2020
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Monitor Daily Podcast

July 23, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

Rethinking John Muir: Environmentalists confront racist roots

For more than a century, he’s been remembered as the “patron saint of the American wilderness.” But today, the legacy of John Muir faces new scrutiny, as the Sierra Club grapples with its founder’s derogatory remarks about Black and Indigenous people.

On Wednesday, the 128-year-old organization announced that it is embarking on a new chapter that pledges to take both a more nuanced look at its past and a more equitable look toward its future.

Today, it is widely understood that communities of color bear a disproportionate environmental burden when it comes to pollution.  

“Given the nature of how our society is structured, America is still segregated and so is pollution,” says Robert Bullard, professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in a phone interview.

But when Professor Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice, first drew attention to the intersection of race and the environment, he had trouble gaining traction with established organizations.

“Most environmental groups saw the issues that we were dealing with as social issues,” he says. “But breathing is not a social issue. Clean water is not a social issue.”

In recent years, environmental organizations have taken steps to include people of color on staff and on leadership committees, says Professor Bullard. But so far that diversification hasn’t extended to funding. “The economic justice part is where we need to make inroads in 2020 and beyond,” he says.

After 40 years of clamoring for investment in environmental justice, Professor Bullard might be forgiven for losing hope. Yet in the current moment he sees potential for real change. 

“I see this as a great opportunity to make a great leap forward,” he says. “Not just a baby step, but a great leap.”

A deeper look

In North Carolina Senate race, like everywhere, it’s all about Trump

How do you play to the middle in a time of intense polarization? GOP senators in North Carolina and beyond are struggling to find common ground between staunch Trump supporters and those who have become disillusioned by his presidency.

Noelle

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Split-ticket voting has become increasingly rare as the country has become more polarized along partisan lines. In 2016, all 34 Senate races were won by the same party that won the presidential race in those states. And while presidential candidates often have “coattails,” helping to elect down-ballot politicians on the strength of their own popularity, the reverse can also be true.

With President Donald Trump, the effect may cut both ways: He inspires passionate levels of support among his party’s base, while also repelling many swing voters – a dynamic that has thrust Republican senators in close races, like North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, into an exceedingly delicate balancing act.

As the president’s approval ratings continue to slide overall – former Vice President Joe Biden now holds a commanding lead among independents, and a widening majority of Americans disapprove of Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic – these endangered Republicans aren’t disavowing the president. But they aren’t exactly hugging him close, either. 

“Tillis is in the same boat as some other senators who are in trouble,” says David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. “They are all trying to walk this tightrope – and it’s a challenging tightrope to walk.”

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1. In North Carolina Senate race, like everywhere, it’s all about Trump

Patrick O’Brien says he’ll be “first in line” to vote for President Donald Trump again in November. Speaking under a sweltering summer sun, the retired police officer offers multiple reasons why the president deserves to be reelected.

But when asked about Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s first-term senator who will also be on the ballot this fall, Mr. O’Brien pauses and strokes his gray goatee. He then asks, “He’s a Republican, right?”

It’s a common reaction across Nash County, a rural area known for its sweet potatoes, where some streets have more churches than houses. Many voters don’t have a strong opinion about Senator Tillis or his Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. Instead, the vast majority say they’ll vote based almost entirely on their opinions of President Trump. 

Split-ticket voting has become increasingly rare as the country has become more polarized along partisan lines. In 2016, all 34 Senate races were won by the same party that won the presidential race in those states. And while presidential candidates often have “coattails,” helping elect down-ballot politicians on the strength of their own popularity, the reverse can also be true.

With President Trump, the effect may cut both ways: He inspires passionate levels of support among his party’s base, while also repelling many swing voters – a dynamic that has thrust Republican senators like Mr. Tillis into an exceedingly delicate balancing act.

As the president’s approval ratings continue to slide overall – former Vice President Joe Biden now holds a commanding lead among independents, and a widening majority of Americans say they disapprove of Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic – Republicans in close races aren’t disavowing the president. But they aren’t exactly hugging him close, either. 

“Tillis is in the same boat as some other [Republican] senators who are in trouble,” says David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, and director of The Meredith Poll. “They are all trying to walk this tightrope – and it’s a challenging tightrope to walk.”

At North Carolina’s GOP convention in early July – a Facebook livestream event featuring politicians and party activists – Mr. Tillis sang the president’s praises, showed a clip of himself on stage with Mr. Trump at a rally, and spoke about the importance of getting the president reelected.

Just days later, in two separate COVID-19-related telephone town halls with thousands of voters on the line, Mr. Tillis never mentioned the president. He emphasized multiple times the importance of wearing face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – a matter on which Mr. Trump for months took a prominently different stance – and called the politicization of the issue “frustrating.”  

In Mr. Tillis’s first television ad of the general election, the senator is shown walking around a North Carolina trailer park, talking about his “humble” upbringing. There is no mention of Mr. Trump.

Mr. McLennan wonders what Mr. Tillis will do if or when Mr. Trump comes to campaign in North Carolina in person. “Maybe in rural places Tillis will show up, but if the president shows up in Raleigh or Charlotte, maybe Tillis will have something else to do that day, like wash his hair,” he says, with a chuckle.

He adds, “Six months ago, Thom Tillis never would have imagined how hard this reelection was going to be.” 

Senate majority up for grabs  

For Democrats to retake the majority in the Senate they need a net gain of four seats. Of the 23 Republican senators on the ballot this fall, six have their races rated as “toss ups” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report: Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, Georgia Sen. David Perdue, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Montana Sen. Steve Daines, and Senator Tillis, who was moved to that column in March. One Republican seat, held by Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, is categorized as “lean Democrat,” while one Democratic seat, held by Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama, is “lean Republican.” All the other Democratic seats up this cycle are considered “lean” or “solid” Democrat.  

In part thanks to President Trump’s polarizing effect, Democrats have been posting eye-popping fundraising numbers in several states. Mr. Cunningham raised more than $7 million in the second quarter of 2020, a record for North Carolina.

One of North Carolina’s youngest state senators in the early 2000s, Mr. Cunningham left politics for a while, volunteering for the U.S. Army reserves and working at local law firms. His first television ad, titled “Oath,” features photographs of him in an Army uniform projected onto the side of a barn, while he talks to the camera about fighting corruption in Washington. 

“Even though Tillis tries to paint his opponent as this ultra-liberal firebrand, that’s not what North Carolinians think of Cal Cunningham,” says Mr. McLennan. Mr. Cunningham wants to expand Medicaid and protect the Affordable Care Act, for example, but does not endorse Medicare for All. He opposes offshore drilling, but does not support the Green New Deal.

Before COVID-19 effectively shut down in-person campaigning, he was diligently reaching out to voters across the state, says Valerie Steel, chair of the Nash County Democrats. “Cal Cunningham is doing the footwork,” she says.

But while Mr. Cunningham may benefit from a more centrist profile than his party as a whole, that’s not necessarily the case for Republicans like Senator Tillis.

For many Republicans, the political fortunes of former GOP colleagues who criticized Mr. Trump and went on to lose their own elections loom as “cautionary tales,” as Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel has put it. Just last week, Jeff Sessions lost the primary for the Alabama Senate seat he had held for two decades before being appointed U.S. Attorney General by Mr. Trump. After that relationship soured, Mr. Trump wound up backing Mr. Sessions’ opponent, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville. 

Mr. Tillis has had some back-and-forth with the president. In February 2019, after Mr. Trump declared a national emergency to move forward with his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Mr. Tillis penned an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing the president’s move. But he later reversed his position

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Nashville Mayor Brenda Brown (left) and Nashville Council member Lynne Hobbs say rural North Carolina largely cares about two issues: abortion and Second Amendment rights. "So that would definitely throw the majority of people being [for] Trump and Tillis," says Mayor Brown.

“People thought he wasn’t supporting the president at first,” says Nashville Mayor Brenda Brown. “But then he turned, so he won back favor with the people.”

More recently, as the Trump campaign tussled with North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over how to hold the Republican National Convention safely during the pandemic, Mr. Tillis was largely supportive of the governor. In March, Mr. Tillis wrote to Mr. Trump in support of Governor Cooper’s disaster declaration, and he had good things to say about the governor’s cautious approach to reopening the state. The convention, scheduled to take place next month, wound up being partially moved to Jacksonville, Florida. On Thursday, the president said he was canceling the Jacksonville event. 

Politicians who try to take a nuanced approach often wind up pleasing no one, says James Gailliard, the Democratic state representative for southern Nash County.

“The thing about North Carolinians that I’ve learned is that they can forgive you if they disagree with you, if you can explain your decision and stick with it,” says Representative Gailliard, adding that he has had to defend tough votes himself. “We don’t respond well to candidates who don’t pick a side.”

Sue Leggett, a Nash County Commissioner and first-generation farm owner, says she has appreciated Mr. Tillis’s focus on the nitty gritty aspects of immigration policy. But she wonders whether that kind of attention to local issues is worth much anymore. Indeed, if it means breaking with the president, she says, it could hurt more than it helps. 

“It puts them in a precarious situation,” says Ms. Leggett, at her farm office in Nashville. “They are called a moderate or weak on a subject, when they may just be a real common-sense person.” 

That’s not to say Mr. Tillis has a centrist record. During his time in the U.S. Senate, he has voted in line with President Trump more than 93% of the time. And on the two issues that Nash County conservatives say matter most to them, abortion and guns, Mr. Tillis delivers: he has a 0% score from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.

Before he defeated Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014, Mr. Tillis served as Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, where he helped the state House pass a law requiring ultrasounds on women seeking abortions. (The law was later struck down by the courts.) 

“I feel positive Trump will win [Nash County] and I feel almost positive Tillis will win, just because we are so pro-life, we are so pro-Second Amendment,” says Mayor Brown.  

A state in transition

North Carolina’s status as a swing state is relatively recent. Over the past 40 years, the state has only gone for a Democratic presidential candidate once, narrowly voting for Barack Obama in 2008. In 2012 and 2016, the state swung back to the GOP – but by some of the smallest margins in the country.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
"Thom Tillis has always been a real common sense kind of guy, very in touch with rural North Carolina," says Sue Leggett, a Nash County commissioner and first generation farmer. She says support for President Trump in Nash County has only grown over the past four years, with conservative voters appreciating how he works to "keep traditional values alive."

Mr. Trump’s “suburban slump” has been particularly evident in North Carolina, where he has gone from a 24-point lead among suburban voters in 2016 to a 21-point deficit in 2020.

“This state is really transitioning in ways that many people don’t realize,” says Michael Bitzer, chair of political science at Catawba College and creator of Old North State Politics blog. 

That transition seems to be fueling Mr. Cunningham’s modest lead in the Tar Heel state, which has some of the fastest growing suburbs in the country. A recent Fox News poll found Mr. Cunningham holding a 16-point lead among suburban voters.

Nash County offers an example of another, less-noticed warning sign for the Trump and Tillis campaigns: softening support among working-class white voters, particularly women.   

In 2016, Mr. Trump won white voters without a college degree by 37 points nationally and by 44 points in North Carolina. Two recent Fox News polls, however, show that Mr. Trump’s lead among this demographic has shrunk to a 9 point advantage nationally and a 15 point lead in North Carolina. 

More diverse than the country as a whole, Nash County is 41% Black, with a median household income almost $12,000 less than the national average. In 2014, Mr. Tillis won the area by less than 2 percentage points. In 2016, Mr. Trump won the county by 84 votes. 

Kim Taylor, a hairdresser and single mother, says she’s voted a straight Republican ticket her entire life – including in 2016. But she’s become so discouraged about the direction of the country that she doubts she’ll even vote at all this November. 

“People thought that Trump would make them matter, and that he would make America great again,” says Ms. Taylor, leaning on her cart in a Walmart aisle as customers bustle pass. “I haven’t seen anyone come around who could give a better life to me, my kids, and my grandkids. I’ve just lost faith.” 

Others suggest they’ll vote for Mr. Trump – and Mr. Tillis – begrudgingly. “I think Trump is a scumbag,” says Karen, who works on her father’s sweet potato farm and declines to give her last name because “talking politics around here is bad for business.”

“All I see is everyone around here posting on Facebook about how bad Trump is,” she says, while shopping at the Piggly Wiggly. “But in the end, I’m a conservative,” she shrugs. 

Still, some here believe that support for the president has actually grown. 

“From what I’ve seen, rural North Carolina has really rallied around President Trump, more than any other president that I can remember,” says Ms. Leggett, who has lived in the area for almost her entire life. “And I think that support is going to trickle down for Senator Tillis.”

And it’s far from clear that Mr. Biden has Nash County in the bag. While he captured the Democratic nomination in large part due to overwhelming support among Southern Black voters, enthusiasm among many African-American residents here seems lackluster. One Black woman leaving the Piggly Wiggly simply says she “stays out of politics,” and another says she “didn’t vote in 2016, and doesn’t plan to in 2020.” 

James, who installs hardwood floors for a living and declines to give his last name, offers some of the strongest support. “I will vote in November, and you know it won’t be for Trump. So yeah, I guess it’ll be Biden,” he says, snacking on a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos in front of a gas station in Spring Hope. 

“I mean, it’s gotta get better, right?” he adds. “We all need to come together.”

Patterns

Tracing global connections

China pushes Huawei, Washington pulls another way

Today, technological primacy means geopolitical dominance. Washington is pressuring allies to ban Chinese 5G equipment. Britain just complied. Will others follow?

Noelle

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When the British government decided last week to ban all equipment made by the Chinese firm Huawei from the United Kingdom’s 5G network, it did so in large part because Washington wanted it to.

Huawei, the top telecom equipment-maker in the world, has become a poster child for China’s technological prowess, and for President Xi Jinping’s ambition to put China at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, robots, and self-driving cars.

The U.S. government is trying to stymie Huawei’s international spread as part of its broader campaign to constrain China: In today’s world, technological primacy means geopolitical dominance. Several U.S. allies have decided to ban or phase out Huawei equipment, Australia and Japan among them, but many other countries – especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America – are buying from Huawei, not least because it is cheaper than the competition.

Now all eyes are on Europe, where governments would prefer not to antagonize China but do not want to risk U.S. wrath either. But as Beijing and Washington battle for global technological leadership, neither of them is likely to leave much room for other countries to steer a noncommittal course.

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2. China pushes Huawei, Washington pulls another way

Sometimes a single decision by a single government can illuminate an important trend on the world stage. And so it proved this past week, with the spotlight falling on China’s drive to displace the United States as world leader in technology and telecommunications, and on U.S. efforts to thwart Beijing’s ambition.

That clash was not the only reason the British government decided to bar the giant Chinese company Huawei from its forthcoming 5G network – a major extension of its earlier, more limited move to restrict the company’s role. Other political and economic calculations were also in play, not least Britain’s need to forge a new international identity and role now that it has left the European Union.

But what finally tipped the scales toward a tougher Huawei decision was pressure, private and public, from Washington. 

There are multiple points of contention between the U.S. and China in what some pundits are calling the potential start of a new cold war. Yet Britain’s Huawei decision was a dramatic reminder of the importance of the competition for technological primacy. It was also a sign of why this cold war, if it happens, will be different from the decadeslong rivalry with a decidedly more low-tech Soviet Union.

China plays catch-up

In most fields, the U.S. retains a clear lead in technology and innovation. With its universities, research institutions, and technology incubators – as well as market-shaping companies, from Apple and Microsoft to Amazon and Tesla – this seems unlikely to change in the immediate future.

But Huawei, founded in the late 1980s, has become a leading world player. By 2012, it had overtaken Sweden’s Ericsson as the top manufacturer of telecommunications equipment. Two years ago, it leapfrogged Apple to become the world’s second-largest smartphone maker. Just last month, it surpassed South Korea’s Samsung to claim the No. 1 spot. 

Though nominally a private company, Huawei has benefited from billions of dollars in state credits. Its 5G kit is regarded as being at least as good as that made by Ericsson or other Western firms. And with its government patronage, it has also been able to undercut competitors on price.

Huawei is one of dozens of increasingly successful Chinese technology companies. And it is playing a starring role in President Xi Jinping’s explicit strategy to position China at the cutting edge of future technological applications – not just in telecommunications but in areas like artificial intelligence, electric and self-driving cars, robots, and space travel.

In pressing Britain and other countries to exclude Huawei equipment from their 5G networks, Washington has raised genuine security concerns, warning that Chinese-built networks could hide “back doors” through which sensitive data could be passed on to Beijing. Under Chinese law, Huawei must share information with the country’s security services if asked to do so.

But with 21st-century economies so dependent on technology, it’s the potential geopolitical implications of Chinese advances that have been preoccupying Washington, especially since China already exerts enormous influence on international trade, investment, and development.

Belt and Road relationships

Britain has now joined a group of countries traditionally close to the U.S., including Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, that have decided to ban or phase out Huawei equipment. Canada has been holding off, apparently afraid that a negative decision could provoke Beijing into worsening the situation for two Canadians it has detained since Canada held a Huawei executive wanted by the U.S. authorities.

What’s less clear, looking ahead, is whether the U.S. will, or can, exert similar sway on other traditional allies as they make their Huawei decisions. In many countries, the decision is going in Huawei’s favor. These include states across Asia, the Arab world, Africa, and Latin America where China has won financial and political influence through its Belt and Road program of loans and investment in infrastructure projects.

Yet most closely watched in the months ahead will be what happens in the EU, the world’s largest trading bloc, which has long had close ties with the U.S. but where China has been building an increasingly important network of economic ties in recent years.

Washington will be hoping that, at the very least, EU countries strictly limit Huawei participation in 5G, especially since European firms like Ericsson and the Finnish company Nokia could provide alternative solutions. But a number of Eastern European countries, and Italy, have signed on to Belt and Road investment plans and may well be reluctant to exclude Huawei.

The key voice is likely to be Germany’s. It is not yet clear which way Europe’s largest economy will go: Chancellor Angela Merkel has seemed leery of having to choose sides as diplomatic and trade relations between the U.S. (Germany’s biggest trade partner) and China (its third biggest) have become more adversarial.

But as Washington and Beijing battle for global technological leadership, neither of them may leave much room for other countries to steer a noncommittal course.

With Siberia in flames, climate change hits home for Russia

Siberia may be best known for being cold. But this summer, large parts of it are in flames – a state of affairs that Russian scientists say is both a byproduct of climate change and an accelerant.

Noelle
Julia Petrenko/Greenpeace/Reuters
Fires like this one, in the Krasnoyarsk region in the middle of Siberia July 17, 2020, are devastating Russia's Asian landmass. Aside from the overt damage they are doing to the forests, they are also releasing long-frozen greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

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This year has brought unprecedented forest fires to Siberia, devastating an area the size of the state of Washington in Russia's vast Asian landmass. Cities that have seldom seen summer temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit have been sweltering under a hot season that began a month early.

The ongoing forest fires are estimated to have so far released 56 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – more than the annual emissions of some midsized European countries. And the toxic haze from the fires has reportedly settled over several towns, aggravating health conditions for many inhabitants.

Meanwhile, high temperatures are accelerating the melting of Russia’s 17 million square miles of permafrost above the Arctic Circle. That has caused at least one disastrous industrial accident, and threatens the integrity of the entire region’s infrastructure, including pipelines, roads, and housing.

“What we are witnessing is not just a rate of warming over Siberia and the Arctic that’s two or three times the global average, but changes in atmospheric patterns,” says Valentina Khan of the Hydrometeorological Research Center of the Russian Federation. “There is the likelihood in future of more extreme weather events, which will be greater in their frequency and duration.”

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3. With Siberia in flames, climate change hits home for Russia

Siberia is burning.

Russia’s enormous but sparsely populated Asian landmass is experiencing record-breaking temperatures, the fifth year in a row it has done so.

But this year has brought unprecedented forest fires that have devastated a territory the size of the state of Washington, and blanketed vast areas with thick air pollution. Cities that have seldom seen summer temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit have been sweltering under a hot season that began a month early this year, and has been consistently delivering daily temperatures several degrees above average.

Scientists say Siberia is warming at twice the global average – leading to extreme weather events, severe environmental deterioration, and serious complications for human habitation. And, they warn, it is a climate catastrophe that might be just beginning.

“If these temperatures repeat themselves next year, the situation on the southern fringe of Siberian forests is going to become critical,” says Nadezhda Chebakova, a researcher at the Sukachev Institute of Forest in Krasnoyarsk. “In the long run, something has to be done about the emissions of greenhouse gases.”

“Unprecedented” phenomena

The ongoing forest fires are estimated to have so far released 56 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – more than the annual emissions of some midsized European countries. And the toxic haze from the fires has reportedly settled over several towns, aggravating health conditions – and moods – for many inhabitants who are still under obligatory coronavirus lockdown.

Meanwhile, high temperatures are accelerating the melting of Russia’s 17 million square miles of permafrost above the Arctic Circle. That has caused at least one disastrous industrial accident, and threatens the integrity of the entire region’s infrastructure, including pipelines, roads, and housing.

Russian Emergencies Ministry/Reuters
Russian officials, like these members of the Russian Emergencies Ministry in the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Region, are working to contain the fires. But scientists and activists say the government needs to take more preventive action as well.

The receding permafrost has exposed copious remains of long-extinct woolly mammoths, frozen for thousands of years beneath the tundra, sparking worries of a new “gold rush” to harvest the prehistoric beasts’ valuable ivory tusks. But the melting earth also threatens to disgorge huge amounts of greenhouse gases, such as methane, that have been locked in the ice throughout human history, threatening incalculable future consequences.

The near-complete disappearance of sea ice off Russia’s northern coast this year has proved an economic boon, with shipping companies predicting that year-round navigation through the once icebound Northeast Passage might soon become possible. For over a decade Russia has been preparing to exploit the vast trove of resources opening up as the Arctic ice pack recedes and has been steadily building infrastructure, including military bases, to promote that effort. But scientists fret that the declining albedo, or reflectivity, of the vanishing ice sheets will only create a positive feedback loop that accelerates the melt-off in coming years.

“These phenomena are unprecedented,” says Valentina Khan, deputy director of the Hydrometeorological Research Center of the Russian Federation, part of the national weather service. “What we are witnessing is not just a rate of warming over Siberia and the Arctic that’s two or three times the global average, but changes in atmospheric patterns. There is the likelihood in future of more extreme weather events, which will be greater in their frequency and duration.”

“We have been warning about this”

A team of international researchers has concluded that this year’s Siberian heat wave would have been virtually impossible without man-made climate change. It’s a view the Russian government has been slow to accept, but most Russian scientists now admit that it must be deemed a permanent factor.

“What we’ve seen here in central Siberia is an absolutely abnormal April, with temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius [86 F], and in general temperatures about 2 degrees above the 100-year average,” says Dr. Chebakova. “It’s pretty clear that we are looking at a general warming trend, and 90% of Russian scientists believe it is caused by human activity.”

Environmentalists are beside themselves with dread and frustration.

“We have been warning about this for at least two decades, and successive Russian governments have failed to take heed,” says Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of Ecodefense, one of Russia’s oldest – and perennially embattled – environmental organizations. “Now it’s happening, and they are still in denial. Of course there is much more reliable information about global warming and the growing environmental catastrophe in the Russian media than there was 10 years ago, and scientists are talking about it more. But we still don’t hear much from government officials.

“What we need to see, urgently, is the creation of an adaptation plan. Two decades ago, we might have concentrated on reducing greenhouse gases. But now we have a warming process that’s well underway, and it’s going to be with us for some time,” he says. “For instance, we need proper management of forests, with better fire prevention and firefighting capacities, yet the numbers of people doing these things have been steadily reduced. The main approach in play right now appears to be to wait for autumn, for the rains to come. But what about next year?”

“A lack of official responsibility”

The government’s lack of preparedness became clear at the end of May after melting permafrost caused fuel tanks to rupture at a power station belonging to the huge NorNickel mining and smelting company, near the city of Norilsk in Siberia’s far north. The spill released 20,000 tons of diesel fuel into the soil and nearby rivers, creating what local activists described as an “environmental catastrophe.” A few days later, President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency in Norilsk, but the damage to the delicate northern ecosystem seems set to persist for decades.

“The main problem is a lack of official responsibility,” says Vassily Yablokov, climate project manager at Greenpeace Russia. “The dangers of melting permafrost have been obvious for years. But big business cares only about maintaining the status quo, exploiting nature in profitable ways. So they never invested in prevention. Then they tried to cover up the accident, and failed to act swiftly to contain the damage. That’s why we can say that the human factor is the key problem here.”

Mr. Slivyak of Ecodefense says the reason for the Russian government’s reluctance to face and adapt to the realities of long-term climate change is that it would mean calling into question Russia’s basic economic strategy.

“We have had the same strategy for the past 50 years, which is to ramp up extraction of fossil fuels, mostly for export,” he says. “Russian officials may be learning to talk the talk about climate change at international forums, but whenever issues of economic development come up, the chief goals are always more oil, gas, and coal. They are just not ready to accept that without radical adaptations, this is going to get worse, much worse.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correctly characterize the positive feedback loop driven by declining albedo.

The Explainer

A conspiracy theory goes to Washington: Three questions about QAnon

Typically, believers in the most elaborate conspiracy theories are far removed from the halls of power. But adherents of the false QAnon worldview are becoming influential in some of Washington’s highest offices.

Noelle
John Rudoff/Sipa/AP
QAnon iconography has become common at right-wing rallies in the U.S., like this protest against Oregon's economic-closure efforts amid the pandemic in Salem, Oregon, on April 25, 2020. "Q" is the foremost symbol of the theory's adherents.

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QAnon, the sprawling pro-Trump conspiracy theory that claims that the president will soon stage a dramatic countercoup against the malevolent “deep state,” has quickly traveled from the fringes of the internet to the halls of power. Thirteen GOP congressional candidates who have expressed support for the movement will be on the ballot in November, and several of those have already won their primaries in safe districts.

It began in October 2017, when an anonymous poster on the free-for-all online bulletin board 4chan claimed to have top-secret government access, or “Q clearance.” He said that President Donald Trump is preparing for “The Storm,” the moment when his enemies, a group that QAnon believers invariably describe as including the Clinton family and Hungarian American financier George Soros, will be rounded up and punished.

Harvard political scientist Nancy Rosenblum argues that QAnon represents a hybrid between traditional conspiracy theories and a new kind of thinking, what she calls “conspiracy without the theory.”

“It’s a closed system,” she says. “The evidence against it is the evidence for it because the evidence comes from the enemy.”

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4. A conspiracy theory goes to Washington: Three questions about QAnon

It started online in 2017 with a cryptic post on a bulletin board known for its inflammatory right-wing memes. Since then, it has openly gained a foothold in the halls of power.

QAnon, a phenomenon variously described as a sprawling conspiracy theory, a millenarian religion, and, to its adherents, a mass political movement aimed at cleansing the world’s governments of satanic child molesters, has rapidly materialized as a force to be reckoned with. Thirteen GOP congressional candidates who have expressed support for the movement will be on the ballot in November, and several of those have already won their primaries in safe districts.

Where did this all come from?

On Oct. 28, 2017, an anonymous poster claiming to have top-secret government access posted on the free-for-all anonymous internet site 4chan. The poster, now known as “Q,” wrote that President Donald Trump was planning a countercoup against the so-called deep state, the purported hidden government within the U.S. government that actually pulls the strings.

Since then, Q has been regularly posting on various conservative message boards, offering more information “drops” on the coming purge. “Enjoy the show” is a common QAnon slogan.

QAnon is often seen as an offshoot of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory – which linked several high-ranking Democratic officials and several Washington-area restaurants to an alleged child prostitution ring. The QAnon conspiracy takes Pizzagate further, falsely claiming that high-ranking government officials and other elites around the world are running a satanic child sex trafficking/murdering operation. These criminals, the QAnon conspiracy goes, will soon be arrested en masse and either shipped to Guantanamo Bay or executed. Some QAnon believers think that John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash in July 1999 off Martha’s Vineyard, actually faked his death and will return to help overthrow the deep state.

Harvard political scientist Nancy Rosenblum, author of “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy,” argues that QAnon represents a hybrid between traditional conspiracy theories and a new kind of thinking, what she calls “conspiracy without the theory.”

On the one hand, “it’s not about anything. Nothing has happened yet,” Professor Rosenblum says. “It’s a prophetic prediction.” Unlike traditional conspiracy theories, which seek to uncover evidence of secret machinations by the powerful, she says that the new form relies on bare assertions, repetition, and attacking sources of knowledge.

“It’s a closed system,” she says of QAnon’s theory. “The evidence against it is the evidence for it because the evidence comes from the enemy.”

“On the other hand,” she says, “QAnon does seem to have the apparatus of a theory.” And it's one with an ominous historical resonance, she says. It links the enemy to sexual degeneracy. It says the enemy doesn’t deserve to live. And it has leaped from discussion boards to the real world.

“Q is this open source thing,” Professor Rosenblum says. “It has the characteristic of a participatory role-playing game.”

Why does QAnon matter?

Though it sounds like a fringe movement, it’s joining the Republican mainstream. This year, 63 QAnon supporters ran in congressional primaries in 27 states and received nearly 600,000 votes, according to Media Matters. Of these candidates, 13 are poised to be on the ballot in November. The most prominent of these, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia GOP candidate from a safe Republican district, called Q a “patriot” in a 2018 video.

QAnon has also made significant inroads into the White House. In 2018, President Trump invited a QAnon believer to meet him in the Oval Office. And, according to a November 2019 New York Times report, President Trump has retweeted accounts from QAnon and other promoters of “fringe” conspiracies 145 times. More recently, Michael Flynn, President Trump’s first national security adviser, posted a video in which he leads a small group in reciting, at the end of an oath of office, a QAnon slogan: “Where we go one, we go all.”

It’s very difficult to gauge QAnon’s popular support, but an investigation by the Guardian newspaper in June found more than 3 million followers supporting QAnon on Facebook, a number that is growing fast.

Kathryn Olmsted, a University of California, Davis political scientist and the author of the 2009 book “Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11,” says that QAnon is remarkable in both its complexity and its extremism.

“It’s quite elaborate,” she says. “It is extreme, though. Some of its theories seem quite outrageous to people who aren’t on the inside.”

She suggests that the complexity is part of QAnon’s appeal. “For many people a conspiracy is like a game, like a puzzle people can solve,” she says. “Once you have the internet, there are always clues online.”

How are social media platforms dealing with this?

On July 21, Twitter permanently removed about 7,000 accounts associated with QAnon, and limited 150,000 more.

In a thread posted on the platform via its @TwitterSafety account, the company announced that it will refuse to serve any accounts associated with QAnon. It also announced other measures to prevent QAnon content from spreading on its platform, including blocking URLs and limiting its appearance in search results.

The New York Times reported that Facebook, which in May removed several groups associated with QAnon, is set to take further measures against the movement. Two Facebook workers who spoke anonymously to the paper said that the company is coordinating with Twitter and other platforms and plans to make an announcement next month.

Twitter and Facebook are not the first to enact QAnon bans. In 2018, Reddit banned the QAnon subreddit r/GreatAwakening for violating the site’s policy against “inciting violence, harassment, and the dissemination of personal information.” Last month, the video-streaming company Roku removed a dedicated QAnon channel from its options.

Experts note that bans can be effective. Joan Donovan, of the nonprofit Data and Society, talked to Vice Magazine about her research on what happens when figures like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos are banned from large networks. “Generally the falloff is pretty significant,” she said, “and they don’t gain the same amplification power they had.”

But no ban can be 100% effective. For instance, The Guardian reports that many groups slipped Facebook’s dragnet in May by changing their name to “17,” a reference to Q’s position in the alphabet. Others simply relocated to conservative social media platforms like Parler and Gab.

Difference-maker

Drivers of change

Meet the woman behind Israel’s ‘communities of kindness’

How do you help people feel like they belong? Sometimes it’s as simple as creating opportunities to bring them together. Adi Altschuler has been doing just that since she was a teen.

Noelle
Heidi Levine/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Adi Altschuler poses at Tel Aviv’s Bikurim school, an inclusive school where typical and disabled children study together, July 13, 2020. The school is part of a network inspired by her Krembo Wings youth movement.

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Adi Altschuler was just 16 years old when she first dabbled in social entrepreneurship. Today her organization, Krembo Wings, matches nondisabled children with children with disabilities.

Peer-led youth movements, where teenagers are given the responsibility of leading younger children, are a central part of Israeli culture. And participating in them is something of a rite of passage, but was previously unattainable for kids with disabilities.

Today, two decades later, Krembo boasts 76 chapters in Israel that serve 7,000 children and youth, and Ms. Altschuler is still leading grand initiatives. Her Memories in the Living Room project is revolutionizing how Israelis memorialize the Holocaust. What started as an informal gathering with friends to hear one survivor’s story has evolved into a program spread across 55 different countries.

Her most recent undertaking expands on the formative experience of creating Krembo Wings. “Inclu” is a network of the country’s first inclusive public schools, in which nondisabled pupils and students with a range of physical or intellectual impairments study together.

“For me the biggest mission is to create communities of kindness,” says Ms. Altschuler. “The idea is that everyone belongs.”

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5. Meet the woman behind Israel’s ‘communities of kindness’

When Adi Altschuler was a girl of 12, she volunteered to work with an organization for disabled youth. She was assigned to work with a 3-year-old with a bright smile and face sprinkled with freckles.

Kfir Kobi could neither walk nor speak, she says, but he understood everything going on around him. She describes their introduction as “love at first sight.”

Their meetings went from once weekly to several times a week. They were still close four years later when she took part in a leadership initiative for teenagers. Participants were asked to think of something that bothered them about society that they thought needed to be fixed.

Thinking of Kfir and his social isolation, unable to just walk out the door to see friends, she decided to scale the kind of relationship they had by forming a local group bringing children with disabilities together with nondisabled children and teenagers.

“Children with disabilities” is a phrase Ms. Altschuler prefers today not to use, because, she says, it connotes that they have disabilities while “typical children” do not. When really, she says, all people function with disabilities; it’s just that some are more visible than others.

The local group she formed soon grew into a youth movement across Israel with the help of Kfir’s mother, Claudia Kobi. It was named Krembo Wings, after a marshmallow-and-chocolate cookie popular with Israeli children.

Courtesy of Krembo Wings
Youth goof around at a meeting of the Krembo Wings youth movement, which brings together special needs and more typically developing children in Israel.

Peer-led youth movements, where teenagers are given the responsibility of leading younger children, are a central part of Israeli culture. And participating in them is something of a rite of passage, but was previously unattainable for children with disabilities.

Krembo is the first and only youth movement of its kind in the world. In Israel 76 chapters serve 7,000 youth. In 2018 the United Nations recognized it for its leadership in inclusion and designated it as a “special adviser” for other countries looking to integrate youth with disabilities into the broader social fold.  

“For the past several years the youth who are involved have been leading a quiet social revolution to make a better, more open and more accepting society – one that says, ‘There is a place for everyone,’” says Sigal Dekel, the movement’s communication manager. 

“It’s the most respectful place I’ve ever been,” says Tamar Sommer, 15, who says she is looking forward to becoming a counselor in the fall. “These kids ... are so often dealing with doctors and therapists. But they also need friends, a chance to connect with other youth,” she says. “You don’t need special training to connect with another person and be nice.” 

For Ms. Altschuler, Krembo was just her first foray into social entrepreneurship. She has two more grand initiatives to her credit. Her long list of awards and recognitions, in Israel and abroad, includes being named in 2016 by Time magazine as one of six leaders of the future.

Danna Sender-Mulla met Ms. Altschuler 11 years ago through a gathering at the World Economic Forum for leaders under 30. They became friends and eventually collaborators.

“I think Adi has a great way of pitching amazing ideas and being able to harness people’s attention and their desire to move things forward,” says Ms. Sender-Mulla. “Adi has the ability to get anyone excited about what she is excited about.”

A need to fix things

Recalling her childhood outside Tel Aviv, Ms. Altschuler says she remembers herself always creating – drawing, writing, making things. If there was a recurring theme in her creations, it was this: They looked different from anything in the world around her.

“I looked at things differently. And then I tried to reduce the gap between what I saw and what I imagined,” she says. 

“When I grew up, I think the space for thinking of ideas only grew, and I would try to produce whatever that idea was. I could not let things remain at the idea stage,” she says. “I could not rest till they were done.”

Ms. Altschuler says she is driven less by a passion for a certain group or subject, than by a need to, as she puts it, “fix things.”

“Everyone has their gift, and that’s something I’m good at – starting things. I am not capable of closing my eyes when I see something that needs addressing,” she says.

She also insists that all of her endeavors are based on teamwork.

“I always meet people along the way that inspire me; these are not just my creations, but ultimately, the product of many people,” says Ms. Altschuler.

She says she’s not a good manager but does excel at finding people to collaborate with who can help push through a vision. “I’m an expert at finding experts,” she says with a laugh.

New approach on the Holocaust

The second social movement Ms. Altschuler initiated, Zikaron B’Salon, or Memories in the Living Room, is revolutionizing how Israelis memorialize the Holocaust. In the project she has worked on with Ms. Sender-Mulla, small groups gather to share memories of the Holocaust in the intimate settings of people’s homes.

It started when Ms. Altschuler, disappointed by the formulaic nature of Israeli ceremonies on Holocaust Remembrance Day, with what to her felt like a rote collection of songs, poems, and dry speeches, decided in 2010 to try something more personal.

She invited a survivor to her parents’ home and emailed friends to come hear the survivor’s story. Those friends told others, and suddenly there were 40 people in the living room – most of them strangers.

The program has grown. In 2019, 1.5 million people attended events across 55 countries. This year, some 2 million people participated via Zoom in Israel and abroad.

Her third and current undertaking expands on the formative experience of creating Krembo Wings.

“Inclu” is a network of the country’s first inclusive public schools, in which nondisabled pupils and students with a range of physical or intellectual impairments study together.

“I always thought: What would Krembo Wings look like in a school– a school infused with its values?” she says.

“For me the biggest mission is to create communities of kindness – where people understand that diversity is a blessing and it’s an opportunity to see a range of human experiences out there,” says Ms. Altschuler. “The idea is that everyone belongs – I think this revolution of inclusion can really change people’s outlook.”

Israel has been touted for innovation in high-tech, but it has also become a greenhouse for social startups. Ms. Sender-Mulla says Ms. Altschuler has tapped into something in Israel’s younger generation.

“We don’t want to passively accept things as they are, but engage and create,” she says.

Ms. Altschuler says her drive to start movements began early.

“I always felt the world was my responsibility,” she says. “At home and at school I always felt I needed to take the world on my shoulders.” 

Editor's note: This story has be updated to reflect the latest guidance from the National Center on Disability and Journalism.

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Why the world counts on honest stats in a pandemic

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Compared with other events in history, the COVID-19 pandemic may be the one that has been the most widely scrutinized in the shortest span of time. People are hungry for data about the virus’s origins, effects, and remedies. Yet this hunger has also led to a demand for honesty and transparency in the data collected. Can test trials for a new vaccine be trusted? Is my employer flying blind in reopening the workplace?

Around the world, officials are on notice to be more forthcoming as the pandemic endures. In a few places, leaders have been praised for their transparency. In China, officials from the World Health Organization have arrived to start an investigation of COVID-19’s origins. Beijing has suppressed many of those who have challenged its changing narratives about the virus’s beginnings. President Donald Trump has been criticized for a July 10 decision to set up a “coronavirus data hub” in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Public demand for data is driving a new accountability in institutions. Honesty is a powerful disinfectant against the virus. It helps garner support during the long struggle against COVID-19.

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Why the world counts on honest stats in a pandemic

Compared with other events in history, the COVID-19 pandemic may be the one that has been the most widely scrutinized in the shortest span of time. People are hungry for data about the virus’s origins, effects, and remedies. “It’s only in moments of crisis that we begin to pay attention [to data],” writes Arunabh Ghosh, a Harvard professor and author of a new book about statistics in China.

Yet this hunger for information has also led to a demand for honesty and transparency in the data collected and used by authorities. Can test trials for a new vaccine be trusted? Is my employer flying blind on safety data in reopening the workplace? Bad data can lead to panic or a false sense of security. In short, people expect accurate analysis of both the threat and the solutions to help lessen their fear of vulnerability.

“It is in moments of disaster response and relief that the values of open government can come under intense pressure, but can also meaningfully contribute to better outcomes,” states the international group Open Government Partnership.

Around the world, officials are on notice to be more forthcoming as the pandemic endures. In a few places, such as Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, leaders have been praised for their transparency during the crisis. In China, officials from the World Health Organization arrived in Wuhan July 13 to start an investigation of COVID-19’s origins. Beijing has suppressed many of those who have challenged its changing narratives about the virus’s beginnings. To rebuild lost trust, China can grant unfettered access for the WHO and other international investigators.

In the United States, President Donald Trump has been criticized for a July 10 decision to set up a “coronavirus data hub” in the Department of Health and Human Services. It would replace data collection by the more respected Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unease about the federal reporting structure – as well as Mr. Trump’s leadership in general – has put pressure on states to improve their data.

A July 21 report from Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit led by former CDC chief Tom Frieden, found states largely failing in collecting and publishing data on 15 “essential indicators” of COVID-19. For nine of the 15 indicators, more than half of states were not reporting at all. Yet another study by The COVID Tracking Project found on the whole, the quality of state data across 16 metrics “has improved dramatically.” The median grade for states has gone from B to A over the past three months.

Public demand for data is driving a new accountability in institutions. Honesty is a powerful disinfectant against the virus. It helps garner support during the long struggle against COVID-19. The people and their leaders must be partners in truth telling.

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.

Thinking about suicide?

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Desperate for funds and feeling completely alone, a college student wondered if suicide was her only answer. But it wasn’t a way out she needed; it was a way forward – which she found as she reached out to God for comfort and guidance.

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1. Thinking about suicide?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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I was panicking. It was almost the end of my freshman year of college, and I had no idea how I was going to pay for the next year’s tuition. Because of a bad business deal, my parents had lost their savings, and it seemed like all the existing financial resources had been tapped. Walking across campus that day, I felt as though I couldn’t see any solution or future for me.

I was in a dark mental place and felt I had no one to turn to for support or encouragement. The temptation to give in to self-destructive thoughts – to “escape” – was strong. Up until then, I’d had dreams of making a good future for myself. But now it seemed like all my plans had reached a dead end. What was the point of living?

Growing up, I’d developed a habit of praying about my problems. So, through the fog of self-pity, my thoughts naturally started reaching out to God for comfort and guidance. And there, right in that moment of hopelessness, all the things I’d learned during my years as a student in the Christian Science Sunday School kicked in. The ideas that saved me went along these lines:

“Valerie, death is not a friend. It can’t provide a solution, because God is the source of all answers and is present now and always will be. God is good and made you with all the qualities and spiritual resources you need, no matter what the external circumstances seem to be. Your creator has not forsaken you.

“These negative thoughts are not your thoughts. The ideas God gives you are good. Destructive thoughts are not good. They are lies about your true nature as God’s loved and valued child, trying to undermine your sense of your worth and purpose, and you don’t need to listen to them. The Bible says, ‘ “For I know what I have planned for you,” says the Lord. “I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope” ’ (Jeremiah 29:11, New English Translation).”

I’d had enough experiences by then to know that if I trusted God, God would open my eyes to a solution. But if I gave in to the negative thoughts, I would be distracted and miss that blessing.

“Valerie, heaven is not a place you have to die to get into so that things will get better. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven, all of God’s limitless goodness, is within you – within consciousness. So what you need isn’t a change in circumstances but a change in the way you’re thinking about them – moving from a limited perspective of things to seeing them more the way God does.”

This wasn’t positive thinking, but was about getting a clearer understanding of my relation to God, who is always caring for me.

With those powerful ideas, the mental storm subsided. The dark thoughts began to disappear as I felt a deepening trust that there would be an answer, even though I didn’t know what it would be. I no longer felt forsaken or at risk; God had rescued me.

This peace stayed with me, and it turned out that even without my family’s help, I was able to find new funds to pay tuition for my remaining three years of college. Later, when I went to graduate school, a research assistantship paid for all my expenses.

There may be times in our lives when things look very bleak. But right in the middle of the turmoil, divine help is at hand to lift us up from the pit. God is ever present to rescue and deliver us – and to bring us out of the dark, destructive thoughts into the light of hope, promise, and peace.

Adapted from an article published in the Christian Science Sentinel’s online TeenConnect section, May 12, 2020.

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Play ball!

Paul Rutherford/USA Today
After spring training was shut down because of the coronavirus, Major League Baseball celebrated opening day July 23, 2020. Above, Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Zack Godley throws a pitch during the first inning of a July 22 practice game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park in Boston.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow when culture writer Stephen Humphries will introduce readers to five activists pushing for social change through street art.

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