposed legislation. Among the orders today, he has announced an end to the Muslim ban, halting construction of the US-Mexico border wall; preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood (DACA) Arrivals program; and revoking Trump’s order to exclude non-citizens from the census count. Other important changes that will go to Congress include new pathways to citizenship for 11 million immigrants without permanent legal status, and modernizing the immigration court system and clear current backlogs.—Eileen Guo

Extending a block on evictions

As we reported in December, thousands of eviction hearings are taking place by videoconference and phone call—a technological disparity that is often leading to people being forced out of their homes unfairly. Without further action, the CDC’s eviction moratorium, which was set to expire on January 31, tens of millions were at risk of losing their homes in the middle of a pandemic. An executive order from Biden extends the block through the end of March—at least for those who can prove they are unable to pay. —Eileen Guo

This story will be updated with more actions and executive orders as they are announced.



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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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