Has the planet warmed more than we thought? Ocean sponges might be telling us something

Associated Press – Climate

Has the planet warmed more than we thought? Ocean sponges might be telling us something

By Seth Borenstein – February 5, 2024

This undated image provided by Amos Winter shows a sponge from the Caribbean. This sponge, a simple animal that filters water, and a handful of other centuries-old sponges are causing some scientists to think human-caused climate change began sooner and has heated the world more than they thought. Many sponge species live long, and as they grow they record the conditions of the environment around them in their skeletons. (Courtesy of Amos Winter via AP)

This undated image provided by Amos Winter shows a sponge from the Caribbean. This sponge, a simple animal that filters water, and a handful of other centuries-old sponges are causing some scientists to think human-caused climate change began sooner and has heated the world more than they thought. Many sponge species live long, and as they grow they record the conditions of the environment around them in their skeletons. (Courtesy of Amos Winter via AP)

This undated image provided by Amos Winter shows a sponge from the Caribbean that has been cut. This sponge, a simple animal that filters water, and a handful of other centuries-old sponges are causing some scientists to think human-caused climate change began sooner and has heated the world more than they thought. Many sponge species live long, and as they grow they record the conditions of the environment around them in their skeletons. (Courtesy of Amos Winter via AP)

This undated image provided by Amos Winter shows a sponge from the Caribbean that has been cut. This sponge, a simple animal that filters water, and a handful of other centuries-old sponges are causing some scientists to think human-caused climate change began sooner and has heated the world more than they thought. Many sponge species live long, and as they grow they record the conditions of the environment around them in their skeletons. (Courtesy of Amos Winter via AP)

FILE - A man walks past an abandoned canoe at the Sau reservoir amid a drought in Vilanova de Sau, north of Barcelona, Spain, Jan. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti File)

A man walks past an abandoned canoe at the Sau reservoir amid a drought in Vilanova de Sau, north of Barcelona, Spain, Jan. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti File)

FILE - A pedestrian uses an umbrella to shield against the sun while passing through Times Square as temperatures rise, July 27, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

A pedestrian uses an umbrella to shield against the sun while passing through Times Square as temperatures rise, July 27, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

FILE - A boy rests under a tree while watching the sun set as triple-digit heat indexes continue in the Midwest, Aug. 20, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

A boy rests under a tree while watching the sun set as triple-digit heat indexes continue in the Midwest, Aug. 20, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

FILE - Beachgoers flock to Ipanema beach to beat the extreme heat in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado, File)

Beachgoers flock to Ipanema beach to beat the extreme heat in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado, File)

A handful of centuries-old sponges from deep in the Caribbean are causing some scientists to think human-caused climate change began sooner and has heated the world more than they thought.

They calculate that the world has already gone past the internationally approved target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, hitting 1.7 degrees (3.1 degrees Fahrenheit) as of 2020. They analyzed six of the long-lived sponges — simple animals that filter water — for growth records that document changes in water temperature, acidity and carbon dioxide levels in the air, according to a study in Monday’s journal Nature Climate Change.

Other scientists were skeptical of the study’s claim that the world has warmed that much more than thought. But if the sponge calculations are right, there are big repercussions, the study authors said.

“The big picture is that the global warming clock for emissions reductions to minimize the risk of dangerous climate changes is being brought forward by at least a decade,” study lead author Malcolm McCulloch, a marine geochemist at the University of Western Australia. “Basically, time’s running out.”

“We have a decade less than we thought,” McCulloch told The Associated Press. “It’s really a diary of — what’s the word? — impending disaster.”

In the past several years, scientists have noted more extreme and harmful weather — floods, storms, droughts and heat waves — than they had expected for the current level of warming. One explanation for that would be if there was more warming than scientists had initially calculated, said study co-author Amos Winter, a paleo oceanographer at Indiana State University. He said this study also supports the theory that climate change is accelerating, proposed last year by former NASA top scientist James Hansen.

FILE - Residents wade down a street through receding floodwaters, two days after Hurricane Patricia, in the village of Rebalse, Jalisco State, Mexico, Oct. 25, 2015. A handful of powerful tropical storms in the last decade and the prospect of more to come has some experts proposing a new category of hurricanes: Category 6, which would be for storms with wind speeds of 192 miles per hour or more. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

Dial it up to Category 6? As warming stokes storms, some want a bigger hurricane category

FILE - Residents evacuate on a motorcycle amid wildfires into Vina del Mar, Chile, Feb. 3, 2024. Scientists say climate change creates conditions that make the drought and wildfires now hitting South America more likely. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix, File)

How climate change contributes to wildfires like Chile’s

An SUV sits buried by a mudslide, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in the Beverly Crest area of Los Angeles. A storm of historic proportions unleashed record levels of rain over parts of Los Angeles on Monday, endangering the city's large homeless population, sending mud and boulders down hillsides dotted with multimillion-dollar homes and knocking out power for more than a million people in California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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“This is not good news for global climate change as it implies more warming,” said Cornell University climate scientist Natalie Mahowald, who was not part of the study.

Many sponge species live long, and as they grow they record the conditions of the environment around them in their skeletons. Scientists have long used sponges along with other proxies — tree rings, ice cores and coral — that naturally show the record of changes in the environment over centuries. Doing so helps fill in data from before the 20th century.

Sponges — unlike coral, tree rings and ice cores — get water flowing from all over through them so they can record a larger area of ecological change, Winter and McCulloch said.

They used measurements from a rare species of small and hard-shelled sponges to create a temperature record for the 1800s that differs greatly from the scientifically accepted versions used by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The study finds that the mid-1800s were about half a degree Celsius cooler than previously thought, with warming from heat-trapping gases kicking in about 80 years earlier than the measurements the IPCC uses. IPCC figures show warming kicking in just after 1900.

It makes sense that the warming started earlier than the IPCC says because by the mid-1800s the Industrial Revolution had begun and carbon dioxide was being spewed into the air, said McCulloch and Winter. Carbon dioxide and other gases from the burning of fossil fuels are what causes climate change, scientists have established.

Winter and McCulloch said these rusty orange long-lived sponges — one of them was more than 320 years old when it was collected — are special in a way that makes them an ideal measuring tool, better than what scientists used in the mid- to late 1800s.

“They are cathedrals of history, of human history, recording carbon dioxide in the the atmosphere, temperature of the water and pH of the water,” Winter said.

“They’re beautiful,” he said. “They’re not easy to find. You need a special team of divers to find them.”

That’s because they live 100 to 300 feet deep (33 meters to 98 meters) in the dark, Winter said.

The IPCC and most scientists use temperature data for the mid-1800s that came from ships whose crews would take temperature readings by lowering wooden buckets to dip up water. Some of those measurements could be skewed depending on how the collection was done — for example, if the water was collected near a warm steamship engine. But the sponges are more accurate because scientists can track regular tiny deposits of calcium and strontium on the critters’ skeleton. Warmer water would lead to more strontium compared to calcium, and and cooler water would lead to higher proportions of calcium compared to strontium, Winter said.

University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann, who wasn’t part of the study, has long disagreed with the IPCC’s baseline and thinks warming started earlier. But he was still skeptical of the study’s findings.

“In my view it begs credulity to claim that the instrumental record is wrong based on paleo-sponges from one region of the world. It honestly doesn’t make any sense to me,” Mann said.

In a news briefing, Winter and McCulloch repeatedly defended the use of sponges as an accurate proxy for world temperature changes. They said except for the 1800s, their temperature reconstruction based on sponges matches global records from instruments and other proxies like coral, ice cores and tree rings.

And even though these sponges are only in the Caribbean, McCulloch and Winter said they are a good representation for the rest of the world because they’re at a depth that doesn’t get too affected by warm and cold cycles of El Nino and La Nina, and the water matches well with global ocean temperatures, McCulloch and Winter said.

Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer, who also wasn’t part of the sponge study, said even if the McCulloch team is right about a cooler baseline in the 1800s that shouldn’t really change the danger levels that scientists set in their reports. That’s because the danger levels “were not tied to the absolute value of preindustrial temperatures” but more about how much temperatures changed from that time, he said.

Although the study stopped at 2020 with 1.7 degrees Celsius (3.1 degrees Fahrenheit) in warming since pre-industrial times, a record hot 2023 pushes that up to 1.8 degrees (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit), McCulloch said.

“The rate of change is much faster than we thought,” McCulloch said. “We’re heading into very dangerous high-risk scenarios for the future. And the only way to stop this is to reduce emissions. Urgently. Most urgently.”

Teresa de Miguel contributed to this report from Mexico City.

Read more of AP’s climate coverage at http://www.apnews.com/climate-and-environment

‘Smoking gun proof’: fossil fuel industry knew of climate danger as early as 1954, documents show

The Guardian

‘Smoking gun proof’: fossil fuel industry knew of climate danger as early as 1954, documents show

Oliver Milman – January 30, 2024

<span>Composite: The Guardian/Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego/Lyndon B Johnson Library</span>
Composite: The Guardian/Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego/Lyndon B Johnson Library

The fossil fuel industry funded some of the world’s most foundational climate science as early as 1954, newly unearthed documents have shown, including the early research of Charles Keeling, famous for the so-called “Keeling curve” that has charted the upward march of the Earth’s carbon dioxide levels.

Related: ‘How to greenwash’: propane industry tries to rebrand fuel as renewable

A coalition of oil and car manufacturing interests provided $13,814 (about $158,000 in today’s money) in December 1954 to fund Keeling’s earliest work in measuring CO2 levels across the western US, the documents reveal.

Keeling would go on to establish the continuous measurement of global CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This “Keeling curve” has tracked the steady increase of the atmospheric carbon that drives the climate crisis and has been hailed as one of the most important scientific works of modern times.

The fossil fuel interests backed a group, known as the Air Pollution Foundation, that issued funding to Keeling to measure CO2 alongside a related effort to research the smog that regularly blighted Los Angeles at the time. This is earlier than any previously known climate research funded by oil companies.

In the research proposal for the money – uncovered by Rebecca John, a researcher at the Climate Investigations Center, and published by the climate website DeSmog – Keeling’s research director, Samuel Epstein, wrote about a new carbon isotope analysis that could identify “changes in the atmosphere” caused by the burning of coal and petroleum.

“The possible consequences of a changing concentration of the CO2 in the atmosphere with reference to climate, rates of photosynthesis, and rates of equilibration with carbonate of the oceans may ultimately prove of considerable significance to civilization,” Epstein, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology (or Caltech), wrote to the group in November 1954.

Experts say the documents show the fossil fuel industry had intimate involvement in the inception of modern climate science, along with its warnings of the severe harm climate change will wreak, only to then publicly deny this science for decades and fund ongoing efforts to delay action on the climate crisis.

“They contain smoking gun proof that by at least 1954, the fossil fuel industry was on notice about the potential for its products to disrupt Earth’s climate on a scale significant to human civilization,” said Geoffrey Supran, an expert in historic climate disinformation at the University of Miami.

“These findings are a startling confirmation that big oil has had its finger on the pulse of academic climate science for 70 years – for twice my lifetime – and a reminder that it continues to do so to this day. They make a mockery of the oil industry’s denial of basic climate science decades later.”

Previous investigations of public and private records have found that major oil companies spent decades conducting their own research into the consequences of burning their product, often to an uncannily accurate degree – a study last year found that Exxon scientists made “breathtakingly” accurate predictions of global heating in the 1970s and 1980s.

Related: US oil lobby launches eight-figure ad blitz amid record fossil fuel extraction

The newly discovered documents now show the industry knew of CO2’s potential climate impact as early as 1954 via, strikingly, the work of Keeling, then a 26-year-old Caltech researcher conducting formative work measuring CO2 levels across California and the waters of the Pacific ocean. There is no suggestion that oil and gas funding distorted his research in any way.

The findings of this work would lead the US scientist to further experiments upon the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii that were to provide a continual status report of the world’s dangerously-rising carbon dioxide composition.

Keeling died in 2005 but his seminal work lives on. Currently, the Earth’s atmospheric CO2 level is 422 parts per million, which is nearly a third higher than the first reading taken in 1958, and a 50% jump on pre-industrial levels.

This essential tracking of the primary heat-trapping gas that has pushed global temperatures to higher than ever previously experienced in human civilization was born, in part, due to the backing of the Air Pollution Foundation.

A total of 18 automotive companies, including Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, gave money to the foundation. Other entities, including banks and retailers, also contributed funding.

Separately, a 1959 memo identifies the American Petroleum Institute (API), the US’s leading oil and gas lobbying body, and the Western Oil and Gas Association, now known as the Western States Petroleum Association, as “major contributors to the funds of the Air Pollution Foundation”. It’s not clear exactly when API started funding the foundation but it had a representative on a research committee from mid-1955 onwards.

A policy statement of the Air Pollution Foundation from 1955 calls the problem of air pollution, which is caused by the emissions of cars, trucks and industrial facilities, “one of the most serious confronting urban areas in California and elsewhere” and that the issue will be addressed via “diligent and honest fact finding, by wise and effective action”.

Related: Big oil ‘fully owned the villain role’ in 2023, the hottest year ever recorded

The unearthed documents come from the Caltech archives, the US National Archives, the University of California at San Diego and Los Angeles newspapers from the 1950s, and represent what may be the first instance of the fossil fuel industry being informed of the potentially dire consequences of its business model.

The oil and gas industry was initially concerned with research related to smog and other direct air pollutants before branching out into related climate change impacts, according to Carroll Muffett, chief executive of the Center for International Environmental Law.

“You just come back to the oil and gas industry again and again, they were omnipresent in this space,” he said. “The industry was not just on notice but deeply aware of the potential climate implications of its products for going on 70 years.”

Muffett said the documents add further impetus to efforts in various jurisdictions to hold oil and gas firms legally liable for the damages caused by the climate crisis.

“These documents talk about CO2 emissions having planetary implications, meaning this industry understood extraordinarily early on that fossil fuel combustion was profound on a planetary scale,” he said.

“There is overwhelming evidence the oil and gas industry has been misleading the public and regulators around the climate risks of their product for 70 years. Trusting them to be part of the solutions is foolhardy. We’ve now moved into an era of accountability.”

API and Ralph Keeling, Charles’s son who is also a scientist, were contacted for comment about the documents but did not respond.

Iconic lake once known for its crystal-clear waters is on the verge of extinction: ‘The damage done … cannot be compensated’

The Cool Down

Iconic lake once known for its crystal-clear waters is on the verge of extinction: ‘The damage done … cannot be compensated’

Jeremiah Budin – January 30, 2024

Anchar Lake, located in the Kashmir region, is on the verge of disappearing entirely, despite calls for action from environmentalists that have been going unheeded for more than a decade.

What is happening?

Once a major tourist destination, Anchar Lake has fallen victim to the same forces that have negatively impacted so many bodies of water and parts of nature throughout the world — pollution, overdevelopment, and governments that prioritize protecting profits over the environment.

“The lake was once a beautiful tourist attraction, but over the past many years, it has turned into a polluted wasteland,” one nearby resident told Rising Kashmir.

Why is this concerning?

A century ago, the lake encompassed 7.5 square miles. Today, it has been reduced to 2.6 square miles, with more than half of that area comprised of marshland. Contributing factors include unregulated development around the area that has pushed silt and sediment into the lake.

Improper sewage and drainage systems have filtered waste into the lake, making its waters toxic and inhospitable to the bird and fish species that once thrived there.

“The lake is under tremendous anthropogenic pressures, which have resulted in deterioration of its water quality. The entire liquid and solid wastes generated on the peripheral areas situated at higher contours where people live find its way into the lake. Even the agricultural waste of the above area is disposed of in it,” Ajaz Rasool, an environmentalist and hydraulic engineer, told Greater Kashmir.

What is being done about it?

Greater Kashmir laid out several steps that need to be taken to ensure that Anchar Lake does not become extinct, which would be devastating for local wildlife that has already seen its habitat harmed dramatically.

These steps include officially making the conservation of the lake the responsibility of the Lake Conservation and Management Authority, erecting fences around the area to prevent further development and encroachment, plugging drains that filter waste into the lake, and rebuilding the sewage system.

“It is the responsibility of the Government and people to join hands to restore the glory of Anchar, as both are responsible for its deterioration. Damage done to the environment is irreparable and cannot be compensated in any form,” the piece concluded.

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New satellite images catch world’s worst polluters red-handed: ‘Now we really know exactly where it’s coming from’

The Cool Down

New satellite images catch world’s worst polluters red-handed: ‘Now we really know exactly where it’s coming from’

Leslie Sattler – January 26, 2024

The world’s 1,300 largest methane-polluting sites have been identified from space, thanks to an endeavor by environmental intelligence company Kayrros.

The identification of these methane leaks is an urgent call to action but also a great opportunity.

Thanks to Kayrros’ satellite surveillance, the exact sources of potent planet-warming pollution are finally exposed. “Previously, we could measure the amount of methane in the atmosphere, but now we really know exactly where it’s coming from,” Antoine Rostand, co-founder of Kayrros, told Sky News.

Pursuing the where, what, and why of these polluting leaks has led Kayrros to gas wells, pipelines, coal mines, and waste sites in countries like Turkmenistan (home to the single largest oil and gas source), India, Russia, Australia, and the United States, as Sky News has reported.

With the “who” and “where” made clear, targeted reduction is finally possible.

Methane is a greenhouse gas, meaning its presence in the atmosphere can alter Earth’s temperature, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Methane only lingers in the atmosphere for about a decade, but it has an intense effect during that time (per NASA), so fixing methane leaks is immediately impactful.

Simultaneously, plugged leaks can significantly slow near-term temperature rises while improving air quality and public health.

Researchers at universities like MIT are also hard at work developing ways to capture escaped methane from the atmosphere.

The U.S. recently implemented national methane monitoring and repair policies, which are expected to eliminate 58 million tons of toxic gas over 15 years — a decisive climate victory.

Additionally, over 150 world governments have joined the Global Methane Pledge to cut methane output by 30% by 2030. If realized, the Pledge could quickly curb rising temperatures and prevent over 250,000 heat-related deaths annually (as projected by the World Health Organization).

With exact methane leak sources now in plain view from space, the path to a cooler future is illuminated.

In the meantime, Kayrros plans to continue its monitoring — and to share its findings with the world.

“Open-access climate data has a huge role to play in the climate crisis by holding governments and businesses to account,” Rostand said, as reported by InsideEcology.

“We intend to increase access to climate data and increase the basic knowledge and understanding of the harm methane does and of the failure of many governments and organizations to report their emissions of it accurately.”

Groundwater levels are rapidly declining around the world — with a few notable exceptions


Groundwater levels are rapidly declining around the world — with a few notable exceptions

Katie Hunt, CNN – January 24, 2024

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Many parts of the world are experiencing a rapid depletion in the subterranean reserves of water that billions of people rely on for drinking, irrigation and other uses, according to new research that analyzed millions of groundwater level measurements from 170,000 wells in more than 40 countries.

It’s the first study to piece together what’s happening to groundwater levels at a global scale, according to the researchers involved, and will help scientists better understand what impact humans are having on this valuable underground resource, either through overuse or indirectly by changes in rainfall linked to climate change.

Groundwater, contained within cracks and pores in permeable bodies of rock known as aquifers, is a lifeline for people especially in parts of the world where rainfall and surface water are scarce, such as northwest India and the southwest United States.

Reductions in groundwater can make it harder for people to access freshwater to drink or to irrigate crops and can result in land subsidence.

“This study was driven by curiosity. We wanted to better understand the state of global groundwater by wrangling millions of groundwater level measurements,” said co-lead author Debra Perrone, an associate professor in University of California’s Santa Barbara’s Environmental Studies Program, in a news release on the study that published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

The authors found that groundwater levels declined between 2000 and 2022 in 71% of the 1,693 aquifer systems included in the research, with groundwater levels declining more than 0.1 meter a year in 36%, or 617, of them.

The Ascoy-Soplamo Aquifer in Spain had the fastest rate of decline in the data they compiled — a median decline of 2.95 meters per year, said study coauthor Scott Jasechko, an associate professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at University of California Santa Barbara.

Several aquifer systems in Iran were among those with the fastest rate of groundwater decline, he added.

The team wasn’t able to gather data from much of Africa, South America and southeast Asia because of a lack of monitoring, but Jasechko said the study included the countries where most global groundwater pumping takes place.

Declines not universal

The study also highlighted some success stories in Bangkok, Arizona and New Mexico, where groundwater has begun to recover after interventions to better regulate water use or redirect water to replenish depleted aquifers.

“I was impressed by the clever strategies that have been put into action to address groundwater depletion in several places, though these ‘good news’ stories are very rare,” Jasechko said via email.

To understand whether the declines seen in the 21st century were accelerating, the team also accessed data for groundwater levels for 1980 to 2000 for 542 of the aquifers in the study.

They found that declines in groundwater levels sped up in the first two decades of the 21st century for 30% of those aquifers, outpacing the declines recorded between 1980 and 2000.

“These cases of accelerating groundwater-level declines are more than twice as prevalent as one would expect from random fluctuations in the absence of any systematic trends in either time period,” the study noted.

Donald John MacAllister, a hydrologist at the British Geological Survey who wasn’t involved in the research, said it was a really “impressive” set of data, despite some gaps.

“I think it’s fair to say this global compilation of groundwater data hasn’t been done, certainly on this scale, at least to my knowledge before,” he said.

“Groundwater is an incredibly important resource but one of the challenges is… because we can’t see it, it’s out of mind for most people. Our challenge is to constantly bang the drum for policymakers — that we have this resource that we have to look after, and that we can use to build resilience and adapt to climate change.”

On a dead-end street in north Denver, migrants are surviving winter with the help of an army of volunteers

Colorado Sun – News, Immigration

On a dead-end street in north Denver, migrants are surviving winter with the help of an army of volunteers

As the city reinstates time limits on hotel stays, volunteers are making plans to help hundreds more migrants in camps

Jennifer Brown – January 22, 2024

Dusk falls over a migrant encampment of about 10 as Juan Carlos Pioltelli, of Peru, walks into the community warming tent in subzero temperatures in Denver on Jan. 15, 2024. An American flag hangs upside down after migrants, in a hurry and out of excitement for being in the U.S., accidentally put it up upside down. (Eli Imadali, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Footprints in the snow lead from the sidewalk to a path through the weeds, opening to a field that is almost invisible from the road. 

North of Interstate 70, in a part of Denver filled mostly with warehouses and gas stations, the tents are flapping relentlessly in the wind. About 10 migrants from South America hunkered down here during four days of subzero temperatures, and the volunteers who brought them heaters and propane, hot meals and fresh water, are prepared to help hundreds more as Denver pushes migrants out of their city-provided hotel rooms in the coming weeks. 

The dozen or so brightly colored tents were mostly concealed from view by the field’s dirt mounds, despite that they were just across the South Platte River from the National Western Stock Show, one of Denver’s biggest events of the year. As the city stayed home during last week’s deep freeze, the Venezuelans and other South Americans in the encampment zipped into sleeping bags and gathered in a “warming tent” to play dominoes and eat a pot of homemade noodle soup. 

The camp lasted about two weeks, until Friday, when crews from Denver Parks & Recreation arrived and helped the migrants bag up their belongings and dismantle the tents.

They moved a couple of blocks away, out of the field and at the dead end of a street to nowhere.

The men in the encampment, near Washington Street and East 50th Avenue, are among the few migrants who are still living outside after the city’s massive effort to get migrants indoors before the January freeze and snowfall. Because of the cold, Denver paused time limits on stays in the seven hotels it has rented out for migrants, but that pause is ending Feb. 5 after the number of people staying in hotels has surpassed 4,300. 

Hundreds of people — including families with children — will have to leave their hotel rooms in the coming weeks. 

Jose Giovanis, left, leaves his tent as he and other South American migrants get ready to take showers in Denver on Jan. 15. Giovanis and about nine other migrants lived in the encampment with heated tents and other provisions through January’s deep freeze. (Eli Imadali, Special to The Colorado Sun)

They were offered mats in city shelters, hotel rooms and even to go home with some of the volunteers who stop by to make sure they survived another frigid night. But they chose to stay outside for various reasons — because sleeping mat to mat makes them anxious, because they didn’t want to leave their belongings or lose their campsite, because they would rather try to make it on their own, no matter how cold. 

“The snow makes you shiver so much you can’t talk or anything,” said Kevin Bolaño, who is from Colombia. “Sometimes we go out to shake the tents around and remove the snow.” 

Bolaño, 33, arrived in Denver just over a month ago, one of 37,600 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, who have come through the city in the past year. He spent his allotted 14 days in a hotel room, then camped outside the Quality Inn in northwestern Denver until earlier this month, when city crews bused more than 200 people in that sprawling camp to shelters and scooped left-behind tents, mattresses and furniture into garbage bins.  

Bolaño, a chef who specializes in Chinese dishes, wants to work in a restaurant or for a construction company, but he has struggled so far because he does not have a work permit. “If we were working for a company, we would not be here in the cold,” he said.

He left his home in Colombia, where he lived with his parents and children, because of terrorism and poverty, he said. “The government wanted all of a person’s salary. The food went up, the services and the houses went up and nothing was enough,” Bolaño said in Spanish. “It makes a person want to leave their own country in order to be able to help the family they left behind.” 

Jose Giovanis, nicknamed Valencia after the Venezuelan city he’s from, sits on his phone as he shows his heated tent in a migrant encampment where he and about nine other migrants are living, despite the frigid weather, in Denver Jan. 15. (Eli Imadali, Special to The Colorado Sun)

On a blustery day last week, Bolaño smoked a cigarette in his tent with Elis Aponte, 47, who left Venezuela to escape discrimination he felt as part of the LGBTQ community. “Here, people don’t bully me,” said Aponte, who arrived in Denver four months ago and is now living in a house with a friend after weeks in a hotel and then an encampment along the sidewalk. 

In Venezuela, Aponte studied radiology and forensic anthropology, and worked in a morgue. But like many migrants, he has struggled to find work here without the required legal documents. Still, Aponte said he is glad he made the journey to the United States. 

“There is a lot of good stuff here,” he said in Spanish. “The only bad thing was that we arrived in a season when the snow was coming. I wear one, two, three sweaters and a jacket here, and even with all that, it’s cold. But I like Denver.”

They likely would not attempt surviving a Colorado winter outside, though, if it weren’t for the local army of volunteers who drive them to get showers and bring the propane needed to keep the heaters running in every sleeping tent and community warming tent. 

Food and other cooking and eating supplies are stored in their designated tent at a Denver migrant encampment of 10 people. (Eli Imadali, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Denver locals mobilize to help via social media

The calls to help Hugo, the lone man left in an encampment under a north Denver bridge near West 48th Avenue and Fox Street, went out daily. 

“We need someone to bring Hugo a hot meal for dinner tonight after he gets home from work,” volunteer Chelsey Baker-Hauck posted on a migrant support Facebook page. “He may also need drinking water and some additional propane for tonight. He has a thermos you can also fill with hot water so he can make coffee/cocoa.”

Not long after her post, another Denver resident who is part of the “mutual aid” network responded that he would bring Hugo dinner and fresh water as soon as he finished work.

The Facebook page has 1,200 members and counting, hundreds of whom are actively helping, Baker-Hauck said. She and others started the page as an encampment began to spread under a bridge in their north Denver neighborhood. For weeks, they were delivering hot food and blankets, helping migrants find apartments and taking them into their homes. 

“If they choose to stay outside,” she said, “we try to help them stay alive.”

Mutual aid volunteer Chelsey Baker-Hauck, right, and David Amdahl, a volunteer with the Denver Friends Church, organize, salvage and save items left behind at a migrant encampment on Jan. 16 near 48th Avenue and Fox Street in Denver, ahead of a city cleanup. (Eli Imadali, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It was devastating, Baker-Hauck said, when the city posted notice that crews would clean up the camp last Thursday. Ahead of the cold snap, the city offered bus rides to shelters and hotels. But Hugo, who has no vehicle and found steady work in construction within walking distance of the bridge, refused to go. 

For a week, volunteers packed up tents, gathered and washed coats and clothing, and saved paperwork left behind as the migrants — all but Hugo — rushed to take buses to shelters. The volunteers want to return it to the people who left the camp or save it for other migrants who end up on the street when their hotel stays expire, Baker-Hauck said. Either way, they didn’t want the city to stuff it all in the trash. 

“When the city does it, everything goes in the garbage,” she said. “It’s a lot of waste.” 

The tents and winter gear will likely go to other encampments, including the one near the Denver Coliseum, Baker-Hauck said. 

The group operates under the “mutual aid” concept, meaning no one is in charge and everyone pitches in when they can. Baker-Hauck posts the needs of the day, and people respond. When the deep freeze began, a volunteer called the mayor’s office and said she had 15 people who were freezing at a camp near Tower Road and East 56th Avenue. The mayor’s staff made room inside a city building near Civic Center park that was opened as a migrant shelter a couple of weeks ago. 

Then Baker-Hauck asked the volunteer group if anyone could pick up the migrants and drive them to shelter. Nine drivers went out in the subzero temperatures. 

“They responded within minutes,” she said. “It was amazing.” 

As for Hugo, he finally agreed to stay with Baker-Hauck as the city crews were coming to clean up what was left of the camp. His first night in her home, Hugo took a hot shower, called his family in Ecuador and asked if she had any books in Spanish that would teach him about Colorado history.

He insisted on walking to work, an hour each way. 

Families will get 42 days in hotel rooms

The camp near the Stock Show has its own set of volunteers, including Amy Beck, a Denver resident who for years has been helping the city’s homeless population through her group, Together Denver. She focused her efforts on migrants in the past few months because they were so unprepared for the cold weather and it was so upsetting to her to see children in tents.

Beck chose the vacant field in the weeds, then helped coordinate efforts to gather tents and propane deliveries. She spent the past weekend helping set up the new camp in a culdesac that backs up to the field after city officials cleared the first one. Each sleeping tent has a Little Buddy propane heater, and the community tent — with a table in the center for meals and games — has a 20-pound propane tank that keeps it surprisingly warm. 

“It’s so warm, you have to take your coat off,” she said.

Still, Beck and fellow volunteers say they have done everything they can to persuade people to move indoors. At the encampment, she pulled out her phone to show the men photos of unhoused friends she brought to the hospital for amputations last spring because of frostbite. One man lost both of his feet; another lost all of his toes. 

The volunteers offer bus tickets to warmer cities, rooms in their homes, calls to Denver Human Services to find housing. 

“As a last resort, we set them up in a tent,” Beck said. 

Amy Beck, part of Together Denver and a volunteer working to help newly arrived migrants, stands for a portrait at a migrant encampment of 10 people in Denver on Jan. 15. Upset after seeing children in tents, Beck coordinated donations and volunteers to help migrants survive January’s deep freeze. (Eli Imadali, Special to The Colorado Sun)

She helped set up the encampment as the city dismantled the one outside the Quality Inn, which had stretched multiple blocks in the Highland neighborhood, across Interstate 25 from downtown. That camp, Beck said, was “complete mayhem,” with tents lining the sidewalk and blocking traffic, and dozens of nonprofits and volunteers coming by daily with breakfast burritos, medicines and boxes of snow boots. 

“Having children in tents, that crosses the line for me,” she said. “I can’t bring myself to go through a city sweep with children present. Children are not criminals, but that’s the law of Denver.” 

Beck liked the new encampment because it was so out of the way. Volunteers have collected 200 tents, which they expect to fill in the coming weeks as people time out of hotels. They said they will squeeze more into the encampment near the Stock Show and look for other spots as needed. Individuals get 14 days, while families get 42 days. 

They are going to exit everyone who queued up during the severe weather. That is going to be disastrous.

— Amy Beck, volunteer

“They are going to exit everyone who queued up during the severe weather,” Beck said. “That is going to be disastrous. That said, we are prepared. It’s not going to be super comfortable but we will be able to make a very good attempt to keep everyone safe.” 

She wants the city, since the Stock Show ended Sunday, to turn the Denver Coliseum into a shelter as it did during the height of the COVID pandemic. “We’re hoping the city is going to make some humane decisions,” Beck said. 

The city has no plans for that, as of now.

“All options are on the table, but there’s nothing happening with that space at the moment,” said Jon Ewing, spokesman for the Denver Department of Human Services.

Denver Parks & Recreation said they provided 48 hours notice that they would clear the camp in the field Friday. “Park rules do not allow individuals to set up tents or structures of any kind so as to ensure that public parks remain open for all,” spokesperson Yolanda Quesada said via email.

In November and December, Denver was receiving multiple busloads and 100-200 migrants per day, mostly from Texas. The buses keep coming, though the pace is now from 20-100 people per day. 

“I’m getting the sense that this is not going to be resolved any time soon,” Beck said. 

The outhouse sits under a tree as the sun sets and temperatures remain below zero at a migrant encampment of 10 people in Denver. (Eli Imadali, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Migrants in apartments facing steep rent after initial aid runs out

Volunteers are also helping hundreds of migrants who have moved into apartments in the Denver area, many of them with help from the city and nonprofits to pay their deposit and first month’s rent.

Shari Spooner, who runs a marketing agency in Denver and has family in Venezuela, started volunteering with an organization called Para Ti Mujer when migrants began arriving in Colorado. “It pulls at my heartstrings, obviously,” she said. 

Spooner delivers donated clothes and gift cards to Venezuelans around the metro area, and helps navigate bureaucracy to help people get information about unpaid wages and health care. She recently directed a pregnant woman to Denver Health, after explaining to her that she could receive care without insurance or citizenship. 

The woman lives with her husband and children in an apartment that costs $2,400 per month, though the first two months have been covered by the city and a foundation. Spooner worries about how they will make rent when the third month is due, especially after the woman’s husband was cheated out of his wages for construction work. 

“The vast majority of the people I’ve met and helped are looking for jobs,” Spooner said. “They are looking to be part of Colorado and build their life here in a positive way. They just need that first step. I think it’s important for people to know that.”

Snow rests atop a tent at a migrant encampment of about 10 people as temperatures dip to minus 6 degrees in Denver on Jan. 15. (Eli Imadali, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Some of the men in the encampment near the Stock Show are hoping to share apartments once they earn enough money. For now, they say they are content staying put. 

Daniel Escalona, 21, said he does not want to sleep in a shelter where there are wall-to-wall mats on the floor and regular outbursts among people crowded into the room. And the heaters at the encampment are keeping him warm enough. 

“We don’t want to sleep here,” said Escalona, who traveled from Venezuela on his own. “With a job, I can rent an apartment. But if I don’t get a job, I cannot.”

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously worked at the Hungry Horse News in Montana, the Tyler Morning Telegraph in Texas, The Associated Press in Oklahoma City, and The Denver Post before helping found The Sun in 2018.

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What’s Going On With Brett Kavanaugh?


What’s Going On With Brett Kavanaugh?

Mark Joseph Stern – January 23, 2024

On Monday, the Supreme Court affirmed the federal government’s supremacy over the states, a principle established explicitly in the Constitution, enshrined by centuries of precedent, and etched into history by the Civil War. The vote was 5–4. Four dissenting justices would have allowed the state of Texas to nullify laws enacted by Congress, pursuant to its express constitutional authority over immigration, that direct federal law enforcement to intercept migrants crossing the border. These justices would have allowed Texas to edge ever closer to a violent clash between state and federal forces, deploying armed guardsmen and razor wire to block the president from faithfully executing the law.

It was no surprise that three of these dissenters—Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch—sided with Texas, given their overt hostility to the Biden administration’s immigration policies, which verges on rejecting the president’s legitimate right to govern. It was, however, deeply alarming to see who joined them: Brett Kavanaugh, the justice who expends tremendous energy assuring the nation that he is reasonable, moderate, and inclined toward compromise. Kavanaugh’s vote on Monday was none of those things; it was, rather, an endorsement of a state’s rebellion against federal supremacy.

Really, though, should we be shocked that Kavanaugh sided with the Texas rebels over the U.S. president? Maybe not. After spending his first few years on the bench role-playing as a sometimes-centrist, Kavanaugh appears to be veering to the right: His votes over the past several months have been increasingly aligned with Alito and Thomas rather than his previous ally, Chief Justice John Roberts. This shift is still nascent, but it grows more visible with each passing month. And it bodes poorly for the country as we careen toward an election that Donald Trump openly seems to hope the Supreme Court may rig for him.

Start with that jaw-dropping vote on Monday. It’s difficult to overstate how dire the situation had become in Eagle Pass, Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott mounted his insurgency against the federal government. Migrants frequently cross over at Eagle Pass, so Border Patrol has a major presence in the area. Federal law grants border agents the right to access all land within 25 miles of the border and requires these agents to inspect and detain unauthorized migrants. Yet Abbott defied these statutes: He ordered the Texas National Guard to erect razor wire at the border, a barrier that ensnared migrants (to the point of near death) and excluded Border Patrol. Federal law enforcement was thus physically unable to perform the duties assigned to it by Congress, or to rescue migrants drowning in the Rio Grande. In response, border agents began cutting through the wire, prompting Texas to sue. The far-right U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit dutifully issued an injunction prohibiting any federal destruction of the wire fencing.

The 5th Circuit’s injunction effectively allowed Texas to nullify federal law, in direct contradiction of the Constitution’s supremacy clause. Some of the oldestmost entrenched Supreme Court precedents forbid states from interfering with the lawful exercise of federal authority. It should have been easy for SCOTUS to grant the Biden administration’s emergency request by shooting down the 5th Circuit. Instead, the justices spent a baffling 20 days mulling the case—and, presumably, debating it behind the scenes. In the end, all the court could muster was a 5–4 order halting the 5th Circuit’s injunction, with Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett joining the liberals. There were zero written opinions. The dissenters, including Kavanaugh, felt no obligation to explain their votes.

In a sense, Kavanaugh’s silence makes his vote even worse: Having lodged a protest against the single most important principle governing the relationship between the federal government and the states, the justice kept mum, forcing us to guess why he voted in support of nullification. Kavanaugh evidently felt that he owed us no explanation, no reasoning behind his desire to subvert executive authority in favor of a Confederate-flavored conception of state supremacy. His extremism was therefore compounded by an arrogant refusal to justify power with reason, an attitude fit more for a king than a judge.

And not for the first time: Just last month, Kavanaugh cast another silent, startling vote that aligned him with Alito and Thomas. On Dec. 11, the court refused to take up a challenge to Washington state’s ban on LGBTQ+ “conversion therapy” for minors, dodging a case that imperiled similar bans in nearly half the states. Even Gorsuch, Barrett, and Roberts wouldn’t take the bait—perhaps because the case was entirely bogus, cooked up by anti-LGBTQ+ activists despite the absence of a live controversy. But there was Kavanaugh, dissenting from the court’s rejection of the case, telegraphing his hunger to shoot down conversion therapy bans without even the fig leaf of a genuine dispute. Thomas and Alito each wrote angry dissents arguing that the court should’ve taken the case, while Kavanaugh stood alone in his reticence to explain himself. It seems the justice wants to establish a constitutional right to “convert” LGBTQ+ kids, an act that can amount to torture, but lacks the courage to even describe why.

Kavanaugh’s hard-right turn arguably began earlier, in an Aug. 8 order that flew under the radar. It emerged out of a conflict between the Biden administration and gun advocates over a new federal rule that restricts the sale of “ghost guns.” A ghost gun comes in a “kit” that’s almost fully assembled, and a buyer can easily finish putting it together with the help of a YouTube tutorial. Once completed, the gun fires like a semi-automatic firearm. To buy a regular handgun, you have to prove your identity, undergo a background check, and satisfy other federal requirements. To buy a ghost gun, you need only place an anonymous order online. These guns lack a serial number—which are mandatory for regular guns—rendering them untraceable by law enforcement. For this reason, ghost guns are overwhelmingly favored by criminals.

Federal law regulates the sale of “firearms,” the definition of which includes any weapon that “may readily be converted” to shoot a bullet. In 2022 the Biden administration issued a regulation clarifying that ghost guns fit this definition and may therefore be sold only by licensed dealers. This limitation neatly fit the federal statute, which, after all, encompassed partially assembled firearms. Yet, a federal judge halted the rule nationwide, and the 5th Circuit backed him up. The Biden administration sought relief at the Supreme Court, which granted it—by a 5-to-4 vote: Roberts and Barrett joined the liberals, while Kavanaugh joined Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch in dissent.

Once again, Kavanaugh gave no explanation for his vote. Had he prevailed, the justice would have freed criminals to anonymously purchase untraceable, almost-finished guns online and use them to maim and kill Americans without consequence. Doesn’t such a radical outcome cry out for an explanation? Apparently not to Kavanaugh, who likes to depict himself as a commonsense conciliator on firearms, except when it actually counts.

What’s going on here? One possibility is that Kavanaugh moderated himself during his early years on the bench in the hopes of salvaging his public image after furiously assailing Democrats during his confirmation hearing. After latching himself to the chief justice for half a decade, Kavanaugh may now be showing his true colors, breaking away from the chief’s tactical restraint to chart his own rightward course. Or maybe the justice is being pushed toward the MAGA fringe by contempt for Biden, whose policies he has routinely struck down. Kavanaugh was, after all, a Republican political operative in his past life; it has always been doubtful that he truly slipped his partisan moorings when donning the robe. (Trump’s lawyers put this less subtly, saying that Kavanaugh will soon “step up” for the man who appointed him.)

If partisan discontentment is driving Kavanaugh’s growing alliance with the hard-right bloc, the development has ominous implications for the 2024 election. Already, one major Trump case has hit the court, forcing the justices to decide whether the candidate’s incitement of an insurrection disqualifies him from running for president. Another one is hurtling toward the court, asking whether the Constitution somehow grants Trump absolute immunity from prosecution for his involvement in that insurrection. More election cases will arise as the election draws nearer (presuming Trump is the nominee), many involving access to the ballot. And during the 2020 election, at Trump’s behest, Kavanaugh cast several dubious votes attempting to void valid mail ballots in swing states.

It is encouraging that Barrett has stepped up as an unexpected voice of reason when Kavanaugh defects to the MAGA wing of the court. But Barrett herself is also very conservative, and certainly not a reliable vote for democracy. If a principle as fundamental as federal supremacy can only squeak by on a 5–4 vote, no law is settled and everything is up for grabs. And that, of course, is exactly how Trump wants it.

The Farmers Had What the Billionaires Wanted

The New York Times

The Farmers Had What the Billionaires Wanted

Conor Dougherty – January 21, 2024

Jan Sramek, the CEO of California Forever and Flannery Associates who has bought up over 60,000 acres of nearby farmland with plans to build a new city, in Solano County, Calif. on Dec. 21, 2023. (Aaron Wojack/The New York Times)
Jan Sramek, the CEO of California Forever and Flannery Associates who has bought up over 60,000 acres of nearby farmland with plans to build a new city, in Solano County, Calif. on Dec. 21, 2023. (Aaron Wojack/The New York Times)

RIO VISTA, Calif. — When Jan Sramek walked into the American Legion post in Rio Vista, California, for a town hall meeting last month, everyone in the room knew that he was really just there to get yelled at.

For six years a mysterious company called Flannery Associates, which Sramek controlled, had upended the town of 10,000 by spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to buy every farm in the area. Flannery made multimillionaires out of some owners and sparked feuds among others. It sued a group of holdouts who had refused its above-market offers, on the grounds that they were colluding for more.

The company was Rio Vista’s main source of gossip, yet until a few weeks before the meeting no one in the room had heard of Sramek or knew what Flannery was up to. Residents worried it could be a front for foreign spies looking to surveil a nearby Air Force base. One theory held the company was acquiring land for a new Disneyland.

Now the truth was standing in front of them. And somehow it was weirder than the rumors.

The truth was that Sramek wanted to build a city from the ground up, in an agricultural region whose defining feature was how little it had changed. The idea would have been treated as a joke if it weren’t backed by a group of Silicon Valley billionaires who included Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist; Reid Hoffman, an investor and co-founder of LinkedIn; and Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder of the Emerson Collective and the widow of the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. They and others from the technology world had spent some $900 million on farmland in a demonstration of their dead seriousness about Sramek’s vision.

Rio Vista, part of Solano County, is technically within the San Francisco Bay Area, but its bait shops and tractor suppliers and Main Street lined with American flags can feel a state away. Sramek’s plan was billed as a salve for San Francisco’s urban housing problems. But paving over ranches to build a city of 400,000 wasn’t the sort of idea you’d expect a group of farmers to be enthused about.

As the TV cameras anticipated, a group of protesters had gathered in the parking lot to shake signs near pickup trucks. Inside, a crowd in jeans and boots sat in chairs, looking skeptical.

Sramek, 36, who is from the Czech Republic and had come to California to try to make it in startups, was now the center of their economy. Flannery had become the largest landowner in the region, amassing an area twice the size of San Francisco.

Christine Mahoney, 63, whose great-grandfather established her family’s farm when Rutherford B. Hayes was president, said that, like it or not, Sramek was now her neighbor. Mahoney had refused several offers for her land, and Flannery’s lawsuit — an antitrust case in federal court — described her as a conspirator who was out to bilk his company.

But she had never met the man in person, so she came to say hello.

“You might be asking yourself, ‘Why is this guy with a funny accent here?’” Sramek began the meeting.

He spent about 20 minutes pitching his plans before submitting to questions and resentments. People accused him of pushing small farms out of business. They said Flannery’s money was turning families against each other.

“Good neighbors don’t sue their neighbors!” one man yelled to applause.

Sramek, who is tall, intense and practiced in the art of holding eye contact, stayed up front after the meeting to glad-hand.

When Mahoney and her husband, Dan, 65, approached him, Sramek said, “Hi, Christine!” as if they had met several times before and he wasn’t currently suing her.

“I’d like to welcome you as our neighbor, but it’s kind of difficult,” Christine Mahoney said.

She talked about how much stress the lawsuit had put on her family.

Sramek nodded, as if she were talking about someone else, not him. Then he asked the couple to dinner. The Mahoneys agreed.

Going to the Ballot

One key difference between building an app and building a city is that a city requires permission. On Wednesday, Sramek’s company officially filed a proposed ballot initiative that would ask voters to buy in. Specifically, the measure aims to amend a long-standing “orderly growth” ordinance that protects Solano County’s farms and open space by steering development to urban areas.

Solano’s residents have consistently backed the city-centered-growth laws, so Sramek’s project is bound to be controversial. To overcome resistance, the initiative includes a long list of promises like new roads, money to invest in downtowns across the county and a $400 million fund to help Solano residents buy homes.

Sramek also revealed that he hoped to build directly next to Rio Vista, with a half-mile-wide park separating the old farming town from the new tech city. Renderings that his company released this month portray a medium-density community that is roughly the opposite of a subdivision, with a grid of row houses that lie a short walk from shops and have easy access to bike lanes and bus stops. He said the first phase of building could accommodate about 50,000 people.

Even if the measure gets on the ballot and passes, it will be one step on a path requiring approval from county, state and federal agencies — a long list of ifs that explains why large projects are usually measured in decades, not the few years that Sramek seems to imagine.

It’s a crucial step, however. Beyond amending the ordinance, a win would pressure county officials to work with Sramek, so opponents are already lining up. A group called Solano Together, a mix of agricultural and environmental organizations like Greenbelt Alliance, recently created a website that characterizes the project as harmful sprawl that would destroy farms.

The fight is something of a throwback. Whether it was paving over San Fernando Valley orange groves to build out Los Angeles or ripping out apricot farms in what is now Silicon Valley, California became the nation’s biggest state and economy largely by trading open and agricultural land for population and development.

That shifted in the 1960s and 1970s, when a backlash against the growth-first regime and its penchant for destroying landscapes helped create modern environmentalism. In the half-century since, this turn has been codified in laws that aim to restrict development to existing cities and their edges. It has protected farms and open space, but also helped drive up the cost of living by making housing scarcer and more expensive to build.

Sramek framed his proposal as a backlash to the backlash, part of an ideological project to revive Californians’ appetite for growth. If the state is serious about tackling its dire affordable housing problem, he argued, it doesn’t just have to build more housing in places like San Francisco and its suburbs — it also has to expand the urban footprint with new cities.

As a matter of policy, this is hard to dismiss. This is politics, however, so the bigger question is whether voters share his desire to return California to an era of expansion. And whether — after six years during which Sramek obfuscated his role in Flannery’s secret land acquisition, along with the company’s billionaire backers and true purpose, all while pursuing farmers with aggressive tactics and lawsuits — they find him trustworthy.

The Golden Boy vs. 1877

Christine and Dan Mahoney’s house looks onto a barn that says 1877, the year Christine Mahoney’s great-grandfather built it.

When I met the couple for an interview at their house last year, Christine Mahoney had decorated the dining table with black-and-white pictures of relatives in button dresses and bonnets. Later we drove along roads named for her ancestors.

Winding through the hills, Christine Mahoney ticked off parcels that belonged to the family, others that were owned by neighbors and more owned by Flannery. When I asked how she discerned the lines of ownership in an expanse of yellow grassland, she said: “You live here a hundred years.”

Sramek, meanwhile, talks about growth in moral terms, as if progress and wealth are simpatico and the most consequential people are those who build big things and a fortune along the way.

Driving near the Mahoneys’ ranch recently, through the same yellow hills, he posited that the mix of wealth and innovation that has exploded in the Bay Area has happened only a handful of times in history. (Florence, Paris, London, New York, Chicago and “maybe LA” were some others.) We were 60 miles from San Francisco in a place where the tallest structures are wind turbines, but his message was that the region could be an economic sun, and that bringing more people in the orbit was worthy of the trade-offs.

An immigrant and striver who at 22 was a co-author of a book called “Racing Towards Excellence,” Sramek got his first spurt of publicity at Goldman Sachs, where the financial press hailed him as a “Golden Boy” trader and considered it newsworthy when he left, after two years of employment, to chase a bigger dream in startups.

His tech career was less sparkling. After Goldman, he moved from London to Zurich and started a corporate education company called Better. It operated for two years and prompted a move to San Francisco, where he founded a social media company, Memo, in 2015.

Memo was billed as a higher-minded version of Twitter and won praise from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. That praise was delivered on Twitter instead of Memo, which was pretty much the story: Memo failed to rack up users and shut down after a year.

His failures aside, Sramek was smitten with the Bay Area’s culture of creative capitalism. He was less enamored with the actual place.

The mythical Silicon Valley was in reality a bunch of office parks and cul-de-sacs where subdivision-grade homes went for $2 million. The more picturesque and urban San Francisco was being consumed by rising rents and their attendant homeless problems.

Complaining about the cost of living, and the region’s inability to fix it, had become something of a side hustle for many Bay Area CEOs. And after Memo, Sramek started looking for a big disruptive idea for them to fund.

“If we go back six or seven years, the popular hit in the press was ‘Silicon Valley is not doing enough in the real world,’” he said. “And I was sitting there working on this.”

Flannery Associates

Sramek likes to fish. The way he tells it, around 2016 he and his girlfriend (now wife) started making the one-hour drive from San Francisco to Rio Vista to catch bass on the Sacramento River. One of those trips, driving past pastures and grazing sheep, sparked an idea.

“What if you could start from scratch?” he said.

In a state whose agricultural bounty has historically been a function of moving water great distances, the area is something of an anachronism. For generations, families like the Mahoneys have practiced “dryland farming,” which means they rely on rain, not irrigation.

The Mahoneys talk about this the same way they talk about their land and family: with an emphasis on tradition and the romance of continuity. Sramek described the land as “not prime.”

The phrase angered several farmers at the Rio Vista town meeting, but in dollar terms it’s accurate. At the time of Sramek’s first fishing trip, land in the area was trading around $4,000 an acre — a pittance compared with a Central Valley almond orchard (about $10,000 to $55,000 per acre) or a Napa Valley vineyard (anywhere from $50,000 to more than $500,000 per acre), according to the California chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.

Sramek starting doing research and soon found himself immersed in zoning policy and poring over old development maps dreaming of a startup city. Investors were initially reluctant, he said, so he borrowed $1 million from friends and banks to put a deposit on a handful of properties, then hired consultants and land-use lawyers to assess what it would take to build there.

By now Sramek was well networked. He had done a fellowship at Y Combinator, a startup incubator. He was in a book club with partners at Sequoia Capital. He was friends with billionaires like Patrick and John Collison, the sibling founders of the payments company Stripe.

The Collisons became two of Flannery’s first investors. Andreessen and Chris Dixon, also of the Andreessen Horowitz venture capital firm, joined soon after, along with Moritz, who was Sequoia’s chair. All of them helped Sramek solicit others.

In a 2017 note to potential investors I obtained, Moritz wrote that if “done right” the project could help relieve congestion and housing prices in the Bay Area, and mused about the potential to experiment with new kinds of governance. It could also be spectacularly profitable, he said: Moritz estimated that investors could make 10 times their money even if they just got the land rezoned, and far more if and when it was developed.

Flannery Associates was named for Flannery Road, which borders the first property Sramek bought. Aside from that detail and its Delaware incorporation, residents and public officials could find almost nothing about its shareholders or intentions. Just that it wanted a lot of land, didn’t care about the price and was willing to strong-arm owners when money didn’t work.

In addition to working their own land, many farmers in the area lease parcels where they grow crops and graze animals. As Flannery consumed more and more property, people like Ian Anderson found themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to rebuff its offers for parcels they owned — while at the same time farming land they rented from Flannery.

Anderson learned how vulnerable he was after a local newspaper quoted him saying that the company had begun insisting on short-term leases and that this made it increasingly difficult to farm. Later, Flannery’s lawyer sent him a letter informing him that it was terminating multiple leases covering thousands of acres.

“The Andersons have made it clear that they do not like Flannery,” according to the letter. “The Andersons are of course free to have their opinions, but they cannot expect that Flannery will continue to just be a punching bag and lease property to them.”

Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from the area, characterized moves like this as “mobster techniques.” The bigger concern was that Flannery’s holdings had grown into a giant mass that butted against Travis Air Force Base on three sides.

The proximity to the base alarmed both the county and the Department of Defense, which prompted local officials and members of Congress to call for investigations. The investigations elevated the mystery of Flannery Associates into a mainstay on local TV news.

“The FBI was investigating this, the State Department was investigating this, the Treasury Department was investigating this — all the local electeds were trying to get information and calling their legislators,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, another Democrat from the area.

The company remained silent.

Sramek said Flannery had operated in secret to prevent landowners from jacking up prices, and defended the lawsuits as just. He argued that while some farmers didn’t want to sell, most had done so willingly — at prices no other buyer could offer.

“We paid way over market value, and created hundreds of millionaires in the process,” he said. “We are glad that we have been able to settle most of our disputes, and we are open to settling the remaining ones.”

A Simple Case of Wealthy Landowners?

By 2023, Sramek and his investors were in deep. Flannery had spent some $900 million buying 60,000 acres. The first two rounds of funding, at about $10 million each, had ballooned to several more rounds at $100 million each. (Sramek said the company had now raised “more than $900 million” but would not be more specific.)

Big investors begot bigger investors, and the list expanded to a roster of Silicon Valley heavyweights including Hoffman and Powell Jobs.

The company’s offers became so generous that many farmers decided they couldn’t refuse.

The Mahoneys sold Flannery a few hundred acres early on. (Their land is owned by several different entities and hard to tally overall, but in the 1960s Christine Mahoney’s father told a newspaper that he had 16,000 acres in the area.) But as Flannery gobbled more of the land around them, Christine Mahoney said, she realized that something big was happening and that their entire farming business could be at risk. So the family stopped selling to Flannery. The company persisted with more offers, however, improving terms and increasing prices to levels that would have netted tens of millions of dollars. The family continued to say no.

Flannery arrived while the Mahoneys were in the midst of transition. Over 150 years, the family’s company, R. Emigh Livestock, had expanded from two dozen lambs to one of largest sheep farmers in California. Christine Mahoney’s father was in his 90s (he died last year) and she was passing leadership to her son Ryan, who said his wish was to stay there until he was in his 90s, too.

You wouldn’t know it from her jeans or penchant for nostalgia, but Christine Mahoney had spent her career running a corporation, one whose business was raising lambs and cattle. She was, like Sramek, a CEO.

And after years of back and forth, one thing Flannery’s entreaties had made clear was that there was one property the Mahoneys owned that it coveted above the others: Goose Haven Ranch. But Goose Haven was the one the family was most protective of. It had been the center of the lambing operation long enough that the road leading up to it was designed for wagon traffic.

Elsewhere in the county, Flannery had started buying into farms by acquiring shares from family members who wanted out, then becoming what amounted to unwelcome partners with the ones who remained. Two of these arrangements led to lawsuits between Flannery and the other owners. Both settled, but one of them netted a trove of emails and text messages among several neighbors including the Mahoneys.

In May, Flannery used those messages to file an antitrust suit against the Mahoneys and several holdouts. The suit contended that the farmers were colluding to raise prices, describing them as “wealthy landowners who saw an opportunity to conspire, collude, price fix and illegally overcharge Flannery.” It asked for $510 million in damages.

The complaint describes the messages (like Christine Mahoney writing to a neighbor, “That’s great that we can support each other!”) as “a smoking gun” proving that the defendants did want to sell but at even higher prices than Flannery was offering.

In a joint motion to dismiss, lawyers for the Mahoneys and other defendants described Flannery’s lawsuit as “a ham-fisted intimidation technique” designed to smother them with legal fees.

Even after being sued, the Mahoneys still had no idea who Flannery actually was.

The Campaign Apology Tour

In August, The New York Times broke the news of who was behind the purchases. Sramek confirmed his role, and soon topped his LinkedIn profile with a new title: CEO of California Forever, the company’s new name.

He has been in campaign mode ever since, meeting with elected officials, union leaders and environmental groups. California Forever has opened four offices across the county, and Solano’s freeways are now plastered with California Forever billboards.

In a state where it can take years to get a duplex approved, Sramek seems to have calculated that his project is too big to fail. Developers, planners and lawyers I spoke to all expected the project to either never happen or take at least 20 years. Whether out of bluster, delusion or confidence, Sramek, who recently bought a house in nearby Fairfield, said he had promised his wife that their infant daughter would start school in the development he wanted to build.

He didn’t find some secret hack that can make California an easier place to build. Rather, he believes the state’s attitude toward growth is changing. Californians, he thinks, have grown frustrated — with punishing housing costs, with homelessness, with the state’s inability to complete projects like the high-speed rail line that was supposed to connect the Bay Area and Los Angeles but has stalled. So just maybe his will, and gobs of money, can create a new posture toward growth.

“There’s a cultural moment where we realize the pendulum has gone too far,” Sramek said. “We can’t say we are about economic opportunity and working-class Californians are leaving the state every year.”

Last year’s event in Rio Vista was held at the end of lambing season in December. Before the meeting, I dropped by a barn with the Mahoneys where a group of “bummers” — lambs born weak or to overburdened ewes — were in sawdust pens drinking milk. They would be chops in less than a year, and Christine Mahoney cooed to them between my questions.

I asked her a crass but obvious one: why the money from Sramek, those tens of millions, wasn’t enticing.

“Everybody has their price, right?” she said. “I’ve heard that so many times. ‘Everybody has their number — what’s your number?’ I guess I haven’t found it yet.”

“When God calls us home, that’s our number,” Dan Mahoney joked. “Totally different philosophy.”

On Wednesday, Sramek returned to the American Legion post in Rio Vista. This time he had arrived as part of a kickoff event for the ballot initiative. Neighbors and protesters had returned but were prohibited from going inside, where slides of maps and renderings were presented to the press, and details about design were discussed.

The maps had a curious detail: On the edge of the proposed community’s downtown, was Goose Haven Ranch.

The night before the meeting, the Mahoneys sold it. They got about $23 million.

I Was Diagnosed With Colon Cancer at 32. Here Are the First Symptoms I Had


I Was Diagnosed With Colon Cancer at 32. Here Are the First Symptoms I Had

Julia Ries – January 18, 2024

Raquel A./powerofforever/Getty Images

Raquel A., 33, never guessed she had cancer, even though she had symptoms that worried her. A few years ago, her bowel movements became increasingly frequent and abnormal, which she figured was due to undiagnosed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or a food intolerance. She didn’t have health insurance, so she put off going to the doctor and tried to ease her discomfort with fiber supplements and dietary changes. After getting a job that offered medical coverage, she saw a primary care physician, who told her she likely just had anxiety. Her symptoms worsened, and in 2023, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Raquel has been sharing her experience with the condition—as well as what she wants others to know about seeking help as early as possible—on TikTok. Here’s her story, as told to health writer Julia Ries.

I first started having noticeable gastrointestinal issues in 2019, right before the pandemic. I was living with a roommate, and one day we started talking about how I was going to the bathroom all the time. I could go number two 8 to 10 times a day and never feel like I had a complete bowel movement. I told my roommate I suspected I wasn’t getting enough fiber, or perhaps I simply wasn’t eating “healthy enough.” Maybe I had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or a gluten or dairy sensitivity. It never occurred to me that I might have cancer.

I didn’t have health insurance. As a result, going to the doctor—unless I had an absolute emergency—wasn’t something I did in my 20s. Instead of checking in with a primary care doctor, I started intermittently taking Metamucil, a fiber supplement, to help regulate my bowel movements and treat random bouts of diarrhea. This helped, at least for a little while.

In 2021, I moved to the greater Seattle area, where I landed a job in the tech industry and, with it, good health insurance. My symptoms remained quiet until they came back in 2022. I was going to the bathroom a lot again, and my bowel movements became uncomfortable. My stools were pencil-thin, sometimes orangish-red in color, and occasionally there’d be a little blood. I got abnormally full after eating. I was bloated, no matter what I ate—I tried being dairy-free, then gluten-free. Looking back, these were major warning signs that something was wrong, and I wouldn’t find out until later that they were classic signs of colorectal cancer.

I scheduled a physical—my first in over a decade—in May of 2023. I told my doctor about the digestive issues I’d been experiencing since 2019: the frequent—and sometimes painful—bowel movements, the bloody stools, the early satiety. I shared that it felt like my symptoms were getting worse, and she said I likely had anxiety—and maybe gas—and scheduled a psychiatric appointment for me.

I believed her. I thought, “Maybe she’s right: I’m worrying too much about these symptoms and should just let it go.” In retrospect, she was incredibly dismissive, which I think was a result of my being so young at the time—I was 32, a woman, and a minority. Statistically speaking, people who fall into any of those categories, let alone all three of them, tend to have their health issues dismissed by doctors.

Three weeks after that exam, I developed severe abdominal pain. It wasn’t just localized to my lower stomach or my side—the pain radiated throughout my entire abdomen and toward my lower back. It was unbearable. I nearly fainted in my apartment. I’m not somebody who’s quick to take medication or go to the doctor, but I knew something was wrong, so I went to the emergency room. Again, I doubted myself and thought that perhaps I was making a big deal out of nothing. Fortunately, my ER physician took my pain seriously—she ordered a CT scan, scheduled an abdominal ultrasound, and ran a full panel of blood work. When the results came in, she sat down and told me they found cancer on my ovaries and liver. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

I met with an oncologist and had a liver biopsy. That’s when they discovered that the cancer, adenocarcinoma, had originated in my colon and metastasized, or spread, to other organs. I was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer. I had an endoscopy and a colonoscopy so the doctors could get a better look—my colorectal cancer was so large and so advanced that they had trouble getting the scope through my colon.

I learned that colorectal cancer is very slow-growing. I could have had cancer for 8 to 10 years, potentially all of my 20s, without knowing it. With colon cancer, you usually don’t start having noticeable (or even severe) symptoms until it’s progressed to stage three or four. Plus, the symptoms, like nausea, constipation, diarrhea, or difficulty going to the bathroom, can be due to so many other conditions—some serious, like ovarian cancer, but others more benign, such as IBS.

After my diagnosis, I started chemotherapy. The cancer had caused a buildup of fluids in my stomach, the source of the bloating, that I had to have drained. I met with a GI specialist who advised me to tweak my diet—for example, I had to limit how much meat I was eating, cut out raw fruits and vegetables, and stick to soft foods, like pudding and mashed potatoes—which immediately improved my bowel movements. I’ve done various blood tests that assess how my cancer is progressing—including a CEA (a marker for colorectal cancer), CA125 (a marker for ovarian cancer), and CA19 (another cancer marker) tests—and have undergone genetic testing to better understand how my genes may have contributed to the cancer.

I continue to get chemotherapy biweekly, though I’ve switched to another chemotherapy drug because I experienced unpleasant side effects with the first type, and the cancer on my liver and lungs wasn’t responding to that treatment. My doctors informed me that eventually the chemo will stop working because my condition is terminal. I don’t qualify for surgery, since my cancer has spread so deeply, but I’m continuing to look into surgical options along with new treatments and clinical trials I can participate in. My chances of reaching survival two years after the diagnosis was 20%. At five years, that drops to 5%, but I’m determined to beat the odds.

Throughout this entire experience, I’ve learned how to advocate for myself. After I received my diagnosis, doctors took my condition very seriously and quickly scheduled multiple procedures and appointments for me—but that wasn’t always the case. I’d been dismissed for years, and even after I started chemotherapy, I felt as though my doctor wasn’t listening to my concerns, so I found a new oncologist who has been very responsive and attentive. I’ve learned how important it is to get a second opinion—all you need is that one doctor who is going to listen and fight for you. You might not find that person right away, but keep pressing: Getting screened could be a matter of life or death.

If I hadn’t followed my intuition—if I skipped going to the ER that day in 2023, or stuck with doctors who said nothing was wrong—there’s a chance I wouldn’t be alive. It’s so easy to doubt yourself, especially if medical professionals are downplaying your symptoms, but if you feel like something is wrong, go with your gut. It’s usually right.


Tax Us, Daddy?


Tax Us, Daddy?

Liz Wolfe – January 18, 2024

Andy Barton/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

Taxes are the only way to get rid of excess money? “We ask you to tax us, the very richest in society,” reads an open letter to the world leaders assembled in Davos, Switzerland, penned by 250 millionaires and billionaires who seem to be gluttons for punishment.

“We’d be proud to pay more,” declares their website, which is thusly named. “This will not fundamentally alter our standard of living, nor deprive our children, nor harm our nations’ economic growth. But it will turn extreme and unproductive private wealth into an investment for our common democratic future.” Signatories include Disney and Rockefeller heiresses, as well as actor Brian Cox.

Currently, nobody is forcing them to keep their earnings. They have full freedom to do whatever they’d like with their money—including giving it away to charity or coordinating with other similarly rich people to pool money together to tackle specific issues that might be too large for just one billionaire to handle.

“Inequality has reached a tipping point, and its cost to our economic, societal and ecological stability risk is severe—and growing every day,” reads the letter, which in no way substantiates how “inequality” has reached this “tipping point” or what exactly happens if inequality continues to grow. (Absolute wealth is infrequently mentioned in these types of calls to action. It’s always relative wealth, which allows signatories to ignore the vast standard-of-living gains that have been made over the last century.)

“If our elected officials refuse to address this concentration of money and power, the consequences will be dire,” warned Cox.

Speaking of concentrations of power: The impetus for the open letter is the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos, which is happening now and drawing leaders from across the globe—frequently arriving on their private jets. (“Private jet emissions quadrupled during Davos 2022,” reads a Guardian headline from last year, which put the total number of private jet flights at 1,040. Fascinating that those who are so concerned with climate change still feel comfortable flying private.)

The bright spot, amid the calls for coercive wealth redistribution, was undoubtedly the speech given by newly elected Argentine President Javier Milei, who is so full of fiery takes that he might just singe your eyebrows off.

“Today I am here to tell you that the Western world is in danger, and it’s in danger because those who are supposed to defend the values of the West are co-opted by a vision of the world that inexorably leads to socialism, and thereby to poverty,” said Milei. “Unfortunately, in recent decades, motivated by some well-meaning individuals willing to help others, and others motivated by the desire to belong to a privileged class, the main leaders of the Western world have abandoned the model of freedom for different versions of what we call collectivism.”

But Argentina knows firsthand, he warned, just how bad of an economic situation can arise from state intervention: “We are here to tell you that collectivist experiments are never the solution to the problems that afflict the citizens of the world, rather they are the root cause.”

“Today’s states don’t need to directly control the means of production to control every aspect of the life of individuals,” he continued. “With tools like printing money, debt, subsidies, control of the interest rate, price controls, and regulations to correct the so-called market failures, they can control the lives and fates of millions of individuals.”

And, later on: “They say that capitalism is evil because it’s individualistic and that collectivism is good because it’s altruistic, of course with the money of others.”

You couldn’t engineer a better response to the taxation-hungry billionaires mentioned above if you tried. People are always free to give their own money away, but it takes a special breed to favor coercion.

“Do not be intimidated either by the political caste nor by parasites who live off the state. Do not surrender yourself to a political class that only wants to perpetuate itself in power and keep their privileges,” Milei added, closing with a forceful defense of value creators: “You [entrepreneurs] are social benefactors, you are heroes, you are the creators of the most extraordinary period of prosperity we have ever seen. Let no one tell you that your ambition is immoral.”

After all, “the state is not the solution, the state is the problem itself.”

It’s about time someone went into the lion’s den and forcefully defended free market capitalism.

Oh, and Milei? He flew commercial, saving taxpayers an estimated $392,000.