The ugly way Trump’s rise and Putin’s are connected

Washington Post-Opinions

The ugly way Trump’s rise and Putin’s are connected


President Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

By Anne Applebaum, Columnist        July 25, 2017

There were at least eight people in the room on June 9, 2016, when two Trump family members and Donald Trump’s campaign manager met with a Russian lawyer and her extended team in Trump Tower. Focus your attention just briefly on one of them: Ike Kaveladze. Of course it will be important to learn, in due course, what he was really doing there. But in the meantime, we should spend a few minutes thinking about the peculiar financial culture — American as well as Russian — that he represents.

Though not exactly a celebrity, Kaveladze’s notoriety in certain circles stretches back more than two decades. Starting in the 1990s, his company, Euro-American Corporate Services Inc., set up more than 2,000 Delaware corporations on behalf of unknown, mostly Russian clients and used those companies to open bank accounts. According to a Government Accountability Office report on “Suspicious Banking Activities,” published in 2000, those bank accounts were then used to receive and send large amounts of money. The GAO found that two banks “facilitated the transfer of approximately $1 billion from Eastern Europe, through U.S. banks, and back to Eastern Europe by corporations formed for Russian brokers”; more than $800 million in total was deposited in 136 accounts that Euro-American Corporate Services and another Kaveladze company created at Citibank alone. Kaveladze has protested that what he had done was legal — and he was right. Delaware law really was so lax that it allowed unnamed Russians to send money in and out of the United States without much question.

Why did this matter? Because that kind of activity was a part of the business model that brought Vladimir Putin to power. As numerous books have documented — the best is “Putin’s Kleptocracy” by Karen Dawisha — Putin was one of a group of public officials, many affiliated with the old KGB, who systematically pillaged the Russian state. They drew money out of the state, often using commodities arbitrage or other methods, moved the money out of the country through shell companies, then brought it back to Russia and used it to buy companies and property. They became rich — many of them fabulously so. They then used that wealth to gain power.

Soviet-born businessmen such as Kaveladze, based in the United States and Europe, played significant roles in this system. But so did a range of U.S. and European bankers, accountants and lawyers. For two decades, Western real estate markets — New York, Miami, London — have also provided multiple safe places for Russian oligarchs (and many others) to spend money with complete anonymity. Last year, a Treasury Department investigation into shell companies that purchased luxury homes for cash in several U.S. metropolitan areas found that more than a quarter of such transactions in Manhattan and Miami actually involved someone engaged in “suspicious activity.”

The arrangement suited everybody: American real estate magnates, suddenly rich Russian oligarchs, the construction industry and many others. But underneath this boom there was a grim truth: An important chunk of the money that pumped up the New York luxury real estate market over the past two decades was money originally siphoned off from the Russian state. That was money that should have been used to build hospitals, schools and roads, but instead enriched officials such as Putin and the billionaires who surround him. In due course, Russian money also enriched Trump and his family: As Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”

In that sense the rise of Trump and the rise of Putin are connected. No wonder Trump feels such an affinity for the Russian president; no wonder he seeks him out at international meetings. And no wonder special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation has reportedly decided to look closely at past Trump family real estate transactions.

I’m sure there will eventually be a lot more to say about the details of the Trump-Russia financial relationship. But this story should make us ponder some larger themes, too. After all, the double rise of Trump and Putin might have been halted if only Western governments and financial institutions had acted, over the past two decades, as if they truly believed that these kinds of dealings are wrong. Laws were not enforced — or did not exist. Blind eyes were turned.

Even now, we could be doing much, much more. We could stop the registration of all anonymous companies in states such as Wyoming, Delaware and Nevada. We could make all property owners put their real names on public registers. We could listen to Global Witness and other activist groups that constantly point out the links between financial deals in New York and human rights abuse and poverty in faraway countries. Some of these changes are happening in Britain and Europe. But in the United States, where the political consequences of this ugly international system are now so dramatic, we have scarcely begun.

Read more from Anne Applebaum’s archive. Anne Applebaum writes a biweekly foreign affairs column for The Washington Post.

This is not okay

Washington Post-Opinion

This is not okay

By Editorial Board      July 25, 2017  

WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a tweet Tuesday for not aggressively investigating Hillary Clinton, most attention focused, understandably, on the implications for Mr. Sessions. Yet even more alarming than the president’s assault on his own attorney general is Mr. Trump’s return to the “lock her up” theme of his 2016 campaign. We need to recall, once again, what it means to live under the rule of law. Since his inauguration six months ago, so many comparisons have been made to “banana republics” that it is almost unfair to bananas. But there is a serious point to be made about the difference between the United States of America and a state ruled by personal whim.

In a rule-of-law state, government’s awesome powers to police, prosecute and imprison are wielded impartially, with restraint and according to clearly defined rules. These rules apply equally to rich and poor, powerful and weak, ruling party and opposition. In such states, individuals advance on the basis of their talent and initiative, not whom they know. Companies invest where they think the returns will be highest, not to please those in power. The result is that, over time, rule-of-law states prosper. Banana republics do not.

No country ever has attained perfection in this regard, but the United States has been the envy of the world because certain norms have been accepted. After hard-fought elections, the losing side concedes and the winning side leaves the loser in peace to fight another day. Leaders are expected to speak truthfully to their citizens. They respect the essential nonpartisan nature of law enforcement and the military and key civic organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America. They show respect, too, for the political opposition.

To list those basic expectations is to understand how low Mr. Trump is bringing his office. Just in the past few days, he urged Navy men and women to call Congress on behalf of his political goals and turned the National Scout Jamboree into an unseemly political rally, calling the nation’s politics a “cesspool” and a “sewer” and disparaging his predecessor and the media. Routinely he trades in untruths, even after they have been exposed and disproved. He has launched an unprecedented rhetorical assault on the independence of the Justice Department, the FBI and the special counsel’s office — and now he is again threatening his defeated 2016 opponent.

Members of Congress who are, properly, investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 race have not questioned Mr. Trump’s legitimacy. Ms. Clinton herself graciously conceded. The FBI thoroughly investigated her email practices and found no basis to prosecute. Yet Mr. Trump attacks Mr. Sessions for taking “a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes,” implying that a politically inspired re-investigation might help the attorney general keep his job. It is disgusting.

Timidly, belatedly, but encouragingly, members of Mr. Trump’s party are beginning to push back. Last week, Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that there would be “a tremendous backlash” from Republicans as well as Democrats if Mr. Trump attempted to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russia’s behavior in 2016 and any possible Trump campaign involvement. On Monday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) also came to the counsel’s defense. “I don’t think many people are saying Bob Mueller is a person who is a biased partisan,” Mr. Ryan said. “He’s really sort of anything but.”

What’s at stake is much more than the careers of a particular attorney general or special counsel. The United States has been a role model for the world, and a source of pride for Americans, because it has striven to implement the law fairly. When he attacks that process and seeks revenge on his opponents, Mr. Trump betrays bedrock American values. It’s crucial that other political leaders say so.

Unpresidential Command

Slate       Jurisprudence-The law, lawyers and the Court

Unpresidential Command

Trump is ordering service members to support the Republican agenda. That is terrifying.

By Phillip Carter     July 24, 2017

USA-TRUMP/

President Donald Trump, with Navy Capt. Richard McCormack, commissions the USS Gerald R. Ford during a ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia on Saturday.   Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In a serious breach of presidential norms, President Donald Trump urged sailors attending the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford on Saturday to wade into the political fray and help lobby Congress on health care and other topics. “I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it,” Trump said of his budget, highlighting the defense spending portion. This could have been interpreted as an order from the commander in chief to the service members in attendance to support the Republican Party agenda. “And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get health care,” he added.

That Trump would so command the troops—who he apparently sees as his troops—should come as no surprise. Time after time, he has breached long-standing norms of civil-military relations: from evading presidential responsibility, to appropriating service members’ valor for political purposes, to politicking before military audiences. Saturday’s breach stands apart because of its directness and its implications. Trump’s verbal command in Norfolk, Virginia, incites the assembled troops to discard centuries of U.S. military ethics and break long-standing military rules, too. This is what leaders do in banana republics: Instruct the people with guns to join the political fray.

The military tradition of avoiding domestic politics literally predates the country, going back to a dispute over veterans’ benefits between then-Gen. George Washington and his officers. The officers planned to confront Washington at Newburgh, New York, with a thinly veiled threat of military takeover if they didn’t get Washington’s support in a plea to Congress. Washington deftly defused the plot, telling his troops they would “sully the glory” they earned on the battlefield with their plans to lobby Congress.

In the two centuries since, the U.S. military has increasingly professionalized and bureaucratized itself. Today, the rules against troops’ political activity exist in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and several Pentagon regulations. Article 88 of the military justice code makes it a crime for an officer to use “contemptuous words” against the president, vice president, Congress, or certain other officials, whether for political purposes or not. Military Rule of Evidence 508 gives service members an absolute right “to refuse to disclose the tenor of the person’s vote at a political election conducted by secret ballot.”

In addition to these parts of the military’s criminal code, numerous Pentagon rules and regulations aim to keep service members out of politics. DoD Directive 1344.10 bars active and reserve service members from conducting political activity in uniform or in ways that suggest they carry the military’s imprimatur. Other DoD rules limit the way troops can wear their uniforms, use their titles, or express themselves on political issues too.

President Trump’s comments on Saturday inject legal risk and uncertainty into this system of rules. On the one hand he—as commander in chief of the armed forces—can be seen as effectively giving an order to the troops that they must obey. As a legal matter, the president’s authority trumps the Department of Defense’s rules on political activity, if not the UCMJ’s criminal provisions, although the latter can be read to allow what Trump wants. If the troops obey Trump in this instance, however, they must essentially disobey their own regulations, not to mention service norms and values.

There is real danger in the troops actually following Trump’s guidance. Lobbying Congress and entering the political fray can only be a distraction from defending the nation—a point subtly made by retired Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap in his brilliant essay “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012” nearly 25 years ago. Our military today enjoys the highest approval rating of any institution in society, but sullying itself with the mud of political debates can only harm that reputation.

More broadly, Trump’s commands inject uncertainty and doubt into the military, which depends on order and discipline for cohesion and effectiveness and combat. Which rules, exactly, are troops to follow when the president himself casts such doubt as he did in Norfolk? If the president believes the rules governing political activity don’t suit him, how broadly will that apply? Are they now allowed to fly “Make America Great Again” or “Trump for President” flags from their personal cars on base? From military vehicles? (This presumably would be a unilateral allowance, and expressing support for Democrats would still be verboten.)

If Trump someday wants to upend other inconvenient regulations, like the military’s rules on torture and interrogation, can he do so with a mere suggestion like this? Georgetown law professor and my colleague Rosa Brooks rightly pointed out how unlikely it was that the military would disobey a presidential order. The greatest danger of all posed by Trump’s disregard for military values is that he will someday go further than he did this weekend and undermine rules or norms with far graver consequences.

There is real danger in the troops actually following Trump’s guidance.

We often take civil-military relations for granted in this country because we have it so good. The greatest civil-military eruptions in recent history involve things like then-Gen. Eric Shinseki’s sobering 2003 testimony contradicting George W. Bush’s White House, saying that it would take “several hundred thousand” troops to pacify Iraq, or impolitic comments by Gen. Stan McChrystal’s staff in a 2010 Rolling Stone article. These skirmishes stand in stark contrast to the civil-military brawls in countries like North Korea—where the dear leader regularly executes top generals—or Pakistan, where the military dominates politics and has on occasion overthrown the government. American civil-military relations even look tame next to those in France, where newly elected President Emmanuel Macron just fired his top general, reminding his remaining brass that “I am your boss.”

Our civil-military relations are fragile and are already being strained by the Trump presidency. In just six months, he has given hyperpolitical speeches to military and intelligence audiences, used the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes to sign his controversial first travel ban, and whined about how tough he had it in his speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduation. Trump’s top lieutenants have also aided this corruption of the civil-military ethic. Vice President Mike Pence misstated the rule on obeying orders in his graduation speech—omitting the important exception for unlawful orders. The national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, has debased himself and the military ethic, too, by leaping to Trump’s political defense after Trump gave highly classified information to the Russians, and then did so again in a vapid Wall Street Journal op-ed defending Trump’s “America First” agenda.

If left unchecked, Trump and his team will likely continue to tear the fabric of American civil-military relations, leaving tattered shreds of the military’s ethics and values in their wake. That is, unless three groups step up to play their constitutional role in checking Trump.

First, Congress must police Trump’s excesses through aggressive oversight. In confirmation hearings, Senate committees should continue to demand that senior Pentagon civilian and military appointees testify candidly back to Congress when called upon to share their views. Congressional oversight committees should regularly call military witnesses to testify, and use their hearings to solicit views from America’s career military leadership about the wisdom and efficacy of the Trump administration’s military policies as has been historic practice.

Second, military leaders must assert their professional norms and ethics more forcefully. Such dissent should occur in private first to respect the chain of command. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a statutory duty to serve as “the principal military adviser to the President.” In that role, he must raise his voice in defense of long-standing military norms and ethics when they are threatened by the president in ways that ultimately threaten the country. Likewise, senior military leaders should candidly and publicly answer congressional inquiries about strategy, policy, and resources—even where doing so exposes rifts with the White House—to enable Congress to play its constitutional role in national security affairs.

Finally, Trump’s own inner circle must do more to restrain the rhetorical excesses and explosions that have so far defined this presidency. This includes the generals he has tapped to serve in his Cabinet—McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly—who must now teach their principal why these long-standing rules matter both for the country and Trump’s interests. Our country cannot take its healthy civil-military relations for granted nor expect these norms to survive too many more barrages from the current president. It remains to be seen whether Trump will accept such tutoring—or fire the teachers—but these active and retired generals owe it to the country to do their best to keep the president from running the ship of state aground.

One more thing

The Trump administration poses a unique threat to the rule of law. That’s why Slate has stepped up our legal coverage—watch-dogging Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department, the Supreme Court, the crackdown on voting rights, and more.

Our work is reaching more readers than ever—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help.

If you think Slate’s journalism matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

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Phillip Carter is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University. The views expressed are the author’s alone and not representative of his organization.

How does the US healthcare system compare with other countries?

The Guardian-U.S. Healthcare

How does the US healthcare system compare with other countries?

As Republicans decide what to do with the current healthcare policy, nearly 26 million Americans remain without insurance – and that number could soon rise

Despite US legislation in 2010 that moved the country closer to achieving universal healthcare, costs have continued to rise and nearly 26 million Americans are still uninsured according to the Congressional Budget Office.

As Republicans decide whether to repeal or replace the struggling healthcare policy, how does the existing US healthcare system compare with those in other countries?

Broadly speaking, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines universal health coverage as a system where everyone has access to quality health services and is protected against financial risk incurred while accessing care.

A brief history of the healthcare systems used today

Among the 35 OECD member countries, 32 have now introduced universal healthcare legislation that resembles the WHO criteria.

In Germany, the world’s first national health insurance system shows how UHC often evolves from an initial law. Originally for industrial laborers, cover gradually expanded to cover all job sectors and social groups, with today’s German workers contributing around 15% of their monthly salary, half paid by employers, to public sickness funds.

Established in 1948 to be free at the point of use, the UK’s NHS has almost totemic status for Britain’s rising, ageing population who scrutinize it like perhaps no other policy area. While care from GP services to major surgery remains free as intended, the system is under unprecedented financial strain from a funding gap estimated to be in the billions.

Under France’s state-run equivalent of the UK’s NHS, the majority of patients must pay the doctor or practitioner upfront. The state then reimburses them in part or in full. Workers make compulsory payments into state funds used to reimburse between 70% and 100% of the upfront fees, while many people pay into other schemes to cover the balance.

In the mid-1960s, the United States implemented insurance programs called Medicare and Medicaid for segments of the population including low income and elderly adults. In 2010, Obamacare became the closest the US has come to a system of UHC. A legal mandate now requires all Americans to have insurance or pay a penalty. About 26 million people remain without health insurance despite these advances.

Spending compared with life expectancy

Life expectancy in the US is still lower than other developed countries, despite health funding increasing at a much faster pace.

Who provides healthcare and how is it paid for?

How healthcare is funded has a direct effect on the level of healthcare people have access to.

Single-payer

The state funds an agreed range of services through public clinics that are paid for through taxes.

For example, in Sweden there is a limit in how much you pay for healthcare in one year of between 900-1100 kronor (£80-£100)

Two-tier

Government healthcare may be less comprehensive and minimum level of coverage can be supplemented by private insurance.

In Australia, hospital treatment is covered by Medicare, yet most people pay a fee to see a GP or for ambulance services. 57% of adults have private insurance

Insurance mandate

A two-tier system underpinned by an insurance mandate where citizens are legally required to purchase cover from public or private insurers.

Most people in Japan receive health insurance from their employer, otherwise they must sign up for a national health insurance program. Medical fees are regulated to keep them affordable

How could the US healthcare system change?

Donald Trump ran on a campaign to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, but discord among Republicans has highlighted the political challenges faced with implementing a healthcare system, much less trying to change it.

With millions still uninsured and the financial burden of healthcare still quite high, the current US policy falls short of the WHO threshold.

Thus far, separate bills introduced in the House and the Senate were estimated to see steep increases in the number of uninsured from current levels.

Estimated uninsured under existing and proposed healthcare plans

By 2016, the Senate Repeal Plan will create almost 60 million uninsured. Under the first two Republican House bills and the revised Republican Senate Bill, almost 50 million will be uninsured. Under the current Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), 27 million will still be uninsured. Congressional Budget Office.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2017/jul/25/us-healthcare-system-vs-other-countries

This Pennsylvania town is rewriting the law to stop fracking waste

ThinkProgress

This Pennsylvania town is rewriting the law to stop fracking waste

“We thought they would protect us. They wouldn’t.”

Melissa Troutman, one of the directors of the forthcoming documentary Invisible Hand, next to the site of Grant Township’s public meetings. CREDIT: Joshua B. Pribanic for Public Herald

By Jeremy Deaton and Mariana Surillo    July 25, 2017

There only about a dozen countries on Earth that don’t recognize the right to a healthy environment. The United States is one.

Now, a small town in rural western Pennsylvania is asserting the legal right to clean air and water. In doing so, it’s challenging the foundation of U.S. environmental law.

In 2012, Grant Township became a destination for fracking waste. Oil and gas producer Pennsylvania General Energy (PGE) applied for a permit to pump wastewater from drilling operations into an injection well beneath the community. Residents were alarmed. Injections can induce earthquakes, and wells can leak, contaminating water supplies. The chemicals used in fracking have been linked to cancer, infertility, and birth defects.

“Water is life, and without water, you don’t have a life.”

“We live in an area that doesn’t have public water. We all live off springs and private wells,” said Judy Wanchism, a 74-year-old native of Grant Township. “You ruin our water, our home is no good anymore. Nothing. You have to have water in order to live, to water your plants, to drink, to bathe, everything… I don’t know how else to say it. Water is life, and without water, you don’t have a life.”

During the permitting process, Wanchism and her neighbors shared their concerns with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to no avail. Regulators must listen to the public, but they don’t have to take those concerns into account. The EPA issued the permit to PGE.

“We thought they would protect us. They wouldn’t,” Wanchism said.

Wanchism enlisted the help of Chad Nicholson, an organizer with the Community-Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a public interest nonprofit law firm based in Pennsylvania. Nicholson is a fierce critic of environmental laws.

“They don’t actually stop the harm from being inflicted on the environment. They regulate the rate or the flow of the harm,” Nicholson said. “Why are we left arguing over the terms of the permit and how much harm we are going to get? Why can’t we just say ‘no’?”

The group worked to craft an ordinance that asserted the “residents of Grant Township, along with natural communities and ecosystems within the Township, possess the right to clean air, water, and soil.” The ordinance banned activities—including the operation of injection wells — that infringed on those rights.

“You have to figure out ways to protect yourself, and that is basically what we did,” Wanchism said.

Major environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, protect human health and property, but they don’t recognize the intrinsic value of ecosystems. “If you want to try to protect a river from pollution upstream, you have to say that you own property on the river and your property values are being decreased,” said Nicholson. “If you don’t have an immediate property interest or economic interest that’s being harmed, it’s very difficult for you to try to use those other laws.”

“We shouldn’t be fighting the DEP. The DEP should be protecting us and helping us.”

The town drafted laws that prohibit pollution “not based on how many trucks per day, not based on how much impact it’s going to have on the waterway or things like that — but prohibit it as a violation of the rights of the people that live in the community,” said Nicholson.

“They have rights to clean air and clean water. They have rights to self-government. They have rights to a sustainable future,” he said.

In 2015, a federal judge overturned the part of the ordinance blocking the operation of an injection well. Grant Township, she said, had exceeded its authority as a second-class township. Residents responded by adopting a home-rule charter, which gave the community more legal authority. The charter asserts “the right to be free from activities which may pose potential risks to clean air, water, and soil.”

In an ironic twist, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is now suing Grant Township, arguing its home-rule charter violates state law. “We shouldn’t be fighting the DEP,” said Wanchism. “The DEP should be protecting us and helping us.”

Grant Township is countersuing the DEP for failing to protect the community. A state court will hear oral arguments this fall. Residents are also dealing with the legal fallout of the original ordinance. PGE claims Grant Township owes the company for damages incurred by blocking the injection well.

“Sometimes, I talk about it as sustainability actually being illegal,” Nicholson said. “If you try to put into place sustainable energy policies for your community, you can be sued by the industry that would be aggrieved by these sustainable policies.”

“We draw a distinction between legal and legitimate.”

At the root of the conflict is a question of rights. Corporations are protected by state and federal laws. They are legally permitted to pollute. But Nicholson contends that laws protecting polluters are not legitimate because they violate citizens’ right to clean air and water.

“We draw a distinction between legal and legitimate,” he said. “If the state or federal government is implementing policies that would allow corporations or other actors to engage in activities that violate rights, then those policies are illegitimate.”

This argument appears to be gaining traction. A group of young Americans is currently suing the federal government for failing to address climate change, which threatens the rights of U.S. citizens. “This intergenerational injustice violates the rights of young people and future generations to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and property, without due process of law,” said Sophie Kivlehan, one the plaintiffs.

Polluters can only operate with the consent of the government. And Grant Township isn’t playing along. Civic leaders are using every available tool to stop polluters. Last year, they legalized nonviolent direct action. Residents can now prevent trucks full of fracking waste from accessing the injection well. The town isn’t backing down from this fight.

“This requires an exhaustive amount of time and energy, mostly on the computer doing research, just trying to figure out who do I call, where do I get help,” said Wanchism. “You have to just keep going.”

Jeremy Deaton and Mariana Surillo write for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.

Energy lobbyists spent big but failed to win on fracking

McClatchy   DC Bureau

Energy lobbyists spent big but failed to win on fracking

The Associated Press      July 26, 2017 

Annapolis, Md. The oil and natural gas industry spent more than $1.4 million to influence Maryland lawmakers during this year’s General Assembly session. But lobbyists still lost their fight to allow fracking in Maryland.

The Baltimore Sun reported Tuesday that the American Petroleum Institute paid almost three times as much as the next-biggest spender on lobbying. The figures were recently released by the State Ethics Commission.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and the Democratic majority in the General Assembly still agreed to ban the method of extracting natural gas.

The Maryland Hospital Association was the next-highest spender on lobbying at almost $500,000. The Maryland State Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers, came in third at almost $475,000.

Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/politics-government/national-politics/article163658868.html#storylink=cpy

We may have even less time to stop global warming than we thought

Washington Post-Energy and Environment

We may have even less time to stop global warming than we thought

By Chris Mooney        July 24, 2017


A world map shows climate anomalies during the 2015 World Climate Change Conference near Paris. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

At least since 2013, one of the biggest concerns in the climate change debate has been the so-called carbon budget — a fixed limit to the volume of carbon dioxide emissions that we can put into the atmosphere before irrevocably committing to a considerably hotter planet.

As of 2011, that budget was about 1,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide before the planet is likely to careen past a 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) rise in temperatures, which is above what is believed to be the Earth’s temperature before industrialization. The budget shrinks by about 41 tons a year, more recently put at about 600 billion tons (or 15 years of emissions) by a group of scientists and climate policy wonks.

But now, a team of prominent climate scientists say the budget is probably even narrower. The problem is how you define “pre-industrial,” or when you consider human-caused perturbations of the atmosphere to have begun. Many analyses have taken the late 19th century as the starting point, but the new study in Nature Climate Change suggests significant human influence was afoot by at least 1750, and may have contributed as much as one-fifth of a degree Celsius of warming (0.36 degrees Fahrenheit) before the late 1800s.

“Frankly, this study does indicate that it may be more of an uphill battle than we previously thought in order to stabilize warming below the commonly defined dangerous limit of 2 degrees Celsius,” said Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann, one of the study’s authors. He completed the research with scientists from the universities of Edinburgh and Reading in the United Kingdom.

Defining what counts as “pre-industrial” can be a bit of a moving target in climate research, but when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlined the carbon budget in 2013, the group said that it was analyzing warming that had occurred “since the period 1861—1880.” But if the world had already warmed by a few slivers of a degree before then, that shrinks the carbon budget by “as much as 40 % when earlier than nineteenth-century climates are considered as a baseline,” notes the new paper.

To be sure, carbon budgets are only estimates — a way of trying to quantify the likelihood or risk of crossing 2 degrees Celsius for a given amount of emissions. The safer you want to be, the tighter the budget becomes. But for all carbon budgets, if you’re two-tenths of a degree closer to the threshold than you thought, the risk of tipping over is certainly higher.

Mann said that between the start of the industrial revolution in England in the 18th century and the late 19th century — when reliable thermometer records begin (by which time that revolution had spread to other countries) — humans may have added 30 or 40 parts per million of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

But there’s a lot of uncertainty here. The scientists don’t know precisely how much the planet warmed between the true start of industrialization and the late 19th century, when it was really starting to hum. Temperature records get spottier the farther you go back, which is one key reason that the late 19th century has generally been considered as the temperature baseline. Influential temperature data sets, like NASA’s, begin in this period (NASA’s starts with the year 1880).

The new research considers a variety of possibilities for how much temperatures rose in the early industrial revolution, generally in the range of just a few hundredths of a degree Celsius to about two-tenths of one. One-tenth of a degree would also raise the risk of breaching 2 degrees C, but not by as much.

Naturally, taking fuller account of this pre-industrial warming also makes it much more likely that we’ll pass 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. That’s an extremely challenging target for us to hit in limiting warming that many observers and analysts have already written off, although it is cited as a more lofty goal in the Paris climate agreement.

“It sort of takes 1.5 degrees Celsius off the table in the absence of active carbon removal,” said Mann, referring to possible technologies capable of actively withdrawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The analysis also greatly depends on how much humanity does or doesn’t change its behavior in coming years. If we keep emitting willy-nilly and follow what is often called a business-as-usual warming path, then a precise measurement of warming before the late 1800s won’t matter that much. We’ll blow past 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius warming targets no matter what.

But if we’re actually beginning to curb emissions with the aim of hitting these goals — and there are some hints that we are — then a measurement of warming before the late 1800s really does matter. The risk of tipping over the line becomes greater — because you’re already closer to that line.

It is also important to bear in mind that the 2 degree Celsius target is a “normative goal, a value judgment,” said Reto Knutti, a climate expert with ETH Zurich who was familiar with the new study but did not contribute to it.

“There is no magic hard threshold that separates ‘safe’ from ‘dangerous.’ Not all impacts scale with temperatures, and what is dangerous to one person may seem okay to another,” Knutti said. “This is only partly the science issue of trying to quantify how warm the world was before humans started to substantially mess with the climate. It is just as much a political problem: If countries at some point are made responsible not just for their current but also for their past emissions (the polluter pays), then it matters when we start the historic blame game.”

Chris Mooney reports on science and the environment.

10 mega myths about farming to remember on your next grocery run

Washington Post-Speaking of Science

10 mega myths about farming to remember on your next grocery run

By Jenna Gallegos        July 24, 2017

Most of us don’t spend our days plowing fields or wrangling cattle. We’re part of the 99 percent of Americans who eat food, but don’t produce it. Because of our intimate relationship with food, and because it’s so crucial to our health and the environment, people should be very concerned about how it’s produced. But we don’t always get it right. Next time you’re at the grocery store, consider these 10 modern myths about the most ancient occupation.

  1. Most farms are corporate-owned

This myth is probably the most pervasive on the list. It is also the furthest off-base. Nearly 99 percent of U.S. farms are family-owned. The vast majority of these are small family farms, but the bulk of our food comes from large family farms.

  1. Food is expensive

Americans spend a considerably smaller percentage of their income on food than they did in the 1960s. Americans also spend among the least amount worldwide on food as a percent of income. We spend less of our money on food than people in many other developed nations.

Between 10 and 20 percent of the cost of food actually reaches the farmer. That means when commodity prices rise or fall, food costs remain relatively constant, buffering consumers from spikes in their grocery bills.

That’s not to say that food isn’t difficult for some American households to afford, and nutrition and obesity experts worry about the relatively high cost of nutrient-rich versus calorie-dense foods.

  1. Farming is traditional and low tech

Self-driving cars are still out of reach for consumers, but tractors have been driving themselves around farms for years. And driving tractors isn’t the only role GPS plays on a farm. Farmers collect geospatial data to monitor variations across a field in soil type, water and nutrient use, temperature, crop yield and more. The average farmer on Farmer’s Business Network, a social media-like platform for farm analytics, collects about four million data points every year. Artificial intelligence helps sort through all this data and maximize performance within a field down to the square meter.

The seeds farmers plant are also carefully crafted by years of state-of-the-art research to maximize yield and efficiency. Gene sequencing and molecular markers help track the best traits when breeding new crops. Chemical mutagens and radiation speed up evolution by introducing new mutations. And genetic engineering enables scientists to move genes between species or turn off genes for undesirable characteristics.

Organic farms are not necessarily any less high-tech. Except for genetic engineering, all the above technologies improve yields on many USDA-certified organic farms.

With all this technology going into modern farms, the demand for skilled workers in the agriculture sector is also rising. In 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that jobs in food and agriculture outnumber degrees granted in those fields nearly two to one. Of those job opportunities, 27 percent are in science, technology, engineering or math.

That’s why I switched from a largely pre-med major to plant biology for my PhD. I grew up in a farm and ranch community on the dry eastern plains of Colorado. There, slim margins prevent many farmers from investing in the newest technologies, so I wanted to help make better seeds more affordable.

  1. A pesticide is a pesticide is a pesticide

Pesticide is a generic term for a range of compounds. Different classes target certain types of pests: herbicides for weeds, fungicides for fungi, insecticides for insects, rodenticides for rodents. Some kill very specifically. For example, certain herbicides target only broad-leafed plants, but not grasses. Others, like certain insecticides that can also harm larger animals at high doses, cross categories.

Pesticides fight bugs and weeds in organic and conventional fields. The difference is that organic pesticides cannot be synthesized artificially. This does not necessarily mean they are less toxic. Toxicity depends on the specific compound and a person’s exposure to that compound. Some pesticides, especially older ones, are toxic at relatively low levels. Others are safe even at very high doses. Pesticides also differ in how quickly they break down in the environment.

Different regulations apply to different pesticides. Permits are required to purchase some agricultural chemicals, and many farmers call on crop consultants to diagnose problems in a field and prescribe the proper treatment.

  1. Organic farmers and conventional farmers don’t get along

Adjacent farms have to cooperate regardless of how they grow their crops. For example, potentially damaging herbicides applied to one field can drift onto a neighbor’s crops. Poorly managed weeds or insects can also spread from one field to another.

But many farm families actually grow organic and conventional crops on different fields. Organic and conventional agriculture are different business models. It typically costs more to grow crops organically, but farmers can sell these crops for a higher premium. Some crops are easier to grow organically than others depending on the type of pests they face. Whether a given crop can be grown with more sustainability by conventional or organic methods also differs by crop and by region.

  1. A GMO is a GMO is a GMO

Farmers and plant scientists find the term “GMO,” or genetically modified organism, frustrating. There are many ways to genetically modify a crop inside and outside of a lab. Yet the term GMO and the regulations that go with it are restricted to particular types of genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering is a tool that can be used in many different ways. The technique has produced virus-resistant papayas, grains that can survive herbicide application, squash unpalatable to insects and apples that don’t brown. Each of these traits can lead to very different outcomes. For example, herbicide-resistant crops allow an increased use of certain herbicides, while insect-resistant crops enable farmers to use less insecticides.

Each GMO food crop currently or soon to be on U.S. shelves (these include canola, corn, papaya, soybean, squash, sugar beets, apples and potatoes) has been individually tested for safety. Collectively, this research spans two decades and nearly 1,000 studies by multiple independent organizations from all over the world.

  1. Only meat with a “hormone-free” label is hormone free

No meat is hormone-free, because animals (and plants) naturally produce hormones. Use of added hormones is prohibited in all pork and chicken operations. Hormones like estrogen can be used to help cows reach market weight more quickly, but the average man produces tens of thousands of times more estrogen every day than the amount found in a serving of beef from a hormone-treated cow. For a pregnant woman, that figure is in the millions.

  1. Only meat with an “antibiotic-free” label is antibiotic free

All the meat in your grocery store is antibiotic-free. An animal treated with antibiotics cannot be slaughtered until the drugs have cleared its system. The label “ no antibiotics added” or “raised without antibiotics” means that an animal was raised without receiving any antibiotics ever. Overuse of antibiotics in animals that have not actually been diagnosed with a bacterial infection fuels antibiotic resistance and is a major public health concern. On the other hand, forgoing antibiotic treatment if an animal is sick would be inhumane. Labels stating “no sub-therapeutics added” or “not fed antibiotics” mean antibiotics were only used as necessary. 

  1. Foods labeled “natural” are produced differently

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Natural food labels don’t actually mean anything. Not yet, anyway. The FDA took public comment last fall and will be discussing whether to regulate “natural” in food labels in the future. Where to draw the line between natural and unnatural is a tough call, and many experts argue it’s irrelevant, because naturalness is not an indication of quality or safety.

  1. Chemicals are the biggest threat to food safety

Biological contaminants are by far the most common food safety issue. Harmful bacterial like E. coli, salmonella or listeria, viruses and parasites can contaminate meat or produce. Thorough cooking, cleaning, and proper food storage are the best defense against these pathogens. For raw vegetables, washing can reduce but not eliminate threat of exposure. Certain raw vegetables, such as those fertilized with manure and those that grow in warm and humid conditions, like alfalfa sprouts, are a higher risk. Diseases such as mad cow disease can also be a food safety concern, but only in extremely rare cases.

Chemicals make their way into foods much less often. These include mycotoxins which are naturally produced by fungi, industrial pollutants, or heavy metals that are naturally found in soils. The Agriculture Department monitors food for pesticide residues annually and per its latest report, “pesticide residues on foods tested are at levels below the tolerances established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and pose no safety concern.”

Read More:

This quiet agricultural ‘moonshot’ could change the future of food

This controversial pesticide could threaten queen bees. The alternatives could be worse.

Nutrition science isn’t broken. It’s just wicked hard.

Punishing drought takes toll on crops across Northern Plains

Miami Herald

Punishing drought takes toll on crops across Northern Plains

The Associated Press     July 23, 2017

Billings, Mont. A punishing drought that stretches across much of the U.S. Northern Plains could cause farmers to lose 64 million bushels of wheat production this year, according to federal officials.

That dire projection comes as northeast Montana experiences the worst drought in the country, with similar dry conditions in neighboring North Dakota and South Dakota. The federal government has declared numerous counties in the three-state region to be disaster areas and authorized haying and grazing on land meant for conservation to help alleviate the conditions.

Federal agriculture officials have labeled as poor or very poor more than half of Montana’s 2017 crops of spring wheat, lentils and durum. Combined, the three crops were valued at more than $600 million in 2016.

A scant 1.2 inches of rain have been recorded since April 1 in the small town of Nashua on the edge of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Ranchers also will lose in this drought, said Ed Hinton, an auctioneer who drives down from Scobey for the weekly sale at the Glasgow Stockyards. Ranchers turn up every Thursday to sell off an animal or two, usually a heifer who didn’t get pregnant, or a belligerent steer not worth the trouble, or the hay now selling for $180 a ton.

There’s nothing like crop insurance for livestock. In times of drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture opens up grasslands previously off limits for conservation. After that, there’s low interest loans.

The Thursday sale the week before the Fourth of July brought a thousand cattle to the stockyards, Hinton said, at a time of year when a few hundred cattle at a sale is respectable.

Small farmers push for USDA reforms

The Hill

Small farmers push for USDA reforms

By Sumner Park        July 23, 2017 

Small farmers push for USDA reforms

© Getty Images

Small farm and ranch companies and animal rights activists flew to Washington to meet with lawmakers and push for legislation they say will bring needed reforms to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

At issue are mandatory USDA fees for so-called checkoff programs. Farmers and ranchers are required to pay for federal programs that help market industry products. The funds have been used for such popular and iconic campaigns as the “Got Milk” ads and the “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” campaign.

But critics say those programs promote policies for industrialized agriculture, not small farmers and ranchers. The fly-in July 19-20 was organized by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Humane Society Legislative Fund.

“The least we are asking for is transparency,” Eric Swafford, Tennessee HSUS state director and a former state representative told The Hill. “No one can see how these checkoff dollars are being spent, and there is no accountability. The system is inherently broken.”

One of the bills, the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, would enforce greater transparency on how the funds are used.

The bill has bipartisan support and was introduced by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Reps. Dave Brat (R-Va.) and Dina Titus (D-Nev.) also are working on companion legislation in the House.

“Federal checkoff programs — which impose a mandatory tax on farmers and ranchers — are in desperate need of reform,” Booker told The Hill. “Checkoff programs need to do a better job of spending their dollars in ways that benefit small family farmers, and the legislation that Senator Lee and I have introduced will increase transparency and help restore trust in checkoff program practices.”

The OFF Act would require checkoff programs to publish all budgets and expenditures of funds and to submit periodic audits by the USDA inspector general.

In 2005, checkoff dollars were ruled as government taxes rather than producer fees, but there is no system for auditing those funds.

Those promotional ad campaigns have helped boost American agriculture, but smaller farmers and ranchers say their needs are not being met. They say the funds are also used to lobby for legislation that promotes the interests of big producers and blame lax oversight at the Agriculture Department.

“These funds are being used to lobby for control over the perceived voice of the American farmer,” Swafford said. “Young and alternative farmers are seeking a voice, but are being deprived of the opportunity.”

One example the fly-in attendees pointed to were the Country of Origin Labeling, which required companies to provide labels informing customers where their meat originated. Small ranchers and farms backed the rule, but it was opposed by larger companies.

Congress repealed the rule in 2015.

“The current system forces responsible farmers to pay into a system of taxes that is used against them,” Mike Weaver, president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, told The Hill. “It’s a game of survival for independent family farmers.”

“We are so behind in our food system because it has taken on an industrialized approach,” Pete Eshelmen, owner of Joseph Decuis Farm in Indiana, told The Hill.

Amanda Carter, owner of a private family farm in North Carolina, said there has been a false narrative against alternative agriculture.

Another reform bill, the Voluntary Checkoff Program Participation Act, introduced by Lee and Brat in the House, would take the OFF Act a step further by prohibiting the compulsory checkoff programs altogether.

Many of the attendees were hopeful the Trump administration would back their push.

“If the Trump administration is serious about draining the swamp, fighting for free enterprise and getting rid of regulations,” Eshelmen said. “Then this is the chance for them to prove it.”