Health and Infectious Disease Evidence File

Nov18: Health and Infectious Disease: Indicators and Surprises
Why Is This Information Valuable?
Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology”, by the US National Academy of Sciences
This new report provides more specific information on the nature of a developing threat.

“Synthetic biology expands what is possible in creating new weapons. It also expands the range of actors who could undertake such efforts and decreases the time required.”

“Based on this study’s analysis of the potential ways in which synthetic biology approaches and tools may be misused to cause harm, the following specific observations were made:

“Of the potential capabilities assessed, three currently warrant the most concern: (1) re-creating known pathogenic viruses, (2) making existing bacteria more dangerous, and (3) using microbes to make harmful biochemicals “

“With regard to pathogens, synthetic biology is expected to (1) expand the range of what could be produced, including making bacteria and viruses more harmful; (2) decrease the amount of time required to engineer such organisms; and (3) expand the range of actors who could undertake such efforts. The creation and manipulation of pathogens is facilitated by increasingly accessible technologies and starting materials, including DNA sequences in public databases. A wide range of pathogen characteristics could be explored as part of such efforts.”

“With regard to chemicals, biochemicals, and toxins, synthetic biology blurs the line between chemical and biological weapons. High-potency molecules that can be produced through simple genetic pathways are of greatest concern, because they could conceivably be developed with modest resources and organizational footprint.”

“It may be possible to use synthetic biology to modulate human physiology in novel ways. These ways include physiological changes that differ from the typical effects of known pathogens and chemical agents. Synthetic biology expands the landscape by potentially allowing the delivery of biochemical by a biological agent and by potentially allowing the engineering of the microbiome or immune system…Although unlikely today, these types of manipulations may become more feasible as knowledge of complex systems, such as the immune system and microbiome, grows.” [Note that this was written before the disclosure of the use of CRISPR technology in China to change human DNA to enhance resistance to smallpox].
Nov 18:Energy and the Environment: Indicators and Surprises
Why Is This Information Valuable?
The new US National Climate Assessment was quietly released the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The Financial Times summarized it as follows: “Climate change could cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars and cause thousands of deaths every year by the end of the century unless there is a global shift to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a federal government report has warned.”

“The latest National Climate Assessment, which the administration is legally required to publish every four years, said the global climate was “changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities”, and was having effects that were already evident in the US and projected to intensify in the future…”

“The largest costs of climate change for the US this century were expected to come from lost ability to work outdoors, heat-related deaths and flooding, the assessment said.”

The U.N. World Meteorological Organization released new projections showing that “global temperatures are on course for a 3 – 5 degrees Celsius (5.4 – 9.0 degrees Fahrenheit rise in this century, far overshooting a global target of limiting the increase to 2c (3.6F) or less.”

However, there also appeared a very thought provoking note in Nature by Xu et al, titled “Global Warming Will Happen Faster than We Think”.

The authors claimed three causes will produce this result: (1) Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising; (2) “Governments are cleaning up air pollution faster than most climate modelers have assumed…Aerosols, nitrates, and organic compounds reflect sunlight and have kept the planet cooler, perhaps by as much as 0.7 degrees Celsius globally”; (3) “There are signs that the planet might be entering a natural warm phase that could last for a couple of decades.”

Most importantly, the authors note that rapid warming will create not only a need for higher spending to mitigate wide range of impacts (e.g., sea level rise), but also “a greater need for emissions policies that yield the quickest change in climate, such as controls on soot, methane, and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases. There might even be a case for solar geoengineering – cooling the planet by, for instance, seeding reflective particles into the stratosphere to act as a sunshade.”

We strongly suspect that this “faster than expected” climate change scenario is not one that many investors have fully taken into account.
The International Energy Agency released its 2018 World Energy Outlook, which provides a number of alternative scenarios for future supply and demand.
Some highlights:

“The profound shift in energy consumption to Asia is felt across all fuels and technologies, as well as in energy investment. Asia makes up half of global growth in natural gas demand, 60% of the rise in wind and solar PV, more than 80% of the increase in oil, and more than 100% of the growth in coal and nuclear (given declines elsewhere)…”

“The energy world is connecting in different ways because of shifting supply, demand and technology trends. International energy trade flows are increasingly drawn to Asia from across the Middle East, Russia, Canada, Brazil and the United States, as Asia’s share of global oil and gas trade rises from around half today to more than two-thirds by 2040…

“Fifteen years ago, European companies dominated the list of the world’s top power companies, measured by installed capacity; now six of the top-ten are Chinese utilities…”

“The electricity sector is experiencing its most dramatic transformation since its creation more than a century ago. Electricity is increasingly the “fuel” of choice in economies that are relying more on lighter industrial sectors, services and digital technologies. Its share in global final consumption is approaching 20% and is set to rise further.”

“Policy support and technology cost reductions are leading to rapid growth in variable renewable sources of generation, putting the power sector in the vanguard of emissions reduction efforts
but requiring the entire system to operate differently in order to ensure reliable supply…[However] today’s power market designs are not always up to the task of coping with rapid changes in the generation mix…this could compromise the reliability of supply if not adequately addressed.”

As is already clear in North America and Western Europe, the many challenges the energy industry must overcome during its transition away from fossil fuels are still very non-trivial (e.g., current grid control technologies struggle when variable generation from wind and solar exceeds roughly 30%, and the integration of the gas and power systems is creating many more potential sources of largescale failures). Moreover, these challenges tend to be poorly understood by both policymakers and the public.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) published a new report, “The Intersection of Global Fragility and Climate Risks
This report’s findings largely replicated those in previous reports on the potential impact of climate change on national security risks by intelligence and defense organizations.

“States with high exposure to climate hazards face multi-faceted challenges, including physical and livelihood risks for the population that may force states to redirect scarce resources to adaptation or humanitarian response efforts and strain the capacity of states that, in many cases, are still solidifying democratic institutions and mechanisms for meeting public needs. Similarly, fragility can affect many aspects of a state’s capacity and legitimacy across its political, economic, social, and security spheres.”

A majority of highly fragile states—26 of the 39 states with the highest or high fragility—have a large number of people or large proportion of the population facing high climate risks.

“States with more than 1 million people living in high exposure areas are mostly located in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and South and Southeast Asia. India stands out with more than 118 million people in high exposure areas, followed by Nigeria with 41 million, Egypt with 33 million, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with 19 million, and Burma with 15 million.”