Machine learning and complex information: How much of humanity has been affected by climate change?

A few years ago, I was working as a curriculum writer at a non-profit science education research company called TERC. The company has been around for a long time, but its central purpose, as I understand it, is to study how people teach and learn science of all sorts, with the goal of improving the process for both teachers and students. This means that while my job was to write lesson plans, readings, and so on, it was always as part of a larger research project. The difficulty with this sort of research is that if you’re trying to actually assess how well students understand the subject before and then after an attempt to teach it to them, you can’t just rely on an easily generated dataset like a multiple choice test. The best way to gauge a person’s understanding of a subject is to have them explain it, in their own words, to someone whose understanding is already good enough to assess the answer.

So how can you conduct data analysis on data that’s not in a simple numerical form?

You find a way to convert it.

For example, let’s take a basic question: What does the term “ecological mismatch” mean? Define it, and give an example.

For those who are unfamiliar, “ecological mismatch”, at least in the context of climate change, refers to a situation in which the seasonal patterns of different species that normally line up, cease to do so. For example, there are numerous bird species that breed in North America during the spring and summer, but fly south to South or Central America to avoid the cold winters. Why do they put in all the effort to make such a long trip? Why not just stay in the south? Because the explosion of insect and plant life in the northern spring provides an abundance of food far beyond the day to day in their more tropical “winter homes”.

The problem is that as the climate has warmed, spring has begun to come earlier to North America, and for those birds wintering around the equator, their evolved migratory instinct relies on Earth’s orbit around the sun, which is almost entirely unaffected by global warming. That means that their migration signal has stayed the same, but spring is coming earlier, so they arrive later in the season. The food supply that made this a successful behavior isn’t always there by the time they arrive. The timing is mismatched. This means the insects they’d normally eat have a population boom, as do the birds that don’t migrate as far. That in turn can affect plant populations, other insect populations, and so on.

So. We ask a class full of people to answer this question, and what we get is a mix of responses. Some are blank or completely wrong. Some get the definition mostly right, but the example wrong. Some get the example right and the definition wrong. Some get both right. Our goal, as researchers, is to convert this qualitative data into quantitative data, so that we can run it through equations, make graphs, and so on. One could simply go with “right” or “wrong”, but that’s going to give us an inaccurate picture. The students who are partly right do have some understanding of the subject. We could split it into three options – right, partially right, and wrong. That’s also not quite right, because it doesn’t tell us what they’re partly right about; so we split it into four – right, partly right (about the definition), partly right(about the example), and wrong. Now, with options 1, 2, 3, and 4, and a clear definition of each, we can go through everyone’s answer to the question, give it a number, and actually analyze the overall pattern of understanding.

And now we’re ready to teach the lesson.

Then, you give the same test after the lesson, break it down the same way, and compare the two to see how the overall level of understanding changed. Ideally, each student will be assigned a number so you can compare them to themselves, as well as looking at the group as a whole (the data should be anonymized as much as possible, both to protect people’s privacy in published data, and to prevent conscious or subconscious bias). There was also a long process of systematizing the instructions for evaluating these quizzes so that multiple qualified people would fairly reliably get the same results going through the same process. Remember: with research part of the goal is to ensure that strangers can reproduce what you did from your publication.

We generally didn’t do a quiz like this for a single lesson. The ideal was a full unit of about a week (longer if possible) to test what did or didn’t work, and the “after” quiz would be on the last day of the unit. Each quiz would have a mix of short- and long-answer questions, and once the framework for “coding” the tests was established, someone on the team would have to go through and code every test from every student, with checks on tough calls (you’d be amazed at how many ways there are to be almost right or partly wrong about a question like this), enter the numbers into a spreadsheet, and then we could start actually analyzing the data.

This is to answer a few relatively straightforward questions about how well students understand the subject matter we presented to them.

Now let’s get to the actual point of this article, and look at a different question – How much of the human population has been directly affected by climate change?

As before, we need to break the question down, so we know what answers we’re actually looking for. Obviously we need to define what it means to be affected by climate change. Going broadly, let’s say “forced to change behavior in some way (movement, spending, place of residence, etc.) by weather that would not have caused that change absent warming caused by humans”. That means we need to determine which weather phenomena count as “normal”, and which ones can be attributed to the rise in temperature. In many cases, that’s a matter not just of determining whether climate change influenced a given event, but how much of that event was due to higher global temperatures. Would the storm surge have breached the levees if sea levels were an inch lower? Would the storm have been as powerful if the planet was a degree cooler? Trying to figure this stuff out is very difficult and time-consuming, for those with the task of actually quantifying it.

And again, that’s just for one event, like a hurricane. We’re trying to see what patterns there are on a global scale, which means our best bet is to look at the answers that have already been given – the numerous publications on individual weather events, and how they affected people, and while all of these studies do have quantitative data, they’re often studying different things, using different methods, which means the numbers they get can also mean different things. Ideally, again, you would have a team of people who already know the subject matter very well, to analyze each publication and make sure the overall data analysis actually says what we think it does. If you’re being thorough, that means having a team examining over 100,000 studies of many different weather events, and generating a dataset that will give us results we can trust.

It’s a monumental amount of work – possibly more work than could reasonably be done by a group of experts.

So some folks trained computers to do it for them.

Increasing evidence suggests that climate change impacts are already observed around the world. Global environmental assessments face challenges to appraise the growing literature. Here we use the language model BERT to identify and classify studies on observed climate impacts, producing a comprehensive machine-learning-assisted evidence map. We estimate that 102,160 (64,958–164,274) publications document a broad range of observed impacts. By combining our spatially resolved database with grid-cell-level human-attributable changes in temperature and precipitation, we infer that attributable anthropogenic impacts may be occurring across 80% of the world’s land area, where 85% of the population reside. Our results reveal a substantial ‘attribution gap’ as robust levels of evidence for potentially attributable impacts are twice as prevalent in high-income than in low-income countries. While gaps remain on confidently attributabing climate impacts at the regional and sectoral level, this database illustrates the potential current impact of anthropogenic climate change across the globe.

The debut of the remarkable new word “attributabing” not withstanding, this approach to meta-analysis could end up being hugely useful in helping people in general keep up with the massive collective effort known as “science”. There are millions of scientific papers published every year, from people all over the planet. Our collective knowledge is such that it’s impossible for any person to read the current research on all but the tiniest fraction of it, and yet we need to have at least some general grasp of these issues if we want to have any control over our future as a species. Our capacity to understand what’s happening around us and respond accordingly is one of our greatest strengths as a species, but climate change is happening at a scale that’s a bit outside what we can easily wrap our minds around. That’s probably part of why we’ve gone so long without treating global warming as the crisis it is.

From a Washington Post article on the study:

In the United States, climate disasters have already caused at least 388 deaths and more than $100 billion in damage this year, according to analyses from The Washington Post and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Yet despite a pledge to halve emissions by the end of the decade, congressional Democrats are struggling to pass a pair of bills that would provide hundreds of billions of dollars for renewable energy, electric vehicles and programs that would help communities adapt to a changing climate.

The contrast between the scope of climate disasters and the scale of global ambition is top of mind for hundreds of protesters who have descended on Washington this week to demand an end to fossil fuel use.

“How can you say that we are in this climate emergency and be going around and saying we’re at this red point … and at the same time be giving away land for additional oil and gas infrastructure?” said Joye Braun, a community organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who rallied in Washington this week.

The activists, many of them from Indigenous communities that have been harmed by global warming, risked arrest as they remained on the sidewalk outside the White House after police ordered them to clear the area.

The new research in Nature adds to a growing body of evidence that climate change is already disrupting human life on a global scale. Scientists are increasingly able to attribute events like heat waves and hurricanes to human actions. In August, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change devoted an entire chapter to the extreme weather consequences of a warming world.

The study’s conclusion that 85 percent of humanity is experiencing climate impacts may sound high. But it’s “probably an underestimation,” said Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study.

The study looked at average temperature and precipitation changes, rather than the most extreme impacts, for which Otto says there is even more evidence of climate change’s role.

“It is likely that nearly everyone in the world now experiences changes in extreme weather as a result of human greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

The human toll of these events has become impossible to ignore. This summer, hundreds of people in the Pacific Northwest died after unprecedented heat baked the usually temperate region. More than 1 million people in Madagascar are at risk of starvation as a historic drought morphs into a climate-induced famine. Catastrophic flooding caused New Yorkers to drown in their own homes, while flash flooding has inundated refugee camps in South Sudan.

In a letter released Monday, some 450 organizations representing 45 million health-care workers called attention to the way rising temperatures have increased the risk of many health issues, including breathing problems, mental illness and insect-borne diseases. One of the papers analyzed for the Nature study, for example, found that deaths from heart disease had risen in areas experiencing hotter conditions.

“The climate crisis is the single biggest health threat facing humanity,” the health organizations’ letter said.

As Braun points out in the quote above, the feeble “climate response” plans of most governments become a sick joke when put next to continued expansion of fossil fuel extraction, and the unwillingness of groups like the Democratic Party to do more than just say they care about the issue. It’s hard to tell if it’s malice or delusion, but in either case, it’s a problem, and it feels like they’re hoping people will just continue to underestimate the scale of what’s happening. Things like this new research could help us make a more compelling case for the change we need, by making it harder to wave the problem away. That said, the resources going into understanding what’s happening around the world aren’t much better distributed than wealth has been in this era of colonialism and neoliberalism:

Yet in many of the places that stand to suffer most from climate change, Callaghan and his colleagues found a deficit of research on what temperature and precipitation shifts could mean for people’s daily lives. The researchers identified fewer than 10,000 studies looking at climate change’s effect on Africa, and about half as many focused on South America. By contrast, roughly 30,000 published papers examined climate impacts in North America.

In poorer countries, the researchers say, roughly a quarter of people live in areas where there have been few impact studies, despite strong evidence that they are experiencing changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. In wealthier countries, that figure stands at only 3 percent.

“But it indicates that we’re not studying enough,” Callaghan said, “not that there isn’t anything happening.”

Otto attributes this discrepancy, known as an “attribution gap,” to a lack of capacity and funding for research in poor countries, as well as researchers’ tendency to reflect the priorities of wealthy nations.

In South Sudan, for example, efforts to understand flooding have been stymied by conflict and the difficulty of collecting weather data in the world’s youngest country.

Liz Stephens, an associate professor in climate risks and resilience at the University of Reading, wrote in an email that the Global Flood Awareness System from the Copernicus Emergency Management Service is “notoriously bad” at forecasting flooding in the White Nile and Blue Nile river basins. Without good data, scientists can’t easily say what places are likely to be deluged or warn when a disaster is about to hit. Officials may be caught off guard by weather events. Vulnerable people are less able to get out of harm’s way.

South Sudanese officials say half a million people — about 4 percent of the country’s population — have been displaced by the floods.

But the “attribution gap” makes machine-learning-based analyses like Callaghan’s all the more valuable, Otto said. These programs can help identify climate impacts even in places where there are not enough scientists studying them.

“It seems a very useful way … to understand better what climate change is costing us today in a global way that is more bottom-up,” Otto said.

A September study in Nature found that 60 percent of Earth’s oil and fossil methane gas and 90 percent of coal must remain in the ground for the world to have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — a threshold that scientists say would spare humanity the most disastrous climate impacts.

Increasingly, groups are calling on President Biden to restrict fossil fuel production outright.

On Wednesday, a coalition of more than 380 groups filed a legal petition demanding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stop issuing permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Two days later, hundreds of scientists submitted an open letter asking Biden to do the same.

“The reality of our situation is now so dire that only a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel extraction and combustion can fend off the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” they wrote.

In response to Monday’s protests, however, American Petroleum Institute spokeswoman Megan Bloomgren said curbing the country’s energy options would harm the economy and national security. “American energy is produced under some of the highest environmental standards in the world,” she said.

In other words, they have no intention of changing course.

The difficulty in studying climate change in regions currently suffering from things like war or the effects of climate change, is one part of why it’s so important to stop the imperialist policies of the United States in particular, and wealthy countries in general – the pattern for the last century and beyond has been for powerful nations to subject the less powerful ones to debt, invasions, coups, assassinations, death squads, and more, all in the name of securing the “interests” of a tiny ruling class. This is what drives the obscenely high emissions of the U.S. war machine, and the overthrow of regimes – like that of the Brazilian Workers Party, or the Bolivian Movement for Socialism – that are committed to both eliminating poverty and finding a way for us to live that doesn’t destroy the ecosystems on which we rely.

We can’t adapt to what’s happening if we don’t know what’s happening, and if we’re still focused on narrowminded ideas like profit and nationalism, we won’t have the resources to study the problem, let alone prepare for what’s coming.

If we want to avoid an unprecedented tide of death, we’re going to need truly revolutionary change in our political and economic systems. The alternative could well be extinction.

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So people are talking about conservative brains again…

This is a topic I find simultaneously fascinating and annoying. There is some evidence that conservatives and progressives- as defined in the U.S. – have differences in brain function that match differences in thought and behavior. Basically, conservatives seem to have a stronger threat response, and the related portions of the brain tend to be a bit bigger. According to the scientist in the video clip below, conservatives are also less likely to respond to strong emotional reactions with the kind of self-assessment that might help them spot misinformation designed to provoke those strong reactions. We don’t know if brain differences cause conservative thinking, or if the patterns of conservative thinking cause the brain differences.

I want to note that the language I’m using IS biased – I am quite certain that conservatives are wrong about the things on which we disagree, and I’m also reasonably certain that most of my readers are not conservative. I am writing from my own perspective on this, but one could just as easily switch this around and talk about “liberals” having a less developed amygdala or overdeveloped prefrontal cortex.

I think it’s good to know this stuff about ourselves as a species, and some of what Azarian says about how to deal with that is fine. I think he’s right about needing to put more effort into encouraging self-assessment and introspection as a way to build up the parts of the brain that might temper a threat response with what Terry Pratchett might call “second thoughts” – a meta-assessment of not just the thing that created the initial emotional reaction, but also of the reaction itself.

Where he loses me is when he starts talking about focusing on the things we agree about, rather than our differences, and using that as a starting point to have us all getting along, and uniting humanity under a materialistic understanding of reality. My objection is not because of the goal. I am firmly convinced that material analysis of our circumstances is vitally important, and the lack of that on the political/religious right is a serious problem.


There’s an anecdote I saw a while back about a neuroscientist who was studying chicken brains, found that they don’t deal with smell the way we do, and concluded that chickens don’t have nostrils. This was rebutted by chicken farmers, who pointed out that a lifetime of working with chickens had left them quite certain that chickens do, in fact, have nostrils. The neuroscientist had focused entirely on the chickens’ brains, and hadn’t looked at the entire creature.

I couldn’t find where I initially read that account, and at this point I think it may well be false, or I’m mis-remembering it, but it gets at a reasonably common problem among those who have put in the effort to become experts in a particular specialization. It seems that becoming an expert – especially in a field known to be “difficult” – sometimes leads people to believe their expertise covers subjects in which they are not specialists.

In this case, I think that Azarian’s “plan” is hampered by an ignorance of sociology and politics.

To begin with, I think it’s strange that he talks as if getting everyone to agree on how the world works is a new idea. It’s also strange to me that he believes we can change how people think by applying a Bayesian system, as though the people whose minds he want to change are going to happily go through HIS process, unlike every previous attempt at something similar. He’s right about the problems caused by overstating certainty, but he seems to ignore the way right-wing propagandists have exploited the honest assessments of uncertainty that are the norm in scientific literature (evolution and climate science being possibly the most famous examples). He also seems to have no idea about the material factors in society that lead to misinformation campaigns designed specifically to confuse and obscure not just the truth, but also our processes for determining the truth. In a lot of ways, this feels like someone saying “We need to solve climate change by replacing fossil fuels with a mix of nuclear and renewable energy”, and then acting like the work is done.

It would be nice if everyone took a rational approach to analyzing every situation and claim, but that’s an end goal, not a plan for getting there. This makes Azarian just another voice in the chorus of people convinced that they could save the world if only everyone agreed with them.

But I think it’s actually a bit worse than that. Azarian says we should focus on our areas of agreement to avoid the emotional chain reactions that come with confrontation and disagreement. Again, this feels like a very surface-level analysis. Yes – we all get along better when we all suppress those parts of ourselves that cause conflict. And no – that has never been a viable path to changing people’s opinions or thought patterns. To begin with, if your primary approach to change relies on changing how hundreds of millions of people think, then the best-case scenario has your process of change taking several generations to really take effect. Humans don’t live in “the long term”. We can and should make plans for the long term, and work for the long term, but we’re stuck living in the present. Saying that the solution is to focus on areas of agreement also means that people who are being hurt by the way society works today should shut up about it for the sake of getting along.

This is as irrational an expectation as saying that people will always react calmly and thoughtfully when you tell them they’re wrong.

Take the example of Schrödinger’s Douchebag; that guy who will say something that sounds bigoted, and then decide whether they meant it based on the reaction of the group. If anyone pushes back, “it was just a joke!”, and if no one does, then everyone agrees it’s true. If you also push back on the idea that their bigotry is “just a joke”, then you’re the one causing conflict, because you can’t take a joke.

The fact is that there are people who like the world as it is, and they tend to be people who have a lot of power and material wealth. This is where you get twisted narratives like this one, demonstrated by Stephen King:

This is all wrong. The bill that Sinema and Manchin are obstructing is already a compromise – it’s already less than 70%, and the two “moderates” who are blocking everything are the ones refusing to accept anything less than 100% of what they want. For weeks now people have been blaming progressives for what’s going on. More recent tweets indicate that King may have gained a better understanding about what’s happening, but it’s not just an accident that he came to tweet that – it’s a deliberately false narrative of a kind that comes up every time U.S. progressives actually fight for something they want. Failing to concede to all right-wing demands is consistently framed as starting trouble and being unreasonable, and without real confrontation, what we get is movement to the right on economics and political power, over and over again.

This notion that we can just convert conservatives to rationality and material analysis by helping them reason through things is not a new one. What stands out in my mind is a sort of “Logic Bro” power fantasy found in the fanfiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. The basic premise is “what if Petunia had become a college professor and married another college professor, and they both raised Harry as a scientific child prodigy?”, and basically uses the shallowness of J.K. Rowling’s worldbuilding to allow Harry to perform feats of science-inspired magic and cleverness that astound and baffle all the greatest wizards, while he also uses the titular “methods of rationality” to reason Draco Malfoy out of his bigotry. Full disclosure, I enjoyed this story when I first read it. I also find it mostly unreadable now, but there’s something catchy about the idea that if we could just get the people we disagree with to just sit down and walk through everything with us, they’d see that of course they couldn’t be right.

I’m fond of saying that our brains are basically meat computers vulnerable to some level of reprogramming by anyone with access to our senses, including ourselves. Changing minds via one-on-one exploration of ideas is absolutely possible, if both parties are approaching the project in good faith. Changing minds on a larger scale through media is also possible.

But that’s not the same as changing how society works, or how power is exercised. It also doesn’t account for those – like fascists – who are less interested in what is or is not true than they are in the assertion of power over others. Unfortunately, all the reasonableness and non-violence in the world won’t help much if someone wants everyone who believes what you do dead, and they have the power to make it happen.

There is no silver bullet here. There’s no “weird trick” or “scientific technique” that will unite humanity under a common purpose. Worse, Azarian’s idea of focusing on a “common enemy”, even one as abstract as climate change or poverty, strikes me as downright irresponsible.

First, agreeing on climate change as a common enemy is unlikely to happen so long as the capitalists funding misinformation and obstruction retain the power to do so. They have no reason to change their minds, because the way things are is working just great, as far as they’re concerned. In the words of Rex Tillerson, their philosophy is “we’ll adapt to that”, so let’s keep drilling.

Second, and more importantly, agreeing on common problems and common enemies is a very dangerous approach. For example – fascists and socialists in the early 20th century agreed that capitalism wasn’t working, and that the people in charge were doing things wrong, and focused on the wrong goals.

Common enemy, common problem.

The solution was the difference that mattered. Socialists wanted to find a way to democratize the economy, and fascists wanted to return to a nonexistent golden age, and murder the bad people who were making the bad things happen. For all the Nazis actively pursued privatization and further empowerment of capitalists, their version of agreeing that capitalism had a problem can be found in the works of Gottfried Feder, whose work “Brechung der Zinsknechtschaft“, or “Breaking Interest Bondage” advocated against the “collection” of capital (particularly through charging interest), as different from “creation” of capital which was done by fine, upstanding German workers and businessmen.

This was just a repurposed version of the same kind of antisemitism found in “A Merchant of Venice”, and meshed very well with the broader Nazi movement to blame all the world’s woes on a global Jewish Conspiracy. It was also Feder’s justification for seizing the property of Jewish Germans.

If your focus is on finding agreement, and especially if you ignore issues of social justice and injustice, then what you have in Weimar Germany is a left that hates capitalism, and a right that hates capitalism – they agree on a problem! And in observing that, you are no closer to achieving any form of universal understanding. Having a “common enemy” is useless if one group wants to radically change how society works to reduce our contribution to the problem, and another group wants to murder people who’re different until the problem goes away.

Let’s break it down further – we know that climate change is going to cause food shortages. It’s already hurting agriculture, and that’s only going to get worse as the temperature rises. My solution would be to invest heavily in weather-proof food production on a global scale, without regard for profit. Things like edible algae and bacterial cultures (usually sold in powder/flour form) aren’t necessarily the most delicious food, but they are something that can act as a backstop on famine. Further, having such facilities in every part of the world means that even if several areas are hit by  problems that shut down both conventional agriculture and food factories – wildfires, storms, war, etc. – it’s far more likely that the rest of the world will have the resources to both feed themselves and to provide food to those in need.

What’s the fascist solution? We’ve already seen some of it. When refugees came north from Guatemala fleeing both violence and drought, they wanted not just a wall that would stop the refugees, they wanted that wall electrified, and they talked about the refugees as an invasion that should be met with military force. The fascist solution is to kill people so there will be more food to go around for those who remain. This is both wholly unacceptable, and entirely useless for solving the problem.

Uniting against a common enemy is all well and good when that enemy is a group of people who are attacking. Despite the rabid anti-communism in the U.S. government (remember – the “Allied Powers” invaded Russia in 1918 in an attempt to prevent the Bolsheviks from holding power), the Americans joined with the U.S.S.R. to defeat the Nazis. The problem is, that unity only lasts as long as the enemy, and it only works if it’s an actual enemy who can be defeated through force of arms. Insofar as that applies to climate change, who’s the enemy?

I’ve been clear that I think the enemy is the capitalists who are working to maintain the system that keeps them in power. My solution is to take their power away as soon as possible, so that they can’t spread misinformation and buy politicians to prevent action on climate change that might hurt their profits. My preference is to do that nonviolently, but I’m not particularly optimistic; history has shown that capitalists generally prefer murder to losing their wealth. The fascist solution is to give all that power to an authoritarian, so he (and it always does seem to be a “he”) can “do what must be done”, which invariably means “do violence to the right people”.

To be clear, I do not think that Bobby Azarian is a fascist. I think that his work on brain differences is good, and useful. His thoughts on how provoking genuine self-analysis can “strengthen” the relevant parts of the brain are also good and useful. What’s lacking is a deeper understanding of how human thought manifests as behavior within a society. Even that, by itself, is not that big of a problem – specialization is a good thing overall – but in developing his “solution” to the problem of conservative thought, I think he has shown the failure of his own system – he thinks his analysis is good enough to be presented as a solution, when in reality he’s missing data at the “input” end, and he doesn’t even seem to know those data exist to be analyzed.

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How rich nations take their wealth from poorer nations

I’ve recently run into a number of people who aren’t aware of the fact that the prosperity of rich countries and the illusion of a “good” economic system experienced there is funded by poor countries. Getting people in wealthy nations to understand that dynamic is, in my opinion, important for building the global solidarity we’ll need to survive climate change and the death throes of Neoliberal capitalism. I’m going to try to post various articles on topics like that more regularly, just to help increase the circulation of ideas that need to spread. In that spirit, this Guardian article from 2017 is worth your time:

What they discovered is that the flow of money from rich countries to poor countries pales in comparison to the flow that runs in the other direction.
In 2012, the last year of recorded data, developing countries received a total of $1.3tn, including all aid, investment, and income from abroad. But that same year some $3.3tn flowed out of them. In other words, developing countries sent $2tn more to the rest of the world than they received. If we look at all years since 1980, these net outflows add up to an eye-popping total of $16.3tn – that’s how much money has been drained out of the global south over the past few decades. To get a sense for the scale of this, $16.3tn is roughly the GDP of the United States

What this means is that the usual development narrative has it backwards. Aid is effectively flowing in reverse. Rich countries aren’t developing poor countries; poor countries are developing rich ones.

What do these large outflows consist of? Well, some of it is payments on debt. Developing countries have forked out over $4.2tn in interest payments alone since 1980 – a direct cash transfer to big banks in New York and London, on a scale that dwarfs the aid that they received during the same period. Another big contributor is the income that foreigners make on their investments in developing countries and then repatriate back home. Think of all the profits that BP extracts from Nigeria’s oil reserves, for example, or that Anglo-American pulls out of South Africa’s gold mines.
But by far the biggest chunk of outflows has to do with unrecorded – and usually illicit – capital flight. GFI calculates that developing countries have lost a total of $13.4tn through unrecorded capital flight since 1980.

Most of these unrecorded outflows take place through the international trade system. Basically, corporations – foreign and domestic alike – report false prices on their trade invoices in order to spirit money out of developing countries directly into tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions, a practice known as “trade misinvoicing”. Usually the goal is to evade taxes, but sometimes this practice is used to launder money or circumvent capital controls. In 2012, developing countries lost $700bn through trade misinvoicing, which outstripped aid receipts that year by a factor of five.

Multinational companies also steal money from developing countries through “same-invoice faking”, shifting profits illegally between their own subsidiaries by mutually faking trade invoice prices on both sides. For example, a subsidiary in Nigeria might dodge local taxes by shifting money to a related subsidiary in the British Virgin Islands, where the tax rate is effectively zero and where stolen funds can’t be traced.
GFI doesn’t include same-invoice faking in its headline figures because it is very difficult to detect, but they estimate that it amounts to another $700bn per year. And these figures only cover theft through trade in goods. If we add theft through trade in services to the mix, it brings total net resource outflows to about $3tn per year.

That’s 24 times more than the aid budget. In other words, for every $1 of aid that developing countries receive, they lose $24 in net outflows. These outflows strip developing countries of an important source of revenue and finance for development. The GFI report finds that increasingly large net outflows have caused economic growth rates in developing countries to decline, and are directly responsible for falling living standards.

The article goes on to discuss solutions, but I think one of the biggest mental hurdles that people in predominantly white, wealthy nations need to get over, is the notion that poverty is due to some moral failing by poor people, both at a national scale, and at a global scale. We need to work together to deal with climate change, or the death toll will completely eclipse the worst atrocities in history. That means we need to let go of ideas about who “deserves” what – though to be clear, reparations are definitely owed – and focus more on using the resources we have as a species to deal with our needs as a species, including our need for a healthy global ecosystem and a stable climate.

We can’t afford to keep listening to the whines of the wealthy who think they deserve to keep their power, no matter the damage it does. Trying to maintain this system of global inequality will drive us to extinction.