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  • The Intercept Discloses Top-Secret NSA Document on Russia Hacking Aimed at US Voting System

    On Monday, the Intercept published a classified internal NSA document noting that Russian military intelligence mounted an operation to hack at least one US voting software supplier—which provided software related to voter registration files—in the months prior to last year's presidential contest. It has previously been reported that Russia attempted to hack into voter registration systems, but this NSA document provides details of how one such operation occurred.

    According to the Intercept:

    The top-secret National Security Agency document, which was provided anonymously to The Intercept and independently authenticated, analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the US election and voting infrastructure. The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed US government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light.

    While the document provides a rare window into the NSA's understanding of the mechanics of Russian hacking, it does not show the underlying "raw" intelligence on which the analysis is based. A US intelligence officer who declined to be identified cautioned against drawing too big a conclusion from the document because a single analysis is not necessarily definitive.

    The report indicates that Russian hacking may have penetrated further into US voting systems than was previously understood. It states unequivocally in its summary statement that it was Russian military intelligence, specifically the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, that conducted the cyber attacks described in the document:

    Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.

    Go read the whole thing.



  • Trump's Tweets Threaten His Travel Ban's Chances in Court

    President Donald Trump began the week with a barrage of early-morning tweets blasting the courts for blocking his travel ban executive order. But in doing so, he may have just made it more likely that the courts will keep blocking the ban.

    These tweets followed upon several from over the weekend about the ban and the terrorist attack in London, including this one from Saturday evening:

    In January, Trump signed an executive order banning nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days, as well as halting the refugee resettlement program for 120 days (and indefinitely for Syrian refugees). When the courts blocked it, rather than appeal to the Supreme Court, Trump signed a modified version of the order. The new ban repealed the old one, reduced the number of banned countries from seven to six, and added exceptions and waivers. Still, federal courts in Maryland and Hawaii blocked it, and now the Justice Department has appealed to the Supreme Court to have this second version of the ban reinstated.

    The biggest question in the litigation over the ban is whether the courts should focus solely on the text of the order or also consider Trump's comments from the campaign trail, and even during his presidency, to determine whether the order uses national security as a pretext for banning Muslims from the country. The president's lawyers argue that the courts should focus on the text of the order and defer to the president's authority over national security. Trump's tweets Monday morning and over the weekend make it harder for the courts to justify doing that.

    The travel ban is supposed to be a temporary remedy until the government can review its vetting procedures. But Trump's tweets make it appear that the ban itself is his goal. Trump repeatedly and defiantly uses the word "ban" when his administration has instead sought to call it a pause. 

    The tweets "undermine the government's best argument—that courts ought not look beyond the four corners of the Executive Order itself," Stephen Vladeck, an expert on national security and constitutional law at the University of Texas School of Law, says via email. "Whether or not then-Candidate Trump's statements should matter (a point on which reasonable folks will likely continue to disagree), the more President Trump says while the litigation is ongoing tending to suggest that the Order is pretextual, the harder it is to convince even sympathetic judges and justices that only the text of the Order matters." And once the courts start looking at the president's statements, it's not hard to find ones that raise questions about anti-Muslim motivations.

    Even the president's allies acknowledge his tweets are a problem. George Conway, the husband of top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, responded to Trump on Twitter by pointing out that the work of the Office of the Solicitor General—which is defending the travel ban in court—just got harder.

    Conway, who recently withdrew his name from consideration for a post at the Justice Department, then followed up to clarify his position.

    Trump may soon see his tweets used against him in court. Omar Jadwat, the ACLU attorney who argued the case before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, told the Washington Post this morning that the ACLU's legal team is considering adding Trump's tweets to its arguments before the Supreme Court. "The tweets really undermine the factual narrative that the president's lawyers have been trying to put forth, which is that regardless of what the president has actually said in the past, the second ban is kosher if you look at it entirely on its own terms," Jadwat told the Post.



  • Der Spiegel Just Published the Minutes From Trump?s Contentious Meeting With G7 Leaders

    German magazine Der Spiegel has been given access to minutes from a contentious meeting of G7 leaders in Taormina, Sicily, at the end of May, in which they applied last-ditch pressure on President Donald Trump to stay in the Paris climate agreement.

    The meeting came toward the end of Trump's first trip abroad as president—and became an opportunity for world leaders to intensely lobby the American president before Trump's final decision on whether the United States would leave the historic climate accord.

    The leaders told Trump in no uncertain terms that if the United States abandoned the agreement, China would be the direct beneficiary.

    "Climate change is real and it affects the poorest countries," said Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected French president, at the outset of the private conversation.

    Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau then told Trump that the success of repairing the ozone layer proved that industry could be persuaded to act on harmful emissions, according to the account.

    Then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought up China: "If the world's largest economic power were to pull out, the field would be left to the Chinese," she said. According to Der Spiegel, Merkel added that Chinese President Xi Jinping was preparing to take advantage of the vacuum left by America's exit. Even Saudi Arabia, she added, was preparing for a world without oil.

    Trump was unmoved. "For me," the president reportedly said, "it's easier to stay in than step out," adding that green regulations were killing American jobs.

    As it became clear Trump would not budge, Macron admitted defeat, according to this account.

    "Now China leads," he said.

    The account adds fresh details to the president's fraught European trip. Following the meeting, the G7 broke with tradition to release a statement where six nations reaffirmed the Paris climate agreement, without the United States. The president also caused a diplomatic scuffle in Italy after accusing Germany of being "very bad" on trade and appeared to literally shove aside a leader of a NATO ally.

    In a Rose Garden ceremony last Thursday, Trump announced that the United States would leave the historic Paris climate agreement—promising to "begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States."

    In response to the president's announcement, President Macron of France released a video statement, saying, "If we do nothing, our children will know a world of migrations, of wars, of shortage. A dangerous world."



  • Republican Congressman on Suspected Islamic Radicals: "Kill Them All"

    In response to the London terror attack, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) had an extreme proposal: kill anyone suspected of being an Islamic radical.

    On his campaign Faceboook page, Higgins, a former police officer, posted this message:

    The free world…all of Christendom…is at war with Islamic horror. Not one penny of American treasure should be granted to any nation who harbors these heathen animals. Not a single radicalized Islamic suspect should be granted any measure of quarter. Their intended entry to the American homeland should be summarily denied. Every conceivable measure should be engaged to hunt them down. Hunt them, identity them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.

    The post went up early on Sunday morning. On Saturday evening, suspected terrorists killed seven people during an attack on London Bridge. ISIS has claimed credit for these murders.

    With his declaration that Christendom is "at war with Islamic horror," Higgins was embracing a theme of the far right: the fight against extremist jihadists is part of a fundamental clash between Christian society and Islam. And in this Facebook post, he was calling for killing not just terrorists found guilty of heinous actions, but anyone suspected of such an act. He did not explain how the United States could determine how to identify radicalized Islamists in order to deny them entry to the United States. It was unclear whether his proposal to deny any assistance to any nation that harbors "these heathen animals" would apply to England, France, Indonesia, Spain, and other nations where jihadist cells have committed horrific acts of violence.

    Higgins office refused to allow a Mother Jones reporter to speak to a spokesman for the congressman. But in an email, his spokesman confirmed the Facebook post was authentic.

    In late January, Higgins delivered a fiery floor speech attacking Democrats and the "liberal media" for opposing President Donald Trump's Muslim travel ban. He declared that "radical Islamic horror has gripped the world and…unbelievably…been allowed into our own nation with wanton disregard."

    Shortly before running for Congress, Higgins resigned from his post as the public information officer of the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office, where he had earned a reputation as the "Cajun John Wayne" for his tough-talking CrimeStopper videos. Higgins abruptly quit after his boss, the sheriff, ordered him to tone down his unprofessional comments. "I repeatedly told him to stop saying things like, 'You have no brain cells,' or making comments that were totally disrespectful and demeaning," the sheriff said.

    "I don't do well reined in," Higgins noted at the time. "Although I love and respect my sheriff, I must resign."

    Update: Higgins' campaign spokesman, Chris Comeaux, told Mother Jones in an email: "Rep. Higgins is referring to terrorists. He's advocating for hunting down and killing all of the terrorists. This is an idea all of America & Britain should be united behind."



  • How Trump and His Allies Have Run With Russian Propaganda

    The concept is straight from the Soviet playbook: Plant false information and use it to influence the attitudes of another country’s people and government. This “active measures” technique from the Cold War era appears to have been resurrected with alarming success by the Kremlin in its attack on the 2016 presidential election—and has been echoed in tactics used by President Donald Trump and his associates, according to Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

    “Part of the reason active measures have worked in this US election is because the commander in chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents,” Watts, a former FBI agent, recently testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

    Key to this equation have been RT and Sputnik international, two Russian state-sponsored news outlets. Both reach only relatively small audiences in the US (RT is estimated to reach about 8 million people via cable television), but their impact has been magnified greatly online, with their stories reposted on what Watts calls “gray” conspiracy sites like Breitbart News and InfoWars. Twitter bots and other social media accounts further amplify the stories. And in several cases, Trump or his associates have directly cited phony Russian propaganda in a speech or interview. Here are some examples:

    A false report of a terrorist attack at a NATO base in Turkey: Last July, RT and Sputnik each reported on a fire at the Incirlik base, framing it as potential sabotage. Pro-Russian and pro-Trump Twitter accounts spread and magnified the false reports, but mainstream news organizations didn’t pick up the report because it wasn’t true, as Watts explained in a piece for the Daily Beast. Yet, in mid August, Paul Manafort—Trump’s campaign chairman at the time—escalated the story to a terrorist attack, complaining on CNN that US media outlets were not adequately covering it. Politifact debunked Manafort’s claims, noting that Turkish authorities had reported small, peaceful demonstrations outside the base, but no actual assault on the base.

    The case of the phony Benghazi email: On October 10, Wikileaks released a batch of emails hacked from campaign chairman John Podesta’s email account. About 5 pm ET that day, Sputnik News published a story about leaked Clinton campaign emails with the headline “Hillary confidante: Benghazi was ‘preventable’; State Department negligent.” Roughly an hour later, Trump told supporters at a rally in Pennsylvania that Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal had called the Benghazi attack “almost certainly preventable.” “This just came out a little while ago,” Trump said. Those words weren’t actually Blumenthal’s and Sputnik later deleted the story – but by then the headline had spread far and wide.

    False claims of pervasive voter fraud: RT has been attempting to delegitimize the American electoral process since 2012 by calling the U.S. voting system fraudulent, according to the declassified version of the report the Director of National Intelligence released this past January. In his Senate testimony, Watts called this the “number one theme" pushed by Russian outlets. In October 2016, a Kremlin-controlled think tank circulated a strategy document that said Russia should end its pro-Trump propaganda “and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency,” according to a Reuters investigation

    That same month, Trump pushed hard on the theme that the election was rigged; on Oct. 17 Trump tweeted “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day.” The sources his campaign pointed to were all debunked by Politifact, which noted that Trump had also tweeted in 2012 about dead voters delivering Obama’s win.

    The Swedish attack that wasn’t: Trump’s strategy of running with false information didn’t stop when he won the election – and hasn’t been limited to Russian-owned media properties: He’s also used Fox News reports in a similar way. In February, Trump appeared to imply at a Florida rally that a terrorist attack had occurred the previous night in Sweden. Sweden itself had no idea what he meant and the Swedish Embassy reached out to ask for clarification. Twitter users, including many Swedes, ridiculed Trump’s statement, with references ranging from IKEA to the Swedish Chef character from the “Muppets.” Trump later said that he was referring to a Fox News story on violence allegedly perpetrated by refugees. That report, which aired the night before Trump’s rally, did not mention a specific terror-related attack; it focused on reports that rape and gun violence had increased since Sweden began taking in a record number of refugees in 2015.

    Wiretapping claims pushed by a Fox News personality: In March, even though Trump's claim about Obama wiretapping Trump Tower had been directly debunked by top US intelligence officials, the president seized on a baseless claim by Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano that British spies had wiretapped Trump at former President Obama’s request. Fox News later disavowed Napolitano’s statement. Trump continued to repeat his conviction that he’d been wiretapped, even though American and British intelligence officials insist there is no basis for the claims.

    The murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich: Trump allies recently pushed another story that started as a conspiracy theory online and was fueled by Russian news outlets. Fox’s Sean Hannity aired several segments focusing on the unsubstantiated claim that Rich was behind the Clinton campaign email leaks and then murdered for his actions, even though police have said he was likely killed in a robbery attempt. When the claims were thoroughly debunked, Fox retracted the story from its website – but not before it had been spread by Trump ally and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Even after Fox pulled the story, Gingrich told the Washington Post, “I think it is worth looking at.”

    In his Senate testimony, Watts noted that Trump is vulnerable to further manipulation by the Russians: He warned that Russian-linked Twitter accounts are actively trying to engage the president by sending him conspiracy theories. “Until we get a firm basis on fact and fiction in our own country, get some agreement about the facts,” Watts said, “we’re going to have a big problem.”



  • Imagine Being Pulled Off Death Row and Then Being Put Back on It

    In 1994, Marcus Robinson, who is black, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for the 1991 killing of Erik Tornblom, a white teenager, in Cumberland County, North Carolina. He spent nearly 20 years on death row, but in 2012 his sentence was changed to life without a chance of parole. He was one of four death row inmates whose sentences were commuted by a judge who found that racial discrimination had played a role in their trials.

    The reason their cases were reviewed at all was because of a 2009 North Carolina law known as the Racial Justice Act, which allowed judges to reduce death sentences to life in prison without parole when defendants were able to prove racial bias in their charge, jury selection, or sentence.

    "The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state's harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals," former Gov. Bev Perdue said when she signed the bill into law, "the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice."

    At 21, Robinson was the youngest person sentenced to death in North Carolina. When he was three, he was hospitalized with severe seizures after being physically abused by his father and was diagnosed with permanent brain dysfunction. However, those weren't the only troubling aspects of his case.

    Racial discrimination in jury selection has been prohibited since it was banned by the Supreme Court in its 1986 Supreme Court decision Batson v. Kentucky, but Robinson's trial was infected with it. The prosecutor in the case, John Dickson, disproportionately refused eligible black potential jurors. For example, he struck one black potential juror because the man had been once charged with public drunkenness. However, he accepted two "nonblack" people with DWI convictions. Of the eligible members of the pool, he struck half the black people and only 14 percent of the nonblack members. In the end, Robinson was tried by a 12-person jury that included only three people of color—one Native American individual and two black people.

    Racial discrimination in jury selection was not uncommon in the North Carolina criminal justice system. A comprehensive Michigan State University study looked at more than 7,400 potential jurors in 173 cases from 1990 to 2010. Researchers found that statewide prosecutors struck 52.6 percent of eligible potential black jurors and only 25.7 percent of all other potential jurors. This bias was reflected on death row. Of the 147 people on North Carolina's death row, 35 inmates were sentenced by all-white juries; 38 by juries with just one black member.

    Under the Racial Justice Act, death row inmates had one year from when the bill became law to file a motion. Nearly all the state's 145 death row inmates filed claims, but only Robison and three others—Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin, and Christina Walters—obtained hearings. In 2012, Robinson's was the first. At the Superior Court of Cumberland County, Judge Gregory Weeks ruled that race had played a significant role in the trial and Robinson was resentenced to life without parole. North Carolina appealed the decision to the state's Supreme Court.

    An immediate outcry followed the decision. The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys issued a statement saying, "Capital cases reflect the most brutal and heinous offenders in our society. Whether the death penalty is an appropriate sentence for murderers should be addressed by our lawmakers in the General Assembly, not masked as claims (of) racism in our courts."  

    The ruling attracted lots of publicity from across the country and North Carolina lawmakers were outraged. "There are definitely signs in the legislative record that there were some [lawmakers] that really wanted to see executions move forward," Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project who also represents Robinson, says. Legislative staffers circulated talking points for lawmakers with arguments that the RJA turns "district attorneys into racists and convicted murderers into victims," describing the law as "an end-run around the death penalty and an indefinite moratorium on capital punishment."

    The day Judge Weeks resentenced Robinson, the Senate president pro tempore for the state Legislature, Phillip Berger, expressed concern that Robinson could be eligible for parole. He suggested Robinson—who had just turned 18 when he committed the crime and would not have been considered a juvenile—would be ineligible for life in prison without a chance of parole, citing a US Supreme Court ruling that prohibited juveniles from receiving life sentences without parole. "We cannot allow cold-blooded killers to be released into our community, and I expect the state to appeal this decision," he said. "Regardless of the outcome, we continue to believe the Racial Justice Act is an ill-conceived law that has very little to do with race and absolutely nothing to do with justice."

    The state Legislature took on the challenge and voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act in 2013. This made it impossible for those on death row to even attempt to have their sentences reviewed for racial bias, but it left the fates of the four who had been moved to life imprisonment unclear. "The state's district attorneys are nearly unanimous in their bipartisan conclusion that the Racial Justice Act created a judicial loophole to avoid the death penalty and not a path to justice," Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement at the time.

    Even though the law was still in effect when the four inmates' sentences were reduced, they weren't safe from death row just yet. Robinson's sentenced had been legally reduced, but the legal battle was just beginning.

    In 2015, after nearly two years from the initial hearing, the North Carolina Supreme Court ordered the Superior Court to reconsider the reduced sentences for Robinson, Augustine, Golphin, and Walters, saying the judge failed to give the state enough time to prepare for the "complex" proceedings.

    This past January, Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour ruled that because the RJA had been repealed, the four defendants could no longer use the law to reduce their sentences. "North Carolina vowed to undertake an unprecedented look at the role of racial bias in capital sentencing," says Stubbs. But now, "the state Legislature explicitly turned from its commitment and repealed the law."

    Robinson is back on death row at Central Prison in the state's capital of Raleigh. In the petition to the state Supreme Court, Robinson's lawyers point out that the Double Jeopardy Clause—the law that prevents someone from being tried twice for the same crime—bars North Carolina from trying to reimpose the death penalty because the 2012 RJA hearing acquitted him of capital punishment.

    "He's never been resentenced to death," Stubbs says. "They have no basis to hold him on death row."



  • Quietly, Surely, We're Losing a Whole Pine Species En Masse and Nobody Gives a Damn

    This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    U.S. Forest Service research ecologist Bob Keane has studied whitebark pine, a coniferous tree of the high country, for more than thirty years. Still, when asked to describe a whitebark to someone who's never seen one, he takes a breath and pauses for a moment. "Gosh," he says.

    The shape of the tree is very distinctive, Keane says. Instead of growing cone-shaped like other conifers, whitebarks branch like hardwoods. "A lot of the undergrowth is very small, so you see these open park-like stands of beautiful spreading trees," he says. This shape is an adaptation that shows Clark's nutcrackers flying past that a tree below has many nutritious cones and might be worth a travel stop.

    Clark's nutcrackers cache thousands of whitebark seeds, dispersing the pine across the high country, where the tree is a keystone species. Whitebark pine is one of the first trees to break ground after a fire, thanks to those nutcrackers, and it stabilizes soil and snowpacks at timberline. Living a millennium or more, whitebarks shape the West's high mountain ecology in countless ways.

    But the whitebark is going extinct and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the agency) hasn't given the species federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. In April 2017, two conservation organizations from Montana lost a lawsuit against the agency for its failure to list the pine. No one—not the plaintiffs, defendants, or panel of judges from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals—questioned the precariousness of the tree's fate. At question was how the agency prioritized which species it protects. Species, the court ruled, could be passed over because the agency didn't have the necessary funds. As the story of whitebarks demonstrates, extinction has as much to do with politics as it does with biology.

    The whitebark pine is an iconic tree of the West's high mountains, ranging from Wyoming's southern Wind Rivers to northern Alberta and British Columbia. In the fall, in a whitebark pine forest, "there are tons of cones and it is alive with animals, just alive," Keane says. "You don't see that with subalpine firs." Researchers have found that whitebark cones feed more than 100 animal species and, in Glacier National Park, 40 percent of the understory plants in whitebark pine communities grow only there. The tree's fatty, protein-rich seeds are an important food for Greater Yellowstone grizzlies; when the seeds run short, the bears eat more meat.

    The whitebark pine faces intertwined threats that have killed the trees across much of their historic range. In 1910, Gifford Pinchot imported white pine blister rust, a fast-moving European fungal disease that kills whitebarks, to the West in a tree shipment.

    And a century of fire suppression has imperiled whitebarks, too. The shade-intolerant trees rely on fire to open areas; without fires, trees such as subalpine firs shade out whitebarks. Often, Keane says, permanently stunted pines linger in the shadows of those new neighbors. "You'll see an overstory of subalpine fir, but an understory of tiny whitebark pine saplings that are probably older than the canopy," he says.

    Meanwhile, native mountain pine beetles have taken out swaths of whitebark pines weakened by overcrowding and drought; a 2009 beetle outbreak killed whitebarks across more than 3,000 square miles. Exacerbating blister rust's spread, wildfire suppression, and pine beetle outbreaks is an ever more pervasive threat: "The fourth big one is climate change and how climate change is interacting with all of these things, " says Amy Nicholas, endangered species listing coordinator for the agency's Wyoming field office.

    Conservationists have requested federal protection for whitebark pines under the ESA for more than 25 years, beginning in 1991. In 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the pine was likely to go extinct across much of its U.S. range in as little as 100 years, or less than two generations. Yet instead of listing whitebark pine as endangered, the agency listed the tree as a "candidate" species, essentially waitlisting the species for help.

    The reason came down to a funding shortage: listing whitebark pine as endangered would have required the agency to devote resources to saving it. Without enough money to care for all disappearing species, the agency focuses on listing species that are part of legal settlements, for example.

    As a candidate species, whitebark pine got a listing priority number, based on how likely it is to go extinct. In 2011, whitebark pine received one of the highest priority rankings, yet other species were being federally protected and whitebark pine was not.

    Two Montana-based conservation organizations—WildWest Institute and Alliance for the Wild Rockies—sued the agency, arguing that by prioritizing candidate species ranked lower than whitebark pine, the Fish and Wildlife Service wasn't following its own guidelines for deciding which species to protect. The conservation groups felt species should be given help in order of biological need.

    The court ruled in favor of the agency. While pointing out that current policies on listing seemed inadequate when "dealing with the potential life or death of an entire species," the court concluded that the agency was not required to make decisions based on its candidate species ranking system. "Scarce funds and limited staff resources may prevent FWS from taking immediate final action to list or delist a species," the presiding judge wrote.

    According to Patrick Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor, the agency often makes listing decisions based on finances. "This is a systematic problem that the Fish and Wildlife Service has had for decades," Parenteau says. He points to persistent resistance from Congress and some Republican administrations to fully fund the service's endangered species listing program.

    Financial considerations do not factor into whether a species gets listed, but rather in what order and when, agency biologist Craig Hansen says. "The listing budget is given to us by Congress and has an annual cap," Hansen says. "We can't pull funds from other programs to list." The service's funding woes have led to a backlog of organisms waiting to be listed, such as northern California's Sierra Nevada red fox, which in 2016 included just 29 remaining adults.

    These rust-resistant baby whitebarks are part of the U.S. Forest Service's collaboration with NGOs trying to save the species. Bob Keane

    In 2016, to stop the constant backlog of candidate species waiting to be listed as threatened or endangered, the Obama administration drafted a streamlined process that prioritized the most imperiled species backed by the best available science. It wasn't adopted by the Trump administration.

    Matthew Koehler, executive director of plaintiff WildWest Institute, grows frustrated talking about the whitebark case. Koehler believes the funding shortage that stalled the whitebark's listing is part of a strategy by Congressional members in both parties to tie the service's hands. "Then, the same members of Congress complain that the ESA doesn't work or that it moves too slow," he says.

    Indeed, this past February, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., led a Senate hearing to "modernize the Endangered Species Act," arguing in a statement that the ESA has not been successful enough and causes economic harm.

    Funding is only one of the ESA's difficulties, though. Court battles also stymie species' recoveries. For each species, a listing decision takes years, followed by litigation from whoever opposes the outcome. "It isn't just a bunch of scientists sitting around a table saying ‘let's list this species," says Parenteau. And still, species such as the whitebark disappear.

    And then there's climate change. Congress wrote the ESA in the 1970s, long before scientists understood the profound ways in which greenhouse gases affect species and their homes. The ESA is designed to address discrete problems: overgrazing, point-source pollution, exurban development. In its revision of ESA listing guidelines, the Obama administration acknowledged as much: the agency could have put off working on species endangered by climate change, including whitebark pine, since it has less power to help them.

    With our existing environmental laws, whitebarks may yet survive in the northernmost parts of their range in Canada, Parenteau says. "But in the southern part of its range, unless we get serious about climate mitigation, it's probably doomed anyway," he says.

    In any case, listing isn't necessary for the feds to take action: Almost all whitebarks occur on federal public land, where the government can take steps to protect the species without listing, Parenteau says.

    Indeed, having given up on the ESA for now, the WildWest Institute is seeking other pathways to whitebark protection. The organization is supporting a bill introduced to Congress to designate public lands in the northern Rockies where whitebarks live as wilderness. "We see wilderness designation as a way to protect that entire ecosystem," Koehler says.

    When pressed to make predictions for the longterm, Keane says areas where whitebarks used to flourish will probably eventually burn. By then, though, there will be no source trees left for birds to find seeds to spread to freshly burned areas. Instead, he imagines, shrub herblands will grow.

    Still, unlike Parenteau, Keane is optimistic about the climate extremes that whitebarks can survive, if the trees get help. He's part of a new collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and two NGOs – American Forests and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation—that's working to restore whitebarks in the West. The group's even developing rust-resistant seedlings. "Whitebark pine doesn't even start optimum cone production until it's 200 years old," he says. "What we want to make sure is what we're doing now, 100 years from now we will see the fruits of our labors."

    "If we do nothing," Keane says, "we are making sure that it will be so low on the landscape, we will probably name the ones we see, there will be so few of them."



  • The Truth About Meal-Kit Freezer Packs

    People love to complain about the wastefulness of meal-kit delivery companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. The baggies that hold a single scallion! The thousands of miles of shipping! The endless cardboard boxes! Those problems are annoying, but ultimately they're not environmental catastrophes: The baggies don't take up all that much landfill space, the cardboard boxes are recyclable, and it's not clear whether shipping meal kits is less efficient than transporting food to grocery stores and then to homes.

    But there is a much better reason to criticize meal-kit companies—and as far as I can tell, few people are talking much about it. That's surprising, because it's actually the biggest (or heaviest, at least) thing in every meal-kit box: the freezer packs that keep the perishables fresh while they're being shipped. Blue Apron now sends out 8 million meals a month. If you figure that each box contains about three meals and two six-pound ice packs, that's a staggering 192,000 tons of freezer-pack waste every year from Blue Apron alone. To put that in perspective, that's the weight of nearly 100,000 cars or 2 million adult men. When I shared those numbers with Jack Macy, a senior coordinator for the San Francisco Department of the Environment's Commercial Zero Waste program, he could scarcely believe it. "That is an incredible waste," he said. The only reason he suspects he hasn't heard about it yet from the city's trash haulers is that the freezer packs end up hidden in garbage bags.

    Given that many meal-kit companies claim to want to help the planet (by helping customers reduce food waste and buying products from environmentally responsible suppliers, for example), you'd think they would have come up with a plan for getting rid of this ever-growing glacier of freezer packs. Au contraire. Many blithely suggest that customers store old gel packs in their freezers for future use. Unless you happen to have your own meat locker, that's wildly impractical. I tried it, and in less than a month the packs—which are roughly the size of a photo album—had crowded practically everything else out of my freezer. Two personal organizers that I talked to reported that several clients had asked for a consult on what to do with all their accumulated freezer packs.

    As Nathanael Johnson at Grist points out, Blue Apron has also suggested that customers donate used freezer packs to the Boy Scouts or other organizations. I asked my local Boy Scouts council whether they wanted my old meal-kit freezer packs. "What would we do with all those ice packs?" wondered the puzzled council executive. (Which is saying a lot for an organization whose motto is "be prepared.")

    The meal-kit companies' online guides to recycling packaging are not especially helpful. (Blue Apron's is visible only to its customers.) Most of them instruct customers to thaw the freezer packs, cut open the plastic exterior, which is recyclable in some places, and then dump the thawed goo into the garbage. (Hello Fresh suggests flushing the goo down the toilet, which, experts told me, is a terrible idea because it can cause major clogs in your plumbing.) The problem with this advice is that it does not belong in a recycling guide—throwing 12 pounds of mystery goo into the garbage or toilet is not recycling.

    To its credit, Blue Apron is the only major meal-kit service to offer a take-back program: Enterprising customers can mail freezer packs back to the company free of charge. But Blue Apron spokeswoman Allie Evarts refused to tell me how many of its customers actually do this. When I asked what the company does with all those used freezer packs, Evarts only told me, "We retain them for future use." So does that mean Blue Apron is actually reusing the packs in its meal kits, or is there an ever-growing mountain of them languishing in a big warehouse somewhere? Evarts wouldn't say. 

    Now back to that mystery goo, which, in case you're curious, is whitish clear, with the consistency of applesauce. Its active ingredient is a substance called sodium polyacrylate, a powder that can absorb 300 times its weight in water. It's used in all kinds of products, from detergent to fertilizer to surgical sponges. One of its most common uses is in disposable diapers—it's what soaks up the pee and keeps babies' butts dry. When saturated with water and frozen, sodium polyacrylate thaws much more slowly than water—meaning it can stay cold for days at a time.

    Meal-kit companies assure their customers that the freezer-pack goo is nontoxic. That's true. But while sodium polyacrylate poses little to no danger to meal-kit customers, it's a different story for the people who manufacture the substance. (Meal-kit companies typically contract with freezer-pack manufacturers rather than making their own.) In its powdered state, it can get into workers' lungs, where it can cause serious problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in 2011 that workers in a sodium polyacrylate plant in India developed severe lung disease after inhaling the powder. Animal studies have shown that exposure to high concentrations of sodium polyacrylate can harm the lungs. Because of these known risks, some European countries have set limits on workers' exposure to sodium polyacrylate. Here in the United States, some industry groups and manufacturers recommend such limits as well as safety precautions for workers like ventilation, respirators, and thick gloves. But on the federal level, neither the Occupational Safety and Health Administration nor the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have any rules at all. (The companies that supply freezer packs to Blue Apron and Hello Fresh did not return repeated requests for information on their manufacturing processes.)

    Beyond the factory, sodium polyacrylate can also do a number on the environment. In part, that's because it's made from the same stuff as fossil fuels—meaning that making it produces significant greenhouse gas emissions, a team of Swedish researchers found in 2015 (PDF). It also doesn't biodegrade, so those mountains of freezer packs sitting in the garbage aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

    So to review: Freezer packs create an epic mountain of garbage, and their goo is not as environmentally benign as meal-kit companies would have you believe. So what's to be done? One place to start might be a greener freezer pack. That same team of Swedish researchers also developed a sodium polyacrylate alternative using biodegradable plant materials instead of fossil fuels. A simpler idea: Companies could operate like milkmen used to, dropping off the new stuff and picking up the old packaging—including freezer packs—for reuse in one fell swoop.

    A little creative thinking might go a long way—yet none of the companies that I talked to said they had any specific plans to change the freezer-pack system (though Hello Fresh did say it planned to reduce its freezer pack size from six pounds to five pounds). And when you think about it, why should they fix the problem? Heidi Sanborn, head of the recycling advocacy group California Product Stewardship Council, points out that the current arrangement suits the meal-kit providers just fine. "It's taxpayers that are paying for these old freezer packs to sit in the landfill forever," she says. "Companies are getting a total freebie."



  • A New Wave of Left-Wing Militants Is Ready to Rumble in Portland?and Beyond

    One week after two men were stabbed to death while defending two girls from a racist and Islamophobic diatribe on a commuter train, Portland, Oregon, is bracing for more violence. On Sunday, over the mayor's objection, a right-wing group will hold a pro-Trump "free speech rally," while anti-fascist activists are preparing to protest the gathering.

    It's a pattern that has played out across the country since the election: Pro-Trump events from Pikeville, Kentucky, to Berkeley, California, attract white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klansmen along with other provocateurs from the so-called "alt-right." And, predictably, "antifa" counterprotesters mask up to oppose them—often physically.

    Yet joining up with the well-established networks of antifascists and anarchists is a new generation of militant organizers. In Portland, Rose City Antifa's coalition at this weekend's pro-Trump rally will include the local chapter of Redneck Revolt, a national network whose outreach has targeted right-wing militia members.

    Redneck Revolt is just one among a handful of left-wing groups that have pledged to resist emboldened white supremacists and right-wing extremists through "direct action" that sometimes goes beyond nonviolent protest—including picking up arms. Some see themselves as the heirs of '60s radicals like the Black Panthers, while others look to the antifa movement for inspiration. Here are a few:

    Bastards Motorcycle Club: A couple of years ago, South Carolinians Steven "Chavez" Parker and Joseph Guinn organized an anti-racist, LGBT-friendly motorcycle gang. Traditional biker clubs, Parker thought, "were all going to think one thing: 'What a bunch of bastards.'" Since then, the Bastards Motorcycle Club has rolled up to oppose racist events across the South, sometimes armed and ready to rumble. In July 2015, the Bastards confronted a Ku Klux Klan demonstration in Charleston, South Carolina, and in April 2016 they joined a small army of counterprotesters at a rally of white supremacists in Stone Mountain, Georgia, home of a rock carving honoring the Confederacy. They're now looking to set up new chapters—women need not apply. That's "not the way things work," says the group's president, who insists on being called by his biker name, Gigolo.

    By Any Means Necessary: BAMN formed in 1995 to fight California's rollback of affirmative action. The group, which is led by civil rights lawyer Shanta Driver, has organized anti-Trump rallies and high school walkouts. But it also supports more aggressive tactics. "When we say 'by any means necessary,' we mean everything from doing legal cases to organizing more militant actions," Driver says. "We are not people who believe, in situations where we're under attack, that we should turn the other cheek." Last June, BAMN teamed up with antifas to confront a small group of white nationalists marching outside California's Capitol building in Sacramento. Anti-racist protesters, many in black clothing and masks, pelted marchers with water bottles and hit them with wooden bats. Several people from both camps were beaten or stabbed. "They are organizing to attack and kill us, so we have a right to self-defense," BAMN activist Yvette Felarca told a TV crew. "Anyone who's thinking about joining them, don't. Because it's not going to be a good day for you."

    Redneck Revolt: This network, largely made up of anarchists and libertarians, is focused on anti-racist organizing among the white working class. Inspired by the Young Patriots—white Appalachian activists who allied with the Black Panthers in the late 1960s—the group now claims chapters in more than 30 regions. Redneck Revolt's members can speak to their neighbors more easily than ivory-tower liberals, says Lucas Kelly, a member of the Phoenix chapter. "'Privilege' means one thing to them. It means a different thing to working-class folks who put in 60, 80 hours a week to support their family." The group also runs firearms trainings. Last December, Kelly's chapter sent members to a gun show, where they handed out posters tagged with the slogan "Fighting Nazis Is an American Tradition: Stop the Alt-Right."

    Huey P. Newton Gun Club: After a white Dallas police officer killed an unarmed black man in 2013, community organizers Yafeuh Balogun and Babu Omowale launched the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, a coalition of black self-defense groups named after the co-founder of the Black Panthers. "We're going to educate black, brown, and poor white people to arm up or at least get familiar with weapons," Balogun says. "So if a situation does arise, if they feel threatened, at least they can defend themselves." When an anti-Muslim group held an armed protest outside a Nation of Islam mosque in South Dallas in April 2016, armed Gun Club members showed up to counterprotest. Balogun says his group, which operates armed patrols in South Dallas, has drawn the attention of the FBI. But he also emphasizes that it's not just about guns: "What we advise people is to not necessarily be so quick, so fast, to pick up arms."



  • Donald Trump's Vision of Pittsburgh is Sooooooo 80s

    This story was originally published by Slate and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Donald Trump officially announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change on Thursday, framing the 2015 deal as a kind of global plot to sabotage America.

    "The Paris Agreement handicaps the United States economy in order to win praise from the very foreign capitals and global activists that have long sought to gain wealth at our country's expense," Trump said. "They don't put America first. I do, and I always will."

    And if Paris was the symbol of that ideology, the alternative, a nation of miners and pipelines, belching smoke like a charcoal grill, was represented by…Pittsburgh? "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris," Trump said.

    It was a bad comparison, since citizens of both Pittsburgh and Paris share an interest in averting a minimum projected sea level rise of 2.4 feet by 2100, in the scenario in which the climate accord's goals aren't met.

    But it was an especially bad comparison because Pittsburgh isn't the burned-out steel town Trump thinks it is. In fact, it's a pretty good example of how a city can recover and adapt to changing economic circumstances. Pittsburgh's doing OK.

    Once again, Donald Trump has shown himself a man who has acquired little to no new knowledge since the 1980s. And during the 1980s, Pittsburgh was indeed having a very tough time. The city lost 30 percent of its population between 1970 and 1990; in 1983, unemployment in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area hit 17 percent. Neighboring counties fared even worse. Deindustrialization and globalization slammed the Monongahela Valley. But that was 35 years ago.

    Today, Pittsburgh's biggest employer is the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Its other university, Carnegie Mellon, is home to a world-renowned robotics laboratory. The Golden Triangle is a landmark of downtown renewal. And Homestead, site of the great American labor battle of the 19th century, is a mall.

    Before Pittsburgh was the poster child for a midsized, postindustrial city, it was a symbol of the ills of pollution. The soot from the steel mills hung so thick in the air the streetlights had to be on during the day. In 1948, 25 miles south of the city, the town of Donora was enveloped in a thick yellow smog that killed 20 people and sickened half the town. It was the worst air pollution disaster in US history and led to the passage of the Clean Air Act.

    There's no city in America that stands to benefit from climate change, whose enormous costs are and will continue to be borne mostly by the federal government (and hence distributed among us). But as a symbol for withdrawal from a global climate treaty, Pittsburgh is an especially poor choice.




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