Month: November 2023

Scientists Say 2023 Amazon Drought Most Severe in Recorded History

Scientists say that in 2023, the Amazon region experienced the most severe drought in its recorded history. Rivers and lakes reached record low levels before rising in recent weeks. Thousands of people were isolated because of the lack of water in tributaries. Scientists say this should be considered a warning of what climate change can do. Yan Boechat reports from Manaus, Brazil.

COP28 Climate Summit: Disaster Fund Agreed, but Stark Divisions on Fossil Fuels

Disagreements over the phasing out of fossil fuels look set to dominate the two-week COP28 climate meeting in Dubai, after the summit president used his opening speech to argue against a full ban on the use of coal, oil and gas. 

More than 70,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries are taking part in the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which got underway Thursday in the United Arab Emirates, a major exporter of hydrocarbons. 

Fossil fuels 

Scientists say greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by some 43% by 2030 if the world is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target agreed under the Paris climate deal seen as a crucial threshold to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. However, current trajectories suggest greenhouse gas emissions will actually rise by 9% by 2030. 

Central to the talks in Dubai is the tackling of a major source of those emissions: the burning of fossil fuels. 

Phasedown or phaseout? 

COP28 President Sultan Al-Jaber, who is also the head of the UAE’s state oil company, opened the meeting with his vision: not a phasing out of fossil fuels, but a phasing down. 

“We must look for ways and ensure the inclusion of the role of fossil fuels. I know there are strong views about the idea of including language on fossil fuels and renewables in the negotiating text. We collectively have the power to do something unprecedented, in fact, we have no choice but to go the very unconventional way. I ask you all to work together. Be flexible. Find common ground,” Al-Jaber told delegates, adding that it was right that oil and gas firms had been invited to COP28. 

“Let history reflect the fact that this is the presidency that made a bold choice to proactively engage with oil and gas companies. We had many hard discussions, let me tell you, that wasn’t easy, but today many of these companies are committing to zero methane emissions by 2030 for the first time,” Al-Jaber said. 

‘Window dressing’ 

Al-Jaber’s speech prompted immediate condemnation from environmental groups. “The Emirates is pushing very hard for recognition of fossil fuel phasedown rather than phaseout. And I think that the COP president is going to have to be much more flexible on that because we know that a fossil fuel phase out was needed, not a phase down. We know that what he’s pushing for on the phase down is simply window dressing increased oil and gas production,” said Bill Hare, the CEO of Climate Analytics. 

Alden Meyer, of the climate think-tank E3G, also was skeptical. 

“The larger issue is the inconsistency between [Al-Jaber’s] acknowledgment that we need to cut emissions from fossil fuels by some 40% in the next six years, and the plans that his country has to expand oil and gas production to the tune of $150 billion investment over that same time frame,” Meyer told The Associated Press. 

Disaster fund 

While divisions over the phase out of fossil fuels appear likely to dominate much of the summit, there was progress in other key areas. 

The COP28 parties agreed to a new $420 million fund to help poorer, vulnerable nations cope with the cost of disasters caused by climate change, such as droughts, floods and rising sea levels, with the UAE hosts’ $100 million pledge making them among the most generous of the donors. 

“[The] fact that we have been able to achieve such significant milestone in the first day of this COP is unprecedented,” Al-Jaber said at a Thursday evening press conference. “This is historic, the fact that we are able to get the agenda voted and agreed on without any delay.” 

The United States pledged a smaller $17.5 million, with funding subject to approval by Congress. “We are obviously pleased with everybody by the early adoption by the parties, which is a great way to start this COP… we also expect this fund to be up and running quickly,” U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry told reporters Thursday. 

Further deals 

The day one deal could pave the way for further agreements at COP28, said Tom Rivett-Carnac, a former strategist at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. “That will provide developing countries with the confidence that they can now step forward and implement mitigation measures as well,” he told VOA. 

Delegates hope the momentum continues into the rest of the summit, as marathon negotiations loom over the future use of fossil fuels. 

Shane MacGowan, Lead Singer of The Pogues, Dies at 65

Shane MacGowan, the boozy, rabble-rousing singer and chief songwriter of The Pogues, who infused traditional Irish music with the energy and spirit of punk, died Thursday, his family said. He was 65.

MacGowan’s songwriting and persona made him an iconic figure in contemporary Irish culture, and some of his compositions have become classics — most notably the bittersweet Christmas ballad “Fairytale of New York,” which Irish President Michael D. Higgins said “will be listened to every Christmas for the next century or more.”

“It is with the deepest sorrow and heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of our most beautiful, darling and dearly beloved Shane MacGowan,” his wife Victoria Clarke, his sister Siobhan and father Maurice said in a statement.

The singer died peacefully with his family by his side, the statement added.

The musician had been hospitalized in Dublin for several months after being diagnosed with viral encephalitis in late 2022. He was discharged last week, ahead of his upcoming birthday on Christmas Day.

The Pogues melded Irish folk and rock ‘n’ roll into a unique, intoxicating blend, though MacGowan became as famous for his sozzled, slurred performances as for his powerful songwriting.

His songs blended the scabrous and the sentimental, ranging from carousing anthems to snapshots of life in the gutter to unexpectedly tender love songs. The Pogues’ most famous song, “Fairytale of New York” is a tale of down-on-their-luck immigrant lovers that opens with the decidedly unfestive words: “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank.” The duet between the raspy-voiced MacGowan and the velvet tones of the late Kirsty MacColl is by far the most beloved Pogues song in both Ireland and the U.K.

Singer-songwriter Nick Cave called Shane MacGowan “a true friend and the greatest songwriter of his generation.”

Higgins, the Irish president, said “his songs capture within them, as Shane would put it, the measure of our dreams.”

“His words have connected Irish people all over the globe to their culture and history, encompassing so many human emotions in the most poetic of ways,” Higgins said.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said MacGowan’s songs “beautifully captured the Irish experience, especially the experience of being Irish abroad.”

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said: “Nobody told the Irish story like Shane — stories of emigration, heartache, dislocation, redemption, love and joy.”

Born on Christmas Day 1957 in England to Irish parents, MacGowan spent his early years in rural Ireland before the family moved back to London. Ireland remained the lifelong center of his imagination and his yearning. He grew up steeped in Irish music absorbed from family and neighbors, along with the sounds of rock, Motown, reggae and jazz.

He attended the elite Westminster School in London, from which he was expelled, and spent time in a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown in his teens.

MacGowan embraced the punk scene that exploded in Britain in the mid-1970s. He joined a band called the Nipple Erectors, performing under the name Shane O’Hooligan, before forming The Pogues alongside musicians including Jem Finer and Spider Stacey.

The Pogues — shortened from the original name Pogue Mahone, a rude Irish phrase — fused punk’s furious energy with traditional Irish melodies and instruments including banjo, tin whistle and accordion.

“It never occurred to me that you could play Irish music to a rock audience,” MacGowan recalled in “A Drink with Shane MacGowan,” a 2001 memoir co-authored with Clarke. “Then it finally clicked. Start a London Irish band playing Irish music with a rock and roll beat. The original idea was just to rock up old ones but then I started writing.”

The band’s first album, “Red Roses for Me,” was released in 1984 and featured raucous versions of Irish folk songs alongside originals including “Boys from the County Hell,” “Dark Streets of London” and “Streams of Whisky.”

Playing pubs and clubs in London and beyond, the band earned a loyal following and praise from music critics and fellow musicians from Bono to Bob Dylan.

MacGowan wrote many of the songs on the next two albums, “Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” (1985) and “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” (1988), ranging from rollicking rousers like the latter album’s title track to ballads like “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “The Broad Majestic Shannon.”

The band also released a 1986 EP, “Poguetry in Motion,” which contained two of MacGowan’s finest songs, “A Rainy Night in Soho” and “The Body of an American.” The latter featured prominently in early-2000s TV series “The Wire,” sung at the wakes of Baltimore police officers.

“I wanted to make pure music that could be from any time, to make time irrelevant, to make generations and decades irrelevant,” he recalled in his memoir.

The Pogues were briefly on top of the world, with sold-out tours and appearances on U.S. television, but the band’s output and appearances grew more erratic, due in part to MacGowan’s struggles with alcohol and drugs. He was fired by the other band members in 1991 after they became fed up with a string of no-shows, including when The Pogues were opening for Dylan. The band briefly replaced MacGowan with Clash frontman Joe Strummer before breaking up.

MacGowan performed with a new band, Shane MacGowan and the Popes, with whom he put out two albums: “The Snake” in 1995 and “The Crock Of Gold” in 1997. He reunited with The Pogues in 2001 for a series of concerts and tours, despite his well-documented problems with drinking and performances that regularly included slurred lyrics and at least one fall on stage.

MacGowan had years of health problems and used a wheelchair after breaking his pelvis a decade ago. He was long famous for his broken, rotten teeth until receiving a full set of implants in 2015 from a dental surgeon who described the procedure as “the Everest of dentistry.”

MacGowan received a lifetime achievement award from the Irish president on his 60th birthday. The occasion was marked with a celebratory concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin with performers including Bono, Nick Cave, Sinead O’Connor and Johnny Depp.

Clarke wrote on Instagram that “there’s no way to describe the loss that I am feeling and the longing for just one more of his smiles that lit up my world.”

“I am blessed beyond words to have met him and to have loved him and to have been so endlessly and unconditionally loved by him and to have had so many years of life and love and joy and fun and laughter and so many adventures,” she wrote.

Iranian Rapper Toomaj Salehi Arrested Again

Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, who had been previously detained for showing support to anti-government protests and was released on bail earlier this month, was arrested again, Iran’s state media reported on Thursday.

“Salehi has been arrested for publishing false information and disturbing public opinion, after being released upon an order by Iran’s supreme court to revise his case,” the judiciary news agency said.

Following the death in custody of 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in September 2022, Iran has seen months of nationwide protests that represented one of the fiercest challenges to the Islamic Republic since its establishment in 1979.

Salehi, who wrote songs about the protests, was initially sentenced to six years in prison on multiple charges, including “corruption on earth,” a ruling that was then rejected by Iran’s supreme court.

The 33-year-old rapper spent one year and 21 days in prison, including 252 days in solitary confinement, during which he sustained physical injuries, according to his official page on the social media website X, formerly known as Twitter.

UN Weather Agency: 2023 Is Hottest Year on Record, More Climate Extremes Ahead

The U.N. weather agency said Thursday that 2023 is all but certain to be the hottest year on record, and warning of worrying trends that suggest increasing floods, wildfires, glacier melt, and heat waves in the future.

The World Meteorological Organization also warned that the average temperature for the year is up some 1.4 degrees Celsius (2.5 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times – a mere one-tenth of a degree under a target limit for the end of the century as laid out by the Paris climate accord in 2015.

The WMO secretary-general said the onset earlier this year of El Nino, the weather phenomenon marked by heating in the Pacific Ocean, could tip the average temperature next year over the 1.5-degree (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target cap set in Paris.

“It’s practically sure that during the coming four years we will hit this 1.5, at least on temporary basis,” Petteri Taalas said in an interview. “And in the next decade we are more or less going to be there on a permanent basis.”

WMO issued the findings for Thursday’s start of the U.N.’s annual climate conference, this year being held in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates city of Dubai.

The U.N. agency said the benchmark of key Paris accord goal will be whether the 1.5-degree increase is sustained over a 30-year span – not just a single year – but others say the world needs more clarity on that.

“Clarity on breaching the Paris agreement guard rails will be crucial,” said Richard Betts of Britain’s Met Office, the lead author of a new paper on the issue with University of Exeter published in the journal Nature.

“Without an agreement on what actually will count as exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius, we risk distraction and confusion at precisely the time when action to avoid the worst effects of climate change becomes even more urgent,” he added.

WMO’s Taalas said that whatever the case, the world appears on course to blow well past that figure anyway.

“We are heading towards 2.5 to 3 degrees warming and that would mean that we would see massively more negative impacts of climate change,” Taalas said, pointing to glacier loss and sea level rise over “the coming thousands of years.”

The nine years 2015 to 2023 were the warmest on record, WMO said. Its findings for this year run through October, but it says the last two months are not likely to be enough to keep 2023 from being a record-hot year.

Still, there are “some signs of hope” – including a turn toward renewable energies and more electric cars, which help reduce the amount of carbon that is spewed into the atmosphere, trapping heat inside,” Taalas said.

His message for attendee at the U.N climate conference, known as COP28?

“We have to reduce our consumption of coal, oil and natural gas dramatically to be able to limit the warming to the Paris limits,” he said. “Luckily, things are happening. But still, we in the Western countries, in the rich countries, we are still consuming oil, a little bit less coal than in the past, and still natural gas.”

“Reduction of fossil fuel consumption — that’s the key to success.”

Vietnam’s Rare Earth Sector on the Rise

Vietnam, with the world’s second-largest reserves of the rare earths used in such modern devices as electric vehicle batteries and smart phone screens, is intensifying mining of the critical minerals. The industry, though, faces high processing costs, environmental concerns, and the takedown of industry leaders for illegal mining and mineral sales.

Vietnam’s rare earth resources are second only to those of China, which has held a tight monopoly since the 1980s. With Chinese relations with the West becoming more volatile, many countries are looking for other sources for the elements.

“China produces about 60% of the world’s rare earths but what they process is over 90%,” Louis O’Connor, CEO of Strategic Metals Invest, an Irish investment firm, told VOA.

“It was not a good idea to allow one country to dominate critical raw materials that are critical to all nations’ economic prosperity and increasingly military capability,” he said.

O’Connor added that while China has the world’s majority of raw materials, its dominance over technical expertise in the complex and costly process of rare earth refining is even greater. China has 39 metallurgy universities and approximately 200 metallurgists graduate weekly in the country, he said.

“The ability to go from having the potential to end product — that’s the most challenging, complicated, and expensive part,” O’Connor said. “For Vietnam, even if they have the deposits, what they don’t have is the human capital, or the engineering expertise.”

Vietnam increased rare earth mining tenfold with its output hitting 4,300 tons last year, compared to 400 tons in 2021.  according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Vietnam said in July it plans to process 2 million tons of rare earth ores by 2030 and produce 60,000 tons of rare earth oxides annually starting in 2030. This year, China’s mining quota is set at 240,000 tons to meet the demand for the electric vehicle industry, according to Chinese government data.

The United States and other countries are interested in Vietnam increasing its production of rare earths.

“The U.S. wants Vietnam to become a more important supplier and perhaps replace China, if possible, because of the risk that the U.S. may face in relying on rare earth supplies from China,” Le Hong Hiep, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore told VOA.

“Not only the U.S., but also other partners like Korea, Japan, and Australia also are working with Vietnam to develop the rare earth industry,” he said.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol signed a memorandum of understanding in Vietnam in June to establish a joint supply chain center for rare earth minerals.

“We reached an agreement that there is more potential to develop rare earths together, as they are abundant in Vietnam,” Yoon said in a June 23 statement with Vietnam’s president Vo Van Thuong.

The United States signed such a memorandum on cooperation in the rare earths sector during President Joe Biden’s visit to Hanoi on September 9.

“We see Vietnam as a potential critical nexus in global supply chains when it comes to critical minerals and rare earth elements,” Marc Knapper, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, said on September 13 during a digital press briefing. “We certainly want to work together to ensure that Vietnam is able to take advantage of its rich resources in a way that’s also sustainable.”


However, a handful of Vietnam’s key rare earth enterprises have become entangled in scandal. On October 20, police arrested six individuals for mining and tax violations.

Police arrested Doan Van Huan, chairman of the Hanoi-based Thai Duong Group that operates a mine in Yen Bai province, and its chief accountant, Nguyen Van Chinh, for violating regulations on the exploration and exploitation of natural resources and accounting violations, the Public Security Ministry said. The two were accused of making $25.5 million from the illegal sale of rare earth ore and iron ore. Police raided 21 excavation and trading sites in Yen Bai province and three other locations. Authorities seized an estimated 13,700 tons of rare earth and more than 1,400 tons of iron ores, according to local publication VnExpress.

Although government statements did not state what made Thai Duong’s rare earth sales illegal, a source told Reuters raw Yen Bai mine ore had been exported to China to avoid high domestic refining costs, in violation of Vietnamese rules.

The chairman, Luu Anh Tuan, and accountant, Nguyen Thi Hien, of the country’s primary rare earth refining company, Vietnam Rare Earth JSC, were also arrested for violating accounting regulations in trading rare earth with Thai Duong Group. Dang Tran Chi, director of Hop Thanh Phat, and his accountant Pham Thi Ha were arrested on the same charge.

Looking at corruption in Vietnam’s rare earth industry will be “top of the list” for future investors, O’Connor said.

“Corruption levels would have to be looked at,” he said. “If you’re buying a metal that’s going to need to perform in a jet engine, for example or a rocket … they have to be sure of the purity levels. The chain of custody of these, it’s more important really than gold.”

Vietnam committed to industry

Hanoi is committed to developing the rare earths industry even though economic gains are limited by environmental and production costs, Hiep told VOA.

“Vietnam is now interested in promoting this industry mainly because of the strategic significance,” Hiep told VOA. “If you can grow this industry and become a reliable supplier of rare earth products for the U.S. and its allies, Vietnam’s strategic position will be enhanced greatly.”

“Whether that will be successful, we have to wait and see,” he added.

There are also environmental concerns for the growing industry, particularly as a crackdown on Vietnam’s environmental organizations and civil society leaves little room for public speech.

“The biggest challenge is going to be how do you handle the waste process from the mining,” said Courtney Weatherby, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at Washington’s Stimson Center told VOA.

“Ensuring that development happens in a sustainable way takes a lot of different actors,” she said.

But Duy Hoang, executive director of unsanctioned political party Viet Tan, said the room for outside actors to express concern over environmental and labor practices is narrowing.

“What we’re seeing is sort of a shrinking space for civil society to speak out and a number of the leading environmental activists are now in jail. We don’t have their voices which are very needed and I think there may be self-censorship going on by other activists,” he said. “There has to be accountability.”

South African Company to Start Making Vaginal Rings That Protect Against HIV

A South African company will make vaginal rings that protect against HIV, which AIDS experts say should eventually make them cheaper and more readily available.

The Population Council announced Thursday that Kiara Health of Johannesburg will start making the silicone rings in the next few years, estimating that 1 million could be produced annually. The devices release a drug that helps prevent HIV infections and are authorized by nearly a dozen countries and the World Health Organization.

The nonprofit council owns the rights to the rings, which are now made by a Swedish company. About 500,00 rings are currently available to women in Africa at no cost, purchased by donors.

Ben Phillips, a spokesperson at the U.N. AIDS agency, said the advantage of the ring is that it gives women the freedom to use it without anyone else’s knowledge or consent.

“For women whose partners won’t use a condom or allow them to take oral (preventive HIV) medicines, this gives them another option,” he said.

HIV remains the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age in Africa and 60% of new infections are in women, according to figures from WHO.

The ring releases the drug dapivirine in slow doses over a month. It currently costs $12 to $16, but experts expect the price to drop once it is widely produced in Africa. Developers are also working on a version that will last up to three months, which should also lower the yearly cost.

WHO has recommended the ring be used as an additional tool for women at “substantial risk of HIV” and regulators in more than a dozen African countries, including South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Uganda and Zimbabwe have also given it the green light. WHO cited two advanced studies in its approval, saying the ring reduced women’s chances of getting HIV by about a third, while other research has suggested the risk could be dropped by more than 50%.

Last year, activists charged the stage in a protest during last year’s biggest AIDS meeting, calling on donors to buy the silicone rings for African women.

Vice President Harris to Lead US Delegation to Major Climate Summit

Vice President Kamala Harris will lead the U.S. delegation to the world’s premier climate summit, the White House said Wednesday.

The White House stressed that President Joe Biden considers the climate crisis among his top four priorities, but the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas has consumed much of his time and attention.

“Throughout her engagements, the vice president will underscore the Biden-Harris administration’s success in delivering on the most ambitious climate agenda in history, both at home and abroad,” said Kirsten Allen, the vice president’s press secretary.

Harris will lead dozens of top U.S. officials, including special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry and others from more than 20 agencies and departments, the White House said.

This year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties — known as COP28 because it is the 28th gathering of its kind — will be hosted by United Arab Emirates President Mohamed bin Zayed. The royal, who took office after the 2022 death of his brother, is also chairman of the Supreme Petroleum Council, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi’s top governing body for oil, gas and related industries.

Nearly 200 countries represented

More than 70,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries are beginning to converge on the city of Dubai, which has seen a meteoric rise from its fishing village roots, thanks to its massive oil wealth.

There, in a city known for its artificial archipelago and hyperluxury shopping offerings inside a mall that covers more than 50 soccer fields and contains an indoor ski slope and a colony of penguins, they will assess the progress toward the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

In a statement, Biden said Harris would “showcase U.S. global leadership on climate at home and abroad” and would “help galvanize increased global ambition at this critical event.”

She will attend meetings Friday and Saturday in Dubai.

Earlier this week, when asked why Biden was not attending the summit, John Kirby, director of strategic communications at the National Security Council, said Biden was “more than capable” of handling his many responsibilities, but that the Mideast conflict had “obviously” been a recent focus.

‘Race to the top’

VOA on Wednesday asked White House national climate adviser Ali Zaidi whether the United States would push for a deal to commit countries to phase out fossil fuels by a certain date. In September, leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies failed to agree on this issue.

Washington, Zaidi replied, seeks to “phase down the emissions that come from the unabated burning of fossil fuels.”

That word — unabated — may be a sticking point in this year’s declaration, as it would permit the opening of new fossil fuel plants if they have thus far unproven technology meant to capture and store carbon emissions.

Already, an intergovernmental group of 117 countries has questioned that language and has indicated opposition to its inclusion.

“The emission abatement technologies which currently only exist at limited scale have a minor role to play to reduce emissions mainly from hard to abate sectors,” the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People said in a statement signed by ministers from 16 countries, including Austria, Ethiopia and France. “However, they should not be used to delay climate action in sectors such as electricity generation where feasible, effective and cost-efficient mitigation alternatives are available, particularly in this critical decade when emissions need to be reduced urgently and dramatically.”

Zaidi also pointed out Biden’s role in passing a significant climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, which commits at least $370 billion to clean energy over the next 10 years — something Harris will also emphasize at the gathering, administration officials told reporters in a briefing on the matter on Wednesday.

“This is a race to the top, hopefully, for clean energy,” Zaidi told VOA. “We want to lead that race, and the good news is the more countries that join that race, the better off we’ll be in tackling these emissions. We need countries like China and other major economies to be the ones that reduce emissions in a major way. We’re doing that here at home.”

White House Hopes to Lead Global Charge in ‘Promise, Peril’ of Emerging Tech Like AI

American leadership is essential in establishing norms and laws to “determine how we both glean the promise and manage the peril” of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and digital economic and social platforms used to connect billions of people around the world, a White House adviser told VOA.

The Biden administration has rolled out a number of initiatives on the topic — most recently, an executive order that aims to set new AI safety and security standards. That order relies on cooperation from private developers and other countries, “because the attackers are in one set of countries, the infrastructure is in another and the victims are global,” said Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology at the National Security Council.

Neuberger sat down with VOA White House Correspondent Anita Powell to explain these complex, compelling technologies and how she thinks they have exposed the worst but also the best in humanity.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: Thank you so much for sitting down with VOA today. Can you walk us through the concrete outcomes of the recent meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the areas you cover — cybersecurity, AI and the digital economy?

Anne Neuberger, White House deputy national security adviser: Of course, strategic technologies are very important to both of our countries’ growth and national security — and we’re global players on a global stage. The most important part of the discussion was two leaders coming together to say: While we are in competition, we’re committed to working together on areas where we can collaborate – areas like climate change, like discussions of what are the rules for artificial intelligence.

VOA: Would you assess that the meeting made any progress, especially on AI regulation?

Neuberger: Certainly very good discussions related to an agreement for the countries to sit down and establish a working group on AI [about] appropriate guardrails and guidelines in this area.

VOA: I’m going to stick with AI and the administration’s recent moves, like the AI Bill of Rights and also the attempt to set some norms at the recent London summit on AI. Why does the administration think U.S. leadership matters so much here?

Neuberger: For two reasons. First, the United States is a committed democracy and AI is a major technology that brings both promise and peril. It is up to us to determine how we both glean the promise and manage the peril. President Biden has made that clear in his game-changing executive order that, as a country, we must manage the perils in order to glean the promise.

VOA: Speaking of the perils of AI, what is the administration doing to prevent the malicious use of generative AI in both conflicts and contests? I’m talking about conflicts like Israel and Ukraine, but also contests like the upcoming elections in Congo, in Taiwan and here in the United States.

Neuberger: We’ve seen new AI models that generate very realistic videos, very realistic images. In terms of generative AI related to elections, I want to lift up one of the voluntary commitments that the president negotiated, which was around watermarking: having a visible and potentially invisible mark on an AI-generated image or video that notes that this is AI-generated, to alert a viewer. An invisible mark could be used so that, even if there are attempts to remove this mark, the platforms themselves can still be able to portray that message and help educate individuals. This is still an area of evolving technology. It’s getting better and better. But companies made commitments to start marking content that they generate. And I know a number of social media platforms are also making commitments to ensure that they display messages to help consumers who see such content know that it is generated by artificial intelligence.

VOA: Moving on to cybersecurity and malign actors like North Korea and Russia, what is the administration doing to curb their work in this area?

Neuberger: We see North Korea really using cyberattacks as a way to get money because they’re such a heavily sanctioned regime. So North Korea moved from targeting banks to targeting … cryptocurrency infrastructure around the world. And the White House has had a focused effort to bring together all elements we have to fight that with Treasury Department designations.

There’ll be further designations coming up for the cryptocurrency mixers that launder funds stolen from those cryptocurrency infrastructures. We also have been working with the industry to press them to improve the cybersecurity of their systems as well as law enforcement. U.S. law enforcement has been cooperating with partners around the world to take down that server infrastructure and to arrest the individuals who are responsible for some of this activity.

VOA: Tell us a little bit about the counter-ransomware initiative you’re working on.

Neuberger: Absolutely. Essentially, criminal groups, many of which are based in Russia with infrastructure operating from around the world, are locking systems … in order to request that the system owners pay ransom. In the United States alone in the last two years, $2.3 billion was paid in ransom. It’s a fundamentally transnational fight. … What we’ve done is assemble 48 countries, Interpol [and] the European Union to take this on together, because we know that the attackers are in one set of countries, the infrastructure is in another, and the victims are global. As the White House built this initiative, we ensure that the leadership is diverse.

So, for example, the leaders of the effort to build capacity around the world are Nigeria and Germany — intentionally, a country from Africa and a country from Europe, because their needs are different. And we wanted to ensure that as we’re helping countries build the capacity to fight this, we’re sensitive to the different needs of a country like Nigeria, like Rwanda, like South Africa, like Indonesia. Similarly, there’s an effort focused on exercising information, sharing information together.

You asked about the key deliverables from this most recent meeting. I’ll note three big ones. First, we launched a website and a system where countries can collaborate when they’re fighting a ransomware attack, where they can ask for help [or] learn from others who fought a similar attack. Second, we made the first ever joint policy statement — a big deal — 48 countries committing that countries themselves will not pay ransoms, because we know this is a financially driven problem. And third, the United States committed that we would be sharing bad wallets [that] criminals are using to move money around the world so other countries can help stop that money as it moves as well. So that’s an example of three of the many commitments that came out of the recent meeting.

VOA: Let’s talk about the Global South, which has pioneered development of really interesting digital economic technologies like Kenya’s M-PESA, which was rolled out in, like, 2007. Now the U.S. has Venmo, which is modeled on that. How is the U.S. learning from the developing world in the development of these projects and also the perils of these products?

Neuberger: M-PESA is a fantastic example of the promise of digital tech. Essentially, Kenya took the fact that they had a telecom infrastructure, and built their banking infrastructure riding on that, so they leapt ahead to enable people across the country to do transactions online. When you look at Ukraine in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine quickly moved their government online, really building on lessons learned from Estonia, to enable Ukrainians — many who are in Poland and Hungary — to continue to engage with their government in a digital way.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is tremendously proud of that Ukrainian project and is using it as a model as we look to other countries around the world. So we’re learning a lot from the creativity and innovation; what we want to bring to that is American development, skill and aid, and also plugging in American tech companies who can accelerate the rollout of these projects in countries around the world, because we still believe in the promise of digital. But you mentioned the peril, and that’s where cybersecurity comes in.

VOA: This lines us up perfectly for my final question, about the promise and the peril. In the digital world, people can hide behind anonymity and say and do awful things using tools that were meant to improve the world. How do you keep your faith in humanity?

Neuberger: It’s a tremendously important question. It’s one that’s personally important to me. My great-grandparents lost their lives in Nazi death camps. And those members of my family who survived — some survived through the horrors of the camp, some managed to hide out under false identities. And I often think that the promise of digital has also made our identities very evident. Sometimes when I’m just browsing Amazon online, and it recommends a set of books, I think to myself: I wonder how I’d hide if what happened to my grandparents came for me. So as a result, I think that even as we engage with these technologies, we have to ensure that vulnerable populations are protected.

So, the president’s working with AI companies to say companies have an obligation to protect vulnerable populations online, to ensure that we’re using AI to detect where there’s bullying online, where there’s hate speech that goes against common practices that needs to be addressed; where there are AI-generated images related to children or women or other vulnerable populations, that we use AI to find them and remove them; and certainly use law enforcement and the power of law enforcement partnerships around the world to deter that as well. Freedom of speech is a part of free societies. Freedom from harm needs to be a fight we take on together.

VOA: Thank you so much for speaking to our audience.

Neuberger: Thank you.

US Life Expectancy Climbs, but Remains Below Pre-Pandemic Levels

Life expectancy in the United States is on the rise but remains lower than it was in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, as a host of other factors contributing to mortality, including chronic disease, gun violence and a persistent epidemic of overdose deaths, continue to plague the country.

According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, an American born in 2022 could expect to live 77.5 years on average, up 1.1 years from 2021, with most of the improvement accounted for by the reduction in COVID-19 deaths.

However, as recently as 2019, the year before the pandemic began in earnest, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 78.8 years. While some other countries with advanced economies and modern health care infrastructure have seen their life expectancy rates return to pre-pandemic levels, the U.S. still lags behind.

There are also wide gaps in life expectancy across demographic groups in the U.S. Women, for example, had a life expectancy of 80.2 years in 2022, compared to just 74.8 years for men.

Asian Americans born in 2022 could expect to live 84.5 years, and Hispanic Americans of any race had a life expectancy of 80 years. White Americans matched the overall average at 77.5 years, while Black Americans could expect to live 72.8 years. The lowest life expectancy reported by the CDC was for American Indian and Alaska Native Americans, at 67.9 years.

Behind peer countries

“There’s both good and bad news here,” Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a professor of public health at The George Washington University, told VOA.

“It’s disappointing that life expectancy has not rebounded more following the worst of COVID,” Wen said. “But that said, life expectancy in 2022 did rise by more than a full year. And it’s thought that more than 80% of this positive increase was attributed to a drop in COVID-19 deaths.

“Even before COVID, the U.S. was already behind our peer countries when it came to life expectancy,” she added. “Even without COVID, improvements in life expectancy have been stagnating in the U.S. over the last decade. So it’s not surprising, then, that we would not have as robust of a rebound as other countries. We need to improve our health care infrastructure in this country, especially when it comes to preventing illnesses and addressing chronic diseases.”

In much of Europe, as well as in developed economies in Asia, including Japan and South Korea, life expectancy is significantly above 80 years for the average person.

Coronavirus still matters

While coronavirus deaths are down to just a fraction of what they were in 2020 and 2021, the disease still presents a serious threat to the lives of many Americans, especially because the widespread existence of chronic diseases common to U.S. adults make dying from an infection more likely.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, told VOA that the country could still be doing more to limit deaths from coronavirus infections, including by encouraging more Americans to get vaccinated against the disease.

However, he said the threat from the pandemic represents only part of the troubles facing U.S. public health officials.

“There are many challenges to American health beyond COVID,” Sharfstein said. “So, we have a ways to go, and many of those challenges got worse during the pandemic.”

In addition to improving preventive care for respiratory illnesses, Sharfstein’s organization has called for concerted action by the government to address overdose deaths, suicides, gun violence, motor vehicle crashes, heat-related deaths, as well as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Change by demographic group

While all of the demographic groups tracked by the CDC saw their life expectancies rise between 2021 and 2022, the increase varied significantly.

The American Indian and Alaskan Native cohort experienced the largest year-over-year boost in life expectancy of 2.4 years for men and 2.1 years for women. However, that same group experienced the most severe decline in life expectancy during the pandemic, a loss of 6.2 years between 2019 and 2021.

Hispanic Americans had the next largest gain in 2022, with life expectancy for men rising by 2.4 years and for women by 1.7 years. The group as a whole saw life expectancy drop by 4.1 years between 2019 and 2021.

For Black men and Black women, the average life expectancy increased by 1.5 years in 2022. As a group, Black Americans experienced an overall decline in life expectancy of 3.6 years during the pandemic.

Male Asian Americans saw their life expectancy increase by 1.2 years in 2022, with Asian American women seeing an increase of 0.7 years. Asian Americans as a group saw life expectancy decline by 2.1 years from 2019 to 2022.

As a group, White Americans had the smallest rebound in life expectancy last year, with men charting a gain of 1.1 years and women 0.6 years. As a group, White Americans lost 2.1 years of life expectancy between 2019 and 2022.

British PM Accuses Greek Leader of ‘Grandstanding’ Over Parthenon Marbles 

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has accused his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis of public “grandstanding” over the ownership of Parthenon sculptures. 

The two leaders have been at odds with one another after Sunak canceled a scheduled meeting between the two just hours before it was set to take place. 

In a weekly question period with the house of commons, Sunak told parliament that Mitsotakis had broken a promise that he would not publicly bring up the sculptures.

“Specific assurances on that topic were made to this country and then were broken,” Sunak said. “When people make commitments, they should keep them.” 

Greek officials denied that any such promise had been made.

In an interview with British television on Sunday, Mitsotakis called for the return of the sculptures so they could be displayed beside the rest of the sculptures still in Athens. He also said that removing them was like cutting the “Mona Lisa” in half.

Athens has long urged the British Museum to return 2,500-year-old sculptures, known in Britain as the Elgin Marbles. The Marbles were taken from the Parthenon temple by British diplomat Lord Elgin in 1806, when Greece was under Ottoman Turkish rule.

Greek officials have said Mitsotakis only promoted a longstanding position, and he called Sunak’s cancelation of the meeting disrespectful.

Mitsotakis said the cancelation was “an unfortunate event,” but he added that “the move will not hurt relations between Greece and Britain in the longer term.”

The Greek leader also went on to say the cancelation of the meeting had a positive side to it and that his calls for reunification of the sculptures have gained more attention.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

US Imposes Sanctions on Cryptocurrency Mixer Sinbad Over Alleged North Korea Links

The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on a virtual currency mixer the Treasury Department said has processed millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency from major heists carried out by North Korea-linked hackers.

The U.S. Treasury Department in a statement said virtual currency mixer Sinbad, hit with sanctions on Wednesday, processed millions of dollars worth of virtual currency from heists carried out by the North Korea-linked Lazarus Group, including the Axie Infinity and Horizon Bride heists of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lazarus, which has been sanctioned by the U.S., has been accused of carrying out some of the largest virtual currency heists to date. In March 2022, for example, they allegedly stole about $620 million in virtual currency from a blockchain project linked to the online game Axie Infinity.

“Mixing services that enable criminal actors, such as the Lazarus Group, to launder stolen assets will face serious consequences,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in the statement on Wednesday.

“The Treasury Department and its U.S. government partners stand ready to deploy all tools at their disposal to prevent virtual currency mixers, like Sinbad, from facilitating illicit activities.”

A virtual currency mixer is a software tool that pools and scrambles cryptocurrencies from thousands of addresses.

Sinbad is believed by some experts in the industry to be a successor to the Blender mixer, which the U.S. hit with sanctions last year over accusations it was being used by North Korea.

The Treasury said Sinbad is also used by cybercriminals to obscure transactions linked to activities such as sanctions evasion, drug trafficking and the purchase of child sexual abuse materials, among other malign activities. 

Wednesday’s action freezes any U.S. assets of Sinbad and generally bars Americans from dealing with it. Those that engage in certain transactions with the mixer also risk being hit with sanctions. 

As COP28 Gets Underway, Scientists Warn of Irreversible, Catastrophic Climate Change

The COP28 climate summit gets underway Thursday in Dubai, as scientists warn the world is heading for irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.

2023 is on course to be the hottest year on record, according to data from the European Union, which says that climate change combined with this year’s El Nino weather pattern have fueled recent record-breaking temperatures. Fearsome heat, forest fires and flash storms have characterized a year of extreme weather around the world, with no continent left untouched.

The COP28 summit comes at a crucial moment, according to Tom Rivett-Carnac, a former strategist at the UNFCCC and now with the Global Optimism climate think tank.

“This is the launch of what’s called the ‘global stocktake.’ So, this is the first time since the Paris Agreement [in 2014] the world has taken stock of how we are doing on the objectives we set ourselves back then.

“And it’s challenging to see what that report says. We should be reducing our emissions by 43%. By the end of this decade, that latest trajectory suggests they’re actually going to rise by 9%, with catastrophic impacts for people all over the world,” Rivett-Carnac told VOA.

Climate costs

The annual summit, officially known as the 28th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, runs for two weeks until December 12. Some 70,000 delegates from 197 countries are expected to attend, including many heads of state – though the leaders of the U.S. and China, two of the leading emitters of carbon emissions, are not expected to attend.

The COP summits involve complex negotiations. The 198 parties to the UNFCCC – comprising nearly every country in the world – largely agree on the goal of reducing global emissions to curb climate change. However, there is often disagreement over who should bear the costs of reducing those emissions and on how to mitigate the impact of climate change that is already happening.

Less developed nations say richer nations are responsible for most historic greenhouse gas emissions and therefore they should compensate poorer nations for reducing their use of fossil fuels. Poorer nations argue they also need help to adapt to the changing climate.

“Different countries have different priorities. Those who are most vulnerable are concerned about the financial flows to help them deal with the crisis. Those who are less vulnerable, and more wealthy are concerned about collective attempts to reduce emissions. So, any outcome needs to be balanced,” Rivett-Carnac said.

Loss and damage

“Last year, one of the big breakthroughs was the creation of what’s called a loss and damage fund to help countries deal with the impacts that we can’t avoid. This year, we need to see a big step forward towards the operationalization of that fund,” Rivett-Carnac said.

The 2014 Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, by 2050.

However, according to data published earlier this month by NASA and Columbia University, climate change is currently accelerating, and the world will cross the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming threshold this decade.

Melting ice caps

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Antarctica last week ahead of the COP summit, in a bid to highlight the urgent need to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“To rescue Antarctica, to rescue Greenland, to rescue the glaciers that I’ve seen in the past, it is absolutely crucial to end the addiction to fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are the first source of climate change, and I hope that the next COP will be able to decide the phase out of fossil fuels with a clear time frame that is compatible to guarantee that the temperature will not rise more than 1.5 degrees [Celsius],” Guterres told the Associated Press.

Antarctica alarm

Scientists have long warned of rapidly declining sea ice in the Arctic – and they say the region could be ice-free in the summer within a generation.

Until 2015, there was little evidence of ice melt in Antarctica. Now scientists say the rate of ice retreat is accelerating rapidly.

“The big struggle that we have right now in the climate and polar sciences is, why is Antarctica all of a sudden so fast? Will this trend continue? Will we really lose sea ice at that pace? And how can we stop that?” said Antje Boetius, president of the German Alfred Wegener Institute.

“These things all together mean it’s time to talk about losses and damages. It’s time to talk about socioeconomic solutions because it cannot be that the ones that are transforming, the ones that have little CO2 emissions, that they are punished the most.

And it must be that those who have the highest emissions and who have a wealth from that help others who have had all those losses,” Boetius told Reuters.

Biden, Xi absent

The COP28 summit looks set to be without the leaders of the world’s two biggest polluters, the United States and China, which together account for 42 percent of global CO2 emissions.

A U.S. official said this week that President Joe Biden would not be attending the talks, without giving a reason. Chinese President Xi Jinping is also not expected to attend the Dubai meeting.

Biden has frequently warned of the urgent need to tackle global warming, recently announcing a $6 billion investment to address climate change under the Inflation Reduction Act.

At their meeting in California in November, Biden and Xi agreed to deepen cooperation on tackling climate change. “What you see is that if the U.S. and China are in lockstep and have a clear sense of what they want to achieve together, it’s much easier for the world to come together around those commitments,” said former UNFCC strategist Rivett-Carnac.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry will be leading day-to-day negotiations for the United States.

US Life Expectancy Rose Last Year, But it Remains Below its Pre-Pandemic Level 

U.S. life expectancy rose last year — by more than a year — but still isn’t close to what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2022 rise was mainly due to the waning pandemic, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers said Wednesday. But even with the large increase, U.S. life expectancy is only back to 77 years, 6 months — about what it was two decades ago.

Life expectancy is an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year might expect to live, assuming the death rates at that time hold constant. The snapshot statistic is considered one of the most important measures of the health of the U.S. population. The 2022 calculations released Wednesday are provisional, and could change a little as the math is finalized.

For decades, U.S. life expectancy rose a little nearly every year. But about a decade ago, the trend flattened and even declined some years — a stall blamed largely on overdose deaths and suicides.

Then came the coronavirus, which has killed more than 1.1 million people in the U.S. since early 2020. The measure of American longevity plunged, dropping from 78 years, 10 months in 2019 to 77 years in 2020, and then to 76 years, 5 months in 2021.

“We basically have lost 20 years of gains,” said the CDC’s Elizabeth Arias.

A decline in COVID-19 deaths drove 2022’s improvement.

In 2021, COVID was the nation’s third leading cause of death (after heart disease and cancer). Last year, it fell to the fourth leading cause. With more than a month left in the current year, preliminary data suggests COVID-19 could end up being the ninth or 10th leading cause of death in 2023.

But the U.S. is battling other issues, including drug overdose deaths and suicides.

The number of U.S. suicides reached an all-time high last year, and the national suicide rate was the highest seen since 1941, according to a second CDC report released Wednesday.

Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. went up slightly last year after two big leaps at the beginning of the pandemic. And through the first six months of this year, the estimated overdose death toll continued to inch up.

U.S. life expectancy also continues to be lower than that of dozens of other countries. It also didn’t rebound as quickly as it did in other places, including France, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

Steven Woolf, a mortality researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, said he expects the U.S. to eventually get back to the pre-pandemic life expectancy.

But “what I’m trying to say is: That is not a great place to be,” he added.

Some other highlights from the new report:

Life expectancy increased for both men and women, and for every racial and ethnic group.
The decline in COVID-19 deaths drove 84% of the increase in life expectancy. The next largest contributor was a decline in heart disease deaths, credited with about 4% of the increase. But experts note that heart disease deaths increased during COVID-19, and both factored into many pandemic-era deaths.
Changes in life expectancy varied by race and ethnicity. Hispanic Americans and American Indians and Alaska Natives saw life expectancy rise more than two years in 2022. Black life expectancy rose more than 1 1/2 years. Asian American life expectancy rose one year and white life expectancy rose about 10 months. But the changes are relative, because Hispanic Americans and Native Americans were hit harder at the beginning of COVID-19. Hispanic life expectancy dropped more than four years between 2019 and 2021, and Native American life expectancy fell more than six years.

“A lot of the large increases in life expectancy are coming from the groups that suffered the most from COVID,” said Mark Hayward, a University of Texas sociology professor who researches how different factors affect adult deaths. “They had more to rebound from.”

America House Opens in Odesa Despite Ongoing War in Ukraine 

A new America House is celebrating its opening in Odesa, making it the third major cultural and educational center in Ukraine supported and financed by the U.S. Embassy. America House Odesa was supposed to open in early 2022, but Russia’s invasion changed those plans. Anna Kosstutschenko visited the center and found out how the war altered its program. Camera — Pavel Suhodolskiy.

Climate Crises Drastically Increase Child Hunger, UK-Based Charity Says

Children made up nearly half of the people driven into hunger and malnutrition by extreme weather events in countries heavily impacted by the climate crisis in 2022, according to a UK-based charity.

Citing data by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC hunger monitoring system, Britain’s Save the Children said Tuesday that children made up 27 million of the 57 million “people pushed into crisis levels of acute food insecurity or worse across 12 countries because of extreme weather events in 2022.”

“As climate-related weather events become more frequent and severe, we will see more drastic consequences on children’s lives,” said Gwen Hines, Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children UK. “In 2022, 135% more children were pushed into hunger due to extreme weather events than the year before.”

Half of the 27 million affected children came from the most affected countries of Ethiopia and Somalia.

Save the Children highlighted Somalia as particularly vulnerable to climate crises, pointing to the country’s five consecutive failed rainy seasons and the recent impact of flooding that displaced 650,000 people, about half of which are children.

Save the Children also identified Pakistan, which last year saw floods affect some 33 million people, with half being children. A year after the flood, “2 million flood-affected children are acutely malnourished, with almost 600,000 children suffering from the deadliest form of malnutrition,” the charity said.

Save the Children also called on world leaders from high income nations ahead of the COP28, the United Nations climate summit, to address the climate crisis, by “providing funding for losses and damages and climate adaptation.”

“To truly protect children now and in the future, robust support for the new Loss and Damage Fund is non-negotiable,” Hines said. “At COP28, world leaders must listen to the demands of children and invite them to be part of proposing solutions.”

Save the Children also called on action from leaders to address the “acute food and nutrition insecurity such as conflict, inequality, and a lack of resilient health, nutrition and social protection systems.”

Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse.

World Health Organization Warns of Disease Threat in Gaza

Disease could pose a bigger threat to human life than bombings in Gaza, the World Health Organization said. 

Overcrowding and a lack of access to clean drinking water or sanitation systems has led to a breeding ground for infectious disease, particularly diarrhea in children, which has reached nearly 100 times its normal level, according to the WHO.

“Eventually we will see more people dying from disease than we are even seeing from the bombardment if we are not able to put back (together) this health system,” said WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris at a U.N. briefing Tuesday in Geneva.  

The WHO says food shortages have added to the disease risk, as people are getting weak from hunger, causing them to be more prone to illness. 

People in Gaza also face difficulty in getting treatment, as there is limited medical staff and a shortage of access to medicines and vaccinations.  

Disruptions in collection of garbage from crowded shelters has furthered concern over risk of disease.

The WHO, in response to the conditions in Gaza, has called for a cease-fire, “sustained access for aid into Gaza,” “protection of civilians and health care,” and “respect for international humanitarian law,” on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

Israel declared war on U.S.-designated terror group Hamas after its shock October 7 attack on southern Israel that killed about 1,200 people and led to the Hamas capture of about 240 hostages. Israel’s campaign against Hamas militants has killed more than 14,000 people, according to Gaza health officials.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

Is AI About to Steal Your Job?

Almost all U.S. jobs, from truck driver to childcare provider to software developer, include skills that can be done, or at least supplemented, by generative artificial intelligence (GenAI), according to a recent report.

GenAI is artificial intelligence that can generate high-quality content based on the input data used to train it.

“AI is likely to touch every part of every job to some degree,” says Cory Stahle, an economist with, which released the report.

The report finds that almost one in five jobs (19.7%) — like IT operations, mathematics and information design — faces the highest risk of being affected by AI because at least 80% of the job skills those positions require can be done reasonably well by GenAI.

But that doesn’t mean that those jobs will eventually be lost to robots.

“It’s important to recognize that, in general, these technologies don’t affect entire occupations. It actually is very rare that a robot will show up, sit in somebody’s seat to do everything that someone does at their job,” says Michael Chui of the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), who researches the impact of technology and innovation on business, the economy and society. researchers analyzed more than 55 million job postings and found that GenAI can perform 50% to almost 80% of the skills required in 45.7% of those job listings. In 34.6% of jobs listed, GenAI can handle less than 50% of the skills.

Jobs that require manual skills or a personal touch, such as nursing and veterinary care, are the least likely to be hard hit by AI, the report says.

In the past, technological advances have mostly affected manual labor. However, GenAI is expected to have the most effect on so-called knowledge workers, generally defined as people who create knowledge or think for a living.

But, for now, AI does not appear poised to steal anyone’s job.

“There are very few jobs that AI can do completely. Even in jobs where AI can do many of the skills, there are still aspects of those jobs that AI cannot do,” Stahle says.

Rather than replace workers, researchers expect GenAI to enhance the work people already do, making them more efficient.

“This is something that, in many ways, we believe is going to unlock human potential and productivity for many workers across many different sectors of the economy,” Stahle says.

“There are a number of things that can happen,” Chui adds. “One is, we simply do more of something we were already doing, and so imagine if you’re a university professor or a teacher, and the grading can be done by machine rather than you. You can take those hours and, instead of grading, you can actually start tutoring your students, spending more time with your students, improving their performance, helping them learn.”

American workers need to begin using the new technology if they hope to remain competitive, according to Chui.

“Workers who are best able to use these technologies will be the most competitive workers in the workforce,” he says. “It was true before, but it’s more true than ever, that we’re all going to have to be lifetime learners.”

A survey developed by Chui finds that almost 80% of workers have experimented with AI tools.

“One of the great powers of these generative AI tools, so far, is they’ve been designed in such a way to make it easy for really anybody to use these types of tools,” Stahle says. “I really believe that people should be looking to embrace these tools and find ways to incorporate them into the work that they’re already interested in doing.”

Ultimately, could one of the unexpected benefits of AI be more efficient employees who work less?

“In general, Americans work a lot,” Chui says. “Maybe we don’t have to work so long. Maybe we have a four-day work week … and so you could give that time back to the worker.”

COP28 Has Big Agenda but Won’t Have Biden, Xi

When world leaders gather in Dubai beginning Thursday for COP28, this year’s U.N. climate summit, the heads of the world’s two largest economies will be notably absent.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have no plans to attend the two-week event, which is aimed at marshaling governments around the world behind the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Both countries will send high-level representatives. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special envoy for climate change, will attend. China’s climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, is also expected.

Among the main issues addressed at the conference will be the structure of a “loss and damage” fund meant to compensate low-income countries that are suffering disproportionately from climate change despite having contributed little to its causes.

Another important topic of discussion will be the adoption of an agreement to phase out the use of fossil fuels, the single largest contributor to carbon emissions.

The fossil fuel discussion may be complicated by the fact that the host country, the United Arab Emirates, is one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas.

UAE oil deals

In a development that may further snarl the talks in Dubai, the news organization Centre for Climate Reporting, in conjunction with the British Broadcasting Corp., on Monday revealed leaked documents suggesting that the COP28 organizing authority in the UAE has scheduled talks about oil and gas development projects during the conference.

The decision to allow the UAE to host the conference was already controversial, especially after Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, group CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., was named president of COP28.

The reports published Monday contained internal talking points apparently prepared for Al-Jaber ahead of meetings with representatives from various countries, including China, Colombia and Egypt. They appear to declare the UAE’s willingness to develop new fossil fuel projects.

According to the BBC, conference organizers did not deny the accusation and refused to comment further than saying that ”private meetings are private.”

Activists optimistic

While some activists remain troubled by the decision to allow the UAE to host the event, others say the revelations about the oil and gas development talks could actually boost the chances of fossil fuel phase-out language being adopted.

“We’re all very clear on where the battle lines are drawn, and with this new article that came out, we’re clear on what’s really going on behind the scenes, which we all suspected but no one would say outright,” Cherelle Blazer, director of international climate and policy at the Sierra Club, told VOA. “Given all of those factors, if there’s more clarity going into this than usual, I’m going to say there’s a good chance.”

Blazer also said she was not concerned about the absence of Biden and Xi.

“The Senate delegation is going to be there. The full U.S. negotiating team will be there. Kerry will be there. So, everyone that needs to be in place for something actionable to happen will be there,” she said.

Global Stocktake

This year’s conference will mark the completion of the most recent Global Stocktake, a two-year process that is conducted every five years to assess progress toward emissions reductions and other goals related to the effort to halt global warming.

While the final results of the process are yet to be announced, an interim report released earlier this year found that progress on various climate initiatives has been “significant yet inadequate” over recent years.

The meeting takes place at a time when the manufacture and installation of green energy development sources is on the rise globally, with costs falling rapidly for many key elements, including the photovoltaic panels used to capture solar energy.

However, experts told VOA that while some regions, like Europe, have greatly accelerated their transition to green energy in recent years, progress has been slower elsewhere. To some degree, that difference was expected, because the emission-reductions goals set following the Paris Agreement were “nationally determined” — meaning that individual countries set their own goals.

Trade complications

Michael Mehling, deputy director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told VOA that the interactions between countries further along in the transition to green energy and those in the early stages of the process are getting increasingly complicated, particularly around trade.

Mehling said the attitude of some countries that have accelerated their energy transition is, “Well, if we cannot force, say, Turkey, or we cannot force China to decarbonize through the UNFCCC-Paris Agreement, because it’s nationally driven, we can at least make sure that anything we import from them will have to live up to the same high standards.”

He said some countries find having manufacturing emissions reduction standards imposed on them by restrictive trade requirements understandably frustrating.

“Some of these countries say, ‘Well, wait. We thought we understood the Paris Agreement to say that we can decide how fast we decarbonize our manufacturing. It’s not for you to force that on us,’” he said.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that many of the countries that have been decarbonizing at a slower pace are in the Global South and contributed very little to the crisis of global warming but feel they are now being asked to forgo economic development opportunities with little compensation from wealthy countries like the U.S. and China that contributed most to climate change.

Spain to Invest 1.4 Billion Euros to Protect Threatened Donana Wetland

National and regional authorities in Spain signed an agreement Monday to invest 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in areas around the treasured national park of Donana in a bid to stop the park from drying up.

Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera said the plan was aimed at encouraging farmers to stop cultivating crops that rely heavily on water from underground aquifers that have been overexploited in recent years, damaging one of Europe’s largest wetlands.

“This is an agreement with which we put an end to pressure on a natural treasure the likes of which there are few in the world,” Ribera said.

Andalusia regional President Juan Moreno said farmers will receive financial incentives to stop cultivating and to reforest land in and around some 14 towns close to Donana. He said farmers who wish to continue cultivating will receive less money but must switch to farming dry crops ecologically.

As part of the agreement, Andalusia will cancel previously announced plans to expand irrigation near Donana, a decision that UNESCO, the central government and ecologists criticized for putting more pressure on the aquifer.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, Donana is a wintering site for half a million waterfowl and a stopover spot for millions more birds that migrate from Africa to northern Europe.

Ecologists working in and near the park have long warned that its ecosystem of marshes and lagoons is under severe strain because of agriculture and tourism. The situation has been made worse by climate change and a long drought, along with record high temperatures.

Andalusia recently announced a plan to allow the Donana park to annex some 7,500 hectares (18,500 acres) by purchasing land from a private owner for 70 million euros.

Donana currently covers 74,000 hectares (182,000 acres) on an estuary where the Guadalquivir River meets the Atlantic Ocean on Spain’s southern coast. 

Pakistan: Nationwide Polio Campaign Targets Over 4 Million Children

Pakistan launched a week-long nationwide polio vaccination campaign Monday, as the country remains one of only two around the world where the paralyzing virus still exists.

This year, so far, Pakistan has reported five cases of the highly infectious disease. The latest polio eradication campaign will target more than 4.4 million children across much of the country, as well as in Pakistani-administered Kashmir.  

The South Asian nation came close to eradicating polio in 2021 when it reported only one case of paralysis from the virus. However, last year the country saw a spike with 20 cases on the record. The virus generally spreads through the fecal matter of a carrier that has contaminated the water supply. 

Two of this year’s five cases were detected in the country’s most populous city Karachi in the southern province of Sindh. This came after the city recorded zero cases in the last two years.  

A spokesperson of the provincial Emergency Operation Center, Syed Nofil Naqvi, told VOA both cases are children from Afghan families settled in Pakistan for years.  

Naqvi blamed cross-border movement between Pakistan and Afghanistan for the disease. Afghanistan, the only other country fighting to eliminate the virus has reported six cases so far in 2023.  

“The environmental samples found across Pakistan are genetically linked to Afghanistan,” Naqvi said.  

To counter the spread of the virus through travelers, Naqvi said, polio teams vaccinate children at bus stops and other transit points.   

All of Pakistan’s remaining polio cases this year came from Bannu, a town in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Muhammad Zeeshan Khan, deputy coordinator for the provincial Emergency Operation Center, told VOA all three families had refused to vaccinate their children.   

“We tried a lot to convince them. One child’s family agreed to giving polio drops but the child had not received an [initial] injection [to build immunity]. This [refusal] is the reason that all three children succumbed to paralysis.” Khan said the families worried the vaccine might harm their children.  

Parents’ refusal to give the oral polio vaccine to their children is one of the primary reasons polio virus still exists in Pakistan.   

Polio workers and the security personnel protecting them frequently come under lethal attacks from parents and militants who see the vaccination drive as part of a foreign conspiracy to render Pakistani children impotent or to give them ingredients not permissible for Muslims to consume.

Provincial officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recorded more than 16,000 refusals in October. According to Khan, Peshawar, the provincial capital, recorded nearly 8000 refusals followed by Bannu, and North Waziristan where most of Pakistan’s polio cases were recorded last year.  

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recorded 14 incidents of violence against polio teams this year.   

To counter such misconceptions, authorities have been engaging local clerics and influencers, and running expensive TV and radio campaigns to convince parents to vaccinate their children.   

Still, other parents refuse and bargain for unmet civic needs. The National Emergency Operation Center’s plans for the latest campaign show several communities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have refused to vaccinate their children until gas, roads or teachers are provided.  

“For us, the biggest concern is the child whose family has refused [to vaccinate],” said Khan.  

In any campaign cycle thousands of children are also “missed” because they are not home, or the family is unwilling to allow the vaccination team inside if a male member of the household is not present.  

Data shows over 13 percent of children in Quetta, Baluchistan’s provincial capital, missed getting the vaccine last time. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, nearly 1.2 percent of children or more than 90,000 were missed as well.  

However, Khan said many of the missed children get vaccinated as guests in whichever community they are temporarily present.   

In Quetta too, nearly half the children who were missed at one point were eventually covered, according to data.  

Still, in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan that border Afghanistan the vaccination campaign will either be conducted later or postponed indefinitely, primarily due to security reasons.

As hundreds of thousands of polio workers and security personnel go door to door this week in areas facing a high risk of polio, Naqvi is hopeful Pakistan will get closer to eliminating the crippling disease.   

“We are using a positive way of giving the message,” Naqvi said. From posting signs that said “Caution! Your area has polio,” he said, we now say, “we can eliminate polio.”