Mother Jones Magazine

Hurricane Dorian Survivors Feel Abandoned

This story was originally published by The Guardian. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The silence along the Grand Bahama highway, the only major road on the island, is foreboding, punctuated only by the occasional truck driving east. The once dense forest on either side of the road has turned to bare branches. Houses and government buildings have been reduced to their concrete foundations. Cars and small jet planes have been left crumpled wreckages by 185 mph winds. Boats washed inland by the storm surge are planted among foliage.

The sheer brutality of Hurricane Dorian was on display to the few people travelling back towards the worst-hit areas on Grand Bahama, a thin strip of land that is home to 50,000 people.

As a lone pick-up truck slowed to navigate the smashed tarmac ahead, Shenelle Kemp called from the back: “We have no food. No water. We’re abandoned here.”

Kemp, 45, was heading back to her home town of High Rock, in the island’s remote centre, an area mostly turned to rubble that had only been fully accessible since Thursday after Dorian ravaged Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands in the north of the Bahamas archipelago, which is home to about 70,000 people.

As aid agencies struggled to reach the parts of the Bahamas most severely affected by the category 5 hurricane, some, like Kemp, had tried to take matters into their own hands. She was heading back to salvage what she could from a home and small business she knew had been destroyed.

The true scale of Dorian’s destruction here is still unfolding.

On Friday evening, the Bahamian prime minister, Hubert Minnis, updated the death toll to 43 but acknowledged that the number was “expected to increase significantly”.

“This is one of the stark realities we are facing in our darkest hour. The loss of life we are experiencing is catastrophic and devastating.”

“This is one of the stark realities we are facing in our darkest hour,” Minnis said in a statement. “The loss of life we are experiencing is catastrophic and devastating. The grief we will bear as a country begins with the families who have lost loved ones. We will meet them in this time of sorrow with open arms and walk by their sides every step of the way.”

On Abaco Island, reports indicated numerous uncollected bodies had been obscured by piles of detritus, the creeping stench alerting authorities to their location. On Grand Bahama residents told The Guardian that dozens of people remained missing, some were assumed to have been swept away by the storm.

Ishmael Laing, a 69-year-old engineer living on the island’s centre, was one of those lucky not to have his home destroyed. It sits on higher ground but was still inundated with storm water that rose to about 8 feet inside.

He watched as the winds, sometimes gusting at 220 mph, ripped off the roofs of his neighbours’ home “like they were feathers”.

And then, as the storm surge rapidly increased, he saw it “roll over” the home of a lifelong friend, Roswell, from across the street.

“He is no more. They haven’t found the body, but there was no way to survive that,” he said. “My nephew, too. He died. They found him yesterday. He got carried away with the flood. His whole building was gone.”

In the city of Freeport on Grand Bahama on Friday, hundreds lined up to try to leave the island as the Bahamian government vowed to evacuate every citizen who wanted to go. But there simply was not enough space on private boats to take everyone. There were similar, more severe scenes on Abaco Island where thousands were awaiting evacuation.

“It’s going to get crazy soon,” Serge Simon, a 39-year-old ice truck driver, told the Associated Press as he waited with his wife and two sons, five months old and four. “There’s no food, no water. There are bodies in the water. People are going to start getting sick.”

Later in the day the airport in Freeport, previously littered with debris, opened once more, meaning more aid was likely to flow into the island.

But around the same time, an international petroleum company announced that an oil terminal on the island had sustained severe damage during the storm, leading to a serious spill. The Norwegian company, Equinor, said it had not determined how much oil had leaked from its 6.75m gallon crude oil tanks, but there were no indications yet it had made it to the sea.

Phillip Smith, the executive director of the Bahamas Feeding Network, fronted efforts to deliver 20,000 meals to those most in need in Freeport. The aid had been provided by the cruise line giant Royal Caribbean earlier in the day. At present, he said, no aid had been provided directly by the government of the Bahamas, although assistance was being given by its National Emergency Management Agency (Nema).

Smith was aware of the challenges he faced in getting to the more remote parts of the island, cut off for days due to treacherous weather and impassable roads.

“Just going into the communities here is tough. Seeing kids who haven’t had a drink of water in quite a while, it’s a confronting thing,” he said.

Trump’s Campaign Manager Salivates Over Potential Trump Family “Dynasty”

While President Donald Trump occasionally drops dictatorial hints that he’ll serve more than a mere two terms, his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, appears determined to extend that fantasy to the whole family.

Consider Parscale’s performance on Saturday during a speech before a group of California Republican delegates attending a convention in Indian Wells. After the predictable talk about the long road to 2020, Parscale began salivating at the prospect of a Trump family “dynasty that will last for decades.” A moment from that fever dream, from the Associated Press:

“The Trumps will be a dynasty that will last for decades, propelling the Republican Party into a new party,” he said. “One that will adapt to changing cultures. One must continue to adapt while keeping the conservative values that we believe in.”

Parscale later declined to elaborate on his prediction of a coming Trump “dynasty,” or whether the president’s children could become candidates for public office.

He told reporters after the speech, “I just think they are a dynasty. I think they are all amazing people with…amazing capabilities.”

During the same event, a more pragmatic version of the campaign manager did acknowledge that the president was deeply unpopular in the state. “This is not a swing state,” he said, to apparent laughter.

Trump has yet to comment on the “dynasty” prediction. But it’s likely that he’ll welcome the remarks—as long as they don’t involve that other daughter.

Trump Cancels a Secret Meeting With the Taliban Days Before 9/11 Anniversary

President Donald Trump on Saturday claimed that he had canceled a secret meeting with Taliban and Afghan leaders that had been scheduled for the next day at Camp David, blaming last week’s Taliban car bombing that killed 12 people, including a US service member, for the abrupt move.

Citing the attack, Trump also said that he was “calling off” peace negotiations altogether. The talks, aimed at ending America’s longest war, had been going on for nearly a year. Trump vowed on the campaign trail to stop “endless wars” in Afghanistan and Syria.

The bombshell revelation—made in three tweets—that the meeting had even been planned was met with both alarm and disbelief. “You brought the Taliban to the United States the week of September 11?” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) tweeted, one of many to point to the troubling timing of the now-canceled meeting.

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2019

….only made it worse! If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2019

Trump’s stated justification for canceling the clandestine meeting was also questioned. According to officials who spoke to the New York Times, the meeting had been scrapped after it had become increasingly clear that the Taliban was unwilling to bend to US commitments of the deal. 

Julián Castro on President Trump saying he called off Afghan peace talks with the Taliban: “It's another bizarre episode. It's more of his erratic behavior that people are tired of and that's one of the reasons I believe that he's going to lose in 2020” #CNNSOTU pic.twitter.com/ZC4e0oNOUT

— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) September 8, 2019

“Why bring people like that to Camp David?” CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday. He continued, “I can’t help but think that if a Democratic president had talked about having the Taliban come to Camp David to negotiate a peace process that was not already a done deal, that you as a congressman, as a soldier, as a veteran, as a West Point graduate, that you would be rather upset.” 

“Jake, you’re just wrong about that,” Pompeo responded. “I’ve been fully supportive of this effort…I think the timing is just right. We’ve made enormous progress.”

Despite Pompeo’s confidence, few appeared convinced Sunday morning. “I question the whole idea of holding the meeting on the anniversary of 9/11,” Chris Wallace said during a segment with Karl Rove, as the two discussed Trump’s decision. “All respect to Karl, he talked about this deal was going to bring peace, but it wasn’t going to bring peace.”

Uh Oh, We May Be Overestimating How Much Trees Will Help Fight Climate Change?

This story was originally published by Undark. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Bob Marra navigated his way to the back of a dusty barn in Hamden, Connecticut, belonging to the state’s Agricultural Experiment Station. There, past piles of empty beehives, on a wall of metal shelves, were stacks of wooden disks—all that remains of 39 trees taken down in 2014 from Great Mountain Forest in the northwest corner of the state.

These cross-sections of tree trunks, known as stem disks—or more informally as cookies—are telling a potentially worrisome tale about the ability of forests to be critical hedges against accelerating climate change. As anyone following the fires burning in the Amazon rainforest knows by now, trees play an important role in helping to offset global warming by storing carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide—a major contributor to rising temperatures—in their wood, leaves, and roots. The worldwide level of CO2 is currently averaging more than 400 parts per million —the highest amount by far in the last 800,000 years.

But Marra, a forest pathologist at the Experiment Station with a Ph.D. in plant pathology from Cornell University, has documented from studying his fallen trees that internal decay has the capacity to significantly reduce the amount of carbon stored within.

His research, published in Environmental Research Letters late last year and funded by the National Science Foundation, focused on a technique to see inside trees—a kind of scan known as tomography (the “T” in CAT scan.) This particular tomography was developed for use by arborists to detect decay in urban and suburban trees, mainly for safety purposes. Marra, however, may be the first to deploy it for measuring carbon content and loss associated with internal decay. Where there is decay there is less carbon, he explains, and where there is a cavity, there is no carbon at all.

“What we’re suggesting is that internal decay in trees has just not been properly accounted for,” says Marra.

While the first round of his research was a proof of concept that necessitated the destruction of 39 trees to show that tomography is accurate, his ultimate goal is a nondestructive technique to enable better assessments of carbon sequestration than those done annually by the US Forest Service. Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ratified in 1994, governments are required to report annual estimates of carbon holdings in all their managed lands. The most recent Forest Service figures show that US forests offset about 14 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions each year.

“What we’re suggesting is that internal decay in trees has just not been properly accounted for.”

The Forest Service estimates that carbon makes up 48 to 50 percent of a tree’s biomass, so ones with decay will be less dense and therefore hold less carbon. But Marra contends that the visual signs monitored by the Forest Service, such as canopy and tree size, along with conspicuous problems such as lesions or cankers, don’t accurately reflect internal decay—a tree that looks healthy may have decay and one that appears problematic may be fine inside.

In addition, he says, foresters typically use a mallet to hammer a tree to register a sound that might indicate it’s hollow. “You know that there may be a hollow, but you don’t know how big the hollow is,” Marra says. As a result, he believes the government’s baseline data used to estimate carbon storage are not accurate.

“There are a lot of ways to improve our estimates of carbon being stored above ground in forests, and this decay component could certainly prove to be important,” says Andrew Reinmann, an ecologist and biogeochemist with the City University of New York’s Advanced Science Research Center. But, he added, “We haven’t really had the technology to explore this before—it’s still a little bit of an unknown.”

Marra used a two-stage system for his research: sonic tomography, which sends sound waves through the tree, followed by electrical resistance tomography, which transmits an electric current. Both processes are necessary to fine-tune each other’s readings.

The system, which costs about $25,000 and fits in a backpack, is cheap and small by scientific equipment standards. Each reading takes no more than a few minutes and computerized visual renderings of the results appear instantly.

Marra experimented with three northern hardwoods—sugar maple, yellow birch, and American beech—and included more than two dozen of each, along with some control trees with no decay. The researchers analyzed the lower bole—the first two meters or so—of each tree, which is the oldest part and closest to the soil, where most decay-causing fungi would come from.

A dozen or so nails were tapped in a circle around the trunk and connected by cables to the tomograph; a sonic hammer then activated the system to get sound-wave measurements.

For the electric resistance tomography, a second set of nails was hammered between the first, and electrodes—plus and minus—were attached to each.

The various nail areas were painted in different colors to enable the computer renderings to be aligned later with photographs of the cookies after the trees were cut down.

The cookies, about 4 inches thick and which Marra called “the truth,” were only taken from where the measurements were made—the areas with the paint markings.

He analyzed 105 cookies from the 39 trees taken down. In the 11 cases where tomography found no decay, the cookies revealed only one small cavity. In the 32 cases where incipient, or early, decay was detected, the cookies showed one additional cavity. The cookies confirmed the tomography results in 36 cases where active decay was found, though eight small cavities were also detected. Tomography correctly identified cavities in the remaining 26 cookies, meaning that it missed a total of 10 cavities among the 105 cookies.

“One thing to sort of mitigate against this failure, if you want to call it that—these were very small cavities,” Marra says of the ones the tomography missed. “So they would have very little impact on a carbon budget.”

Then came the time-consuming process of measuring the actual amount of carbon in each tree. After air-drying the cookies for a year, the wood from 500 drilled holes was sent to a gas chromatography lab at the University of Massachusetts to determine the carbon levels.

The tomography and lab results were then combined to calculate how much carbon was stored in the lower boles and to contrast that with the levels if the trees had been solid wood. Those calculations took until 2017 to complete.

“You’re looking at anywhere from a 19 percent to a 34 percent carbon loss” for an actively decaying tree among those studied, Marra says. “But any place there’s a cavity you’ve lost all of your carbon.”

The upshot of his five years of research, says Marra, is that accurate tomographic readings are possible in just a few minutes. “And what our tomography tells us is the carbon content,” he says.

At the same time, Marra is aware that tomography is not a practical substitute for the Forest Service’s carbon estimate system—which itself is a clunky and labor-intensive slog. But it could provide a valuable way to augment those estimates.

“Those are very, very impressive results,” says Kevin Griffin, a tree physiologist at Columbia University and its Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “They obviously have obtained a lot of precision in the techniques.”

“The results are important,” he adds, “but whether internal tree decay is the single most burning question? Probably not. There’s probably bigger fish to fry before we get there.”

Among them, he says are forest growth rates and overall tree health and age, as well as the impact of harvesting and other kinds of losses, including disease.

A tree’s architecture and height could also play large roles in carbon sequestration, says Reinmann of the City University of New York’s Advanced Science Research Center, as could the makeup of the forest landscape. His own research, for instance, found trees grow faster and have more biomass at the edge of fragmented forest.

“I think they’re making a good point that we’re probably over-estimating” carbon storage levels, says Aaron Weiskittel, director of the University of Maine’s Center for Research on Sustainable Forests.

Even so, Weiskittel and others—including Marra—say the research needs to be scaled up to many more tree types and full forests. For his part, Marra would like to sample forests randomly with many more trees and controlling for factors including species, age, and soil characteristics.

The goal, he says, is to develop a methodology for generating data to provide better carbon estimates for more than three tree types in one small part of the country.

“We need to use tomography to refine models so we’re more accurately assessing the role that forests are playing as sequesterers or climate change mitigators,” Marra says. “We don’t want to be over-estimating the roles that they play.”

Texas Lieutenant Governor Says He’ll Buck the NRA on Expanded Background Checks

In the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting in El Paso in early August, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick signaled he would toe the conservative line and blame everything but the gun the killer carried.

“We’ve always had guns, always had evil, but I see a video game industry that teaches young people to kill,” Patrick said, speaking on Fox and Friends shortly after the shooting.

But Patrick, a former conservative talk radio host, said on Friday that he was willing to break with the National Rifle Association’s staunch opposition to expanding background checks for purchasers of firearms. Speaking to the Dallas Morning News, Patrick said he now supports requiring background checks for private sales of guns between two strangers (though he still thinks there should be an exception for sales between friends and family members):

“That gap of stranger to stranger we have to close, in my view,” Patrick, a staunchly conservative Republican and avid gun-rights advocate, said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News.

“When I talk to gun owners, NRA members and voters, people don’t understand why we allow strangers to sell guns to total strangers when they have no idea if the person they’re selling the gun to could be a felon, could be someone who’s getting a gun to go commit a crime or could be a potential mass shooter or someone who has serious mental issues.”

“Look, I’m a solid NRA guy,” he said, “but not expanding the background check to eliminate the stranger to stranger sale makes no sense to me and … most folks.”

Prior to the 2018 election, Patrick was awarded an A-plus rating and strongly endorsed by the NRA, but the gun rights group was not happy with Patrick’s latest statements. According to the Dallas Morning News, the group issued a statement calling Patrick’s ideas “political gambits” and said they would  “resurrect the same broken, Bloomberg-funded failures that were attempted under the Obama administration.”

MIT Tried to Cover Up Donations From Jeffrey Epstein

In the weeks since Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest and subsequent death in a New York City jail, we’ve learned a lot about the willingness of some of America’s most elite institutions—and the people who run them—to pal around with a convicted sex offender so long as the checks kept clearing. One prominent beneficiary of the financier’s largesse was the MIT Media Lab. The research center not only continued taking Epstein’s money after his 2008 conviction for solicitation of prostitution and procurement of minors for prostitution but, per new reporting from Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker, made a deliberate effort to hide the relationship, even from the lab’s own staff.

Although the source and extent of his wealth was always shrouded in mystery, Epstein was well known in philanthropic circles before his 2008 guilty plea as an avid philanthropic supporter of academia, in particular advanced scientific research. He courted prominent scientists, wooing them with flights on his jet and showering them with cash, even as rumors spread of his interest in underage girls. After his stint in jail, he quietly returned to philanthropy. In the wake of Epstein’s arrest this past summer, MIT publicly acknowledged accepting $800,000 over the course of 20 years from Epstein’s foundation, and just last week the MIT Media Lab’s director, Joi Ito, a well-respected media intellectual who sits on the board of the New York Times, admitted to taking $1.2 million from Epstein for investment funds he controlled separately, as well as $525,000 to support the lab. [Update: Ito has resigned from the Media Lab.] 

Those two revelations were explosive enough, leading to the resignation of two top researchers at the lab, who criticized Ito’s willingness to take the money—including accepting donations years after Epstein’s conviction. But Farrow’s reporting found that the connection to Epstein went much deeper. Development staffers at the lab were well aware of Epstein’s history and took steps to limit any mention of his name in internal reports and on Ito’s work calendar. Some took to referring to Epstein as Voldemort, or “he who must not be named,” Farrow writes.

In September, 2014, Ito wrote to Epstein soliciting a cash infusion to fund a certain researcher, asking, “Could you re-up/top-off with another $100K so we can extend his contract another year?” Epstein replied, “yes.” Forwarding the response to a member of his staff, Ito wrote, “Make sure this gets accounted for as anonymous.” Peter Cohen, the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Director of Development and Strategy at the time, reiterated, “Jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous. Thanks.”

After one of the lab’s top researchers, Ethan Zuckerman, raised concerns with Ito in 2013 about his relationship with Epstein, Farrow reports, the development staff sought to keep Epstein out of Zuckerman’s sight when the financier came for a visit. Epstein did bring two young women with him, causing particular consternation among the staff, as Signe Swenson, a former development associate and alumni coordinator at the lab, tells Farrow.

On the day of the visit, Swenson’s distress deepened at the sight of the young women. “They were models. Eastern European, definitely,” she told me. Among the lab’s staff, she said, “all of us women made it a point to be super nice to them. We literally had a conversation about how, on the off chance that they’re not there by choice, we could maybe help them.”

Swenson resigned in 2016 partly because of “her discomfort about the lab’s work with Epstein,” according to Farrow. Zuckerman resigned in August.

The New Yorker story also contends that MIT pursued Epstein not just for his own money, but for his help in wheedling money out of other wealthy individuals. Internal MIT documents allegedly credit Epstein with helping steer a $2 million donation from Bill Gates and a $5.5 million donation from investor Leon Black. A spokesperson for Gates told the New Yorker that “any claim that Epstein directed any programmatic or personal grantmaking for Bill Gates is completely false.” Black declined to comment to Farrow.

Congress Wants to Know If the Air Force Is Propping up Trump’s Golf Course

The House Oversight Committee is investigating whether the U.S. military is being used to steer taxpayer money to President Donald Trump’s Scottish golf course, according to a new report from Politico. According to the report, House Democrats who control the committee have launched a broad investigation into military spending that might benefit Trump’s Turnberry golf resort and nearby Prestwick Airport, which has struggled to stay afloat but which is vital to the relatively remote golf course’s operation.

Politico reported that since April, Congressional Democrats have specifically been investigating why an otherwise routine Air National Guard supply flight to Kuwait was directed to stop in Glasgow—instead of an Air Force Base in Germany, Spain, or even nearby England—and the five-man crew was put up at the Turnberry golf resort, 50 miles south of Glasgow. The resort’s website describes a level of luxury far removed from the basic quarters Air Force flight crews usually enjoy at the airbases where they land. The most basic room at Turnberry features 

a hard carved walnut burl mahogany bed, with complementing hand crafted bedside tables featuring delicate gold leaf detail. Mimic silk wallpaper and cream wool carpets provide a doubly luxurious setting. Marble and gold is abound in the en suite bathroom with separate shower and free standing bathtub.

According to Expedia.com, the cheapest room at the resort can be booked next weekend for $286. 

The resort has been something of a money pit for the president. After purchasing it for $60 million in 2014, Trump has poured cash into the resort trying to upgrade it—yet it has continually struggled to make any money. According to Trump’s personal financial disclosures, the course brought in $20.3 million in revenue in 2017, but it still failed to turn a profit, losing roughly $4.5 million

Revelations of a new investigation into spending at the course comes on the heels of a controversial stay by Vice President Mike Pence at Trump’s Irish golf course—which also loses money—on an official visit to that country.

The broader Congressional investigation into spending at Turnberry also includes an examination of an increase in military spending on fuel at the Glasgow Prestwick Airport, which is the airport most convenient to Turnberry. The airport, which is much smaller than Glasgow’s main airport, was purchased by the Scottish government in 2013 to keep it from closing, but Scottish newspaper the Daily Scotsman reports that it has continued to lose money. The US military has become the largest source of revenue for the airport. According to the Scotsman, sales of aviation fuel to the US military have dramatically increased since the start of the Trump administration, with US taxpayers shelling out more than $11 million dollars between October 2017 and March of this year. The paper revealed on Saturday that in the past six months an additional $5.9 million has been spent. 

The Guardian newspaper has also reported that Scottish lawmakers have likewise begun raising questions about the airport’s operation, with opposition lawmakers demanding to know more about a plan by airport officials to turn the airport into a spaceport with US backing. As part of the plan, airport officials have allegedly been promoting the proximity to Turnberry. According to the Guardian, they have struck a deal with Turnberry to provide free rounds of golf and stays at the course to visiting American military and civilian air crews. 

You Don’t Need a President to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

This story was originally published by Slate and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Official warnings about Hurricane Dorian, which continues on its tight-spinning crawl along the Southeastern US coast, have now been supplemented, underscored, and bungled by the nation’s president. Amid the chaotic weather reports emanating from his mouth and Twitter feed, Trump has already mistakenly declared that the storm endangers Alabama, misattributed a request for emergency relief in North Carolina, and gone to weird lengths to ballyhoo and exaggerate the storm’s historical significance.

This interference with the spread of useful information is as mystifying, in its way, as it is annoying. This administration and its leader have proved willing to display a floundering disregard for almost every form of technical expertise over the past few years. But still, one might hope that an exception would be made when it comes to weather forecasting. This White House isn’t known for being overstocked with scientific experts, but it does happen to have extraordinary and surprising depth in the field of meteorology. So why not use it?

In February, for example, the Trump administration booted the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Timothy Gallaudet, in favor of Neil Jacobs, an expert in…weather forecasting. In choosing a meteorologist to run NOAA, Trump broke with a decades long tradition in which marine scientists like Gallaudet or space experts filled that role. Jacobs is the first weather guy to run the agency since 1977.

In taking the role, Jacobs joined another highly respected weather modeler in the upper echelons of the nation’s science bureaucracy. Last summer, Trump named the extreme-weather forecaster Kelvin Droegemeier as his director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Since most presidential science advisers have been physicists or engineers, it seemed like Trump was maybe making a point in bringing on a world authority on tracking storms—something like a meteorologist in chief for America, who could help the White House improve its shabby handling of hurricane emergencies.

The fact that we have such a deep bench of weather expertise in Washington only makes this week’s Oval Office clown show more depressing. I realize that Jacobs and Droegemeier shouldn’t really be the government representatives to answer questions on TV, or tweet out the best advice and information on a storm. Still, in the context of this image-first administration, I can’t help but rue the absence of their expertise in public settings. Droegemeier, in particular, could be far more involved in White House messaging on Dorian. After all, he isn’t just a very well-credentialed scientist and a founder of the Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms (though that alone would qualify him to speak out on the topic). Droegemeier also happens to be what the president might call a weather nerd “from central casting.” Bespectacled and big-eared, he’s a meteorologist named Kelvin who collects vintage handheld calculators and says he fell in love, as a teenager, with the power and majesty of tornadoes. If Trump can’t or won’t march this guy out for television briefings on a dangerous storm, what was the point of bringing him to Washington?

“That’s not his job,” University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass told me earlier this week, in reference to Droegemeier’s absence from the White House weather updates. “Kelvin should not be out there communicating the forecast.” Yes, of course that’s right. In a perfect world, this sort of messaging about a hurricane would be left to proper sources at the National Hurricane Center.

This is not that world.

It’s not as though Droegemeier is doing that much else with all his weather expertise. When he was appointed, some prominent scientists expressed relief at having a storm expert so close to the Oval Office. It’s very important to draw connections between extreme weather events and climate science, one former presidential science adviser told Nature in August 2018, and “there’s nobody better to do that than Kelvin Droegemeier.”

It’s very important to draw connections between extreme weather events and climate science, and “there’s nobody better to do that than Kelvin Droegemeier.”

Yeah, well. When the science adviser gave a speech about his main priorities at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February, shortly after he’d been formally confirmed for his role, Droegemeier made no mention of climate change. In a follow-up interview with Science, he professed to have insufficient mastery of the facts. “I’m not a climate scientist,” he said to a reporter, indulging in the now-infamous formulation, “and my work [as a meteorologist] is actually at the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Let’s put to rest the fantasy that Droegemeier will teach the president about the links between climate change and extreme weather. No one in the world is getting through to a guy who tweets “where the hell is global warming?” whenever there’s a cold snap and relies on his “natural instinct for science” on the topic. Still, as Droegemeier himself points out, meteorology is distinct, in lots of ways, from the study of the climate. (You need a very different kind of model to guess the amount of rain in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, tomorrow than to predict average temperatures around the world in the year 2100.) And while our government may be flubbing its analysis of long-term, global trends, there’s every reason to believe that we’re in a golden age of government support for weather science.

In fact, in contrast to the crazy-making battles over global warming, there’s been a recent push by Democrats and Republicans alike to strengthen and improve the nation’s meteorological resources. This project started in earnest after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which produced, amid its devastation, a significant anxiety over the sad state of US storm forecasting. It turned out that American weather models and supercomputers had lagged four days behind their European counterparts in successfully predicting the hurricane’s fateful turn toward New York and New Jersey. By 2013, both parties in Congress were working on a comprehensive plan to fix systemic problems with the nation’s weather prediction.

This project culminated shortly after Trump took office, with his signing of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act in April 2017. Since then, his administration has continually requested appropriations in support of weather science research even while suggesting cuts to science budgets elsewhere. Trump’s latest budget request, for 2020, proposed an 18 percent cut to NOAA’s funding overall, including a 45 percent cut to its climate research. But tucked amid the details was a recommendation that $15 million be appropriated for a new “virtual center” that’s meant to bring US weather models up to the level of our rivals’, in support of the goals laid out by the Weather Research Act.

Congress, for its part, has been even more aggressive about putting money into meteorology. For the 2018 budget, legislators increased the total budgeted for weather research by one-sixth, to $132 million. The following year, it added another 3 percent.

That’s why meteorologists like Mass have been feeling optimistic. “The head of NOAA is a weather modeler, and the president’s science adviser is a weather modeler,” he said. “It’s not only that you have those two people in place—Congress is in on it, too. There’s a tremendous opportunity right now to fix some of the fundamental flaws with weather prediction.” And yet, rather than seeing the fruition of this work, we’re getting oak-tag storm maps on TV that look like they’ve been altered with a Sharpie.

I’m glad the science is improving in the background. But as Dorian bears down on our shores, it’s worth remembering that somehow, and in spite of everything, our feckless and incurious commander has managed to recruit a brilliant team of experts on the weather. In the coming days, and in the face of life-threatening inundations, maybe it would be nice to hear from them instead of him.

This Apple Might Be the Most Anticipated Piece of Produce in History

After two decades of research and development, it’s no wonder the Cosmic Crisp, a new variety of apple, is causing such a stir even before it hits supermarket shelves: There have been launch parties, press conferences, Instagram Influencers, and a $10.5 million marketing budget.

On this week’s episode of Bite, Seattle-based writer Brooke Jarvis, who wrote about this new chapter in apple history for The California Sunday Magazine, told us about all the hype around the apple, a carefully bred cross between two other varieties called the Honeycrisp and the Enterprise. 

It’s been estimated that the Cosmic Crisp is the largest launch of a single produce item in American history, Jarvis said. More than half a billion dollars in investment have gone into planting Cosmic Crisp apple trees. Within the first three years of breeding, growers planted more than 13 million of them. They’re expecting half a million boxes of the fruit to be on the market this December.

But Jarvis noted that not everyone she interviewed was a fan of the Cosmic Crisp, which can only be harvested by growers in Washington state.

“There are people who are concerned about the movement towards more controlled intellectual property of agricultural products,” said Jarvis. “The reason that [Gala and Fuji apples] spread so widely is that in that case really anyone could grow them. All you had to do was get your hands on a sapling. Those days seem to be over.” To learn more about this much-hyped apple—like how it tastes, and what it means for the future of produce—tune in to this week’s episode of Bite.

 

Trump to Ukraine: No Aid Unless You Smear Joe Biden

Unfortunately, Fred Hiatt is right: this is astonishing.

I shouldn’t be astonished, but this is astonishing: The Trump administration withholding military aid from an important ally–apparently for one reason only: to corruptly pressure it to interfere in the 2020 election @postopinions @jacksondiehl https://t.co/vpoUVh4izE

— Fred Hiatt (@hiattf) September 6, 2019

We already knew that Donald Trump had directed Rudy Giuliani to press the Ukrainian president to open an investigation of Joe Biden’s son in an effort to hurt Biden. But apparently he’s doing more than just pressing:

Mr. Zelensky has so far failed to win the backing of President Trump. Not only has Mr. Trump refused to grant the Ukrainian leader a White House visit, but also he has suspended the delivery of $250 million in U.S. military aid to a country still fighting Russian aggression in its eastern provinces.

Some suspect Mr. Trump is once again catering to Mr. Putin, who is dedicated to undermining Ukrainian democracy and independence. But we’re reliably told that the president has a second and more venal agenda: He is attempting to force Mr. Zelensky to intervene in the 2020 U.S. presidential election by launching an investigation of the leading Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. Mr. Trump is not just soliciting Ukraine’s help with his presidential campaign; he is using U.S. military aid the country desperately needs in an attempt to extort it.

This week’s obsession with Sharpiegate was all good fun, but today we learned that Trump, as usual, is taking it very, very seriously indeed: he strong-armed NOAA into issuing a late-Friday press release saying, wrongly, that Alabama had been in danger from Hurricane Dorian all along. In the great scheme of things, this doesn’t matter much except as yet another example of how Trump works. On a much bigger, more corrupt scale it’s the same thing that’s happening with Ukraine.

This Entire Week Has Been Incredibly Depressing. But Then Today in New York I Saw a Young Woman Give People Hope.

Outside the United Nations headquarters in New York, a group of about 25 students braced themselves against strong winds from Hurricane Dorian on Friday. Ranging in age from elementary to college students, they held signs that read “As the oceans rise, so will we” and “GREED KILLS,” and chanted, “We are unstoppable, a better world is possible.”

These student-led strikes have been going on in New York every Friday for 39 weeks and are known as Fridays for Future. This week’s protest featured Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who began the school climate strike movement which gained traction worldwide.

“We shouldn’t be talking about ‘believing’ in the climate crisis,” Thunberg said during the rally that followed the students’ quiet protest. “Either you understand and accept the science, or you don’t. As long as we keep talking about believing, or thinking climate change is real, then it’s seen as something you choose to believe in, and then it gets turned into an opinion. And if it’s an opinion, it can be debated.”

Alexandria Villaseñor, the 14-year-old climate activist who organizes the weekly, student-led strikes in New York known as Fridays for Future, said that she wants to see world leaders reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally. The eighth-grader was present for about half of Wednesday’s town hall. “I think any potential world leader needs to really realize what’s at stake here and has to realize that they have to stand up for our generation, or else my generation will continue to demand that they do,” she said.

The students have wide-ranging visions of an environmentally sustainable future, but they have identified three specific demands that they want to see enacted in New York. Sixteen-year-old Olivia Wohlgemuth read the demands: no more fossil fuels, a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and holding polluters accountable.

On Sept. 20, the students are planning a citywide strike beginning at 12 p.m. at New York’s Foley Square and culminating in a rally in Battery Park at 3 p.m.

Greta Thunberg surrounded by student climate strikers

Sam Van Pykeren

Alexandria Villaseñor, a 14-year-old climate activist from New York

Sam Van Pykeren 

Caroll Kern, a 26-year-old fashion designer who joined the student protestors

Sam Van Pykeren Sam Van Pykeren

Hurricane Dorian Could Slam 67 Toxic Sites. But Hundreds More Are at Risk.

Ten days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on August 25, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that reversed an Obama administration directive that required infrastructure projects using federal funding—like roadways and stormwater infrastructure—to be designed to accommodate the rising sea levels associated with climate change.

After Harvey dumped more than 60 inches of rainfall over southeastern Texas, one of the sites designated to be in need of clean up—which the EPA calls Superfund sites—flooded. Even a year later, local media were reporting on concerns about high levels of toxins still present at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site.

There are thousands of contaminated sites in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency says on its website, “due to hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open, or otherwise improperly managed.” And as Hurricane Dorian made landfall over the coast of North Carolina Friday and dropped heavy rainfall in the area, scientists worry about a repetition of what happened with Hurricane Harvey: Chemicals being swept up in stormwaters and spreading into nearby communities. 

“The thing that I’m worried about the most is Superfund sites hold the most dangerous chemicals known to mankind,” Jacob Carter, a research scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says. “If the hurricane breaches Superfund sites, those chemicals can be carried with floodwaters into communities, likely disadvantaged communities which tend to be located closest to Superfund sites.”

There are multiple ways chemicals can end up leeching from Superfund sites during a hurricane like Dorian. The sites don’t even have to be directly in the storm’s path to be at risk, but in the general area that’s facing storm surge and flooding. 

But water is not the only problem. Projected winds of over 100 miles an hour could create a “wind swath,” which means the areas potentially affected by sustained winds of tropical storm force or hurricane force. 

For the current forecast of states that Dorian might affect, Union of Concerned Scientists research assistant Casey Kalman identified the hundreds of Superfund sites that are most vulnerable to Hurricane Dorian. There are 67 Superfund sites within the probabilistic storm surge area from Dorian, and within that group, 10 sites are particularly vulnerable by being in both the probabilistic storm surge area and the storm surge inundation area. And there are also 287 Superfund sites within Dorian’s “wind swath.”

“Those chemicals can end up in parks where children play and homes if they’re flooded,Carter notes. 

The maps below show the number of counties in North Carolina and South Carolina that have sites with known or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants which the EPA has listed on their National Priorities List. In 2018, the New York Times reported, “The Carolinas are home to more than 70 high-priority Superfund hazardous-waste sites, including a former smelting plant in North Charleston near the coast that is contaminated with arsenic, antimony and other substances linked to health problems including cancer.” Following Hurricane Florence’s damage to the Carolinas, EPA noted as of October 3, 2018, that their assessment teams conducted preliminary inspections on 113 NPL sites, finding issues at only one site. Their update reads, “Due to flooding, the EPA found offsite impacts at the Burlington Industries Cheraw site located in Cheraw, SC. EPA is currently conducting a removal action at this site.”

Plus, Hurricane Florence triggered toxic coal ash spills in the Carolinas. At the time, Waterkeeper Alliance collected water samples across North Carolina to survey the damage and found high levels of arsenic in the Neuse River. When chemicals are swept up in floodwaters, “it’s impossible to characterize how much contamination washes away,” says Daniel Estrin of Waterkeeper Alliance, “and it never really goes away.”

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Here’s a Better Look at Blue-Collar Wage Growth

Earlier today I noted that weekly blue-collar wages had increased a lot in August. Unfortunately, this is a series I don’t look at routinely, and I made a mistake I’ve criticized in others: looking at annualized monthly growth, which is often very noisy:

On an annualized basis, blue-collar wages in August did indeed grow 7.7 percent from July. But that’s hardly unusual, and there are plenty of months where wages have declined by that much. It’s better to look at year-over-year growth:

Adjusted for inflation, blue-collar wages were up 1 percent in August compared to last year. That’s decent growth, but nothing astronomical.

North Carolina Braces for Another Flood of Hog Poop

It’s emerging as an annual rite: A massive hurricane roars across North Carolina and deposits epic amounts of water on the state’s coastal plain, home to a tangle of rivers intertwined with one of the globe’s most intense concentrations of industrial-scale hog and chicken operations. 

What could go wrong? Well, in 2018, extreme rains and flooding from Hurricane Florence inundated the region, killing millions of chickens and thousands of hogs and overtopping at least 49 manure “lagoons”—open cesspits that store hog’s feces and urine. In the aftermath, positive tests for E. coli and total fecal coliform bacteria in the region’s private wells spiked, state data analyzed by the Raleigh News & Observer shows. (Here’s Environmental Working Group’s map of Florence’s rainfall amounts and the placement of big livestock operations in southeastern North Carolina.) Two years earlier, Hurricane Matthew triggered a strikingly similar catastrophe

As Hurricane Dorian makes landfall at the coast, what preparations has the region’s meat industry made to prevent yet another replay? In a recent statement on its website, the North Carolina Pork Producers Council, the industry’s trade group, claims “Great strides in hurricane preparation, response.” But the document lists no actual preparations—it mainly downplays the impact of previous hurricanes. (The NCPCC has not returned multiple requests for comment.)

According to Will Hendrick, senior attorney and manager for the environmental nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliances’s North Carolina division, the industry has changed “nothing whatsoever” in response to the the 2016 an 2018 hurricanes—in fact it has pushed to lighten regulations, he says. 

One example is the rule preventing hog facility operators from spraying fields with manure just before big storms. To dispose of hog manure, operators tend to spray it on nearby farm fields as fertilizer. Doing so before a massive rain event, however, virtually ensures that the sprayed feces and urine will be be washed away into waterways. Operators are tempted to do it, because spraying opens space in their lagoons, reducing the odds that they’ll be overtopped by a flood and gush more manure. 

Under current state code, farmers have to halt spraying within four hours of a hurricane warning, tropical storm warning, or flood watch issued by the National Weather Service. The NC Department of Environmental Quality recently extended the spray window to 12 hours, with new rules that don’t take effect until Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, some hog operations appear to be violating the four-hour rule that remains in place until next month. Aerial flights commissioned by the NC Waterkeepers documented five instances on Thursday of CAFO operators spraying manure onto fields after the four-hour window, Hendrick says. 

In 2016, Tropical Storm Hermine and Hurricane Matthew also inspired spasms of pre-storm spraying beyond the four-hour limited, reports Barry Yeoman in a recent article for the Food and Environment Reporting Network. A group called Cape Fear River Watch documented the violations in aerial photos, but the DEQ declined to take action against them. 

While North Carolina’s low-lying coastal plain houses more than 900 large operations housing more than 3.8 million hogs, at least the industry is not growing: A moratorium on new open-air manure cesspits has been in place since 2000. The poultry industry, however, has been expanding dramatically in the region, and now produces more total manure than its hog counterpart, according to a February report from Environmental Working Group. Altogether, the state’s inventory of farm chickens jumped from 106.1 million in 1997 to 873.6 million in 2018, US Agricultural Census data show. 

As it is with hogs, the flood-prone coastal plains is a major site of poultry production. North Carolina’s Duplin County, which endured massive flooding during Matthew and Florence, is by far the largest producer of both hogs and chicken.

Note the heavy coastal concentration of hogs… 

 

USDA, NASS

… and chickens:

USDA NASS

Why would the industry cram so many animals—and their waste—in a region so prone to massive storms? As I showed in a post last year: 

Short summary: Residents of the area tend to have lower incomes—and are more likely to be black and Native American—than other parts of the state. In other words … the industry has parked itself into an area populated by marginalized people with few resources to defend themselves against environmental threats.  

 

4 Automakers Sided With California Over Air Pollution. Now Trump’s DOJ Is Investigating Them.

This story was originally published by HuffPost and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Justice Department has reportedly opened an antitrust investigation into four major automakers that struck a deal with California on vehicle-emissions standards in July, sidestepping opposition from the White House.

The automakers―Ford Motor Co., BMW AG, Volkswagen AG and Honda Motor Co.―had said they would voluntarily agree to recognize the state’s authority to set vehicle emissions rules. This clashed with the Trump administration, which argued that federal law should prevent California from setting its own emissions rules.

The Justice Department is now looking into whether the automakers violated federal competition law by making the agreement, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

A spokesperson for Honda, reached by the Journal, said the company plans to cooperate with the investigation.

“Honda will work cooperatively with the Department of Justice with regard to the recent emissions agreement reached between the State of California and various automotive manufacturers, including Honda,” the company said.

In the months after taking office, the Trump administration has worked to roll back efforts to cut emissions standards that were set by the Obama administration. The White House has argued that the standards make vehicles more expensive and less safe for consumers.

Advocates of the emissions agreement argue that it would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to help curb climate change as well as encourage a transition to electric vehicles.

Mary D. Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board which sets the state’s air quality standards and verifies automakers’ emissions compliance, was among those who immediately spoke out against the DOJ’s investigation. In a statement obtained by HuffPost, she questioned the motive of the Environmental Protection Agency and its administrator, Andrew Wheeler.

“The US Department of Justice brings its weight to bear against auto companies in an attempt to frighten them out of voluntarily making cleaner, more efficient cars and trucks than EPA wants. Consumers might ask, who is Andy Wheeler protecting?” she asked.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who advocated for the emissions deal, similarly spoke out against the Trump administration on Friday while calling the president a “bully.”

“The Trump Administration has been attempting and failing to bully car companies for months now,” he said in a statement obtained by HuffPost. “We remain undeterred. California stands up to bullies and will keep fighting for stronger clean car protections that protect the health and safety of our children and families.”

Newsom, earlier on Twitter, additionally criticized the president’s plan to revoke the state’s legal authorities to regulate emissions, declaring: “We’ll see him in court.”

Mathew Miller, who served as a spokesperson for former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, also called news of the DOJ’s investigation “disturbing.”

“This is a really disturbing abuse of power and another sign of how politicized DOJ has become,” he tweeted. “Antitrust law doesn’t exist to punish companies for adopting policies you don’t like.”

The 2020 Dems Have No Serious Plan for Addressing the Single Biggest Source of US Pollution

The CNN Climate Crisis Town Hall made it clear that Democrats are encountering a much stronger appetite than ever before from their base for substantive action to address climate change. Even though the baseline for what constitutes a strong climate action plan has changed, there are still rifts among the candidates on the role of nuclear power, the future of fracking, and carbon pricing. Naturally, CNN spent a lot of time interrogating them on these issues during the seven-hours of their forum on climate. 

Yet, there was one crucial area that was treated as an afterthought: Transportation.

All the presidential candidates have one easy answer for what they would do, which is to reverse President Donald Trump’s unprecedented rollback of auto pollution standards. The Trump administration is trying to revoke California’s waiver to pursue stronger standards for fuel efficiency that cut the transportation sector’s footprint. On Friday, Trump officials sent a letter to California warning that a recent deal it struck with four major automakers “appears to be inconsistent with federal law.” The Justice Department has also launched an antitrust inquiry into the automakers’ arrangement, reports the New York Times

Yet a 2021 reversal of this doesn’t mean the transportation problem is going away. Transportation has become the top source of US pollution, accounting for 29 percent of greenhouse gas pollution, even as the power sector has become cleaner. The margin is only expected to grow. With electric vehicles sales still at barely 1 percent of the US market, Americans’ desire for SUVs after a brief slump has become reinvigorated. Globally, industries like the shipping business and air travel are growing.

“I don’t feel that the party is really reckoning with the importance that land-use planning will have as a tool for fighting climate change,” Leah Stokes, UC Santa Barbara Political Science Professor, told me. “I think that the Democratic primary has not focused as much on density, land-use planning and its links to transportation.”

“I don’t feel that the party is really reckoning with the importance that land-use planning will have as a tool for fighting climate change.”

Decarbonizing these sectors gets a lot harder than sustaining and adding to the recent progress the US has made in retiring coal plants—admittedly a lot of that effort has been replaced by another climate problem, natural gas. Any change requires shifting the kinds of cars people want to buy and the way we travel. It eventually also requires figuring out how to get existing vehicles off the road in exchange for more fuel-efficient options. 

Dealing with all this requires a different vision than slapping new infrastructure on top of the old systems. It’s easier, and more politically popular perhaps, to focus on the job-creation aspects of the plans. And that’s probably why so many of the plans emphasize the old-fashioned New-Deal-style jobs programs over tackling our highway addiction.

“If we are able to move in a direction that we have 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles, what does that do?” Joe Biden said at the town hall. “Well, that gives us a corner on the electric vehicle market. That will create thousands of good jobs in the automobile industry.” Elizabeth Warren adopted her plan from Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who centered his entire campaign around climate. It goes further to embrace the goal of hitting 100 percent zero-emissions for new cars by 2030. It also proposes charging stations for cars at every federal highway rest stop, a clean fuel standard involving biofuels, and a cash-for-clunkers program. 

Bernie Sanders’ plan does all this and more, but it also includes one more policy that isn’t about to help cut transportation emissions. Not to pick on Sanders—his plan is just the most detailed out there—but what he is suggesting goes to the heart of the American problem of how we think about infrastructure. Alongside funding for public transit and upgrading water infrastructure, he also include more funding for highways and roads, promising more resiliency to climate impacts but not much else. Highways tend to exacerbate pollution by increasing the reliance on personal vehicles at the expense of a robust public transportation program.

Here are some of the relevant parts of Sanders’ plan

“Increase funding for roads. Our national roads and highway system is crumbling. That’s why Bernie’s Rebuild America Act provides $75 billion for the National Highway Trust Fund to improve roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure in the United States and another $2 billion for other surface transportation needs.

Retrofit our public infrastructure to withstand climate impacts. Beyond repairing our existing crumbling infrastructure, we must ensure that our public highways, bridges and water systems are ready for climate impacts we know are coming. We will invest $636.1 billion in our roads, bridges, and water infrastructure to ensure it is resilient to climate impacts, and another $300 billion to ensure that all new infrastructure built over the next 10 years is also resilient.”

This is exactly the kind of infrastructure that incentivizes more SUV driving and more sprawl. Not only that, but the building of highways and roads involves cement, which unleashes even more carbon into the atmosphere. His proposal does also include funding for mass transit. 

“Even in Bernie Sanders’ plan,” Stokes noted, “there is two times as much marked for road infrastructure, generally, as public transit. I understand some of that [almost] $700 billion is for water and infrastructure, but there’s a lot of money for low-density status-quo.”

A line in Sanders’ plan might unintentionally summarize the essential problem of this kind of dated thinking among many of the candidates: “We will invest in nationwide electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to increase access to these resources for all,” he wrote, “just as we built an interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Fixing the transportation problem won’t be as simple as an upgrade to the 1950s-era interstate highway system. It requires a different way of thinking about urban planning and public transportation that doesn’t incentivize Americans to stick with their SUVs. 

The town hall had robust discussion, but it didn’t even crack the surface of these problems—which suggests that they may be here to stay. 

Health Officials Are Investigating 450 Cases of Serious Lung Illness Linked to Vaping

Health officials say they are now investigating 450 possible cases of serious lung illness linked to vaping in 33 states and one territory. Three people have died under similar circumstances and one death is still under investigation. 

Initial descriptions of 53 early-reported cases of lung illness in Illinois and Wisconsin were published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Friday. The median age for those patients was 19, 82 percent of them were male, and all reported using an e-cigarette device in the 90 days before they experienced symptoms including shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting. Patients reported using products containing THC, a chemical that is responsible for the “high” effect of cannabis, and products containing nicotine. No single product was linked to these initial cases of lung disease.

It’s still unclear why mostly young, otherwise healthy people are reporting lung illness in connection to vaping in recent months, but the number of cases related to severe respiratory illness this summer was double last summer’s rate, suggesting that there has been a spike in reports.

“What it appears at this time—although again, I would caution that this is preliminary—is that there does appear to be an increase of cases starting May-June of 2019,” Jennifer Layden, chief medical officer and state epidemiologist at the Illinois Department of Public Health, said on a press call Friday. “That is higher than it was in 2018. So it would suggest that it’s a new phenomena.”

As the Washington Post reported Thursday:

State and federal health officials investigating mysterious lung illnesses linked to vaping have found the same chemical in samples of marijuana products used by people sickened in different parts of the country and who used different brands of products in recent weeks.

The chemical is an oil derived from vitamin E. Investigators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found the oil in cannabis products in samples collected from patients who fell ill across the United States. FDA officials shared that information with state health officials during a telephone briefing this week, according to several officials who took part in the call.

Officials on Friday’s press call said vitamin E acetate is still under investigation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not made any conclusions about the role of vitamin E acetate in these lung illness reports.

In the meantime, “people should consider not using e-cigarette products,” officials recommend.

This is a developing story. It will be updated as more information becomes available.

It’s Friday and Donald Trump Is Still Talking About Alabama

As Hurricane Dorian made landfall over North Carolina on Friday, President Donald Trump logged onto Twitter to rage-tweet about Alabama, a state that never faced a threat from the storm that devastated the Bahamas. 

“The Fake News Media was fixated on the fact that I properly said, at the beginnings of Hurricane Dorian, that in addition to Florida & other states, Alabama may also be grazed or hit,” Trump said in a trio of tweets. “They went Crazy, hoping against hope that I made a mistake (which I didn’t).”

This marks the sixth consecutive day that the president has continued to insist—despite official pushback from the National Weather Service—that Alabama was once projected to be affected by Dorian. In his newest tweets, Trump notably downplayed the alarm he initially had expressed in his erroneous Sunday warning to now claim that he had only indicated that Alabama might be “grazed or hit.” 

The original tweet, which is still available on the president’s timeline, claimed that Alabama was among a string of states that would “most likely be hit (much) harder” in the hurricane’s path.  

On Friday, Trump also attacked critics who have ridiculed him for once more refusing to simply acknowledge an error. The president made no reference to new reports that he personally doctored a now-widely mocked hurricane map he had used Wednesday to try and show that he had been right all along.

….This nonsense has never happened to another President. Four days of corrupt reporting, still without an apology. But there are many things that the Fake News Media has not apologized to me for, like the Witch Hunt, or SpyGate! The LameStream Media and their Democrat…..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2019

Here’s a Misleading Picture of Religion Around the World

Here’s an interesting example of misleading with statistics. At least, I think so. Here’s the original chart from Pew Research:

Sure enough, there’s a strong trendline showing that people who say religion is very important also believe that religion has been growing more important since 2000.

But wait. It’s pretty obvious that the test countries are broken cleanly into two different groups, and the slope of the trendline is almost entirely driven by the second group being higher than the first on both measures. But what if you look at the two groups separately?

These trendlines are just eyeball efforts on my part, so don’t take them too seriously. Still, I don’t see much of a trend within either group, and the dots are scattered pretty widely around the trendlines.

So my tentative conclusion is that there’s no correlation at all between religion being personally important and believing that it plays a more important role than it used to. The whole effect is driven by the difference between these two groups, which, roughly speaking, is the difference between high-income countries and low-income countries. That might be an interesting topic, but it’s quite different from what Pew says about this.

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