2020
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Monitor Daily Podcast

September 11, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

To commemorate 9/11, FDNY medal gets renamed after a real hero

When unthinkable terror struck New York City 19 years ago, Fire Chief Peter Ganci Jr. grabbed a hard hat and headed straight for ground zero. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, including hundreds of firefighters. Chief Ganci was among them. But his name will forever live on as a symbol of valor and sacrifice.

This week, the commissioner of the New York City Fire Department announced that the James Gordon Bennett Medal, the department’s highest award for bravery, will be renamed after Chief Ganci. 

The move is a tribute to “a legendary Chief who is still revered by all of us so many years after his death,” Commissioner Daniel Nigro wrote in a social media post announcing the change. But it is also meant as an act of racial justice.

The medal was first awarded in 1869 by publisher James Gordon Bennett to honor the firefighters who saved his home from a blaze. The medal has borne his name ever since. But in life, Bennett espoused many racist views, and used his paper The New York Herald to spread anti-abolitionist rhetoric.

“This award for bravery should not be tied to someone who never served the FDNY, risked his life to save others, and who advocated for hate and slavery,” Commissioner Nigro wrote. “That award should be named for the Chief who was leading our troops on our darkest day, a great man who gave his life overseeing the greatest rescue operation in FDNY history.” 

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Is the economy running fast or slow? It depends where you look.

The U.S. economy really has made a lot of progress since the pandemic caused a spring nosedive. But it's also far from recovered, leaving a sharp divide between booming and struggling sectors.

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Robert F. Bukaty/AP
A woman wears a mask to protect against the spread of the coronavirus while looking at drying racks outside a hardware store in Sanford, Maine, on Sept. 9, 2020. While parts of the economy have recovered from the initial pandemic slowdown this spring, other small businesses such as restaurants remain struggling.

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One reason Congress is struggling with passing a new coronavirus relief bill is that economic recovery is operating at two speeds: forward and a sputtering neutral. 

In places like Montpelier, Vermont, companies like TimberHomes Vermont are booming, with demand surging for everything from its trailhead kiosks to timber-framed cabins. But down the road, businesses that aren’t so geared for this era of social distancing are struggling, including a massage parlor and an art-house cinema that shows independent films. 

So when Congress tries to craft a relief package, it has to consider which picture to look at. For those focused on signs of recovery, a Republican Senate proposal that failed to advance Thursday might have looked just fine: extra unemployment benefits at $300 per week, half the level of the previous round of relief, and added funding for a small-business loan program. 

For those focused on the ongoing deep downturn in certain sectors, the Democrats’ much larger relief package might appear more appropriate. Could the economy recover without any stimulus? That’s a risky premise, according to economists. Says Daniel Zhao at job site Glassdoor: “We don’t want to see the recovery lag when we’re still so deep in the hole.”

Is the economy running fast or slow? It depends where you look.

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Business is booming at TimberHomes Vermont outside Montpelier. Demand for its timber-framed structures – from trailhead kiosks to rustic cabins – is high. In the past two weeks, the company has hired three new workers and is in the process of adding another two to keep up with the surge in demand, boosting the workforce by a quarter.

“We’re definitely firing on all pistons,” says Timo Bradley, one of six member-owners of the company.

But heading into Montpelier, less than a mile down the road, Massage Vermont is temporarily closed while its co-owners try to operate virtual healing sessions using breathing techniques. And in the state capital itself, the Savoy Theater, an art-house cinema showing independent films, is now open only for weekends. On its home page is a link to a national campaign. The message reads: “Tell Congress to #SaveYourCinema.”

Will Congress hear? And if so, which company will it listen to?

In Vermont and across the United States, economic recovery is taking place at two speeds. Some companies are moving, even rocketing, ahead. Others seem stuck in neutral, waiting for pandemic rules to ease or demand to pick back up. And for Congress, faltering in its bid to pass a new coronavirus relief bill, the proper size and scope of the package may hinge on these mixed signals as well as on an ideological divide over economic policies. 

If one looks for signs of recovery, there’s plenty of evidence for it. E-commerce, home-related industries, and goods-producing companies are seeing demand snap back smartly after a dismal spring. 

“For the moment, it looks like households have been able to sustain spending pretty well,” despite the expiration of $600-per-week extra federal benefits to the unemployed, says Jonathan Millar, senior U.S. economist at Barclays Research in New York. 

Thus, the economy might benefit from a small stimulus bill, such as the GOP’s so-called “skinny” rescue package, which failed to advance in the Senate on Thursday.

For those focused on struggling businesses, the House Democrats’ $3 trillion package looks far more appealing. It would provide checks to individuals and offer a cushion of federal aid to companies and state and local governments, buying them more time to recover from the effects of lockdowns and squeezed revenues. 

“We don’t want to see the recovery lag when we’re still so deep in the hole,” says Daniel Zhao, senior economist at Glassdoor, an online job and recruiting site. “It just extends the length of the recovery” toward pre-pandemic employment levels. “And the longer the recovery, the greater the risk that temporary reductions turn into permanent losses.”

Michael Conroy/AP
A help wanted sign is displayed at a Home Depot store in Indianapolis on Sept. 2, 2020. The U.S. unemployment rate has fallen since the spring, but remains severely elevated at 8.4%. Republicans and Democrats in Congress remain far apart on how much additional economic aid the government should provide.

The big question for Congress now is whether the pace of recovery is sustainable without further federal help. And here the evidence is mixed. Not only has consumer demand held up, but corporate earnings have snapped back since the spring, sometimes with surprising speed. 

Whether due to those relatively positive signals or clashing partisan positions, it appears to have grown more difficult for members of Congress to reach a compromise – despite the economy’s parallel signs of severe stress.

“Unfortunately, what has happened is that they’ve taken their foot off the gas because momentum has waned for the urgency of the moment,” says Caroline Bruckner, an American University tax expert who researches women-owned businesses. But “that’s not what I see in my neighborhood. It’s not what I hear when I talk to ... business owners.” 

Within a short walk from her home, she counts at least seven restaurants that have closed permanently since the spring. 

“In every crisis, you’re going to have a population that thrives, right?” Professor Bruckner adds. “But that’s not everybody. And, you know, the data is pretty clear that self-employed workers – who are the smallest of small business owners – are suffering pretty intensely.”

One potential reason that consumer spending looks OK is that the previous round of federal stimulus checks built up a reserve of savings that consumers can now draw on, says Mr. Millar of Barclays Research. A study for the National Bureau of Economic Research found that through early July the recipients of those payments had spent only about 40% of the money. The rest either went to pay off debt or was stashed away in savings accounts.

“It’s not too surprising that it’s 40%,” says Michael Weber, a finance professor at the University of Chicago business school and a co-author of the study. Stimulus checks in previous downturns generated only a slightly higher rate of spending.

The danger is that that saved stimulus will run out and that demand will taper off, economists warn.

If the goal is to stimulate demand, there are more efficient ways to do it, Dr. Weber adds. His study found that low-income families, people out of the labor force, and larger households with children were more apt to spend their stimulus payments than other groups.

The GOP proposal didn’t include new stimulus checks, and instead would have restarted the extra federal payments to the unemployed at $300 per week. For businesses, the bill offered includes liability protection for COVID-19 and a new round of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which offered loans to small businesses and forgave the debt if firms held on to their employees. The House bill included general stimulus checks, extra unemployment benefits at the previous $600 per week rate, an extension of the PPP, and more.

Other stimulus targets might also provide more bang for the buck, the NBER study suggests, such as direct government purchases of goods and services and aid to cash-strapped local and state governments to help prevent them from cutting the services they provide. The latter provision was a feature of the Democratic measure, not the Republican one.

All this suggests that, should the recovery falter or Wall Street plunge to new depths, pressure on Congress to do something will ratchet up and the prospects of a bipartisan compromise would brighten.

But speed is important, analysts say. “Better to have something small now than waiting another four or six weeks,” says Dr. Weber.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

‘Belarus will never be the same again’: How protests are changing expectations

Alexander Lukashenko has ruled a largely static Belarus for 26 years, and his people have had little expectation of change. But a month of protest has reshaped Belarusians’ vision of what their country should be.

Noelle
AP
Women, one of them with her child, speak to police officers during a rally in support of Maria Kolesnikova and other opposition leaders in Minsk, Belarus, Sept. 9, 2020.

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Since the protests against President Alexander Lukashenko’s contested reelection began over a month ago, Belarus has been in a state of limbo. Security forces have tried to crack down on demonstrators and opposition leaders with various approaches, but little lasting effect.

A lasting resolution may depend on Mr. Lukashenko’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. Though Russia is closely tied to Belarus, Mr. Putin has little love for Mr. Lukashenko, who has tended to ask much but give little to the Kremlin.

Regardless of that meeting’s outcome, many Belarusian protesters say that a month of struggle against Mr. Lukashenko’s regime has cleared their minds and changed their perceptions of what they will and won’t accept in future. Whatever happens next, they say, Belarusian society has crossed into new territory.

“We have grown up as a nation,” says Ksenia Turchina, a leader of the student strike committee at Belarusian State University in Minsk. “We’ve seen a real civil society starting to emerge, with people organizing in ways they never did. ... Belarus may change, for better or worse, but it will never be the same again.”

‘Belarus will never be the same again’: How protests are changing expectations

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The impasse in Belarus has blown hot and cold over the past month, ever since people from all walks of life began pouring into the streets to protest an allegedly fraudulent election victory by their longtime leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

Security forces first tried to suppress protests with indiscriminate violence, then backed off and allowed people to rally peacefully. Most recently they have attempted a more targeted approach of rounding up opposition leaders and expelling them from the country. No police measures have worked, and Belarus awaits yet another weekend of massive street protests demanding Mr. Lukashenko’s departure and new, fair elections.

Much may hinge upon a summit between Mr. Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, to be held in Moscow Monday. Russia, which backs Mr. Lukashenko’s reelection claim and upon which Belarus is economically dependent, holds the key to shoring up the country’s collapsing economy and faltering banking system with financial infusions and other aid.

But even without a resolution to the conflict, or even a clear way forward, many Belarusian protesters say that a month of struggle against Mr. Lukashenko’s regime has cleared their minds and changed their perceptions of what they will and won’t accept in future. Whatever happens next, they say, Belarusian society has crossed into new territory.

“During this month we have discovered that we can consolidate, we have grown up as a nation,” says Ksenia Turchina, a leader of the student strike committee at Belarusian State University in Minsk. “We’ve seen a real civil society starting to emerge, with people organizing in ways they never did, with initiatives of mutual assistance, holding creative evenings in the courtyards of residential buildings, many new things. People who never before declared a political position are now speaking out. ...

“Belarus may change, for better or worse, but it will never be the same again.”

“Changes are in store for us”

Belarus, a nation of 10 million on the western fringe of the former Soviet Union, has been politically and economically frozen since Mr. Lukashenko came to power in a free election in 1994. Since then he has stacked the political deck, rigged elections, and tightly controlled the economic levers. Soviet Belarus had a highly developed industrial base, productive agriculture, and a well-educated population that was relatively homogeneous and almost entirely Russian-speaking. Mr. Lukashenko retained state control over the main industrial enterprises, and allowed only limited privatization in other sectors.

As a result many Belarusians remain dependent on the state for their economic security, a fact that has kept Mr. Lukashenko in power through five election cycles – but which may have failed for him this time around.

“Belarusians are not united in their attitude toward Lukashenko,” says Andrei Bastunets, head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. “Part of the population, perhaps a considerable part – including those dependent on the state and security forces – are behind him. Nobody can say what was the true result of the election, or how many actually voted for him. Now there is a perception that the majority did not back him, and the mass demonstrations have made that clear.”

The protests in Minsk and other cities have been impressively huge and filled with enthusiasm, but they may not be an expression of universal will. In past election cycles it was mainly professionals, students, and intellectuals who took to the streets, and their protests petered out due to the failure of agricultural workers and the large working class to join them. This time considerable numbers of workers did join in, and independent union leaders promised a general strike that has yet to materialize.

“Representatives of the creative class, intelligentsia, and business are more inclined to focus on liberation, economic reform, and ensuring political and civic rights,” says Ms. Turchina, the student leader. “For those who are popular with the working class, social reforms and raising living standards are principal concerns. In this situation the opposition has only voiced one program: fair elections and a new president.”

That lack of political planning is related at least partially to the virtually leaderless nature of the protests. During his 26 years in power, Mr. Lukashenko has actively suffocated any sign of emerging civil society, independent political parties, or even public figures who might attract popular trust. Hence, outside of the official ruling circles, there is a distinct shortage of administrative expertise, managerial skill, and political savvy to draw upon. That’s been aggravated by the latest policy of scooping up opposition figures on the streets and deporting them to Poland or Ukraine.

As for those who are not protesting, it is hard to gauge their thinking, in part because many seem reluctant – or afraid – to talk about it.

Natalia Larionova, a medical worker and young mother in the provincial city of Vitebsk, says she is tired of quarreling with her family and friends about politics.

“I work a lot, and my principal concern is my family and my children,” she says. “I am not going to go out into the street and make myself a target, because I see no sense in it. We have good conditions here in Vitebsk for families, including things like subsidies for children under 3, flats provided for families with children, and other benefits. ...

“I suppose changes are in store for us, and we shall have to accept them. But I am not sure about it. Look at the crises in Europe and the U.S., do we want that? I have relatives in Ukraine who say that after all those struggles, it seems like Europe doesn’t even want them. Actually, Russia looks better to me.”

A leery eye on Russia’s involvement

Mr. Lukashenko has courted Russia for financial aid and subsidized energy, and long ago signed on for a “union state” that would eventually lead to full economic integration between Russia and Belarus. He will almost certainly go to Moscow on Monday with his hand out. But in recent years his relationship with the Kremlin has soured because of Mr. Lukashenko’s regular flirtations with the West, his frequent ultimatums to Russia over energy subsidies, and his foot-dragging on Russian demands to open up for Russian investment in Belarus’ closed economy.

Mr. Putin has already pledged military assistance – Russia and Belarus belong to a common NATO-like security alliance – in the event that Belarus is threatened from outside and, more ominously, promised to create a reserve police unit to help restore order if Belarus should face civic breakdown. After a mass walkout of Belarusian television workers, technicians and experts from Russia’s giant state-run RT media conglomerate came in to take their places.

Russian experts say that Mr. Putin’s short-term objective will be to bolster Mr. Lukashenko and prevent any precipitous changes in what the Kremlin regards as a vital “buffer state” between Russia and NATO. That might include assistance to ward off an impending financial crisis in Belarus, which will likely be paid for by major economic concessions by Mr. Lukashenko. In the longer term, the Kremlin is likely to back a process that might rearrange the leadership in Belarus without threatening its pro-Russian geopolitical allegiance.

“Russia will probably push Lukashenko toward constitutional reforms that will make possible fresh elections in a year or so,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Most likely that will be synchronized with some reset of the union state, with a new position opened up for Lukashenko to be shifted to. The main thing will be for Belarus to remain part of the Russian sphere and continue its integration with the Russian economy.”

Many Belarusians say they are leery of Russian involvement, and fear that Moscow’s priorities will not align with those of the Belarusian people.

“I believe that the Kremlin is considering various options to ease Lukashenko out while increasing Russia’s influence in Belarus,” says Yaroslav Romanchuk, a political activist who ran against Mr. Lukashenko in elections 10 years ago and now heads the Mizes Center, a liberal think tank in Minsk. “But Russia needs to find a credible solution, one that does not ignore the will of Belarusian society. Any good plan must include a humanitarian component, that frees political prisoners and punishes the culprits responsible for the past month’s repressions. So far we do not see any Kremlin support for these demands. Supporting Lukashenko is not the way. ...

“Lukashenko’s trip to Moscow may facilitate dialogue, or not. But this conflict isn’t going to die down. The demand is already too strong among Belarusians for freedom, democracy, and revenge.”

Where are the Black geoscientists? Diversity call highlights eco-justice.

An online movement reflects a growing acknowledgment that the scientific study of the Earth and all of its diversity ought to reflect the diversity of the people who live on it.

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Growing up in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, Sandra Boitumelo Phoma never considered becoming a scientist. “When I saw scientists, I saw Einstein. I saw white people,” she says.

Today, however, Ms. Phoma is on the cusp of finishing her doctorate in microbial ecology. “I am aware that I am occupying a space that never had me in mind,” she says. “Scientists work every day with incredibly complex ideas, but we struggle to understand more basic ones like race and power.” 

Many observers argue it is particularly important to have scientists of color in the earth sciences, because around the world, it is communities of color that stand on the front lines of the climate crisis and other environmental emergencies.

This week, thousands of Black geoscientists like Ms. Phoma gathered online for the first Black in Geoscience Week, part of a larger movement to highlight the work of Black people working in the natural sciences.

“Growing up, most of us didn’t have role models to look up to,” says Munira Raji, a Nigerian British geologist at Durham University who helped organize the program. “Now that we’re in the position to be the role models, we want to do something to encourage the next generation.”

Where are the Black geoscientists? Diversity call highlights eco-justice.

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Courtesy of Sandra Boitumelo Phoma
Sandra Boitumelo Phoma, a South African Ph.D. student in microbial biology, says of being a Black earth scientist, "I am aware that I am occupying a space that never had me in mind."

As a child, Sandra Boitumelo Phoma never considered becoming a scientist.

“When I saw scientists, I saw Einstein. I saw white people,” she says. “For me, it felt so far-fetched.”

This was Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, where Black women like her could now aspire to be an engineer or maybe a doctor. She could dream of being a lawyer or a teacher. But a scientist? “That still wasn’t for someone like me,” she says.

Today, however, Ms. Phoma is on the cusp of finishing her doctorate in microbial ecology. She studies what she calls the adventures of the ocean’s microorganisms, whose diversity is a bellwether for that of ocean life more generally, and whose contributions to their ecosystem, she says, are often overlooked by researchers.

If revealing the importance of those organisms lies at the core of her scientific work, equally important is making the world see that this work can be done by people like her.

“I am aware that I am occupying a space that never had me in mind,” she says. “Scientists work every day with incredibly complex ideas, but we struggle to understand more basic ones like race and power.” 

This week, thousands of Black geoscientists like Ms. Phoma gathered on Twitter, Zoom, and YouTube for the first Black in Geoscience Week.

“Growing up, most of us didn’t have role models to look up to, so now that we’re in the position to be the role models, we want to do something to encourage the next generation,” says Munira Raji, a Nigerian British geologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom who co-organized the program with Craig Poku, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Leeds, and Hendratta Ali, a geologist at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. 

Whose outdoors?

Black in Geoscience Week followed in the footsteps of several other “Black in…” weeks on social media in recent months. The trend began in June, with Black Birders Week, organized after a video of a birder named Christian Cooper being threatened in New York’s Central Park by a white woman went viral in May. After that came Black in Chem Week, Black Women in STEM Week, Black in Neuroscience Week, and several others. 

For the scientists who thought up Black in Geoscience, the crisis in their field felt especially acute. In the United States, only 12% of current graduate students in the earth sciences were Black, Indigenous, or people of color as of 2019. Just 3% were Black. And racial minorities as a whole make up only 4% of all tenured or tenure-track professors in the top 100 geosciences programs in the U.S. 

“We wanted a chance to celebrate the work that Black geoscientists are doing, but at the same time to ask why we remain the smallest demographic in the field,” says Dr. Poku. 

That lack of diversity, many argue, speaks to wider cultural stereotypes about who “belongs” in the outdoors – the very kind that led to Mr. Cooper having the police called on him for birding, or made Ms. Phoma question herself throughout her Ph.D. research as her fellow graduate students chatted about the weekends they spent surfing and sailing. 

But many observers argue it is particularly important to have scientists of color in the earth sciences, many of which explore the impacts of climate change, because around the world, it is communities of color that stand on the front lines of that crisis.

Scratching the surface

Long before Ruth Sitienei studied and worked with Kenya’s top scientific minds as a soil scientist, she had another teacher in the field: her father. Growing up on his farm, she learned from him how to conserve nutrients in the soil, and protect their environment from degradation. 

“Even now that I work in the field, I know there is no one who knows a farm better than the farmer,” says Ms. Sitienei, a soil scientist with the Nature Conservancy. “And they are the ones most invested in protecting it.” 

Tiara Moore, a postdoctoral researcher working in soil biodiversity at the University of Washington, says Black geoscientists often make the connection between their research and wider issues of environmental justice much more quickly than their white colleagues, who may not have such direct lived experience with it. 

“When I look at my research questions, I look at them differently,” she says. “I bring a different set of experiences to the table.” 

Courtesy of Dr. Tiara Moore
Dr. Tiara Moore was conducting fieldwork when she says a white woman threatened to call the police on her. Many Black earth scientists say they are often made to feel out of place in their field of study.

On Twitter this week, Black geoscientists shared their research and chatted about their struggles in the field. Many said they had never had a Black mentor or professor. Others noted the loneliness of being the only Black scientist in a department or lab. In a Twitter chat called #Blackinthemud about fieldwork, Dr. Moore shared the experience of a white woman threatening to call the cops on her as she conducted her research.

“These conversations we’re starting to have this week are only scratching the surface,” Dr. Poku says. “But we’re hoping they open a door, and we can continue after this week is over.”

In superheated Arab world, there are AC haves and have-nots

Climate change has long been understood to have strong socioeconomic implications. With Arab world temperature records being shattered this late summer, access to cooling is being seen less as a luxury issue.

Noelle
Raad Adayleh/AP/File
Mohammed Nabouti, a Jordanian technician, fixes the air conditioner of a shop in Amman, Jordan, on March 4, 2013.

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Seeming desperate one morning, Khaled, an accountant, searches an electronics store in Amman that has been emptied of air conditioners, despite sticker prices of up to one month’s salary. “We have held out for years, but our children can’t study or sleep with the heat,” he says.

With temperature records being shattered around the Middle East, Arab societies are being divided into AC haves and have-nots. In August, Baghdad hit 125.2 degrees Fahrenheit. This month Jordan counted 13 days of 105 degree-plus temperatures, its longest recorded heatwave.

Builders in rapidly growing cities have discarded traditional construction methods that kept homes cool even in summer, and experts say the interiors of 75% of Jordanian homes are above the comfort range. “When you are inside the apartment or bedroom in Amman, it is as if you are out on the streets,” says Mohammed Taani of the Jordan Smart Cities Council.

But it’s not just the price of the AC units, it’s the cost of the electricity that keeps them out of reach for many. “I can’t afford [$170] a month for electricity to run an air conditioner,” says Yazeed Deifallah. “I am going to choose putting food on the table over comfort every time.”

In superheated Arab world, there are AC haves and have-nots

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For much of the Arab world, “hot” has taken on a whole new meaning this year.

In August, Baghdad shattered a record set in 2015 by hitting 125.2 degrees Fahrenheit, and followed up with multiple days over 120.

In September, it was the Levant’s turn at record-breaking heat, with Jordan counting 13 days of 105 degrees-plus temperatures, its longest heatwave in recorded history. Amman skirted 110 for multiple days, and the port city of Aqaba registered as the second-hottest place on Earth one day at 120. Eastern Syria hit 122.

Struggling to sleep, walk, or even think in Amman’s oppressive heat, Mohammed Al Farrag finds his only relief is walking into the neighborhood supermarket.

“I just want to cool down,” the Egyptian laborer says as he lifts his shirt by the freezer section.

As experts and the United Nations warn of climate change-induced heatwaves creating a “climate apartheid,” the dividing line between haves and have-nots in the Arab world can be summed up by just two letters: AC.

In the Levant, once home to dry, temperate summer days and cool nights, air conditioning has suddenly gone from an unnecessary luxury to a must have. Yet it is beyond the reach of many.

Seeming desperate late one recent morning, Khaled searches an electronics store in Amman that has been emptied of AC units, despite sticker prices ranging from 350 to 800 Jordanian dinars, or about $490 to $1,100, one month’s salary.

“We have held out for years, but our children can’t study or sleep with the heat,” the accountant says.

Warming pattern

In patterns that scientists say have been exacerbated by climate change, heatwaves in the Levant and North Africa are becoming more frequent, longer, and hotter, leaving millions struggling to keep cool.

“Much of the Middle East and North Africa have warmed since the industrial age,” says Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute.

Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria have warmed about 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, he says, noting that the region is projected to warm a further 1 to 8 degrees over the next 50 years, depending on global emissions.

“This long-term average warming makes it easier to have extreme temperatures outside the historic record become a regularly occurring event,” he says.

Even though a flood of Chinese and Turkish models has lowered the cost of AC units in the region in recent years, the price drop comes at a time that governments in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia have lifted electricity subsidies and even imposed taxes on consumption, making the units several times more expensive to operate.

In other Arab states suffering chronic power outages or shortages – such as Iraq, Syria, and, increasingly, Lebanon – the dividing line has become not only who can afford an air conditioner, but the diesel-powered electric generators to run them.

In Jordan, an average family using an air conditioner can see their monthly electric bill jump from about $70 to $210.

Yazeed Deifallah, a father of two, is one of many Jordanians forced to choose between cooling and necessities.

“I can’t afford [$170] a month for electricity to run an air conditioner,” the father of two says as he drags an electric fan into his apartment on the seventh day of the heatwave.

“If I have to choose between staying cool or putting my daughter in a nursery so my wife and I can work, I am going to choose putting food on the table over comfort every time.”

The 1 percenters

The coronavirus has made this problem worse, too. Before the pandemic, on the hottest days, many working-class citizens in the Arab world would browse aimlessly with their families in air-conditioned malls.

Now closures, indoor capacity restrictions, reduced air-conditioning, and straight-up fear of infection is preventing or discouraging the practice.

Meanwhile, the coldest 1% have air-conditioned homes, remotely activate the AC in their cars before leaving their air-conditioned offices, and are able to manage home electricity bills that can spike above $2,000 a month.

“I know it is expensive, but you can’t put a price on comfort,” says Ali Majed, a Jordanian business owner whose electric bill in the summer is $1,400 a month and who pays a valet to cool his car for him.

And while residents of Iraq and the Levant struggle with the extreme heat, those in the fossil fuel-rich Gulf have taken air conditioning to unprecedented levels.

In preparation for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar is building an outdoor stadium that will pump cold air through outlets underneath each seat and on the sidelines for athletes. In the UAE and Qatar, cold air is pumped onto sidewalks and open air markets so that visitors can enjoy the outdoors despite 60% humidity and 110-degree heat.

New construction

Underlying the AC dividing line is an entrenched socioeconomic inequality that has transformed Arab capitals into megacities with miles of hastily constructed housing.

A lack of job opportunities fueled mass migration to cities; the population of Arab urban centers grew 400% between 1970 and 2010, and is expected to double to 400 million by 2050 – equivalent to the current population of the entire region.

Yet as the cities changed, so too did the way homes were built.

In order to meet the demand for affordable housing, engineers abandoned traditional construction techniques that kept buildings several degrees cooler even in the dog days of summer: with the use of local stone known for its natural insulation, and the placement of windows to maximize airflow.

In a bid to build on every possible inch, engineers ignored the centuries-old practice of positioning buildings to minimize direct sunlight during peak hours.  

In their place rose towering apartment buildings made of concrete, cinder block, asphalt, drywall, and asbestos, with most rooms facing the sun at peak periods with porous insulation.

Experts say the interiors of 75% of Jordanian homes are above the comfort maximum of 75 degrees Fahrenheit indoors during the summer.

“I usually describe it like this: When you are inside the apartment or bedroom in Amman, it is as if you are out on the streets,” says Mohammed Taani, chairman of the Jordan Smart Cities Council and secretary general of the Arab Renewable Energy Society.

“New construction with improper insulation leads to 30% energy and heat loss. This means in extreme temperatures, Jordanians and residents in many Arab cities need AC close to 24/7 in the summer and heating 24/7 in the winter.”

Meanwhile, the mass of concrete and asphalt soaks up solar radiation by day and radiates heat in the evening, creating a “heat island” that offers little nighttime relief for residents.

Office on the street

On a drive through south Amman neighborhoods in August, men stripped down to undershirts and their children sat on balconies or leaned their heads out of windows, desperate for a breeze.

“Most people simply do not have the income for the constant air conditioning or heating needed in these unsustainable homes in extreme weather,” Mr. Taani says.

Another segment of AC have-nots in the Arab world is the 30% to 40% who work outside and in the informal sector – on farms, in workshops, on street corners, and in makeshift garages and tiny shops – and have poor or no access to cooling.

In cities such as Amman, Baghdad, and Damascus, street vendors wilt under the relentless sun.

Hossam sells boiled egg sandwiches from his stand, a prayer rug folded over his head for shade one humid morning.

“We don’t have office jobs for AC,” he says, dabbing his forehead with a wet cloth from his back pocket as he slathers a bun with hot sauce. “We only have one way to keep cool: Think about winter.”

On Film

From ‘I Am Woman’ to ‘Get on Up’: Movies that hit the right note

What does it take to tell the story of someone’s life well? Film critic Peter Rainer uses the occasion of a new biopic about 1970s singer Helen Reddy to look at some of his top choices for movies about singer-performers. 

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Lisa Tomasetti/DDA PR
Tilda Cobham-Hervey stars as 1970s singer Helen Reddy in "I Am Woman" by director Unjoo Moon. The new film is the latest in a long line of movies about singer-performers including Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in “Judy” and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

From ‘I Am Woman’ to ‘Get on Up’: Movies that hit the right note

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Despite its inherent perils and pitfalls, the musical biopic genre is one that moviemakers have returned to again and again. We want to vicariously immerse ourselves in the vicissitudes of celebrity, even if this means settling for a copy instead of the real thing.

The new Helen Reddy biopic “I Am Woman,” directed by Unjoo Moon and starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey, is the latest in a long line of movies about singer-performers. Most recently there was Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in “Judy,” Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” (both Oscar-winning turns), and Taron Egerton as Elton John in “Rocketman.” Most of these obey the genre’s traditional dramatic arc: difficult childhoods followed by a jagged rise to stardom freighted with rampant egomania, breakups, drugs, and, ultimately, redemption. These luminaries may suffer for their art, but they are also at their most alive before an audience.

In creating a first-rate musical biopic, the biggest impediment is finding an actor with the dynamism of the original performer. In the case of “I Am Woman,” arriving Sept. 11 in theaters and on demand, it helps that Reddy is not nearly as recognizable as say, Garland or John. Long-retired, she was a major singing star in the 1970s with a string of hits including the movie’s eponymous anthem. The film is fashioned as a kind of reclamation project for a near-forgotten icon: It wants to honor Reddy’s place as a feminist pathfinder.

“I Am Woman” (unrated) all too conveniently hauls out the usual biopic tropes but, as is true of so many other films in this genre, including much better ones, it’s worth experiencing for its star performance. Cobham-Hervey, who, like Reddy, is Australian, is a quicksilver actor who doesn’t overplay the role’s iconic trappings. We always feel like we’re watching a person, not an archetype. Although in most cases she is lip-syncing Reddy’s recordings, she puts so much emotion into the feigned renditions that they never come across as mere mimicry.

Many of the musical biopics that have stayed with me have been the ones that showcase an incendiary lead performance. Displaying an actor worthy enough to capture the spotlight helps compensate for the genre’s all too frequent cliches and fabrications.

Imagine Entertainment/Jagged Films/Wyolah FIlms/Album/Newscom
Chadwick Boseman and Jill Scott star as James and Dee Dee Brown in "Get on Up" directed by Tate Taylor.

“Get on Up” 

Chadwick Boseman was able to convincingly play such heroes as Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and, yes, King T’Challa, because he himself possessed a dignity that could not be faked. This is the rarest of qualities in an actor. As James Brown in “Get on Up” (2014) – where he does all his own dancing as he expertly lip-syncs Brown’s recordings – Boseman does a deep dive into Brown’s strutting persona without ever once losing sight of the hurt, and hurtful, human being behind it. It’s a powerhouse portrayal. (PG-13)

“Sweet Dreams”

Jessica Lange’s performance as the great country singer Patsy Cline in “Sweet Dreams” (1985) is one of her best and least recognized. In films ranging from “Tootsie” to “Frances,” she had already demonstrated her versatility, so the intensity she brought to this role came as no surprise. When Lange is up on stage singing “Sweet Dreams” or “Crazy,” her passion merges completely with the heartbreak of the lyrics as sung by Cline. Scenes like these express the tribute of one great artist for another. (PG-13)

“La Vie En Rose” 

Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for best actress for her performance as the legendary French singer Édith Piaf in “La Vie En Rose” (2007) – the first and only time the award has gone to a female actor in a French language role. This chronology-hopping compendium, which takes in Piaf’s life from girlhood to her death in 1963, checks all the biopic boxes: Piaf was abandoned by her parents, raised in a brothel, lost the love of her life in a plane crash, endured drug addiction. With all this, you might expect Cotillard’s performance to be heavy on the melodrama, but what we get instead is high drama. Piaf’s monumental vulnerabilities, her lifelong yearning for love, come through with such force that, by the end, she emerges as not so much tragic as heroic. When Cotillard, lip-syncing Piaf, belts out her trademark song, “Non, je ne regrette rien” – “I regret nothing!” – you believe it in your bones. (PG-13)

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. 

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After a megafire, what Paradise found

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The residents of Paradise are on the run again this week. The California town became well known in 2018 after a wildfire killed at least 85 people. Now many in the mountain town, which has been partially rebuilt, are fleeing during the state’s severest wildfire season on record.

Paradise, of course, is more prepared this time in material ways, such as better fire-resistant houses and reconfigured streets. Yet its spirit of resiliency and community bonds are also on display. “I feel a calm resolve, like, I’m not going to let this fire win,” said Lauren Gill, the outgoing town manager.

The town’s tragedy – the deadliest fire in California’s history – turned out to be an opportunity for Paradise to forge lessons far beyond those of better fire prevention and the need to live outside fire-prone areas.

Being open to finding the right lessons in a disaster is the first step. And the people of Paradise are probably still as open as anyone to the opportunity to grow in the face of trauma. Calm before a firestorm helps bring calm after a firestorm.

After a megafire, what Paradise found

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Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
A sign at the entrance of Paradise, California, on March 13, 2020.

The residents of Paradise are on the run again this week. The California town became well known in 2018 after a wildfire killed at least 85 people, displaced more than 50,000 people, and destroyed 95% of local structures. Now many in the mountain town, which has been partially rebuilt, are fleeing during the state’s severest wildfire season on record. More than 2.5 million acres have been burned across the state. Other parts of the West are also on fire.

Paradise, of course, is more prepared this time in material ways, such as better fire-resistant houses and reconfigured streets. Yet its spirit of resiliency and community bonds are also on display. “I feel a calm resolve, like, I’m not going to let this fire win,” Lauren Gill, the outgoing town manager, told a local reporter.

The town’s tragedy on Nov. 8, 2018 – the deadliest fire in California’s history – turned out to be an opportunity for Paradise to forge lessons far beyond those of better fire prevention and the need to live outside fire-prone areas. One example: “Serving people who lost everything has been healing for me too,” one resident told the Monitor last year.

Drawing the right lessons from a disaster is not always easy. The default is to look for something or someone to blame – climate change, zoning laws, or sparks from an electric utility’s equipment. Fixing such issues is critical, but just as critical are shifts in thought, such as learning to be calm as the flames approach and being alert to the needs of neighbors.

Being open to finding the right lessons is the first step. When two-time Oscar winner Ron Howard decided to make a documentary on Paradise in 2018, his company at first sought to turn the town’s devastation into a warning.

“When we started this movie, it really was a climate change movie,” Justin Wilkes, president of Imagine Documentaries, told the Los Angeles Times. “Over the course of that first year, it went from being ‘This is a climate story’ to ‘Wow, this is really a story of humanity and community.’” Mr. Howard said the Paradise story is a case study for “what survival looks like, and the possibilities for real healing.”

“The passion and commitment of the people of Paradise, to one another and to rebuilding their community, is a reminder of the strength and resilience of the human spirit,” he said.

The film, “Rebuilding Paradise,” was purposely released by National Geographic in July to help the U.S. deal with another disaster – the COVID-19 pandemic. Now as major wildfires burn in California, Oregon, and Washington state, the film – and its newfound message – is applicable to fire-struck communities in those states. And the people of Paradise are probably still as open as anyone to the opportunity to grow in the face of trauma. Calm before a firestorm helps bring calm after a firestorm.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

You are brave!

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When crisis or danger emerges – and even when things seem to be going just fine – it’s worth considering what it means that God made us fearless, strong, and safe.

You are brave!

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

“I’m not brave.” That’s what my very young daughter said to me in a sad little voice one evening at bedtime. She’d been having trouble sleeping on her own.

My reply? “You are brave.” I knew what she was made of; I’d seen her courage in action. “But you don’t even need to be brave,” I added, “because I’m sitting in the same room with you; I’m just not in the bed.” With that assurance, within minutes she was peacefully asleep.

Remembering this brief parental moment helped me a lot on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. As a New York City resident, I didn’t feel brave when I saw the news reports – or when I had to board a plane a week later. The only way I could feel any semblance of peace was to trust that even if I felt scared for the entirety of that flight, God was there. I wasn’t alone – and I was protected.

Why did I think that? Well, ever since I was old enough to read, I’d spent time studying the Bible and a companion book that I love, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science. In both books, God, Spirit, is shown to be the protector of all His creation. The Bible says, “You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalms 4:8, New King James Version).

I totally get that it doesn’t always seem like that. But I had become convinced, through Christian Science healings and other spiritual experiences, that reality isn’t what we see with our eyes. Prayer enables us to glimpse what’s really divinely true.

I’m not talking about thinking good thoughts to make yourself feel better. I’m talking about the kind of effective prayer that Jesus taught and lived.

Jesus’ example shows that we can trust God for safety, whether conditions in our lives appear safe or not. And God’s protection doesn’t come to us only when we are in a crisis. It’s always with us as sons and daughters of God, made in His spiritual image and likeness. We are designed to be fearless and strong.

I believed that, but proving it required some trust in God, and I got there through prayer. There were some scary incidents over the next few years that initially seemed connected to terrorism. Being afraid is not fun; but even worse, it can sometimes make it hard to pray and hear God’s healing messages, so I was vigilant about dealing with any panic each time by opening my heart to God’s comfort.

As I did this consistently, I found that I was getting to know more about myself as God knows me. I was naturally exhibiting more courage and less fear. And I was often able to reassure others who were scared. I was starting to feel God more in my life and to experience big and small proofs of divine care and protection. My trust in God’s ever-present protection was growing and becoming more secure.

About eight years later, my daughter and I went to the Mall of America the day after Christmas. It was jampacked with shoppers. We were in a store with floor-to-ceiling windows when a huge brawl broke out in the hall outside. People were running, and some were being trampled. We were in the middle of a riot.

My first thought? I wondered if the windows were bulletproof. My second thought? No! Life is not a random series of experiences, some of them dangerous, that we can’t do anything about. That’s not the concept of Life, or God, that Christ Jesus taught.

This realization kept me from feeling afraid during this incident. I felt God’s care for everyone, not just for me. Inspiration came for how to get my daughter and myself out of the mall calmly, even as we heard someone yell “Gun!” and the crowd rushed. And though some might say what happened next was inexplicable, to me it was evidence of God’s protection: Our ride was rounding the building not far from us right as we exited the mall, and we hopped in.

We soon heard on the news that police had been able to deal with the situation and no one was injured.

Through prayer, each of us can understand more about the divine protection that is always available. We can be brave, because God is with us.

Adapted from an article published in the Christian Science Sentinel, March 9, 2020.

Viewfinder

Finding a tenuous sanctuary

Ahmer Khan
In the eastern part of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, a small bastion of Tibetan culture rises from the rocky landscape. After fleeing Chinese occupiers in Tibet, dozens of families call the Choglamsar refugee settlement home. And they are not alone. The Indian-administered territory of Ladakh – sometimes also known as “Little Tibet” – hosts thousands of Tibetan refugees. Many have been living here since the 1950s, when China annexed Tibet and caused several mass emigrations. Some refugees in Ladakh still follow nomadic ways of life on the Changtang plateau, which stretches from Jammu and Kashmir into Tibet. Others live near cities in fixed settlements like Choglamsar. While the region’s cultural roots originate in centuries-old Tibetan Buddhist traditions, diaspora members worry that contemporary popular culture and tourism are eroding authentic Tibetan lifestyles. In Choglamsar, a small part of the Tibetan diaspora negotiates that tug of war each day. – Anna Tarnow, Staff writer
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us this week. Come back Monday when Simon Montlake will explore the toll that the pandemic has taken on nursing homes, and what lessons might be gleaned from those losses.

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