Mother Jones Magazine

Watch This Number Closely to See How Seriously Biden Will Tackle Climate Pollution

Many of President Joe Biden’s promises for tackling unchecked climate pollution come down to nailing down one obscure economic metric. It’s called the social cost of carbon, and it will guide policymaking across the Biden administration for how to consider the benefits and costs of reigning in climate pollution.

In a single number, it is supposed to capture the full extent of damage to the economy and society for every additional ton of greenhouse gas pollution we add to the atmosphere. Settling on that one number is a minefield of disagreement, because it hinges on estimating generations of damages from climate change as well as the wealth of future generations. While science supports a high social cost of carbon to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels, the politics are much messier and fraught. It’s been a hotly contested issue since the Obama administration, which settled on $51 per metric ton finalized in 2016. The Obama administration used estimates of the social cost of carbon to help justify EPA rules directly targeting climate change, like reducing carbon emissions from cars and trucks, and indirectly, such as regulating mercury from power plants. An even higher figure would help to justify more aggressive action.

The social cost of carbon is so important that one of Biden’s very first executive orders was to establish a new working group to assess how to price it.  On Friday, Biden took a concrete step and restored the Obama-era calculation of $51 for every metric ton of carbon released into the atmosphere. Trump had lowered the estimate to between $1 to $7, rendering it meaningless so Trump could slash climate regulations.

The reason the social cost of carbon is necessary is precisely because the federal government doesn’t have a uniform approach to climate change, like a carbon tax. It works like a guiding post for decisions on leasing lands, public projects, and environmental regulation, and will also become a key figure used in court battles over these policies.

The Biden administration has signaled that the interim figure is temporary, until the working group submits a final number by next January. Part of their process the next year will be to incorporate newer research and the input of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Climate advocates will push for a higher figure, since most economists already agree the $51 per metric ton is the lower range of what is needed. The Obama figure, for instance, did not account for all climate impacts, such as worsening wildfire seasons and the loss of diverse ecosystems. 

An estimate from economists Nicholas Stern and Joseph Stiglitz proposed an upper range of $100. They wrote in a 2021 working paper, “It is accordingly extraordinarily important that the [social cost of carbon] be calculated correctly.” The figure is important for more than just the government, because private companies also use an internal cost of carbon for risk calculations, and may use the government’s figure as a model. The higher the cost of carbon, the more incentive there is to consider alternatives to fossil fuels. 

Environmental experts hope Biden’s interim social cost of carbon, restored Friday, is just an initial step toward a more aggressive policy next year. “The administration is taking a careful and legally sound approach in providing that a rigorous scientific process determine further updates,” Richard Revesz, director of the New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity, said in a statement. “A great deal of research suggests that these interim values are a lower bound for the damages of greenhouse gas emissions.”

A more aggressive approach by the United States couldn’t come soon enough. US pollution temporarily decreased during the pandemic, but will rise again to business-as-usual if the country doesn’t shift course. As the world’s biggest historic polluter, the United States can impact the global appetite to act. Now that the Biden administration has rejoined the Paris agreement, it will have to follow its promises with action, by submitting a new national target for reducing greenhouse pollution by 2030. Seventy-five other countries have already submitted their initial national targets for the next major climate conference, but an initial analysis from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on Friday found them to be “nowhere close” to matching what’s needed for its fast-dwindling opportunity to limit warming. 

“2021 is a make or break year to confront the global climate emergency,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a press release for the report. “The science is clear, to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C, we must cut global emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels.  Today’s interim report from the UNFCCC is a red alert for our planet.”

It’s the One-Year Anniversary of Trump’s Worst Predictions on COVID-19

It’s the one-year anniversary of former President Donald Trump’s fateful remarks dismissing the COVID-19 pandemic. At a Black History Month event on February 27, 2020, Trump predicted:

And you know what?  If we were doing a bad job, we should also be criticized.  But we have done an incredible job.  We’re going to continue.  It’s going to disappear.  One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.  And from our shores, we—you know, it could get worse before it gets better.  It could maybe go away.  We’ll see what happens.  Nobody really knows.

The fact is, the greatest experts—I’ve spoken to them all.  Nobody really knows. 

Two days after Trump’s comments, health officials in Washington State announced the first known coronavirus death in the United States (though later on the first known death was revised to February 6). Now, at the one-year mark of Trump’s denial, the United States has had more than 500,000 people die from COVID-19, roughly equal to the population of a major city like Atlanta. The toll has been worse for people of color, disproportionately taking Black, Latino, and Native American lives.

It also wasn’t true that nobody really knew what would happen. While CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield testified that same day before Congress that his agency “believes that the immediate risk of this new virus to the American public is low,” the Trump administration received warnings from top scientists and national security experts on the threat of a pandemic as early as January. Despite these warnings, the Trump administration failed to take needed steps to ensure the supply of medical supplies, issue mask mandates, and urge Americans away from large gatherings. 

Read Mother Jonescomprehensive timeline for more on Trump’s deadly denial.

GOP Congressman Skipped the Stimulus Vote to Appear at a White Nationalist Event

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz) skipped key votes in the House of Representatives, citing the “ongoing public health emergency,” to instead attend a conference hosted by white supremacists in Orlando, Florida on Friday.

Gosar, whose six siblings memorably endorsed his congressional opponent in a 2018 ad, has a long flirtation with far-right extremism. He appeared Friday at a white supremacist gathering in Orlando, America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC) organized by Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist figurehead and instigator of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Gosar has fanned the flames of the Jan. 6 insurrection himself by calling the Democrats’ win an attempted “coup” and then President-elect Joe Biden an “illegitimate usurper.” After the election, he wrote in an op-ed promoting the “Stop the Steal” rallies: “Be ready to defend the Constitution and the White House.” His past ties to the right-wing militia group Oath Keepers are already under scrutiny. In 2017, he dismissed right-wing violence in the deadly Charlottesville Unite the Right rally as the doing of George Soros, lying about how the billionaire known for backing progressive causes was actually behind the violence. “Who is he?,” Gosar said. “I think he’s from Hungary. I think he was Jewish. And I think he turned in his own people to the Nazis.” 

Just after Gosar spoke on Friday, Fuentes took the mic to call the Capitol riot “awesome” and mocked Gosar’s colleague, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), who uses a wheelchair. 

Here's another bit from the Nick Fuentes speech at AFPAC, delivered right after Rep. Paul Gosar got off the stage. Gosar's speaking at CPAC in a couple hours. Fuentes joked that he'd get a call from his lawyer afterward. pic.twitter.com/N0nX0maXrZ

— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) February 27, 2021

The keynote by Nick Fuentes at AFPAC also included jokes about @CawthornforNC, Gosar’s colleague, who uses a wheelchair. Fuentes mocked how often Cawthorn says he’ll “take a stand.”

“‘I’m gonna take a stand?’ How? How are you gonna do that?”

— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) February 27, 2021

On Saturday, Gosar, at CPAC, half-heartedly tried to distance himself from the association with white supremacists, saying, “I denounce when we talk about white racism.”

Paul Gosar kicked off his CPAC panel with a muddled attempt to distance himself from the white nationalist event last night. “Before I get to that, I want to tell you — I denounce when we talk about white racism. That's not appropriate.”

— Will Sommer (@willsommer) February 27, 2021

Gosar wasn’t the only member of Congress to skip Friday’s House session. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl), like Gosar, enlisted colleagues to vote by proxy, signing letters saying, “I am unable to physically attend proceedings in the House Chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency.” Instead, Gaetz spoke at the in-person CPAC on Friday, where the event’s thousands of attendees loosely followed policies on wearing masks.

The Republicans skipped a slate of important votes, including a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package and a public lands measure to protect 1.5 million acres of new wilderness and to protect 1,200 miles of waterways. The Republicans had their proxies oppose the bills.

Electric Vehicle Tax Credit Is a Boon for Well-Off Americans

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

Lauri Mueller was ready for a new car. It was 2019 and Mueller, a 56-year-old freelance motion graphics designer, had run her 20-year-old Dodge Plymouth Neon practically “into the ground.” She had spent the last few years gradually moving toward a greener lifestyle—solar panels, reusable grocery bags, even an electric snowblower—and so she wanted a car that ran off battery power. She settled on a brand-new $40,000 Nissan Leaf, a birthday present to herself, because it came with an incentive: A credit of $7,500 taken off her federal taxes.

But Mueller was in for a nasty surprise. That “tax credit” was only worth as much as she owed the federal government—and in 2019, she only owed $3,829. The car ended up costing her several thousand dollars more than she expected.

The people who benefit the most are those with the most money to spend.

Mueller isn’t alone. According to one study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, 13 percent of electric vehicle owners overestimated how much money they would get back on their purchase. And her experience points to a much larger problem with the government’s primary strategy for getting consumers to adopt EVs: The people who benefit the most are those with the most money to spend.

Electric vehicles have long been seen as crucial to moving the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels: Many Americans are too car-addicted to abandon their personal vehicles, and the country is too tethered to its highways and suburbs to make a quick switch to a full-scale European-style public transportation system. (Sorry, mass-transit advocates.) A fleet of EVs, running on clean electricity, could help slash the 28 percent of U.S. emissions that come from transportation.

Getting Americans to buy electric cars, however, has proved challenging. EVs have been around forever—the first in the U.S. dates back to 1890 — but adoption has been sluggish. Even today, electric cars still cost thousands of dollars more up-front than their gas-powered counterparts (even if they ultimately make up that difference in lowered maintenance and fuel costs), and many people are skittish about having a car that runs out of power after a couple hundred miles. Between 2011 and 2019, less than 1 percent of cars sold in the U.S. were electric.

The tax credit was supposed to help. Started under President George W. Bush and expanded in President Barack Obama’s 2009 Recovery Act, the program gives purchasers of a new EV (or plug-in hybrid) a credit when they file their taxes the following year. The amount is scaled depending on the battery size: A 16kWh battery (like that of the now-discontinued Chevy Volt) is eligible for the max amount of $7,500.

A full 7 percent of the credits were claimed by people making at least $1 million a year.

But car buyers also have to make at least $66,000 a year—and have no other significant credits—to owe enough in taxes to get the full benefit. That’s one reason why the program has overwhelmingly helped richer Americans: According to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service, 78 percent of the credits were claimed by people making at least $100,000 per year; 7 percent were claimed by people making at least $1 million a year.

“It’s starting to be an equity issue,” said Gil Tal, director of the plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle research center at the University of California, Davis. A decade ago, he said, electric cars were more of a luxury item, only purchased by the rich—but now, as cheaper models are released, the tax credit may be standing in the way of middle-income Americans who want to jump on the EV bandwagon. Those buyers might not want to take on a heavy loan while they wait for the credit to kick in, or might not know how much they are going to make in the next year.

That’s what happened to Gene Cowan, a 56-year-old graphic designer based in California, who saved up to buy a Tesla Model 3 in 2018. He expected a $7,500 federal tax credit and another $3,000 rebate from the state. But after a rough year freelancing, he owed nothing in federal income tax, and, because he had to move to Washington D.C. to take care of a sick family member, he ended up losing the California-based benefit. “It’s crazy,” he said. “Because I wasn’t rich enough, I didn’t get it. It’s nuts.”

The tax incentive is supposed to convince Americans to buy electric vehicles who wouldn’t otherwise do so—especially middle-class Americans. But the credit only tipped the scales for 17 percent of EV buyers in 2015, according to one study in the journal Energy Economics. A whopping 83 percent would have bought their new cars regardless. Other analyses have found that the credit could be responsible for more like 30 or 40 percent of sales.

For middle-income Americans, there’s at least one way to still drive an EV. Tal, the UC Davis researcher, says that drivers interested in EVs can always lease — the federal tax credit gets applied to the dealership, which offers customers a cheaper leasing rate. This approach has been pretty popular: 75 percent of electric vehicles are leased instead of bought.“If I’m high-income, I’m going to buy my Tesla or Volt and I’m willing to pay full price,” said Tamara Sheldon, an author of the Energy Economics study and a professor of economics at the University of South Carolina. “But if you’re going to give me a tax credit or rebate—I’m not going to turn it down.”

But when it comes to purchasing an EV, Jay Friedland, director of the EV advocacy group Plug in America, thinks one way to tackle the equity problem is to move the credit “to the bumper.” That is, take the $7,500 directly off the sticker price of the car. That could be harder to swing politically—it’s easier to pass a tax credit than a direct subsidy through Congress—but would allow more Americans to take full advantage of the program. (A version of this already exists in California, where residents can get up to $1,500 off a new EV at the dealership.)

If Congress let used-car buyers take the credit, that would speed EV adoption by middle-income folks.

Another option is to provide a similar credit for used electric cars. In Oregon, low- and middle-income buyers can get a $2,500 rebate on a used EV; the state is also third in the nation for EV sales and leases. If Congress opened up the $7,500 tax credit for used cars, it could speed adoption among people who don’t have the funds to purchase a brand-new electric vehicle.

All of these ideas are likely to be debated in Congress over the next few months. President Joe Biden has made boosting EVs a pillar of his campaign—during the Democratic debates he repeatedly vowed to install “500,000 charging stations” across the country—and car companies are eager for the program to get revamped. The existing credit only applies to the first 200,000 eligible vehicles sold by a given car company, and Tesla and General Motors have already maxed out their quota. (Nissan and Toyota are getting close too.)

Any new legislation would likely lift those quotas, but could also help middle-income buyers get EVs. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has floated plans for a bill that would provide cash for old, gas-guzzling cars—much like Obama’s “cash for clunkers” program—and give a boost to those buying used EVs. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Representative Peter Welch of Vermont have proposed eliminating the automaker cap for the next 10 years and applying the credits directly at the dealership. And the GREEN Act, currently sponsored by 49 Congressional representatives, would extend eligible vehicles to 600,000 per company and add in a credit for used cars.

Whatever strategy Congress adopts, many hope that it will be easier to navigate than the current system. Mueller, who loves the simple maintenance and quiet engine of her Nissan Leaf, is still frustrated by her experience with the tax credit. “If you want to incentivize people to do something, it should be straightforward,” she said. “It shouldn’t be contingent on: ‘Oh, you didn’t have that many deductions that year.’”

The Real Threat to Women’s Sports Isn’t Trans Athletes. It’s Sexually Predatory Coaches.

On February 26, 2021 the passage of the Equality Act in the US House of Representatives piqued conservatives into a moral panic.

The bill, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, had a terrifying potential for Republicans: the presence of trans girls in high school sports.

There was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s statement that, “This really seems like an onslaught against freedom of religion [and] for girls’ sports as well.” There was Rep. Tom McClintock’s (R-Calif.) assertion that the legislation “destroys women’s sports and renders parents powerless to protect their own children.” And there was Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) tweet—in response to Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), who has a transgender daughter—saying, “Your biological son does NOT belong in my daughters’ bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams.”

All this language of the need to “protect,” the need to root out other children from “bathrooms” and “locker rooms,” is hard to square with reality. As with the introduction of “bathroom bills,” the anti-trans argument is a red herring. It is another example of conservatives standing athwart progressive social change in the name of protecting children—long a hallmark of right-wing reactionary politics.

But it is also particularly infuriating because all this effort has been summoned on a day when actual women in sports were in the news for being harmed.

While legislators on the House floor were pontificating about the demise of women’s sports, another story was unfolding. Yesterday, John Geddert, head coach of the 2012 gold-medal women’s Olympic gymnastics team, committed suicide in Michigan. He had just been charged with human trafficking and sex crimes against girls as young as 13. (None of the members of Congress have commented on that, from what I’ve seen.)

Geddert was a longtime friend of Larry Nassar, the convicted rapist who was accused of assaulting 265 girls as young as six. His victims included Olympic gold-medal gymnasts McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, and Simone Biles. Nassar admitted to sexually abusing girls at the Twistars Gymnastics Club owned by Geddert.

Abusive coaches are nothing new, and it’s not only sexual abuse. In 2019, Mary Cain, the youngest American runner to make a World Championships team, accused Nike coach Alberto Salazar of physical and psychological abuse that ruined her career. A Business Insider story from last year details the psychological abuse female college athletes from a variety of sports say they experienced at the hands of their coaches. And last August, Texas Tech fired two of its women basketball coaches after accusations surfaced of physical, mental, and verbal abuse.

This abuse, of course, is not limited to women either. Among the most notorious abusers in the sports world is Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach who in 2012 was found guilty of sexually assaulting 10 boys. Joe Paterno, the head coach who ignored reports of Sandusky’s abuse, was fired and died of cancer months later.

As scandal after scandal emerges about the pervasive abuse of young athletes, it’s time we reevaluate our priorities. Trans athletes aren’t the problem.

The First Online Chess Olympiad for People With Disabilities Is Expanding

More than 400 players from 45 countries competed in the first Online Chess Olympiad for People With Disabilities recently, and the games are growing. Programmers are developing a virtual platform for blind and limited-vision players to access “all the functionalities and possibilities” of online chess, according to the International Chess Federation (FIDE).

And a Recharge salute to five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, from India, who just launched the Global Chess League, with eight teams from across the world.

See? An entire chess Recharge without once naming a Netflix show and citing “soaring popularity.” If you have good news on or off the board, drop a line to recharge@motherjones.com.

Ted Cruz Screams His Way Through Bad Jokes at CPAC

Sen. Ted Cruz is back with his first big speech—one notably given far from his home state as it continues to reel from the devastation of last week’s winter storms—and reader, it did not go well.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual conference in Orlando, Florida, on Friday, the Texas senator bombed his way through what can only be described as an ill-advised attempt at stand-up comedy. Cruz’s routine cycled through jokes on so-called cancel culture—”Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t tell comedy anymore because every joke has been canceled” (what?)—while he intermittently scream-demanded for people to “JUST HAVE FUN” before reiterating his absolute fealty to the twice-impeached former president who had once insulted his wife’s appearance and claimed that Cruz’s father had played a part in JFK’s assassination. “Let me tell ya right now: Donald J. Trump ain’t goin’ anywhere.” Cruz also tried to make light of his disastrous decision to jet off to Cancun last week while millions of Texans remained without power, hospitals in his state ran out of water, and at least 80 people died from the catastrophic storms.

“I’ve got to say, Orlando is awesome,” Cruz boomed into the microphone. “It’s not as nice as Cancun, but it’s nice.” 

Cruz’s appearance in Orlando on Friday came as President Biden traveled to Texas to visit the recovery efforts. 

Sen. Ted Cruz at CPAC: "Orlando is awesome. It's not as nice as Cancun."pic.twitter.com/TghkHUhOPy

— The Recount (@therecount) February 26, 2021

Warren, Booker, and Sanders Push DHS to Investigate Allegations that Officers Threatened Asylum Seekers with COVID-19 Exposure

A group of US senators is urging the Department of Homeland Security to investigate allegations that guards at immigration detention centers beat asylum seekers into submitting their own deportations. “The allegations of violence and brutality against vulnerable refugees seeking safety here in the United States are unlawful and disturbing,” they write in the letter. 

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) sent the letter Thursday to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and ICE’s Acting Director Tae Johnson. 

The senators’ concerns stem in part from a recent story by the Intercept that uncovered how guards at two ICE detention centers threatened asylum seekers with exposure to COVID-19 if they didn’t submit to a “voluntary” deportation. As the Intercept reported Feb. 6:

Three Cameroonian asylum-seekers locked up at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana say that a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement guard threatened to expose them to Covid-19 if they failed to obey his orders and submit to a transfer. The guard made the threat clear, Clovis Fozao, one of the detained men, told The Intercept: If the detained migrants didn’t submit, they would be transferred to Bravo-Alpha, the detention unit where coronavirus-positive detainees are held in quarantine. 

“They were forcing us out of the dorm, pushing and dragging us,” Fozao said, explaining the altercation when the guards tried to force them to submit to the deportation. “They threatened to call the SWAT team. They said they were going to put all of us into Bravo-Alpha, which is for quarantine, where they keep everyone with coronavirus.” 

The senators wrote out 18 specific questions regarding multiple incidents in the past year. They ask for details about what ICE has uncovered in its own investigations, for audio and video of the alleged incidents, and specifics on how ICE ensures that those who are contracted to house immigrants in detention are following protocol to keep asylum seekers safe. 

“While abuse and neglect in ICE facilities has been endemic for years, these incidents have happened with disturbing regularity and severity under the authority of the New Orleans ICE Field Office in particular,” the letter reads. “ICE officials and contractors must be held accountable if they have refused to treat people in their custody consistent with basic human dignity and with DHS rules and regulations. Asylum-seekers should not have to choose between brutality at home or brutality while seeking asylum. They should have access to a safe, dignified, and lawful environment, including being protected from contracting COVID-19 during the global health emergency.” 

This alleged abuse was not exactly an isolated incident. “Over the past two years, similarly horrific abuses and conditions were reported,” the senators write, citing six stories by my colleague Noah Lanard. Noah has tracked at least a dozen incidents of guards pepper-spraying detainees, sometimes in response to simple requests for soap

The senators give DHS and ICE until March 11 to respond to their questions. 

McConnell: I’d “Absolutely” Back Trump If He’s The 2024 GOP Nominee

It took less than two weeks for Mitch McConnell to go from condemning Donald Trump’s role in the Capitol insurrection as a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” to voicing his unequivocal support for the twice-impeached former president should he win the Republican nomination in 2024.

“The nominee of the party?” the Senate minority leader told Fox News on Thursday when asked if he’d back Trump. “Absolutely,” 

McConnell’s full-throated commitment to a man he claimed to find “practically and morally responsible” for the deadly January 6 insurrection is further evidence of Trump’s hold among Republicans, despite rumblings of dissensions within the party. But the timing of McConnell’s latest comments is notable, as more and more Republicans surrender to the notion that Trump’s grasp will endure till the next presidential election. “I don’t know if he’ll run in 2024 or not, but if he does, I’m pretty sure he will win the nomination,” Sen. Mitt Romney said earlier this week. But the Utah senator and one of Trump’s most vocal Republican foes said he would not be supporting him. “I would not be voting for President Trump again,” he told the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin. “I haven’t voted for him in the past. And I would probably be getting behind somebody who I thought more represented the tiny wing of the Republican Party that I represent.”

Throw in polls showing that Trump remains vastly popular among Republican voters, and you see why McConnell doesn’t want to put too much daylight between himself and Trump. 

Sure, it’s not the most shocking turn of events. Knowing McConnell’s record, you could even call it inevitable. But it sure is astonishing that the GOP is clinging to a man who just lost everything for Republicans: the White House—by 7 million votes—the Senate, and any vanishing illusion that the party stands for something other than Trumpism. Capitol insurrection? What Capitol insurrection?

Mitch McConnell says he would “absolutely” support Donald Trump in 2024 if he won the party’s nomination. pic.twitter.com/9wZvMH5ZlY

— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) February 25, 2021

The Texas Fiasco Makes the Case for Creating a National Power Grid

You could point fingers in several directions for the outages that stemmed from last week’s polar vortex obliteration of the Texas power grid. You can’t rightly blame Earth for doing what it does, but you could certainly condemn the state’s deregulation of its energy system. Texas also remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and the power plants that run on them failed en masse. So you might blame those operators, but you can’t blame renewables for this one.

But you’re not likely to see many people pointing fingers at the obscure yet fascinating eccentricities of the fragmented United States energy grid. And you’re even less likely to hear that what happened in Texas could help spur the country to better prepare its grid for the ascent of renewables—and our descent into the ravages of climate change.

“The real failing of Texas was the reliance upon the natural gas backbone as the firm power source.”

In the future, the central challenge for the US will be obtaining power that is both clean and “firm,” in the parlance of energy nerds. “The real failing of Texas was the reliance upon the natural gas backbone as the firm power source, which of course wasn’t so firm, as they later learned,” says David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. He’s a coauthor on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report coincidentally released today called The Future of Electric Power in the United States. “If you want to decarbonize the grid, and keep power reliable, then you’ve got to have a clean, firm power source,” he continues. “That’s the central goal.”

But the US grid isn’t going to make the wide-scale sharing of clean energy easy—exporting solar energy from the Southwest, for instance, and wind energy from the Midwest. That’s because the mainland grid is divided into three sections. The Western Interconnection and the Eastern Interconnection meet at the eastern borders of Colorado and Wyoming, splitting the country in two. The Texas Interconnection is divorced from both in the name of energy independence, though it doesn’t trace neatly to the state’s borders—some of the panhandle is actually part of the Eastern Interconnection. And in the northern and southern parts of the US, our grids intertwine with those run by our neighbors. There’s a Quebec grid that exchanges power across the border with New England. The Pacific Northwest similarly exchanges with British Columbia, and Southern California with a little bit of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.

Each of these grids more or less does its own thing: Utility companies generate power and ferry it around their territories. These utilities are typically owned by a state, a municipality, or investors. The utilities regularly exchange power within an interconnection as energy demand waxes and wanes in a given area thanks to heat waves or cold snaps. So, for instance, in the West, high-voltage transmission towers carry electricity between Washington, Oregon, and California. But neither the eastern nor the western half of the national grid sticks tendrils into Texas in a way that would have let the state borrow large amounts of power when facing a massive, sudden freeze.

First of all, Texas would have had to fall back on a neighbor that was far enough away to not also be suffering an extreme cold snap. (Nearby states would be dealing with their own high energy demand and generation problems.) Even then, Texas could draw maybe 1 gigawatt of power from the Eastern Interconnection on a good day. For perspective, the state’s entire grid uses 60 gigawatts.

It’s not that the Western and Eastern Interconnections don’t exchange any power at all—they do it here and there at the local level. But they’re not thoroughly connected by those big high-voltage lines, which are the only way to carry electricity long distances. The Rocky Mountains quite effectively separate East and West. “It’s really evolved that way because in that part of the country, there just wasn’t much infrastructure,” says Jeff Dagle, chief electrical engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “And so nobody had an economic reason to build a bunch of high-voltage transmission lines to connect the grids together.”

To get regional grids to communicate, they would have to be synced to the same frequency.

And there’s another engineering challenge: The Western and Eastern Interconnections each hum at their own uniform frequency. If you had two meters and plugged one into a wall socket in San Francisco and the other in Seattle, you’d see the same readout. “Every motor, every generator, everything in that grid is running at the same speed in that entire grid,” says Dagle. “It’s kind of cool to think about.” But if you plugged a meter into a socket in New York City, it would be humming at the Eastern grid’s frequency. And, of course, you’d get a different reading in Dallas.

To get the Western, Eastern, and Texas Interconnections to talk to one another, they have to do so at the same speed. Electrical stations along their borders are indeed equipped to do this to exchange power across the interconnections, but “they’re very small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things,” says Dagle. “They’re really there for the economic value of the local utilities, being able to buy and sell power across that interface. But they’re kind of insignificant as it relates to the overall functioning of the grid.”

Texas also remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and its various methods of energy generation all failed to some degree when the polar vortex hit. The state gets 40 percent of its power from natural gas, but those facilities are outdoors, so their works froze up; they just weren’t prepared for such extreme cold. “You would not build a plant like that in Minnesota—you would put it indoors,” says Dagle. “So that’s fundamentally part of the problem.”

Texas’ coal and nuclear plants suffered frozen equipment too. Of all the state’s lost energy, 61 percent came from the failure of those two sources and natural gas. The other 39 percent of the loss came from wind and solar—solar panels snowing over and half of the state’s turbines freezing up. (The remaining still-spinning turbines played no small part in keeping the grid from total collapse. And it’s worth noting that proper weatherization allows wind turbines to keep spinning in freezing temperatures.)

This dearth of power coincided with extra-high demand for it. In the extreme cold, everyone needed to heat their homes, drawing electricity for powering space heaters or natural gas for central heat systems.

“The thing that holds all of this up is: Who’s going to pay?”

What could we do to create a grid that’s less prone to such disruptions? Build infrastructure to better link the interconnections. “They could build stronger ties between the Eastern Interconnection and the Western Interconnection and Texas to share power, and it actually would benefit them greatly,” says Ben Kroposki, director of the Power Systems Engineering Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, who studies the national grid.

Take a look at the map above. That WI-EI Seam is the border between the Western and Eastern Interconnections. All the blue in the Midwest marks where wind is an abundant resource. The gold in the Southwest means abundant solar. The green bathing Texas is both. While the state is still highly dependent on fossil fuels for energy generation, it’s actually rich in renewable resources. If all the interconnections actually played nice with one another, Texas could be the place where they met in the middle, exporting solar and wind energy to its neighbors and importing their power when needed. You know, like during a polar vortex.

Notice the time stamps at the bottom of the map. The peak load in most places is between 4 pm and 9 pm, Kroposki says, as people return home and cook dinner and turn on heaters or AC units. If it’s 2 pm in Arizona, the sun is blazing on solar panels just as folks on the East Coast are ramping up their energy usage. “You could be pushing solar energy back east,” Kroposki says. Then as the Midwest moves out of peak usage, it could push wind energy back west.

Also, on the days the sun isn’t shining in the Southwest, those states could import wind power from Texas or the Midwest. If the wind refuses to blow in the Midwest, those states could import solar power from the Southwest or Texas. Ironically enough, Texas—the utility outlaw—could be a uniting force between all these regions.

But the country needs to build out high-voltage lines to more intimately intertwine the three regions. “These kinds of things would help integrate more renewables, because you could geographically distribute them,” Kroposki says. “You could put more renewables in the locations where the resources are really good, and move the power easier around the country.”

“The thing that holds all of this up is: Who’s going to pay for this infrastructure?” Kroposki adds. “It benefits everybody, but not in a way that’s easy to collect dollars from.” Realistically, the funding would come down from the feds. President Joe Biden has, after all, promised to build out green energy infrastructure to create 10 million jobs.

Prepare for mountains of red tape, though. We’re talking about miles upon miles of lines crossing through multiple states, each with their own regulatory hurdles. “I think we’re in a world where it’s going to continue to be difficult to site large, long-distance transmission lines, and we suggest greater authority for [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] to be able to do that,” says Victor, the coauthor on that National Academies report. “But we’re under no illusion that you’ll wave a magic wand to make that problem easy.”

While we’re waiting for that to happen, there may be another way to reinforce our grids with renewables on the local level: microgrids. Northern California’s Blue Lake Rancheria, for instance, has loaded up on solar panels and batteries so it can “island” itself from the main grid if necessary. Last fall—the peak of the state’s increasingly dire wildfire season—the local utility cut power to swaths of California to keep from sparking a blaze, and some 10,000 locals headed to the rancheria for fuel and supplies.

Without power, gas pumps don’t work and water treatment plants go offline, so you get an additional water crisis, as happened in Texas. But in this case, the rancheria served as a powered-up oasis. “The Blue Lake microgrid is a small drop in the bucket for the California grid, so it didn’t make a big difference,” says Peter Lehman, founding director of Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center, which helped develop the microgrid. “But it’s a role model for how we can respond to those situations in the future.”

On a bigger scale, a city’s microgrid could incorporate fire and police stations, hospitals, water treatment plants, evacuation centers, and maybe even a grocery store or two. But these microgrids remain expensive. Battery prices are still high (though they’re falling), and each microgrid has to be purpose-designed for a given town. “It’s still costly to do this,” says Lehman. “But it’s a question of, how do we spend our money as a society? We’re essentially buying insurance. It’s an insurance policy against what just happened in Texas and what just happened in California.”

In the end, microgrids and a more integrated national grid could live in harmony. Microgrids would allow municipalities to become more energy-independent so they can keep the lights on following extreme temperatures and natural disasters, while a more robust network of high-voltage lines would make it easier to shuttle renewable energy around. “It could well be that the grid of the future is one that has a huge amount of decentralization, but still there’s a backbone of the central grid that provides vital services,” Victor says. “In that sense, you could have the grid of the past and the future simultaneously.”

Two Controversial Detention Centers Will Reportedly Stop Holding Families Long Term

In a significant change to family detention policy, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement will no longer hold migrant families at two South Texas facilities and instead use the sites as short-term “reception centers,” according to the San Antonio Express News’ Jason Buch.

The newspaper broke the story Thursday afternoon, saying ICE will now hold asylum-seeking families at the controversial facilities in Dilley and Karnes City “only long enough to administer COVID-19 tests and health screenings and to arrange for shelter and transportation.” (As of publication, ICE had not responded to a request for comment from Mother Jones about the changes.) 

Perhaps the most significant shift is that government officials will no longer conduct asylum credible fear interviews inside the facilities, which is one of the reasons families were often detained for long periods of time, according to the the San Antonio Express News. As the story explains:

Officials didn’t say exactly when the process will begin or how long it will take to release families, said Griselda Barrera, the San Antonio office director for American Gateways, which provides legal orientation to families in the 830-bed Karnes County Family Residential Center.

“The facilities are still going to be open,” Barrera said. “They’re still going to be holding the families. The difference between the process in the past is that families are going to be released faster, and the priority will be to release the families and not detain them.” 

An ICE spokeswoman wouldn’t confirm the details relayed by those on the call but said Thursday that there were 65 people in the Karnes City facility and 382 at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley. Together, the two facilities can hold around 3,200 immigrants.

Most stay there between 12 and 19 days, the spokeswoman said. Most recently, the Karnes County center was holding families that were going to be expelled from the country without being allowed to make asylum claims under COVID-19 protocols. In contrast, some of those who until recently were held in Dilley had been there for more than a year as they appealed deportation orders.

Advocates have been pushing for an end to family detention centers at Dilley and Karnes, as well as another in Pennsylvania at Berks, for years. Family detention was expanded under the Obama-Biden administration in 2014 in response to an increase of Central American families seeking asylum at the border. Detaining families in prison-like facilities was intended to deter more from coming to the border. 

The pressure campaign to close the centers has only grown since the pandemic began last year. The three sites—the only ones in the US detaining families—have reputations for keeping parents and children in unsafe and unsanitary conditions without proper medical care. Last March, three nonprofits that provide services to immigrant communities—Aldea, RAICES, and the Rapid Defense Network—filed a lawsuit on behalf of 37 families inside the three facilities asking for their immediate release as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The situation inside these detention centers got even worse last May, when ICE agents went to the facilities and presented parents with a horrifying question: Would you rather stay detained together or be separated from your children? In the latter scenario, kids would be released from ICE custody while their parents remained locked up in unsafe conditions during a pandemic. At the time 185 children were detained at the three facilities and some had been there for more than three months. (By law, children are not supposed to be detained for more than 20 days, but ICE has continuously kept families detained for much longer—even those with very young children.)

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This new move is just one of many actions the Biden administration has taken in his first month in office. Though, as I wrote earlier this week, Trump left Biden with a tight knot of immigration policy that will take some time to untangle.

While Thursday’s news signals a big change, the reaction from advocates, immigration lawyers, and nonprofits that work with these families was still mixed. Many agree this change is a good thing and the less amount of time children are detained the better. But, they warned, in the end, families are still being held in a prison-like environment, and the facilities aren’t shutting down. 

Bridget Cambria, ALDEA’s executive director, hopes this is just a first step of many: “I will tell you that amongst us on the ground, there’s nothing better than after four years of constant battles to get an email with some good news.” Still, family detention shouldn’t exist, she said, and there remains the question of what will happen at Berks. There are 30 people, around 8 or 10 families, currently detained at the Pennsylvania site, she said. 

In the short term, Cambria and other advocates will be watching to see if ICE actually moves quick enough during the screening process to ensure that children and their families are detained for the shortest amount of time possible. “Can that be done timely and efficiently? Of course it can, and I hope that they do,” Cambria said. “I guarantee you that RAICES and Proyecto Dilley and everyone here will make sure that happens.”

“Please Don’t Kill Me,” Angelo Quinto Pleaded. The Cops Kneeled on His Neck for Four Minutes.

Angelo Quinto had two fears: death and the police. He always told his mother to comply with the cops—don’t say anything, just follow along. So when the police extricated him from his mother’s arms, his only words were: “Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me.”

“Whenever I think about what happened that night, it doesn’t make any sense,” his mother, Cassandra Quinto-Collins, says. “I was just hugging him. He didn’t resist. He complied.”

As an official matter, her son died in a hospital on December 26—of what, exactly, the authorities have not said. But Quinto’s family says the 30-year-old Navy veteran was killed three days earlier in his Antioch, California, home, after cops took turns kneeling on his neck until he lost consciousness—the “George Floyd” technique, as the family’s lawyer calls it. There’s video of the aftermath. Quinto is limp, and blood appears to be flowing from his mouth as two police officers attend to him. “Can you take him, please? Please, please,” Cassandra Quinto-Collins says, out of breath. “What happened?”

Last week, Quinto’s family filed a wrongful death claim against the Antioch Police Department. I spoke with his mother, sister, and stepfather over Zoom on Tuesday, with their lawyers present. The family members held each other close and cried as they recounted what happened during, and after, the night Angelo Quinto’s two great fears came together.

Earlier on December 23, Angelo Quinto had been gripped by one of his “episodes,” as the Quinto-Collins family had labelled them. He’d been having these episodes since the beginning of the year—bursts of extreme paranoia that were never violent, according to his sister, Isabella Collins. During previous episodes, he would ask questions: What’s happening? What are you doing? Can you stay with me?

“He just needed reassurance,” Isabella says. This time, the reassurances didn’t come as quickly, in the family’s telling, and Quinto grew increasingly paranoid and fearful. He insisted his mother and sister stay close to him. He interlocked their arms at the elbow—mom on the left, sister on the right—and began to move around the kitchen of their Antioch home without a clear destination in mind.

It was Isabella who called the police. This episode had started to feel different, unpredictable—her brother was being physical with them in a way he had never been. She and her mother became concerned; Isabella threatened to call the police. Angelo didn’t seem to understand. He kept asking, “What’s going on?” But he was gripping his mother’s shoulders too tightly and ignoring her cries of pain. “My brother is hurting my mom,” Isabella told the police.

Why did the cops seem so determined to prove that Quinto or perhaps a family member had done something wrong? 

Antioch police officers arrived to find Quinto and his mother on the floor. She had him in a bear hug—as much to comfort him as to restrain him, Isabella says. The cops pulled Quinto from his mother, and soon one of them was kneeling on his neck, then switching off so the other cop could kneel on his neck. By the family’s estimate, the police kneeled on Quinto’s neck for more than four minutes in all, even after he’d gone silent and stopped responding.

Since 2015, the Washington Post reports, nearly a quarter of people shot and killed by police had a mental illness. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, police are 16 times more likely to kill a person who has an untreated mental illness. Advocates of police reform see the police, who receive a median of eight hours in crisis intervention instruction, as under-equipped and untrained to deal with these situations.

The Quinto-Collinses don’t understand why, when police entered and saw Angelo and his mother together on the floor, he had to be removed from her grip. They do not understand why one officer quipped, “Oh, wow, mom is strong.” They do not understand why officers had to fold him up, handcuff him, and kneel on his neck.

This is what the family has alleged in its claim. The officers who kneeled on Quinto’s neck, they say, left him brain-dead before he got to the hospital. (The Antioch Police Department has not responded to a request for comment.)

“This should not have happened,” says John Burris, the storied civil rights attorney representing the family. “All they had to do was talk to him. He was never treated as a real human being.”

When the paramedics arrived and he was finally rolled over, Cassandra saw her son’s bloody face, and his eyes in the back of his head.

“That’s the vision I want to take out of my mind,” she says, her daughter comforting her. “I knew, [at] that time, he was dead.”

Quinto officially died three days later, surrounded by family, with his mother holding his hands.

George Floyd died in May of last year, after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, setting off a nationwide reckoning in the movement for racial justice and police reform. The killing was soon followed by a smear campaign that attempted to justify Floyd’s asphyxiation. We learned, for instance, that Floyd had had fentanyl in his system, and that he had been in legal trouble before. Like Mike Brown before him, Floyd was “no angel.”

It turns out Quinto’s death evokes Floyd’s in more ways than one. The family has lots of questions about the behavior of the police in the aftermath of their encounter with Quinto. Why did the cops seem so determined to prove that Quinto or perhaps a family member had done something wrong? They asked questions about drugs, medications, whether Angelo ate. “Did you hit him?” they asked Cassandra.

The Quinto-Collinses were confused by the questions. All they got when they pushed back was resistance.

“No matter what you said, they came back with the same questions over and over,” says Robert Collins, Angelo’s stepfather. Cassandra and Isabella were then carted off to the police station, where they waited nearly two hours for the officers to question them. Angelo’s younger brother and Robert were made to wait outside the house on the driveway.

They weren’t allowed back into their home for hours, strung along by police officers searching the house. And when the police were finally done, the Quinto-Collinses found Angelo’s room in disarray. They also found a warrant (which they provided to Mother Jones) that authorized the police to seize property that “tends to show that a felony has been committed or that a particular person has committed a felony.”

Says Burris, “That really was to try and find evidence…he was a bad person, that he was operating in illegal activity, that he had some drugs in his room, he had weapons in his room—whatever they could find that would be illegal, to somehow muddy him up, to project him in a negative light.”

Antioch police collected, among other things, two cellphones, several photographs, and five vials of Angelo’s blood.

On Monday—two months after Quinto’s death and a month after the San Jose Mercury News broke the story—Lamar Thorpe, Antioch’s mayor, held a press conference on police reform. He mentioned Quinto, but offered no comment beyond condolences to the family.

Still, chief among his proposals was a “Mental Health Crisis Response Team,” not unlike the “Street Crisis Response Team” set up by nearby San Francisco last November. Similar Crisis Intervention Teams have been set up in 2,700 communities, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The small body of research around them suggests they are effective in reducing arrests.

The city has otherwise been quiet about the incident, dispensing information to the public only when pressured to. The Quinto-Collinses are just as much in the dark as anyone else. The family has received three documents regarding the death of their son and brother: the search warrant, a bill for the paramedics ($3,800), and the results of a blood test they had to fight to see.

After Angelo was taken to the hospital, Cassandra and Isabella were told by an officer that in these “cases,” the patient is given a fake name, and the family would not be able to get information about Angelo’s condition.

Still, early the following morning, the doctor called Cassandra while they were at the station, asking for her by name. A police officer rushed her off the phone. She never got to speak to the doctor.

At 6:30 a.m., Robert spoke to a doctor who expressed surprise that Angelo was alive. When he hung up, he says, a detective immediately started trying to reassure him that Angelo was in good shape. 

“They constantly try to tell you the situation is very different than what it is,” he says. “I’m not really sure what the overall strategy is, except to keep you confused.”

On December 25, after a day of trying, the Quinto-Collinses were able to see Angelo. “It was heartbreaking,” Cassandra says. He was in a weak state. Medical personnel had had to tape his eyes shut, and he was on a breathing machine. He was unresponsive except for a faint heartbeat.

That day and the next, they say, their attempts to get answers went nowhere. Eventually, a nurse allowed them to peek at Quinto’s blood test over her shoulder—just enough to see everything was negative for drugs—but didn’t provide them with a copy.

“Instead of looking to see what could be done better,” Robert says, “it seems like the system closes in on itself. It’s about hiding what happened and obfuscating the facts.”

The family wants to see changes to police training for mental health situations, in order to create a “process that treats mentally impaired people humanely,” as Burris puts it. And they hope that this is, at least in Antioch, the last case of police asphyxiating a mentally ill and unarmed man.

Of the police, Cassandra Quinto-Collins says: “I trusted them. I thought they knew what they were doing.”

Senate Parliamentarian Kills the Dream of a $15 Minimum Wage—for the Moment

In a major blow to Democrats’ plan to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, the Senate parliamentarian ruled on Thursday that the proposed increaser can’t be passed through reconciliation as part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

Democrats had hoped to include the minimum wage increase in a stimulus bill that could pass the Senate with a simple majority through a process called reconciliation, rather than with the 60 votes normally needed. The decision by the parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, means that $15 hourly wage requirement cannot stay in the relief bill as written.

It’s possible for Vice President Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, to overrule the parliamentarian, but the White House—along with the crucial moderate Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.)—refuses to pursue that option. The next steps are unclear: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will either have to omit the wage increase from the bill, or try to find a way to rewrite it to meet Senate’s parliamentary rules.

67% of Americans support raising minimum wage to $15 hour but it can be filibustered by 41 GOP senators representing just 21% of country. This is why we need to abolish it

— Ari Berman (@AriBerman) February 26, 2021

MacDonough’s decision comes as a major, if expected, blow to the national push for a $15 minimum wage. In a statement shortly after the ruling, the group Fight for $15 said in a statement, “We will not be deterred by an archaic Senate process that throughout history has been used to delay or deny progress for Black and brown communities while allowing multitrillion-dollar tax cuts for corporations.”

“Voters don’t want to hear excuses about process, procedures or parliamentarians,” they continued. “We want a job that pays us a living wage. We want dignity at work. We want and we need $15.”

The House Just Voted to Protect Gay and Transgender Rights

The US House of Representatives voted 224–206 Thursday afternoon to pass the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Three Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the bill, which passed the House in 2019 but died in the Republican-controlled Senate. The bill’s Senate passage still is not guaranteed, as it would need 60 votes to break a filibuster.

If passed, the Equality Act will amend civil rights laws to ensure protections for LGBTQ people in areas including housing, employment, and “public accommodations” such as retail stores. Proponents call it a necessary extension of the Civil Rights Act, while opponents have argued that the bill would infringe on religious rights, which were at issue in the case of a Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, and prevailed before the Supreme Court.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), one of eight Republicans who voted for the Equality Act in 2019, has had an about face and cast a “no” vote this time around.

— Chris Johnson (@chrisjohnson82) February 25, 2021

The bill’s passage in the House comes hours after Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), who has a transgender child, placed a transgender pride flag outside her office, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) responded by posting a sign outside her own office across the hall, reading: “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE. Trust The Science!”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has said he would not support the bill, citing religious liberties, and other moderate Republicans have declined to say how they would vote. If Republicans mount a filibuster, 10 of them would have to break ranks for the bill to pass.

“Illegal Alien” No More: The Biden Administration Drops the Label

In a major milestone for immigrants’ rights activists seeking shifts in language and law, the Biden administration has dropped “illegal alien” from government communications, taking federal agencies out of the business of branding people—instead of actions—illegal. The move marks the culmination of the yearslong “Drop the I-Word” campaign, spearheaded by author and Mother Jones board member Rinku Sen. Her movement is widely credited with creating much of the groundwork for retiring the phrase.

The shift was made in an internal Homeland Security Department memo directing officials to replace “alien” with “noncitizen,” and “illegal” with “undocumented.”

“I feel real pride” in the change, Sen tells me. Biden’s decision wouldn’t have been possible, she says, if it weren’t for many broader changes first, especially in the media. “This would have been much harder for the administration to do if we hadn’t first changed most journalistic and some governmental practice on the I-word.” Many newsrooms including ours use “illegal” only to describe actions, and Sen had amplified that distinction. (Tell us at the bottom of this post which language changes should come next.) But she’d met heavy resistance from larger newsrooms whose editors construed her pitch as a call for euphemistic substitution rather than a material improvement to accurate reporting.

“We faced a lot of cynicism from movement people, news consumers, and journalism at the beginning,” she says. “Some thought it would make no difference, some thought it was less important than focusing on policy change, and some thought there was no need for a shift. But as we told more stories about how the word affected peoples’ actual lives, momentum began to build.”

The Associated Press agreed when, in 2013, it dropped “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook after a group of 24 scholars issued a statement calling “illegal immigrant” neither neutral nor accurate. Protesters, including a son of César Chávez, marched outside the New York Times headquarters that year with signs that read “No Human Being Is ‘Illegal’ Drop the I-Word,” and delivered more than 70,000 signatures asking the Times to change its use. The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, had written, “I see no advantage for Times readers in a move away from the paper’s use of the phrase ‘illegal immigrant.’”

In response to the protest, Times standards editor Phil Corbett loosened the guideline but stopped short of a one-size-fits-all rule. He said “undocumented” “has a flavor of euphemism and should be approached with caution outside quotations.”

“Flavor of euphemism” is telling here. It too has a flavor of euphemism, and it gets to the heart of many language choices: Is there anything more variable and less neutral in journalism and law than a flavor palette? Maintaining any living guidelines is tough work made tougher by an ethic in journalism that assigns equal and equivalent weight to all interpretations of a phrase. Although “undocumented” doesn’t always fit—some immigrants have documentation short of authorization—“undocumented” has never been a euphemism; it’s always been a clarifying corrective to the euphemism before it.

That’s why a landmark Supreme Court opinion omitted the term “illegal immigrants” in 2012 except when quoting other sources. It’s why New York City’s Commission on Human Rights issued language guidelines to similar effect. And it’s a change boosted by Sonia Sotomayor when she became the first Supreme Court justice to issue an opinion using “undocumented immigrant.”

One of the unspoken assumptions of top editors is a need to balance the appearance of not getting out over their skies—jumping to a wrong “side”—with the appearance of not being a hired guard of old convention. That’s a separate debate. The clearest measure of language is which words serve the facts and truth on which our work depends. That’s all; the rest is reputational. The rest gets you friends and critics, but if you count on those, you’ve lost the plot, which is to improve accuracy, reduce harm, and frame fairly. “Illegal immigrant,” unlike “undocumented immigrant” and “illegal immigration,” is a grammatical misfire because it’s a misreading of history.

The archives agree: “Illegal immigrant” and “alien” are cudgels. “Alien” was baked into this country’s founding vocabulary to strip British of personhood and legal rights. It appears in the Alien and Sedition Acts to limit criticism of government and make citizenship harder to come by. That’s the backdrop of Donald Trump’s five uses of “illegal alien” in last year’s State of the Union, and his Justice Department’s memo telling federal prosecutors to say “illegal aliens” instead of “undocumented.” It’s the reason he named a National Day of Remembrance for Americans Killed by Illegal Aliens.

The Times has long avoided “illegal aliens.” But “illegal immigrants” is misplaced on the same grounds. It’s “pejorative,” says Richard Prince, media critic and author of the Journal-isms newsletter, who tells me, “Remember that in 2019, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists disinvited Fox News as a sponsor of its convention. NAHJ returned $16,666 after Fox radio host Todd Starnes’ comments about ‘a rampaging horde of illegal aliens’ in reference to Latin American migrants.”

“Why go out of your way to antagonize people? Language changes,” Prince tells me.

The Times’ internal guidelines still accept “illegal” to modify people, not just actions. In an email last week, Corbett told me, in part, “We are continuing to discuss possible additional changes. We encourage writers to use a variety of terms and be as specific as possible in describing individual circumstances.”

The truth about labels is that they constantly change, and editors without a trace of malice or misguided intention can be left using earlier defaults while judged by today’s practices—a feature of label evolution. But the euphemism treadmill is not what’s happening here. One has always been more accurate. Perhaps Biden’s decision to change will be a tipping point for the media too.

What do you think? Share your ideas below. (Our style guide is here.)

Why Do Meatpacking Workers Face Such Gruesome Conditions?

So far during the coronavirus pandemic, 284 meatpacking workers have died from the virus, and 57,453 have tested positive. As COVID-19 slammed slaughterhouses, they emerged as primary vectors for spreading the virus into surrounding communities. Yet the corporations that dominate the industry have been allowed to continue operating at full capacity without heightened worker-safety regulation, and have received just two fines from the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, totalling just $29,109. That’s slightly more the annual pay of a single worker making the industryaverage wage of around $13.50. 

It’s tempting to hang this staggering impunity on the Trump Administration’s zeal for corporate-friendly deregulation and open disdain for the industry’s largely immigrant workforce. But that doesn’t tell the full story. The Obama administration pushed hard to ramp down federal inspection of slaughterhouses, ultimately giving rise to conditions that imperil meatpacking workers. And for decades, the meatpacking labor force has endured high injury ratesespecially repetitive-motion ones like carpal tunnel—with little intervention from OSHA. Those conditions will persist after the pandemic unless Biden’s USDA and Department of Labor intervene decisively. 

What gives—why do food-related industries like meatpacking enjoy such carte blanche under Democrats and Republicans alike? A new report from the non-profit advocacy group Feed the Truth gets at the answer. Using data from the money-in-politics watchdog Maplight, the report shows how the companies that loom over our food system reserve a portion of their massive profits to invest in lobbying and campaign donations, and in doing so secure a friendly regulatory playing field. The report spotlights just one of the many ways Big Food shovels money into Washington: through the bigfoot trade groups they fund. 

Key findings: since 2007, the 20 biggest food-industry trade groups have delivered $33.7 million to Congressional and federal candidates and more than $300 million towards lobbying the federal government. And they tend to lean on lobbyists with strong ties to the precise federal agencies and politicians they’re currying favor with. The report found that 80 percent of the flacks employed by the top three trade groups—the Consumer Brands Association, American Beverage Association, and the  the National Restaurant Association—count as “revolvers,” or people who have swished through the revolving door and “now lobby the officials and agencies they once worked for.” 

The meat industry looms large in the trade-industry game. No fewer than five of its DC outfits crack the top 20 biggest trade groups: the National Pork Producers Council, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, the Livestock Marketing Association, and the US Poultry & Egg Association. Together, they’ve spent more than $26 million on lobbying and $8.5 million on campaign donations.

And they, too, play the revolving-door game. In 2019, 12 of the 19 lobbyists representing the National Pork Producers Council previously worked for the federal government or Congress. One of them, Anne McMillan of the DC powerhouse political-influence outfit Invariant, boasts prized connections in today’s Washington. In 2009-10, she worked as a senior policy adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Ca.). From 2010 to 2014, she worked as deputy chief of staff to Tom Vilsack—then the USDA chief for Barack Obama, now serving the same role for President Joe Biden. 

Meatpacking companies also throw their financial girth around by directly hiring lobbyists. Tyson—which processes a large share of US beef, chicken and pork—spent nearly $1.3 million million on lobbying in 2020, as the coronavirus ravaged workers in its plants. (It was in a Tyson pork slaughterhouse in Iowa where the company had to fire managers who had been publicly accused of betting on which employees would fall ill with COVID-19.) 

And it’s not just Big Meat. The seed-pesticide industry, dominated by just four companies, has also spent big. The industry’s main advocate on the Hill, Croplife America, lands at number five on Feed the Truth list of biggest trade groups, doling out $29.6 million on lobbying since 2007, and another $1.1 million on campaign giving. Five of its ten lobbyists had previous government ties in 2019. 

McMillan, whose 2019 client list included Bayer, a company at the center of an herbicide scandal now engulfing farm country in the South and Midwest. The herbicide, a tweaked version of an old chemical called dicamba, was released by Monsanto in 2016 (Bayer closed its deal to buy Monsanto in 2017). Dicamba has a strong tendency to waft off targeted fields and damage other crops and plants, thus essentially forcing farmers with neighbors using dicamba to buy dicamba–resistant crop varieties. The Trump administration studiously looked the other way as a new annual rite of mass herbicide drift emerged, declining to crack down on the products. But it was under the Obama Administration that both the offending seeds and the wayward herbicide passed regulatory muster and entered farm fields, despite warnings from independent scientists of trouble ahead.  

So it’s clear that the demise of the Trump administration won’t mean the end of Big Food’s sway over federal policy. Current USDA chief Vilsack embodies the revolving door phenomenon. In 2017, after serving leading the USDA for eight years under Obama, Vilsack quickly resurfaced as CEO of  US Dairy Export Council, whose members include Starbucks, Land O’Lakes, and the American Farm Bureau Federation, a massive insurance conglomerate and agribusiness trade group (landing fourth on Feed the Truth list). In 2020, Vilsack reported  $833,000 in salary from the group.

Vilsack retains at least one tie to the US Dairy Export Council. Its new CEO is Krystra Harden, who served for seven years under Vilsack in top jobs in the Obama USDA, and was also his top deputy at the dairy job. Between her stints at USDA and with Big Dairy, Harden was the chief sustainability officer and head of external affairs for Corteva, the seed-pesticide arm of the recently merged Dow and DuPont. 

The Feed the Truth report offers a couple of commonsense fixes that would reduce Big Food’s role in shaping policy: essentially, halt the practice of placing industry flacks in roles that shape food and agriculture policy, and ban Congress members from taking campaign donations from the industries they oversee. It’s “no accident,” the report states, that the House and Senate agriculture committees, which hold tremendous sway over US food and farm policy, are magnets for cash from the 20 largest food industry trade organizations. “The millions in campaign contributions represent an avenue for influence and access that’s not available to the average person; the concerns of everyday consumers, workers and small business owners take a back seat to the special interests of giant food corporations,” the report states. 

Voters of Both Parties Want to Ditch Plutocracy and Election-Rigging

A sweeping bill that would prevent partisan gerrymandering, limit money in politics, and expand voting access has broad bipartisan support, according to new polling by Data for Progress and Vote Save America.

The For the People Act passed in the House of Representatives in 2019, but then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring the bill to a vote in the Senate. Now that Democrats control both chambers of Congress, the bill has another shot at becoming law.

It turns out that Democrats aren’t the only ones rooting for the legislation, which is also known as HR1. Out of 1,555 likely voters polled, 17 percent of Republicans said they strongly supported the legislation, and 40 percent said they somewhat supported it.

NEW @DataProgress/@votesaveamerica polling on HR1 finds huge bipartisan support for voting and democracy reforms: pic.twitter.com/zRT73M73Zy

— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) February 25, 2021

The support appeared even more widespread when pollsters surveyed likely voters on individual aspects of the bill, like preventing foreign influence (86 percent support) and limiting money in politics (85 percent support).

We also tested support for each of the bill’s provisions, which are all wildly popular: pic.twitter.com/e05VUZvtz4

— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) February 25, 2021

The polling results are in line with what Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me earlier this week: that the aggressive partisan gerrymandering following the 2010 census convinced many voters from both parties of the need for reforms. “There is this distrust of the political class among everyday Americans, and there’s a sense that one of the things that makes our democracy not work was the fact that the maps were rigged,” he said.

He also said that there was a growing frustration among both Democrats and Republicans with dysfunctional state and federal governments, and with politicians whom voters believe are beholden to special interests. These feelings, pervasive among voters of both parties, translate into a desire for reform.

As for gerrymandering, “people also now not only know what the problem is,” Li said, “they know how to fix it, which is through making the process more independent, through commissions and other reforms.”

HR1 will be on the floor of the House—again—next week.

Zoom Just Added Free Captions After a Hard-of-Hearing Health Reporter Shines a Light

Less than a week after the health journalist Julia Métraux, who is hard-of-hearing, tweeted about Zoom’s lack of free captions as an accessibility and human rights issue, the company has met the call. Until yesterday, Zoom hadn’t offered closed captions on free accounts, unlike Skype, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. The feature is vital for deaf and hard-of-hearing users and many second-language learners. In a statement to Métraux last night after her inquiry for a Gizmodo article that published moments ago, Zoom said it plans to release live captions for everyone this fall, and people can fill out transcript requests in the meantime.

“It should not have taken as long to get captions on Zoom as it does for people to get vaccines during a pandemic, but glad it happened,” Métraux tells me.

Zoom said it made the change to “provide a platform that is accessible to all of the diverse communities we serve,” though Métraux also credits a petition by hearing-loss advocate Shari Eberts—with more than 80,000 signatures—and a class-action suit against Zoom from people with hearing loss. The combined efforts “likely played a role in the announcement,” she says.

Read her Gizmodo story, and keep good news coming to recharge@motherjones.com.

Biden Nominates 3 to USPS Board, Threatening Embattled Postmaster General DeJoy

President Biden on Wednesday announced three nominees to the Postal Service Board of Governors, a move that if confirmed, would tilt the nine-member board in favor of Democrats and could potentially lead to the removal of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.

DeJoy, a Trump megadonor, has been under intense fire for overseeing a series of controversial changes last year, including the prohibition of overtime work just as demand for mail-in ballots was skyrocketing and directing postal workers to leave late-arriving mail for the next day. Many saw these changes as an attempt to kneecap the organization and disenfranchise voters in the presidential election.

The announcement on Wednesday came on the same day that DeJoy testified before the House where he faced questions on the continued widespread delays plaguing the agency. DeJoy refused to take responsibility for the ongoing delays and instead blamed the agency for being “operationally faulty.” In one moment, when asked how much longer he expected to remain at the helm of the USPS, DeJoy was notably combative.

“Long time,” he shot back. “Get used to it.”

As my colleague Ari Berman noted last month, Biden’s move to fill the vacant board seats and seek more control over the embattled agency would mark a significant step in restoring democracy post-Donald Trump. It also could blunt DeJoy’s efforts to potentially privatize the independent agency.

DeJoy remains in place as postmaster general, promising to unveil major changes after the election that could lay the groundwork for eventual privatization of the postal service, a longtime GOP objective. “It’s like the Supreme Court,” says USPS expert Steve Hutkins, who runs the Save the Post Office blog. “Trump is gone but he left a Republican postal service.”

Since the USPS is an independent agency under the executive branch, Biden can’t directly fire DeJoy, who has no fixed term. That can only be done by the Postal Service Board of Governors. Trump named all six members of the nine-member board, which has a 4–2 GOP majority. But if Biden appoints three new governors, who must be confirmed by the Senate, to existing vacancies that would give Democrats a 5–4 majority that could oust DeJoy and roll back his changes to the agency. Stopping DeJoy is at the top of the list,” says Hutkins.

Biden’s nominees, which require Senate confirmation, are all postal experts. They include Anton Hajjar, the former general counsel of the American Postal Workers Union, Amber McReynolds, the National Vote at Home Institute CEO, and Ron Stroman, a former deputy postmaster general.

Climate Crisis May Threaten All That Depends on the Colorado River

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

Southern California farmers spend their winters watching the snowpack in the Colorado Rockies, and what they see is the climate crisis hitting hard. When it melts, the snow that falls on these peaks will, eventually, make its way into the Colorado River, which connects the Southwest like a great tendon, tying the Continental Divide in Colorado to Southern California’s hayfields, where the Imperial Irrigation District is one of the country’s largest, and pouring from the faucets of urban users in Los Angeles and San Diego.

From California’s perspective, the view upriver is not encouraging. More than half of the upper part of the river basin is in “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, while the Lower Basin is even worse off: More than 60% of it is in the highest drought level. In January, water levels in Lake Powell, the river’s second-largest reservoir, dropped to unprecedented depths, triggering a drought contingency plan for the first time for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has seen a sustained period of less water and hotter days. This is, as climate scientists like to say, the “new normal.” But within this new normal, there have been exceptional drought years. One of them was 2020. Last year began with an encouraging snowpack in the Colorado Rockies. But a warm spring followed, and, then the seasonal summer monsoons never came to drench the Southwest. The lack of precipitation persisted into the fall and early winter, leaving the basin in a condition dire enough that water policy wonks—not a crowd known for melodrama—have begun using words like “scary” and “terrifying.”

“In the 21st century humans will be forced to bend to the will of nature.” 

“In the 20th century on the Colorado River, nature was bent to human will,” the study stated. “Because we are now fully consuming its waters, and inflows are expected to decline, in the 21st century humans will be forced to bend to the will of nature.”

The current version of the Colorado River Compact—the legal agreement that governs the river—expires in 2026. It will be renegotiated over the next several years amid a patchwork of interests, including seven Southwestern states, myriad agricultural districts, the Mexican government, some of the nation’s fastest-growing urban areas, including Las Vegas and Phoenix, and many tribal nations, whose legal claims hve historically been discounted. A compendium of policies, historic water rights, court rulings, laws and agreements, the Colorado River Compact allocates water for tens of millions of people and some of the most important agricultural regions in the country.

The impending renegotiation will determine how that water is distributed as the demand for water outstrips the river’s dwindling flow. Meanwhile, according to numerous models, the impacts of climate change will only intensify. A recent study from the Center for Colorado River Studies predicted that the Lower Basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona could be forced to reduce their take from the river by up to 40% by 2050.

“It’s a red alert,” said Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program and former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “Everyone knows the red alert is ringing, and we’ve known this is coming for a long time.” 

OF ALL THE VARIOUS METRICS available to measure this challenge, storage capacity at the Colorado River’s important reservoirs is one of the most useful. In January, a study by the Bureau of Reclamation estimated that Lake Powell could dip below a crisis threshold by 2022.

This forecast is not the most likely one, but the study triggers a drought-planning process—an acknowledgement that the worst-case scenario could come to pass for one of the country’s most important water storage sites. In 2019, Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., hit its own version of this threshold, which led Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to voluntarily limit their Colorado River water use for the first time ever.

Put together, both Mead and Powell are on track to reach their lowest recorded levels ever in 2021, KUNC reported. Water levels in Mead and Powell languish at about 40% capacity, according to the most recent figures.

This future complicates the amalgamation of treaties, policies, laws at various levels of government, court decisions and agreements that make up the governance of the river, stretching all the way back to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the original interstate agreement. To give just one example, the Upper Basin states have long planned increased water use—water that the over-allocated basin can’t afford—thereby increasing the likelihood, according to the study, of a situation where the Lower Basin states would not receive their fair share of water. The result would be a “call” on the river, with the Lower Basin states demanding more water and legally mandated cutbacks for more junior water users higher on the river, including the city of Denver. The ensuing legal fights would be ugly.

This grim future hangs over the next several years, as both the Upper and Lower Basin states renegotiate the rules governing the Colorado River and work to reduce the water they use and keep crucial reservoirs filled. But these negotiations are difficult and political, with self-interest competing against the need to do right by the basin as a whole. Meanwhile, sensing profit in scarcity, Wall Street and hedge funds are pushing to privatize Colorado River water and allow markets to trade the resource as a commodity, according to a recent New York Times investigation.

The problem with vast water negotiations like the Colorado River Compact, said Marcus, the Stanford water policy expert, is that every entity, from governments down to people watering their lawns, come to expect the current amount of available water—even if that availability is an outlier or set to change. “Farmers can’t expect that they can plant whatever they want or not expect water to be expensive,” she said. “Urban areas need to get way more efficient, people need to ditch way more lawns.”  

Note: This story was updated to clarify that states are renegotiating the rules that govern the river, not the Colorado River Compact itself. 

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