2021
November
12
Friday

Monitor Daily Podcast

November 12, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Remembering Cool Bobby J, an exemplar of Washington past

Last year, I met an extraordinary man, a veteran labor lobbyist named Robert Juliano, or “Cool Bobby J,” as he called himself. 

Mr. Juliano loved to talk – about growing up on Chicago’s West Side, about arriving in Washington in the early 1970s, about his work for hotel and restaurant employees. 

But most of all, he loved to talk about his old friend “Joey” Biden. They met in 1973, right after Mr. Biden joined the Senate. Soon Mr. Juliano was “Uncle Bobby” to the senator’s young sons. Earlier this year, a letter arrived at his home, on White House stationery, wishing him a happy 80th birthday. 

“I’ll always remember how you were there for us from the beginning of this journey,” President Biden wrote, with quotes from William Butler Yeats and Satchel Paige. “Miss you pal!” 

When Mr. Juliano died last month, tributes poured forth from both sides of the aisle. Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut called him “an unmatched champion of workers.” 

Former Republican aide Doug Heye tweeted: “While walking Capitol halls or camped out at the shoe shine stand, he taught me the value of bipartisanship. A funny, kind, generous, ribald soul.”

In his remembrance, Newsmax reporter John Gizzi – a neighbor and friend – tells of how Mr. Juliano backed Nevada GOP Sen. Paul Laxalt for reelection, because of his relationship with the restaurant workers. 

Retired Monitor correspondent Gail Russell Chaddock recalls how she noticed Mr. Juliano during Senate “stakeouts,” and introduced herself. Soon, he became a regular source and dinner guest. 

“If all those regaled by his adventures could pool their stories, we’d have quite a picture of Washington back when people talked to each other,” Ms. Chaddock says.

I, too, enjoyed our regular chats, full of reminders of a gentler era – one that Cool Bobby J hoped wasn’t too far gone. 

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A deeper look

Why Albuquerque’s latest experiment in policing doesn’t involve officers

As cities wrestle with how to reform policing to reduce the use of lethal force, Albuquerque has created a new kind of responder on the streets. It sends behavioral specialists to deal with calls that involve emergencies like mental health issues and homelessness.

Linda
Ann Hermes/Staff
Leigh White and Walter Adams, behavorial health specialists, respond to a 911 call about a homeless encampment in Albuquerque. They are members of the Albuquerque Community Safety department, an ambitious experiment in policing.

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There’s a new patrol in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and it doesn’t much resemble any other police beat.

Walter Adams and Leigh White, in fact, aren’t police. They don’t carry guns. Instead, they are armed with water bottles, Cheez-Its, and Chewy bars. What they do is not normal emergency response work nor normal police work. It’s something of a hybrid of the two – part of an experiment that Albuquerque is hoping will change public safety in America.

Mr. Adams and Ms. White are members of the Albuquerque Community Safety department. Launched in August, the agency is intended to complement the city’s police and fire departments by having teams of behavioral health specialists patrol and respond to low-level nonviolent 911 calls. 

Nationally, about 1 in 4 people killed by police since 2015 had mental illnesses, according to a Washington Post database. Many of those killings occurred after the families of those victims called the police for help. Albuquerque’s new agency has the potential to bring some changes locally. And the national criminal justice community is watching closely, both for what works – and for what doesn’t.

“What Albuquerque is doing is really exciting and innovative,” says Nancy La Vigne, executive director of the Task Force on Policing at the Council on Criminal Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “We need these types of models to be developed and implemented, so we can learn from them.”

Why Albuquerque’s latest experiment in policing doesn’t involve officers

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It’s early October, and perhaps the busiest week of the year in New Mexico’s largest city. Hundreds of hot air balloons dot the cloudless blue sky – part of the annual balloon festival that Albuquerque hosts.  

Walter Adams and Leigh White are on patrol. Their white car, stamped with “Community Safety” decals, is headed for a neighborhood once known as the “war zone.”

Mr. Adams and Ms. White aren’t carrying guns, though. Instead, they are armed with a trunk full of water bottles, Cheez-Its, and Chewy bars. Both are wearing jeans and matching black T-shirts. Skee-Lo’s 1990s hit “I Wish” is blasting from the radio.

While Mr. Adams drives, Ms. White eats breakfast snacks and works on a black Dell laptop. Before long, the first dispatch flashes over the computer screen. They have to head west.

A few minutes later, they’re standing outside two tents pitched in the trees near a church. People walking or jogging along a nearby trail glance over.

“Someone called 911 and said there was a fire,” says Ms. White. A man inside the tent curses back at her.

“We know better than that,” he says. He’s been homeless for seven years, he tells them. “That’s what people do, call the cops,” he adds. “It’s [bull].”

“We’re not here for that,” replies Mr. Adams. “What happens is police get a call, and they send us.”

Ms. White and Mr. Adams, in fact, aren’t police. What they do is not normal emergency response work nor normal police work. It’s something of a hybrid of the two – part of an experiment that Albuquerque is hoping will change public safety in America. 

They are members of the Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS) department. Launched in September, the agency is intended to complement the city’s police and fire departments by having teams of behavioral health specialists patrol and respond to low-level, nonviolent 911 calls. 

While it is modeled after programs in a few other cities, ACS is the first stand-alone department of its kind in the country. The initiative is still nascent – Mr. Adams and Ms. White are one of just two responder teams at the moment. But authorities here hope it will defuse the kinds of tensions between police and residents that have surfaced in cities across the country and help reinvent 911 emergency response systems, which many believe have become antiquated.

“What Albuquerque is doing is really exciting and innovative,” says Nancy La Vigne, executive director of the Task Force on Policing at the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Police chiefs “almost universally say we’d love to offload these calls to other people. We need these types of models to be developed and implemented, so we can learn from them.”

On this stop, the program makes its small mark. Mr. Adams tells the homeless man about resources available at HopeWorks, a local nonprofit. The man says he’s been there before, but never upstairs, where many of the services are.

“As long as you show commitment, they’ll help you,” says Mr. Adams.

The man says he’ll go.

Ann Hermes/Staff
The inaugural members of the Albuquerque Community Safety responders stand for a portrait in downtown Albuquerque.

Since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, cities around the country have debated how to reform policing – from reducing the use of lethal force, to increasing accountability, to curtailing the need for officers to deal with complex social issues at the expense of genuine criminal investigations.

Albuquerque has been debating change, too. Yet to see why the city has become one of the first to push public safety in a new direction, you have to wind the clock back a decade. 

From 2010 to 2014, members of the Albuquerque Police Department shot and killed 27 people. One of them, in March 2014, was James Boyd, a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded a month later that APD “too often uses deadly force in an unconstitutional manner,” including against “individuals who posed a threat only to themselves.” The police entered into a court-approved agreement with DOJ that October, which the department has been operating under ever since. 

Initially, police shootings in the city decreased for several years. But more recently they have begun to rise again. From 2015 to this year, Albuquerque had the second-highest rate of fatal police shootings in the country among big cities.

While all this was going on, New Mexico’s behavioral health system was falling into disarray as well. In 2013, the state launched a criminal investigation into 15 of its largest mental health providers – accusing them of defrauding Medicaid – and froze their funding. The state attorney general cleared all the providers of the allegations, but the state’s mental health system has never fully recovered.

Since moving to Albuquerque from the East Coast 20 years ago, Ms. White has watched as the city’s police and mental health care systems have fallen in national rankings – and wondered what she could do. 

“I have certainly seen it get a whole lot worse in Albuquerque over the last couple of years, especially with COVID,” she says. “I thought [ACS] would be a great way to get back involved in the community, let these folks know that there’s somebody that cares.”

In many cities, calling 911 hasn’t always been the best way to get someone help. Albuquerque’s aim with its new initiative is as much to re-imagine its emergency response system as it is to reform policing. 

The 911 system is now about 60 years old. It hasn’t changed much since emergency medical services were added to calls in the mid-1970s. “We ultimately decided to couple care with enforcement,” says Rebecca Neusteter, leader of the Transform911 project at the University of Chicago Health Lab, an initiative aimed at reforming the nation’s emergency response system. And since then “this critical gateway [has] been neglected.”

About 1 in 4 people killed by police since 2015 had mental illnesses, according to a Washington Post database. Many of those killings occurred after the families of those people called the police for help.

“The default response is to send police to a scene and hope they solve whatever is happening,” says Dr. Neusteter. That’s “really not in anyone’s interests.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has put even more strain on systems in cities such as Albuquerque, in terms of both funding and demand. But the new agency has the potential to bring some changes locally. 

“By and large [ACS] is a positive move” for policing in the city, says Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. “It holds the promise that perhaps someday we will see fewer armed officers interacting with people in mental health crisis.” 

Ms. White and Mr. Adams are having a busy morning. They respond to five calls, most of them dealing with unsheltered individuals and homeless encampments. They all follow a familiar script. The two responders pull up in their white Honda Civic, and Mr. Adams and Ms. White grab water bottles and snacks from the trunk. They offer them to the people in the encampments, who eye them with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. Then the behavioral health specialists ask the people if they’re connected to services, or want to be.

Ms. White, with a keen eye for detail, notices cuts or hospital bracelets and checks to see if anyone wants medical attention. Mr. Adams approaches them with a disarming ease. He ambles up and greets the individuals like he would a stranger he’s asking for directions. It’s an unruffled approach born of his past. 

Mr. Adams grew up in a town, Las Vegas, New Mexico, that had widespread gang and drug problems. It also was home to the state’s main psychiatric hospital. To keep him out of trouble, Mr. Adams’ father would have his son accompany him to basketball games at the hospital.

So, starting in third grade – long before he knew about behavioral disorders – young Walter began socializing with people who were dealing with mental health issues. It is something he leans on today.

“My dad’s playing basketball and I’m just there. I was around it,” he says. “You knew those people, you knew their name, you talked to them. So to me, it wasn’t anything new or different.”

Mr. Adams came to ACS from the criminal justice system – specifically juvenile corrections and specialty courts for people with behavioral health disorders. Like many of his colleagues, he’s spent years dealing with people some might consider dangerous or threatening. And while he admits that ACS is in its infancy, he thinks they could be doing more.

“Ninety-five percent of our calls are unsheltered individuals,” says Mr. Adams. “We can respond to others. [But] I think [officials] are still getting used to it.”

ACS teams operate under some restrictions. While the responders have been integrated into the 911 system, the calls they get are screened first by the police department to determine whether they meet certain classifications – no firearms on scene, for instance – and then by fire department staff. 

For now, the ACS teams are also only working 8 to 5, avoiding the possible hazards of night duty. They hope to have 24/7 service by the end of the year. 

Once the responders are available round-the-clock, Mr. Adams doesn't envision many concerns. “It would be more intoxicated people, potentially more dangerous,” he says. But “I don’t think the response would be different.”

Not everyone agrees with that. Some think more serious call types could dramatically change what team members do, and, more important, what happens to them. 

And those circumstances could determine how successful the program is. 

Or isn’t. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Lt. Jerrad Luciani, of the Albuquerque Fire and Rescue Department (center), trains behavioral specialists with the first Albuquerque community safety team on how to respond to dispatch calls.

In the lead-up to the launch of the ACS initiative, the new recruits had to go through considerable training before being allowed to roam Albuquerque’s streets. They met with various emergency response professionals to learn about coping with different situations.

Some of the training was technical – how to use “MDTs,” the mobile data terminals that flash calls across the screens in their cars. Other lessons were case specific: How do you transport someone who is drunk? What do you do if you take someone into custody and they have a dog? 

Yet a key focus of the training was on the main concern that many people have about the ACS program here and initiatives like it around the country – safety. How do you send unarmed social workers or behavioral health responders into potentially dangerous situations without getting them killed? 

“Every call you go on you should expect the potential for violence,” Lt. Jerrad Luciani of Albuquerque Fire Rescue (AFR) told the new recruits during an instruction session in August. “Keep your head on a swivel.” 

“A bullet can travel faster than you,” added AFR Capt. Alejandro Marrufo. Even though calls are screened to avoid putting AFC team members into potentially dangerous situations, no one can predict when something might go wrong. 

“There’s only so much the call taker can do to determine what’s happening on the ground,” says Dr. La Vigne of the Council on Criminal Justice. “Situations can also become threatening in real time as well.” 

For now, there are 10 emergency call types ACS personnel will respond to, ranging from issues surrounding homelessness to suicide. Albuquerque receives about 200,000 of these calls a year. Over time, this list will expand, which is where complications could arise. 

“It’s a complex problem of when to send who. But until recently we only had one option and that was police for everything,” says Matt Dietzel, acting commander of the police department’s Crisis Intervention Section.

“It makes me nervous, and I fully support ACS,” he adds. “There are tons and tons of calls for them to take. But there is probably a line” to draw somewhere on who gets sent out on what calls. 

The new recruits know there will be challenges to face. Many of them come from backgrounds of managed care, where they had worked with individuals for a long period of time, and now they will be responding to spontaneous situations. But they believe their backgrounds will be an asset.

Chris Blystone moved to New Mexico from a small town in Michigan after the 2008 recession. He had hit bottom, along with the U.S. economy, and wanted to turn his life around. Raised by a single mother who had a litany of mental health issues and an abusive partner, Mr. Blystone was rebellious growing up. He got kicked out of his mother’s house and spent time on the streets, he says, stealing food and car stereos.

He got involved in the behavioral health system when he moved to New Mexico, working in a halfway house and then at HopeWorks. “It takes a hard life to deal with hard lives,” he says. “No guns and no weapons, just empathy and a soft touch. I think that can go a long ways.”

The police department does have some experience in dispatching social worker-types out into the streets. The Crisis Intervention Section contains eight detectives, two clinicians, and a psychiatrist. When police encounter unexpected behavioral issues on a call, this is the group they usually summon. The division also contains COAST, a small team of case managers that since 2005 has focused on helping mentally ill people who come into repeated contact with law enforcement. This unit will now be absorbed into the ACS program.

Commander Dietzel, a police officer for 16 years, has watched as the department has struggled to adapt to its increasing behavioral health-related workload – and not hired the officers it needs.

“There’s never been enough officers,” he says. But, as ACS grows, “it’s going to help reduce the burden that [the police department] is facing right now.” 

The ACS staff is expanding slowly, but another group of responders should be hitting the streets in November, doubling the department’s number of patrol units. Once the agency has hired its full complement of 41 field staff for the year, the goal is to take 3,000 to 4,000 calls a month. While this is a fraction of the overall 911 calls the city gets, advocates of the program believe it will have effects far beyond the emergency response system.

“You can correlate it to lives saved,” says Tim Keller, the mayor of Albuquerque and one of the driving forces behind the new initiative. He believes it will give police more time to respond to serious crimes, and “should build trust in communities,” especially ones that have been “overpoliced.”

Backers also note the program should be insulated somewhat from the vicissitudes of politics. ACS is budgeted as a stand-alone department, which means it may avoid some of the budget cutbacks that have historically bedeviled criminal justice reforms when violent crime spikes. 

“We’re not quite sure if [everything] is going to work, says Mariela Ruiz-Angel, director of ACS. “But if we don’t get this going, [if we] try to overanalyze, we’ll never get anywhere.”

“Public safety has to at some point change,” she adds.

Eventually, authorities hope the program will help them tackle the root causes of systemic issues like substance abuse and chronic homelessness, as well as cut down on repeat 911 calls. 

“We [want to] have enough longitudinal data to say that people who [were] calling 911 three hundred times a year are now calling [about] 12 times a year,” says Sarita Nair, the city’s chief administration officer.

Ann Hermes/Staff
The sun sets over homes in an area known as the “war zone” in Albuquerque due to the area’s high crime rates.

The last call of the morning brings Mr. Adams and Ms. White to a gas station convenience store at a busy intersection near downtown. A homeless woman outside the store is shaking and yelling to herself.

The team worries she could stumble into the street, or accidentally hit someone walking past, so the two responders talk with her, keeping a bit more distance than normal. She eventually takes the bottle of water they offer, and sits down in the shade. Mr. Adams believes that she is on drugs or may suffer from mental illness, but she’s answering their questions and staying calm. Until she isn’t.

She starts shouting to herself. Mr. Adams calls for an ambulance. It arrives a few minutes later, followed by a fire truck. The woman was lucid and responsive, Mr. Adams says, “then she just flipped.” After a short discussion with the other responders, the woman is sedated and taken to a hospital.

It’s the kind of call that, if the wrong person responded at the wrong time, could have escalated like the James Boyd shooting in 2014. Instead, everyone is leaving safe, and no police officer had to be there. 

Mr. Adams walks away from it like he has the hundreds of other calls he’s taken so far in his new job. No matter what the circumstances, he approaches each incident, he says, the same way: with patience, compassion, and snacks.

“I serve those people with the same intention that I would want someone to help my family,” he says.

Still, he notes, ACS is “a work in progress.” “There’s no one that could tell us [how to evolve], because there has never been this type of program,” he says. “We’re going to grow together.”

Britain forced Boris Johnson to U-turn on corruption. What happened?

British politics have been rocked by a cash-for-access scandal that caused Boris Johnson to do an about-face on easing anti-sleaze rules. It is proving a gut check for traditional democratic values.

Linda

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On its face, the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative government is facing a scandal over its attempt to rewrite the rules in favor of letting one of its own members of Parliament off the hook for corruption.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson pushed ahead with a vote to disband an independent cross-party committee after it found Owen Paterson, the man at the center of the scandal, guilty of taking payments from two businesses in exchange for lobbying governmental departments on their behalf. He then reversed course after an outcry from both the public and politicians, including those in his own party.

But more deeply, the scandal has exposed a major breach of trust in British politics that “raises some questions about the rule of law,” says researcher Daniela Nadj. “Governments with a large majority can overturn processes and procedures because they’re not codified in a written constitution. That is problematic.”

“This scandal resonates because it comes after several years where the rule of law has been challenged by Brexit, with the perceived undermining of the judiciary and the sense the government was prepared to play fast and loose in order to get Brexit through Parliament,” says Patrick Diamond, a former Labour government policy adviser.

Britain forced Boris Johnson to U-turn on corruption. What happened?

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Francois Lenoir/Reuters/File
British Conservative Party politician Owen Paterson (center), shown here leaving a meeting at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, on Oct. 22, 2018, is at the center of a British political scandal after a parliamentary anti-corruption watchdog found him guilty of taking payments for lobbying. The Conservative government tried to disband the watchdog, leading to a public outcry.

It took Boris Johnson’s government under 24 hours to perform a U-turn on its controversial plan to seize control of a parliamentary anti-corruption watchdog. But even in that short period of time, it put Britain through a serious gut check on its democratic values.

From within the governing Tory Party, former ministers such as Tobias Ellwood lamented that the “mother of Parliaments” had been severely damaged. “We have lost our way and we need to find our moral compass,” he said.

Across the political spectrum, leading political figures and prominent media lined up alongside opposition leader Keir Starmer, who described the prime minister as “corrupt and contemptible” for giving the “green light to corruption.”

On its face, the scandal is about the manner in which the ruling Conservative government attempted to rewrite the rules so as to let one of its own members of Parliament off the hook. Owen Paterson, the man at the center of the scandal, had been deemed guilty by an independent cross-party committee of having taken payments from two businesses in exchange for lobbying government departments on their behalf. Even as the government proposed disbanding the committee, Mr. Paterson was allowed to remain in his seat and vote for the suspension of the system of checks and balances that had punished him.

But more deeply, the scandal has exposed a major breach of trust in British politics that “raises some questions about the rule of law,” says Daniela Nadj, research fellow at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law. “Governments with a large majority can overturn processes and procedures because they’re not codified in a written constitution. That is problematic,” she worries.

“The job of a British MP has no job description,” says Andrew Russell, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. “It’s a series of people making it up as they go along and [using] convention [to set] down what’s OK and what’s not.”

Misbehaving in broad daylight

Corruption scandals are not uncommon in British politics. In the 1990s, a series of scandals rocked the Tory Party, most notably when Sunday Times journalists rang the offices of two Tory MPs and offered cash in exchange for questions asked on their behalf in Parliament.

The MP expenses scandal in 2009 saw almost daily revelations across British headlines of members of Parliament using public money on anything from second homes to duck houses.

Patrick Diamond, a policy adviser at 10 Downing Street at the time, remembers that the general public “didn’t blame one party; they thought this was a plague on all houses. It reinforced cynicism.”

Dr. Diamond, now a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, says the current scandal “brings out issues” simmering from the impression that Mr. Johnson frequently disregards the rules. During his tenure, he has been accused of trying to water down a report that examined whether Home Secretary Priti Patel bullied staff, and was found by the Supreme Court to have unlawfully closed down Parliament just weeks before a key Brexit deadline.

“This scandal resonates because it comes after several years where the rule of law has been challenged by Brexit, with the perceived undermining of the judiciary and the sense the government was prepared to play fast and loose in order to get Brexit through Parliament,” says Dr. Diamond.

Journalists covering the government since 2019 have noticed a shift in the way British lawmakers do, and do not, apply rules to themselves.

“Reporters of the past often had to dig into dark corners to uncover examples of corruption and wrongdoing. That hasn’t been the case with this government,” says Sam Bright, an investigative journalist who helped uncover the awarding of government contracts for face masks and medical gowns during the pandemic to offshore firms and companies owned by Conservative donors.

He says a pattern of behavior has emerged under Mr. Johnson’s populist-leaning government, “which has misbehaved repeatedly in broad daylight, from dodgy coronavirus contracts to the overt demonization of asylum seekers.”

“Boris Johnson’s government isn’t scared of being accused of wrongdoing, which, if you think about it, is quite a scary thing.”

“A Conservative problem”

Mr. Paterson has since resigned from his post as MP, but financial scandals continue to emerge around the Tories. It has since been alleged that a £3 million ($4 million) gift to the Conservative party is enough to buy the donor a seat in the House of Lords, the U.K.’s unelected upper legislative chamber.

While the Paterson scandal may not be significant enough to create fundamental change, it has shifted the current political popularity stakes, with Labour overtaking the Conservatives by a point in a poll of voting intentions. “While all MPs will be affected by this, this scandal is seen as a Conservative problem. The usually friendly media have been some of the sternest critics,” says Dr. Russell.

Mr. Johnson remains comfortably in charge, but the scandal remains a setback nonetheless. “The Conservatives have caught sight of themselves and seen how it looks,” says Dr. Russell. “For the first time, the government under Boris Johnson – which has a sizable majority – has seen how public support can ebb away.”

Russia changes its tune on climate change. What’s behind the shift?

Russia showed signs at COP26 that it is finally getting serious about the threat of climate change. But the Kremlin’s shift in thought may need to go further to prepare the country for the future.

Linda

Two ways to read the story

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Russia is a place where industrial-scale fossil fuel energy is traditionally so plentiful that city dwellers in centrally heated apartments still sometimes throw their windows open in midwinter to cool off.

So the Kremlin’s pledges at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, including a strategy to make Russia carbon neutral by 2060, are unprecedented. Even some of the Kremlin’s toughest critics now agree that Russian authorities have finally accepted the need for serious action to meet the climate challenge.

But critics point out that, while the progress is real, there is a lot less to Russia’s new pledges than meets the eye. Even if all current goals are met, renewable energy will only be around 6% of Russia’s total by 2035, while European targets call for it to be at least 20% by that time. And Russia’s promise of carbon neutrality by 2060 relies on the carbon-absorbing capacities of Russian forests and not on reforming the country’s power grid.

“The Russian government is sincere, but they still do not plan to meet climate neutrality targets by changing the energy balance,” says researcher Tatiana Lanshina. “A lot of things are going to have to change, because the world is changing whether we like it or not.”

Russia changes its tune on climate change. What’s behind the shift?

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Ilya Naymushin/Reuters/File
An engineer inspects equipment at a solar electric station in Abakan, Khakassia Republic, Russia, Dec. 17, 2015. The alternative-energy industry is poised to take off among Russians.

Solar panels have begun to sprout among Russia’s many dachas, the often remote and humble cottages where millions spend their summers. Thanks to new laws, significant state support for renewable energy, and a higher level of public climate consciousness, the alternative-energy industry is finally poised to take off among notoriously hydrocarbon-addicted Russians.

This may not sound remarkable to those in the West, where small-scale renewable energy has been a going concern for decades.

But Russia is a place where industrial-scale fossil fuel energy is traditionally so plentiful and cheap that city dwellers in centrally heated apartments still sometimes throw their windows open in midwinter just to cool off. The country only got around to ratifying the Paris climate accords two years ago, and President Vladimir Putin once remarked that a bit of warming would be good for the wheat crop.

The embrace of solar power among dacha owners is just part of a broader shift in thinking about climate change and alternative energy across Russian society. Even some of the Kremlin’s toughest critics now agree that Russian authorities have finally accepted the need for serious action to meet the climate challenge. Though Mr. Putin was criticized for not attending the Glasgow COP26 climate summit in person, the Russian delegation did make some solid, unprecedented pledges, including a legally enacted strategy to make Russia carbon neutral by 2060, and joining the international agreement to end deforestation by 2030.

But while the Kremlin is getting active on climate change, environmentalists say authorities are not doing enough to prepare Russia for the world that is coming. Though the government is taking positive steps, they say, it is not addressing the changes that Russia’s power grid and carbon-dependent economy will require in order to keep up with more proactively green parts of the world like Europe.

A green Russia?

After decades of foot-dragging, Russian governments on all levels have visibly begun to support green efforts and make resources available, especially for renewable energy projects.

A 1 trillion ruble (about $15 billion) federal program is already providing funding and other support for renewable energy startups. The eight-year pilot project, extended this year until 2035, has seen construction of 63 solar energy farms, 15 wind power plants, and 3 small hydro stations, says Alexei Zhikharev, director of the Russia Renewable Energy Development Association (RREDA). He says the pace will pick up now. “Electricity from renewable energy generation is already cheaper than that from traditional generation facilities, and the costs are rapidly falling,” he says.

Moscow now has Europe’s largest fleet of electric buses, almost 1,000 of them, which the city’s deputy mayor Maxim Liksutov says will reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 86 thousand tons next year. “We expect all the routes will be operated by ecofriendly buses by 2030,” he says. Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg is building electric river boats to replace its diesel-powered fleet.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
One of Moscow's new fleet of electric buses, the largest such fleet in Europe, travels along a road in Moscow, Feb. 19, 2021. The words on the bus read: "It's an electric bus."

The Pacific island of Sakhalin, near Japan, has become a prime laboratory for the Kremlin’s newfound enthusiasm. The heavily forested region aims to become carbon-neutral by 2025 in a trial project that will involve “gasification, alternative energy, clean transport, energy efficiency, and sustainable forest management programs,” according to its governor, Valery Limarenko. He said that the region’s main industry, oil and gas extraction, is ready to make all the needed changes to meet that target.

Dacha dwellers are starting to come on board too. Sergei Zigunov, deputy director of EcoNRJ, a company that sells and installs Chinese-made solar panels, says that energy independence is the basic appeal for them. Plus, thanks to a new law, people can now hook their home system up to the electricity grid, and sell any surplus back to the company. Even in sun-starved Russia, he says, solar panels – installation of which costs upwards of $1,000 – can pay for themselves within five years.

“We’re a small company, but we install around 400 systems a year nowadays,” he says. “It’s not much, but interest is growing fast, and people are warming up to the idea of energy alternatives.”

Generally, environmentalists and government seem to now be pushing in the same direction, after many years of tension.

“We get a lot of cooperation from local authorities, who now seem eager to provide support and funding for environmental clean-up efforts, recycling, and just about anything that looks green,” says Alexandra Usacheva, head of the Clean North, a volunteer group that promotes environmental goals in the European-Arctic region of Arkhangelsk. “Most of all, they are inviting us into the schools, to teach ecological values to young people. Current public opinion may be slow to catch on, but the next generation is going to be amazing on environmental issues.”

Not everyone in Russia’s scientific establishment agrees with the new line. Arkhangelsk-based Alexander Kirilov, director of Russia’s largest Arctic national park, says that ice sheets may be receding, and the climate warming, but it’s nothing to worry about.

“In my opinion, there is no catastrophe happening,” he says “Even if global warming is taking place, it’s not as awful for humans and wildlife as some people say. We monitor the [Arctic] wildlife, and we have concluded that the number of animals is growing and their stress levels are not increasing. ... Climate change has been occurring for decades, but it’s caused by natural cycles. Human activity has accelerated changes that were already happening.”

“The world is changing whether we like it or not”

Critics point out that, while the progress is real, there is a lot less to Russia’s new pledges than meets the eye. Russia, the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is starting far behind the rest of the world.

While energy produced from renewable sources was about 10% of the global total last year, in Russia it was less than half a percent. Even if all current goals are met, renewable energy will only be around 6% of Russia’s total by 2035, while European targets call for it to be at least 20% by that time, according to Mr. Zhikharev of the RREDA.

“We have some good beginnings, and a lot of potential, but it’s not enough,” he says. “One major need is to develop green financing tools, and make them widely available to investors.”

Mr. Putin’s promise of carbon neutrality by 2060 relies heavily on the carbon-absorbing capacities of Russian forests – the world’s largest, which occupy about 20% of its territory – and not on making major changes to the country’s power grid, which currently relies on gas (46%), coal (18%), hydro (18%), and nuclear sources (17%) for electricity generation.

“The Russian government is sincere, but they still do not plan to meet climate neutrality targets by changing the energy balance,” says Tatiana Lanshina, a senior researcher at RANEPA, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. “They think they can do this by emphasizing our forests, hydro, and nuclear. But a lot of things are going to have to change, because the world is changing whether we like it or not.”

Experts say that climate-driven disasters such as floods, wildfires, and melting permafrost have played a role in focusing Kremlin minds on the problem of man-made climate change. But an even more forceful factor is the worldwide campaign to abandon fossil fuels, which represent at least a quarter of Russia’s GDP and 60% of its exports. The European Union’s plan to impose a carbon tax will cost Russian businesses heavily. Indeed, as the world moves toward net zero carbon in coming decades, much of Russia’s industrial and energy infrastructure risks obsolescence.

“Things are starting to move in Russia, but not thanks to Putin. It’s because if all the actions world leaders are pledging happen, there will be no consumers for Russian fuel, and Russia will be economically isolated in the world,” says Vladimir Slivyak, a veteran Russian environmental activist.

“Now all kinds of projects – be it solar, hydrogen, wind, small hydro, carbon capture – are in vogue and getting support from authorities. That’s good. But Russia could be doing much more. And it will be doing more in the future, of that I am confident. Not because Putin decided, but because the world is on the move and Russia can’t afford to be left behind.”

Is civics education a ‘right’? Rhode Island case tests theory.

An educated society is vital to democracy, but are schools obligated to teach students how government works? And who should decide that, the states or the courts? Both questions are at the heart of an appeals case in Boston.

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Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Students, parents, and their lawyers cheer "Civics!" after a hearing in federal court on Dec. 5, 2019, in Providence, Rhode Island. Rhode Island students and parents have sued state officials for a right to civics classes, and hope to establish a constitutional right to an adequate public education that prepares students for civic life.

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Ahmed Sesay never had a class in civics. When he graduated from a Providence, Rhode Island, high school in 2019, he had to teach himself how to vote and pay his taxes.

“Civics shouldn’t be an elective,” says Mr. Sesay, a plaintiff in a lawsuit that argues students have a constitutional right to an adequate civics education. “It’s a life skill, to understand how your government works.”

Plaintiffs say the suit has taken on new significance following the storming of the U.S. Capitol, an event that many say underscored the need to teach students to distinguish fact from fiction and to respect the peaceful transition of power. Attorneys for the state, however, argue that a ruling for the students would overreach, establishing a new “right” not found in the U.S. Constitution and usurping state and local authority over schools.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is deciding whether to reverse a lower court’s dismissal. That judge said the “arc of the law” was clear, but praised the students for bringing the case.

“This case does not represent a wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process, but rather a cry for help from a generation of young people,” Judge William Smith wrote. “What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril.”

Is civics education a ‘right’? Rhode Island case tests theory.

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Growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, Ahmed Sesay never had a class in civics. When he graduated from high school in 2019, he had to teach himself how to vote and pay his taxes.

Now 20 years old, Mr. Sesay is part of a lawsuit being decided by a Boston-based court of appeals this month that argues that students have a constitutional right to an adequate civics education.

“Civics shouldn’t be an elective,” says Mr. Sesay. “It’s a life skill, to understand how your government works.”

The suit was filed in 2018, but some legal scholars say it’s taken on new significance following the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, an event that the plaintiffs say underscored the need to teach students to distinguish fact from fiction, to disagree civilly, and to respect the peaceful transition of power. Democracy itself is in danger if citizens don’t understand how it works, they argue.

Attorneys for the state, however, argue that a ruling for the Rhode Island students would overreach, establishing a new “right” not found in the U.S. Constitution and usurping state and local authority over schools.

“The insurrection was part of a larger pattern of people showing a lack of understanding of how our system works,” says Martha Minow, a legal scholar at Harvard Law School who filed an amicus brief in the case. She pointed to surveys showing that close to half of Americans can’t name the three branches of government and nearly a third could imagine supporting a military coup.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Boston, is deciding whether to reverse a lower court’s dismissal of the case and declare a constitutional right to an adequate civics education. In their appeal, the plaintiffs cite the January attack as evidence of the need for the courts to declare “that education for capable citizenship is a fundamental interest.”

But attorneys for the state of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Education say the plaintiffs have failed to show a “causal connection between recent events and the alleged inadequate instruction in civics.”

They argue that there’s something else at stake in the case: state and local control over education.

If the court were to declare that students have a constitutional right to a civics education, “it would create ‘super school boards’ in the courts,” says Anthony Cottone, chief legal counsel for the state education department, echoing a phrase used by one of the members of the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit during oral arguments Nov. 1.

He says plaintiffs should have brought their complaint directly to the state, not to a federal court.

“If they weren’t teaching civics in any school in Rhode Island, they could come to the Commissioner of Education, make their case, and we’d require them to teach civics,” Mr. Cottone says. “If they weren’t, we’d take their aid away.”

Michael Rebell, an attorney for the plaintiffs and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University, says he isn’t asking federal judges to “micromanage” what’s being taught in America’s schools. He simply wants the courts to define what constitutes an adequate civics education and to craft an accountability system for monitoring schools’ compliance.

Right to any education?

The suit faces a steep climb. Writing this month in The Boston Globe, Ms. Minow quoted the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which declared education “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” But federal courts have historically refused to recognize a constitutional right to any education at all – much less civics – and are unlikely to do so this time around, she acknowledges.

States, some 22 of which have a right to education written into their own constitutions, have been more sympathetic to such claims, says Derek Black, a professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina. In lawsuits, more than half of states have affirmed a constitutional right to an education, with some going so far as to dictate funding levels and program requirements.  

But some states, including Rhode Island, have resisted, resulting in a “bifurcation of rights,” based on where a student happens to live, Mr. Black says.  

These disparities have prompted a spate of lawsuits spanning four states that seek a federal right to some aspect of an education – be it as broad as basic literacy, or as specific as a civics education.

The lawsuits build on a 50-year-old school funding case, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, that plaintiffs say left open the question of whether students might be entitled to some “quantum of education” that would impart “the basic minimal skills necessary for the enjoyment of the rights of speech and of full participation on the political process.”

A district judge dismissed the Rhode Island case in October 2020, writing that the “arc of the law in this area is clear.” Yet he commended the 14 plaintiffs – most of whom are current and former students of color – for bringing it.

“This case does not represent a wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process, but rather a cry for help from a generation of young people,” Judge William Smith wrote. “What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril.”

Civil rights

In an amicus brief, the NAACP argued that equal access to a quality civics education is a civil rights issue. By failing to prepare Black and Hispanic students for civic engagement, Rhode Island is “perpetuating a history of disenfranchisement that continues to embarrass the United States,” the organization wrote.

State standards for the teaching of civics vary widely, says Lawrence Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. Some include the subject in standardized testing regimes; others do not. Students in Rhode Island must complete three social studies courses that include a civics component, but they aren’t required to take a standalone course. In a 2021 report, the Fordham Institute gave the state a D in civics and an F in history, including it among 20 ranked as “inadequate” in both subjects.  

Mr. Rebell chose Rhode Island to base his lawsuit after visiting Providence and being welcomed by an audience of more than 100 educators, parents, and students who shared his concerns.

Mr. Sesay, then a junior, was among them.  

Looking back, Mr. Sesay says he had courses in history and social studies, but “it was very macro – a lot about the presidents, but not how local decisions are made,” he says. He knew America was a democracy, but the whole concept felt remote – an idea that drove decision-making 400 miles away, in Washington, D.C. 

Mr. Sesay says he wishes schools did more to teach students about local government and their own role in sustaining democracy.

“If students understood that civics is the way they learn how to change the world around them, they would want to know more, and not just learn about the past,” he says.

On Film

A foodie delight, ‘Julia’ shows how one chef influenced America

Few people on the planet were more interested in food than Julia Child, says Monitor film critic Peter Rainer. Judging from the new documentary “Julia,” he adds, few people are as interesting.

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Jim Scherer/Sony Pictures Classics
Julia Child shares her food in a scene from “Julia.” The late TV personality and author worked well into her 80s.

A foodie delight, ‘Julia’ shows how one chef influenced America

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Early on in the new documentary “Julia,” about the famed culinary luminary Julia Child, she lets it be known that “I found that if people aren’t interested in food, I’m not very interested in them.” Certainly few people on the planet were more interested in food than Child, and, judging from this movie, few people are as interesting.

For those of us who grew up with her cooking shows on public television – a TV career that began in 1963 and lasted for decades – seeing her here in all her gawky eccentricity is good for the soul. 

Like many others, I didn’t tune in to learn how to cook French cuisine. I didn’t even watch in order to savor the scrumptious close-ups of boeuf bourguignon or tarte tatin. (By the way, don’t see this documentary on an empty stomach.) What I looked forward to was simply watching Child do her thing in the kitchen in that unmistakable voice of hers – a kind of fluttery singsong pitched somewhere between a gasp and a whoop.

And because the shows were filmed live, Child’s flubs, ad-libs, and occasional kitchen mishaps were part of the enjoyment. As tremendously knowledgeable as she was, she made cooking fun

The documentary, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, makes clear that Child brought something new to both the television of that era and to the way Americans thought about food. It was a time – the early 1960s – when freezers were stocked with TV dinners and fine family dining entrees included grilled Spam with pineapple and jello with marshmallow bits.

Child had co-written a new, soon-to-be-bestselling book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” with its incredibly detailed yet easy to follow recipes, and, in 1963, when she was 51, she was interviewed about it on a Boston public TV show devoted to books. She insisted on demonstrating how to make an omelet during the segment, which resulted in the phones lighting up. Soon she was given her own show. 

An improbable yet, somehow, inevitable star was born. She was the right person at the right time. She made viewers feel like, if she can cook this stuff, they could, too.  

Child may have had the common touch on camera, but her background was anything but ordinary. Growing up as one of three sisters – all over 6 feet tall – in a politically conservative upper-class household in Southern California, she broke from her roots. Hoping to become a spy, she enrolled as a typist in the Office of Strategic Services – a precursor of the CIA – during World War II. She ended up stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where she met her husband, Paul Child, who became her lifelong soulmate and booster. 

It was while they were living in France that she first tasted sole meunière – “That’s what I had been waiting for my whole life!” she gushes in the movie – and enrolls in the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. She is the only woman among 11 GIs. In the male-dominated culinary world, women were considered too weak to carry heavy pots or utensils.

Nothing fazed her. That was one of the secrets of her success. She didn’t really regard herself as a feminist, and yet she did more than anyone to bring women to the forefront of world cuisine. 

That world has changed somewhat. Unlike, say, Anthony Bourdain, she didn’t regard food as a portal into the culture that produced it, nor did she think you needed to go further than your local market to fix a fine meal. She disdained so-called health foods and wouldn’t dream of going light on the butter or the cream. 

She was still active in print and on television well into her 80s, and, as this entertaining film demonstrates, she looked like she enjoyed every minute of it. 

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Julia” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language/sexual reference, and some thematic elements. The film rolls out in theaters starting Nov. 12.

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Iraq steps up in the Belarus crisis

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Having experienced four wars over four decades, Iraqis know a thing or two about people fleeing woe and trouble. With its democracy now more firmly in place, Iraq joined a new United Nations program earlier this year that assists countries in dealing with all aspects of migration, from root causes to protecting migrants. And just in time. The tense crisis in Europe along the border with Belarus involves mostly Iraqi migrants.

Thousands of them were lured to Belarus earlier this year by strongman Alexander Lukashenko and then used as human weapons to cross into Poland and Lithuania in retaliation for European Union sanctions on his anti-democratic regime. By July, the EU asked Iraq to clamp down on human trafficking and, without too much prodding, the government went into action.

Flights carrying migrants from Baghdad to Minsk were canceled. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi set up a team to discourage the migration. He called for aid to the stranded Iraqis in Belarus and planned evacuation flights to bring the migrants home if they volunteer to return.

That sort of progress by Iraq might be a model, helping deter authoritarian leaders who try to use migrants as tools of geopolitics.

Iraq steps up in the Belarus crisis

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An Iraqi woman with children sits in Hajnowka, Poland, after crossing the border from Belarus Oct. 14.

Having experienced four wars over four decades, Iraqis know a thing or two about people fleeing woe and trouble. With its democracy now more firmly in place, Iraq joined a new United Nations program earlier this year that assists countries in dealing with all aspects of migration, from root causes to protecting migrants. And just in time. The tense crisis in Europe along the border with Belarus involves mostly Iraqi migrants.

Thousands of them were lured to Belarus earlier this year by strongman Alexander Lukashenko and then used as human weapons to cross into Poland and Lithuania in retaliation for European Union sanctions on his anti-democratic regime. By July, the EU asked Iraq to clamp down on human trafficking and, without too much prodding, the government went into action.

Flights carrying migrants from Baghdad to Minsk were canceled. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi set up a special team to discourage the migration. He called for urgent aid to the stranded Iraqis in Belarus and planned evacuation flights to bring the migrants home if they volunteer to return. (Few of the migrants are considered refugees.) The government is spending about $200 million for the effort. 

Mr. Kadhimi also promised a probe into criminal networks working with Belarus to bring in migrants. In addition, the crisis forced a renewed debate in Iraq about trying harder to reduce the poverty and political unrest that drove thousands of Iraqis to emigrate to Europe.

EU officials commended Iraq for its response and wished other countries with migrants in Belarus were doing the same. Last March, after Iraq joined the U.N. program to improve its “migration governance,” the U.N. designated it as a “champion” country for its commitment to dealing better with migrants. That sort of progress by Iraq might be a model, helping deter authoritarian leaders who try to use migrants as tools of geopolitics.

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.

in Love embraced

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If we’re mourning the loss of a loved one, we can turn to God for the comforting, grief-lifting assurance that existence is so much more than mortality, and that life can never truly be lost.

in Love embraced

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

in the sacred stillness of hope
like a bird at the window
wondering what might be found within
we will find the loved one we lost
with substance faithfully defined
in the allness of Mind

in the earnest seeking
of patiently perched thought
we begin to ask the right questions
not based on an appearance of loss
but a simple desire to grow
to understand, to know

in the quiet longing
of early morning humility
which like a sheltered nestling, waits –
the divine Spirit that knows all
reveals Life’s immortal essence
unequivocal presence

then in the silent prayer of faith,
as sound waves carry bird songs
and yet remain unseen, divine Love
in a rhythm our ready hearts can hear
brings an answer clear

and as fear is conquered and finally destroyed
Love lifts the grief and fills the seeming void

on the wings of this divine giving
we perceive our loved one spiritually living
safe in the ever-present Mind
the forever home of healing grace,
never lost or consumed
or accidentally misplaced
but
purposeful
permanent
in Love embraced

In this poem, Mind, Spirit, Life, and Love are used as Bible-based synonyms for God.

Originally published in the March 25, 2019, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

Viewfinder

A flying festival

Mario Armas/AP
Hot air balloons fly above the Papalote dam during the International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Leon, Mexico, on Nov. 12, 2021.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us. Please come back Monday, when we highlight how the trades are bringing in more women to ease the worker shortage – and in some cities, helping out with child care.

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