White House struggles to understand the ACA case it supports
By Steve Benen June 30, 2020
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a press briefing at the White House on May 1, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP
Last week, Donald Trump and his team asked the Supreme Court to tear down the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, despite the ongoing pandemic. If the president succeeds in getting what he wants, his own country’s health care system would be left in shambles, and tens of millions of families would lose benefits they’ve come to rely on.
It was against this backdrop that White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany appeared on Fox News yesterday morning, and one of the co-hosts asked about the potential political fallout of destroying the existing system without having a replacement ready. The president’s chief spokesperson made the case that it’s actually Democrats who’ll have a political problem.
“Look, the American public looks at this and what they say is this: If Democrats passed an unconstitutional law several years ago, then it’s on Democrats to come forward with a solution.”
McEnany went on to argue that the Affordable Care Act represents a “government takeover of health care” (that’s not true), that the White House has “put forward solutions” (that’s not true), and that Democrats are moving toward “eliminating Medicare” (that’s not true).
There was, in other words, quite a bit wrong with the press secretary’s pitch. But let’s focus on two key elements.
First, to hear McEnany tell it, if Supreme Court conservatives agree to destroy the existing health care system, it will be because Democrats “passed an unconstitutional law several years ago.” She’s confused: the pending ACA case is not a test of the original law’s constitutionality. That case has already come and gone.
Rather, the current case relates to the Republicans’ 2017 tax plan and the GOP’s apparent belief that it altered the ACA in such a way as to render it unconstitutional. It’s the sort of detail the White House really ought to know while it tries to take health care coverage from millions of families.
Second, it’s almost amusing to hear McEnany insist that it’s “on Democrats to come forward with a solution.” In other words, if Republicans make a mess, the White House expects Democrats to clean it up.
In reality, however, it’s Democrats who’ve already “come forward with a solution” — it’s the ACA, and it’s working — which they continue to take steps to improve. Meanwhile, it’s Republicans who’ve spent more than a decade promising to craft an alternative to “Obamacare” that does more and costs less.
At least so far, McEnany’s party has failed to keep that promise.
Unsuitable for ‘human life to flourish’: Up to 3 Billion will live in extreme heat by 2070, study warns.
Doyle Rice, USA TODAY May 4, 2020
If global warming continues unchecked, the heat that’s coming later this century in some parts of the world will bring “nearly unlivable” conditions for up to 3 billion people, a study released Monday said.
The authors predict that by 2070, much of the world’s population is likely to live in climate conditions that are “warmer than conditions deemed suitable for human life to flourish.”
The study warned that unless greenhouse gas emissions are curtailed, average annual temperatures will rise beyond the climate “niche” in which humans have thrived for 6,000 years.
That “niche” is equivalent to average yearly temperatures of roughly 52 to 59 Fahrenheit. The researchers found that people, despite all forms of innovations and migrations, have mostly lived in these climate conditions for several thousand years.
“We show that in a business-as-usual climate change scenario, the geographical position of this temperature niche is projected to shift more over the coming 50 years than it has moved (in the past 6,000 years),” the study warned.
The future scenario used in the paper is one in which atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are high. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas releases “greenhouse” gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane into Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. The emissions have caused the planet’s temperatures to rise to levels that cannot be explained by natural factors, scientists report.
Temperatures over the next few decades are projected to increase rapidly as a result of human greenhouse gas emissions.
Without climate mitigation or migration, by 2070 a substantial part of humanity will be exposed to average annual temperatures warmer than nearly anywhere today, the study said. These brutally hot climate conditions are currently experienced by just 0.8% of the global land surface, mostly in the hottest parts of the Sahara Desert, but by 2070 the conditions could spread to 19% of the Earth’s land area.
This includes large portions of northern Africa, the Middle East, northern South America, South Asia, and parts of Australia.
“Large areas of the planet would heat to barely survivable levels and they wouldn’t cool down again,” said study co-author Marten Scheffer of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Not only would this have devastating direct effects, it leaves societies less able to cope with future crises like new pandemics. The only thing that can stop this happening is a rapid cut in carbon emissions.”
Rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could halve the number of people exposed to such hot conditions. “The good news is that these impacts can be greatly reduced if humanity succeeds in curbing global warming,” said study co-author Tim Lenton, a climate specialist from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.
“Our computations show that each degree warming (Celsius) above present levels corresponds to roughly 1 billion people falling outside of the climate niche,” Lenton said. “It is important that we can now express the benefits of curbing greenhouse gas emissions in something more human than just monetary terms.”
Russia Offered Afghans Bounty to Kill U.S. Troops, Officials Say
Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz June 27, 2020
WASHINGTON — American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.
The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.
Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear which killings were under suspicion.
The intelligence finding was briefed to President Donald Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.
An operation to incentivize the killing of American and other NATO troops would be a significant and provocative escalation of what American and Afghan officials have said is Russian support for the Taliban, and it would be the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated attacks on Western troops.
Any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American troops would also be a huge escalation of Russia’s so-called hybrid war against the United States, a strategy of destabilizing adversaries through a combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news, and covert and deniable military operations.
The Kremlin had not been made aware of the accusations, said Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for President Vladimir Putin of Russia. “If someone makes them, we’ll respond,” Peskov said.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied that the insurgents have “any such relations with any intelligence agency” and called the report an attempt to defame them.
“These kinds of deals with the Russian intelligence agency are baseless — our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we did it on our own resources,” he said. “That changed after our deal with the Americans, and their lives are secure and we don’t attack them.”
Spokespeople at the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA declined to comment.
The officials familiar with the intelligence did not explain the White House delay in deciding how to respond to the intelligence about Russia.
While some of his closest advisers, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have counseled more hawkish policies toward Russia, Trump has adopted an accommodating stance toward Moscow.
At a summit in Helsinki in 2018, Trump strongly suggested that he believed Putin’s denial that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 presidential election, despite broad agreement within the U.S. intelligence establishment that it did. Trump criticized a bill imposing sanctions on Russia when he signed it into law after Congress passed it by veto-proof majorities. And he has repeatedly made statements that undermined the NATO alliance as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Europe.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the delicate intelligence and internal deliberations. They said the intelligence has been treated as a closely held secret, but the administration expanded briefings about it this week — including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces are among those said to have been targeted.
The intelligence assessment is said to be based at least in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals. The officials did not describe the mechanics of the Russian operation, such as how targets were picked or how money changed hands. It is also not clear whether Russian operatives had deployed inside Afghanistan or met with their Taliban counterparts elsewhere.
The revelations came into focus inside the Trump administration at a delicate and distracted time. Although officials collected the intelligence earlier in the year, the interagency meeting at the White House took place as the coronavirus pandemic was becoming a crisis and parts of the country were shutting down.
Moreover, as Trump seeks reelection in November, he wants to strike a peace deal with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan War.
Both American and Afghan officials have previously accused Russia of providing small arms and other support to the Taliban that amounts to destabilizing activity, although Russian government officials have dismissed such claims as “idle gossip” and baseless.
“We share some interests with Russia in Afghanistan, and clearly they’re acting to undermine our interests as well,” Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of American forces in Afghanistan at the time, said in a 2018 interview with the BBC.
Though coalition troops suffered a spate of combat casualties last summer and early fall, only a few have since been killed. Four Americans were killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban have not attacked U.S. positions since a February agreement.
American troops have also sharply reduced their movement outside of military bases because of the coronavirus, reducing their exposure to attack.
While officials were said to be confident about the intelligence that Russian operatives offered and paid bounties to Afghan militants for killing Americans, they have greater uncertainty about how high in the Russian government the covert operation was authorized and what its aim may be.
Some officials have theorized that the Russians may be seeking revenge on NATO forces for a 2018 battle in Syria in which the U.S. military killed several hundred pro-Syrian forces, including numerous Russian mercenaries, as they advanced on an American outpost. Officials have also suggested that the Russians may have been trying to derail peace talks to keep the United States bogged down in Afghanistan. But the motivation remains murky.
The officials briefed on the matter said the government had assessed the operation to be the handiwork of Unit 29155, an arm of Russia’s military intelligence agency, known widely as the GRU. The unit is linked to the March 2018 nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury, England, of Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer who had worked for British intelligence and then defected, and his daughter.
Western intelligence officials say the unit, which has operated for more than a decade, has been charged by the Kremlin with carrying out a campaign to destabilize the West through subversion, sabotage and assassination. In addition to the 2018 poisoning, the unit was behind an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016 and the poisoning of an arms manufacturer in Bulgaria a year earlier.
American intelligence officials say the GRU was at the center of Moscow’s covert efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In the months before that election, American officials say, two GRU cyberunits, known as 26165 and 74455, hacked into Democratic Party servers, and then used WikiLeaks to publish embarrassing internal communications.
In part because those efforts were aimed at helping tilt the election in Trump’s favor, Trump’s handling of issues related to Russia and Putin has come under particular scrutiny. The special counsel investigation found that the Trump campaign welcomed Russia’s intervention and expected to benefit from it, but found insufficient evidence to establish that his associates had engaged in any criminal conspiracy with Moscow.
Operations involving Unit 29155 tend to be much more violent than those involving the cyberunits. Its officers are often decorated military veterans with years of service, in some cases dating to the Soviet Union’s failed war in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Never before has the unit been accused of orchestrating attacks on Western soldiers, but officials briefed on its operations say it has been active in Afghanistan for many years.
Though Russia declared the Taliban a terrorist organization in 2003, relations between them have been warming in recent years. Taliban officials have traveled to Moscow for peace talks with other prominent Afghans, including the former president, Hamid Karzai. The talks have excluded representatives from the current Afghan government as well as anyone from the United States and at times have seemed to work at crosscurrents with U.S. efforts to bring an end to the conflict.
The disclosure comes at a time when Trump has said he would invite Putin to an expanded meeting of the Group of Seven nations, but tensions between U.S. and Russian militaries are running high.
In several recent episodes, in international territory and airspace from off the coast of Alaska to the Black and Mediterranean seas, combat planes from each country has scrambled to intercept military aircraft from the other.
Coronavirus exposed fragility in our food system – it’s time to build something more resilient
Luke Owen, Assistant Professor, Centre for Agroecology, Water & Resilience, Coventry University and Emma Burnett, Researcher, Centre for Agroecology, Water & Resilience, Coventry University.
Most people rely on supermarkets, and these megastores dominate our food economy. They are part of a system that depends on large-scale agriculture and production, smooth-flowing international food trade and fast turnaround times.
But what happens when system vulnerabilities are exposed and they break down? What catches our fall?
We need a resilient food system. This means going beyond the ecological idea of resilience as merely survival during times of stress, and instead proactively building a food system that can both respond quickly to changing circumstances and act as a safety net.
What we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic is exactly what you’d expect from a vastly underprepared population: panic buying, spread of misinformation, and passing blame. The cascade of panic has highlighted major economic, social, and political flaws.
But alongside this, we have seen a surge in self-organised responses which can help build resilience. Think of people producing homemade NHS scrubs, for example.
Supermarkets, and much of the supporting infrastructure, have in many ways stepped up during the crisis. They ramped up online shopping and delivery capacity, prioritised those being shielded, provided free meals and priority shopping access to NHS workers, and donated to food banks. However, rapid changes and crisis-driven hoarding led to empty shelves (a shock for those used to “on demand”) and unavailable online delivery slots.
Because of this, many people turned to alternatives. Demand for veg boxes, milk, and dry goods deliveries spiked, as did requests to join community supported agriculture and local farm schemes. Huge numbers of community-based food hubs, food banks and small farms and even independent gardeners responded. When supermarkets ran out of stock or delivery slots, localized initiatives expanded to meet demand, or found new sources of goods and produce.
Diversity in the food system is paramount. This goes beyond the number of options in a shop. We need to look at how food is produced, processed, transported, and made available, along with impacts and knock-on effects.
Take the mass retail model that provides food to most people across the global north. The sort of industrial agriculture it relies on is ideal for producing masses of uniform food, but not for planetary or human health and well-being. Industrial agriculture thrives on mono-culture, where whole fields and farms are planted with a single crop, but so do pests and diseases.
By removing biodiversity we have made it easier to sow and harvest, predict and control. But generations of selective breeding means increasingly homogeneous crops and livestock, which lack the genetic diversity to adapt to evolutionary pressures like diseases.
Large-scale intensive agriculture amplifies this risk. In mono-cultures, there are no physical barriers or buffers to hinder selective sweeps in susceptible populations. When something virulent crops up, it can spread like wildfire.
We have seen this before. Repeated potato famines in Ireland, due to blight (and the impact of British colonial rule), killed millions. In the 1950’s, the most popular banana variety was driven to near extinction by a single fungus.
Outbreaks of Nipah virus in several Asian countries led to hundreds of deaths between 1998 and 2018. In 2019, African Swine Fever killed hundreds of millions of pigs in China. COVID-19 joins a long list of blights that we have unintentionally encouraged.
A safety net
We live in a house of cards. Our support systems are unstable, and constantly being eroded – one knock could see them all tumble down. This is why agroecologists argue that food systems need to encourage diversity: of crops, of business models, of people. Let’s look beyond the supermarkets and industrial farms to systems that have a track record of being highly adaptable, even without supportive policies.
Community groups and small enterprises have stepped up during the pandemic, utilizing their networks to look after the vulnerable, and generally strengthening the fabric of social safety nets. This has happened despite years of cuts.
Organisations and initiatives, are going beyond their original purposes to deliver services and care, including food. Community supported agriculture schemes, food banks, and food hubs can do this because they are already networked locally and can rely on emergency helpers. Their adaptability means they are fleet-footed, and capable of picking up the slack of an inflexible, industrialized food system.
This is not to say that supermarkets should not be applauded for their recent actions. But they are inexorably linked to industrial agriculture systems. These pose a dual risk, potentially both triggering global crises and failing to deliver provisions. For our own welfare, we should ensure that there is more to the food landscape than industrial agriculture, large-scale processing, and mega-retail.
The diverse production and distribution systems that have long been on the periphery need proper funding and nurturing, because they provide a safety net. If we fail to heed the root causes of systemic problems in our food supply, we will likely face another global crisis perilously unprepared.
Emma Burnett receives funding from sankalpa for her research, and sits on the Board of Directors at Cultivate Oxfordshire.
Luke Owen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Despite pandemic, new U.S. solar capacity will grow 33% in 2020
(Reuters) – New U.S. solar installations will increase by a third this year, a report published on Thursday showed, as soaring demand by utilities for carbon-free power more than outweighs a dramatic decline in rooftop system orders for homes and businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The solar industry will install 18 gigawatts this year, enough to power more than 3 million homes, according to the report by the U.S. Solar Industries Association and energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. That is 9% less than the group’s forecast before the outbreak prompted construction delays, weakened consumer demand and tightened access to financing.
But utility-scale solar is on track for a record year, the report said, with 14.4 GW of new capacity expected to be installed in 2020. State renewable energy targets and solar’s low cost are underpinning the sector’s robust demand.
Risks to the sector’s medium and long-term growth, however, include increased capital costs due to weak markets, reduced demand from commercial and industrial customers experiencing financial hardship, and delays in utility procurement plans.
SEIA reduced its five-year solar installation outlook by about 3% to 113 GW, citing “considerable uncertainty” caused by the pandemic.
Solar accounted for 40% of new U.S. capacity additions in the first quarter, ahead of natural gas and wind.
The smaller market for residential and commercial systems has been hit hard by the pandemic due to stay-at-home orders that slowed construction and selling. Home installations are expected to be down 25% this year, the report said, recovering to rise 26% next year.
It will be several years before the sector reaches installation levels that had been forecast before the outbreak.
Installations in the non-residential segment, which includes rooftop systems for businesses, will be down 38% this year, the report added.
(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Richard Chang)
Want to See Food and Land Justice for Black Americans? Support These Groups.
Food justice is racial justice. As the nation rises up to protest atrocities against Black people, here are some organizations working to advance Black food sovereignty.
By The Civil Eats Editors, Food Justice June 2, 2020
Protestors march in Philadelphia on June 1, in the aftermath of widespread unrest following the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others.
Food justice is racial justice. Food and agriculture, like everything in this country, are deeply intertwined with our nation’s entrenched history of slavery and structural racism. Our food system actively silences, marginalizes, and disproportionately impacts people of color, who are also being hardest hit by COVID-19.
As Americans rise up to respond to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, and to the ongoing violence, suppression, and brutality facing the Black community, we hope this list of organizations working to strengthen food justice, land access, and food access in the Black community will inform, inspire, and energize you to show up for racial justice.
Black Urban Growers(BUGS) is committed to building networks and community support for growers in both urban and rural settings. Through education and advocacy around food and farm issues, it nurtures collective Black leadership.
Castanea Fellowship offers a two-year fellowship for diverse leaders working for a racially just food system in any of the areas of health, environment, agriculture, regional economies, or community development. Read more.
Food Chain Workers Alliance is a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food, organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain. Read more.
Food First works to end the injustices that cause hunger through research, education, and action.
HEAL Food Alliance brings together groups from various sectors of movements for food and farm justice to grow community power, develop political leadership, and exposing and limiting corporate control of the food system. Read more.
The Land Loss Prevention Project responds to the unprecedented losses of Black-owned land in North Carolina by providing comprehensive legal services and technical support to financially distressed and limited resource farmers and landowners. Read more.
National Black Food and Justice Alliance organizes for Black food and land, by increasing the visibility of visionary Black leadership, advancing Black people’s struggle for just and sustainable communities, and building power in our food systems and land stewardship. Read more.
New Communities Land Trustis a grassroots organization that has worked for more than 40 years to empower African American families in Southwest Georgia and advocate for social justice. Read more.
Without more support, the impact of losing markets could be massive to farmers, eaters, and regional economies.
By Ben Feldman and Kate Creps, Local Food May 29, 2020
San Francisco’s Heart of the City Farmers’ Market has been an oasis of fresh, farm-direct produce in a neighborhood dominated by fast food and liquor stores since 1981. It makes a variety of local produce available to a diverse population of shoppers from around the city and provides income for 82 farmers and food artisans.
Each year, the market also matches low-income shopper’s produce purchases, resulting in $1.5 million in food assistance, making it the largest distributor of EBT of all farmers’ markets in California. COVID-19 has spiked demand for these services, to the point that lines now wrap around the block. Unfortunately, the virus has also strained the nonprofit’s budget and put all of that good work in jeopardy.
Farmers’ markets operators—the organizations and individuals who plan, coordinate, and run America’s farmers’ markets—are engaging in herculean efforts to protect their communities from COVID-19. In the case of Heart of the City, this means crowd control measures to limit the number of shoppers, pre-order options, and the elimination of sampling and touching produce before shopping, among other strategies.
Farmers’ markets have always been hubs for innovation. When farmers have opted or been forced out of the traditional supply chain, America’s 8,000 farmers’ markets have served as a lifeline to their businesses, filling a vital role to move their goods from field to plate. Now, in this time of crisis, these markets have had to devise rapid solutions. Apart from these efforts, emerging research suggests sunlight effectively kills COVID-19, adding more support to the idea that farmers’ markets may be the safest place to shop for groceries during the pandemic.
“There are benefits to visiting a farmers’ market in light of coronavirus … you’re outside, there’s fresh air moving, and the supply chain is shorter,” Yvonne Michael, an epidemiologist at Drexel University School of Public Health, told WHYY recently.
But keeping these markets safe is very expensive for the organizations that run them. For example, Heart of the City market expects to lose almost $200,000 by the end of the year because of a drop in attendance by vendors, who pay a modest fee to participate. These fees serve as the backbone of the market’s budget. And yet, many vendors have been unable to attend due to farmers’ health concerns, age, and labor shortages on their farms. At the same time, the market anticipates spending over $80,000 to maintain health and safety measures, including extra staff and equipment to maintain social distancing.
Yerena Farms, one of the vendors at the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Heart of the City)
The Heart of the City market is far from alone. In a recent, as-yet unpublished Farmers Market Coalition member survey, 74 percent of the organizations that responded reported decreased income, while 93 percent report added costs, including the purchase of PPE for market staff, rental of more handwashing stations, new software or services, and additional staff to rearrange market layouts and monitor customer traffic. In a similar survey by the California Alliance of Farmers Markets (also unpublished), nearly 20 percent of farmers’ market operators reported concern that they may not survive the economic impacts of COVID-19.
The impact of losing farmers’ markets would be massive. They facilitate an estimated $2.4 billion dollars in sales for small and mid-scale farms in the U.S. each year.
“Without direct assistance for our state’s farmers’ markets, many of which already operate on a shoestring budget and an all-volunteer staff, we risk losing this vital outlet, drastically affecting the livelihoods of farmers,” says Robbi Mixon, director of the Alaska Farmers Market Association. “Small to medium scale farms are the cornerstone of local food systems. If farmers’ markets disappear, these farmers lose market access and economic stability.”
A vendor’s sign about maintaining physical distance at a farmers’ market in Boone, North Caroline. (Photo courtesy of the Farmers Market Coalition)
And the fact that farmers’ markets are some of the safest places to shop at this moment hasn’t happened by accident. It’s thanks to the committed efforts of people who work hard for their communities. These are very lean organizations and many are close to a breaking point, especially since they have been left out of grants and recovery funds that have been made available to other sectors of the economy. For example, many farmers’ market operators were not eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program because of their nonprofit incorporation type. Only 501(c)(3) nonprofits are eligible for these funds and most farmers’ markets are not.
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare many of the structural problems of our food system, not the least of which is the vital and underappreciated work that farmers’ market operators engage in to keep farmers in business and keep people fed.
The federal government needs to make the Paycheck Protection Program available to farmers’ market operators and provide grants to ensure that they are able to keep markets open and safe. If this work is to continue, farmers’ market operators will need the support of public and private entities as they develop and implement recovery plans.
Meanwhile, we hope the private individuals and foundations who can will step up and donate to support the operation of their local farmers markets. These community institutions have a pivotal role to play—now and in the future—and they’re much too important to lose.