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Monitor Daily Podcast

September 24, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Arizona ‘audit’ – mission accomplished?

The Republican-backed review of the 2020 election in Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa, probably did not come out like former President Donald Trump wanted. 

It didn’t claim he won the county. In fact, the review count actually increased President Joe Biden’s winning margin there by 360 votes.

But the review may still have accomplished some of its main goals. 

Ostensibly, its goal was to assure that the election results were assessed fairly. But it also served to muddy the waters, and throw doubt on the state's electoral results overall.

The review report did this by raising issues of purported fraud. It claimed that thousands of votes were cast by people who’d moved from their registered address, or may have voted in multiple counties. It also alleged that many voters returned multiple ballots.

Mr. Trump seized on this to claim Friday that the review showed enough fraudulent or fake votes to overturn the election many times over. 

But the report didn’t say that. It was careful to note there may be legal explanations for these questioned votes. The issue needed further examination, it said.

One big problem here is that Cyber Ninjas, the firm hired to run the examination, had no idea what it was doing, according to some election experts. Given its questionable methods, there’s no reason to believe any of the results – despite Arizona providing almost all the documentation the firm asked for.

“It puts into context the falsity of Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ [of a stolen election],” said Ben Ginsberg, an election lawyer who has worked for Republicans, in a meeting with reporters. “If Trump and his supporters can’t prove it here, they can’t prove it anywhere.”

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Why Congress is bringing US to the brink of default

The debt limit, once used to balance fiscal discipline with spending priorities, has become a political game of chicken. How did we get here?

Peter

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Like a bad date, Republicans are trying to “dine and dash” after racking up trillions in debt, Democratic Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer grumbled this week. The GOP, for its part, is basically saying, “Why should we share that bill when you’re ordering a 10-course meal over our objections?”

The analogy is imperfect – but it gives a sense of the frustration on both sides, as the U.S. comes within weeks of defaulting on its debt, and Democrats scramble to pull together a $3.5 trillion spending bill that they plan to pass without a single GOP vote.

The standoff reflects the perils of an increasingly majoritarian approach to Congress, and especially the Senate. Whether wielded to pass legislation, as the Democrats did this spring with the American Rescue Plan, or to block it, as Republicans are threatening to do now, it indicates a shift away from the view that American interests are better represented when both parties have input on – and responsibility for – major decisions. 

“This is not a leverage game at this point; it’s just a hot potato game,” says Marc Goldwein, senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington.

Why Congress is bringing US to the brink of default

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut (left), and GOP Rep. Kay Granger of Texas field questions about raising the debt limit at the Capitol in Washington, Sept. 21, 2021.

Like a bad date, Republicans are trying to “dine and dash,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said this week, accusing his GOP colleagues of ducking responsibility for covering America’s debt, trillions of which accrued during the Trump presidency.  

Why should we help cover that bill, the GOP is responding in essence, when our dinner companion is right now preparing to order a 10-course meal against our objections? 

The analogy is imperfect, and there are holes in both parties’ arguments. But one thing everyone agrees on is that the bill must be paid, and quickly. The U.S. Treasury is due to run out of funds as early as mid-October, and if Congress doesn’t authorize more borrowing, the country will default on its debt. That could damage not only America’s economy, but the world’s. 

Raising the debt limit is nothing new, nor is the political posturing around it. In the past, however, it’s been used as leverage to ensure some measure of fiscal discipline as the country pursues its spending priorities. This time, Republicans aren’t asking for fiscal restraint as a condition of supporting the bill. Instead, they’re flatly telling their colleagues across the aisle to go it alone, as Democrats did in passing the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last spring, and as they plan to do with the $3.5 trillion budget they’re drawing up now. 

And so, a tool that was intended to – and once did – compel the parties to work through their differences has instead turned into another form of political brinkmanship, with no prospect of a deal on the horizon. The standoff reflects the perils of an increasingly majoritarian approach to Congress, and especially the Senate. Whether wielded to pass legislation, as the Democrats did in March, or to block it, as Republicans are threatening to do now, it indicates a shift away from the view that American interests are better represented when both parties have input on – and responsibility for – major decisions. 

“This is not a leverage game at this point; it’s just a hot potato game,” says Marc Goldwein, senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington.

Democrats blame Republicans for breaking with a long-standing tradition of bipartisan cooperation on the debt limit. Republicans argue Democrats’ unilateral effort to expand government makes this standoff different.

“The point we’re trying to make as Republicans is, if you’re going to go around us and massively increase the size and scope of government … you’re on your own,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. 

But Democrats say that this is a unique moment, when a pandemic has caused deep, if temporary, economic pain and exacerbated economic inequality. 

“This has been one of the toughest stretches in the last 100 years, and that’s why I think going big right now makes a lot of sense,” says Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat on the Budget Committee.

Senator Kaine says he doesn’t want to encumber future generations with debt – noting that Democrats believe they can find ways to pay for the entire $3.5 trillion budget that includes sweeping social reforms, including free community college, expanded Medicare benefits, and new climate change initiatives.  

But he also implies that the current Republican stance is hypocritical, citing the 2017 GOP tax-cut bill, which passed without a single Democratic vote. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would add $1.46 trillion to the deficit, though Republicans argued that the boost to the economy would ultimately more than make up for that.

“They were like, ‘We don’t care about the debt.’ I have to care about it, but I don’t really accept the criticism from Republicans on it,” says Senator Kaine.  

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (center), flanked by fellow GOP senators, warns that Republicans will block the House-passed measure to keep the government funded and suspend the federal debt limit, despite setting up a high-stakes showdown that risks triggering a fiscal crisis, at the Capitol in Washington, Sept. 22, 2021.

Treasury running out of money

The debt limit was established in 1917 to bring some fiscal discipline to federal agencies, and also to ease Congress’ role in authorizing additional borrowing. It essentially told the government: You can borrow this much money before you need to come back and ask for permission to borrow more. 

Since World War II, the debt limit has been modified 98 times. Most recently, a 2017 deal suspended the debt limit through July 31, 2021, allowing the government to borrow as much as it needed until then to meet its obligations, which included COVID-19 stimulus checks and other pandemic spending. Since Aug. 1, the Treasury Department has been using so-called extraordinary measures to keep paying the bills until Congress takes action again.

The other urgent deadline for Congress is Sept. 30, which is the end of the fiscal year. In order to keep the government running and pay things like military salaries and Social Security benefits, Congress needs to authorize a new budget. Since the Democrats are still wrangling over their $3.5 trillion deal – with the party’s progressive and moderate wings clashing over the price tag – they have proposed a short-term measure known as a continuing resolution to tide them over. And within that legislation, they included a proposal to suspend the debt limit until December 2022, allowing the government in the meantime to do whatever borrowing necessary to pay the bills. The House passed the legislation, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has taken a firm stand against it. 

“He’s not bluffing on this,” says GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, one of the few Republicans who have said they may vote for it anyway, because it includes disaster funding for his state, which was hit hard by Hurricane Ida. “On this issue, I think Senator McConnell is going to be like that Missouri mule who sits down in the mud and refuses to budge.” 

Past or future spending?

Even if not another penny were spent, the debt limit would still need to be raised to pay for funding already approved by Congress but not yet spent. And that’s the result of decisions made by both parties, which have contributed to record debt levels that reached 128% of gross domestic product at the end of FY2020.

“The debt is the accumulation of all of the fiscal decisions we have made over the course of our history, more heavily weighted toward the decisions that were made recently,” says Shai Akabas, who leads the Bipartisan Policy Center’s debt ceiling research. “The reason we need to increase the debt limit is because of decisions we’ve already made.”

In that sense, Democrats are right that it is bipartisan debt that necessitates this step. But if they suspend the debt limit through December 2022, that would effectively allow them to do as much deficit spending as they want between now and then – a point Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, did not dispute when pressed by the Monitor. 

And because Democrats control the presidency, the House, and the Senate (albeit by a single tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris), Republicans have no leverage to curb that spending if it is done through a process known as budget reconciliation. Democrats used reconciliation to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last spring, and are planning on using it to pass their $3.5 trillion budget, spearheaded by Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont, later this year. They would also have at least one more opportunity, in September 2022, to pass another sweeping budget without any GOP support. 

Republicans this week accused Democrats of writing a blank check from the American taxpayers’ account.

“Democrats are rushing toward the Bernie Sanders socialist budget plan, and the Republicans are not going to be a rubber stamp for this,” said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming. 

Instead, Republicans want Democrats to address the debt ceiling as part of their budget reconciliation process. But in 2017, when Republicans controlled the presidency, House, and Senate, they opted not to take that route, and Democrats joined them in suspending the debt limit – a point they are driving home now. 

The economic stakes

Even some Democrats have raised concerns about the scope of the Biden administration’s spending plans. Former Obama Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who first sounded a warning last winter, told Politico this summer that he had become increasingly concerned that massive spending could cause inflation, though he supports long-term investments like infrastructure. 

Citing those warnings, GOP Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa says that if Republicans were to support Democrats’ “massive spending spree,” they would be “throwing gasoline on the fires of inflation.” Others argue that the spike in prices is due mainly to pandemic supply-chain issues, and will be relatively short-lived. 

Beginning in former President Barack Obama’s second term, a new economic line of thinking began to prevail, particularly among economists on the left, that deficit spending isn’t as big a concern as was once thought. Among the most prominent proponents is Stephanie Kelton, an economic adviser to Senator Sanders and author of “The Deficit Myth.” 

Senator Sanders – an independent from Vermont who in just a few years has seen a significant swath of the Democratic base move to embrace the democratic socialist ideas he has been preaching for decades – is giving Republicans some stiff competition in the blinking contest.

“It would be incomprehensible to me, and I think to the American people, that you would have a Republican Party that will allow the largest economy on Earth to default,” he says. “I think Republicans may be a little bit crazy but they’re not that crazy.”

The last time the U.S. faced this threat of a government shutdown and possible default, S&P Global’s chief U.S. economist, Beth Ann Bovino, warned that if the nation defaulted on its debts, the economic impact “would be worse than the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.”

The other option for Democrats is to address the debt ceiling within budget reconciliation. That’s been done before, but never at this stage of the process, and it could take weeks. 

Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the House Budget Committee chairman, told reporters this week that both House and Senate leadership have decided that’s not an option they want to pursue. But, he added, if they were to take that route, they would have to specify a dollar amount by which to raise the debt ceiling, not simply suspend it as the current legislation has proposed. That number would provide fodder for Republicans to use in attack ads ahead of next fall’s midterm elections. But if they raise it by too little, they’ll find themselves in a similar standoff again soon. 

“I want to raise it to a gazillion dollars and just be done with it,” he said. 

In Germany’s elections, candidates vie to be more Merkel

In the race to succeed Angela Merkel, all the major contenders are trying to present themselves as having the same style and stability of Germany’s “Madame Chancellor” – the men included.

Peter
Martin Meissner/AP
People pass election posters of the three chancellor candidates, from left, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party, Annalena Baerbock of the German Green party, and Armin Laschet of the Christian Democratic Union, in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, Sept. 23, 2021.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the longest-serving leader of a Western democracy, will see her successor chosen by elections on Sept. 26. She departs office of her own accord, scandal-free, with sky-high approval ratings at home and abroad.

The candidates to replace her have been emphasizing their ability to maintain the tenor of her tenure. Even Olaf Scholz, the current front-runner and head of the center-left rival party to Ms. Merkel’s own center-right party, has underscored the qualities he shares with “Madame Chancellor.”

It’s only natural that the leading candidates to replace her might seek to replicate her appeal. Yet what’s problematic, say policy experts, is that in promising they’ll continue her brand of stability, they’re ignoring the pressing challenges facing Germany and the world: climate change, the country’s staggeringly low levels of digitization, a growing inequality gap, and Europe’s place in the world.

“We’re at a moment in time, at the cusp of fundamental societal change, and we need radical answers,” says Sophia Becker of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Instead, candidates are somewhat very calmly discussing incremental technical solutions to small problems. ... Nobody is presenting big visions of change.”

In Germany’s elections, candidates vie to be more Merkel

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The leading candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor has made a point of emphasizing just how much he is like her.

It’s an odd parallel to draw, given that Olaf Scholz, the sitting finance minister and vice chancellor, hails from the center-left party that traditionally rivals that of Ms. Merkel’s center-right one. But Mr. Scholz clearly spots a winning strategy.

He’s been photographed with his hands held in the “Merkel rhombus” shape, positioned next to the words “He Can Do Chancellor,” where the words were conjugated in female gender. And in a slickly produced video, Mr. Scholz watches footage of Ms. Merkel at a negotiating table, before he struts away confidently with his eyes locked onto the viewer’s. The insinuation is clear: Vote for me if you want Merkel 2.0.

Chancellor Merkel, the longest-serving leader of a Western democracy, departs office of her own accord, scandal-free, with sky-high approval ratings at home and abroad. It’s only natural that the leading candidates to replace her might seek to replicate her appeal. Yet what’s problematic, say policy experts, is that in promising they’ll continue her brand of stability, they’re ignoring the pressing challenges facing Germany and the world: climate change, the country’s staggeringly low levels of digitization, a growing inequality gap, and Europe’s policy with respect to China and Russia. The political class seems to believe German voters crave continuity and stability. Will the elections bear that out?

“We’re at a moment in time, at the cusp of fundamental societal change and we need radical answers,” says Sophia Becker, political scientist and research fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Instead, candidates are somewhat very calmly discussing incremental technical solutions to small problems. It feels to me they’re trying to cater to a sense of comfort to voters. Nobody is presenting big visions of change.”

Too much change?

In April, the Greens shook up the political landscape by landing squarely at the top of polls. With a platform to combat climate change and promote social justice, the party put forth the fresh-faced working mother Annalena Baerbock for chancellor. A generation of Green devotees finally felt heard.

“If we are represented on a federal level, it would be a huge win for our multicultural society,” says Samy Charchira, a Dusseldorf city politician who came to Germany at age 14 from Morocco.

Yet, over the ensuing months, missteps by Ms. Baerbock, a relative newcomer to the national stage, as well as what some called unfairly critical media coverage of a young woman on the rise, showcased her in a negative light. Ms. Baerbock also began to dial back rhetoric that might conjure up the Greens as a “ban party” – politicians who might forbid, say, automobiles or meat-eating – and she took pains to assure Germany’s powerful corporate class they won’t be unfairly penalized. The Greens began to lose momentum.

Another expected front-runner, Armin Laschet, the pick for chancellor of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), also faltered this summer. Mr. Laschet, the famously gaffe-prone president of Germany’s most populous state, was filmed laughing during a somber event for victims of Germany’s summer floods, which killed nearly 200 people in the country’s worst natural disaster. Mr. Laschet looked callous and out of touch, and his party began falling in the polls, in a staggering reversal for a party that’s used to winning with Ms. Merkel at the helm.

Tobias Schwarz/AP
From left, Annalena Baerbock, Greens co-leader; Olaf Scholz, finance minister and SPD candidate; and Janine Wissler, co-leader of the left party Die Linke attend a final televised debate in Berlin, Sept. 23, 2021, ahead of the election on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Mr. Scholz, the chancellor pick of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who has run a campaign with measured rhetoric and few missteps, began to rise. His center-left party is polling in the lead going into this weekend’s elections.

As the polls have fluctuated, what has stayed remarkably steady is the absence of strong arguments and clear policy solutions. That’s partly because German voters have “had enough change,” says Judy Dempsey, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe.

“Whether it’s energy change in getting rid of nuclear, the immigration issue, they’ve had enough,” says Ms. Dempsey. “They don’t like verbal open public discussion about change. They’re afraid of it. They don’t know what it brings, and it’s open to all sorts of suspicions. So politicians play it safe. There’s a psychological yearning among a certain generation to want continuity. What that means is – we have no idea what the candidates stand for.”

More compromises for everyone

The truth is, there’s a huge number of things that Chancellor Merkel – who spent most of her tenure dealing with crisis after crisis from the eurozone to migration to the pandemic – has left undone. And with such a fragmented political landscape, it’s possible that the next German government will accomplish only marginally more.

For the first time in decades, it’s possible that three parties will be required to make up the majority coalition needed to form the government. Previously, it was always Ms. Merkel’s CDU along with a preferred coalition partner.

Five or six viably strong parties are now contending for votes. The two big forces in German politics – the CDU and the SPD – are built on the anchors of the working class, the church, and sports and social organizations, but have been losing support over the years. The far-right Alternative for Germany, which rose to parliament on an anti-migration platform, and other small parties have further fragmented the political landscape.

Now, with Ms. Merkel’s CDU not being able to count on their “usual voters, for them to just lose 10% of the vote from one week to the next is quite interesting,” says Ms. Becker of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

A three-party coalition means that “every party will have to make more compromises, not only because they are three, but also because the ‘small parties’ are presumably bigger than in the past,” says Julia Reuschenbach, political scientist at the University of Bonn. That kind of landscape doesn’t bode well for making radical change.

What’s important, says Ms. Dempsey, is that regardless of what happens after voting is finished, coalition negotiations move along quickly. Each party will be putting forth policy proposals, and forging an agreement. Big decisions are looming.

“We can’t have a lot of indecision,” says Ms. Dempsey. “Otherwise Germany will lose a lot of time. What happens in Germany has an impact on what happens in Europe – and the European Union is in very bad shape.”

Perhaps the true winner in all of this is Chancellor Merkel, who is leaving many problems to her successors, while enjoying higher confidence ratings than any major world leader including President Joe Biden, according to this week’s Pew Research Center report. But for those looking for dramatic change – for the climate, for migrants, for social justice – Ms. Merkel’s popularity, despite how little strategic vision she offered over 16 years, is frustrating.

“Germany is an important power in Europe, and if it’s not part of a solution [to pressing problems], then a solution from Europe is unlikely,” says Ms. Becker. “[The Germans are] not sufficient alone, but they’re necessary for European answers.”

Carbon offsets are growing fast, but climate benefits remain murky

Whether for a company or an individual, a zero-emission lifestyle is hard to achieve. That’s why a market for “offsets” is surging – and controversial.

Peter
Ted S. Warren/AP/File
Paula Swedeen, a forest policy specialist for the Washington Environmental Council, walks through forest land adjacent to Mount Rainier National Park on Nov. 23, 2015, near Ashford, Washington. The land is part of a project of 520 acres on private timberland that attracts funding from corporations buying carbon offsets.

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This summer, Michigan became the first U.S. state to develop a program to sell so-called carbon offsets tied to its forests, pledging to manage some lands in a way that will help pull carbon out of the atmosphere. 

It’s one example of the growing prominence of a controversial environmental accounting tool. Think of carbon offsets as contracts that can be bought and sold, allowing projects that reduce greenhouse gases – like not cutting trees in a forest – to counteract emissions made somewhere else like in a factory. 

Supporters say offsets spur progress toward decarbonizing the economy and are an increasingly vital funding source for climate-friendly initiatives.  

But critics argue the offsets don’t represent progress and instead are a new form of greenwashing. It can be hard to verify that steps are really reducing emissions, or that they wouldn’t have occurred anyway without the offset deal. At a minimum, scientists say offsets should be a last resort after other steps.

“This is a messy area. There’s no question about it,” says Geoffrey Heal, an economics professor at Columbia University who focuses on the environment. “It hasn’t mattered until recently. But now the [voluntary offset] market is going to explode.”

Carbon offsets are growing fast, but climate benefits remain murky

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Over the past couple of years, hundreds of corporations from Amazon to Visa have announced plans to move toward “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions. 

Look more closely, though, and the promises also reflect something else: the growing prominence of a controversial environmental accounting tool generally known as “carbon offsets,” or “carbon credits.” 

Supporters say these offsets are an important tool in the fight against global warming and also an increasingly important funding source for climate-friendly initiatives. Think of them as contracts that can be bought and sold, allowing projects that remove greenhouse gases to counteract emissions made somewhere else. Want to neutralize the impact of driving your gasoline-powered car? Carbon-offset programs make it seem as easy as ordering a mystery novel. Worried about the carbon impact of your flight? Offset programs say you can support a tree planting program in Bali to make up for it. 

But critics argue the offsets don’t reflect progress at all and instead are a new form of greenwashing. They warn that offsets may not actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are a distraction from the hard changes needed to decarbonize the economy – an effort scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. 

They also criticize the voluntary offset market as unregulated and inconsistent – a situation policymakers have said they will try to address at the upcoming COP26 United Nations gathering on climate change in November. 

“This is a messy area. There’s no question about it,” says Geoffrey Heal, an economics professor at Columbia University who focuses on the environment. “It hasn’t mattered until recently. But now the [voluntary offset] market is going to explode.”

Indeed, the carbon offset market appears poised for rapid growth. The Institute of International Finance’s task force on scaling voluntary carbon markets predicts that the demand for carbon credits will increase by a factor of 15 or more by 2030, and by a factor of up to 100 by 2050. Overall, it says, the carbon credit market could be worth more than $50 billion by 2030. 

This summer, Michigan became the first U.S. state to develop a program to sell forestry-based offsets – pledging to manage a state forest in a way that will help pull carbon out of the atmosphere.   

The carbon credit market is based on the premise that what matters for slowing climate change is the overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, not the reduction in any particular place. In other words, the Earth doesn’t care whether a reduction in carbon comes from changes within a Silicon Valley data center or from that data center restoring a mangrove forest in Brazil. Either way, there is less of the heat-trapping gas in the air. 

Rogelio V. Solis/AP/File
A section of the Mississippi Power Co. plant in De Kalb, Mississippi, on Nov. 16, 2015, which was designed to burn gas derived from coal. Intended to pioneer the concept of "clean coal" using carbon capture technology, the project instead ran into repeated financial difficulties. It's a symbol of how costly experiments in cleaning up fossil fuels can be.

The idea of exchanging carbon removal here for carbon emissions there is at the root of the “cap and trade” regulatory systems in Europe, California, and elsewhere. But it is only recently, says Peter Miller, director of the western region climate and clean energy program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, that it has become a focus of the private sector.

“With the acceleration of the climate crisis, there is a lot more interest in urgent action, both at the personal and the corporate level,” he says. “And one of the leading contenders for things people can do is to invest in offsets.”

But as Mr. Miller and many others point out, not all carbon credits are created equal. At this point, anyone can create an offset – all that’s needed is a willing buyer and seller. But whether that offset actually helps prevent climate change is a lot more complicated.

Much of this is because of how offsets work. There are very few projects that actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. (That process, called direct air capture, does exist, but it is still rare and relatively expensive.) More often, offsets promise to not release carbon. A forest-based offset program, for instance, claims to preserve trees that would otherwise be cut down. A clean power offset creates a wind turbine that wouldn’t have been built otherwise. 

This concept is called “additionality,” and, as Cynthia Cummis of the World Resources Institute says, it is inherently difficult to prove.

“You’re always making an assessment based on a hypothetical scenario,” she says. “And I think that always will make you question what additional emission reductions are really being generated by a project.” 

This is why it is important for companies to decarbonize their operations and value chains first, she says, and then use offsets only as a way to go “above and beyond.”

Indeed, as more and more prominent companies jump on the offset bandwagon, there has been increasing attention to whether their projects actually remove carbon as advertised – and more revelations of problems. A decade ago, a Monitor investigation found that carbon offset certificates presented to the Vatican were tied to forest projects that did not exist. More recently, investigative reports have raised other questions about offset projects, including this summer, when forests central to Microsoft’s emission reduction plan burned in the West’s raging wildfires, releasing the stored carbon into the atmosphere.

“There have been projects that people have looked into and found problems with and have damaged the reputation of the whole sector,” says Anastasia O’Rourke, managing director of the Yale Carbon Containment Lab at the Yale School of the Environment. Yet, she adds, “it doesn’t mean the whole thing is suspect.” 

Dr. O’Rourke and others say there are ways to create viable offset programs that do, indeed, help reduce global carbon emissions. Although there are no legal requirements for proving the validity of voluntary offsets, there are a handful of prominent registries that claim to list only scientifically vetted and documented projects. There is also a growing ecosystem of private carbon offset developers, verifiers, and providers.

Bluesource, for instance, is a company that works with companies and organizations, from family farms to large corporations and global banks, to both develop offset programs and help reduce clients’ climate impact. This year, it announced that it had facilitated a partnership in which DTE, an energy company, would purchase offsets created by the Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s management of the Pigeon River Country State Forest. Rather than increase logging in the area, the state says, it will work with Bluesource to retain forest stock for its carbon absorbing potential. 

To Kevin Townsend, Bluesource’s chief commercial officer, the project is an example of how offsets can bolster climate action and provide for other ecological benefits – and even, in this case, create a way for states to unlock new income streams.  

Still, Mr. Townsend says he recognizes the skepticism around offsets and credits. Bluesource, though, uses the latest science and monitoring technologies to calculate and track the carbon storing potential of any offset project, he says. Any offset credit the company develops needs to be “additional, real, and verifiable,” he says – both for business, and for the climate.

“In the environmental space you take a lot of friendly fire,” Mr. Townsend says. “We do think market-based approaches are wise. They’re good because they’re scalable, they encourage other action. But we don’t think they’re the be all and end all. ... This is a really complicated problem, and we need all the solutions we can get.”

Editor's note: One sentence has been updated to more accurately convey critics’ views that carbon offsets are flawed.

How creative solutions have kept high school sports going in the pandemic

Despite the often-raucous debates over pandemic protocols in schools, high school athletic directors have quietly been finding ways to keep students in the game.

Peter
Nora Brooks/Courtesy of Jennifer Brooks
Members of Ursuline Academy's varsity soccer team in St. Louis hold the plaque they won for taking the 2021 District Girls Class 2 soccer championship.

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The nation remains divided over how to respond to COVID-19. But in the high school sports arena, athletic directors have been finding some common ground with health authorities about how to move forward.

In the summer of 2020, for example, the St. Louis County Health Department moved to shut down high school athletics.

Pressure to reverse that ruling came in several forms, including a Let Them Play group composed mostly of frustrated parents who rallied and demanded that lawmakers get kids back on the field.

Jen Brooks, the athletic director at Ursuline Academy in St. Louis, felt there was a better way than protests. So she formed a task force with several other athletic directors and asked to meet with the county health department.

Their question was simply, “How can we get kids to play?” Ms. Brooks says.

The answer came in a new set of protocols everyone could agree to.

It meant a severely reduced season and only two spectators per player in the stands. But as Katie Hingle, a mother of three, puts it, “In the end we were just ... grateful that we’re sitting there watching them play what they love to do.”

How creative solutions have kept high school sports going in the pandemic

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Darryl Nance was watching his local school board meeting in Greenville, South Carolina, via Zoom last year when it dawned on him just how challenging the days ahead would be.

“In back-to-back speakers,” he says, the school district was called “liars [for] exaggerating the impact of COVID” and liars for supposedly “underreporting the number of positive [cases] and the impact of COVID in our schools.” 

As the director of athletics for the district, he would have to navigate what was shaping up to be another culture war battlefront – whether to play high school sports during a pandemic.

He was hardly alone in that struggle last year, as athletic directors (ADs) nationwide faced a similar dynamic.

A year on, the nation remains divided over how best to respond to COVID-19. But in the arena of high school sports at least, ADs are finding some common ground with those who disagree about how to take steps forward. The reasons vary by community, but the result is prompting healthy discussion.

One thing almost everyone agrees on: the need to get kids playing sports again. And that shared objective creates an environment for creative solutions.

In St. Louis, that means creating a task force to improve communication between schools and the health department. And in Greenville County, South Carolina, it’s encouraging kids to show more responsibility. Whatever shape it takes, people are finding ways to work together and find solutions that respect all.

Playing in St. Louis

In the summer of 2020, the St. Louis County Health Department moved to shut down high school athletics.

Pressure to reverse that ruling came in several forms, including a Let Them Play group composed mostly of frustrated parents who rallied and demanded that lawmakers get kids back on the field.

Nora Brooks/Courtesy of Jennifer Brooks
Jen Brooks, athletic director at Ursuline Academy in St. Louis, served on the task force that met weekly with a team at the St. Louis County Health Department to work out solutions that have kept students playing high school sports throughout the pandemic.

Jen Brooks, the athletic director at Ursuline Academy in St. Louis, felt there was a better way to move forward than protests. “While I can appreciate the Let Them Play parents and their efforts, they’re not in the thick of it and don’t know what an athletic program needs to run successfully,” she says.

So Ms. Brooks formed a task force with several other athletic directors in the St. Louis area and asked to meet with the county health department. One of those ADs was Brian Kessler of Parkway West High School, a large public school in Ballwin.

“We met with the health department to try and understand where they were coming from,” Mr. Kessler says. Rather than taking an adversarial approach, Ms. Brooks, Mr. Kessler, three other public school ADs, two doctors, and two representatives from the youth sports sector began talking about how they might move forward.

Then the question was simply, “How can we get kids to play?” Ms. Brooks says.

The answer came in a new set of protocols everyone could agree to.

Early on, things were hard. Katie Hingle, a teacher in the Kirkwood School District and mother of three, remembers her daughter’s freshman softball season at Ursuline Academy. “It was condensed to two weeks, then right into district playoffs … and the girls were only allowed two people [per player] in the stands.”

But she was just happy her daughter was playing. “In the end, we were just ... grateful that we’re sitting there watching them play what they love to do.”

The task force still meets weekly to monitor the situation. But “I feel like we’ve gotten to a point that we understand our goal and our mission,” Mr. Kessler says.

Students taking control

Greenville County, South Carolina, has also found its way back to high school sports, though in a very different way. As last year’s raucous school board meeting showed, the tensions between competing groups over COVID-19 data gave the district a difficult task.

Rather than choosing a side, Mr. Nance, the district AD, decided to focus on what he could control. So he’s encouraging his coaches to have the kids protect their seasons by self-policing, making sure no one takes any risks. He doesn’t tell them that’s the best way to avoid COVID-19; he says it’s the best way to preserve the season. “We are building on these things” because that’s “what our local control looks like,” he says.

Leigh Judy, an assistant football coach at Hillcrest High School in Greenville County, says his football players are stepping up and showing responsibility – and not just by following the county’s COVID-19 guidelines. “On summer mornings when everyone is sleeping in, these kids are running in the heat, lifting weights, getting yelled at, getting pushed,” Mr. Judy notes. Most people “don’t see the sacrifice that they’re pouring into the game … and their only payoff is to play on Friday night.”

Now Mr. Nance is reaching out to young athletes who got lost in the shuffle last year. A significant number of kids simply quit athletics, and Mr. Nance doesn’t know why.

“My biggest challenge this year is to find those kids,” he says. If there was a seventh grader who didn’t play, we’ve got to find out why they didn’t play. We have to find where they are and get them back.”

It’s a teachable moment for Mr. Nance. “I want to teach these kids how to problem solve, how to think,” he says. “I want to encourage them to be bold and make choices. Kids need to see that kind of leadership from us.”

Book review

‘How do I love thee?’ A Victorian-era poet finds liberation.

What did it take for a woman in Victorian times to be seen as an artist in her own right? For one of Britain’s most famous poets, it meant separating her ideas from those of her father and husband.

Peter
Jacob Turcotte/Staff, after the painting by Michele Gordigiani

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From the time she was a child, Elizabeth Barrett defied expectations. She penned her first poems at the age of 8 and began reading Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton, guided by her mother. Later, in her teens, she developed an illness that doctors tried to treat with prolonged bed rest and opium.

Though her poor health continued into adulthood, and she was beset by personal losses and the fluctuations of her family’s fortunes, her writing flourished. Her work was published, drawing international acclaim. 

Her literary success and eventual marriage to poet Robert Browning enabled her to escape the confines of her home and her father’s influence. Her writing blossomed in Italy, where she lived with her husband until her death. But a century later, scholars took a far more critical view of her work, arguing that her ideas came from her husband. 

A new biography corrects a simplistic version of the couple’s relationship. Fiona Sampson uses both Barrett Browning’s masterwork, “Aurora Leigh,” and a complex, contemporary lens to understand how Barrett Browning defined herself, and why her struggles speak to our own. The result is a powerful restoration of the poet’s reputation and legacy.

‘How do I love thee?’ A Victorian-era poet finds liberation.

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During her lifetime, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) was widely regarded as Britain’s best female poet. Her groundbreaking work helped sway public opinion against slavery and child labor and changed the direction of English-language poetry for generations. 

Yet within 70 years of her death, Barrett Browning was no longer viewed as an international literary superstar but as an invalid with a small, couch-bound life. By the 1970s, critics described her as lacking the talent of her husband, Robert Browning, and hindering his writing. 

Fiona Sampson challenges those views in “Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” the first new biography of the poet in more than 30 years. Sampson, whose works include the critically acclaimed biography “In Search of Mary Shelley,” reframes Barrett Browning’s reputation by highlighting her development as a writer despite the many restrictions she faced in Victorian society. 

As a child, Elizabeth Barrett – called “Ba” by her parents and 11 siblings – defied expectations. She penned her first poems at the age of 8 and began reading Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton, guided by her mother. For her 14th birthday, her father paid to have 50 copies printed of “The Battle of Marathon,” a 1,500-line moral tale she wrote in heroic couplets. 

Her life changed profoundly a year later when she developed an illness that doctors tried to treat with prolonged bed rest and dangerous remedies, including opium. Despite her confinement, which would continue for most of her life, the young poet’s writing flourished. Her work was published, drawing the attention of two male mentors. One, like her father, encouraged her talent as well as submissive dependency on his guidance and approval. 

W. W. Norton & Company

Sampson presents a comprehensive view of the obstacles the young poet faced: illness, devastating personal losses, fluctuating family fortunes (which were tied to slave labor in Jamaica), and rigid cultural and social norms.  

By her late 30s, she had gained the support of a savvy female mentor. She also won acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. 

“Two-Way Mirror,” which combines astute scholarship and fluid storytelling, becomes riveting when the poet, at age 38, receives a glowing letter from Robert Browning about her latest book, “Poems.”   

“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, ... into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew. I can give a reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought – but in this addressing myself to you, your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart – and I love you too.” 

What begins as a correspondence between poets blossoms into a series of surreptitious meetings in Barrett’s room. She wants to hide those unchaperoned visits from her father, who would not approve of her falling in love or leaving his home and control.

The match seems unlikely at first. Browning is six years her junior, lives with his parents, and does not have a job, preferring to work on his poems instead. Yet the two share literary aspirations and affection, and she increasingly wants independence. 

After the couple secretly marry, Barrett Browning hastily packs two smallish bags, including her husband’s letters and a manuscript that will become “Sonnets From the Portuguese,” one of her most beloved, enduring works. Her devoted maid helps the couple navigate their escape to Italy, where Barrett Browning finds freedom and a more powerful poetic voice, along with daunting challenges. 

Sampson, who writes in present tense, does a wonderful job of following the couple’s evolution and writing. In doing so, she corrects the simplistic version of their relationship that popular culture has promoted. She also illustrates how Barrett Browning’s work challenged Victorian notions about women and women’s writing. 

Sampson, a poet herself, bases the structure of “Two-Way Mirror” on “Aurora Leigh,” a nine-book verse novel that Barrett Browning published at age 50. An immediate bestseller and a masterwork, “Aurora Leigh” explores the artistic development of its heroine. 

Sampson uses both “Aurora Leigh” and a complex, contemporary lens to understand how Barrett Browning defined herself, and why her struggles speak to our own. The result is a powerful restoration of the poet’s reputation and legacy. 

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The Monitor's View

A China encircled by freedoms

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Leaders of four big democracies in the Indo-Pacific region – Japan, India, Australia, and the United States – met in person for the first time Friday. The summit was focused on crafting a vision for a free and open region, presumably not by a fear of China. Based on China’s behavior in recent days, the group, dubbed “the Quad,” could have the potential to become an attractive force for good.

China’s military encroachments on islands close to its neighbors have certainly raised alarms. Yet when Australia announced Sept. 15 that it would build nuclear submarines, China reacted in a very unexpected way. The next day, it requested to join a free-trade group of 11 Asia-Pacific nations. For six days, this seemed like a new China. Then on Sept. 22, Taiwan said it also wanted to join the CPTPP. That possibility made China all too aware of its shortcomings. On Sept. 23, it sent 24 war planes near Taiwan.

This series of events shows how clubs of nations based on freedom can influence nations with little freedom. China is not being encircled by the military might of democracies as much as by the light of those democracies.

A China encircled by freedoms

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AP
President Joe Biden speaks at the Quad summit in the White House, Sept. 24. Seated clockwise from left, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Leaders of four big democracies in the Indo-Pacific region – Japan, India, Australia, and the United States – met in person for the first time Friday. The summit at the White House was focused on crafting a vision for a free and open region, one defined by shared values, presumably not by a common fear of China. Based on China’s behavior in recent days, the group, dubbed “the Quad,” could have the potential to become an attractive force for good.

China’s latest military encroachments on islands close to its neighbors have certainly raised alarms. China has also curbed trade with Australia for criticizing it. Yet when Australia announced Sept. 15 that it would build nuclear submarines with U.S. assistance, China reacted in a very unexpected way.

The next day, it requested to join a free-trade group of 11 Asian-Pacific nations known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) formed in 2018. Joining this trade club would lock China into being a responsible player in the region, abiding by rules of open markets, fair competition, and minimal government manipulation – or something in the spirit of the Quad. Unlike its illegal taking of islands, it would need to follow rule of law.

For six days, this seemed like a new China. Then on Sept. 22, Taiwan, the island nation that Beijing sees as a breakaway province, said it also wanted to join the CPTPP. Taiwan was quick to point out why it is the better candidate. “We have the foundation of democracy and the rule of law so all our regulations are transparent and we respect private properties,” said John Deng, Taipei’s lead trade negotiator. 

Like the Quad, Taiwan prefers to lead by example. Its democratic values could give it a leg up in being admitted to the trade bloc. That possibility made China all too aware of its shortcomings. It lashed out. On Sept. 23, it sent 24 Chinese planes – including 18 fighter jets and two nuclear-capable bombers – into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The planes were more a signal than a real threat.

This series of events shows how clubs of nations based on freedom – either democratic freedoms or freedom of trade – can influence nations with little freedom. China is not being encircled by the military might of democracies as much by the light of those democracies.

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.

Eye healed during church service

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Recognizing that God, good, is always present has powerful healing effects.

Eye healed during church service

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

One Wednesday evening years ago, I was serving as an usher at the weekly testimony meeting at my local branch Church of Christ, Scientist.

The meeting had just started when I felt something abrasive in my eye. It was puzzling, because I knew nothing had flown into it. So, I went down the hall to look in the mirror to find out what was going on. I saw that there was something foreign deep in the eye.

My first thought was, “This is going to require surgery.” That threw me momentarily, but on the heels of it, I found myself turning to God in prayer as I headed back to the lobby. This purposeful shift in thought brought me back to my natural trust in God for healing.

From studying Christian Science, I had learned that the truth that Jesus said would make us free (see John 8:32) quiets fears. As the congregation was listening to inspired readings from the Bible and from “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy (the discoverer of Christian Science), I intently and wholeheartedly reached out to God for help with the expectation of hearing an answer. I was praying from the standpoint of what I knew about God and what Christian Science teaches and proves to be spiritually true.

The thought that came to me in a powerful way was that God, Truth, fills all space and is doing so right here and now. The Bible so beautifully expresses this assurance from God in Jeremiah 23:24: “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” Science and Health says, referring to God, “He fills all space, and it is impossible to conceive of such omnipresence and individuality except as infinite Spirit or Mind” (p. 331). I felt that this was undoubtedly true, because that is the nature of infinite Spirit, God. This was the first time I had felt this truth so vividly and precisely. I really held to it as a lifeline.

This truth filled my thought and dispelled the fear as I continued to pray, and I felt myself trusting and resting in it. A sense of peace and calm was being ushered into my thought. And I became aware that the abrasive sensation was lessening. I remember being so thankful for God’s loving presence.

On my way home after the service, I was aware that there was no longer any abrasive feeling in my eye. I knew that something truly holy and enlightening had happened to me that evening. When I got home, I looked in the mirror and could clearly see that what had been there an hour or so before was now nowhere to be found.

I have to say that I was surprised to see such a transformation, but my very next thought was, “Oh, so this is what Mrs. Eddy meant regarding matter when she wrote that ‘its conditions are illusions.’” These words are part of this statement on page 368 of Science and Health: “Because matter has no consciousness or Ego, it cannot act; its conditions are illusions, and these false conditions are the source of all seeming sickness.” This experience proved to me that the physical condition was not a real “something” after all, because God did not cause or create it. And because it was not spiritually true or good, it was not included in God’s reality, and consequently not in mine.

This healing will always stand out to me as proof of the power and presence of God and the effectiveness of Christian Science. Spirit, Truth, really does lovingly fill all space. As Science and Health promises on page 520: “The depth, breadth, height, might, majesty, and glory of infinite Love fill all space. That is enough!”

Adapted from a testimony published in the Sept. 20, 2021, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

Viewfinder

Ancient footprints in America

NPS/AP
These fossilized human footprints were found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico. According to a report published in the journal Science on Sept. 23, 2021, the impressions indicate that early humans were walking across North America around 23,000 years ago, much earlier than scientists previously thought.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Come back Monday, when we’ll have a terrific story about three neighbors who agreed to talk about race together, head-on. 

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