2021
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Monitor Daily Podcast

April 30, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Census mystery: Were Latino residents undercounted?

It’s an American mystery: Why didn’t the census count more people?

Yes, the once-every-decade U.S. head count, released earlier this week, showed that the resident population of the country did increase. As of April 2020, it’s up 7.4% from 2010, to 331,449,281 people.

But that’s the slowest rate of growth since the 1930s, when America was battered by the Great Depression. And some of the states that the Census Bureau had predicted would grow the fastest – Arizona, Texas, and Florida – didn’t do as well as expected. Arizona didn’t gain a new House seat as predicted. Texas and Florida both got one less new member of Congress than they had planned on.

These states all have significant Latino populations. Latino politicians and activists worry that none of them tried hard enough to get Latinos counted.

“There appears to be a correlation between the investment of statewide governmental resources in census outreach and apportionment tallies,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the NALEO Educational Fund, an organization of Latino officials, in a statement.

Immigration also slowed in the months prior to the count. It is possible some unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. were deterred from filling out a census form because of the Trump administration’s failed attempt to add a question about citizenship.

The Census Bureau will release more detailed state and racial population data in September, which could yet shake up results. At stake is the speed of American transformation, as people, money, and political power are shifting from the East and Midwest to Southern and Western states.

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Saudi-Iran detente: What rivals’ dialogue could mean for Middle East

The Saudi-Iran rivalry that has shaped the Middle East may be moving from a not-so-cold war of proxy battles to a cool peace where cooperation is possible. The region stands to benefit.

Peter
Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/AP/File
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (center right) accompanies Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on his arrival to Riyadh International Airport in Saudi Arabia, March 31, 2021. A first round of direct talks held in Iraq in April between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran is seen as a positive sign of de-escalation following years of animosity.

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Six years ago Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father, King Salman, shifted traditionally cautious Saudi Arabia to an aggressive foreign policy confronting Iran and its proxies, including, crucially, in neighboring Yemen.

But in an interview on Saudi state TV this week, Crown Prince Mohammed called for the two nations to overcome differences that have divided the region. “We do not want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to grow and prosper,” the crown prince said.

Some say the stark change in tone reeks of Saudi desperation to wind down its military entanglements; others call it a shrewd reading of the Biden administration’s diplomatic engagement with Iran.

“It didn’t win in Yemen, it didn’t win in Syria, didn’t win in Lebanon,” says F. Gregory Gause, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University. “The failure of this more confrontational policy is probably leading to some rethinking in Riyadh, but the new U.S. administration’s outreach to Iran is a driving factor.”

But the conciliatory tone and talks also signal something deeper: an understanding that the two rivals can exist side by side, even if they don’t agree. It is an understanding that could improve lives in the region.

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Saudi-Iran detente: What rivals’ dialogue could mean for Middle East

After six years of asymmetric warfare, proxy battles, and mutual recriminations, Saudi Arabia this week offered its bitter regional rival Iran something new: dialogue.

In a televised interview Tuesday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called for the two nations to overcome differences that have divided the region.

“Iran is a neighboring country, and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran,” Crown Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, said in a 90-minute interview on Saudi state TV. 

“We do not want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to grow and prosper,” the crown prince said, noting their joint “interests” to “push the region and the world toward prosperity.”

It was a stark change in tone from someone who three years ago called Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “the new Hitler,” and ruled out dialogue and cooperation with Iran as “appeasement.”

Some say the new tone reeks of Saudi desperation to wind down its military entanglements; others call it a shrewd reading of the Biden administration’s diplomatic engagement with Iran.

But while indicating a Saudi shift away from a confrontational policy toward Iran that has failed to achieve its goals, the conciliatory tone and talks signal something deeper: an understanding that the two rivals can exist side by side, even if they don’t agree.

It is an understanding that could improve lives in the region.

On Thursday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman welcomed a “dialogue-oriented approach,” saying in a statement to Iranian media that “Iran and Saudi Arabia … can enter a new chapter of interaction and cooperation to achieve peace, stability, and regional development by overcoming differences.”

In the Saudi TV interview, citing among other differences Iran’s “negative behavior,” such as its support for armed proxies, Crown Prince Mohammed also said, “We really hope we would overcome them and build a good and positive relationship with Iran that would benefit all.”

Confrontational approach

The olive branch comes weeks after Saudi Arabia and Iran held their first direct talks in years in Iraq, where their spheres of influence collide.

It also comes six years after the crown prince and his father, King Salman, shifted the traditionally cautious, slow-moving kingdom to an aggressive foreign policy confronting Iran and its proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Crucially, that included launching a military intervention in Yemen. Now Saudi Arabia is desperately looking for a cease-fire there. Its assertiveness has failed to make the kingdom safer.

While missiles fired by Iran-backed Houthis previously landed on the Saudi side of the Yemen-Saudi border, near-daily missile and drone strikes from Yemen now hit airports, military bases, residential neighborhoods, and oil installations deep in the kingdom.

This was epitomized by the Iran-originated drone strikes on Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in 2019, which pushed 50% of Saudi Arabia’s oil production offline and shook the leadership to its core.

“The confrontational policy with Iran really hasn’t worked,” says F. Gregory Gause, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University. “It didn’t win in Yemen, it didn’t win in Syria, didn’t win in Lebanon.”

“The failure of this more confrontational policy is probably leading to some rethinking in Riyadh, but the new U.S. administration’s outreach to Iran is a driving factor” in Riyadh’s new approach.

Amid enmity, mutual interests

But what could the talks and Saudi olive branch mean for a region that has been torn apart by proxy wars and regional competition?

Rather than tackle the core disagreement over Iranian influence and armed proxies in Arab states, the detente, say observers and insiders, will likely focus on immediate areas of mutual interest, such as maritime security.

“If they start getting into a practical dialogue, the most obvious place to start is where other Gulf countries have already begun discussions with Iran: maritime security,” says Hussein Ibish, senior scholar at the Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute.

The Persian Gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which 25% of the world’s oil is shipped, became a flashpoint of tensions from 2018 to 2020 under former President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

Dalati Nohra/Reuters/File
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon, Aug. 14, 2020. On Thursday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry welcomed a “dialogue-oriented approach” with Saudi Arabia.

The waters have seen a “shadow war” of acts of sabotage, miscues, and close calls that could have led to military escalations. The United States is spearheading a maritime security arrangement featuring Arab Gulf states that crucially excludes Iran.

Iran-Saudi talks are likely to expand to regional counterterrorism, namely against Al Qaeda, which recently has grown its influence in Yemen, and Islamic State, which has threatened both Saudi Arabia and Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria.

Yemen peace dividend?

The country that could see the most immediate benefits from dialogue is Yemen, home to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, where Iran maintains links to a Houthi movement that has continued a bloody offensive despite a Saudi and United Nations-backed peace offer.

According to Gulf diplomatic sources, Yemen was among the main topics discussed by Saudi Arabia and Iran in Baghdad this month. It is believed that Riyadh is asking Tehran to withdraw support from the Houthis and push it to agree to a cease-fire and negotiations.

Less than 24 hours after the Saudi crown prince’s conciliatory message, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed his country’s support for a cease-fire in Yemen and a return to talks as he met with a Houthi spokesman in Oman.

Although Iran has supported the Houthis to drag Saudi Arabia deeper into a military quagmire, observers and analysts agree it has few stakes in Yemen, more than 1,000 miles away from Tehran and separated by multiple land and sea borders, and see the issue as an “acceptable concession.”

“Yemen will be the barometer if there is going to be any serious Iranian-Saudi detente,” says Professor Gause.

It remains unclear, however, whether Tehran holds enough sway over the Houthis, a Yemeni ethnic group with a fierce independent streak.

Path forward in Iraq

After Yemen, the more difficult subjects would be Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria – three Arab countries with significant Shiite populations where Iran has methodically nurtured armed non-state actors loyal to Tehran.

An area of progress may be in Iraq. Over the last three years, Saudi royals have reversed a boycott on post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and have built ties with Shiite political leaders Riyadh saw as more independent from Tehran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who maintains ties with both Riyadh and Tehran, helped broker the recent talks. Officials hope in Baghdad and other Arab capitals that with the Saudi-Iran dialogue, alongside U.S.-Iran talks, Iraq will be used less as a proxy battleground.

It remains unclear how a detente would play out in Syria, where Iran has propped up Bashar al-Assad’s regime with its proxy Hezbollah, and where Turkey also holds sway.

Observers and officials agree that, while not a peace, detente and dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran, no matter how modest, could offer a pathway to progress. 

“There is a lot that can be done to get dialogue going to reduce tensions, to mitigate misunderstandings, and for Saudi Arabia and Iran to reassure each other that they can in fact live together,” says Mr. Ibish, “even in competition.”

Global populism: Big promises, poor pandemic results

Populist leaders swept to power in recent years on a wave of promises. But confronted by a public health emergency like COVID-19, they have performed significantly worse than traditional politicians.

Peter
Niharika Kulkarni/Reuters
People wearing protective face masks wait to receive a vaccine for the coronavirus at a vaccination center in Mumbai, India. The country has been suffering a record-breaking wave of infections.

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The five countries at the top of the global COVID-19 mortality tables – the United States, Brazil, India, Mexico, and Britain – have something in common: All had populist leaders when the pandemic began.

Like Donald Trump, heads of the other four governments also played down the importance of the pandemic or moved slowly to deal with it. They shared some habits, too – oversimplifying the pandemic, dramatizing their own responses, asserting their own solutions, and forging divisions along the way.

The results were catastrophic, and that has had political repercussions, even though they tried to shift the blame onto others. Mr. Trump is widely thought to have lost the U.S. presidential election because of his mishandling of COVID-19; anger at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on the rise; in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s popularity is plummeting.

Populist leaders such as Mr. Bolsonaro have deployed fake news and pseudoscience in a bid to contain the bitter fallout from his policies. In India, the government has ordered Twitter to delete posts critical of Mr. Modi’s handling of the pandemic.

But even some of Mr. Modi’s supporters are disillusioned. “Things are so bad now that when I talk politics with someone, I cannot support his policies and leadership,” says Bijit Sarmah, a tea planter in northeastern India. “What would I even say?”

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Global populism: Big promises, poor pandemic results

On a quiet evening in a New Delhi market, the normal crowd of customers thinned by lockdown rules, Anirban Mukherjee sat exhausted. He had spent frantic days scrambling to find a cylinder of oxygen for a friend’s mother with a critical case of COVID-19. He had finally located one, but it wasn’t enough.

No hospital had a bed for her. The woman succumbed without treatment.

This is but one story of the heartbreak now playing out daily in India, currently in the grip of a record-breaking wave of the pandemic. And Mr. Mukherjee knows whom he holds responsible. “It’s politics which has brought us to this stage,” he says. “We did not do any forward planning, and we did not build up our health care capacity. We took things too lightly, and the government is entirely to blame.”

The United States is emerging now from the worst of the pandemic, thanks to an ambitious inoculation campaign. But its performance under the Trump administration left the country at the top of world rankings of COVID-19 fatalities. Strikingly, the top five slots in those mortality rankings all belong to countries run by populists when the pandemic began – the U.S., Brazil, Mexico, India, and Britain.

“When rulers surround themselves with ‘yes men,’ and shut out questioning and diverse viewpoints, a health disaster in the making won’t be flagged,” says Nikita Sud, who teaches development studies at Oxford University in Britain. “Authoritarians believe what they want to.”

To be sure, some countries with more traditional governments have suffered recent reverses, such as Canada and France. But they acted quickly when the pandemic threatened to get out of control, and death rates reflected that.

Gideon Lasco, a medical anthropologist who lectures at the University of the Philippines, calls leaders like Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and former U.S. President Donald Trump “medical populists” – politicians who have risen to power and ruled in populist styles that lead them to oversimplify the pandemic, dramatize their own responses, assert their own solutions, and forge divisions along the way.

“It is very clear that medical populists tend to downplay the pandemic, and this has led to catastrophic results in Brazil, the U.S., and India, as well as other places like Mexico and the Philippines,” he says. “A medical populism approach also distracts attention from complex, intergovernmental solutions that are required to address a global pandemic.”

The consequences of such an approach are clear. Mr. Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus is widely believed to have cost him the 2020 election. Anger like that of Mr. Mukherjee toward the Indian prime minister is mounting, while President Bolsonaro’s popularity is plunging.

Bikas Das/AP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally ahead of West Bengal state elections. Such superspreader events provoked a surge in COVID-19 cases, sparking charges that Mr. Modi had put his political career ahead of the nation's health.

Still, all three maintain considerable support, while the pandemic deepens the inequalities and divisions that propelled such leaders into power in the first place.

Superspreading in India

Today, India sits at the epicenter of the pandemic – a catastrophe that many believe didn’t have to happen.

At the start of the year, with COVID-19 cases relatively low, Prime Minister Modi boasted that India had “saved the world from disaster by bringing the situation under control.” His ministers praised his visionary leadership.

Last month Mr. Modi encouraged religious gatherings of millions of Hindu devotees, and attended massive campaign rallies in states holding elections.

By the middle of April, when more than 300,000 new cases a day were being reported, the country’s health system had collapsed under the weight of the pandemic and the authorities were pleading for international help.

While India’s public health system has long been overburdened and underfunded, Mr. Modi’s leadership is a major factor in how poorly the pandemic has been handled, experts say. Officials at the Indian Medical Association have branded the prime minister a “super spreader.”

“Our disastrous response to COVID has not been helped at all by an authoritarian government, bent on shoring up its own power, and managing its image more than governing,” says Professor Sud. “Modi is a strongman authoritarian. He had to show himself vanquishing COVID, which is why his photograph graces the vaccine certificates. Now that COVID is out of control, the government is busy passing the buck to state governments.”

Blame game

Shifting the blame is a tactic familiar halfway across the globe, in the United States, where Mr. Trump commonly blamed China for originating the virus, and state governors for their containment policies. In Brazil, too, Mr. Bolsonaro blames state governors and mayors for imposing lockdowns.

Adriano Machado/Reuters
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attends a promotion ceremony for generals of the armed forces in Brasília, Brazil, earlier this month. Mr. Bolsonaro, who has played down the threat of COVID-19, rarely wears a face mask at public events.

In Brasília, Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters gathered around the presidential palace late last month to celebrate their leader’s birthday and listen to him rail against lockdowns imposed by local officials. As the president approached the audience he took off his mask. “Some tyrants are thwarting the freedom of many of you,” the president shouted, as the crowd erupted in cheers. “I do anything for my people.”

“Bolsonaro is always the victim. Nothing is ever his fault,” says Guilherme Casarões, a political scientist and the coordinator of the Observatory of the Extreme Right in São Paulo. “Bolsonaro has successfully convinced his supporters that, if everything is going wrong in this country, it’s not because of him – it’s because of the system.

“He transformed the pandemic into an ideological endeavor,” Dr. Casarões adds.

Mr. Bolsonaro, like many populist leaders including Mr. Trump, has downplayed the pandemic threat from the beginning. He called the coronavirus a “little flu,” rejected lockdowns, and touted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment despite a lack of evidence of its efficacy. He has simplified the fight into a binary choice between the economy and public health.  

His government faces a parliamentary investigation into its handling of the pandemic, and his popularity has fallen to 33%, according to a recent poll. But he has countered a soaring death rate, rising unemployment, and spreading hunger with the narrative that has defined his presidency: dividing society into “the true people of Brazil” and the corrupt elite, including politicians in Congress, the Supreme Court, and the media.
 
“This construction of an alternative reality – where you don’t believe there’s that many people dying in Brazil, where you don’t believe there’s that many unemployed – is being proliferated through social networks and fake news,” says Eduardo Grin, a researcher at the think tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo. “All of this creates a parallel truth.”

Science and politics

That is a narrative that echoes in the U.S., where Mr. Trump eschewed science and politicized public health guidelines from the start. Kathryn Brownell, a historian at Purdue University who studies the relationships between media and the American presidency, says that while American presidents have increasingly sought to control media narratives, the Trump administration broke new ground by peddling “alternative facts.” 

“It was regular and consistent,” she says. “He made misinformation a regular feature of presidential politics.” The legacy is clear: Adherence to public health advice remains highly politicized.  

Adriano Machado/Reuters
Demonstrators hold a banner that reads "Bolsonaro genocidal" during a protest against Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasília earlier this month. Critics have blamed his inaction for the current surge of COVID-19 cases in Brazil.

Unlike Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro, Mr. Modi has never downplayed the science behind the virus. In that sense, he has been more responsible than other world leaders, says Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. 

But the prime minister did allow government officials to peddle pseudoscience on the side, and “Modi tends to govern in a bubble,” Mr. Vaishnav says. “I am not sure there are many people at senior levels who are willing to speak truth to power” and distract him from his fixation on winning state elections this year, he adds.

That priority has led the Indian government to order Twitter, which has become a forum for people seeking hospital beds, oxygen, and medicines, to remove posts critical of its handling of the pandemic.

But that cannot disguise the reality of what is happening. In the state of Assam, which also held elections this year, tea planter and longtime supporter of Mr. Modi, Bijit Sarmah, has lost his faith.

“Things are so bad now that when I talk politics with someone, I cannot support his policies and leadership,” Mr. Sarmah says. “What would I even say?”

World’s bankers take climate pledge. Will they follow through?

President Joe Biden has proposed expansive federal spending on climate action. But a recent summit emphasized something seen as just as vital: mobilizing private sector investment.

Peter

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At President Joe Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate last week, one constituency was a group somewhat new to the green spotlight: financiers.

Banks and investors made some big-dollar pledges: Bill Gates on plans to rapidly commercialize clean technologies. Dozens of banks in a new Net-Zero Banking Alliance. And more.

It’s encouraging, say climate policy experts, because such private funding is necessary for there to be any hope of limiting the world’s temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius – the global warming target set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Next comes the vital step of following pledges with actions. But those who track corporate climate actions add that the moves aren’t happening on a whim. Instead, a combination of factors – from new analysis of climate risks to rising optimism about profits from climate-related investment – is altering business models. 

“The view that investors take is pretty straightforward,” says Sasha Mackler, director of the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “They will deploy their capital into projects that provide them a return. It’s like gravity. Water flows downhill. Capital flows into projects that provide a return.”

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World’s bankers take climate pledge. Will they follow through?

Lee Jin-wook/Yonhap/AP
South Korean President Moon Jae-in attends President Joe Biden's virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, April 22, 2021.

President Joe Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate last week featured many of the usual suspects for international environmental gatherings. There were the heads of state, from Japan to South Africa, making promises to reduce their countries’ carbon emissions. There were the cabinet members and special envoys, all promoting new climate-friendly initiatives. And there were the advocates, urging everyone else to do more.

But there was another key constituency with pledges and calls to action, a group somewhat new to the green spotlight. 

These were the financiers. And their role last week was yet another sign, many climate experts say, that those who control the world’s private money – from bank CEOs to asset managers to celebrity investors – are slowly moving toward the center of the world’s fight against climate change.  

“I am happy to see the cross section of institutions participating today,” said Jane Fraser, chief executive officer of Citi, as she sat on a panel with the CEO of Bank of America and the prime minister of New Zealand. “Solving climate change will require the ultimate public-private partnership.”

Banks and investors made big-dollar pledges. Bill Gates, whose Breakthrough Energy Ventures has already raised its second $1 billion to support climate change innovation, announced his plans to bring down the cost of emerging green technologies. A day earlier, dozens of banks announced a new Net-Zero Banking Alliance. That's part of a larger new group, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, which pledged to use its $70 trillion in assets to help the world transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. These came atop a spate of private sector commitments made prior to the summit.

All of this, say climate policy experts, is necessary for there to be any hope of limiting the world’s temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius – the global warming target set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

“The private sector is essential to delivering so much of the needed climate action,” says Bella Tonkonogy, associate director for climate finance at the Climate Policy Initiative, an analysis and advisory organization.

 

Erin Scott/Reuters/File
Jane Fraser of the banking corporation Citigroup addresses a Brazil-U.S. Business Council forum in Washington on March 18, 2019. Ms. Fraser, now Citigroup's CEO, said at a global climate summit this month that “solving climate change will require the ultimate public-private partnership.”

That’s because addressing climate change will cost a huge amount of money.  

According to the United Nations, the extra capital needed to effectively fund climate change mitigation and adaptation is still anywhere between about $1.6 trillion and $3.8 trillion per year – far more than the public sector can provide. 

“There’s no government in the world that has enough ... in their budgets to be able to provide what we need to make this transition,” U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry said at the summit. “Ultimately, how governments, international financial institutions, and private providers of capital work together is really going to determine the outcome of this challenge.”

While the calls for private finance to help fund climate action are not new, the recent pledges reflect what some see as a significant shift. 

“There is increasing enthusiasm and interest from investors from the financial community, the energy industry, the banks,” says Sasha Mackler, director of the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

Why momentum is rising

This isn’t because financial institutions have suddenly decided on a whim they now care about climate, experts say. Instead, a combination of factors – from new risk analyses to optimism about the potential returns from climate-related investment – has finally convinced banks that their business depends on getting behind climate action. 

“The view that investors take is pretty straightforward,” Mr. Mackler says. “They will deploy their capital into projects that provide them a return. It’s like gravity. Water flows downhill. Capital flows into projects that provide a return.”

As the Biden team has been emphasizing for months, investments in industries connected to climate action, from clean electricity to new carbon-removal technologies, could have huge financial rewards – especially given the administration’s push for public spending to drive the transition.

But financial institutions also increasingly see downsides to not embracing climate action. Late last year, the U.S. Federal Reserve for the first time reported that it would include climate change as a material risk in analyzing the stability of the country’s financial sector. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen echoed this approach last week, saying that her department will be working with the Securities and Exchange Commission to create reliable, comparable, and consistent reporting standards through which institutions must disclose their climate-related risks – the same way they must now provide financial disclosures.

AP
In this image from video, billionaire investor and philanthropist Bill Gates speaks during the White House's Leaders Summit on Climate on April 23, 2021. He announced plans to bring down the cost of emerging green technologies.

And these risks are enormous, says Steven Rothstein, managing director for the Accelerator for Sustainable Capital Markets with Ceres, a nonprofit focused on developing a sustainable economy. 

“We’re not talking millions, we’re not talking billions, we’re talking about trillions of dollars of risk,” he says.  

Some of that comes from climate change directly – hurricanes that disrupt supply chains, for instance, or floods that upend projected crop yields. But others are what people in the climate finance world call “transitional” risks, those risks related to the shift from a fossil fuel economy to a green energy one. Any new efforts to tax, restrict, or ban fossil fuels would mean that investments in those industries are automatically more precarious.

“The major car companies have said that by 2030 or 2035 they’ll have a fully electric fleet,” Mr. Rothstein says. “If you’re a bank, are you going to lend to a gas station with a 20-year repayment?”

Financial institutions can also reap a public relations benefit of positioning themselves as climate change fighters. For years, a growing number of shareholders, customers, and employees have been asking these companies for a greener approach. If they can promote themselves as climate-friendly, and make money at the same time, then they’ll do it, scholars say.

What does “net zero” really mean? 

But many advocates and researchers are still skeptical about what these private finance pledges actually mean.  

“Commitments are very important, but figuring out how to follow through on commitments is even more challenging and interesting,” says Giulia Christianson, director of the sustainable private sector finance group at the World Resources Institute.

The banks touting their climate action around the climate summit this month, for instance, are also some of the world’s largest investors in fossil fuels, according to the advocacy group Rainforest Action Network.  

Climate targets themselves, including the trendy “net zero” concept, are notoriously sketchy. 

Although net-zero generally means balancing carbon emissions with other sorts of reductions, so that a company or industry or financial portfolio is not adding, on the whole, any additional carbon into the atmosphere, there is no consensus on how to actually do this. 

And that can lead to some creative bookkeeping, says Lisa Sachs, director of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment. 

“We see a lot of weird definitions,” she says.

Earlier this month, for instance, U.N. climate adviser Mark Carney had to walk back claims he made that Brookfield Asset Management, where he is vice chair, had achieved net-zero status across its portfolio because its clean investments offset its oil, gas, and coal investments.

“That’s literally like saying, if you have a Diet Coke, it cancels the calories from the hamburger that you have,” Dr. Sachs says. “That’s not how it works.”

Standardization not only of net-zero standards, but also of what data to collect, how to regulate and audit business, and even what to include when evaluating a company’s climate impact will be essential for greening the financial sector, she says. And that, she and others say, will have to intersect with an effective governmental policy and regulatory framework.

“It’s still very complicated,” says Mr. Rothstein of Ceres. “We got into this climate mess as a society by all of us dropping the ball. The only way we’re going to leave a better future for our kids and grandkids is if we’re all working on it – as a shareholder, investor, advocate, or elected official.”

Policing has changed over the last year. Here’s how.

With something as complex as police reform – and little change in the number of police killings – it can be hard to tell if progress is taking place. A closer look suggests it is.

Peter
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
Demonstrators link arms as they march for racial justice and police reforms in Washington on April 23, 2021.

Last year’s protests against police brutality spurred a nationwide push to reform law enforcement. Dozens of states and cities responded, with bills curtailing aggressive police tactics and adding measures to ensure accountability. Maryland and New Jersey, in particular, changed use-of-force policy at its foundation.

But if changing a decentralized and complicated institution is difficult, evaluating those reforms is almost more so. While not the only measure of law enforcement quality, the number of police killings last year remained a stable 1,000 per year, or about three per day. This year’s numbers fit that pattern so far. 

Still, that doesn’t mean the responses aren’t working, says Seth Stoughton, a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina School of Law. With just under 18,000 police departments across the country, policing is extremely complex. Standards vary based on locale, as do the laws enforced. 

Given the scope of required corrections, “it's highly unrealistic ... to expect any one piece of legislation to fundamentally fix these very complicated, often extralegal problems,” says Professor Stoughton, who recently published a book on police use of force.

Instead, he says, citizens should advocate for further legislation while accepting that sustained incremental solutions, which take time, are often the most effective. 

Such a process may already be at work, says Stephen Rushin, professor of criminal law at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. 

“The last year has seen some pretty transformative legislation passed in states across the country,” he says. “I think those are significant steps that we have rarely seen historically in the past.”

SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures, Mapping Police Violence
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Essay

Accidental meditation: Finding my peace in the moment

Many have discovered the restorative properties of outdoor recreation. This essayist tells of how working with nature has often refreshed her as well.

Peter
Denis Balibouse/Reuters/File
Cows return from mountain pastures in Gruyères, in western Switzerland, for which Gruyère cheese is named.

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I have never meditated by conscious choice; it just happens sometimes. My mind goes utterly quiet, inviting new fill. In my days as a dairy farmer, it often happened as I milked the cows or sat on my tractor. I would lose any semblance of thinking beyond the contours of the animals, the undulating fields. When the milk tank filled, or that final middle row of fragrant, dried meadow grass curled into form behind me, I’d wake as if from a curative sleep, ready for the world of ideas, anxieties, anticipations, and plans.

Today, I’m half a world away in Switzerland. Recently I went on a three-hour hike, along a karst valley replete with waterfalls, caves, and archaeological sites. I simply put one foot in front of the other, listened to the rippling and cascading water, and peered into the dark, blank mouths of trailside caves.

There’s a lot to be said for not tuning in to the past or future for stretches of time, for dwelling only in the flank, the windrow, or the footfall – whatever the moment presents. I cannot turn off my mind. But sometimes it so fills with the here and now there’s no room for more.

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Accidental meditation: Finding my peace in the moment

I have never meditated by conscious choice; by invoking mantras, sitting quietly, avoiding noise, and pushing away the thoughts abuzz in my head. It just happens sometimes. My mind goes utterly quiet, inviting new fill.

In my days as a dairy farmer, it often happened as I milked the cows or sat on my Farmall-H tractor, a vintage machine that was anything but quiet. As I leaned my head against warm bovine flanks or circled the fields raking hay into long, curving windrows, I would lose track of time, place, and any semblance of thinking beyond the contours of the animals munching grain, the undulating fields. When the milk tank filled, or that final middle row of fragrant, dried meadow grass curled into form behind me, I’d wake as if from a curative sleep, deeply relaxed, ready for the world of ideas, anxieties, anticipations, and plans to crowd in again. It is restoration at a bargain price, simply time spent at ordinary work, a tank of gas for the tractor.

It happens when I hike, concentrating not on the future, but on each present footfall and my natural surroundings. My home on an 80-acre farm in Indiana was the ideal setting for walkabouts for 25 years before it changed hands. Even so, I have permission to avail myself of its pastures, woodlands, and stream valleys – its grazing animals, whose own minds seem similarly quiet and untroubled. 

Today, I’m half a world away in Switzerland. As a dual citizen, I gained entry in the midst of the pandemic and spent 10 days in quarantine on the edge of an encircling suite of rising pastureland just south of Basel. I was not allowed to leave the premises, not even for a stroll along the wide-open footpaths twisting up and around the pastures, much as I longed to. Instead, I weeded my host’s yard above a small orchard, something I offered to do, somewhat to her surprise.

“But I’d really like to,” I said, when she protested my offer to work. Day after day, I pulled at the wild tangles, filling two large yard bags and quieting my thoughts while I did so. 

My room in the house is small, but up on the second story, with a balcony overlooking the neighborhood and the open country surrounding it. From there, I can watch the nearby farmers plow and disc their fields. It leads me to wonder what, if anything, they are thinking as they work – but, for the most part, my mind is on slow time as I sit out on the balcony. The nearby church bells coordinate with my heartbeat. The cowbells clang with a different rhythm, but they resonate too.

Now, with my quarantine ended, I consulted a map and became intrigued with a three-hour hike, two train stops north, along a karst valley replete with waterfalls, caves, and archaeological sites. Shame on me for not diligently consulting the educational postings about various features. Instead, I simply put one foot in front of the other, listened to the rippling and cascading water, and peered into the dark, blank mouths of trailside caves from the sunlit path.

There’s a lot to be said for not tuning in to the past or future for stretches of time, for dwelling only in the flank, the windrow, or the footfall – whatever the moment presents. I have a wildly gifted and keenly intelligent friend who once confessed to me, “I can’t turn my brain off.”

I can’t, either. But sometimes it so fills with the here and now there’s no room for more.

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Democracy’s invisible armor against bullies

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During his early months in office, President Joe Biden has taken an unusual approach to the four countries that the United States considers to be the world’s biggest bullies: Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. While he talked or acted tough toward each – like previous U.S. presidents – Mr. Biden also took an important affirmative step. He shored up the four countries that are aggrieved neighbors of those respective bullies: Iraq, Taiwan, Ukraine, and South Korea.

He especially sought to make sure the democratic credentials of those four remain strong, part of their critical defense against the autocratic aggressor next door.

Mr. Biden’s boldest move was to send senior U.S. statesmen to Taiwan. In a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Mr. Biden not only gave “unwavering support” to Ukraine against the latest Russian military aggression, he also pushed for more domestic reforms. He talked at length with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, commending his “leadership” in the delicate balancing of political factions.

Democratic ideals, such as equality before the law, may not seem like an effective defense against bullets and ships. Yet sometimes the best armor against bullies is invisible. It also sometimes needs shoring up.

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Democracy’s invisible armor against bullies

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Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (center, front) poses for a group photo in front of a newly built ship in Kaohsiung, April 13.

During his early months in office, President Joe Biden has taken an unusual approach to the four countries that the United States considers to be the world’s biggest bullies: Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. While he talked or acted tough toward each – like previous U.S. presidents – Mr. Biden also took an important affirmative step. He shored up the four countries that are aggrieved neighbors of those respective bullies: Iraq, Taiwan, Ukraine, and South Korea.

He especially sought to make sure the democratic credentials of those four remain strong, part of their critical defense against the autocratic aggressor next door.

Mr. Biden’s boldest move was to send three senior U.S. statesmen to Taiwan in mid-April. It was a signal of support to the island nation and its vibrant democracy. On May 21, he will host South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House, also a signal of support for a democracy facing a threat of foreign invasion.

In a long phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Mr. Biden not only gave “unwavering support” to Ukraine against the latest Russian military aggression, he also pushed for more domestic reforms to bring greater transparency and accountability to the government in Kiev.

Mr. Biden talked at length with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, commending his “leadership” in the delicate balancing of political factions in a democracy beset with influence from Iran. The phone call was the first to an Arab leader from the president, another signal of support.

All these steps were not just a matter of policy choice by Mr. Biden. Over the past year, the behavior of most of the “bully” nations has worsened. China’s military moves against Taiwan are particularly worrisome. “Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang have demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies, despite the pandemic,” states a recent Freedom House report.

That report also explains one rationale which lies behind the strategy of shoring up endangered allies: “Democracy’s strengths are the very attributes that authoritarians most fear: the inherent demand for self-examination and criticism, and the capacity for self-correction without sacrificing essential ideals.”

Democratic ideals, such as equality before the law, may not seem like an effective defense against bullets and ships. China, for example, has spent the last year demolishing Hong Kong’s democracy, in part by sending in security forces from the mainland. Yet part of Taiwan’s strength against China is its freedom of thought. That has helped create a thriving high-tech industry – one that China needs for its economy. Sometimes the best armor against bullies is invisible. It also sometimes needs shoring up.

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.

Can we feel joy after the death of a loved one?

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Haunted by thoughts that her mother would someday no longer be with her, a woman found that seeing her mom the way God sees each of us brought peace and a conviction that the good we bring one another comes from God and can never be lost to God or to each other.

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Can we feel joy after the death of a loved one?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Have you ever been so attached to someone that you couldn’t imagine living without him or her? I felt that way about my mother, the most unselfish and loving person I ever knew. People of all backgrounds enjoyed being around her because of the way she made them feel – worthy and respected as children of God.

As my mom was getting on in years, I found myself wondering what life would be like without her. Because I simply couldn’t imagine it, I thought I might fall apart when the time came. So I went to her one night and said, “Mom, I don’t know what I’m going to do when you’re gone.” She said to me, “Well ... where do you think I’m going?!”

We both burst out laughing, and the exchange prompted me to look at things differently. “Repent” is a term that Jesus used often, and means “to think differently” (“Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible”). Jesus’ teachings and example urge us to see with our innate spiritual sense, rather than unquestioningly accepting what we perceive through the material senses. This different way of seeing things, this God-centered perspective, brings healing and salvation.

This made me think about what it is that I loved about my mom. While I treasured her physical presence, she was so much more than that. I loved the Christlike qualities she expressed, such as love, compassion, understanding, humility, faith, joy, and hopefulness. I knew from my study of Christian Science that those qualities didn’t originate in my mom, but were rather expressions of her true nature as a child of God – the true, spiritual nature of each of us.

And, therefore, those qualities I so loved in my mom could never disappear. With God, infinite Love and Life, as their source, such qualities are ever present for every one of us to feel and express. In the textbook of Christian Science, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy speaks of God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. My mom, in her true, spiritual identity, would always be with me. God’s children can never be lost to God or to each other.

As I prayed with these ideas, fearful anticipation of my mother’s passing no longer haunted me. And when she did pass on some time later, I found myself not grieving, but filled with gratitude to God for her having been such a great example of Christly love in my life. I was able to feel joy in cherishing the blessings she had brought. And in striving to express those God-given qualities myself, I felt my mom right there with me. I still do, every day.

Whatever spiritual qualities we most love in someone, we can trust that they will never leave us. Life in our loving, ever-present Father-Mother God can never truly be lost. And those treasured qualities are eternal and inherent in all of us to express, appreciate, and enjoy.

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John Sibley/Reuters
Goslings take a spring walk in St. James’s Park in London on April 30, 2021.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us today. Come back Monday, when we’ll preview a big Supreme Court case looking at disparities in drug conviction sentencing. 

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