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On the morning of July 23, the city of Los Angeles was covered in a dusting of ash. An apocalyptic haze muted the sun, and the sky was an eerie, unnatural pink. Just a day before, a wildfire had broken out on private land 30 miles northwest, near Santa Clarita. Within 24 hours, the Sand Fire scorched 20,000 acres, and in a week, it burned another 21,000 acres. At least 10,000 people had to evacuate before it was contained by early August.

Every day seems to bring another fire. Today, the Blue Cut fire is ravaging the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County; as of 4 p.m. today, 6,500 acres have burned, with an unknown number of structures damaged.

The most volatile fire activity in the West this year has occurred in Central and Southern California—from Big Sur to Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Bernardino—causing the closure of the Pacific Coast Highway, the destruction of hundreds of homes, and the death of at least six people. According to experts, these blazes offer a glimpse into the West’s “new normal” wildfire season that has been intensified by climate change in recent years. Warmer temperatures, less snowfall and increased drought mean that fire seasonbegins earlier in Apriland lasts longer, until November or December.

Last winter, California breathed a sigh of relief during El Niño, expecting it to drench the parched landscape after four years of drought. Northern California got more rain and remains relatively wet, but El Niño didn’t deliver enough to prevent fires in the southern part of the state.

“It’s the legacy effect of the long-term drought: these large, volatile, fast-moving wildfires in California,” says Crystal Kolden, fire science professor at the University of Idaho. By the first week of June, firefighters in California had already tackled more than 1,500 fires that burned almost 28,000 acres—twice as many acres burned as in the first half of 2015.

Looking at the West as a whole, this fire season is similar to the last couple of years—longer, hotter and harder to control— except in the Pacific Northwest, where there’s been a near-average wet, cool summer. According to a recent report from the National Interagency Fire Center, that delays the region’s greatest fire risk until later in the season. However, it has been extremely dry and hot in the Great Basin and Rockies, leading to more fire starts. Those areas should return to normal fire risk by September.

The high fire potential in California will continue during the season’s peak and through November, though, perhaps even until the first snowfall.

Typically, when the Pacific Northwest is particularly active with wildfire, the Southwest is less so, and vice versa, Kolden says, due to large-scale climate dynamics. But because of climate change in the last five to 10 years, regional wildfire seasons now often overlap. Fires are also burning a wider range of ecosystems than in the past, Kolden says. The lower-elevation sagebrush steppe is fueling fires just as much as high-elevation ponderosa forests, Southern California’s chaparral, and Idaho’s rangelands—and often, all these ecosystems are experiencing fires at the same time.

“Climate change is starting to take over,” says Kolden, “so there’s a higher probability and incidence of fires all over the West every single year.”

Two of the largest are the Soberanes Fire in California, which has burned over 76,000 acres and is only about 60 percent contained; and the Pioneer Fire near Boise, which has burned more than 76,000 acres and is about half contained. The NIFC considers both these fires its top priority because they’re proving hard to contain and near highly populated areas. As peak fire seasons stretch and overlap, firefighting resources aregetting stretched thinner. The Pioneer Fire, for example, currently has about 1,800 firefighters working on it, while the Soberanes has a record-breaking 3,800, about 1,000 down from the peak.

It’s still unclear what caused the Pioneer Fire, but an illegal campfire ignited the Soberanes blaze, and faulty hot tub wiring caused the Sand Fire. A growing percentage of wildfires are started by humans, says Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, particularly in Southern California, where the population in fire-danger areas is increasing exponentially. That’s part of the reason that, even though that area’s fires aren’t necessarily more severe than usual, this year’s have resulted in morehomes lost and a high fatality rate in California.

By this point, Stephens says, it’s clear that Western communities and federal agencies need to be more proactive at planning for fire and drought when building homes and structures and managing land. According to his research, we should be restoring forests by thinning and using prescribed burns at five to 10 times the rate we are now.

“If we don’t start to change the trajectory of forest conditions in the Western U.S., we’re literally going to be running out of options,” he says. “The big fires will continue to come.”

This piece originally appeared at High Country News.

Published in Environment

When it comes to conservation, energy and many other issues, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been a lot of hat and not much cattle. But his son, Donald Trump Jr., recently offered some insights into what his father’s natural-resources policies might look like.

While speaking at June a media summit organized by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in Fort Collins, Colo., Trump Jr., an avid hunter and angler, defended keeping federal lands managed by the government and open to the public. He also reiterated his father’s strong support for U.S. energy development, proposed corporate sponsorships in national parks, questioned humans’ role in climate change, and criticized Hillary Clinton for “pandering” to hunters with “phoniness.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-California, spoke for Clinton’s campaign at the summit a day later, providing plenty of contrast between the presidential candidates.

Trump Jr. has served as an adviser to his father on natural-resources issues and has even joked with family that, should his father win, he’d like to be secretary of the interior, overseeing national parks and millions of acres of federal public lands. In Fort Collins, he said he’s not “the policy guy,” but repeated his frequent pledge to be a “loud voice” for preserving public lands access for sportsmen.

Trump Jr. also mocked some gun-control measures, such as ammunition limits, boasting, “I have a thousand rounds of ammunition in my vehicle almost at all times because it’s called two bricks of .22 … You know, I’ll blow … through that with my kids on a weekend.”

Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate, partly distinguished himself among other GOP candidates during primary season—not that that was a problem for the New York real-estate developer—by balking at the transfer of federal public lands to states or counties. While Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and others expressed support for public-land transfers, kowtowing to some Western conservatives, Trump rejected the idea. Speaking to Field & Stream in January, Trump said: “I don’t like the idea, because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land.”

Trump Jr. reaffirmed that stance—but also supported more input for states as long as those efforts don’t jeopardize public access.

Trump, however, did attack the Bureau of Land Management and its “draconian rule,” writing in an op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal, also in January: “The BLM controls over 85 percent of the land in Nevada. In the rural areas, those who for decades have had access to public lands for ranching, mining, logging and energy development are forced to deal with arbitrary and capricious rules that are influenced by special interests that profit from the D.C. rule-making and who fill the campaign coffers of Washington politicians.”

Rep. Thompson called Trump’s somewhat muddled stance of federal land management a “dangerous position to take,” saying Clinton unequivocally opposes public-land transfers. As far as Clinton’s sporting cred, Thompson said the Democratic candidate doesn’t pretend to be a hook-and-bullet enthusiast, but “she gets it” when it comes to access issues.

During a campaign loud with proclamations yet nearly vacant of substantive policies, the most in-depth view into Trump’s resource agenda came during his May speech at a North Dakota petroleum conference. Trump pledged to “save the coal industry,” approve the Keystone XL gas pipeline, roll back federal controls limiting energy development on some public lands, and withdraw the U.S. from the Paris global climate agreement. A Republican National Committee spokesman recently said more details on Trump’s energy and environmental policies should be coming soon. His son reiterated the campaign’s “very pro-U.S. energy” position, although he did say agencies should have some role in regulating energy development on public lands, referring to the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed fracking rule that was recently rejected by a federal judge.

On climate change, Trump Jr. said U.S. and global policies shouldn’t penalize industries, and while acknowledging the strong scientific consensus on climate change and its causes, he added that humans’ and industries’ roles in global warming have “yet to be shown to me.”

Trump Jr. also offered mild support for the Endangered Species Act, saying it had achieved some successes, but argued the law has served as a “Trojan horse” to entirely prohibit development in some cases. He also suggested national-parks management and budgets could benefit from increased corporate partnerships. Trump’s son declared his own affinity for the backcountry and described national parks as being “a little bit too ‘tourist-ized’ for myself,” but he said, “I think there are ways you can do (corporate sponsorship) in a way that is beneficial” without installing flashing logos on natural features or commercializing the parks.

Clinton has shared several detailed policies on the environment and energy so far, including a white paper on land management and conservation that lays out support for a national park management fund and increased renewable energy development on public lands. Those proposals signal Clinton will “double down” on protecting public lands and preserving access, Thompson said.

Thompson also lauded Clinton for taking “a risky public position” on energy development—referring to her previous statement that she will put lots of coal mines “out of business”—and said “she hasn’t backed away from it. She understands there are better ways to generate the energy resources that we need.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Last month in Paris, 195 of the world’s leaders reached a historic agreement to lower-greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to stave off the most drastic effects of climate change—a momentous shift that will lay the groundwork for climate preparations across the globe.

Just a few weeks before the talks began, a new report showed that many Western states are unprepared to face the increasing weather-related risks posed by climate change. However, California is leading the nation in its efforts.

The States at Risk Project is a nationwide report card released last month by ICF International, a consulting firm, and Climate Central, a non-advocacy science and journalism organization. It’s the first-ever comprehensive assessment of threats to each of the 48 states in the continental U.S., such as extreme heat and drought that researchers predict will grow more severe in the future.

See an interactive map with each state’s status below.

Those findings matter because of the potential damage to human health, property and the economy. Taking steps to address these inevitable disasters cuts long-term costs, reduces impacts and ensures states and communities can more quickly rebound from losses, rather than continue to write big checks post-disaster.

In assessing those risks, the report’s authors hope to challenge the perceived lack of urgency among lawmakers and the general public that has helped thwart the policies needed to curb emissions. Human beings tend to be motivated by relatively short-term concerns, but climate change is a colossal, slow-moving, planetary scale problem—the worst of which will unfold not in our own generation, but in the next one or one after.

“One of the challenges of climate change is to make it personal and not something that’s an abstract, long-term concern,” says Richard Wiles, the senior vice president of Climate Central.

To help put climate change in concrete terms, researchers examined five major threats associated with warming global temperatures, using data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: extreme heat, drought, wildfires, and inland and coastal flooding. Analysts then assessed how prepared states are to protect people and infrastructure against those risks by looking at what each state has already done in terms of reducing current threats, as well as what states have done to plan for the future. Those actions were evaluated in five major sectors of the economy, transportation, energy, health, water, communities, as well as states as a whole.

According to the report, states in the West face some of the greatest threats from climate change. California ranks second in wildfire and inland flooding risk, and third in extreme heat. Overall, the report found that extreme heat is the most pervasive threat to the lower 48 states. Heat wave days—which the National Weather Service defines as a period of abnormally and uncomfortably hot and humid weather lasting two or more days—are projected to more than triple by 2050 in every state except Oregon.

The West also faces a growing wildfire threat concentrated in California, Arizona and Nevada, where wildlands and development converge. Increasing drought is another big concern: By 2050, all 11 Western states are projected to see their summer drought threat more than double, and in Washington, the threat level is expected to increase fourfold—the most of any state nationwide.

On the whole, the researchers found that states are prepared for the climate-related risks they face today. But 10-30 years down the road? Not so much. Arizona, for instance, completed a statewide plan in 2013 to help mitigate natural and human-caused disasters and recognizes that climate change could potentially increase some of those risks. But researchers found no evidence of funding, policies or guidelines to improve resilience against climate change-related extreme heat, drought or wildfire. Overall, the state received a C- grade for its preparedness. Neighboring Nevada fared even worse, with an F—the lowest in the West. The state has taken no action to plan for or implement measures for any of its future climate risks.

The lack of readiness for extreme heat days is particularly worrisome because of the direct threat to human health, says Wiles. That’s particularly true for people who work outdoors and those living without air conditioners, which includes the elderly and those living in poverty.

Many states have yet to begin even basic infrastructure planning required to address these future risks, like where to put cooling centers, temporary air-conditioned public spaces set up by local authorities to help people escape the heat.

Other states that received grades of C+ or lower include Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. In general, coastal states scored better in their preparedness, with California leading the way with an A grade for its efforts. Those include the 2014 Safeguarding California document, one of the most comprehensive climate-change-adaptation planning documents in the country.

What also distinguishes California from, say, Arizona is the state’s willingness to explicitly consider climate change in their planning documents.

“There’s a subtlety there,” says Kathy Jacobs, who runs the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona; she was not involved in writing the report.

“They feel like they’re prepared for the current risks but haven’t used the words climate change or climate risk,” she notes. In the future, as the threats from climate change become ever more pressing, that linguistic omission may be harder to ignore.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

When Sonoma State University professor Carl Jensen started looking into the new media’s practice of self-censorship in 1976, the Internet was only a dream, and most computers were still big mainframes with whirling tape reels and vacuum tubes.

Back then, the vast majority of Americans got all of the news from one daily newspaper and one of the three big TV networks. If a story wasn’t on ABC, NBC or CBS, it might as well not have happened.

Forty years later, the media world is a radically different place. Americans are now more likely to get their news from several different sources through Facebook than they would from CBS Evening News. Daily newspapers all over the country are struggling and, in some cases, dying. A story that appears on one obscure outlet can suddenly become a viral sensation, reaching millions of readers at the speed of light.

And yet, as Jensen’s Project Censored continues to find, there are still numerous big, important news stories that receive very little exposure.

As Project Censored staffers Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth note, 90 percent of U.S. news media—traditional outlets that employ full-time reporters—are controlled by six corporations. “The corporate media hardly represent the mainstream,” the staffers wrote in the current edition’s introduction.

“By contrast, the independent journalists that Project Censored has celebrated since its inception are now understood as vital components of what experts have identified as the newly developing ‘networked fourth estate.’”

Jensen set out to frame a new definition of censorship. He put out an annual list of the 10 biggest stories that the mainstream media ignored, arguing that it was a failure of the corporate press to pursue and promote these stories that represented censorship—not by the government, but by the media itself.

“My definition starts with the other end, with the failure of information to reach people,” he wrote. “For the purposes of this project, censorship is defined as the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method—including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship, which prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in the world.”

Jensen died in April 2015, but his project was inherited and carried on by Sonoma State sociology professor Peter Phillips and Huff.

Huff teaches social science and history at Diablo Valley College. Under their leadership, the Project has, at times, veered off into the loony world of conspiracies and Sept. 11 “truther” territory. A handful of stories included in the annual publication—to be kind—were difficult to verify. That’s caused a lot of us in the alternative press to question the validity of the annual list.

But Huff, who is now project director, and Roth, the associate director, have expanded and tightened up the process of selecting stories. Project staffers and volunteers first fact-check nominations that come in to make sure they are “valid” news reports. Then a panel of 28 judges—mostly academics with a few journalists and media critics—finalize the Top 10 and the 15 runners-up.

The results are published in a book that was released Oct. 6 by Seven Stories Press.

I’ve been writing about Project Censored for 25 years, and I think it’s safe to say that the stories on this year’s list are credible, valid—and critically important. Even in an era when most of us are drunk with information, overloaded by buzzing social media telling us things we didn’t think we needed to know, these stories haven’t gotten anywhere near the attention they deserve.

1. Half of global wealth owned by the 1 percent

We hear plenty of talk about the wealth and power of the top 1 percent of people in the United States, but the global wealth gap is, if anything, even worse. And it has profound human consequences.

Oxfam International, which has been working for decades to fight global poverty, released a January 2015 report showing that, if current trends continue, the wealthiest 1 percent, by the end of this year, will control more wealth than everyone else in the world put together.

As reported in Project Censored, “The Oxfam report provided evidence that extreme inequality is not inevitable, but is, in fact, the result of political choices and economic policies established and maintained by the power elite, wealthy individuals whose strong influence keeps the status quo rigged in their own favor.”

Another stunning fact: The wealth of 85 of the richest people in the world combined is equal to the wealth of half the world’s poor combined.

The mainstream news media coverage of the report and the associated issues was spotty, at best, Project Censored notes: A few corporate television networks, including CNN, CBS, MSNBC, ABC, FOX and C-SPAN covered Oxfam’s January report, according to the TV News Archive. CNN had the most coverage with about seven broadcast segments from Jan. 19 to 25, 2015. However, these stories aired between 2 and 3 a.m.—far from primetime.

Sources: Larry Elliott and Ed Pilkington, “New Oxfam Report Says Half of Global Wealth Held by the 1%,” Guardian, Jan.19, 2015

Sarah Dransfield, “Number of Billionaires Doubled Since Financial Crisis as Inequality Spirals Out of Control–Oxfam,” Oxfam, Oct. 29, 2014

Samantha Cowan, “Every Kid on Earth Could Go to School If the World’s 1,646 Richest People Gave 1.5 Percent,” TakePart, Nov. 3, 2014

2. Oil Industry Illegally Dumps Fracking Wastewater

Fracking, which involves pumping high-pressure water and chemicals into rock formations to free up oil and natural gas, has been a huge issue nationwide. But there’s been little discussion of one of the side effects: The contamination of aquifers.

The Center for Biological Diversity reported in 2014 that oil companies had dumped almost 3 billion gallons of fracking wastewater into California’s underground water supply. Since the companies refuse to say what chemicals they use in the process, nobody knows exactly what the level of contamination is. But wells that supply drinking water near where the fracking waste was dumped tested high in arsenic, thallium and nitrates.

According to Project Censored, “Although corporate media have covered debate over fracking regulations, the Center for Biological Diversity study regarding the dumping of wastewater into California’s aquifers went all but ignored at first. There appears to have been a lag of more than three months between the initial independent news coverage of the Center for Biological Diversity revelations and corporate coverage.

In May 2015, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page feature on Central Valley crops irrigated with treated oil field water; however, the Los Angeles Times report made no mention of the Center for Biological Diversity’s findings regarding fracking wastewater contamination.”

Sources: Dan Bacher, “Massive Dumping of Wastewater into Aquifers Shows Big Oil’s Power in California,” IndyBay, Oct. 11, 2014

“California Aquifers Contaminated with Billions of Gallons of Fracking Wastewater,” Russia Today Oct. 11, 2014

Donny Shaw, “CA Senators Voting NO on Fracking Moratorium Received 14x More from Oil & Gas Industry,” MapLight, June 3, 2014

Dan Bacher, “Senators Opposing Fracking Moratorium Received 14x More Money from Big Oil,” IndyBay, June 7, 2014

3. 89 percent of Pakistani drone victims not identifiable as militants

The United States sends drone aircraft into combat on a regular basis, particularly in Pakistan. The Obama administration says the drones fire missiles only when there is clear evidence that the targets are al-Qaida bases. Secretary of State John Kerry insists that “the only people we fire a drone at are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest levels.”

But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which keeps track of all the strikes, reported that only 4 percent of those killed by drones were al-Qaida members, and only 11 percent were confirmed militants of any sort.

That means 89 percent of the 2,464 people killed by U.S. drones could not be identified as terrorists. In fact, 30 percent of the dead could not be identified at all.

The New York Times has covered the fact that, as one story noted, “most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.” But overall, the mainstream news media ignored the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting.

Sources: Jack Serle, “Almost 2,500 Now Killed by Covert US Drone Strikes Since Obama Inauguration Six Years Ago,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Feb. 2, 2015

Jack Serle, “Get the Data: A List of US Air and Drone Strikes, Afghanistan 2015,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Feb. 12, 2015

Steve Coll, “The Unblinking Stare: The Drone War in Pakistan,” New Yorker, Nov. 24, 2014

Abigail Fielding-Smith, “John Kerry Says All those Fired at by Drones in Pakistan are ‘Confirmed Terrorist Targets’—But with 1,675 Unnamed Dead How Do We Know?” Bureau of Investigative Journalism,Oct. 23, 2014

Jack Serle, “Only 4% of Drone Victims in Pakistan Named as al Qaeda Members,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Oct. 16, 2014

Jeremy Scahill, “Germany is the Tell-Tale Heart of America’s Drone War,” Intercept, April 17, 2015

4. Popular resistance to corporate water-grabbing

For decades, private companies have been trying to take over and control water supplies, particularly in the developing world. Now, as journalist Ellen Brown reported in March 2015, corporate water barons, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, the Carlyle Group and other investment firms, “are purchasing water rights from around the world at an unprecedented pace.”

However, over the past 15 years, more than 180 communities have fought back and re-municipalized their water systems. “From Spain to Buenos Aires, Cochabamba to Kazakhstan, Berlin to Malaysia, water privatization is being aggressively rejected,” Victoria Collier reported in Counterpunch.

Meanwhile, in the United States, some cities—in what may be a move toward privatization—are radically raising water rates and cutting off service to low-income communities.

The mainstream media response to the privatization of water has been largely silence.

Sources: Ellen Brown, “California Water Wars: Another Form of Asset Stripping?,” Nation of Change, March 25, 2015

Victoria Collier, “Citizens Mobilize Against Corporate Water Grabs,” CounterPunch, Feb. 11, 2015

Larry Gabriel, “When the City Turned Off Their Water, Detroit Residents and Groups Delivered Help,” YES! Magazine, Nov. 24, 2014

Madeline Ostrander, “LA Imports Nearly 85 Percent of Its Water—Can It Change That by Gathering Rain?,” YES! Magazine, Jan. 5, 2015

5. Fukushima nuclear disaster deepens

Nearly five years after a tsunami destroyed Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant and causing one of the worst nuclear accidents in human history, radiation from the plant continues to leak into the ocean.

But the story has largely disappeared from the news.

As Project Censored notes: “The continued dumping of extremely radioactive cooling water into the Pacific Ocean from the destroyed nuclear plant, already being detected along the Japanese coastline, has the potential to impact entire portions of the Pacific Ocean and North America’s western shoreline. Aside from the potential release of plutonium into the Pacific Ocean, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) recently admitted that the facility is releasing large quantities of water contaminated with tritium, cesium and strontium into the ocean every day.”

We’re talking large amounts of highly contaminated water getting dumped into the ocean. The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, “admitted that the facility is releasing a whopping 150 billion becquerels of tritium and seven billion becquerels of cesium- and strontium-contaminated water into the ocean every day.” The potential for long-term problems all over the world is huge—and the situation hasn’t been contained.

Sources: “TEPCO Drops Bombshell About Sea Releases; 8 Billion Bq Per Day,” Simply Info: The Fukushima Project, Aug. 26, 2014

Sarah Lazare, “Fukushima Meltdown Worse Than Previous Estimates: TEPCO,” Common Dreams, Aug. 7, 2014

Michel Chossudovsky, “The Fukushima Endgame: The Radioactive Contamination of the Pacific Ocean,” Global Research, Dec. 17, 2014

6. The global impacts of methane and arctic warming

We all know that carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are a huge threat to climate stability. But there’s another giant threat out there that hasn’t made much news.

The arctic ice sheets, which are rapidly melting in some areas, contain massive amounts of methane—a greenhouse gas that’s way worse than carbon dioxide. And, as the ice recedes, that methane is getting released into the atmosphere.

Dahr Jamail, writing in Truthout, notes that all of our predictions about the pace of global warming and its impacts might have to be re-evaluated in the wake of revelations about methane releases:

“A 2013 study, published in Nature, reported that a 50-gigaton ‘burp’ of methane is ‘highly possible at any time.’ As Jamail clarified, ‘That would be the equivalent of at least 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide,’ noting that, since 1850, humans have released a total of about 1,475 gigatons in carbon dioxide. A massive, sudden change in methane levels could, in turn, lead to temperature increases of four to six degrees Celsius in just one or two decades—a rapid rate of climate change to which human agriculture, and ecosystems more generally, could not readily adapt.”

Jamail quoted Paul Beckwith, a professor of climatology and meteorology at the University of Ottawa: “Our climate system is in early stages of abrupt climate change that, unchecked, will lead to a temperature rise of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius within a decade or two.” Such changes would have “unprecedented effects” for life on Earth.

A huge story? Apparently not. The major news media have written at length about the geopolitics of the arctic region, but there’s been very little mention of the methane monster.

Source: Dahr Jamail, “The Methane Monster Roars,” Truthout, Jan. 13, 2015

7. Fear of government spying is chilling writers’ freedom of expression

Writers in Western liberal democracies may not face the type of censorship seen in some parts of the world, but their fear of government surveillance is causing many to think twice about what they can say.

Lauren McCauley, writing in Common Dreams, quoted one of the conclusions from a report by the writers’ group PEN America: “If writers avoid exploring topics for fear of possible retribution, the material available to readers—particularly those seeking to understand the most controversial and challenging issues facing the world today—may be greatly impoverished.”

According to Project Censored, a PEN America survey showed that “34 percent of writers in liberal democracies reported some degree of self-censorship (compared with 61 percent of writers living in authoritarian countries, and 44 percent in semi-democratic countries). Almost 60 percent of the writers from Western Europe, the United States … indicated that U.S. credibility ‘has been significantly damaged for the long term’ by revelations of the U.S. government surveillance programs.’”

Other than Common Dreams’ coverage, the PEN report attracted almost no major media attention.

Sources: Lauren McCauley, “Fear of Government Spying ‘Chilling’ Writers’ Speech Worldwide,” Common Dreams, Jan. 5, 2015

Lauren McCauley, “Government Surveillance Threatens Journalism, Law and Thus Democracy: Report,” Common Dreams, July 28, 2014

8. Who dies at the hands of police—and how often?

High-profile police killings, particularly of African-American men, have made big news over the past few years. But there’s been much less attention paid to the overall numbers—and to the difference between how many people are shot by cops in the United States and in other countries.

In the January 2015 edition of Liberation, Richard Becker, relying on public records, concluded that the rate of U.S. police killing was 100 times that of England, 40 times that of Germany, and 20 times the rate in Canada.

In June 2015, a team of reporters from the Guardian concluded that 102 unarmed people were killed by U.S. police in the first five months of that year—twice the rate reported by the government.

Furthermore, the Guardian wrote, “black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people.” The paper concluded that, “Thirty-two percent of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25 percent of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15 percent of white people killed.”

And as far as accountability goes, the Washington Post noted that in 385 cases of police killings, only three officers faced charges.

Sources: Richard Becker, “U.S. Cops Kill at 100 Times Rate of Other Capitalist Countries,” Liberation, Jan. 4, 2015

Jon Swaine, Oliver Laughland, and Jamiles Lartey, “Black Americans Killed by Police Twice as Likely to be Unarmed as White People,” Guardian, June 1, 2015

9. Millions in poverty get less media coverage than billionaires do

The news media in the United States doesn’t like to talk about poverty, but they love to report on the lives and glory of the super-rich.

The advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting analyzed the three major television news networks and found that 482 billionaires got more attention than the 50 million people who live in poverty.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who follows the mainstream media, or pays much attention to the world of social media and the blogosphere. The top rung of society gets vast amounts of attention, for good and for ill—but the huge numbers of people who are homeless, hungry and often lacking in hope just aren’t news.

“The notion that the wealthiest nation on Earth has one in every six of its citizens living at or below the poverty threshold reflects not a lack of resources, but a lack of policy focus and attention—and this is due to a lack of public awareness to the issue,” Frederick Reese of MintPress News wrote.

From Project Censored: “The FAIR study showed that between January 2013 and February 2014, an average of only 2.7 seconds per every 22-minute episode discussed poverty in some format. During the 14-month study, FAIR found just 23 news segments that addressed poverty.”

Sources: Steve Rendall, Emily Kaufmann, and Sara Qureshi, “Even GOP Attention Can’t Make Media Care about Poor,” Extra!, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, June 1, 2014

“Millions in Poverty Get Less Coverage Than 482 Billionaires,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, June 26, 2014

Frederick Reese, “Billionaires Get More Media Attention Than The Poor,” MintPress News, June 30, 2014

Tavis Smiley, “Poverty Less Than .02 Percent of Lead Media Coverage,” Huffington Post, March 7, 2014

10. Costa Rica is setting the standard on renewable energy

Is it possible to meet a modern nation’s energy needs without any fossil-fuel consumption? Yes. Costa Rica has been doing it.

To be fair, that country’s main industries—tourism and agriculture—are not energy-intensive, and heavy rainfall in the first part of the year made it possible for the country to rely heavily on its hydropower resources. But even in normal years, Costa Rica generates 90 percent of its energy without burning any fossil fuels.

Iceland also produces the vast majority of its energy from renewable sources.

The transition to 100 percent renewables will be harder for larger countries—but as the limited reporting on Costa Rica notes, it’s possible to take large steps in that direction.

Sources: Myles Gough, “Costa Rica Powered with 100% Renewable Energy for 75 Straight Days,” Science Alert, March 20, 2015

Adam Epstein, “Costa Rica is Now Running Completely on Renewable Energy,” Quartz, March 23, 2015

Tim Redmond, a longtime editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, is the founding member of the San Francisco Progressive Media Center and editor of that nonprofit organization’s publication 48 Hills.

Published in Features

On this week's effervescent Independent comics page: Red Meat doesn't much care for negativity; Jen Sorenson examines the phenomenon of "trigger trash"; The K Chronicles discusses what it's really like to be in prison; and This Modern World looks at objections to The Proven Thing.

Published in Comics

Aspen trees are the rock stars of the tree world. They have a bold fashion sense, gilding the mountains in gold each fall. And they engage in risky behavior: In the competitive world of plant biology, their strategy is to grow fast and die young. Juniper trees, which grow slowly, invest much of their carbon in building strong vascular tissue; aspen trees instead put carbon toward growing tall quickly.

Yet the two trees adopt the same strategy when drought hits: Unlike pines, they leave their stomata open. Those tiny pores on their leaves allow the trees to take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and photosynthesize. But the atmosphere demands water in return, which escapes through the tree's stomata. During drought, the process creates extra tension in the plant's tissue, since the trees have less water to give, and the parched atmosphere is especially thirsty.

This is when the juniper's investments in building tough tissue pays off: The tubes that transport water through the tree can withstand an increase in tension. The Aspen tree, on the other hand, becomes vulnerable. Their tubes are more likely to collapse, which can eventually lead to the tree's death.

A few years ago, Bill Anderegg, a forest who is now an assistant professor at the University of Utah, figured out that this was what was killing aspen trees in his native Colorado. (Around 2004, aspen trees throughout the Rocky Mountains began mysteriously dying in droves, a phenomenon that was dubbed "sudden aspen decline.") But he noticed something else curious about their pattern of death: There seemed to be a lag between the drought and its consequences. Tree growth would slow for a few years, but they often wouldn't start to die until three to eight years after the drought.

"There was an interesting paradox of trees being stressed and dying from drought in completely wet soils," Anderegg says. "Which prompted me to ask the question: How widespread are these legacy effects?"

It turned out they were quite widespread, according to the results of a study Anderegg recently authored in the journal Science. Using data from a global tree ring archive, Anderegg measured tree growth following severe drought at 1,338 sites, primarily in the Northern Hemisphere and outside the tropics. Growth is a good proxy for forest health, Anderegg explains, and it's also the primary way trees store carbon. That's important, because globally, forests take up about a quarter of anthropogenic carbon emissions. Their continued ability to sequester carbon at that level is critical to blunting the most severe effects of climate change.

With a few exceptions, tree growth slowed for two to four years after severe drought, with the most enduring effects appearing in arid environments—another indication of the troubles Southwestern forests are likely to face as the climate warms.

"It does seem like species that took more risks during drought seemed to recover more slowly," he says, like aspen, which don't close their stomata and conserve water. "Which does indicate that there's some role of this damage to their hydraulic systems that could slow their growth in subsequent years."

Scientific models of the global carbon cycle—which are important for projecting climate change—don't account for this slow-down in growth. "The models assume there is no lag, so as soon as climate is better, so is growth," says Nate McDowell, who researches the physiology of tree death at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. That means that models may overestimate the ability of ecosystems to store carbon—and underestimate the severity of future climate change.

If droughts do become more frequent and severe, Anderegg says, as climate models predict, "this suggests that more forests are going to spend more and more of their time recovering, and become less good at taking up carbon." Anderegg estimates that in Southwestern forests, the lag could amount to a 3 percent reduction in their carbon storage over a century. That may not sound like much, but when it comes to squirreling away the emissions we stubbornly keep spewing, we need all the help we can get.

Plus, the meaningfulness of such numbers is a matter of scale, notes Adrian Das, a forest ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in the Southern Sierra Nevada. While we don't know what the precise effect of that reduced carbon storage might be, locally or globally, "these changes can translate into really large absolute numbers," he says. "Three percent is not very much if it’s five trees. It means something different if it’s thousands of trees."

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor to High Country News, where this story originally appeared.

Published in Environment

On this week's exciting Independent comics page: This Modern World deals with an alien invasion (but not very well); Jen Sorenson has a proposal for defenders of fracking; The K Chronicles packs up and moves cross-country; and Red Meat seeks some medicine, of sorts.

Published in Comics

On this week's humble and modest Independent comics page: The K Chronicles is finally somebody; This Modern World ponders the Trans-Pacific Partnership; Jen Sorenson sells some science; and Red Meat looks for some aluminum cans.

Published in Comics

On this week's sexy Independent comics page: This Modern World looks at Ted Cruz's path to the White House; Jen Sorenson says goodbye to South Florida; The K Chronicles struggles with liberal guilt; and Red Meat gets ready to go bowling.

Published in Comics

On this week's semi-treasonous Independent comics page: In the wake of the letter to Iran from congressional Republicans, The K Chronicles wonders what else Republicans have been doing to mess with the White House; This Modern World similarly wonders what other "cheeky" acts the GOP has been up to; Jen Sorenson looks at advances in Internet trolling; and Red Meat cancels a trip to the beach.

Published in Comics

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