Fabian Rogers was none too pleased when the landlord of his rent-stabilized Brooklyn high-rise announced plans to swap out key fobs for a facial recognition system.
He had so many questions: What happened if he didn’t comply? Would he be evicted? And as a young black man, he worried that his biometric data would end up in a police lineup without him ever being arrested. Most of the building’s tenants are people of color, he said, and they already are concerned about over policing in their New York neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of scariness that comes with this,” said Rogers, 24, who along with other tenants is trying to legally block his management company from installing the technology.
“You feel like a guinea pig,” Rogers said. “A test subject for this technology.”
Amid privacy concerns and recent research showing racial disparities in the accuracy of facial recognition technology, some city and state officials are proposing to limit its use.
Law enforcement officials say facial recognition software can be an effective crime-fighting tool, and some landlords say it could enhance security in their buildings. But civil liberties activists worry that vulnerable populations such as residents of public housing or rent-stabilized apartments are at risk for law enforcement overreach.
“This is a very dangerous technology,” said Reema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Facial recognition is different from other technologies. You can identify someone from afar. They may never know. And you can do it on a massive scale.
”The earliest forms of facial recognition technology originated in the 1990s, and local law enforcement began using it in 2009. Today, its use has expanded to companies such as Facebook and Apple.
Such software uses biometrics to read the geometry of faces found in a photograph or video and compare the images to a database of other facial images to find a match. It’s used to verify personal identity — the FBI, for example, has access to 412 million facial images.
“Our industry certainly needs to do a better job of helping educate the public how the technology works and how it’s used,” said Jake Parker, senior director of government relations for the Security Industry Association, a trade association based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“Any technology has the potential to be misused,” Parker said. “But in the United States, we have a number of constitutional protections that limit what the government can do.”
A 2018 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the software more often misidentifies darker-skinned people, particularly women of color, raising concerns about bias built into the technology. The study found the software had an error rate of 34.7% for darker-skinned women, compared with 0.8% for lighter-skinned men.
This year several cities — San Francisco; Somerville, Massachusetts; andOakland, California — became the first to ban municipal departments, including police and housing agencies, from using facial recognition technology. And this year, lawmakers in at least 10 states introduced bills to ban or delay the use of the technology by government agencies and businesses.
“We’re concerned about government overreach,” Michigan state Rep. IsaacRobinson, a Democrat who sponsored one of the bills, told Stateline. “And preserving our right to walk freely down the street without having our faces scanned.”
A handful of private apartment complexes in New York have started using the technology. But for now, few public housing complexes seem to be embracing facial recognition software, said Adrianne Todman, CEO of the NationalAssociation of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.
In Detroit, one public housing complex uses live cameras as part of the citywide surveillance system Project Green Light Detroit. Images from those cameras could be loaded into the Detroit Police Department’s facial recognition software.
Agencies rely more on cameras and security personnel to manage safety issues in their communities, Todman said. “They also rely on information they get from residents, who often are the most informed about what’s happening on their floors, in their buildings and in their neighborhoods.”
In May, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, a Detroit native, was asked about the use of the technology in public housing by U.S.Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat also from Detroit.
“I oppose the inappropriate use of it,” Carson said. He did not specify what use he considered inappropriate.
HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said facial recognition technology in public housing was a local issue and that he wouldn’t comment beyond Carson’s testimony at the hearing.
Two weeks ago, Tlaib introduced a bill that would ban facial recognition software from public housing, along with a bill that would ban federal purchases of the technology. A third bill introduced in the House by U.S. Rep.Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, would prohibit federal agencies from using facial recognition technology without a court order.
“You can identify someone from afar. They may never know. And you can do it ona massive scale.
“In July, Michigan lawmakers introduced two bills. One would place a five-year moratorium on facial recognition technology while another would ban it outright.
Vermont and Washington state lawmakers introduced bills this year to curb police use of the technology. California lawmakers introduced a bill to require businesses using facial recognition software to alert their customers.
In New York, a package of bills focuses on the use of facial recognition in housing. One bill would ban biometric and facial recognition software from being used in federally funded public housing. Another bill would bar landlords from installing the technology on “any residential premises.”
Project Green Light
Three years ago, Detroit launched Project Green Light Detroit, an $8 million surveillance system that uses live cameras in schools, gas stations, churches, medical centers and liquor stores to deter crime and improve police response times.
The city installed Project Green Light cameras in more than 500 locations with little fanfare. In May, though, a Georgetown University study found the city used facial recognition software, in conjunction with Project Green Light cameras, to make arrests.
“No longer is video surveillance limited to what happens,” the study found,“it may now identify who is going where, doing what, at any point in time.
”The study found live cameras were tracking the movements of tenants in apartment buildings and even patients coming and going from a medical center, which Detroit Police Chief James Craig denied in an interview with Stateline. Craig said his department does not use facial recognition software to track people.
The city started using the cameras in areas with high crime rates, such as gas stations and outside liquor stores. But earlier this year, public housing officials installed Project Green Light cameras in a senior citizens’ community, said Sandra Henriquez, executive director of the Detroit HousingCommission. She said the cameras themselves are not equipped with facial recognition software.
“People seem to conflate the issue,” Henriquez said. “I have video surveillance equipment. I do not have facial recognition software in any ofour properties. I want to make that crystal clear.
”Asked whether she had concerns about the technology, Henriquez said, “I would not say there are concerns. It is a technology, as a landlord, I do not need.I understand, in certain circumstances and applications, there might be a need. But not what happens on my property at this point.”
Henriquez said she has no intention of installing facial recognition software in any of the public housing units and has no plans to install Project GreenLight in other city housing complexes.
The cameras were installed at the behest of tenants, said Craig, the police chief. He said the city has used facial recognition 500 times in the past year to identify suspects. A positive identification was made in about a third of the cases.
“The thing that’s being lost in the conversations, whether it’s cameras or facial recognition, no one talks about the victims,” Craig said. “It’s almost as though the victims don’t count.”
The police take a snapshot from Project Green Light cameras and enter it into the software, which generates photos gleaned from mug books, ranks the photos, and identifies likely matches.
Craig said after the software identifies a possible match, two analysts trained in biometrics by the FBI study the photograph. If they think they’ve made a positive match, they then run it by a supervisor, who turns the photograph over to prosecutors.
A positive match from facial recognition software is not sufficient to charge a suspect with a crime, Craig said.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed that using facial recognition would have garnered such a vitriolic response,” he said.
Unlocking the Door
Last fall, Nelson Management Group informed tenants of Atlantic Plaza — the rent-stabilized, middle-income complex in Brooklyn where Fabian Rogers lives —it planned to replace key fobs with facial recognition software.
The system would be next to the doors, according to Colleen Dunlap, CEO ofStoneLock, which manufactures the technology. Tenants could be scanned in through an automatic door without touching anything.
But tenants would not be tracked using the StoneLock system, Dunlap said in an emailed statement. “We work hard to protect user privacy.”
Rogers and other tenants objected because surveillance cameras were already on the property, along with security guards and a doorman. They filed a legal action with the state’s Homes and Community Renewal agency, which oversees rent-stabilized housing.
“The sole goal of implementing this technology is to advance that priority and support the safety and security of residents,” Chris Santarelli, a spokesman for the Nelson Management Group, said in an emailed statement.
Rogers, who’s lived in the building for over a decade, remains unconvinced.
“I have no control over where this information goes,” Rogers said.“So we’re going to keep fighting.”
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How Google took on China—and lost
Google’s first foray into Chinese markets was a short-lived experiment. Google China’s search engine was launched in 2006 and abruptly pulled from mainland China in 2010 amid a major hack of the company and disputes over censorship of search results. But in August 2018, the investigative journalism website The Intercept reported that the company was working on a secret prototype of a new, censored Chinese search engine, called Project Dragonfly. Amid a furor from human rights activists and some Google employees, US Vice President Mike Pence called on the company to kill Dragonfly, saying it would “strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers.” In mid-December, The Intercept reported that Google had suspended its development efforts in response to complaints from the company’s own privacy team, who learned about the project from the investigative website’s reporting.
Observers talk as if the decision about whether to reenter the world’s largest market is up to Google: will it compromise its principles and censor search the way China wants? This misses the point—this time the Chinese government will make the decisions.
Google and China have been locked in an awkward tango for over a decade, constantly grappling over who leads and who follows. Charting that dance over the years reveals major shifts in China’s relationship with Google and all of Silicon Valley. To understand whether China will let Google back in, we must understand how Google and China got here, what incentives each party faces—and how artificial intelligence might have both of them dancing to a new tune.
The right thing to do?
When www.google.cn launched in 2006, the company had gone public only two years before. The iPhone did not yet exist, nor did any Android-based smartphones. Google was about one-fifth as large and valuable as it is today, and the Chinese internet was seen as a backwater of knockoff products that were devoid of innovation. Google’s Chinese search engine represented the most controversial experiment to date in internet diplomacy. To get into China, the young company that had defined itself by the motto “Don’t be evil” agreed to censor the search results shown to Chinese users.
Central to that decision by Google leadership was a bet that by serving the market—even with a censored product—they could broaden the horizons of Chinese users and nudge the Chinese internet toward greater openness.
At first, Google appeared to be succeeding in that mission. When Chinese users searched for censored content on google.cn, they saw a notice that some results had been removed. That public acknowledgment of internet censorship was a first among Chinese search engines, and it wasn’t popular with regulators.
“The Chinese government hated it,” says Kaiser Kuo, former head of international communications for Baidu. “They compared it to coming to my house for dinner and saying, ‘I will agree to eat the food, but I don’t like it.’” Google hadn’t asked the government for permission before implementing the notice but wasn’t ordered to remove it. The company’s global prestige and technical expertise gave it leverage. China might be a promising market, but it was still dependent on Silicon Valley for talent, funding, and knowledge. Google wanted to be in China, the thinking went, but China needed Google.
Google’s censorship disclaimer was a modest victory for transparency. Baidu and other search engines in China soon followed suit. Over the next four years, Google China fought skirmishes on multiple fronts: with the Chinese government over content restrictions, with local competitor Baidu over the quality of search results, and with its own corporate leadership in Mountain View, California, over the freedom to adapt global products for local needs. By late 2009, Google controlled more than a third of the Chinese search market—a respectable share but well below Baidu’s 58%, according to data from Analysys International.
In the end, though, it wasn’t censorship or competition that drove Google out of China. It was a far-reaching hacking attack known as Operation Aurora that targeted everything from Google’s intellectual property to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. The attack, which Google said came from within China, pushed company leadership over the edge. On January 12, 2010, Google announced, “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”
The sudden reversal blindsided Chinese officials. Most Chinese internet users could go about their online lives with few reminders of government controls, but the Google announcement shoved cyberattacks and censorship into the spotlight. The world’s top internet company and the government of the most populous country were now engaged in a public showdown.
“[Chinese officials] were really on their back foot, and it looked like they might cave and make some kind of accommodation,” says Kuo. “All of these people who apparently did not give much of a damn about internet censorship before were really angry about it. The whole internet was abuzz with this.”
But officials refused to cede ground. “China welcomes international Internet businesses developing services in China according to the law,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman told Reuters at the time. Government control of information was—and remains—central to Chinese Communist Party doctrine. Six months earlier, following riots in Xinjiang, the government had blocked Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube in one fell swoop, fortifying the “Great Firewall.” The government was making a bet: China and its technology sector did not need Google search to succeed.
Google soon abandoned google.cn, retreating to a Hong Kong–based search engine. In response, the Chinese government decided not to fully block services like Gmail and Google Maps, and for a while it allowed sporadic access from the mainland to the Hong Kong search engine too. The two sides settled into a tense stalemate.
Google’s leaders seemed prepared to wait it out. “I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of [censorship],” Google chairman Eric Schmidt told Foreign Policy in 2012. “In a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely.”
But instead of languishing under censorship, the Chinese internet sector boomed. Between 2010 and 2015, there was an explosion of new products and companies. Xiaomi, a hardware maker now worth over $40 billion, was founded in April 2010. A month earlier Meituan, a Groupon clone that turned into a juggernaut of online-to-offline services, was born; it went public in September 2018 and is now worth about $35 billion. Didi, the ride-hailing company that drove Uber out of China and is now challenging it in international markets, was founded in 2012. Chinese engineers and entrepreneurs returning from Silicon Valley, including many former Googlers, were crucial to this dynamism, bringing world-class technical and entrepreneurial chops to markets insulated from their former employers in the US. Older companies like Baidu and Alibaba also grew quickly during these years.
The Chinese government played contradictory roles in this process. It cracked down on political speech in 2013, imprisoning critics and instituting new laws against “spreading rumors” online—a one-two punch that largely suffocated political discussion on China’s once-raucous social-media sites. Yet it also launched a high-profile campaign promoting “mass entrepreneurship and mass innovation.” Government-funded startup incubators spread across the country, as did government-backed venture capital.
That confluence of forces brought results. Services like Meituan flourished. So did Tencent’s super-app WeChat, a “digital Swiss Army knife” that combines aspects of WhatsApp, PayPal, and dozens of other apps from the West. E-commerce behemoth Alibaba went public on the New York Stock Exchange in September 2014, selling $25 billion worth of shares—still the most valuable IPO in history.
Amidst this home-grown success, the Chinese government decided to break the uneasy truce with Google. In mid-2014, a few months before Alibaba’s IPO, the government blocked virtually all Google services in China, including many considered essential for international business, such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Scholar. “It took us by surprise, as we felt Google was one of those valuable properties [that they couldn’t afford to block],” says Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous cofounder of GreatFire, an organization that tracks and circumvents Chinese internet controls.
The Chinese government had pulled off an unexpected hat trick: locking out the Silicon Valley giants, censoring political speech, and still cultivating an internet that was controllable, profitable, and innovative.
AlphaGo your own way
With the Chinese internet blossoming and the government not backing down, Google began to search for ways back into China. It tried out less politically sensitive products—an “everything but search” strategy—but with mixed success.
In 2015, rumors swirled that Google was close to bringing its Google Play app store back to China, pending Chinese government approval—but the promised app store never materialized. This was followed by a partnership with Mobvoi, a Chinese smart-watch maker founded by an ex-Google employee, to make voice search available on Android Wear in China. Google later invested in Mobvoi, its first direct investment in China since 2010.
In March 2017, there were reports that authorities would allow Google Scholar back in. They didn’t. Reports that Google would launch a mobile-app store in China together with NetEase, a Chinese company, similarly came to naught, though Google was permitted to relaunch its smartphone translation app.
Then, in May 2017, a showdown between AlphaGo, the Go-playing program built by Google sibling company DeepMind, and Ke Jie, the world’s number one human player, was allowed to take place in Wuzhen, a tourist town outside Shanghai. AlphaGo won all three games in the match—a result that the government had perhaps foreseen. Live-streaming of the match within China was forbidden, and not only in the form of video: as the Guardian put it, “outlets were banned from covering the match live in any way, including text commentary, social media, or push notifications.” DeepMind broadcast the match outside China.
During this same period, Chinese censors quietly rolled back some of the openings that Google’s earlier China operations had catalyzed. In 2016, Chinese search engines began removing the censorship disclaimers that Google had pioneered. In 2017, the government launched a new crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs), software widely used for circumventing censorship. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities began rolling out extensive AI-powered surveillance technologies across the country, constructing what some called a “21st-century police state” in the western region of Xinjiang, home to the country’s Muslim Uighurs.
Despite the retrograde climate, Google capped off 2017 with a major announcement: the launch of a new AI research center in Beijing. Google Cloud’s Chinese-born chief scientist, Fei-Fei Li, would oversee the new center. “The science of AI has no borders,” she wrote in the announcement of the center’s launch. “Neither do its benefits.” (Li left Google in September 2018 and returned to Stanford University, where she is a professor.)
If the research center was a public symbol of Google’s continued efforts to gain a foothold in China, Google was also working quietly to accommodate Chinese government restrictions. Dragonfly, the censored- search-engine prototype, which has been demonstrated for Chinese officials, blacklists key search terms; it would be operated as part of a joint venture with an unnamed Chinese partner. The documents The Intercept obtained said the app would still tell users when results had been censored.
Other aspects of the project are particularly troubling. Prototypes of the app reportedly link users’ searches to their mobile-phone number, opening the door to greater surveillance and possibly arrest if people search for banned material.
In a speech to the Dragonfly team, later leaked by The Intercept, Ben Gomes, Google’s head of search, explained Google’s aims. China, he said, is “arguably the most interesting market in the world today.” Google was not just trying to make money by doing business in China, he said, but was after something bigger. “We need to understand what is happening there in order to inspire us,” he said. “China will teach us things that we don’t know.”
In early December, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told a Congressional committee that “right now we have no plans to launch in China,” though he would not rule out future plans. The question is, if Google wants to come back to China, does China want to let it in?
To answer that question, try thinking like an advisor to President Xi Jinping.
Bringing Google search back certainly has upsides. China’s growing number of knowledge workers need access to global news and research, and Baidu is notoriously bad at turning up relevant results from outside China. Google could serve as a valuable partner to Chinese companies looking to expand internationally, as it has demonstrated in a patent-sharing partnership with Tencent and a $550 million investment in e-commerce giant JD. Google’s reentry would also help legitimize the Communist Party’s approach to internet governance, a signal that China is an indispensable market—and an open one—as long as you “play by the rules.”
But from the Chinese government’s perspective, these potential upsides are marginal. Chinese citizens who need to access the global internet can still usually do so through VPNs (though it is getting harder). Google doesn’t need to have a business in China to help Chinese internet giants gain business abroad. And the giants of Silicon Valley have already ceased their public criticism of Chinese internet censorship, and instead extol the country’s dynamism and innovation.
By contrast, the political risks of permitting Google to return loom large to Xi and his inner circle. Hostility toward both China and Silicon Valley is high and rising in American political circles. A return to China would put Google in a political pressure cooker. What if that pressure—via antitrust action or new legislation—effectively forced the company to choose between the American and Chinese markets? Google’s sudden exit in 2010 marked a major loss of face for the Chinese government in front of its own citizens. If Chinese leaders give the green light to Project Dragonfly, they run the risk of that happening again.
A savvy advisor would be likely to think that these risks—to Xi, to the Communist Party, and to his or her own career—outweighed the modest gains to be had from allowing Google’s return. The Chinese government oversees a technology sector that is profitable, innovative, and driven largely by domestic companies—an enviable position to be in. Allowing Google back in would only diminish its leverage. Better, then, to stick with the status quo: dangle the prospect of full market access while throwing Silicon Valley companies an occasional bone by permitting peripheral services like translation.
Google does have one factor in its favor. If it first entered China during the days of desktop internet, and departed at the dawn of the mobile internet, it is now trying to reenter in the era of AI. The Chinese government places high hopes on AI as an all-purpose tool for economic activity, military power, and social governance, including surveillance. And Google and its Alphabet sibling DeepMind are the global leaders in corporate AI research.
This is probably why Google has held publicity stunts like the AlphaGo match and an AI-powered “Guess the Sketch” game on WeChat, as well as taking more substantive steps like establishing the Beijing AI lab and promoting Chinese use of TensorFlow, an artificial-intelligence software library developed by the Google Brain team. Taken together, these efforts constitute a sort of artificial-intelligence lobbying strategy designed to sway the Chinese leadership.
This pitch, however, faces problems on at least three battlegrounds: Beijing; Washington, DC; and Mountain View, California.
Chinese leaders have good reason to feel they’re already getting the best of both worlds. They can take advantage of software development tools like TensorFlow and they still have a prestigious Google research lab to train Chinese AI researchers, all without granting Google market access.
In Washington, meanwhile, American security officials are annoyed that Google is actively courting a geopolitical rival while refusing to work with the Pentagon on AI projects because its employees object to having their work used for military ends.
Those employees are the key to the third battleground. They’ve demonstrated the ability to mobilize quickly and effectively, as with the protests against US defense contracts and a walkout last November over how the company has dealt with sexual harassment. In late November more than 600 Googlers signed an open letter demanding that the company drop the Dragonfly project, writing, “We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable.” Daunting as these challenges sound—and high as the costs of pursuing the Chinese market may be—they haven’t entirely deterred Google’s top brass. Though the development of Dragonfly appears to have, at the very least, paused, the wealth and dynamism that make China so attractive to Google also mean the decision of whether or not to do business there is no longer the company’s to make.
“I know people in Silicon Valley are really smart, and they’re really successful because they can overcome any problem they face,” says Bill Bishop, a digital-media entrepreneur with experience in both markets. “I don’t think they’ve ever faced a problem like the Chinese Communist Party.”
Matt Sheehan is a fellow at MacroPolo and worked with Kai-Fu Lee on his book AI Superpowers.
All the reasons 2018 was a breakout year for DNA data
Genetic IQ tests. DNA detective work. Virtual drug trials. These were some of the surprising new uses of DNA information that emerged over the last 12 months as genetic studies became larger than ever before.
Think back to 2003. We had just decoded the first human genome, and scientists still spent their time searching for very specific gene errors that cause quite serious inherited problems, like muscular dystrophy. Now, though, we’re dealing with information on millions of genomes. And the gene hunts are not only bigger—they’re fundamentally different. They’re starting to unearth the genetic roots of common illnesses and personality traits, and they’re making genetic privacy all but impossible.
Here are the trends you need to know, from MIT Technology Review’s own coverage over the last year.
Consumers: It’s all about genetic data. Now it’s being collected on millions of people, in national efforts and commercial ones too.
Last February, we reported that 12 million people had already taken consumer DNA tests. Since that figure has been reliably doubling every year, it’s probably up to 25 million by now. In fact, DNA reports are now a mass-appeal item. During the Thanksgiving weekend, the gene test from AncestryDNA, which tells people where their ancestors are from, was among the top-selling items.
Big data: To understand the genome, scientists say, they need to study as many people as they can, all at once. In 2018, several gene hunts broke the million-person mark for the first time. These included searches for the genetic bases of insomnia and educational success. To do it, researchers tapped national biobanks and also got help from 23andMe, the popular gene test company, whose users can sign up to participate in research.
Polygenic scores: Some diseases are due to a single gene that goes wrong. But big killers like heart disease aren’t like that—instead, they’re influenced by hundreds of genetic factors. That’s why a new way of predicting risks from a person’s entire genome was the most important story of the year (see polygenic scores on our 10 Breakthrough Technologies list). The new scores can handicap a person’s odds of breast cancer, of getting through college, or even of being tall enough for the NBA. In 2019, keep an eye on gene-test companies like 23andMe and Color Genomics to see if they launch such gene predictions commercially.
Genetic IQ tests: Genes don’t affect just what we look like, but who we are. Now some scientists say these same DNA scores can offer a decent guess at how smart a kid will be later in life. The unanswered question: how we should use this information, if at all?
Testing embryos: Yes, it’s probably going to be exactly like that sci-fi movie Gattaca, the one about a world where parents pick their kids from a petri dish. Already, IVF centers run gene tests and let parents pick embryos to avoid certain serious disease risks. Now Genomic Prediction, a New Jersey company we exclusively covered in 2017, says it’s ready to begin testing embryos to grade their future educational potential. So forget CRISPR babies—designer kids are already here.
Racial bias: Here’s something that’s not so great: about 80% of the DNA ever analyzed is from white people of European ancestry. It means some new discoveries and commercial tests only work in white people and don’t apply to Africans, Asians, Latinos, or others ancestry groups whose genetic patterns differ. There are good scientific reasons to expand the gene hunt, says Stanford University geneticist Carlos D. Bustamante. We may be missing health breakthroughs by looking too narrowly.
Mimicking clinical trials: Did you know you’re part of a gigantic, random experiment? It’s true. Or at least some geneticists see you that way. And now they’ve come up with a very clever trick called Mendelian randomization that uses people’s medical information to predict which new drugs will work for them and which won’t.
Crime fighters: The more DNA data is out there, the easier it is to find out who a drop of blood or a hair follicle belongs to. That’s what the Golden State Killer learned in April, when he was caught by sleuths employing an informal collection of DNA profiles and genealogical trees. In fact, the way the math works out, genetic anonymity is kaput—sine pretty much all of us have a relative in a DNA database already. One genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, told us that she’s identified 27 murderers and rapists since April. A very good year.
The day I tasted climate change
In early November, gale-force winds whipped a brush fire into an inferno that nearly consumed the town of Paradise, California, and killed at least 86 people.
By the second morning, I could smell the fire from one foot outside my door in Berkeley, some 130 miles from the flames. Within a week, my eyes and throat stung even when I was indoors.
Air quality maps warned that the soot-filled air blanketing the Bay Area had reached “very unhealthy” levels. For days, nearly everyone wore masks as they walked their dogs, rode the train, and carried out errands. Most of those thin-paper respirators were of dubious value. Stores quickly ran out of the good ones—the “N-95s” that block 95% of fine particles—and sold out of air purifiers, too.
People traded tips about where they could be found, and rushed to stores rumored to have a new supply. Others packed up and drove hours away in search of a safe place to wait it out. By the time my masks arrived by mail, I was in Ohio, having decided to move up my Thanksgiving travel to escape the smoke.
Climate change doesn’t ignite wildfires, but it’s intensifying the hot, dry summer conditions that have helped fuel some of California’s deadliest and most destructive fires in recent years.
I’ve long understood that the dangers of global warming are real and rising. I’ve seen its power firsthand in the form of receding glaciers, dried lake beds, and Sierra tree stands taken down by bark beetles.
This is the first time, though, that I smelled and tasted it in my home.
Obviously, a sore throat and a flight change are trivial compared with the lives and homes lost in the Camp Fire. But after I spent a week living under a haze of smoke, it did resonate on a deeper level that we’re really going to let this happen.
Thousands if not millions of people are going to starve, drown, burn to death, or live out lives of misery because we’ve failed to pull together in the face of the ultimate tragedy of the commons. Many more will find themselves scrambling for basic survival goods and fretting over the prospect of more fires, more ferocious hurricanes, and summer days of blistering heat.
There’s no solving climate change any longer. There’s only living with it and doing everything in our power to limit the damage.
And seeing an entire community near one of the world’s richest regions all but wiped out, while retailers failed to meet critical public needs in the aftermath, left me with a dimmer view of our ability to grapple with the far greater challenges to come.
Some observers believe that once the world endures enough climate catastrophes, we’ll finally come to our collective senses and make some last-minute push to address the problem. But for many, that will be too late.
Carbon dioxide takes years to reach its full warming effect and persists for millennia. We may well have already emitted enough to sail past a dangerous 1.5 ˚C of warming. And at the rate we’re going, it could take hundreds of years to shift to a global energy system that doesn’t pump out far more climate pollution—every ton of which only makes the problem worse.
President Barack Obama’s top science advisor, John Holdren, once said that our options for dealing with climate change are cutting emissions, adapting (building, say, higher seawalls or city cooling centers), and suffering.
Since we’re utterly failing in the first category, far more of the job will inevitably come down to the latter two. By choosing not to deal with the root cause, we’ve opted to deal with the problem in the most expensive, shortsighted, destructive, and cruel way possible.
We could have overhauled the energy system. Instead we’ll have to overhaul almost every aspect of life: expanding emergency response, building more hospitals, fortifying our shorelines, upgrading our building materials, reengineering the way we grow and distribute food, and much more.
And even if we pay the high price to do all that, we’ll still have worse outcomes than if we had tackled the core problem in the first place. We’ve decided to forever diminish our quality of life, sense of security, and collective odds of living out happy and healthy lives. And we’ve done it not just for ourselves, but for our children and foreseeable future generations.
Uneven and unfair
The devastation from climate change will manifest in different ways in different places, in highly uneven and unfair ways: severe drought and famine across much of Africa and Australia, shrinking water supplies for the billions who rely on the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, and the threat of forced displacement for at least tens of millions exposed to rising sea levels in South Asia.
In California, higher temperatures, declining snowpack, and shifting precipitation patterns mean more people already live under the threat of droughts and fires.
I’ve smelled or spotted four major blazes in the last two years. This July, a close friend and her pregnant sister sped down Interstate 580, through the Altamont Pass, as flames raged on both sides. Another friend raced into Paradise to evacuate her father on the morning that the Camp Fire tore through the town. Still another sifted ashes in the remnants of homes a few days later, looking for bone fragments and other human remains as part of a local search and rescue team.
Global warming has already doubled the area scorched by forest fires during the last three decades across the American West, according to an earlier study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. By midcentury, that footprint could swell again by a multiple of two to six, according to the recent US National Climate Assessment (see “Cutting emissions could prevent tens of thousands of heat deaths annually”).
None of this is a defense for throwing up our hands—it’s an argument for redoubling our efforts. Even if we’re not going to “solve” climate change, we’re going to have to work feverishly to manage it, like a chronic disease. We need to learn to live with the symptoms while finding ways to keep them from getting worse.
Every additional gigaton of greenhouse gas we put into the atmosphere from this point forward only increases the economic costs, ecosystem devastation, and human suffering.
So the question is: What’s it going to take to finally bring about the public policies, accelerated innovation, and collective will needed to force rapid change?
One hopes that as climate change becomes increasingly undeniable, and its effects come to feel like real and immediate threats to our well-being, people will demand that our leaders and industries take aggressive action.
Research has found that experiencing higher temperatures and extreme weather events is correlated with greater belief in or concern about climate change. And younger people, who are staring at a much grimmer future, are considerably more likely to believe that climate change is real and action is required—even among millennial Republicans in the US.
But as I watched the death count rise from simultaneous infernos across California last month, it struck me that another possibility was just as plausible: the destruction of climate change will overwhelm society in ways that make us less likely to undertake the sacrifices necessary for a safer future.
We’re likely to face a shrinking economy, skyrocketing emergency response costs, and a staggering price tag for adaptions measures like seawalls—all while we still need to race to zero emissions as quickly as possible.
People may dig deep for certain adaptions that promise to improve their security immediately—but the perceived return on investments into cutting emissions could shrink as extreme weather becomes more common and costly. That’s because, again, carbon dioxide works on a time delay, and the problem only stops getting worse—doesn’t disappear—once we’ve reached zero emissions (unless we figure out how to suck massive amounts of it from the atmosphere as well).
As more of our money, time, and energy gets sucked up by the immediate demands of overlapping tragedies, I fear people may become less willing to invest increasingly limited resources in the long-term common good.
Put another way, one paradoxical impact of climate change is that it could make many even more reluctant to take it on.
Worse to come
When I started writing seriously about climate change a little more than five years ago, the dangers largely seemed distant and abstract. Without realizing it, most of this time I’ve carried along an assumption that we will somehow, eventually, confront the problem in a meaningful way. We don’t have a choice. So sooner or later, we’ll do the right thing.
But after two years closely reporting and writing on clean energy technologies here, it has slowly dawned on me that, well, maybe not. While we absolutely could accomplish much of the necessary transformation with existing or emerging technologies, the sheer scale of the overhaul required and the depth of the entrenched interests may add up to insurmountable levels of inertia.
So the Camp Fire and its aftermath didn’t singlehandedly push me from optimism to pessimism. The more I’ve come to understand the true parameters of the problem, the more I’ve tilted toward the dire side of the spectrum.
But the surreal scene of high-paid workers walking through the murky yellow air of downtown San Francisco, masks inadvertently color-coordinated with their earbuds in the capital of techno-utopianism, certainly widened my frame of the possible—and felt like a taste of things to come.
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