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2019
January
28
Monday

Bring back the milkman. That’s the concept behind the latest waste reduction project.

A coalition of big name brands aims to build reuse into consumption – like the milkmen of an earlier era. In the modern version, products like Tide detergent, Degree deodorant, or Häagen Dazs ice cream would be hand-delivered in durable containers via a subscription delivery service. Later, empties would be picked up, sanitized, and refilled. The project, announced Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is set to pilot in New York and Paris this spring.

Companies involved in the project are largely responding to consumer pressure for more environmentally friendly packaging – part of a broader waste reduction movement.

The past few years have seen a rebellion against the ubiquity of plastic straws, single-use shopping bags, and disposable cutlery. Simultaneously, reuse has extended beyond the realm of water bottles and canning jar lunches to everything from reusable food covers (replacing plastic wrap) to cloth “paper” towels.

Growing up, I knew few people who hand-washed and reused plastic bags, sometimes for years – like my parents. But today, reusing all sorts of things has moved into the mainstream as more people have taken on the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” as a personal responsibility.

Now onto our five stories for your Monday.

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1. How do you define ‘wall’? Keeping Washington open may hinge on the answer.

“The wall” has become a powerful symbol for both sides of the political aisle. And a symbol, rather than an actual wall, is harder to negotiate.

Eva
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Trump waves as he walks through the Colonnade from the Oval Office of the White House to announce a deal to temporarily reopen the government on Jan. 25, 2019.

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Will the government shut down again in three weeks? That might depend on what the meaning of the word “wall” is. Democrats are firmly opposed to a physical wall. But they are open to spending for replacement fencing, levees, bollards, and electronic barriers. President Trump has insisted on an imposing Great Wall-type structure, but at various times he’s said that would be concrete or could be steel slats or maybe even based on drones, sensors, and other “smart wall” technology. Upcoming talks thus may be as much about semantics as about stuff. In this they could be a symbol for American politics in a polarized age, in which the fight is about messaging as much as policy and winning means the team on the other side should lose. The upshot: The “wall” has become what political scientists call a condensation symbol, something that stands for schism, frustration, fear of immigrants, and a lengthening list of other positions and feelings. “All of these things are embodied by the wall itself ... all of this cultural symbolizing is packed into the wall,” says Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political discourse at Texas A&M University.

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1. How do you define ‘wall’? Keeping Washington open may hinge on the answer.

Will the government shut down again in three weeks? That might depend on what the meaning of the word “wall” is.

Or rather, it might depend on whether Democratic and Republican congressional negotiators can agree on border security measures that meet their mutually exclusive “wall” definition needs.

Democrats are firmly opposed to a physical wall – “a big, beautiful wall,” in President Trump’s phrase. But they are open to spending for replacement fencing, levees, bollards, and electronic barriers. Mr. Trump has insisted on an imposing Great Wall-type structure, but at various times he’s said that would be concrete, or could be steel slats, or maybe even based on drones, sensors, and other “smart wall” technology.

Upcoming talks thus may be as much about semantics as about stuff. In this they could be a symbol for American politics in a polarized age, where the fight is about messaging as much as policy, and winning means the team on the other side of the aisle should lose.

The upshot: The “wall” has become what political scientists call a condensation symbol, something that stands for schism, frustration, fear of immigrants, Trump himself, opposition to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and a lengthening list of other positions and feelings.

“All of these things are embodied by the wall itself ... all of this cultural symbolizing is packed into the wall,” says Jennifer Mercieca, an assistant professor and historian of American political discourse at Texas A&M University.

The 17 House and Senate negotiators named to come up with an agreement on Department of Homeland Security spending for fiscal year 2019 will meet for the first time on Wednesday. They have until Feb. 15 to strike a deal on border security that threads a needle and satisfies lawmakers of both parties on the wall and other difficult immigration issues.

The chairman and ranking minority member of the appropriations panels of both chambers will lead this conference committee. That’s cause for hope, say some analysts. Appropriators are generally pragmatic dealmakers used to simply finding an acceptable compromise between spending proposals. 

They could take Trump’s $5.7 billion wall request, find a midpoint with the Democrat’s $1.6 billion offer for non-wall security, and then finesse language that allows the president to claim he’s got a wall down payment, while Democrats insist that the money is for items that don’t really constitute Trump’s cherished hard barrier.

“It is possible for them to reach a basic agreement,” says G. William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

The wild card, as has often been the case in the last two years, is the president. The wall was a core promise in Trump’s campaign but most congressional Republicans have shown only tepid interest in the concept, at best.

Thus a deal that satisfies the Senate GOP might not work in the Oval Office. In an interview published in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend, Trump said there was less than a 50-50 chance that Congress would strike an acceptable agreement. If it doesn’t include a “very strong form of physical barrier,” said Trump, he could invoke a national emergency and proceed on the wall by himself.

Such a declaration could quickly become mired in the courts. GOP lawmakers are worried it might eventually produce a precedent that future Democratic presidents could invoke to take executive action on their own big issues, such as climate change or health care.

But the president has also occasionally talked about the wall in a way that seems open to compromise with Democratic positions. He’s talked often about “steel slats” as an alternative to concrete slabs, and mused on occasion about the possibility the wall could include “smart wall” sections of drones and other non-permanent infrastructure.

It’s possible the president is sending up trial balloons with this sort of language, says David Barker, executive director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. If he doesn’t think he’ll lose the right wing or his core supporters, he might edge closer to approval of a House-Senate compromise where he gets more border money, but there is language circumscribing the money’s use.

“That offers the possibility that Trump could claim victory because he got his underlying interests served, because he can say he secured the border, and Democrats can say they didn’t capitulate to this idea of the wall,” says Professor Barker.

After all, in a polarized world where voters pay less attention to detail and focus instead on cues given by party leaders, a “victory” can be in the eye of the beholder. The ability to present events in the best light has been a Trump trademark, and he could do that again if conferees produce a deal.

“Whatever he signs, he’s going to say it’s a win. It could be a bridge letting people in and he’d frame it as a win,” says Erin O’Brien, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

The “wall” lends itself to that kind of redefinition, because as noted above, it’s symbol as much as steel. Maybe – probably – more so.

Defining it as a condensation symbol, in which it includes meaning that is not directly relevant to the wall itself, is one way to look at it, according to Professor Mercieca of Texas A&M. It could also be seen as the opposite – an empty signifier. It means nothing, and everything, at the same time.

“So you can put whatever you want into it,” she says. “Discourse defines the ‘wall.’ ”

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2. Brexit puts EU nurses – and British health care – on rocky road

For many proponents of Brexit, the core of the effort is about protecting Britishness from diffusion in the European project. But what if Europe is needed to keep alive one of the most British of institutions?

Eva
Tim Ireland/AP/FILE
Demonstrators gather in Parliament Square in London before a group of EU citizens of several nationalities lobby Members of Parliament over their right to remain in Britain in February 2017.

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Even as migration to Britain from the European Union has dropped to its lowest level since 2012, British health-care services need immigration more than ever. The National Health Service has been facing chronic gaps in staffing; 1 in 8 nursing positions in England is unfilled. To fight those shortages, it has turned to Europe; more than 63,000 EU nationals work for the NHS in England. Now, the strains Brexit is causing within Britain’s European expat community could severely undermine one of Britain’s most cherished institutions. Ironically, the uneasy mood among European NHS employees comes as the proportion of Britons who name immigration as a top issue is at its lowest level since 2001. This suggests that NHS recruiters could have a freer hand to hire Europeans and others to keep the system running even under a more restrictive immigration policy after Brexit. “There's just enormous permission for all of the skilled workers and social care workers and health workers” to be allowed to work in Britain, says Sunder Katwala, who runs the think tank British Future. “People say, ‘I know what's in it for me.’ ”

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Brexit puts EU nurses – and British health care – on rocky road

Eight years after moving to England to work as a nurse in a public hospital, Fabio Vasconcelos is weighing his future. He has a wife, a son, and another child on the way, and owns an apartment in London. “We are invested here,” he says.

As a Portuguese national, his “investment” was upended by the June 2016 referendum that mandated a British exit from the European Union. Mr. Vasconcelos is among millions of continental Europeans who had exercised their rights to live and work in Britain and now face the uncertainty of Brexit, a political decision based in part on hostility to mass migration.

Vasconcelos now works as a consultant to the National Health Service (NHS), helping hospitals to increase their productivity in operating rooms. It’s a career that he values in a country that he thought of as home, but today seems less welcoming. “We were clearly building a future here rather than somewhere else,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

For the NHS, the country’s largest employer, there’s a lot at stake in Vasconcelos’s decision, and that of his European peers.

Even as migration to Britain from the EU has dropped to its lowest level since 2012, its health-care services need immigration more than ever. The NHS has been facing chronic gaps in staffing; 1 in 8 nursing positions in England is unfilled, a shortfall of 41,000. To fight those shortages, it has turned to Europe; more than 63,000 EU nationals work for the NHS in England. Now, the strains Brexit is causing within Britain’s European expat community could bring calamitous effect upon one of the most valued British institutions.

Ironically, the uneasy mood among European NHS employees (and potential employees) comes as the proportion of Britons who name immigration as a top issue is at its lowest level since 2001, a seismic shift in attitudes. Respondents are also far more positive about the contribution of migrants to the economy. This suggests that NHS recruiters could have a freer hand to hire Europeans and others to keep the system running even under a more restrictive immigration policy after Brexit.

“There's just enormous permission for all of the skilled workers and social care workers and health workers” to be allowed to work in Britain, says Sunder Katwala, who runs British Future, a think tank in London. “It's very pragmatic.... People say, ‘I know what’s in it for me.’ ”

Britain’s immigration debate

For much of the 20th century, immigration was an afterthought for most voters. Until the 1960s, migrants from Britain’s former colonies could move here freely; many never even applied for residency or naturalization. “Britain came late to the citizenship game,” says Thom Brooks, a professor of law and government at Durham University.

In the 1970s and 1980s, more people left than arrived in some years. That changed in the 1990s as Britain’s stronger economy attracted more migrants from Europe, particularly from former communist countries. The number of foreign-born residents more than doubled between 1993 and 2013 from 3.8 million to around 7.8 million, according to an Oxford University analysis. Poles now make up Britain’s largest foreign community estimated at nearly 1 million.

Most Londoners took this transformation into their stride. “A quarter of all Poles came to London. I don’t think anyone noticed,” says Mr. Katwala.

In other parts of England and Wales, however, voters felt blindsided by a surge of Eastern European job seekers, even when their absolute numbers were fairly low. The pace of change was too rapid for some and fed a narrative that elites in London and other big cities were ignoring the downside of immigration, including crime and welfare dependency.

This backlash was taken up by the Conservative Party in 2010 and turned into a target to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” annually. “It’s a focus on population growth. It plays to the idea of a small island nation” with finite resources, says Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

Among the resources that migrants were accused of straining was the NHS. Stories of overcrowded hospital wards took on an anti-migrant gloss. Right-wing tabloids claimed that British taxpayers were on the hook to treat migrants and asylum seekers from countries with higher incidence of infectious diseases. “Sickly immigrants add £1 billion to NHS bill,” warned the Daily Mail in 2015.

As a result, immigration, border security, and the NHS ended up playing significant roles in the 2016 Brexit debate. The Leave campaign’s slogan of “Take Back Control” resonated with British voters who felt powerless to stop EU migrants whom they saw as competing for jobs and housing, particularly in smaller cities and towns.

“The referendum was a vote of no confidence in how immigration had been handled in this country for the last 15 years,” says Katwala.

And the NHS had a memorable walk-on role in the referendum: Leave campaigners claimed wrongly that Britain paid £350 million ($460 million) a week to the EU and that this money could be redirected to the NHS.

Migrants and the NHS

Studies have found no evidence that immigration taps the NHS’s resources, however. Migrants from the European Economic Area – the EU plus Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein – “contribute much more to the health service and the provision of social care in financial resources and through work than they consume in services,” the government’s independent Migration Advisory Committee wrote in a 2018 report.

In the same report, the authors note that EEA migrants on average pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits, but that this didn’t apply to workers with a household income of less than £30,000 a year. “A more selective approach to EEA migration, which is not available under free movement, could provide an even more positive impact of migration on the public finances.”

But while migration hasn’t been shown to play a detrimental effect on the NHS, Brexit has been casting a shadow over the health service. Since Brexit, the recruitment of EU nurses has stalled: In 2015-16, nearly 1 in 5 new hires were Europeans. In 2017-18, this fell to 7.9 percent, according to NHS data.

Barts Health NHS Trust runs five hospitals in East London, serving some of Britain’s most deprived communities, and employs 24,000 staff, including volunteers and consultants. Around 1 in 10 permanent staff are EU nationals. While some have left since Brexit, others have replaced them, easing the pressure, says Michael Pantlin, director of human resources at Barts.

Turning off the tap of EU talent would be a disaster for health services. “Frankly we wouldn’t be able to cope. Something would have to change,” he says.

Last month the government issued a long-delayed white paper on post-Brexit immigration at what it calls “sustainable levels.” Among other proposals, it set a salary floor of £30,000 a year for long-term work visas. By doing so, it shuts out low-paid workers who come to Britain to make hotel beds, prepare sandwiches, and slaughter chickens.

But it also slams the door on many of the foreign nurses and non-clinical staff on which NHS Trusts like Barts have come to depend. “You’ve got a big raft of jobs which are well below that sort of salary,” says Mr. Pantlin, noting that newly qualified nurses earn under the threshold.

The government has pledged to expand university nursing programs, which recruiters say is helpful but not a quick fix. “The reason we’re so reliant on overseas talent is that we haven’t invested enough in our training services for many years,” says Pantlin.

‘Are we a welcoming nation?’

Still, the idea that Britons would turn away foreign nurses to satisfy a migration target is misplaced, argues Katwala. In focus groups held in 60 cities in 2017-18, participants were largely supportive of hard-working migrants who came with skills, including EU nationals already here. Roughly one-third took the opposite view that cutting migration should be the goal.

“There is an enormously broad consensus on the value of skilled migration,” he says.

What exactly counts as skilled, and where to draw the salary line, is contested. Migrants who work as builders and cooks are seen by some, but not all, as competing with native-born. Fruit pickers get a pass because parents don’t see their own kids in those jobs, says Katwala.

As for nurses and doctors, they are sympathetic figures, particularly in the context of the NHS, a national institution that no government can be seen to undermine. Analysts say this could mean flexibility in issuing visas for skilled workers – at the cost of a migration target that Prime Minister Theresa May has clung to long after other Conservatives concluded it was unrealistic and an economic drag.

Last week, Britain began rolling out a long-term residency program for EU citizens and their families. More than 3 million people could be eligible to apply, though it’s unclear how many will and what happens to those who fail to register by June 2021.

Barts has tried to reassure staff that they are welcome. Given the enormity of the decision, and the nagging uncertainty of Brexit, it was mostly a symbolic offer, says Pantlin. But the dilemma is theirs.

“Beyond policy, there is ‘Are we a welcoming nation?’ ” he says. “And that sometimes speaks volumes, more than policy.”

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of the referendum that mandated a British exit from the European Union. It was June 2016.]

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3. As Israel, Iran square off in Syria, Russia may need to mediate

The planned US withdrawal from Syria has both practical and symbolic implications. On the ground, Russia now appears best positioned to resolve disputes in the country, if it is ready to take on the role.

Eva

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When Russia intervened to tip the Syrian civil war in favor of the Assad regime, it bolstered its strategic weight in the Eastern Mediterranean. And with the United States planning to withdraw most of its troops from Syria, Russia is emerging as the main power in the country. Now it finds itself caught in the middle of a battle between Israel and Iran. Following a dramatic exchange of missile fire last week, Russia was forced into a delicate balancing act, first reprimanding Israel, then voicing support for its security. Last year Russia offered to establish a buffer zone in Syria that would be a no-go zone for Iranian forces. But Israelis have been hesitant to trust Russia. Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says only Israel can protect itself from Iran, but “there are other forces that can affect Iranian considerations in the future.’’ Russia “doesn’t want to see an Iranian conversion of Syria into an Iranian satellite,” he says. “Iranian and Russian interests are not identical…. Whether [Russians] prefer to use the levers they have at their disposal remains to be seen, but they are a strong power in the Middle East.”

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As Israel, Iran square off in Syria, Russia may need to mediate

The homemade video shows a peaceful scene of skiers coasting down a shimmering snow-covered trail on the southern slopes of Mount Hermon, a towering range that straddles the borders of Syria, Lebanon, and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Suddenly, the camera catches the smoke trails of a pair of Israel’s Iron Dome missiles launching from just below the ski area. The missiles streak across the blue sky to intercept an Iranian surface-to-surface missile fired in retaliation for a pre-dawn Israeli strike on targets near Damascus.

The Jan. 20 footage was a surreal reminder of how Israel and Iran appear to be inching dangerously toward a larger clash over Iran’s military presence in Syria as the civil war there winds down.

The exchange of hostile fire by the two enemies also seemed to pose an urgent question: Who or what can prevent further escalation?

With the United States, Israel’s main ally, withdrawing most of its troops from Syria in the coming months, Russia is emerging as the sole power in the region with enough weight to throw around to stop Israel and Iran from turning Syria into a gridiron, analysts say.

After intervening in Syria in 2015 to tip the balance of the civil war in favor of the Assad regime, Russia has used its involvement to bolster its strategic weight in the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria. Though Moscow has so far watched the spat from the sidelines, a wider Israel-Iran conflagration could threaten the gains that it has made in Syria – and prompt Russia to put the brakes on an escalation.

“It’s precarious,’’ says Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, referring to the standoff. “If Iran’s deployments in Syria reached a point where it poses a strategic threat to Israel, or if it drew Israel in to intervene in ways that destabilized the Assad regime, Russia might be motivated to set some limits on one or both sides.”

Russia’s strengthened position in the Middle East comes with a complication: It finds itself caught in the middle of a battle between two regional powers. Tehran played an integral role alongside Moscow in propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the civil war. But its military presence in Syria rattles Israel, which has been waging an increasingly overt campaign against Iran’s forces and its arms shipments to Hezbollah, its Shiite Lebanese partner.

A Russian balancing act

In the aftermath of the exchange, which included a followup Israeli strike around Damascus on Jan. 21 that killed some two dozen military personnel, reportedly including Iranians and Syrians, Moscow’s reaction suggested a balancing act.

After more than a day of silence, Russia condemned Israel for its “arbitrary” attacks in Syria. But then this weekend, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow understands Israel’s need for “strong security” and downplayed Russia’s alliance with Iran.

As the strongest power deployed in Syria, Russia has leverage over both sides. On the one hand, it has deconfliction understandings with Israel that allow the Israeli military to strike at Iran and its allies in Syria. On the other hand, it is an arms supplier to the Iranian military.

Last year Russia offered to establish a buffer zone in southern Syria that would be a no-go zone for Iranian forces. But Israelis have been hesitant to trust Russia with their security.

“Ultimately, only the Israeli Army can protect Israel from Iran’s efforts to undermine its security and threaten its existence; however there are other forces that can affect Iranian considerations in the future,’’ says Dore Gold, the former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and an occasional foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“While Russia is seeking to reestablish the presence it once had in the Eastern Mediterranean during the days of the Soviet Union, it doesn’t want to see an Iranian conversion of Syria into an Iranian satellite. In other words, Iranian and Russian interests are not identical,” he says. “Whether they prefer to use the levers they have at their disposal remains to be seen, but they are a strong power in the Middle East.”

Iranian and Israeli signaling

Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University in Israel, likened the current Israel-Iran clash to Syria’s intervention in the Lebanese civil war in the mid-1970s. At the time, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger mediated understandings between Israel and Syria to avoid an escalation. He says the recent cycle of violence constitutes signaling between Iran and Israel about the rules of the game in Syria.

“Both parties are trying to set the standards and red lines for a postwar reality: how far should Iran go in Syria, how close should it be to the Israeli border, what type of munitions it should have,’’ says Professor Eiran.

“The strongest most efficient power that is on the ground is Russia. The problem with Russia, is that it has its own interests, which may clash with Israel. They have their own agenda, which may coincide with Iran and sometimes doesn’t.’’ Russia and Israel, he says, are “frenemies.”

The US might have been able to restrain an escalation, but President Trump’s planned withdrawal from Syria leaves Washington with more limited options for countering Iran.

That said, the US is reportedly planning to remain at a strategic military outpost near al-Tanf, in southern Syria, on a highway that could serve as a weapons conduit between Iran and Hezbollah.

A role for Europe?

In theory, European countries could serve as another countervailing force against an escalation, analysts say. Germany in particular has experience mediating prisoner swaps between Israel on one side and Hezbollah on the other side.

And by offering aid to ease the humanitarian situation in Syria, the US and European countries have a “carrot” that might encourage the Syrian government to scale back Iran’s influence, says Joel Parker, a fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and Africa Studies at Tel Aviv University.

To be sure, analysts believe that neither Israel nor Iran is interested in a wider confrontation in the medium term. Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu is dogged by corruption allegations and faces an April 9 parliamentary election. Iran, meanwhile, is struggling with economic sanctions and doesn’t want to risk its presence in Syria through a war with Israel.

“Certainly the situation has potential for serious escalation. Having said that, neither side seeks a wider confrontation. Iran’s goals at this stage are to build its capability in Syria, but not necessarily use it now,’’ says former Ambassador Shapiro. “Israel’s goal is to prevent that. To a certain extent, we’ll continue to see these cat-and-mouse games.”

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4. Life after coal: Miners wonder how they fit into a low-carbon future

Whether in Germany, Appalachia, or Poland, the call for cleaner energy comes tinged with concerns of lost livelihoods. Can coal-reliant nations find a climate-friendly path that doesn't leave miners behind?

Eva

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Krzysztof Kisiel remembers the day the coal mine recruiters visited his elementary school. They promised specialized training, a good job, and a way to avoid the army. Indeed, coal mines have provided Mr. Kisiel, and much of his family, with steady work. “Mining is a stable profession, and good money,” he says. But for many of Poland’s 83,000 miners, the future looks somewhat uncertain. The question, say many experts, is not whether Poland needs to shift away from coal but how to do so in a way that minimizes the negative effect on the people who depend on it for their livelihoods. Samantha Smith of the Just Transition Centre urges industry and political leaders to look outside Poland – to places such as Denmark and Alberta, Canada – for examples of how to move beyond coal without leaving workers behind. “The only way we are actually going to get change both on inequality and also on emissions at the scale that we need it is if we do it through ‘just transition,’ ” she says.

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1. Life after coal: Miners wonder how they fit into a low-carbon future

The coal mines were what brought Krzysztof Kisiel to Upper Silesia, as this region of southern Poland is known.

“There was no work in my home area,” says Mr. Kisiel, who has gathered at a local tavern with fellow miners – all men – around songbooks and huge mugs of beer in celebration of Barbórka, or St. Barbara’s Feast Day honoring miners. He remembers recruiters coming to his elementary school, promising specialized training, a good job, and a way to avoid the army.

Kisiel and his wife both worked in the Jaworzno mine. His son studied banking but followed his father into the mine when there was no banking work. His son-in-law works there too.

“Mining is a stable profession, and good money, thanks to which they can support their families. And after 25 years of work in a mine they will get a good pension,” says Kisiel. “One day Poland will definitely leave coal, but this is not a problem for now.”

The question of when to transition away from coal is a point of contention among many Polish residents, especially as much of the world looks toward a future that is not dependent on fossil fuels. Poland’s reliance on coal was thrust into particularly sharp relief in December at the United Nations’ climate summit, held in the heart of Poland’s coal country in Katowice. Many visitors noted the incongruity of world leaders discussing how to reduce carbon emissions and move away from fossil fuels in a country where 80 percent of electricity comes from coal.

The question, say many experts, is not whether Poland – like many regions and countries around the globe – needs to shift away from coal but how to do so in a way that minimizes the negative effect on the people who depend on it for their livelihoods. And while Katowice may have seemed an odd place to host a conference focused on reducing global emissions, it’s also emblematic of the challenges and opportunities in numerous places in the world. 

From North America and Europe to Asia and Australia, the needs of a changing planet are butting up against local economies, raising tough questions about how to help the global population without creating overwhelming hardship for vulnerable individuals. In Germany, which currently gets a third of its electricity from coal, officials are coupling plans to phase out coal use by 2038 with a push to create 5,000 new jobs to help workers in affected regions.

“The only way we are actually going to get change both on inequality and also on emissions at the scale that we need it is if we do it through ‘just transition,’ ” says Samantha Smith, director of the Belgium-based Just Transition Centre, a group established by the International Trade Union Confederation. “Working people have to be on board, and therefore you have to have the process, you have to take the time, you have to get the resources for that to happen.”

SOURCE: International Energy Agency
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Mark Trumbull, Laurent Belsie, and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

 

An inevitable shift?

The idea of “just transition” – essentially the notion that shifting to a low-carbon economy shouldn’t come at the expense of workers and their communities – got a lot of talk in Katowice, including from the Polish president, Andrzej Duda.

“I would like to stress that the choice is not between work and natural environment, but rather whether we retain both or none of them,” President Duda told delegates during his opening remarks. “Just transition should be understood as a tool to support climate policy, not as an alternative.” At the same time, Duda made clear that he continues to see coal as a key part of Poland’s economy.

That’s an attitude that makes some observers wonder whether there’s any real will in Poland to start that shift away from coal.

“[The] Polish government is hiding behind the slogan of just transition,” says Marta Anczewska, climate and energy policy officer at the environmental group WWF Poland. “Some politicians want to use this concept to delay the energy transformation, or they translate it as a struggle to preserve jobs in mines.”

Fears about lost mining jobs may not be overblown. Some forecasts show that by 2050, the Upper Silesian region will have fewer than 10,000 jobs in the sector – seven times fewer than today.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
Chimneys from the Wieczorek mine power plant loom over the Nikiszowiec district in Katowice, Poland.The Eastern European nation relies on coal for 80 percent of its electricity. Officials aim to reduce that figure to 50 percent by 2040, though demand is expected to increase so production could remain flat.

That shift is inevitable, says Ms. Anczewska, but “no one prepares people employed today in mining for such a scenario.”

Andrzej Chwiluk, a union activist whose mine near Zabrze closed two years ago and who is retiring this year, agrees that current plans aren’t doing enough to ensure a smooth transition for workers. He cites efforts in Germany, where in some cases miners learned of mine shutdowns several years in advance. There, miners were visited by companies offering jobs and new training. Corporate representatives even followed up a few months into their new jobs to gauge whether they wanted to stay.

In contrast, Mr. Chwiluk says he and his fellow mine workers found out that their mine would close a week before it was shut down.

“Two years after the mine was closed down, there haven’t been any new workplaces created in this area,” he says. “Some miners found jobs in different mines in the region, but many people who worked on the ground are still unemployed.”

‘Show me, don’t tell me’

Beyond the mining sector, public momentum is growing, says Ms. Smith of the Just Transition Centre. Air pollution has become a chief concern for many residents in Poland; it is home to 33 of the 50 most polluted cities in Europe, due in part to its reliance on coal. And pressure from the European Union, where there is growing momentum to move away from coal, is mounting as well.

But for the nation to truly to embrace such a transition, the 83,000 people currently employed by the mines have to be brought along as well.

“For this to work and in order to get the people most affected on board, you need a structure and someone who can talk to workers and be trusted by workers. That’s generally going to be unions,” Smith says. “And you need to have a plan for new jobs before you start to talk to people about losing the jobs they have.”

Ideally, she adds, energy companies need to find ways to keep existing workers and train them for new jobs, understanding that different workers, at different stages of their career, may need a range of options.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP
A miners' orchestra marches and plays around the Nikiszowiec estate in Katowice, Poland, to celebrate Barbórka Miners' Day, or St. Barbara's Day, Dec. 4, 2018. At one time, Poland's mining industry employed 500,000 miners. As those numbers have declined, so has the prestige associated with the profession.

“As people get into a process and see that they’re represented, and they see their unions are getting them the things they need and want in order to get through this change, their views about what is happening also change,” Smith says. “But it really is show me, don’t tell me.”

She urges industry and political leaders to look outside Poland for examples of an economically viable transition.

Denmark, for instance, was once heavily dependent on oil, and then coal, before it shifted toward wind energy. The transition took several decades, but in the process Denmark created numerous jobs and became one of the top builders of wind turbines. In Alberta, Canada, a carbon tax is helping to fund plans for workers and communities that are heavily dependent on coal-fired power plants.

The Pittsburgh model

In the US, few cities have been as closely identified with industry as Pittsburgh. As a city built on steel, the entire economy was dependent on coal, which is vital to the steelmaking process. When the steel industry collapsed in 1979, it sent Pittsburgh into an economic tailspin.

Fossil fuels remain a part of the economy in Allegheny County, which sits on top of the Marcellus Shale Formation, one of the largest natural-gas reserves.

But today there are more people employed in renewables in Allegheny County than in coal, oil, and gas combined, says Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. Pittsburgh now also boasts leadership in areas such as robotics and health care.

“We’ve been able to make this transition,” Mayor Peduto says, “but it did take 30 years in order to do so.”

In December, Peduto traveled to Katowice to represent US mayors at the climate conference, and he’s been working to help a number of postindustrial cities around the world understand how they can make the sort of transition that Pittsburgh did.

“When it comes to talking to workers in coal country,” says Peduto, “there needs to be a more pragmatic approach that recognizes that they built America and there’s the opportunity for them to rebuild it once again.”

Like Smith, Peduto emphasizes that such transitions – whether occurring in Poland, China, or Appalachia – aren’t easy and take time and that there has to be buy-in from the workers affected in order for them to be successful.

The power of a paycheck

In Silesia, some residents are seeing the beginnings of the shift starting to occur.

“Many people are starting to see Silesia as a good place to live, more companies are opening their headquarters here, and mining is less important than it was a few years ago,” says Kamil Łach, president of the Jaworzno To My (Jaworzno It’s Us) association, as he sits in a shopping center built on the site of a former mine.

Mr. Łach’s father worked in a mine, but he says that the profession doesn’t have the prestige it once had in Poland, and he sees fewer people choosing to be miners. And some pro-environmental campaigns – along with awareness of the pollution problem – are starting to change minds.

“Inhabitants are more interested in the environment; they are more cautious about what they burn in the stoves and the quality of the water they drink,” says Łach.

But the biggest key to shifting opinions may be economic.

“All these towns that were part of the old economy could have the opportunity to become a part of the new economy,” says Peduto. “There’s a saying that I’ve used in past campaigns: If you want to take a gun out of a kid’s hand, put a paycheck in it. And if you want to turn a mineworker into an environmentalist, put a paycheck in their hand.”

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

[Editor's note:  In an earlier version of this story, the caption for the lead photograph of miners in the Wieczorek Coal Mine contained an erroneous date. It has been removed.]

SOURCE: International Energy Agency
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Mark Trumbull, Laurent Belsie, and Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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5. Ten books to cozy up with in January

This month, Monitor reviewers selected tales of two revolutions: a debut novel about an Iranian family in the 1970s and a nonfiction narrative about China in the 1940s when millions left Shanghai.

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Ten books to cozy up with in January

1  The Wartime Sisters, by Lynda Cohen Loigman

Emotionally riveting and heartfelt, the novel follows Ruth and Millie, two sisters battling for acceptance and love since their childhood in Brooklyn. Memories and secrets haunt them as they navigate adulthood working at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts during World War II.

The book includes intriguing characters on the homefront with compelling backstories and themes of family loyalty, betrayal, sisterhood, forgiveness, and survival. It’s a page turner! 

2  Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

On the night of the winter solstice, events unfold at an old inn along the Thames River that can’t be explained. Is it a mystery? A miracle? As the local people grapple with the consequences, secrets come to light that change their lives forever. Bestselling author Diane Setterfield spins a satisfying, genre-defying story that might be called a fairytale for grown-ups. 

3  The Paragon Hotel, by Lyndsay Faye

On a cross-country train, wise-cracking Alice nurses a bullet wound and hides from the New York mob. A black Pullman porter rescues Alice, who’s white, taking her to the only hotel open to blacks in 1920s Portland, Ore. Some of the Paragon Hotel’s residents warm to her, but others react warily, intimidated by the arrival of Klan violence in the town and alarmed over the disappearance of a young black boy. Alice uses wit, smarts, and moxie to solve the mystery, with a few surprises. Author Lyndsay Faye has created a first-class flapper-era heroine with not only a fast mouth but also a kind heart.

4  Bookends, by Michael Chabon

This is an intellectually waggish labor of literary love! Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon has collected “intros” and “outros” from treasured, albeit eclectic, books. The erudite author celebrates science fiction, fantasy, myths, comics, ghost stories, and more, distilling his wonder of the craft of storytellers that has captivated his heart since boyhood. Obscure anecdotes and metaphors abound; it’s wholehearted fandom of the written word.

5  Queen Victoria, by Lucy Worsley

Historian Lucy Worsley’s lively biography takes a deep dive into 24 days that span Queen Victoria’s life to examine her personal relationships and their political impact, and what is revealed through her domestic world. Victoria was a master at projecting an image of “ordinariness” to win her subjects’ loyalty, Worsley suggests, painting a portrait of the queen as a mass of contradictions – stubborn, yet happy to cede control to key men in her life; socially conservative, while breaking boundaries for women. (See full review)

6  Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution, by Helen Zia

Journalist-activist Helen Zia adds to the ever-growing international refugee narrative with the only book in English about the late-1940s mass exodus of one-quarter of Shanghai’s 6 million people escaping the Communist Revolution. Zia highlights four survivors to share intimate stories of displacement, separation, adaptation, and reinvention.

7  To Keep the Sun Alive, by Rabeah Ghaffari

Rabeah Ghaffari’s debut novel, set in Iran in the 1970s, explores the inner lives of the members of an extended family as each navigates the coming revolution. Drawn into the political unrest that upends the lives they knew, each of them learns that loyalty to family and loyalty to beliefs are not always the same. Ghaffari skillfully illustrates the very human consequences of political history.

8  Free All Along, edited by Stephen Drury Smith and Catherine Ellis

In 1964, Robert Penn Warren interviewed leaders of the civil rights movement for his book “Who Speaks for the Negro?” “Free All Along” reproduces many of the interviews for the first time in book form. The book features Malcolm X, Andrew Young, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, among others. It’s a timely reminder of what the movement gained – and what remains to be done. (See full review)

9  Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet, by Will Hunt

Caves, catacombs, and tunnels come alive in this unusual guide to the surprising marvels and mysteries below us. Author Will Hunt, who was first drawn underground as a curious child, finds plenty to appreciate, including ancient and modern artworks, signs of life’s beginnings on earth, and a sense of the transcendent.

10  Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, by Tracy Borman

In Tudor expert Tracy Borman’s captivating new book, it’s the men surrounding Henry, rather than his six wives, who receive the attention for a change. Borman offers readers a far more complex figure than usual: often indecisive, often tormented, well able to match the wisest men of his era. She locates Henry in his natural setting: the world of power politics. (See full review)

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The Monitor's View

A plank for peace in Afghanistan

Two ways to read the story

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Last week, the United States and the Taliban agreed in principle to a “framework” for a grand bargain in Afghanistan: The US would declare a timetable for withdrawing its troops, while the Taliban pledged not to allow Afghanistan to again be used as a launching ground for attacks on the US. This public commitment to two shared goals, even if they are far from reality, is an essential step for further talks. Negotiations are not always a process of compromise or probing weaknesses. They also allow better understanding of the other side’s perspective. In these talks, it is now clear the US and the Taliban, as well as the Afghan people, are weary of conflict and eager to end decades of foreign meddling. Merely acknowledging such points across a chasm of distrust can provide the first plank for bridge-building. Such a bridge is still far from complete. Yet, after four rounds of face-to-face talks, the Taliban and the US have finally agreed on something. That alone could help shorten the fears that drive America’s longest war and that have kept Afghanistan at the center of the global war on terror.

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A plank for peace in Afghanistan

It may be only a small reed of trust for a possible peace in Afghanistan. Yet, after four rounds of face-to-face talks, the Taliban and the United States have finally agreed on something. That alone could help shorten the fears that drive America’s longest war and that have kept Afghanistan at the center of the global war on terror.

Last week during negotiations in Qatar, the two sides agreed in principle to a “framework” for a grand bargain: The US would declare a timetable for withdrawing its troops while the Taliban pledged not to allow Afghanistan to again be used as a launching ground for attacks on the US.

This public commitment to two shared goals, even if they are far from reality, is an essential step for further talks. Negotiations are not always a process of compromise or probing weaknesses. They also allow better understanding of the other side’s perspective.

In these talks, it is now clear the US, and the Taliban, as well as the Afghan people, are weary of conflict and eager to end decades of foreign meddling. Merely acknowledging such points across a chasm of distrust can provide the first plank for bridge-building.

Such a bridge is still far from complete. It is not clear how the Taliban foresees its role in Afghanistan’s democracy or in its treatment of women based on its harsh rule from 1996 to 2001.And the elected government in Kabul is still not directly involved in the talks. Its positions may change after a presidential election slated for July. It also is unclear if President Trump plans to withdraw some or all of the 14,000 US troops without first assuring there is a stable government in Kabul in command of a cohesive army.

Besides these uncertainties, all sides have shown a patience to fill in the details. This initial agreement is not final until many other points are agreed, such as Taliban respect for the Afghan Constitution. One idea being proposed is that the Taliban be allowed to run for office in local rural areas while having only a limited role in the national government.

As trust is built in further talks, a cease-fire may become possible. Last June, the Taliban did participate in a first-ever three-day cease-fire. New ideas for a peace pact may emerge. And other outside powers, such as Pakistan, might better provide fresh security guarantees.

The search for a viable peace process has taken an important step. Like negotiations that led to agreements in Northern Ireland and Colombia, Afghanistan needs to find common ground among the competing sides. The initial trust is developing. As it is built on a shared desire for peace, then peace is possible.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

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

Getting along with each other

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When an ongoing disagreement threatened to undermine a friendship, a newfound sense of what it means that we are all sisters and brothers in God turned things around completely.

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Getting along with each other

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Some years ago I had an experience that reminds me of the kind of back-and-forth sniping that appears very common in political discussions today. Too often it seems as though neither side is willing to give ground or to find points to agree on and through which they can go forward together.

In my case, a friend and I seemed to be in a perpetual argument about something I can’t even remember now. At the time, however, it seemed crucial for me to win that argument – and it seemed equally vital to her that she win it. Up to this point we had been good friends who really liked each other and usually agreed, so the situation was quite distressing.

My friend and I had each experienced the value of prayer in resolving inharmonious situations, so we were both praying about this disagreement. In my case, I found a particular account from the Bible really helpful. It’s the story of two men named Lot and Abram (later renamed Abraham).

As the book of Genesis describes it, even though Lot and Abram were relatives, there was competition and actual conflict, or strife, between the men who took care of their flocks. There didn’t seem to be room for both on the land.

Abram is noted as being a man who strove to live in harmony with God, to follow God’s guidance. So perhaps it’s not surprising that he made an effort to restore peace. He said to Lot, “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren” (Genesis 13:8). To me, he was reminding himself and Lot that they needed to express brotherly love to each other and to rise above the things that were driving them apart.

Reading this account in the Bible helped me see that my friend and I were “brethren” (or, rather, sisters) too – in the sense of being the children of God and thus equal in God’s love. Christ Jesus emphasized that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. What I began to realize was that this is doable because goodness and peace are within everyone’s real nature as God’s spiritual offspring, the very expressions of divine Love. It is natural for each of us to feel God’s love and to respect one another as children of God.

What was so interesting was that as the way I was looking at things changed, our friendship stabilized. I didn’t even need to ask for a change from my friend. It just happened. Harmony was restored for both of us in what became a lifelong friendship.

I realize that this was a relatively modest situation compared with current scenes between those on opposite sides of a political issue, but the powerful ideas I learned about the unifying power of our relation to God and to each other have encouraged me that these larger divisions can be healed, too.

Christian Science explains that God is the source of all intelligence and wisdom and that we can think of Him as divine Mind. Each of us can pray to lift our thoughts above willful personal opinions and to accept guidance from this Mind, which aids us in all our interactions, just as I was helped with my friend.

Do I find this easy to do? Not always, for sure. But I’ve discovered that the sooner I wake up to the idea of loving my neighbor and remember the unifying power of the one divine Mind, the sooner I find peace and solutions to conflicts with others.

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Viewfinder

Search for survivors

Adriano Machado/Reuters
Members of a rescue team search for survivors amid mud that was up to 24 feet deep in Brumadinho, Brazil, Jan. 28. At least 58 people died after a tailings dam owned by mining company Vale SA collapsed, burying buildings to their rooftops in waste.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( January 29th, 2019 )

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow. We'll look at how an increased focus on seeming unbiased can backfire – and a possible solution to find true fairness. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

January 28, 2019
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