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  • Obama Sounds Like He?s About to Reject the Keystone Pipeline

    This story first appeared on the Grist website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Speaking at his end-of-the-year press conference on Friday afternoon, President Obama sounded very much like he's poised to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. He gave his sharpest assessment to date of its potential costs and benefits—lots of costs and few benefits.

    Climate hawks rejoiced, not only because of Obama's implied opposition to Keystone, but because he finally confronted American ignorance of how the oil market works, and attempted to reorient our energy policy around reality.

    At the press conference, Obama took a question from The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin on what he will do about the Keystone XL pipeline, which congressional Republicans plan to try to ram through in January. Eilperin said Obama has in past comments "minimized some of the benefits" of Keystone. Obama responded that he has merely accurately characterized the benefits, which are objectively minimal, and walked Eilperin through a lesson in macroeconomics.

    Here are the highlights:

    I don't think I've minimized the benefits, I think I've described the benefits.

    At issue on Keystone is not American oil, it is Canadian oil that is drawn out of tar sands in Canada. That oil currently is being shipped through rail or trucks, and it would save Canadian oil companies and the Canadian oil industry an enormous amount of money if they could simply pipe it all the way through the United State down to the Gulf. Once that oil gets to the Gulf, it is then entering into the world market and it would be sold all around the world… There is very little impact, nominal impact, on US gas prices, what the average American consumer cares about, by having this pipeline come through.

    And sometimes the way this gets sold is, let's get this oil and it's going to come here and the implication is that's gonna lower oil prices here in the US It's not. There's a global oil market. It's very good for Canadian oil companies and it's good for the Canadian oil industry, but it's not going to be a huge benefit to US consumers. It's not even going to be a nominal benefit to US consumers.

    And video of Obama's whole answer:

    It has been a source of aggravation to climate hawks that Obama has often pandered to the economic ignorance of the American public when it comes to gas prices. Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy falsely asserts that increased domestic production of oil will reduce "our dependence on foreign oil," as if there really were any such thing. Oil is a global commodity. Prices are set by global supply and global demand. Whether the oil we buy happens to be drilled in the US, Canada, Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, or Libya makes no difference. We are subsidizing our adversaries who produce oil as long as we are filling our gas-guzzlers with it. More oil production in the US, or oil importation from Canada, will not inoculate us against the price shocks caused by supply disruptions in the Middle East or elsewhere.

    The whole American debate around energy policy has been perverted by the public's failure to understand this basic concept. Republicans, of course, eagerly fan the flames of economic illiteracy. Obama's approach has usually been to try to split the difference between this foolishness and smart energy policy by promising to increase domestic production of both renewables and fossil fuels. But now Obama has confronted these public misperceptions and tried to educate the public so that energy policy can be decided on a more rational basis.

    As for Keystone, Obama went on to observe that the other supposed benefit, construction jobs, is real but small and temporary. Meanwhile, our transportation and clean water infrastructure crumbles and Republicans refuse to appropriate money to fix and improve it, which would create more jobs and lasting economic effects than construction of any pipeline. "[W]hen you consider what we could be doing if we were rebuilding our roads and bridges around the country, something that Congress could authorize, we could probably create hundreds of thousands of jobs, or a million jobs," he said. (In fairness, Obama has refused to propose raising the gasoline tax to fund more transportation investment.)

    And Obama mentioned the cost of climate change and the possibility that Keystone would exacerbate it. "If we've got more flooding, more wildfires, more drought, there are direct economic impacts on that," he said.

    The main Keystone drawback Obama neglected to mention is the local environmental risk to the communities the pipeline would pass through due to possible leaks.

    Nonetheless, green groups were overjoyed. NextGen Climate, the organization funded by Tom Steyer, immediately sent out video of Obama's answer with the subject line, "KEYSTONE XL GETS THE PRESIDENTIAL SEAL OF DISAPPROVAL." We don't actually know that, yet, but it's looking likely.

  • Sean Penn on Sony Pulling "The Interview": This Sends ISIS an "Invitation"

    Actor and activist Sean Penn, no surprise, has some thoughts about the Sony hacking and the movie studio's decision to pull The Interview after cyber-saboteurs linked (by the FBI) to North Korea threatened moviegoers and theaters. Here's a statement Penn sent me:

    It's not the first time culture has been threatened by foreign interests and corporate caution. See [then Disney CEO] Michael Eisner's interview with Charlie Rose in 1997, when Disney was dealing with pressure from China about Martin Scorcese's Tibet film, Kundun. Eisner said, "we do not take, as a company, a position either in human rights or not in human rights. We are a movie company. We're an entertainment company." That was a pretty shocking statement. (Disney, which was looking to expand its ventures in China, did end up distributing the film, but distribution was limited and the advertising budget was low—and despite these concessions, Disney was largely frozen out of the Chinese markets for years.) This week, the distributors who wouldn't show The Interview and Sony have sent ISIS a commanding invitation. I believe ISIS will accept the invitation. Pandora's box is officially open.

    The damage we do to ourselves typically outweighs the harm caused by outside threats or actions. Then by caving to the outside threat, we make our nightmares real. The decision to pull The Interview is historic. It's a case of putting short term interests ahead of the long term. If we don't get the world on board to see that this is a game changer, if this hacking doesn't frighten the Chinese and the Russians, we're in for a very different world, a very different country, community, and a very different culture.

    I'm not sure the world has come to terms with all the implications of the hacking. I was in Liberia and Sierra Leone right at the beginning of the Ebola outbreak in April. It did seem to those of us there that the response was neither coming swiftly or with a true sense of urgency. This feels the same. This matter should be before the UN Security Council today.

  • Could Bacteria Help Convict Rapists?

    Could the trillions of bacteria living on the human body help identify and convict rapists? That's the question raised in a fascinating new study by a team of Australian researchers.

    The paper is the latest in a growing body of research on the microbiome, a term that refers to the microorganisms residing in and on our bodies. These microbes outnumber our own cells 20-to-1. And each person's microbiome is unique. Recent research has suggested that in humans, a healthy microbiome may play an important role in everything from speeding up metabolism to fighting disease, and major companies like PepsiCo and Monsanto have funded studies examining the bacteria living in our gut. (As Mother Jones' Gabrielle Canon reports, though, some of the hype surrounding the microbiome might be overblown: It probably isn't the solution to all your health problems.)

    Silvana Tridico, the lead author of the new study, says her work—which appears in the journal Investigative Genetics—is the first to explore whether the microbiome on a person's hair contains an identifiable "microbial signature" that could be useful as forensic evidence.

    Tridico, a researcher at Murdoch University who has worked as a forensic biologist for more than 30 years, believes that the bacteria residing on pubic hair may be individualized enough to identify perpetrators in sexual assault cases for which traditional DNA evidence isn't available. According to the FBI, hair is one of the most common sources of DNA evidence recovered in criminal investigations. However, as the study notes, hairs recovered as evidence are often missing their roots, which means they lack sufficient nuclear DNA—essentially a person’s genetic blueprint—to identify the individual they came from. But even if a person's nuclear DNA is missing from a piece of hair, other organisms' DNA might still be present. That's where the bacteria comes in. According to the the study, some of the hairs without roots could still "provide a microbial fingerprint to augment other results."

    Tridico and her colleagues studied three men and four women, collecting hair samples from each of them at three different points in time over a seven-month period. The researchers then analyzed the microbial DNA—that is, the genetic makeup of the bacteria—found on the hairs. They discovered that males and females had marked differences in the microbial communities living on their pubic hair. They also found that these microbial communities possessed unique characteristics that "can enable discrimination between individuals."

    What's more, the researchers found that the microbes on each person's pubic hair remained stable over time—except after sex.

    When they analyzed samples from a cohabitating couple that had sex 18 hours earlier, they found that these people's microbiomes had "shifted dramatically," becoming much more similar to each other. In other words, the microbes appear to have been transferred from one partner to the other during sex. "This present study is the first to suggest cross-transference of pubic/genital microbial taxa as a result of intercourse," the study notes.

    These results are, of course, preliminary. But Tridico is optimistic that one day we'll be able to use the science of microbial DNA in court, and she says she plans to present her results to law enforcement professionals and others at the upcoming meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Forensic Science Society. "Although further analyses need to be conducted," write the scientists in their Investigative Genetics article, "this initial finding bodes well for future forensic applications involving sexual crimes." As Tridico notes, the study will need to be performed on a much larger scale—the results from one couple are certainly not enough to prove that the transfer of microbes happens in a consistent and predictable manner during intercourse.

    Other experts agree that more research is needed.

    "I think these results are intriguing but preliminary," said Rob Knight, a University of Colorado-Boulder scientist specializing in microbiomes, in an email. "Data from one cohabiting couple isn't sufficient to establish forensic utility, but it does suggest that this direction is worth exploring in more detail." He added: "I don't think the claims about transfer of bacteria during sexual intercourse and their use for forensic purposes are sufficiently established by this study although it would not be surprising if many bacteria were transferred during this process."

    Jonathan Eisen, a biologist at UC Davis, is skeptical that the study's findings will turn into a reliable forensic technique that could be used in real-world investigations. "For this to work, it would have to have low false positive and false negative rates," he said in an email. "After all, we do not want to be implicating people who are innocent or clearing people who are guilty. And this to me seems to be a very difficult thing and their paper shows no evidence that this is possible at this point."

    Still, Tridico and her colleagues hope that future research will help demonstrate the utility of the microbial footprint. "We believe that with further development, bacterial profiling of hair will become a valuable addition to the forensic toolkit," the study concludes.

  • Is Protecting Gun Rights Really a Growing Priority for Americans?

    The Pew Research Center released a survey this month suggesting that for the first time in two decades more Americans support "gun rights" than "gun control." But the poll's question on that point, asking respondents whether it's more important to "control gun ownership" or to "protect the right of Americans to own guns," drew sharp criticism from some experts, who say it offered a false choice.

    "I could not think of a worse way to ask questions about public opinions about gun policies," Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told Media Matters. "The question's implicit and incorrect assumption is that regulations of gun sales infringe on gun owners' rights and control their ability to own guns. The reality is that the vast majority of gun laws restrict the ability of criminals and other dangerous people to get guns and place minimal burdens on potential gun purchasers such as undergoing a background check."

    Carroll Doherty, Pew's director of political research, acknowledged the flaw. "Is it a perfect question? Probably not," he told Mother Jones. "This is in no way intended to say there's not support for background checks and some measures aimed at specific policies either [in Congress] or in the states. Mr. Webster is right to put it in context."

    That context comes from numerous recent surveys. A July 2014 poll from Quinnipiac University found that 92 percent of voters—including 86 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of gun owners—support background checks for all gun sales, up four points from the previous year. In January, Rasmussen Reports found that 59 percent of respondents supported a ban on assault weapons, while a 2013 CBS News/New York Times poll reported that 63 percent of Americans polled favored a limit on high-capacity magazines. In November's elections, Washington State passed a law requiring universal background checks via a ballot measure that drew support from 60 percent of voters.

    But Doherty also clarified that Pew has asked that same question in periodic surveys since 1993, with the aim of tracking general public sentiment on gun policy over time. And by virtue of that approach, he notes, it clearly has changed. In the wake of the Columbine school massacre in 1999, the survey showed 2-1 support for controlling gun ownership, or 34 percent for protecting gun rights. Following the school massacre in Newtown, however, 45 percent of respondents favored protecting gun rights. And now that number is up to 52 percent. "That's not a clear majority," says Doherty, "but it's the first time that you get a statistically significant margin in favor of gun rights." These findings align with a similar Gallup poll intended to gauge sentiment on guns. In October of this year, 47 percent of respondents said sales of firearms should be made "more strict," down from 58 percent in December 2012.

    Despite the limitations of the particular language of the question, Doherty says, "tracking it over two decades—asking the same question with identical wording—tells you a great deal about changing public sentiment on this issue."

    Correction: This story originally misstated the online availability of Pew's archived poll results; they can be seen in this PDF.

  • How This British Scientist Saved Japan?s Seaweed Industry
    Kathleen Drew-Baker
    Dr. Kathleen Drew-Baker Wikimedia Commons

    A version of this article was originally published on Gastropod.

    Foraged from the rock cliffs and shallow waters of the world's coastlines, seaweed has been an important food, fuel, and fertilizer since ancient times. Today, modern farming has supplanted wild harvesting; in Asia, more than 6.5 million tons are farmed each year. But the industry would never have thrived the way it does today without the important contributions of one woman in the United Kingdom: Dr. Kathleen Drew-Baker, who studied seaweed biology in the 1940s.

    In this episode of Gastropod—a podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history—we delve into kelp. In Japan, seaweed was such a crucial part of the diet that legislation in A.D. 701 confirmed the right of the Japanese to pay their taxes to the Emperor in kelp form. And it has been critical in other areas of the world as well. According to Scottish kelp scientist Iona Campbell, traces of it have been found in Orkney island cremation sites dating back to the Bronze Age. Even further back in history, archaeozoologist Ingrid Mainland has confirmed that the use of seaweed as a fodder for sheep in the Orkneys, which still continues today, dates to the Neolithic period, roughly 5,000 years ago.

    Surprisingly, scientists have found even older seaweed remains in the Americas, from 12,500 years ago. Five chewed cuds of Gigartina, a red seaweed, mixed with Boldo leaves, a medicinal herb and mild hallucinogen, were found on the floor of a medicine hut at Monte Verde, Chile—one of the oldest human habitation sites in the Americas. In the episode, Jack Rossen, the archaeobotanist who excavated the site's fragile plant remains using dental picks, explained how the site's age and location, combined with the four different species of seaweed found in the medicine hut and in residential areas, led to the development of an entirely new theory to explain how humans arrived in North America.

    Rossen also pointed out that the Monte Verde findings led to a re-evaluation of the importance of plants in the diet of hunter-gatherers—and thus also of the role of women in those early human communities:

    We've always had the stereotype of early people being hunters, big-game hunters. And now we're thinking more that plants would have been a much more reliable resource; they just didn't get preserved as well at most sites. And maybe archaeologists, when archaeology was dominated by men, just liked the idea of being big tough hunters, instead of wimpy plant gatherers.

    As it turns out, women have also played a pivotal role in transforming kelp from wild to farmed food. Basic seaweed cultivation techniques began to be developed in Japan beginning in the mid-17th century. But, despite becoming a staple food of the Japanese, the basic biology of edible seaweed species remained almost completely unknown until two centuries later, when pioneering British scientist Kathleen Drew-Baker saved a key part of Japan's seaweed farming industry.

    In 1948, a series of typhoons, combined with increased pollution in coastal waters, had led to a complete collapse in Japan's production of nori, a type of seaweed commonly used to wrap sushi. And because almost nothing was known about its life cycle, no one could figure out how to grow new plants from scratch to repopulate the depleted seaweed beds. The country's nori industry ground to a halt, and many farmers lost their livelihoods.

    Meanwhile, back in Manchester, Dr. Drew-Baker was studying laver, the Welsh equivalent to nori. In 1949, she published a paper in Nature outlining her discovery that a tiny algae known as Conchocelis was actually a baby nori or laver, rather than an entirely separate species, as had previously been thought. After reading her research, Japanese scientists quickly developed methods to artificially seed these tiny spores onto strings, and they rebuilt the entire nori industry in manner that closely resembles how it operates today. Although she's almost unknown in the UK, Dr. Drew-Baker is known as the "Mother of the Sea" in Japan, and a special "Drew" festival is still held in her honor in Osaka every April 14.

    seaweed nursery
    Charles Yarish's seaweed nursery Nicola Twilley

    In the United States, Charles Yarish should probably be called the "Father of the Sea." The University of Connecticut marine biologist has spent the past 40 years studying the biology of seaweed and then applying his research to develop revolutionary new techniques for growing it off the coast of North America. His innovations have helped make kelp an economically viable crop for the fishermen and shellfish farmers of New England, whose livelihoods have been threatened by a combination of over-fishing, pollution, and warming waters.

    Listen to this episode of Gastropod for a visit to Yarish's lab to learn what he accomplished—and to discover how seaweed farms can help soak up pollution from salmon farming, agricultural run-off, and sewage. You'll also hear how seaweed is something of a superfood; research in China has even demonstrated that it contains compounds that lower cholesterol and blood glucose levels in mice. Now the only remaining challenge is to convince Americans to eat it: Gastropod visits chef Elaine Cwynar's kitchen at Johnson & Wales University to sample creative new recipes.

    Gastropod is a podcast about the science and history of food. Each episode looks at the hidden history and surprising science behind a different food and/or farming-related topic—from aquaculture to ancient feasts, from cutlery to chile peppers, and from microbes to Malbec. It's hosted by Cynthia Graber, an award-winning science reporter, and Nicola Twilley, author of the popular blog Edible Geography. You can subscribe via iTunes, email, Stitcher, or RSS for a new episode every two weeks.

  • Inside Obama's Family Deportation Mill

    This past summer, the "border kids"—tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras detained after crossing into the United States—became the country's latest immigration crisis. Aid groups mobilized, Congress held hearings, and pleas for compassion resounded at the highest levels of government. "These are our kids," Vice President Joe Biden told a group of lawyers in August, urging them to offer the children free legal representation.

    But the Obama administration hasn't extended that caring attitude to another huge group of Central American migrant kids—those traveling with a parent or guardian, usually their mother. In fiscal 2014, according to data from US Customs and Border Protection, these so-called family unit apprehensions nearly quadrupled. By comparison, the increase in kids arriving at the border alone—the surge that put Capitol Hill in a crisis mode—was a relatively modest 77 percent.

    In perhaps the biggest policy reversal since the surge began, the federal government has rebuilt the controversial family detention system it gutted only a few years ago, in no small part to send a message to would-be immigrants—even though 98 percent of those at one Texas detention facility were asylum seekers who claimed that they feared returning to their home countries, according to a recent report by the Women's Refugee Commission and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "I certainly would've never expected it from this administration," said the WRC's Michelle Brané, who coauthored the report. "Why they went for this draconian detention, I just don't get it."

    In 2009, the feds stopped detaining women and children at the notorious T. Don Hutto facility near Austin, Texas, following Bush-era allegations of stark conditions and sexual abuse. Family detention seemed to be on the outs. Then, in July, the White House put forward a $3.7 billion emergency appropriations request that included $879 million for about 6,300 new family detention beds. While the request never made it through Congress, the Department of Homeland Security still managed to open a temporary family facility in Artesia, New Mexico, and a second one in Karnes City, Texas. (Nearly 500 women and children have been deported since these facilities opened their doors to family-unit detainees.)

    The Artesia facility is set to close this month, just in time for DHS to open yet another family detention center in Dilley, Texas. Built to house 2,400 migrants, the South Texas Family Residential Center will be the largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility ever. Like Hutto, it will be run by the private prison firm Corrections Corporation of America.

    Anti-detention advocates argue that locking up families is not only expensive—ICE spends $161 a day to detain the typical immigrant, but $266 a day per family-unit detainee—but also traumatic and unnecessary. For the past several years, said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Michael Tan, women with children who passed the so-called credible fear of persecution screening, which comes before an asylum hearing, were allowed to live in the community while they went through the immigration process. "The agency understood that if you were a bona fide asylum seeker we didn't need to lock you up," Tan said. Besides, alternatives to detention can be nearly as effective in getting people to their immigration hearings, at a fraction of the cost.

    "Detention puts a whole lot of pressure on extremely vulnerable people to give up their cases," Tan said. "The immigration authorities know that one way to facilitate removal is to keep people locked up."

    But this past summer, the government instituted what the ACLU, in a just-filed class action lawsuit, describes as a blanket no-release policy that keeps women and children under lock and key—even though they've passed credible-fear screenings and have every incentive to show up for an asylum hearing. Worse still, attorneys who've been to Artesia and Karnes City have been complaining for months about what they've seen at the two facilities. Artesia, for example, is a remote oil town in southeastern New Mexico, halfway between Carlsbad and Roswell on US 285. Because it is so isolated, legal services there have been limited to a rotating cast of attorneys organized by the American Immigration Lawyers Association who are working pro bono for a week at a time. In August, several groups filed a complaint alleging a violation of due process rights at the facility.

    At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing this month, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson acknowledged some of the criticisms, saying he wanted "to make sure we have adequate ability for effective attorney-client communications" moving forward. He continued: "I believe that added detention capability on the southern border, and some disagree with me, is essential to border security." On Monday, at the Dilley facility's inauguration, Johnson was more blunt: "It'll now be more likely that you'll be detained and sent back."

    I recently spoke with a woman I'll call Jessica Ramos, who landed at Artesia after fleeing Honduras with her two-year-old son, Nicolás (also a pseudonym). She left as soon as she could after her gang-affiliated boyfriend put a gun to her boy's head and then, moments later, stuck the barrel in her mouth. The preceding months had been marked by increasing violence, including twice-daily sexual assaults, and Ramos was sure she'd end up dead if she didn't get far away fast. "The law doesn't do anything there—what options do we have?" she told me in Spanish. "To run away with our kids."

    So, on July 2, Ramos and Nicolás left Olancho, which is located along Honduras' eastern border with Nicaragua and is one of the most violent regions in the world's most violent country. Her sister helped wrangle a smuggler to lead them through Guatemala and Mexico. On July 17, they entered South Texas by crossing the Rio Grande, and were quickly apprehended. A few days later, they were shipped to the recently opened Artesia facility.

    According to Brané's report, some of the problems that led to Hutto's closing are cropping up again. More than half of the 1,050 minors booked into family detention this year were six or younger, the report notes. At the Karnes City facility, which is now facing a complaint alleging sexual abuse, extortion, and harassment by guards, women reportedly had to carry their infant children incessantly—no crawling was allowed. Many children were depressed and lost weight. Jesse Lloyd, an attorney who has spent time at Artesia, told me that one three-year-old stopped eating solid food because he couldn't process the institutional fare. ICE officials wouldn't let seven-year-old Nayely Bermúdez Beltrán leave the Karnes City detention center to see a doctor, despite a malignant brain tumor that required immediate treatment. (She and her mother, Sara Beltrán Rodríguez, were eventually released, after the local media caught wind of it.)

    Additionally, Artesia offered scant childcare, which meant that children were in tow while their mothers met with immigration attorneys and asylum officers and shared traumatic stories of violence and sexual assault. (Some mothers censored their stories to protect the kids, the report noted, in effect hurting their cases.) Attorneys complained that the new facilities didn't have telephone rooms, and instead relied on guards to carry around cellphones the detainees could ask to use—Brané points out that such a setup could enable guards to coerce and sexually harass women and girls.

    When Ramos arrived at Artesia, she said, the staff went out of their way to antagonize her, telling her that there was no chance she'd get asylum. Detainees were compelled to make the foamy bathroom hand soap double as shampoo. The food was "horrible." Nicolás lost nearly a third of his weight, dropping from 55 pounds to 39. Ramos shed 20 pounds herself, and even started losing some hair. She mostly kept to herself, she told me, making friends with just one other detainee, a woman from El Salvador. She was wary about befriending other Hondurans, on the off chance her ex might find out where she was.

    Nicolás didn't understand why they were locked up, and he grew increasingly withdrawn as the weeks turned into months; at one point, outside in the detention center's yard, he saw a bus drove by. "Mommy," he said, "let's go on that bus. I don't want to be here." Ramos grew desperate. She knew she couldn't go back to Honduras. When a Denver-based attorney named Elanie Cintron walked into a roomful of Artesia detainees one day and asked if any of them needed legal representation, Ramos shot her hand up.

    With Cintron's help, it wasn't long before Ramos was granted an asylum hearing. Following hours of testimony, the judge gave a 45-minute explanation of her ruling, all in English. Ramos had attended with another lawyer, since Cintron was back in Colorado at the time. She kept tapping the attorney's hand, searching for clues as to how the judge would decide. Finally, the judge stopped talking. The lawyer turned to her: "Congratulations, Jessica!"

    Ramos broke down crying. Her legal team was able to get her and her son released immediately—some women have had to wait up to 30 days—and Nicolás requested a pizza and chicken dinner to celebrate. Several days later, the two were on a plane to New York City. They settled with Ramos' sister in Brooklyn.

    "The government came into this with a very clear assumption and goal," Brané said. "The assumption was these families didn't have protection needs, and the goal was to get them out quickly. I think that that's being proven wrong." Still, Obama's recent immigration executive action doesn't protect new arrivals, and it remains to be seen whether the shift to the new Dilley facility, located just 70 miles from San Antonio, will mean that more women and children will get legal aid and eventually be released.

    "All the women in there," Ramos told me, "have a case."

    This article has been updated.

  • How Much More Rain Does California Need to End the Drought?

    Over the past two weeks, California has gotten a deluge of rain, lifting its reservoir levels and hydrating the soil in a state that is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in history. The chart above shows the state's drought levels pre- and post-storm, and thankfully, there's a little less of the menacing "exceptional drought."

    In its weekly summary, the US Drought Monitor emphasized cautious optimism:

    A wet December (to date) has provided California a foothold for drought recovery, but 3 straight winters of subnormal precipitation will take time (possibly several consecutive wet winters) to fully recharge the reservoir levels and subsoil moisture back to normal. With several more months still left in the wet season, it is possible that additional storms similar to the ones that just occurred will continue to chip away at the long-term hydrological drought, and the addition of lower temperatures would help build the snow pack. "Cautious optimism, but still a long way to go" would be the very short summary for this week’s California drought picture.

    So how much rain would the state need to end the drought completely? 11 trillion gallons, according to a NASA study from two days ago. As CNN reported, that's "the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in about 170 days' time."

    The drought this year has been particularly scary because California's reservoirs, which are supposed to supply farmers and communities with water in dangerously dry times, were already depleted after two previous years of drought. The rain over the past two weeks has helped restore this backup supply, though as the chart below shows, California's reservoirs are only 58 percent as full as they usually are at this time of year.

  • The Pope Just Helped the US and Cuba Make Up. What International Conflict Will He Fix Next?

    Wednesday's historic deal between the United States and Cuba was noteworthy for a lot of reasons—and a fascinating one that's emerged has been the role of Pope Francis. It's been reported that the Pope sent personal letters to President Obama and President Raul Castro enjoining them to reconsider the situation; then, he invited US and Cuban officials to the Vatican in October to talk things out. In the days since the announcement—which His Holiness greeted with "warm congratulations"—the Vatican has enjoyed wide credit as one of the biggest influences in breaking the decades-old standoff.

    But those surprised at Pope Francis' role in this negotiation shouldn't be: While many popes in the past have involved themselves in geopolitics, few have been as proactive—and as willing to move beyond rhetoric and into the actual work of diplomacy—as Francis. Vatican-watchers have characterized this pontiff as a bold statesman, unafraid to use his popularity and the reach of his office in the service of a particular brand of soft power diplomacy. Jim Yardley at the New York Times summed it up well, writing, "What has changed under Francis—or has been restored—is a vision of diplomatic boldness, a willingness to take risks and insert the Vatican into diplomatic disputes."

    While Wednesday's deal may have been his biggest success to date, he's managed to pack some ambitious diplomatic moves into his young reign as the Bishop of Rome. Here's a highlight reel:

    Israel-Palestine: One of Pope Francis' most dramatic diplomatic moves to date came this June, when he invited the heads of state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the Vatican for an unprecedented prayer meeting. Then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prayed together, talked privately, and planted an olive tree in the gardens of the Vatican. They gushed about the pontiff afterward, with Peres calling him a "bridge builder of brotherhood and peace."

    There was no concrete result of the talks, though the degree of goodwill shown between the two sides surprised observers of the conflict. In a later interview, Pope Francis revealed that "99 percent" of his subordinates in the Vatican were against his idea, but gradually came around to it.

    China: Mending relations with China has long been a priority for the Vatican: It's no secret that the communist government is staunchly anti-religion, and the country's 12 million Catholics are not allowed to recognize the pope as the head of the church. (The party appoints its own bishops to a state-sanctioned church, which really pisses off the Vatican.) When Pope Francis' plane was allowed to enter Chinese airspace this August—past pontiffs have been forced to take a detour—it was reported as a huge deal.

    But Pope Francis, undaunted, has taken baby steps towards gaining favor with Beijing. Last week, he turned down a meeting with Tibet's Dalai Lama—a seemingly out-of-character move which communicates how serious his intentions are. (Beijing publicly applauded the move.) His calculus, it seems, is that establishing warmer ties with Beijing could lead to decreased persecution of Chinese Catholics, and provide a foothold for the church's expansion there.

    Islamic extremism: Pope Francis has made the fight against Islamic fundamentalism central to his diplomatic efforts. Past popes have, too, but where Pope Benedict XVI was blunt—he once made a controversial speech suggesting Islam was evil and violent—Pope Francis has tried to take a softer touch. He recently visited Turkey, where he held a joint press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and called on all Muslim leaders to condemn ISIS. At the Blue Mosque, Pope Francis bowed his head silently while the Grand Mufti of Istanbul recited a Muslim prayer.

    A significant point of concern for Pope Francis is the fate of the Middle East's small but ancient Christian community, which ISIS has targeted. He said in Istanbul that he would not abide "a Middle East without Christians."

    Syria: Pope Francis has also strongly denounced the civil war raging in Syria, a country with a sizable Christian minority. He traveled to neighboring Jordan this past spring to push for peace, and in 2013, he called for a global day of "fasting and peace" ahead of escalating air strikes in Syria. But the strikes went as planned, and conflict continues; if anything, the pontiff has been chided for not being forceful enough on the issue. One observer at TIME called the failure to secure peace in Syria the pontiff's "one big mistake."

    Korea: Add Pope Francis to the long list of parties trying to secure peace on the Korean peninsula. In August, he took a five-day visit to South Korea, which is 10 percent Catholic, where he advocated for reconciliation with the North. "You are brothers who speak the same language," he told an audience there. "Think of your brothers in the North. They speak the same language and when, in a family, the same language is spoken, there is a human hope." Pope Francis is concerned with the persecution of the few thousand Catholics in North Korea; the North Korean government declined the Vatican's request to visit. On the day he arrived in South Korea, the North fired missiles into the sea minutes before he touched down in Seoul.

    Guantanamo: As if the Pope didn't have enough intractable conflicts to resolve, John Kerry will reportedly be in Rome this week to enlist the Vatican's help with another long-standing political issue: closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.

  • The Spending Bill Contains Anti-Abortion Measures. Here's Why Planned Parenthood Supported It Anyway.

    The massive government spending bill President Barack Obama signed on Tuesday contains provisions that bar federal funding for most abortions, forbid federal and local funding for abortions in the District of Columbia, and deny abortion funds for federal prisoners. But Planned Parenthood supported the legislation anyway. Why? Because this spending bill doesn't contain any new restrictions on abortion, and Planned Parenthood feared that if this bill was defeated, the new Republican-dominated Congress that takes office next month would pass its own spending measure—complete with harsh new limits on abortion rights.

    Language barring federal funding for abortions has been attached to appropriations measures since 1976. Congress first passed the provision, known as the Hyde Amendment, three years after Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that held that women have a constitutional right to abortion. Though Planned Parenthood opposes the Hyde Amendment, the group doesn't lobby lawmakers to vote against wide-ranging spending bills because of this provision, which enjoys overwhelming Republican support and has become a staple of spending legislation.

    Many Democrats had threatened to block the appropriations bill after outcry over a big Wall Street giveaway tucked into the legislation. But blocking the bill could have meant a hit to reproductive rights next year, Planned Parenthood spokesman Eric Ferrero says. If Congress had failed to approve the spending measure, which funds the government through September, lawmakers would have had to pass a short-term bill continuing government spending at current levels for a few months. Then, once Republicans took over the Senate in January, they would have been able to craft a full spending bill without much Democratic input. With control of both houses of Congress, Republicans would have had a good chance of sneaking new anti-abortion measures into the bill. The "anti-women's majority could push any number of dangerous provisions," Ferrero notes, including reduced family planning funding and a measure that would allow hospitals to refuse to offer certain abortion services.

    The bill that Obama signed Tuesday protected Planned Parenthood's main priorities. The group's leaders were especially happy that Democratic lawmakers succeeded in stripping several anti-abortion measures from the final bill, managed to secure current funding levels for important federal reproductive health programs, and won new abortion coverage for Peace Corps members. That's why Planned Parenthood staffers made a round of calls last week to lawmakers to make sure they knew the bill did not contain new anti-abortion provisions. Two congressional staffers tell Mother Jones that Planned Parenthood lobbied lawmakers to vote in favor of the spending bill.

    "The appropriations bill is an important step in the right direction when it comes to women's health—holding the line on deeply unpopular abortion restrictions and expanding access for Peace Corps volunteers," Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said in a statement.

    Planned Parenthood's support for the spending bill was far from assured. A month ago, when lawmakers were still hashing out what to include in the bill, Republicans tried to shoehorn in a number of anti-abortion measures. One of those was the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, which would have allowed doctors, health insurance companies, and hospitals to decline to provide certain abortion services, and to refuse to give out information to women about abortion options. Another proposal would have prevented health insurance plans sold through the new Obamacare exchanges from covering abortion and would have nixed tax benefits for small businesses that buy health plans that cover abortion. Democrats managed to strip both provisions from the final bill.

    Planned Parenthood and its allies feared that GOPers would force a reduction in funding for family planning programs next year. Here, again, Dems held their ground. The Title X Family Planning Program, which helps low-income women avoid unwanted pregnancies, got an appropriation of about $300 million, the same as last year. Congress doled out $101 million to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, and roughly $600 million for international family planning programs.

    In addition to staving off Republican assaults on abortion rights, Dems forced into the spending bill new rights for some federal employees. For the first time, Peace Corps members will now have access to (limited) abortion coverage. The federal government will now cover abortion for Peace Corps volunteers in cases of rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother—as it does for most other women on the federal payroll. A recent study by researchers at the University of Ottawa, Princeton, and Cambridge Reproductive Health Consultants found that out of 433 Peace Corps volunteers interviewed, 8.8 percent reported that they had been raped or sexually assaulted during their service.

    "On balance," says Heather Boonstra, the director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion-rights think tank, "in terms of the reproductive rights agenda, we could have been in a lot worse position than where we ended up."

  • How Will We Look Back on Drone Strikes in 2019?

    This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

    It was December 6, 2019, three years into a sagging Clinton presidency and a bitterly divided Congress. That day, the 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's long fought-over, much-delayed, heavily redacted report on the secret CIA drone wars and other American air campaigns in the 18-year-long war on terror was finally released. That day, committee chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) took to the Senate floor, amid the warnings of his Republican colleagues that its release might "inflame" America's enemies leading to violence across the Greater Middle East, and said:

    "Over the past couple of weeks, I have gone through a great deal of introspection about whether to delay the release of this report to a later time. We are clearly in a period of turmoil and instability in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, that's going to continue for the foreseeable future, whether this report is released or not. There may never be the 'right' time to release it. The instability we see today will not be resolved in months or years. But this report is too important to shelve indefinitely. The simple fact is that the drone and air campaigns we have launched and pursued these last 18 years have proven to be a stain on our values and on our history."

    Though it was a Friday afternoon, normally a dead zone for media attention, the response was instant and stunning. As had happened five years earlier with the committee's similarly fought-over report on torture, it became a 24/7 media event. The "revelations" from the report poured out to a stunned nation. There were the CIA's own figures on the hundreds of children in the backlands of Pakistan and Yemen killed by drone strikes against "terrorists" and "militants." There were the "double-tap strikes" in which drones returned after initial attacks to go after rescuers of those buried in rubble or to take out the funerals of those previously slain. There were the CIA's own statistics on the stunning numbers of unknown villagers killed for every significant and known figure targeted and finally taken out (1,147 dead in Pakistan for 41 men specifically targeted). There were the unexpected internal Agency discussions of the imprecision of the robotic weapons always publicly hailed as "surgically precise" (and also of the weakness of much of the intelligence that led them to their targets). There was the joking and commonplace use of dehumanizing language ("bug splat" for those killed) by the teams directing the drones. There were the "signature strikes," or the targeting of groups of young men of military age about whom nothing specifically was known, and of course there was the raging argument that ensued in the media over the "effectiveness" of it all (including various emails from CIA officials admitting that drone campaigns in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen had proven to be mechanisms not so much for destroying terrorists as for creating new ones).

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