The world will likely breach the internationally agreed-upon climate change threshold in about a decade and keep heating to break through a next warming limit around mid-century, even with big pollution cuts, artificial intelligence predicts in a new study that’s more pessimistic than previous modeling.

The study in Monday’s journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reignites a debate on whether it’s still possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as called for in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, to minimize the most damaging effects of climate change. The world has already warmed 1.1 or 1.2 degrees since pre-industrial times, or the mid-19th century, scientists say.

Two climate scientists using machine learning calculated that Earth will surpass the 1.5-degree (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) mark between 2033 and 2035. Their results fit with other, more conventional methods of predicting when Earth will break the mark, though with a bit more precision.

“There will come a time when we call the 1.5C target for maximum warming dead, beyond the shadow of a doubt,” Brown University Environment Institute director Kim Cobb, who wasn’t part of the study, said in an email interview. “And this paper may be the beginning of the end of the 1.5C target.”

Stanford University’s Noah Diffenbaugh, a study co-author, said the world is on the brink of the 1.5-degree mark in “any realistic emissions reduction scenario.” Avoiding a 2-degree rise, he said, may depend on nations meeting zero-emissions goals by the middle of this century.

The artificial intelligence-based study found it unlikely that temperature increase could be held below 2 degrees Celsius, even with tough emissions cuts. And that’s where the AI really differs with scientists who had been forecasting using computer models that are based on past observations, Diffenbaugh said.

In a high-pollution scenario, the AI calculated, the world would hit the 2-degree mark around 2050. Lower pollution could stave that off until 2054, the machine learning calculated.

In contrast, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change figured in its 2021 report that the same lower-pollution scenario would see the world pushing past 2 degrees sometime in the 2090s.

Cornell University climate scientist Natalie Mahowald, who wasn’t part of the Diffenbaugh study but was part of the IPCC, said the study makes sense, fits with what scientists know, but seems a bit more pessimistic.

There’s a lot of power in using AI, and in the future, that may be shown to produce better projections, but more evidence is needed before concluding that, Mahowald said.

Normally, climate scientists use a bunch of computer model simulations, some running hot and some cold, and then try to figure out which ones are doing the best job. That’s often based on how they performed in the past or in simulations of the past, Diffenbaugh said. What the AI does is more keyed to the climate system now, he said.

“We’re using this very powerful tool that is able to take information and integrate it in a way that no human mind is able to do, for better or for worse,” Diffenbaugh said.

Each year, government climate negotiators at a United Nations summit proclaim that they have managed to “keep 1.5 alive.” But with the latest study, there’s a divide among scientists on how true that really is. Diffenbaugh said there’s been so much warming already that it really doesn’t matter how pollution is cut in the next several years. The world will hit 1.5, the AI figures.

Zeke Hausfather of the tech company Stripe and Berkeley Earth, who was not part of the study, agreed, saying it’s time to “stop pretending” that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is possible. Some scenarios do see temperatures warming past the mark but then coming back down, something called “overshoot.”

Other scientists not involved with the study, such as University of Pennsylvania’s Michael Mann and Climate Analytics’ Bill Hare and Carl-Friedrich Schleussner maintain 1.5 is still alive. They say one rapid decarbonization scenario that Diffenbaugh didn’t examine shows the world can mostly keep under the threshold.

If the world can cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030 “then warming can be limited to 1.5 degrees” with a tiny overshoot and then reductions to get under the mark, Hare said.

Believing that the world can no longer keep warming below 1.5 “is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Mann said by email. “In the end it’s easy to overinterpret the significance of a precise threshold like 1.5C warming. The challenge is to limit warming as much as possible.”

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In the 1980s, more than 3 million people worldwide were infected with Guinea worm. At the end of 2022, the number of reported cases globally was down to 13.

There were 15 cases reported a year earlier, “which does not sound like a big reduction, but when you are dealing with very small numbers in very remote areas we take it as a huge step forward,” said Adam Weiss, director of the Carter Center’s Guinea Worm Eradication Program.

Guinea worm, a parasite usually ingested through contaminated water, grows inside the human body, then emerges through open sores creating intense pain.

When Weiss’ organization, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, began spearheading the effort to rid the world of Guinea worm parasites in 1986, it existed in 20 countries.

In 2022, just four countries reported new Guinea worm infections in humans.

“We had six human cases in Chad, five human cases in South Sudan, and one in Ethiopia and one in the Central African Republic on the border with Chad,” Weiss told VOA during a recent Skype interview.

The Atlanta-based global nonprofit Carter Center is marking continued progress in the global fight against Guinea Worm infections as the World Health Organization recognizes World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day January 30.

Across the globe, from his office in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Dr. Zerihun Tadesse Gebreselassie was pragmatic about the overall eradication efforts.

“It’s both good news and at the same time, not so good news,” he explained during a Skype interview with VOA. Gebreselassie serves as the Carter Center’s senior country representative in Ethiopia, a nation on the cusp of complete Guinea worm eradication.

“We are doing surveillance by moving from house to house in each and every village which has historically been reporting cases. So, we found only one person, and we found him before his clinical manifestation — which means we suspected that this could be a Guinea worm case — we kept him in a facility called a case containment center,” Gebreselassie said.

The Carter Center also provides financial incentives for people to report any potential Guinea worm infections. That, coupled with a robust water source filter education program and continued monitoring efforts in countries where the parasite exists, is helping the Carter Center remove obstacles on the path to complete eradication.

“Since this is a global eradication program, even when you have one case, still you have to continue monitoring,” Gebreselassie said. “We have to get rid of all cases for three consecutive years.”

One of the biggest setbacks to declaring the world free of Guinea worm was its discovery in domesticated animals and wildlife.

“It was a punch to the gut back in 2012 when we started seeing infections,” Weiss said.

But after years of dramatic increases in the number of dogs and cats in remote villages carrying the parasite, 2022 showed encouraging results.

“The last several years we went from several thousand animal infections to this year being just over 600 animal infections in the world,” Weiss said.

But the magic number in the overall eradication effort is zero cases in both humans and animals.

“We have to get rid of it from all hosts in order to meet the definition of eradication,” Weiss said.

Gebreselassie is optimistic that the goal of complete eradication is in sight despite setbacks.

“We are in the last mile, which is the most difficult one,” he told VOA.

If the effort is successful, Guinea worm would be only the second disease eradicated from the planet, but the first through prevention as there is no medicine to treat, and no vaccine to prevent, infections.

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World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns global health challenges are growing and threatening the well-being of millions of people worldwide. He spoke at the opening of WHO’s week-long executive board meeting. 

The WHO chief began his presentation on a somber note. He told meeting participants that an emergency committee convened to assess the status of the pandemic has concluded that COVID-19 remains a global health emergency. 

He said the situation is much better now than a year ago when the omicron variant of the coronavirus was at its peak. But, he added, weekly reported deaths have been rising since early December. He said more than 170,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19 in the past eight weeks. 

“And that is just the reported deaths. We know the actual number is much higher. We cannot control the virus, but we can do more to address the vulnerabilities in populations and health systems.” 

Tedros said health providers have the knowledge and means to control the spread of other diseases as well. He outlined an ambitious program for promoting health and protecting people from diseases. These, as well as other proposals for how the world can better prepare and respond to future health emergencies will be under discussion by member countries this week. 

Tedros said progress has been made over the past year in promoting health, by addressing the root causes of disease. He called this action essential in achieving a target set by WHO of seeing one billion more people enjoying better health and well-being. 

“On trans-fat, we have seen an almost five-fold increase in the number of people protected by WHO-recommended policies on the use of industrially produced trans-fat, from 550 million people to 2.6 billion, in just four years. But as you know, still five billion are unprotected.” 

Last year, he said, WHO reached the target it set to support 100 million tobacco users in stopping smoking. He noted, however, this left an estimated 600 million users who want to kick the habit and need support. 

Tedros presented numerous examples of key health achievements in both communicable and non-communicable diseases. He also acknowledged setbacks in many of these same areas, indicating the necessity of remaining alert and responding rapidly to health emergencies whenever and wherever they may arise. 

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The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warns the world is dangerously unprepared for the next pandemic and this will have severe health, economic and social consequences for countries around the world.  The IFRC has just released this year’s World Disaster Report.

In a marked departure from previous reports, the IFRC does not delve into the numerous natural disasters that caused untold devastation last year.  It does not rank the severity of disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and drought in terms of deaths and the destruction of livelihoods and infrastructure.

Instead, the report focuses on the global crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and on warnings of worse calamities to come if the global community does not prepare now for the next health crisis.

IFRC Secretary General Jagan Chapagain said the authors of the report conclude the coronavirus pandemic has been the biggest disaster in our living memory, by any measure.

“I think no other disasters, the hurricane, earthquake, drought, or flood can compete in terms of the terrible human and socio-economic costs.  Of course, the most conservative estimates tell us that 6.5 million people died from COVID-19 across these three years.  But we all know that the real number could be much, much higher,” said Chapagain.

And the financial costs, he said, are staggering.  He said the International Monetary Fund estimates the cost of the pandemic over the last three years to be $13.8 trillion.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for the global community to prepare now for the next health crisis.  He notes the World Health Organization and multiple epidemiologists have warned disease outbreaks are growing more frequent.

Chapagain said these outbreaks are being driven by factors such as climate change, increased movement of goods and services, urbanization, as well as growing inequity.  He said success in tackling future health crises depends upon building trust among world leaders, within and between communities and countries.

“Without trust, lifesaving pandemic counter measures will not be accepted and implemented by the people who need them most.  Preparedness will require equity.  Our preparedness must include provisions for greater equity because public health emergencies will thrive on and aggravate existing inequities,” he said.

Chapagain said community-based organizations are an integral part of pandemic preparedness and response.  He said local actors and communities have important roles to play as frontline responders in all phases of disease outbreak management.

He notes IFRC staff, and its global network of volunteers have reached more than 1.1 billion people over the past three years and helped to keep them safe from the virus.

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